Thailand Pt. 1 – Bangkok & Ze Jungle of Death

(Readers Note: We’re splitting up Southeast Asia somewhat unusually. We’ll be in Thailand 3 separate times, for roughly a week at a time with Myanmar, Laos, & Cambodia dividing them. This is the story of our first visit to the country)

Three weeks in Egypt, very challenging. Three and a half weeks in India, wonderfully adventurous, but challenging. Travel should be about expanding your horizons, but it’d be untruthful to say we weren’t ready for something that felt comfortable & at least slightly familiar. Enter, Bangkok.

Envisioned in western culture as a veritable playground of debauchery we weren’t hopeful Bangkok would be that respite. We were blissfully wrong on that count and by the end of a short six days were, in a word, smitten.

We arrived mid-morning off an overnight flight from Goa tired and famished. A few public transit legs later we made a pleasantly bustling residential neighborhood that was to be our home for the next few nights. Something to know about Bangkok, no matter where you are the streets are filled with vendors selling all manner of delicious food. Walking out of the metro station, we were greeted with an indescribable whirl of smells and sounds. Our plans to beeline for the apartment and sleep were dashed, it was time to EAT.

Now, Arab & Indian food, while both distinctly different cuisine share one thing in common. A lack of crunchy vegetables. Everything is pureed, stewed, sauced, and otherwise cooked to a the point of, at best softness, though more often goop. Guilty admission, we strolled right past the authentic street food vendors and into a shabu restaurant where for the first time in three months we crunched into fresh vegetables and lightly poached meat. As devoted carnivores, we never though the day would come we’d be so happy to eat fresh “rabbit food.”

Sated, we checked into our amazing AirBnB and knew immediately we were home. The neighborhood already felt comfortable and having a whole apartment to ourselves for 4-days was just the respite we sought. Then we slept, hard.

Refreshed, the evening was spent on a long walk around central Bangkok’s Victory Monument area. A flurry of street food vendors, small restaurants, and bustling inviting corner markets served as our companions on an hours long stroll through the central city.

Kate being Grant’s dream girl:

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Kate interviewing for Chang Beer Girl:

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Our last view of the night jumping on the metro at Victory Monument:

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The previous evening was such a success that we were up and out the following morning, with the same idea at a slightly larger scale. The plan, eat our way through Bangkok while exploring the huge Chatuchak Weekend Market.

From morning to mid-afternoon we did little but eat amazing food, wander in the wonderland of Chatuchak & watch the myriad of characters that abound the streets of Bangkok.

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This is about 1/20th of the outside of Chatuchak, then of course there’s the internal labyrinth.

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You can get everything you ever needed at Chatuchak, I mean anything….

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Finally deciding we should see something of the city aside from markets and food we took off towards the river, catching a commuter ferry south down the Chao Phraya river. Traveling from the north end of downtown Bangkok all the way to the south, the ferry (which costs all of 60-cents to ride) gives you a great overview of the city while shuttling residents about their daily business.

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All of this sitting and watching beautiful temples, bridges, and neighborhoods fly by had really worked up an appetite! Thankfully, the ferry delivered us to what would be our second favorite food destination in all of Bangkok, Chinatown.

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We finished the night here, wandering a hundred alleys, snacking on dumplings, and staring at some completely unrecognizable creatures being served up to throngs of customers.

Okay, Bangkok is clearly off to a great start, but overwhelmingly it’s been about little but the food and markets. There is more to the city, of that we were certain. Day three was finally time to explore some of the city’s famous Buddhist Wats (catch-all term for a Temple Monastery, or other religious structure).

We started at Wat Saket colloquially known as Golden Mount. Okay, you caught us, we actually started at the noodle cart outside the gate of Golden Mount. Golden Mount is exactly as the name describes, a soaring gold flaked temple atop one of the tallest hills in Bangkok, ringed by smaller temples and monasteries, and topped with a giant golden pagoda.

No sooner had we mounted the stairs to make the climb to the top than our first tropical monsoon storm in all of Asia broke loose. This statue isn’t usually a water feature…

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After swimming up the 300 stairs to the top of Golden Mount we had a birds eye view as the downpour swept across Bangkok and put on a terrific lightening show.

