Alli and I left the O’Hare airport at noon on New Years day for our trip to Thailand. Armed with our backpacks and a Thai phrase book, we were crossing our fingers that our plan (the no-plan plan) would work out in our favor. We had spent the past four years of college planning – for classes, tests…the ever-looming future and the eventual “real world”. For once, we just wanted take off. No rules. No plan. Just backpacks and a Thai book. Like any mom, mine is a worrier and wanted an itinerary with dates, addresses, and times I would contact her. I strategically putted off giving it to her until the night before I left so that she might not notice that 80% of the itinerary was actually labeled “TBD”.
I’ve traveled to a few other countries – New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Dominican Republic. The first two weren’t much of a culture shock, and the last four were spent either on resorts, with a missions group, or with a large group of Americans. And while they were all amazing experiences, I wanted something different. I wanted to be thrown out of my element into a place where people don’t speak English and live a completely different lifestyle. I wanted a cultural experience. In retrospect, this was a pretty foolish desire considering my background and how long I would actually be in the country – but that’s a blog post for a different day.
Landing in Bangkok
After nearly 30 hours of travel, we finally landed in Bangkok at midnight. It didn’t feel like midnight considering how many people were bustling around the Suvarnabhumi airport. (Fun fact: the Suvarnabhumi airport was the “Most Instagrammed Place” in 2012.) Since we were landing so late and didn’t feel like wandering the streets of Bangkok looking for a hostel, this was the one reservation we made in advance. Thais are notorious for over-charging tourists on just about everything, especially taxis. According the Park, the 26-year-old Thai I sat next to on the plane, you can generally cut the original price in half and that’s what you should actually pay. I refused to be the dumb tourist that overpaid so I had our hostel email a map and taxi estimate. Thanks to my map, broken Thai, and suave negotiation skills, we were able to talk our taxi driver down to about 250 baht (about $8 USD). I was pretty pleased with myself and counted it as the first win of the trip.
A Tourist Trap & Meat on a Stick
Our first day in Bangkok was a whirlwind. We started by booking an overnight train and ferry to the island of Koh Phangan. 20 minutes later, without really knowing how we got there, we found ourselves on a long boat tour of the city. It all started when we tried to get a taxi to Wat Pho, a famous temple in Bangkok. As we would learn throughout the trip, taxi drivers often work with small family-owned businesses. Basically, the taxi drivers bring the tourists and get a cut of the profit. Since we had no plans and the wat didn’t open for awhile, we figured it was worth a try for $25. There were two Canadians on the boat with us whose names I can’t remember. Apparently neither could our tour guide since he simply referred to us as “America” and “Canada,” words he would yell every five minutes to make sure he had our attention. Looking back, I’m pretty sure this guy was drunk since he couldn’t steer straight and kept screaming at us in Thai. In the end, we actually got to see some pretty cool sights of the city from the boat and he dropped us off right in front of the wat.
Wat Pho is one of the oldest wats in Bangkok and home to the largest single Buddha image – the Reclining Buddha, which is 160 feet in length. The temple itself was extraordinary and beautiful but the REAL reason Alli and I chose that wat was for the infamous Thai massage. (30 hours on a plane can do gnarly things to your back.) Unfortunately, the wait was over an hour and we were both so hungry that we could have eaten a stray dog so we wandered off to try Bangkok street food instead. Bad choice. We picked the nearest meat on a stick and immediately regretted it. It was more like bones covered in a leathery skin with no flavor. I wonder if I actually WAS eating a stray dog… Spoiler alert: I wish I could say this was the last bad decision we made with food but there would be plenty more to come.
We ended the day at the Hualamphong train station sharing beers with two Australians, Ivo and George. Ironically, they had just returned from Koh Phangan and had some helpful tips on places to go and things to do on the island.
Biggest Surprise from Day 1: The toilets were an experience in and of themselves. I wouldn’t consider myself high maintenance, but seriously…a hole in the ground? And no toilet paper? And don’t even get me started on the smell…. But here’s the real kicker, you actually have to pay to use the facilities. I’ll file this one under the “cultural experience” category.