The Trip Begins: Bangkok!

The first post on Elaine and Gregor’s year(ish?) of globetrotting!

Several months ago we 20170424_190854 (1)made the decision to leave our comfy life and solid jobs in the Bay Area behind and spend some time experiencing the wider world. That of course was a whole involved decision process which we might write up later, but for now it’s enough to say that we’re jobless, homeless, and on the other side of the world! And so far it’s pretty great.

So we’re traveling for a year, and hoping to hit a lot of locations – starting in Southeast Asia, getting to Nepal and maybe India, Japan, South Africa, Argentina and Chile… just to name a few. How the hell do you pack for a year through different climates with no itinerary? Can’t say we know, but we gave it a shot. After some deliberation we both decided to use carry-on size bags. For a while we were planning on using our backpacking bags (75L – big!), so we would have space and comfort for any overnight trekking we might do along the way. Many recommendations later, we changed our minds. We’ll probably be dealing with buses, short flights, and cramped cafes much more often than outfitting for overnight hikes, and having bags we can keep close at hand seems like a good idea. Hopefully a good decision that we don’t regret it on occasions where we are actually backpacking!

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Neither of us had large enough carry-on pack, so we bought new ones. G got a Tortuga Outbreaker and E got an Ebags Mother Lode for half of what G paid. Both are 45L. G likes to think his will win out in the long run for durability, comfort, and protecting stuff (it’s pretty water-resistant, unlike Elaine’s) but so far she’s happy with hers. We’ll see!

We flew Norwegian out of Boston through Oslo. Best parts: exit row seats on both legs for no extra cost (dunno why, except that we got the tickets several months ago); mom’s blueberry muffin; and the lower cabin altitude of the 787 – really makes a difference! Stepping off our second leg of 11 hrs neither of us felt that typical long-haul mind and body exhaustion.

Bangkok has the population of New York City – about 8 million people. Take NYC and turn it upside down and shake it and leave everything where it lands and that is Bangkok. Now try to get somewhere! But, I don’t think Bangkok is quite as nuts as people have led me to believe. I would describe the traffic as “challenging”, but not completely unreasonable. It seems as if you just know a few rules (for instance, that motorcycles don’t have to follow any rules) then driving isn’t bad. At least nobody is on their cellphones – those folks were naturally selected out a while ago, I think. 

We seem to be quickly adjusting to this thing that Studio_20170423_093617is Bangkok. First day after getting off our flight at 6am we were kindof unsure. New-culture overload combined with jetlag and annoying tuk-tuk drivers everywhere… hmm, not sure what we think about this place. Second day was 10 miles of walking around the city and overheating, but we saw some great stuff, were more relaxed, and stayed awake to chill out with some beers (Chang and Leo – taste exactly the same – so go with Chang for the extra 0.2%). Third day the jetlag is gone, we’ve figured out how to get around and eat what we want, and hey, we’re still melting in the heat but who isn’t and this is pretty great!

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Day 2 we went to see the big golden Buddha. It was big, it was gold. How big? 5.5 tons if that means anything to you. Apparently it was covered in plaster for a long time to hide it from whomever was invading Thailand at the time and when moving the thing they dropped it and found out it was solid gold. After seeing how they move goods around in Thailand, it is not especially surprising it was dropped.

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There are many many stands of what we assume are either offerings for Buddha or food for Monks. We are not sure which. There are many altars in which people leave food, Fanta or flowers (maybe Buddha has a thing for stuff starting with the letter “F”). The Fanta is always the red kind. I think it’s strawberry. The food that they sell at all these -we will call them altar 7-11s– is 1-3 eggs, which we think are hard-boiled, some mystery beige sludge, and a generous piece of undercooked bacon, all served on a very holy styrofoam tray. Thus completes my current knowledge of Buddhism.

We were concerned by recent reports of Bangkok’s government cracking down and “cleaning up” the famous street food scene that was a big part of our interest in spending time in the city. Fortunately, we had little issue filling our bellies with delicious and weird stuff as we walked around for a few days (except for Monday, when most vendors are off for street cleaning). Soups with dark savory broths, various mystery meats-on-a-stick, amazing fried anything, and rice and noodle dishes abound. Next to Sao Ching Cha we found a market/festival packed with locals and snacked our way through while listening to live performances; in a Chinatown market we found the best spring rolls ever and a bowl of Chinese rice noodle rolls topped with crispy dried fish bits that was low-grade nuclear on the spice level (I kind of asked for it, it was awesome, and yeah I paid for it later).

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How much can you cram into a Chinatown market back alley?

Bizarre smells abound when walking around Bangkok. Many of them I can’t identify, even when I see the source. They’re a mixture of sweet and fermented, spicy and fruity, fishy and herbal. It’s an experience in itself just to breathe here anywhere close to a market, cluster of street vendors, or in a back alley along people’s homes.

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Day 3 brought us to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace. Crazy place! The level of splendor rivals the Vatican, and while it’s not as large, I have to say I’m equally impressed. Intensely detailed paintings, ornate sculptures, and glittering gold everywhere. At the center of it all sits the Emerald Buddha, who would not permit us to take his picture, but who looks quite smashing in his golden robes (one of 3 different getups he has for different seasons).

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Our experience was given an extra dimension because the Thais are in a year of mourning for their recent king, and great numbers of them (tens of thousands daily) are visiting the Palace area to pay their respects. To us this meant joining a throng of black-clad mourners to squeeze through security into the palace complex, where they were all shuffled into a separate queue and whisked away into areas closed to us foreigners. Outside the palace walls, free food and water stands sponsored by Thai companies (including Chang and Singha) kept the crowds nourished in the heat.

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Mourners streaming out of the Grand Palace complex

That’s it for now – next post should hopefully feature some gorgeous beach images, as we’re heading south tomorrow to the coast!

Specifics: we stayed at Lamphu House Bangkok which was great for us because it was cheap and simple and also close to busy Khaosan without being noisy. If we revisit Bangkok we’ll stay somewhere close to the rail system so we can use it and see some other areas, but where we were was good for seeing most of the temple sights and street food frenzy. Just avoid the tuk-tuks entirely here and take cabs (have them use the meter, it’s always cheaper so just walk away and find another one in ten seconds if they don’t agree before you get in). If a “local” who is a “student” or something similar starts chatting you up  with seemingly helpful suggestions as you’re walking down the street, it’s a scam. We encountered (and avoided) this and later ran into other folks who were driven away to the back end of town and basically forced to buy a crappy suit.

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