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Sticking his head up to grab a photo of the Golden Pagoda, Grant got a little sizzle from a lightening strike only a few meters behind him after he’d turned to head back down the stairs. But, the picture was had!

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The rest of the afternoon passed mostly this way, darting between temples when the weather would break. The storm kept Bangkok’s notoriously balmy weather at bay which was a welcome trade from the previous months’ sweltering heat.

Nearby, Wats Thepthidaram Worawihan & Ratchanatda offered spectacular temple exploration almost completely void of other humans aside from the resident monks and a few restoration carpenters.

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Having made a point of seeking out “real” Bangkok for the better of 72-hours in town, we decided it was time to go looking for a little trouble on the famed Khao San Road. Legendary for its heady mix of travelers, seedy local characters, and inexplicably used ping-pong balls (you’ll have to look that one up yourself if you’re really curious, NSFW however…). We were ready for Las Vegas meets Tijuana and were instead greeted with, well, a pretty run of the mill tourist trap.

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Less Sin City meets Tijuana it was more a cheap Santa Monica promenade. American and European chain stores lay side by side with British pubs and mediocre street stalls hawking the Bangkok staple fried noodles and meat on a stick at 5x regular Bangkok prices. Nowhere to be found were the interesting local characters, nor as far as we could tell, a misused piece of home sporting equipment.

We settled into a friendly pub, drank beers and made friends with other travelers while watching the Rugby World Cup. After a few hours of pretty run of the mill hangout, we decided to do what we rarely venture, and went looking for trouble. In a city famed for its debauchery, it couldn’t be that hard. Wrong again. We walked for an hour in every direction and every alley in a 5-block square area of Khao San and saw nothing aside from generic western bars, generic western cover bands, and generic drunk western travelers. It was honestly, disappointing. Mayberry was more salacious than Bangkok that evening.

We returned to our previous bar and our previously made friends and finished the night off with more beers and some overpriced, but still delicious, grilled meat on a stick. Not to write a conclusion too soon in the story, but this was a microcosm of our time in Bangkok. A city famous for its debauchery instead felt homey and comfortable at every turn and was only a turnoff when trying to clean its face of a seedy reputation by putting on the veneer of western fast food chains and bars.

Back to the story at hand. Our last full day in Bangkok started the next morning with the goal of finally getting the highlight reel attractions of Bangkok, Wat Pho & The Grand Palace. One little problem with that however; getting to those attractions requires us to walk through Chinatown. This is the equivalent of sending a dog through a butcher shop to get dry kibble on the other side.

Needless to say, we got distracted. Enter, Bun’s Story. Tucked just meters off the main drag in a glass window, hides a magician. A man who turns humble flour and water into puffs of incarnate joy.

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We had ordered a couple of items from the Bun’s Story menu when the proprietor suggested we also try the pork buns, as they were being made fresh just that moment. Far be it for us to refuse her suggesting freshly made food that also happened to be the cheapest thing on the menu. Those humble little buns, which admittedly don’t make the greatest of food pictures, were easily one of the top 20 things we’ve ever sank our teeth into.

We nearly floated in food-elation out the doors of the magician’s workshop. From there we strolled through the back alleys of Chinatown for twenty or so more blocks taking in the sights and sounds. Kate wandered into a fulfillment center of an online discount trinket seller which happened to also do a local retail business. It was like lifting the curtain and peering behind a retail website, it was surreal and fascinating. Miles of junk stacked to the ceiling with a hundred employees spread all around, mostly just sitting on the ground, boxing and preparing for shipment their wares.

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Finally clearing Chinatown we struck out again towards the highlight sights. This time we were thwarted not by a single magician but by acres of food and the backbone of all the delicious things we’d been enjoying for the previous four days. Lying in our path was the Agricultural Product Central Market. That is, all of the delicious raw fruits, vegetables, spices, and meats we’d been eating lying side-by-side with millions of the beautiful fresh flowers that adorned every table in the city. Restaurants, farmers, and wholesalers haggled, hauled, wheeled and dealed and made the food scene we’d been at the outside of come to life before our eyes.

