Saturday, June 28, 2014

Revisiting Bangkok

Thailand is thus far the only place, outside of Portugal, that is actually a destination I've traveled to prior to my RTW journey beginning.  Simply by nature of it being a "repeat destination", it changed how I approached my time there, but it didn't mean I enjoyed it any less.

I started off in Bangkok, arriving on the final day of Songkran, the annual New Year's celebration and water fight, and I spent most of a week relaxing and sightseeing, staying at 3Howw Hostel in the area near Khao San Road.  I wound up spending quite a lot of time in Bangkok, using it as a bit of a home base over the next month and a half, so I was able to stay in different neighborhoods and get a much better appreciation for the city as a whole than on my first visit seven years ago.  Admittedly, I didn't like Bangkok much during that first visit, but the city really grew on me this time around.

During my first visit, the location I chose couldn't have been more perfect.  Access to Khao San was a few blocks away, but the alleyway where my hostel was located (Samsen Soi 4) was nice and quiet, full of delicious street food options, as well as a great little screenprinting boutique called Bankoker, a cafe called Ricky's Coffee where I fell in love with Thai iced coffee, and a wonderful Thai massage spot called Ying Thai.  The only downside to my location was the distance to mass transportation, forcing me to use taxis a bit more than I would have preferred, especially when I wanted to visit CrossFit Bangkok, situated atop the Aspire gym complex, overlooking the Asok BTS station and Terminal 21 in Sukhumvit.  

Thankfully I was able to walk to some of the other major sites, and one of the first things I did was revisit the Grand Palace complex and Wat Pho.  On my walk over, I heard the typical scam, "the Grand Palace is closed today!" for various reasons, laughing in response that, "of course, it's always closed."  It is, of course, always open, at least from 9:30-4.  I made my way inside, donning a button-up shirt to cover my shoulders since my scarf was deemed insufficient.  Inside, the Wat Phra Kaew complex was every bit as impressive and opulent as I remembered - glittering gold structures and brightly-colored mosaics, tall spires, incredible statues and details.  I explored the grounds, visiting the main temple, home of the Emerald Buddha, which is guarded by a layer of golden bird-human-demon-like figures, and examining the gorgeous mother-of-pearl details on the doors.  

Next, I wandered through the Grand Palace grounds, the buildings white with decorative details among the roofs, similar to the temples.  I stepped into the surrounding rooms, some containing weapons, another containing an incredible gold ship.  I almost skipped the brand-new Queen's Textile Museum, but I stepped inside to soak in the air conditioning, viewing the gorgeous Thai silks and royal garments as I cooled off.  

After a quick bite of cashew chicken and rice at a food stall near the river, I made my way towards Wat Pho, passing dozens of street vendors selling Buddhist icons and trinkets.  Entering the Wat, I went straight inside to see the main attraction, the Reclining Buddha, a massive structure 141 feet long and 50 feet tall, covered in gold, with brilliantly detailed mother-of-pearl inlaid feet.  After visiting the Buddha, I explored the grounds, which were still heavily decorated for the New Year, complete with a large group of monks giving out bits of string for luck and allowing anyone to build a small pagoda out of sand to leave at the temple, complete with flowers and flags for decoration.  One of the older monks sat with legs crossed up on a chair, gleefully splashing bits of water on passers by using a bundle of straw.  This was another symbol of luck (one might see the origins of a giant water fight in that action), but on such a brutally hot day, the cold water felt amazing, and everyone was more than happy to get a blessing!  Dozens of visitors were also making the rounds to various Buddha images, pouring tiny bowls of water on the heads and shoulders of the statues, as well as leaving offerings of flowers, incense, and food.  

Unfortunately that evening, as I was rushing to get back to CrossFit Bangkok through horrendous rush hour traffic, my phone went missing somewhere between the taxi cab and the BTS station.  Needless to say, I didn't make it to the gym last night, instead working with the incredibly kind staff of the BTS station who checked their surveillance tapes, led me to the nearby police station to file a report (where thankfully a young woman who spoke perfect English was also filing a report and could act as translator for me), and then back to their main station where I could view the surveillance video, which sadly only showed that I hadn't left the phone on the ticket counter.  I was a little distraught at the loss of something so valuable - not monetarily, though yes, it is expensive, but in terms of the photos and data and how much I used it!  

