Thailand pt. 2- Bangkok and Beyond!

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-7: Bangkok
  • Days 8-9: Chiang Mai
  • Day 10: Chiang Khong

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: September 19-27, 2014

This morning we officially and finally left Thailand. After spending a total of about a month and a half exploring this brilliant country (with a pit stop in the USA in the middle of it), we are now on our way through Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. We won’t be back to Bangkok until mid-October, and even then, just for one night before flying out for our seventh continent of the year- Australia.

After spending so much time in a single country, you really start to get used to it. We now understand broken Thai English, have our grocery list for the 7/11 down pat, and know when to bow our heads to say thank you and when to take off our shoes. Of all the places we have been this year, Thailand is the country we have spent the most cumulative time in.

Flying back to Bangkok from Richmond, Virginia meant over 30 hours of travel. Since I booked my flight on Delta using points, and Tim booked his on Delta using a voucher, we weren’t actually on the same itinerary. I flew from Richmond, to Atlanta, to Seoul, to Bangkok, and Tim flew from Richmond, to Atlanta, to Los Angeles, to Tokyo, to Bangkok. I arrived about a half hour before him, which worked out pretty well. But, this was the furthest either of us had traveled on our own before. We parted ways in Atlanta, and while I was hanging out in the Sky Club, Tim was en route to LA, where, upon landing, he was greeted with a private escort to take him to the international terminal. Apparently this is a new benefit of being a Diamond Delta member- he was driven across the tarmac in a Porsche to his next gate. He’s so fancy, LA to Tokyo. Literally.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, I ate a noodle cup and pondered the validity of cultural stereotypes about this region. I’ll just say this- all stereotypes come from somewhere, right?

We both got into Bangkok around midnight and made our way to the guesthouse we had booked using Airbnb. It took us a few days to adjust to the time change, so we enjoyed ourselves just lounging around and watching DVDs from the host’s extensive collection. Once we felt peppy enough to get out and about, we went on a self-guided walking tour using the Lonely Planet guide we found in our room.

Getting around Bangkok, at least the touristy areas, was easier than I initially thought it would be. The city is crazy busy, crowded, smoggy and hot. In a single word, it is overwhelming. But, hopping on the tourist boat for a little over a dollar to take us a few miles down the river to the area of old royal Bangkok gives you a bit of separation from the chaos of the city. In this old area is the Grand Palace, the center of royal life and where some special events are held, markets, and many temples (temples are called wats).

On our walking tour this day, we meandered through the markets, including an amulet market. Amulets are small religious tokens made from stones and metals that locals and collectors will buy for good luck. We also visited several wats. This was enough to wear us out for the day, so it was an early bedtime for us.

One of my closest friends, Rachel, and her best friend Brenna, arrived that evening to Bangkok to start Rachel’s month-long sabbatical from work (a perk offered by my former employer when employees reach a tenure of 5 years). Since they were going to be in Bangkok the next day and evening, we made plans to get together with them for dinner and drinks before they continued their trip onward to Cambodia. It was so great to see a dear friend from Madison all the way on the other side of the world! She and Brenna were staying in a pretty swanky hotel just a few minutes walk from our apartment, so we met there and had a drink at the bar by the infinity pool with an amazing view over the city. It was pure perfection. Afterwards, upon recommendation from the concierge, we hopped on the metro and headed to the red light district (because that is the logical place to send three young women and a man on a Sunday night). We grabbed food at a simple but nice cafe and then enjoyed some beers at a charming backpacker style bar called Happy Beer Garden- and happy it was!

The next day Tim and I got up relatively early to check out some of the major cultural and religious sites along the river. Our first stop was to Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn. The temple is covered in a beautiful Chinese porceline mosaic and features a step stupa you can climb up. It is my favorite temple in Bangkok.

Afterwards we went across the river to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Keaw, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace complex is beautiful but overwhelming, with many buildings (most of which you cannot actually go in). The temple area, though, was the highlight for me. It was exceptionally beautiful, with a large golden stupa, and the green colored Buddha figure inside is considered an important relic in Buddhism. It is not actually emerald, but jade, but when it was first discovered it was mistaken for emerald and the name stuck.