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By this time the afternoon shadows were already drawing long on the streets and the Grand Palace was pretty much out of the question. That left us with two hours to dive deeply into Bangkok’s premier temple complex, Wat Pho (absolutely nothing!) Wat Pho is a maze of some the premier religious sights and historical markers in Bangkok. Heavily renovated but still mostly true to its historical roots, Wat Pho has the world’s largest reclining Buddha statue, pagodas dedicated to and by Thai/Siam kings of centuries past, a gigantic collection of Buddhas from all over Asia, and some of the coolest statues you’ll find anywhere.

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Leaving Wat Pho just as the sun was setting we decided to stroll by the Grand Palace in place of a visit. We were greeted by seemingly every monk in Thailand. It is no exaggeration at all to say five-hundred plus monks in the bright orange robes were streaming from the main palace gates just as we rounded the corner. This is, perhaps, a quarter of them.

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For the next two hours we strolled the parks and streets of Bangkok. Chatted with friendly residents, including a local professor who was convinced we must work in Bangkok (apparently, we looked as comfortable in the city as we felt), and finally, having dedicated a whole 4-hours to things other than food settled into what we hoped was to be a highlight final meal at the famous Jai Feng Noodle Shop.

It wasn’t the best meal we had in Bangkok, not by a bit, but it was still certainly delicious and our cook, was indeed a true character.

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The morning of day 5 brought a distinctly different adventure, while not wholly ready to leave the city we were anxious to see the jungles of Thailand. So, mixing two of our favorite things, the outdoors and history we took off for Kanchanaburi. World War 2 buffs may recognize the name, but not likely many others do, though you’re likely familiar with the story that led us there.

Kanchanaburi is the jumping off point for visiting the Death Railway. Popularized in the historical fiction novel and eponymous movie, Bridge on the River Kwai, the Death Railway was a Japanese war project built by English, Australian, American, and other Allied POW’s (as well as many conscripted local Asian laborers). With complete disregard for the Geneva Convention, thousands of POW’s, mostly from the mass surrender of Singapore, were forced to work in unsurvivable conditions on a railway connecting Bangkok to Rangoon in Burma. The mortality rate was nearly 1 in 5 for POWs and even worse for native conscripts on a project that lasted less than a year.

The idyllic location belies the hell the prisoners were subjected to.

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30-miles from Kanchanaburi the Australians have built a beautiful memorial museum at the darkest of sights of the entire railway. Dubbed, among many titles, Hellfire Pass. The section of railway lies in impossibly dense jungle among sheer cliffs. Thus the paths for rails, the Japanese lacking tunneling equipment, had to be carved out from the rock. The name Hellfire Pass reflects the light of the torches, down deep in the cut as prisoners worked long into the night with their captors standing guard lighting their work with torches.

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After taking a taxi to the museum and pass itself we connected with the last functioning stop on the Death Railway and took the train back to town.

Going over one of the many feats of engineering along the Death Railway, a long trestle bridge.

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Going over The Bridge on the River Kwai (replaced since WWII)

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We were off the train at sunset and settled into something of a treat for us, A Hut On The River Kwai. A handful of hotels have built floating rooms on the Kwai Yai River and it was one of the more unique hotel stays we’ve had since starting to travel.

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The following day was our last in this leg of our Thailand adventure. We slept in and enjoyed our raft room through the entire morning before finally setting off and touring the town.

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Our train was delayed, though that was all for the better as we got National Geographic level views of the late afternoon and setting sun from the comfort of our train sailing through the Thai countryside.

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We were back to Bangkok that night late for an unremarkable evening of sleep and early transit back to the airport. Our start to Thailand was amazing and we were thankful to have many return trips already planned in the coming weeks. But nothing could dampen the excitement for what could arguably be called the most mysterious destination of our entire trip. Next up, Myanmar, formerly Burma. Spoiler alert, it was everything we’d hoped for and so so very much more.

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We will, thanks!

Mr & Mrs. Trading Paradises

Filed From: Mae Wang, Thailand (home of the Efalumps!)

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