Trying to explore Thailand in a week does not even begin to do the beautiful and diverse country any justice. As I sit at my familiar surroundings and think back at the past ten days, the only thought that crosses my mind is: how do I even begin to sum up everything that I've experienced in that short time?
My trip began once I arrived at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Immediately after I stepped onto the jetway, I felt the warm and humid air hit my skin, followed by what I can only describe as “local flavors” that fill the air. It's not a bad stench by any stretch, but rather a savory blend of the foods that street vendors serve. This would make a little more sense later. True to the hospitable nature of Thais, I was greeted by beautiful gestures from locals known as the “wai“, accompanied by warm smiles that matched the warmth of the air I was currently breathing. I settled into my host family's one room apartment for the night, fighting hard to stop my racing mind. I was in a foreign country after all, I needed to waste no time and start exploring! And with that thought, I faded out.
The next morning, I got up early and started exploring the neighborhood to try find me a street market that sells food. Coincidentally there was a Tuk-Tuk parked right under the apartment I was staying at, so I had to grab a photo of it. Tuk-Tuks are the Thai interpretation of the Auto Rickshaw, a motorized version of the traditional rickshaws popularized in Asian countries, and typically have three wheels. These vehicles are popular in traffic-dense areas where smaller vehicles are able to navigate around congested traffic and tight streets a lot easier.
Street food in Bangkok
Street food forms the essence of the culinary experience in Bangkok, and much of Thailand. You’d be hard pressed to walk for more than a couple blocks without running into at least one street vendor. It’s amazing.
The morning after I landed in Bangkok, I made my way to a narrow street market along soi 85. What greeted me was a long narrow stretch of road that spanned a couple of blocks, lined with street vendors selling food and wares of all variety. At 8:30am, the sun was already out and bearing down, as I attempted to walk the street market without breaking a sweat, unsuccessfully. Despite the air being warm and moist, the smells of gai yang (grilled chicken thighs) mixed with scents of various khanhom wan (Thai sweet treats) permeated the air, resulting in a delicious sweet and savory aroma. This certainly made wading through the endless streams of people, and dodging cars, trucks, Tuk-tuks, and motorcycles bearable.
Even though the streets are obviously very narrow, Thai motorists have developed an uncanny skill for zipping through pedestrian-filled streets with precision, rarely (if at all) hitting anyone. Personally I felt like walking streets such as this (and crossing the road, omg) to be like playing Frogger; there’s a sick thrill to it.
I had to stop to grab coffee because my brain had barely woken up. As luck would have it, I ran into this sweet lady who had setup her makeshift stall, serving ice cold Thai coffee (known as oleang/oliang locally). This potent concoction is strong coffee brewed with various herbs, and doused with a healthy serving of sweetened condensed milk (and fresh milk too sometimes). At first sip, you'll be hit with an intense delicious sweetness that's rounded off with the bold flavors of robusta coffee — a perfect way to start the day!
After breakfast, I hopped on the metro (BTS in Bangkok) train and headed towards my first stop: Mueang Boran (also referred to as Ancient Siam). In the train car, I noticed the locals trying to covertly glance over at me. I learned from my host family later that it's not common for a non-farang (caucasians) to be towering over everyone in the train. And thus begins the adventures of Matt the giant; truth be told, I'm actually not that tall at 5'11”, but that's apparently tall by Thai standards.
Hidden away in the outskirts of Bangkok is an outdoor museum park occupying approximately 200 acres, in the shape of Thailand. Officially the Ancient City (Siam) or Mueang Boran, it is dubbed the the largest outdoor museum in the world and is home to 116 structures depicting Thailand's famous monuments and cultural sites. In addition, it also attempts to feature the unique architecture and culture present in various regions in Thailand. The location of these structures are situated in geographical relation to their real-world counterparts, many of which are life-sized, while others are scaled down versions.
After paying the admission fee (for the keen eyes out there, yes foreigners pay a higher fee … I wasn't able to skirt that despite having dark skin; they saw through my American-ness), visitors enter the theme park to be greeted early on by the Sanphet Prasat Throne Hall. This building is a sight to behold; I love the intricate roof adornments, rich colors, and gorgeous spire that reaches out to the heavens.
The park also features a variety of different replicas that depict life in Thailand through the ages. If you've got an afternoon to spare and are willing to sit through the notorious Bangkok traffic, Ancient Siam could be worth taking a look at.
Inhibited since the 1700s under the rule of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, Pak Kret is currently home to approximately 188,227 residents, in what is considered a mostly low-density residential development area.
Pak Kret's city center, sometimes referred to as Pak Kret Market is situated on the east bank of the Chao Phraya river. Though it's tucked away (you'll need to take a ferry across the river to get to it), the market is extremely lively and those lucky enough to find it are treated to a vast selection of food, knick-knacks, and wares at very reasonable local-friendly prices.
Buddhism in Thailand
Buddhism is heavily woven into the fabric of society in Thailand. With a 94.6% adoption rate, Theravada Buddhism's integration into folk religion is very heavily felt throughout the nation. There is a strong emphasis on short ordinations of Thai men, where young men who are of age are expected to undergo a 3 day/week/month (three is the magic number here) in order to receive merit (known as tam boon in Thai) and bring honor to his family.
This emphasis is so great that men who have yet to undergo ordination are seen as “unripe” as romantic partners and therefore less suitable for marriage. Due to the tight integration of Buddhism in Thailand, employers often make accommodations for men who choose to undergo ordination; preserving their jobs, and often times the employers continue paying employees during their time at the temple. It's quite similar to how employers provide paid maternity / paternity leave in the States.
