Thailand: First Days

A week ago I left for Thailand with my boyfriend, and this is the first day we have had a moment’s pause to reflect. We travelled with EVA Air and the were lots of spare seats, so plenty of space for the 11.5 hour flight (although you did walk through the better class of seats, which looked even more comfortable). There was plenty of choice of entertainment, and I chose the film Spotlight. I should have gone to sleep, but come midnight, I was straining to keep my eyes open because I’m stubborn and wanted to finish watching the film. This meant I got no sleep whatsoever. But I did get two of the best tasting aeroplane food I have ever had in my whole life. I usually don’t even bother now, but we opted for “Vegetarian Oriental” and it meant we were served first with lovely rice and noodle dishes packed with vegetables, plus containers of fruit and salad. 

On arrival in Bangkok, it was clear we had been transported somewhere else. Luckily, being English, there were plenty of signs we could understand to guide us to collect our baggage and Visas on arrival, but as we walked through the airport there were flower displays and incredible murals that hinted at what was to come. So far, we have mainly witnessed incredibly intricate designs of so many temples. A taxi to our hostel – Fab, in Sathon – cost twice the price than expected, but the communication barrier meant we just accepted it. I had forgotten the handy bit of paper with the hostel address I’m Thai that the owners had provided. 

We were shown around the place, which is equipped with two shower-rooms/toilets, a kitchen, laundry facilities, living space with films, books and musical instruments, and an our door chill out space with a hammock, comfy seating, fan and even a punchbag! Already sweating, we took some time to settle in, then headed out to find some food. The hostel is away from much of the tourist attractions, so restaurants are minimal. However, there are lots of places serving up street-food. We were a little apprehensive about this, and our first impressions of street-food in Bangkok were that it looked like it had been left out for a while, and was unappetising. So, on our first night we headed down what would become the familiar streets leading up to a main road with a 7-11, and found a place with four walls and fans. I chose something I’d had back in the UK — penang curry — but it had a lot of lemongrass in it (which, unfortunately, I can’t stand) and was a lot spicer than expected, baring no resemblance to what I was used to eating. There was no English translation for drinks, so we pointed at two options. We guessed, after starting, that it was iced coffee and iced tea, but we couldn’t stomach the strange saccharine taste, so had to leave them.

We got an early night and planned the next day. Our first proper day in Bangkok, and we’d planned to get a boat to The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (my Lonely Planet guide offering me help with all these names). A few paces down the roads, so filled with motorbikes, stalls and at times no pavement at all, we were approached by a tuk-tuk driver. My instinct said to say no; we had got up early specifically so we could walk to the pier. He offered the ride for 30 baht, and my polite, but ever-so naive boyfriend accepted the lift. What had meant to be a short walk, turned into an unusually long distance on the tuk-tuk. I had gone along with it because I thought it would please my boyfriend — being in Thailand, I wanted to relax, not be Miss Health and Safety etc. We arrived at a pier, but it didn’t look how I expected — we were the only ones the. But still, neither of us had ever got a boat in Thailand. 

I kick myself every time I think of the fact that we were then charged 2000 baht for what should have knocked two zeros off. To be fair, my boyfriend managed to get it down to 1800, and I had actually looked at the prices the night before. I should have known this was a complete rip-off. Yet, in my 7am head, I just went with it… I guess it seemed the easier option at the time. I didn’t come here to have to ward off being scammed, yet that was a morsel of what was to come being in Bangkok. The only relief we were able to say to ourselves was that it was a private boat. At one point I kissed my boyfriend in it, just because of this matter. Passing boat upon boat, filled with people, we knew as the events unraveled that we were being conned. At one temple, we paid to get a closer look only to find out it was closed inside, and at two ports, we were charged landing-fees, which we latter learned were another scam. 

Aside from the money lost so quickly, we did get to see Wat Arun from the outside (this is the one that was closed for refurbishment but still happy to charge entry fee), and my boyfriend enjoyed going down the canals, finding interesting scenes to photograph. I found this part, and much of Thailand, somewhat unsettling — the contrast between the ramshackle homes, and grand temples, along with one-off accommodation, with fencing round it. This came with a guilt of being lucky enough to come from the UK and to be able to travel like this, yet combined with amazement a at what we saw, it was an overwhelming place to say the least. At this time, all we could think of to describe it was “real”. For so long we had imagined what it would be like to be in Thailand, probably made up of stock Google images, stories and photos from friends, and our imagination. To be there in the flesh, is just that: real. 

We were dropped at a pier before walking through a market and getting some water from a stall, then entering Wat Pho. For those not familiar with visiting temples in Thailand, generally nationals get free entry, whilst foreigners or “farangs” get charged. A couple of guys who turned out to be Canadian asked for a photo to be taken, and after returning the favour and chatting about what we had experienced so far, they headed in, and we followed behind a while after. It’s also worth noting that to visit temples you should wear items of clothes that cover your shoulders and knees, and always take your shoes off as a matter of respect. If not, you may either be denied entry, or most-likely loaned a garment to cover yourself. I wore my trainers, also thinking toes needed covering, but in hindsight sandals would have been fine. 

