Small Scenes of SE Asia 5

Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to end a 3-week trip in a huge city (8 million people, 600-some square miles) with a rep for being a rough place for tourists (“too big,” “too dirty,” “too much”), but I loved Bangkok and the few days I spent there.

Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan descended on Bangkok for a day; five volunteers found themselves at Thip Samai, a busy restaurant that some travel books claim serves the “Best Pad Thai in Thailand.” The dinner was good; the company was better. (A woman cooking on a deserted street corner near my hostel served up a plate of pad thai that was a million times better; a perfect last breakfast in Thailand.)

After an evening spent wandering through Siam Center, a massive mall with high-end boutiques and multiple floors of food courts, the question of transportation home was yet unsolved. The first taxi we asked refused to take us toward the train station and drove away before we could close the car door. Tired and uncomfortable from the heat (even at 10pm, the air was still thick and hot), I flagged down a tuk-tuk and shaved off a few baht from the driver’s initial asking price. I’d ridden a tri-shaw in Malacca, in fancy four-door sedans in Kuala Lumpur, a bicycle on Koh Lanta, and a songthaew in Phuket – but I had yet to go anywhere in the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. The roads were empty, and it was quiet except for the wind rushing over my face.

On a quest for knick-knacks to bring back to our Kyrgyz host families, we walked up the river in search of a good market. A few left and right turns at random found us in the dark, damp hallways of an amulet market, where nothing but tiny statues of the Buddha were sold. Signs at the airport and a few temples explained that it is disrespectful to use images or buy tiny statues of the Buddha, so we opted just to look (with tired, overheated eyes) for a half hour before stumbling into a cafe in search of air-conditioning and iced coffee. There was nothing to be said while we sipped our drinks; instead, I watched the two monks at the next table over pull new smart phones from boxes and set up their SIM cards. For a second, the image of two men in bright orange robes deftly pulling apart and reassembling cellphones seemed contradictory; thinking about my time in Bangkok as a whole, though, the mix makes sense.

The two things I really wanted to do in Bangkok: take a river ferry and see Wat Pho, a massive temple complex that houses the famous Reclining Buddha. We followed a crowd of people who looked like they could be commuting toward the river; without looking at any signs, we passed 2.5 baht a piece across the ticket counter and hopped on a boat. This must be the best deal in Bangkok! was all I could think as the boat pulled out from the dock. After five minutes of slowly moving in no particular direction, the realization that this boat is just to get people across the river (not down it) dawned. We eventually found the right boat, which eventually made it to the pier in front of Wat Pho. A request to sit down for a minute before heading in to the temple turned into an hour of people-watching, a fantastic opportunity to admire the range of elephant pants and crop tops and selfie-stick techniques of tourists from around the world. After an hour and a final decision to forgo entering the temple, I peaked through an opening in the columns to see the knees, lower calves, and ankles of the Reclining Buddha.

Bad tourist? Maybe. Good time? Yes.

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