Exploring Temples & the Infamous Khao San Road
I started yesterday off feeling SO much better. The jetlag has mostly passed, considering it's 3am back at home and I don't feel compelled to just fall asleep. I've been waking up at 7:30am though, so the jetlag is lingering because anyone who knows me knows that I don't just naturally wake up at 7:30am. I've been loading up on the hostel's provided breakfast - plenty of toast with jam, cornflakes, and coffee. I've been struggling with the food here for a few reasons...
For one (big confession here), I've never actually had Thai food. Like, ever. I just somehow never made it to a Thai restaurant. So everything I've tried here is totally new to me, including pad thai, which is about the only thing I feel safe trying right now. Two, I hate spicy food. Hate it. So I am especially picky with anything I'm choosing to eat here. Three, the heat and sleepiness is overbearing, often times overriding any desire to eat. I know this is common; it's like your body can only signal to you at one time that it's either hungry or hot. After hours of walking around outside yesterday, my friends and I had to force ourselves to stop and find a place to eat, even though we weren't necessarily hungry. I'm hoping I'll have an easier time getting to experience Thai food out on the islands; I know Thailand is like heaven for food junkies and I don't want to be missing out, but for now I'm just loading up on toast and cornflakes. Again.
The day I arrived, I wasn't willing to talk much to anybody, but yesterday morning was different - I love the big communal dining table at this hostel because it's so easy to start talking to people. I met Esra, a 22 year old from Boston who had been traveling for over 3 months already. Then we started chatting with a group of 4 Filipinas who had just finished their undergrad at the University of the Philippines. One of the funniest moments so far was when a fellow American was trying to impress his Filipina ex-girlfriend through Skype by having the Filipina girls translate sexy pick up lines in Tagalog.
Tasher and I had made plans to check out the major temples in Bangkok, and I invited Esra along so that we could really get a good crew going. We got directions from the hostel owner on how to get to the Grand Palace and he gave us a map. Map in hand, the three of us headed out of the hostel. We started the day at 8:30am, and the sun was already boiling at a cool 99 degrees
The first step was to take a boat through the canal. We doubled back twice in search of this canal before figuring out that we had turned around too early, but it was still only a ten minute walk from the hostel. Once at the dock, we met Ike and Hailey, who were also staying at our hostel. They both just graduated from college and are backpacking Southeast Asia (SEA) before Ike starts his job at Deloitte and Hailey waits to hear from the FoodCorp.
I know I'm traveling solo, but the highlight of traveling solo is that you get to be alone when you want to and you can also easily find others to share in the traveling experience with you. This is something I want to be able to share through this blog: You can easily make friends as a solo traveller, and this is one of the true highlights of traveling solo, however oxymoron-ish that sounds. When I backpacked Switzerland and Italy solo in 2011, I was, for the most part, very alone. But I was also very nervous and anxious and untrusting of anyone I met - I did not start conversations with anyone or go out of my way to meet anyone. I was very focused on just getting from place to place and not getting lost.
Traveling solo can be unnerving at first, but the moment you make that first friend and check out ancient ruins together or go in search of the best street taco place or barter for knick knacks, you gain a little more confidence. The funny thing about travel friends is that many times the friendships are fleeting, but in a good way. You have a strong bond already because you are both in the same foreign country, most likely staying at the same hostel, and exploring the same magnificent sights together, but at some point your plans and desires will take you separate ways. I don't remember the names of the guys I hiked Tikal with in 2010 or the girls I grabbed dinner with in Italy in 2011, but they made my travel experience that much richer.
Anyways, back to our Grand Palace adventure. Tasher, Ike, Hailey, and I knew we had to get a boat going to the left, not the right, so we jumped (literally - there are just tires attached to the side of the boat that are used as "steps") onto the next boat that was heading left from the dock. Our stop was less than ten minutes away, and we would have missed it if Esra hadn't noticed the looming, golden temple of Wak Saket to the left.
We decided to check out The Golden Mount (Wat Saket) since it was on our way. We took 300 steps to the top to get stunning views of Bangkok - it was our first chance to really see how far out the city extended, and it really is a vast city. The Golden Mount, to be honest, was extremely touristy; it almost felt like we were walking up the steps to an amusement park ride at Walt Disney, with speakers booming in Thai and broken English, water mist systems, and vending machines and magazine stands in the actual temple itself. Still, it was well worth it for the view, which is why I think most tourists come this way, anyways. There were also a lot of big gongs that were fun to play with.
From there, we took a tuk-tuk to the Grand Palace grounds, which are basically motorized rickshaws. Tuk-tuks are everywhere on the roads, mainly because they can weave in and out of heavy traffic (although at the expense of your safety...). It was only a 10 minute ride, but fun because it's open-air and kind of a novel way to experience Bangkok traffic. I'm pretty positive my travel insurance doesn't cover anything related to tuk-tuks, which probably means I also shouldn't have taken that neon-lit, bass thumping tuk-tuk last night...
The entrance to the Grand Palace was a madhouse. We were shocked at the number of tourists there, especially the overwhelming number of Chinese tourists who were clamoring for pictures with a banner of "Welcome to the Grand Palace." The crowds made it even hotter, and it wasn't even 10am yet. We grabbed food (fried rice for me, classic), then made our way into the Grand Palace by paying the 500B ($15) ticket fee. There are strict dress codes for men and women - women have to wear dresses or skirts past the knees and shoulders have to be covered. Visitors also used to have to wear closed-toe shoes, but that has been lifted and now you can wear regular sandals. However, you have to take your sandals off every time you enter a temple, so it's easier to wear shoes similar to TOMs that don't have buckles or laces.