Characterized by their tall golden stupas and intricate rooflines, temples can be found in abundance in Thailand.
A destination frequented by tourists and locals alike is the Erawan Shrine located in the Pathum Wan district, right by the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel. Prior to the 2015 bombing, you would walk into the shrine and be met with a fragrant and overpowering scent of incense, coupled with the intense heat in Bangkok that leaves us all drenched in our own sweat.
Today, the incenses and candles are no longer lit and the atmosphere at the shrine has diminished greatly. While worshippers and tourists still visit the site, my opinion is that its popularity never quite returned to pre-bombing levels. Still, the Erawan Shrine remains one of the sites that anyone should visit at least once when in Bangkok.
Eastbound to Ubon Ratchathani
Part of the reason why I went to Thailand was to spend some time studying with the Buddhist monks, and better understand their ways of meditation. Through my mother's connection (she's Thai after all), I was able to get in contact with the head monk of a local temple in the Phibun Mangsahan district of the Ubon Ratchathani province. Hence began my journey eastward, on a train ride filled with little quirky adventures.
The Bangkok Railway Station (also known as Krunthep Railway Station, though it's official lesser-known name is Hua Lamphong) is located in the Pathum Wan district in Bangkok. The station is surrounded by various street food vendors. Naturally I took advantage of that fact and grabbed me a chicken leg before boarding.
Upon entering the train station, I was greeted by Thai/English signs and boards providing direction on where I needed to go. The station is relatively local-centric with the majority of patrons being Thai, though there were the occasional farangs (foreigners, specifically caucasians). I do however applaud and appreciate the governments' attempt to provide English signage and audio announcements.
With my 65L backpack strapped on, I started bumbling my way around the station trying hard not to knock anyone over. When I finally made my way to the ticketing booth, the lady was very helpful in helping me figure out the right overnight train to take with her broken English; she did deserve plenty of kudos for effort though. So armed with my train ticket, I was able to find a seat in the crowded waiting hall for me and my 38-pound companion while we waited for the train to arrive. The very spacious waiting hall was thankfully air-conditioned and very comfortable, and you get to enjoy the smells of the local cuisine permeating the air; score!
Side-note: One of the interesting things I noticed was that most Thais are of a smaller stature. If you're at least 5'5″ tall, you'll probably feel like a giant in the midst of the locals; as I managed to hit my head on door frames several times and was left with a couple of dents and cuts on my scalp! Ouch.
Once the train arrived, I made my way to the platforms and located it with ease; there were only a couple of platforms and everything is very well labeled in Thai and English.
After boarding the train and locating my seat, I had to pay a visit to the restroom. I was met by the venerable Squatty Potty; a literal hole in the floor that expels your bodily waste on to the train tracks below. There was no holding tank, so you might want to hold on to that phone of yours that I'm sure is out for the duration of your #1 or #2 visit. And God help you if you accidentally stick your foot into the commode. Also lacking is any form of rear-end wiping implements, so get used to jet-spraying your behind with water… or pack baby wipes (remember I suggested packing those in my previous article?).
After that mild adventure, I was exhausted and ready to sleep the night away while the train made its way eastward. The sleeping situation on the train is pretty straight forward. The chairs fold down and convert into a mattress/bed of sort. Once again if you're any taller than 5'5″, get ready to sleep curled up. Sleeping on a moving train though is very soothing; the noise of the train tracks and the gentle rocking motions put me to sleep once my mind stopped racing.
The train conductor made his rounds around 5:30 in the morning to wake us up for our pending arrival in Ubon Ratchathani. I knew I was close when this is what I saw out my window:
One of the first few things I wanted to do once I got to Ubon was hit up the local markets. The Phibun market is a large open space with a roof, filled with hundreds of vendors selling fresh fish/meat, flip-flops, children toys, canned food, cooked foods, and more. Once I got there, I was immediately hit with the smell of raw fish and meat combined warm air, I wouldn't consider that the most pleasant of smells.
However once I got over the stench, the adventure began. Walking around the inside of a wet market in Thailand is a mini adventure in itself. I was immediately rewarded with colorful displays of wares being peddled by friendly shop owners. One store in particular caught my attention due to the way that it's organized to really showcase the colors.
As I ventured deeper into the market, things got a little more interesting. While I knew that this was a fresh seafood market, the level of fresh on some items were a little surprising. I was able to get 2 big grocery bags of food for less than USD $15, it was a good haul.
There were certainly an assortment of fish, raw and cooked; there was also plenty of live animals in water troughs, oh and there's also this pair of pigs heads.
My three days spent with the monks were amazing. It began with a whole day of celebration, where my fellow novice monk (who's actually my cousin who I haven't seen in twenty years) and I were paraded around the villages in what could've been the Pope-Mobile. A long train of well-wishers followed our motorcade, dancing and singing along the way to traditional mor lum (Thai folk music) blaring from a tower of speakers.
On the last day, we had our meal together (monks only eat once a day before noon) with a wide assortment of food. The conversation revolved around their curiosity about life in America, the luxuries that we take for granted, and the contrast to life in the rural areas of Thailand. We wished each other well, and promised to not wait another twenty years before reuniting. It was bittersweet.
My time in Thailand was way too short as a bulk of it was spent in the temple, isolated from most of the outside world.
I had initially thought that this trip would help satisfy my yearning to travel more, but instead it stoked the flame in me; the wanderlust is strong with this one. I find myself daydreaming about the next trip, possibly a multi-country Asia adventure. It could be one where I'd go for a month or two, and work remotely on the road. The possibilities are endless. For now it's back to the drawing board, where I plan for the next upcoming adventure in Spring 2019.