The next day, Tuesday, we checked out of our guesthouse and into the hotel reserved for us as part of the organized tour we were beginning that evening. Tim and I decided after our struggles in Morocco that for cultures very foreign to us, we would benefit from a tour group and guide who can help navigate tricky logistics and teach us about the culture and history of the places we visit. Thanks to our newfound friendships with a young woman we met on the Antarctic cruise who works with Intrepid Travel, we found a 30 day Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia trip and were able to get a nice discount on it.

Before the orientation meeting, Tim and I went to Dusit Palace complex, another royal complex that was included with our ticket to the Grand Palace from the day before. The largest teak mansion in the world is there, and we took a tour of it but admittedly found it a bit boring. My recommendation if you are ever in Bangkok, check it out if you have absolutely nothing else to do since it is included in the Grand Palace ticket, but don’t go out of your way.

That evening we had our orientation with the Intrepid group. It was good to meet the rest of the people in our group- two Australian girls traveling solo, 2 pairs of women each traveling together, and another American couple. Our group leader is named Gung (pronounced like Coon), a softspoken Thai woman.

The next day was our first full day with the group. We started with a longtail boat cruise through the canals of Bangkok. Homes in this area are on stilts in the water and transportation is entirely by boat. Afterwards we visited one of the most famous temples in Bangkok, Wat Pho, or Temple of the Reclining Buddha. The golden Buddha figure in this temple is massive (the largest in Thailand) and reclining on his side, which is a bit unique to see since the Buddha figures sit cross-legged in most of the other temples.

That evening we took an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Tim and I had spent a week in Chiant Mai back in August, and had gotten there and back from Bangkok with a cheap half hour flight. The notion of taking a 12-hour overnight train to go the same distance seemed a bit crazy to us, but it actually wasn’t bad. The beds were comfortable and private once you drew the curtains shut, and Tim and I both slept through the night.

That day, Friday, was a free day in Chiang Mai. Tim and I opted to just lounge around since we had explored the city previously and I was still getting over a cold. That afternoon we went down the street from our hotel to get hour-long Thai massages. The Thai massages we had previously at the elephant park were great, but these were phenomenol. The atmosphere was peaceful and aromatic, and the skill with which the masseuse reworked my body was worth every penny of the $8 each Tim and I paid for it. As a note, we looked up the cost of hour-long Thai massages in the States and it is $75 in Madison, WI.

Early in the evening we met up with the group to visit a temple on the hill overlooking the city- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Tim and I hiked up the 300+ steps to the temple along with our tour leader and the other American couple, Jennifer and Anthony. The sun was setting as we reached the top, and we got a view of the city both at dusk and after nightfall. The temple itself at this hour was stunning. There were hardly any tourists around, giving it a very peaceful feel. Monks had gathered to chant and take alms, and the golden stupa outside was all lit up. I got the feeling that we were seeing the temple the way it was meant to be used, which for Tim and me always makes a visit to a religious site much more meaningful.

On Saturday we had a six-hour drive from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong. Along the way we stopped to visit a cashew farm, which ended up being really cool. I will appreciate every individual cashew I eat so much more now, after having seen that the cashew fruit that grows in the tree each holds only one cashew nut, and each nut is broken out of its shell. The process is fairly automated but still quite tedious. This particular shop also had an abundance of free samples of cashews flavored in various ways, which everyone in the group enjoyed and which resulted in a lot of sales.

About an hour later we stopped at Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple. This temple is relatively new (about 15 years old) and was designed by a contemporary Thai artist. The temple is entirely white instead of the bright bold colors and gold accents of most other temples. According to the artist, gold is for the greedy while white is a sign of purity. The entire complex will take 90 years to complete and for that I consider this temple the Sagrada Familia of Thailand. Inside the artist painted a mural that includes the images of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, one each inside the eyes of a dragon, the rationale being that to the artist these two men are equally evil and responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people. It is an interesting perspective for sure, and always valuable in my opinion to get an understanding of how American politics and actions are viewed around the world.

A few hours later we arrived to Chiang Khong, a small border town on the Mekong River which divides Laos and Thailand. Our guesthouse was basic but very cute, and we were greeted with a beautiful rainbow across the river. And that brings us to the present- after going through immigration and getting our Laos visas, we boarded a slow boat transporting us down the Mekong. This is where I sit now, enjoying the breeze, the fresh air, and the mountainous scenary- a very pleasant introduction to Laos!

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