The grounds of the Grand Palace were unlike anything I've ever seen. I'm not even sure how to describe the architecture because I don't have anything to compare it to; pictures are the only way I can do it justice. The colors, attention to detail, artwork, and imagery were stunning. Everything was gilded in gold, and with the sun shining, the whole place was just glimmering.
Our first stop was Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. which isthe most sacred temple in Thailand. We had to remove our shoes before entering and no pictures were allowed, but inside was essentially a shrine built around (no surprise) a small, emerald-carved statue of a Buddha image. The historical story of The Emerald Buddha is actually pretty cool:
No one is sure if the Buddha image originated in Cambodia, Thailand, or Laos, but at some point the little statue was lost on a ship on a return journey to Sri Lanka in year 457. When the Thais captured Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 1432, the statue made its way to Laos then to Chiang Rai, Thailand, where the ruler of the city hid it by covering it in plaster. Hundreds of years later, in 1434, lightening struck the temple where the Buddha statue had been hidden, causing the statue to fall and the plaster to chip. Monks discovered the precious jade Buddha statue underneath the plaster. Finally, after years of being moved around from temple to temple in Thailand, the little Emerald Buddha was officially enshrined in Wat Phra Kaew (its current location) in 1782.
Only the Thai king is allowed to touch the Emerald Buddha. The King changes the cloak of the Emerald Buddha three times a year in accordance to the changing seasons. When we entered, we tried to be as respectful as possible by following the lead of the Thais around us. We sat at the front of the shrine, with our feet tucked beneath us (pointing our feet towards the statue would have been extremely disrespectful). Some people were meditating; many people were giving offerings bought outside the temple (flowers or incense). As I sat there silently, it was moving to be reminded how each culture practices and shares in its beliefs. The only comparison I could make would be how it must feel to visit the Vatican as a Catholic, and I felt lucky that I was able to share in such a small piece of Thai religious culture.
From there, we continued to walk around the grounds, but we were getting increasingly confused as to where the actual Grand Palace was. The grounds were made up of many temples and shrines, and we couldn't figure out if we had already walked through the Grand Palace or if the grounds as a whole consisted of the Grand Palace... We had to sit down and look at the English map we had picked up at the front, and even then we were still confused. Finally, after following lots of signs to the Grand Place (in broken English), we finally came across the actual Grand Palace.
The Grand Palace itself is kind of mixed-and-matched, due to lots of additions over the years and rebuilding phases, so the architecture is pretty eclectic. Though the Royal Family hasn't lived at the Grand Palace since 1925, it is still used for official events and there are still some royal offices within the buildings. Happy that we had finally found the Grand Palace, we headed back to the main street in search of food. We had planned to see two additional temples, Wat Arun and Wat Pho, but the sun and heat had done us in by 1pm and we couldn't go for much longer. We grabbed a taxi back to a hostel before finding a restaurant that served fruit smoothies and vegetarian pad thai.
By then, it was past 2pm and I was exhausted. I showered, caught up on FB for a little bit and texted my mom before I climbed into my dorm bed for a nap. I've been getting bad headaches because of the heat and have been trying to sleep them off, but finally started taking Excedrin to keep them at bay. Besides, we had made plans to go out later that night, so extra sleep was a necessity.
Khao San Road ("Backpacker's Road") is essentially a huge, central road of bars, street food, live music, and underground clubs that caters to the backpacker. It's basically a massive block party, every night, and has been so for decades. It was a Friday night, and we had a huge group leave from the hostel at around 10:30pm for Khao San Road. We crammed 5 people (including myself, Tasher and Esra) into the back of a tuk-tuk and set off into the night.
10 minutes later, we pulled up to the side of Khao San Road. The driver said the ride cost 500B ($15). Me, being totally oblivious, started fishing around in my purse for Baht, before Ed, an American who has been living in Bangkok for awhile now, started protesting. It came down to the fact that we had established a set price of 150B ($4) before we left the hostel and 500B was completely outrageous for a short tuk-tuk ride. Ed and the driver started arguing as the driver was yelling that he had waited an extra 15 minutes at the hostel and that the 5 people in his tuk-tuk had weighed down his tires.
At this point, our group was making a huge scene as Ed and the driver got in eachother's faces. Totally hating confrontation, I kept trying to just pay off the driver, but Ed explained that it was a principle - a tuk-tuk ride should never cost 500B and paying that price hikes up the costs for the rest of the night. Then the driver started saying something about a Thai mafia in broken English, and Ed handed over 225B before forcing my hand away as I tried to offer another 100B. At the time, I thought Ed was being completely irrational over a couple of American dollars, but when we took a metered cab back that night, it only cost 58B. I realized then that there are set, fair prices for common practices in Bangkok, like anywhere else, and if you pay anymore than that, you are getting ripped off and skewing the prices for everyone else. Lesson learned.
Still, I was totally unnerved by the whole episode, and was eager to just move into the mass of people on Backpackers Road. It's definitely got an anything-goes, care free feel about it - I'm pretty sure anyone can get away with just about anything on this road. It had everything: tattoo shops, outdoor foot massage parlors, hostels off of side alleys, bars with booming EDM, plenty of food stalls, live performers, and lots of dancing. We sat outside a bar with live music for a couple hours before a few of us clamored into a taxi at 1am, which is super early by Khao San Road standards, but that hostel bed never looked so good after a full day in Bangkok.
PS: I'm on Koh Tao now with only an iPad and (very) limited wifi, so apologies for the typos, low quality photos, and blog formatting!