The following day I needed to pay a visit to the Myanmar Embassy to get my visa for an upcoming visit to the country, which turned into an all-day affair.  Because the office had been closed most of a week for Songkran, it was absolutely packed with visa-seekers.  For roughly two hours, I stood in line, sweating buckets, commiserating with an American couple and an English guy, until we were able to submit our request forms and passports.  Luckily, the embassy does offer same-day service on tourist visas, so we spent a few hours in the Siam Mall complex, an easy BTS ride away, where I was able to replace my iPhone (and discover that none of my notes had been backed up to the cloud… UGH).  We had a quick, delicious lunch at the Siam food court, then returned to the embassy for another sweaty, 30 minute queue to pick up our passports.  We took a water taxi back up to the Khao San Road area, enjoying the refreshingly cool breeze and view along the way.  

That evening I met back up with my newfound friends, enjoying bowls of street food and exploring Khao San, a sort of Times Square of backpackerdom.  Big lights, loud music, street food, tattoo and clothing vendors, men selling scorpions on a stick, bars, restaurants, shisha, everything…. I was SO thankful not to be staying on that road.  We settled in at a nice spot with an outdoor breeze and a couple of guys playing music - one on guitar and another drumming out a beat on a box.  It was a nice way to end such a long day of tackling travel necessities.  

The next couple of days weren't so packed.  The following day, I tried out a tourist Muay Thai class at nearby Sor. Vorapin Muay Thai Training, down a winding alley near Khao San.  It was definitely a fun way to get a workout, though I may not have learned that much actual technique!  I lucked out when a random local wandered through the gym and started snapping photos of our session - I gave him my email address and wound up with some pretty impressive photos!  I spent the rest of the next few days enjoying incredible street food along Samsen Soi 4, including one of the best (and one of the spiciest) papaya salads I've ever tasted, as well as catching up on some series in the hostel TV room and getting fitted for a suit, which may or may not have been a good decision.

After spending about a week exploring the beaches and islands of southern Thailand, I returned to Bangkok to meet my friend Jimmy, whom I had met back in Argentina, for a few days before we would travel together to Myanmar.  This time I stayed in the Sukhumvit neighborhood, Bobsons Suites Hotel, a welcome change from Khao San.  We stayed on Sukhumvit Soi 31, about a 10 minute walk from Terminal 21 and the Asok BTS station, so it was incredibly easy to get around, and we had an endless variety of street food and restaurants to choose from.  And I got in plenty of time at CrossFit Bangkok, now right in the neighborhood.

Jimmy and I attempted to visit an alley known for having the best street food in Thailand, but due to an unfortunate mix-up with the soi number, we wound up on a random side street off of Sukhumvit, luckily managing to find some tasty street food on our own.  The following night we decided to splurge, staying close to our hotel, in an area heavily populated by Japanese ex-pats, for some delicious sushi at a spot called Isao.  

The following day, our last in Bangkok before we ventured off to Myanmar, Jimmy and I took the BTS to the river to catch the water taxi and a ferry over to Wat Arun, also called the "Temple of the Dawn".  I was actually surprised to see it up close - I had seen it from afar many times, but until I was right next to it, I didn't realize that it was covered in a mosaic of ceramic objects, or that the same demon/dragon/human figures that surround some of the pagodas in the Grand Palace grounds would be echoed here, or that the steps leading up the wat would be so incredibly steep!  Thankfully there was a nice breeze coming off the river, especially when we were higher up on the temple, an absolute blessing in the Thai heat and humidity.  After enjoying some fresh coconuts, we made our way back to Sukhumvit, where Jimmy did some shopping and I had my final fitting for my suit, as well as a plate of delicious scones from a nearby English-style teahouse.

That evening, we met up with Gary and Susan, a couple Jimmy had met back in Chile, for a sort of South American reunion.  This time, we did find the famous soi full of amazing street food - Sukhumvit Soi 38 - where we enjoyed heaping plates of chicken rice (steamed and fried), papaya salad with horse crab, and mango sticky rice.  We finished up a fantastic evening with foot massages at a spot on the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 29, a place that had quickly become our go-to place in the neighborhood.  

The following day, we would be getting up early to bid farewell to Gary and Susan and catch a flight bound for Myanmar.  But first, I'll be sharing a bit about my time in the south of Thailand... beaches and islands and diving, coming up...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Adventures in Transportation and Songkran Celebrations

When I booked my flight into Bangkok, I didn't give much thought to the date.  I was rushing around, trying to get everything sorted in the handful of hours before I left for my trek, so I picked a somewhat arbitrary date, for roughly one week after we would complete the trek.  Sometime in the middle of my trek I realized, oh hey, I'm flying into Bangkok in the middle of their New Year.  Which they celebrate with a giant water fight.  Crap.

