“Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.”
HEADING TO BANGKOK
On this week’s post, we’ll mostly explore the Capital. To get there, we’ll first take a night train from Surat Thani to Bangkok. Even though night trains are a bit slow -count about 15hours, delay included-, they are an experience in themselves. In Thailand, the main railway is going from south to north. So each time you want to hop on a train you have to get to a city nearby. However, Thais use minivan a lot. So, many cities are connected with one another, making connections really easy.
Surat Thani is an average size city in Thailand. From a touristic standpoint, the place is rather boring. However, if you dig a little, you’ll find the floating market, and a promenade by the water surrounded with night markets. All in all, the stay was more a transition than a real exploration. But in the end I am glad I stopped there for a night, as the Boundary hostel I stayed in, was hosted by this really, really kind Thai woman. Who, judged by the place, clearly knew how to make a lot with very little.
Since I arrived in the morning and had to take a night train late in the evening, I almost spend two full days there. It was plenty enough to explore around. After an afternoon walking around the city. The first evening by the water was perfect to take a bite in the the night market. I almost got scammed some money, because the street cook gave me tons of small bills, expecting me not to recount the change. But she got fishy the moment she asked many questions in a row, while handing me the cash back. After that unfortunate event, I headed to San Lak Muang white pagoda, and its beautiful garden in the central area.
The Pra Cha Rat floating market isn’t really floating, but it is a market. Kind of. Houses and shops are on poles but there are many paths on hard grounds. The place is beautiful and not touristic, it’s really for locals. That’s also probably why the food there looks really good! I tried some dumplings that were made by a smily and proud grandma which were excellent. Impossible to know what was inside though. Trying food in unknown countries is like playing a game without knowing all the rules. But playing is always fun, right ? I can also vouch for all the rest. It takes no expert to tell that everything they cooked was tasty. It is home made Thai food after all.
There are usually three types of wagon in night trains : regular seats, sleeping compartments, and sleeping car. The later is is packed with beds on both sides of the wagon. The later is reserved to those seeking a full experience. Guess which I chose ? Ok, I’ll give you a hint : it was very hard to sleep, lights were on all night, and people selling food and drinks, relentlessly shouted in the wagon. That’s right, it was a sleeping car. The good thing is, when you wake up in the morning, you just have to bend with a bill to get fresh water. Overall the experience was quiet pleasant, and in the morning, they pack up the beds, and turn them into regular seats, for you to enjoy the views on the countryside.
There’s nothing better than riding a train to see all the layers of the city. From its outskirts to its core. While the train was slowly going into the 10M people city, I witnessed how the poor were trying to survive in the outskirts. Slums for many Kilometers were all that was visible from the outside in. Poor people living in makeshifts houses, or under the big concrete highways. It was kind of terrifying to see how scarce and unequal were the wealth from one Thai to another.
THE HOLY CAPITAL
Bangkok is home to over 400 Wat. A Wat is a Buddhist compound. Fortunately for us westerners, they are open to holy souls and curious atheists alike. And if you are looking up to understand all the mysteries of the Buddhism believes, the Wat are a great starting point. In Buddhism, many decorative buildings have their sole purpose. For instance the bell shaped monolith is called a Stupa. A place of worship, dedicated to prayer. Or the Vahrna, usually hosting a giant Buddha statue in one of its many poses. Temples are not only interesting to see, but also critical to understand a religion almost unknown to westerners.
The most known and visited temples in Bangkok are Wat Phra and Wat Arun, both located 15 minutes from one another (Ferry time included). If your goal is to have an idea of how a temple is organized, this is were you should go. They’re both very different too. Wat Phra is a complex with many temples like the ones you’ll find all around the city. Wat Arun though, is kind of unique. The temple is organized around one central tower, ornamented from top to bottom with very detailed sculptures of elephants, deities and abstract motives. A beautiful piece of craftsmanship and architecture.
