My time in Chiang Mai has ended. Friday night my roommates and I went out for Korean BBQ and hung out at the local bar near our house. We grilled fish, pork, beef and my honest favorite of the night: intestine! On the way home we were called over by a few rowdy locals who waved us in for a shared bottle of Song Sam whiskey and coke. I was attacked by mosquitos, as I forgot my deet that night, but other than that, it was a perfect farewell. Good food, good drink, good friends.
Saturday, I took a quick and easy flight to Bangkok, arriving at my hostel around 3 in the afternoon. I threw down my things and following the suggestion of the hostel staff, rode my way up on the Sky Train to the Mo Chit weekend market. It is known as the largest market in Bangkok. There were vendors selling everything under the sun, but my favorite part was the gallery section. Young artists set up rows of stalls showcasing their works. It was such a neat addition to the usual merchandise of those markets. I caved an bought myself a dress from a very nice Thai couple and a belt to go with it.
The next day I made my first outing into downtown Bangkok. The city itself is has I had imagined it: sprawling, large buildings, lots of electronic signs and women in stylish clothing. It is nothing like Chiang Mai. The vibe of the people is more city-like, a bit more distant. The food is different- there were dishes I had never seen before, some of them good, some of them not. To me, Bangkok is trying to reach the vibrancy of Hong Kong or Seoul, but it’s not there yet. It’s still got a ways to go. The air smells of sewage or fish in several places and super modern buildings are thrown in between every-day brick and concrete structures.
As you may be able to tell, I wasn’t in love with it. But, there were several things I saw in Bangkok I am extremely glad not to have missed out on. My top 5 experiences of Bangkok were:
1. Wat Phra Kaeo
2. Wat Pho
3. Wat Arun
5. Meeting Aun
1. I saw Wat Phra Kaeo on my second day in Bangkok. It is on the same grounds as the Grand Palace. The most expensive and the most revered temple, it was quite a challenge to get into. First, a scarf for over my shoulders wasn’t good enough, I had to borrow a shirt from them with a 200 baht deposit. Then I had to purchase the 350 baht ticket- the steepest price I have ever seen for a temple in Thailand. It was a lot of back and forth, go here, go there, get change here, pay there, and in the scalding hot sun, all I was thinking was, “This better be worth it.” Luckily, it was.
Wat Phra Kaeo holds the Emerald Buddha, which is in fact, made of jade. It was discovered in 1434 in Chiang Rai (north of Chiang Mai) when it was covered in plaster. Later, the abbot who found the Buddha noticed that some plaster had come off the Buddha’s nose and the stone beneath was green. Thinking it was emerald, it was given the name Emerald Buddha. The Buddha itself was slightly underwhelming in size, as I had just been at Wat Pho (to be explained next), but the building the Buddha is kept it was mind blowing. Ornate tiles outside and murals on the inside. My real favorite was the upper terrace next to the Wat where there is a reliquary in the shape of a gold chedi and two large buildings, one for Buddhist sacred scriptures and the other for statues of past sovereigns of the dynasty. Entering the grounds, these buildings literally took my breath away. They sparkled in the sun with bright blues, reds, greens, yellows and golds. I have seen several impressive churches around Europe, but these temples showcase a kind of ornate and decorative work that I have never ever seen before. It was truly overwhelming.
2. Before that, I visited Wat Pho, famous for the enormous reclining Buddha, in his final stage before entering Nirvana. This was the largest sculpture I have ever seen. Ever. I think I was as big as the Buddha’s eye (inlaid with mother of pearl). It was covered in gold leaf, and its feet were engraved with mother of pearl depictions of the Buddha in different stages of life. Interestingly, the Wat is known for their works on Thai massage and meditation. In a building outside the main what, paintings and carvings of how to give a proper massage were etched into the ceiling and walls. They have a famous massage school at Wat Pho today.
3. I made my way to Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn) on my third day in Bangkok. It sits on the left bank of the Chao Phraya River, a main way to get around the city. From afar, it looks like a granite spire, but once up close you see that the structure is decorated in ceramics- broken plates and tea cups. Huge warrior images and flower decorate the facade. Steep steps lead you up and up until you can see a view of the entire riverside of Bangkok, including Wat Pho, Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace. It tested my comfort with heights, but in the end, it became one of my favorite sights.
4. Chinatown! I know, there are Chinatowns everywhere, and I know, it smells a bit, but this Chinatown was unlike any others I have been to. This one really made me feel like I was in China. I first stumbled upon the temple holding the largest golden Buddha in the world. I am assuming it wasn’t 100% gold, but it must have been far more gold than the reclining Buddha. Then, I saw a few Chinese temples. I sat while others prayed and I watched the different traditions between Thai and Chinese buddhists. The Chinese would pray and shake a canister of sticks until one stick fell out. They would read the stick as a message from Buddha. They would also take two halves of a circle and shake them, letting them drop to the ground, almost like dice. I’m not sure how they read them, but I am guessing they were meant to provide guidance from Buddha.
Then I found the markets. I was almost the only Westerner brave enough to enter the sidewalk sized alleyway of vendors. Several of the products were entirely foreign to me. Gelatinous balls of something, puffed things, wrapped things… I have no idea, but it was fun to see!
5. Meeting Aun. Between Chinatown and Wat Arun, I passed a coffee shop on the way to the ferry. It looked cute and kind of European and tired from walking, I decided to take a break. Aun is the owner of the coffee shop, a mom with three kids, two of whom are studying in the US. She has excellent English and she made me feel like I had a mom there, just for that hour that afternoon. She asked me about where I was from, what I do, etc etc. We talked about the differences in Thai life in Chiang Mai versus Bangkok. Then she noticed my bug bites (collected on my final night out in Chiang Mai) and gasped out, “Oh!” She and one other staff member took their little sticks of menthol and eucolyptus and started dabbing it on all of my bites. “Oh,” they kept saying, “Oh oh oh,” as they saw more bites. “How you do this? You have no bug spray?” She covered me and then insisted I take the stick home with me. “When you come back, you come visit me, yes?” she asked. If I come back to Bangkok, I would love to see Aun again.
On my final evening in Bangkok I was ordering food at a food stall and the woman next to me remarked, “you speak Thai.” “Nit noi,” I responded, “a little.” “No,” she said, even thought I’d made her repeat herself in English. “You speak Thai.” Although I thought that was a HUGE stretch, it made me feel quite good. 🙂