I mean, don't get me wrong, participating in the world's largest water battle did sound fun, but arriving into the city, with my piles of luggage, in the middle of the afternoon, the idea of the battle through traffic and subsequent risk of getting everything I have totally drenched were less than ideal.  But, as it turns out, I didn't need to worry at all.  Jet Airways and the universe seemed to conspire to help me out with my scheduling issue in such a way to leave the gods of irony chuckling.


When I arrived at the Kathmandu airport just after 7:30 am for my flight, I hadn't eaten a bite.  Mostly because nothing in Kathmandu opens before 8.  So when I checked into my flight a solid two hours in advance (international and all) and was told, "oh, your flight is delayed and you'll miss your connection, so just stand over to the side there and we'll let you know something later", I wasn't exactly in the happiest mood.  Nine people in total wound up being left in the check-in area of the airport for hours with absolutely no information - sometimes we were told there were possible seats on a direct Thai Airways flight, sometimes we were told we would fly the same route we had originally been booked (Kathmandu to Delhi to Bangkok) the following day, sometimes we were told we would be sent to Mumbai for a red eye into Bangkok.  Eventually we were told that yes, we would be flying to Mumbai, and yes, they would give us a meal.  Just one.  In Kathmandu.  After we went through security.  

Sometime around 2 pm, after waiting for over 6 hours, we finally had boarding passes in hand and were able to pass through security and get our free plate of dal bhat at the airport restaurant.  The flight was scheduled to leave at 3, but in actuality left closer to 4, with men pushing in front of me as we queued up to board the plane.  At least they gave us a free beer.  The Mumbai airport was shockingly nice - much, much nicer than Kathmandu - and I managed to find a little corner in a restaurant that had the holy trinity:  coffee, wifi, and a plug for my laptop.  Our next flight didn't actually leave until 1 am, and they served us dinner after we boarded, and the flight only lasted about 4 hours, so in total… probably 1-2 hours of sleep that night.  Maybe.  But hey, I made it to Bangkok in one piece, and easily arrived at my hostel one day late, soak-free and in no time at all, thanks to the 6 am arrival of our flight.  Universe, you win.

Dal Bhat in the Kathmandu Airport


Thankfully my hostel didn't charge me for the extra night (after I explained a few times that I had emailed them twice to say I wouldn't make it and that I would still be staying at least 3 nights), and they had a bed already made and ready in the dorm I would be staying in.  I retreated to my room for a few hours of rest, then geared up to experience Songkran.

The festival was centered around Khao San Road, a legendary street in the backpacker world, full of hostels and bars.  I was staying on Samsen Soi 4, close enough for a quick ten minute walk, but far enough away to stay well hidden from the madness when I wanted to.  I had borrowed a squirt gun from the hostel, and I filled it up just down the road, after letting the resident kids douse me with water and the matriarch of the house cover my face and arms in a white clay substance.  I arrived at the festivities a bit early, and the main road wasn't quite closed yet, so I walked down a street parallel to Khao San, getting relatively soaked by locals with squirt guns (returning fire as much as I could) - determined kids and giggling adults alike.

As I wound my way around towards Khao San, one woman actually ran up to me (I suppose being a tall white woman does make me a target), dousing me with an entire bucket full of ice water!!  Khao San was absolute madness - there was loud music, vendors selling beer and water refills, and a stage-like set up where people were spraying hoses and giant water guns.  There were definitely a bunch of backpackers in the midst, but the festival was primary local Thais.  All along the street, shop owners and workers had trash cans and coolers full of water - some also full of ice!  The little kids were hilarious - some were just figuring the whole thing out, and some were really getting into the spirit of the festival, grinning from ear to ear.  And the older ladies were incredibly endearing, smiling broadly as they doused you with pans of water.  The variety of water guns was also entertaining - everything from Angry Birds to Hello Kitty backpacks (often on full-grown men) to the typical super soaker-style guns like mine.

At some point I stopped for a bite of food on one of the quieter streets, just taking in the scene around me, protected from the madness for a brief moment.  And just as I predicted, there were plenty of people struggling with full packs to make it to their guest houses, not at all immune to the efforts of those around them.  

Finally the exhaustion overtook me, and I made my way back to the hostel.  Just in time too, as by now they had closed off the major road to traffic and it was absolutely jam packed with people.  It had reached near-claustrophobic conditions, and the number of teenagers smearing clay all over my face was getting old.  Plus, it was actually getting a little chilly outside, and that ice cold water wasn't quite so refreshing anymore!  

Finally out of the fray, I cleaned up and enjoyed the first of many Thai massages down the road from the hostel (successfully begging the kids I passed to spare me from the remnants of the water fight), happy to have finally made it to the "land of smiles" to enjoy my first experience with Songkran.