JIM, THE MISSING MILLIONNAIRE
Who is Jim Thompson ? Jim was born in America, son of a wealthy textile trader, he went astray from his father’s line of work and studied architecture in NY. After a few years working in the big apple, he enlisted in the US army and was send to Thailand. After a while Jim took back his father practice as a businessman and settled in Bangkok, where he built his house, right next the silk crafters district. From this moment on, his life as a businessman boomed forward. Until one day, when everything changed. In the summer 1967, he went on vacation in his friends place located on Cameron Highlands. By a cool afternoon, Jim left for a hike in the jungle, and was never to be found ever since. No one really know if he was abducted, but he was searched for by hundreds of people, scrutinizing the jungle.
Jim Thompson’s house is a true safe haven in the middle of the tumultuous capital. You don’t need to be an architect to enjoy the house and its outstanding garden. If you chose to visit, you have to join a guided tour. But what is best than a local guide, to learn not only about the house, but about Thai culture too ? The tour lasts about 45 minutes and is available in many languages.
After Jim’s mysterious disappearance, the house remained and was enhanced with an exhibition space, a cafe, a restaurant and a store. During the visit, you’ll learn a lot about Jim but the guide will thoroughly explain Thai traditions too. One of my favorite is the story around the miniature house built next to any new construction. In Thai believes, to ease down the spirit of the place, they have to be relocated, fed and given offerings every day. That way it will not haunt, but protect the house. It is also believed that the spirits are going in a straight line, on the floor. Hence, to block them, the doors threshold are 15cm above ground. If you are seeking a rational explanation, It also helps with the wall stability.
There’s no place like Chinatown when it comes to browsing into random wares and eating the best Chinese food in town. But that’s not the main reason you should stroll amidst these agitated streets. Chinatown has a vibrancy of its own. In the streets, people are constantly moving around, shouting out in every direction to attract potential buyers. When the street-food stalls are open for business, the cooks spread their kitchen halfway on the streets. The smell of grilled food emanates from the sidewalks’ temporary barbecues. A lady with fresh fruits asks you if you want a juice, while cars and scooters on the road nearby are brushing your ankles.
In Chinatown, there is also the very famous golden Buddha. The impressive statue has a story of its own. For centuries the monument was covered with a thin layer of plaster. When Bangkok was invaded, Monks from the Sukhothai Dynasty, 13th–14th centuries period, tried to hide it from the invaders. Since the statue was too hard to move, the monks put a thin layer of stucco around it. For a long time it was kept this way, and its secret forgotten. Until one day, the stucco started to fell off while they moved the statue, revealing the precious metal underneath.
A GOOD PLACE TO BE
Now, we didn’t talk about actual places to visit, did we ? One of my favorite in Bangkok was Lhong 1919 : an old complex of Chinese-like warehouses turned into cafe, artists compounds and bars. An amazing and beautiful venue that was successfully rehabilitated by local architects, using the genuine plans and noble materials. Before going, check the entry hours though, as they usually close pretty early in low season.
Is there a better way to conclude a journey than a last evening on a skybar’s terrace, looking down the streets as the city lights slowly spread into the night ? Yeah… no, there is not, I thought so too. That’s why I spend my last night on the 35th story of the Marriott hotel. Enjoying a great view and kind of affordable cocktails. Dwelling into my thoughts while the night was taking over upon the scarcity of the last sun rays.
BANGKOK IN A NUTSHELL
Before heading to the city, a friend told me that Bangkok is “Magnificent, asphyxiating, intoxicating, disgusting and sassy”. It’s actually very accurate. However, Bangkok is impossible to describe. The only way to fully grasp its atmosphere is to see it for yourself. No photo or description can replace the experience of walking down Bangkok’s streets. The capital has it’s unique flavor, revealed by the complexity of its urban layers. Sometimes organized into definite districts, sometimes totally hazardous. One street can host a big company skyscraper, and at its base, a street food stall would take place, with those tiny plastic chairs, scattered all over the sidewalk.
TIPS FOR BEGINNERS :
- If you draw money from the ATM, you’ll be taxed by a fixed rate. (6$) So try to get as much cash as possible if you want to avoid huge fares. Well, if you’re not scared to lose them or get stollen from.
- Bangkok is chaotic but really safe, as usual, it doesn’t mean leave your bag open and stroll into dark streets at 3:00 in the morning, but no need to be on your guard.
- You can buy unlimited data for 5$/Month in a seven eleven. All you need is an ID
- Always count your change, even if it is awkward sometimes