In Wat Pho, we felt the welcome relief of the fans throughout the building, but also wonderment at the giant golden Buddha casually reclining before us. You were able to walk around the whole statue, and see the walls covered with visual stories. A thought flickered across my mind — the women in these pictures, and sometimes men, wore garments covering one shoulder, often exposing the fleshy curves of their breasts. I laughed to myself that there were visual depictions of exactly what you were forbidden to wear in the temple. We walked around the grounds, where it was just as beautifully constructed, and contained a man-made waterfall, and pond of fish, as well as places for worship. 

We walked outside toward a massive white building, which we assumed to contain The Grand Palace. We followed the direction of monks, and other visitors, and asked a guard where to go. He directed us, and we soon turned a corner to find ourselves in a non-moving crowd, that didn’t seem quite like a queue. In the near-distance, could see the entrance with more crowds of people around it. It seemed you needed to be more assertive with walking here — something I had little trouble with, coming from London. Before we had a chance to walk much further, we were pounced on by a man, saying that it was closed for the public, and monks only, until 1pm. I immediately knew it was a scam; despite him claiming he worked there, I could see he wasn’t at the entrance, nor was he in any uniform. It didn’t add up. Then he started to say that we could go to these other places, hollered at his mate, that he’d charge us something really cheap to go to all these places. It was beginning to grate. My boyfriend again hesitant to be rude, often tried to offer a “maybe later”, but I’d had enough and just said no and walked away. That’s been my attitude since then. It wasn’t even the last time — again and again we rejected offers to go places for 10 baht. This was a clear attempt at the notorious gem scandal, where tourists are taken to places that are most certainly not the attractions they want to see, then offered to buy worthless gems, fooled into believing they can make money back at home. One guy even drew a Buddha on my map to label such a location, and another followed us from a restaurant to a 7-11, and stood suspiciously close to my boyfriend in there.

Alas, when we did eventually come to the entrance, it was not only open but teeming with tourists! This was where my boyfriend’s long shorts didn’t quite cover his knees, and he had to put on these loose draw-string trousers on. All the different parts making up this area was incredibly expansive, and it was a struggle to get through it in the heat. At one point my boyfriend thought he couldn’t go on, as we kept pausing on steps to breathe and drink water. In hindsight, I would have opted to just get a taxi there, as the idea of waking up so early was to get there early early. There was so much to see, so I was determined to go on, despite having my own light-headed moment. A moment of calm, peace and serenity came when sat in The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (also note — make sure to always have your feet pointing away from the Buddha). There was a smell of flowers in the air, and tranquil sounds filled the busy building. Although not religious myself, you couldn’t help but feel a kind of spiritual connectedness. 

Once we had seen everything (we hoped) and were out of the grounds, we walked to the information point to ask about the SIM we hadn’t got from the airport (and probably should have done), only to find they were closed for lunch, with no return time. My boyfriend had just bought some very juicy pineapple sticks, but I wanted some proper food. My friend, who had been travelling for the past three months in South East Asia, had recommend a place on Khao San road, so we walked past what I identified as Sanam Luang Park, but might as well have been anywhere as we came to an impossible junction and finally gave up when a tuk-tuk came along, and we hopped on out of hunger, probably paying too much again.

Khao San road is the epicentre of backpackers — my friend and the two Canadians we had met earlier had stayed/were staying around the area. The string of bars, restaurants and market stalls (plus a handy 7-11 where we got a SIM card fitted into my boyfriend’s phone because mine wasn’t “unlocked”) meant it could be anywhere in the world. It was very touristy, but the food was welcome, we went to a place called “Lucky Beer” out of tiredness, and had a break from the spicier food from the previous night… You can feel the chilli the next day, shall we say! We didn’t have any beer, and once we had eaten a satisfactory meal, we soon found a taxi back to our hostel.

So far, we hadn’t been overly impressed by the food we’d eaten, having heard so many other friends rave about it. We opted for a fine-dining place called Blue Elephant, which turned out to be a chain. So, whilst I enjoyed the food (my boyfriend sadly disappointed again) it didn’t seem quite what we were looking for to go to a global chain, even if it was Thai food. We hadn’t dressed up, so felt a bit out of place with locals dressed to the nines, and my boyfriend even had to wear some more loose trousers, with a fancy trim when turned over and done up. It was funny, especially as there were two American women at the next table in hot pants and vest tops. Still confused about the Wei greeting at this stage (palms touching and head bowing), when the guard saluted me, I didn’t know what to do and half-saluted him back. I had my favourite Thai dishes there, so I was happy — vegetable spring rolls, chicken satay and prawn pad Thai. I was even given a flower on exiting, which I left in the room at the hostel, as we were already moving on to the next stop — Pak Chong.

(Note: I stopped writing this on the third paragraph, and it’s not 10 days into our Thailand trip! Hopefully I’ll get another chance in a couple of days! Also, please excuse any typos when writing these on ipad/iPhone.)

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