Bangkok: Wanderlust Reborn

I THOUGHT I was past that phase, if I can even call it a phase.

Since college I have developed an obsession with traveling. There’s something in seeing a place firsthand and having your ideas challenged based on what you are experiencing on a personal level. In a way, it has augmented my sense of reality, being able to discover things for myself. Traveling allows me to see the world in a different light, by giving me the opportunity to experience things and meet people, and in the process turn them into real entities that truly stir your emotions far beyond the capabilities of the clichés of travel romantics.

That wanderlust really took shape when I went to Thailand in 2006. It was a trip made possible not really because I had already developed a sense of adventure, but because my parents tagged me along with my sister and brother to a microfinance conference in the seedy resort town of Pattaya. The country instantly made an indelible mark on my mind, especially since it was ripe with subjects for a photography student such as me. Granted, Thailand has embraced modernization much like most of the world, but it doesn’t take much digging to find a piece of the old Southeast Asia underneath. In between the skyscrapers and the glitz of Bangkok’s sophisticated shopping centers, there are monks wandering the streets and temples piercing the skyline. That was the push in a queue of dominos of travels born of impulsive decisions.

Now, though, as I enter a new decade, I have resigned to the fact that the days of spontaneous trips may be over. Cynicism sets in and there’s always the nagging burden of having to be financially responsible – which means saving for retirement and all the things people need to do in their 30s to make up for the happy-go-lucky days of being in their 20s. I have changed jobs twice in the past year trying to figure out what on earth I really wanted to do and while my current work is okay, it leaves a lot of room for boredom and yearning for temporary escape. So for the sake of mental tranquility, I figure it’s probably healthy if I take a break from the life I have become accustomed to for the past year and regain that sense of wide-eye amazement of seeing another country for the first time.

That opportunity came when, one morning at work, I managed to contact CJ, a friend with whom I went to Cambodia two years ago, and asked her if she and her colleague Roxy are interested in going to Laos. I chose that country because, one, it’s one of the three Southeast Asian states I haven’t been to yet, and, two, going to either Myanmar or East Timor is more expensive and takes a bit more planning. CJ and Roxy accepted the invite, and soon we were booking flights and accommodations.

The ornate roofs and spires of Wat Phra Kaew tower above the compound’s white walls.
Idle away your morning in Wat Pho, the largest temple in Bangkok.
Left, Wat Pho’s 46-meter-long statue of the reclining Buddha is but one of the thousand Buddha statues in the temple. Right, students practice the steps of a traditional dance in the temple, which is considered the first center of public education in Thailand.

WHICH IS WHY I find myself in Suvarnabhumi Airport at 1 am on a Sunday. In this ungodly hour, Bangkok’s primary airport still feels like rush hour in any other airport – say, Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Thailand’s status as the sun of the Southeast Asian solar system ensures that the facility always teems with people – travelers, well-wishers, flight crew members, airport employees, locals, foreigners.

My flight arrived an hour earlier and in no time I have cleared the immigration. Now I’m not sure what to expect. Partly it’s because I haven’t been out of the country for so long, and the lack of English speakers makes me feel like a child learning to talk again. The Thai language, a tonal tongue of the Tai-Kadai family, feels incomprehensible especially without any Romanized script I can use as a rough guide to read. Outside of “sawasdee” and “kob khun,” my vocabulary is useless.

But the anxiety is also partly due to the fact that I’m in a different country on my own, something I haven’t done since my solo foray in Brunei last year. CJ and Roxy had left for Vientiane via Kuala Lumpur two days earlier and are on their way to Luang Prabang, where we’ll meet a couple of days from now. In the evening I will be boarding an overnight train to the town of Nong Khai in northeastern Thailand, and then I’ll cross the border to Laos. I have less than 24 hours to spend in Bangkok and I don’t know where to go or what to see first.

At the top of the list, though, is to get some sleep in the airport lounge.

Bangkok’s shopping center district sees heavy vehicular traffic even on a Sunday afternoon.
The city’s stifling heat makes malls like Siam Paragon, left, and urban parks like the Sanam Luang, right, popular destinations among locals and foreigners alike.
A tuktuk waits for passengers along the sidewalk.

I WAKE UP just before six, just in time for the Airport Rail Link to open. The express commuter train connects the airport to the city center, where I go to take the MRT’s blue line to the Hua Lamphong station. Here, Thailand’s main railway station is located. Inside it’s a spacious area with obvious Neo-Renaissance trappings designed by Italian-born Mario Tamagno and Annibale Rigotti. The decorated wooden roofs and stained glass windows have a worn out look to them – unsurprising, considering that the station was first opened in 1916. I proceed to the ticket counter and book an overnight trip to Nong Khai.

Train ticket sorted, I walk out of the station and into the streets. By this time, I have decided that much of the day’s itinerary will be in the area around Banglamphu, the city’s backpacker mecca, and start at the Grand Palace in the Phra Nakhom district. I flag a taxi but the driver refuses to use the meter. Thinking that other taxis might do the same and that the language barrier will make me a worse bargainer than I already am, I decide to go it on foot. I’ve been told it’s a 4-kilometer walk, and I’ve walked longer distances anyway. I walk past a quiet street, with queues of tuktuks parked along sidewalks. I turn around a corner and am greeted by throngs of vendors selling various street food and the whole Sunday calm just moments ago has now turned into a frenetic affair.

After half an hour I come across a temple but with no English words written on its walls, I can’t locate it on my map, so I give up and hail a taxi to the Grand Palace. It turns out to be a smart decision, since the temple is actually farther from where I am and takes an experienced sense of direction to navigate the streets. When I get there, though, it’s still 8 am and the palace gates won’t opens until half an hour later so I walk around its perimeter going south to Wat Pho.

It’s reputedly the oldest temple in Bangkok, predating the establishment of the city as the capital by 200 years. Much of what is in the temple grounds are later incarnations, though, when they were transferred to Bangkok from an unknown site. At around 485,000 square meters, Wat Pho is also Bangkok’s largest temple, but its main attraction is the gigantic Reclining Buddha statue inside its premises. The gold-plated statue is 46 meters long and 15 meters high, and is meant to illustrate Buddha’s passing into Nirvana. Its feet are set with mother-of-pearls, with the soles showing the 108 symbols with which Buddha can be identified. Overall the grounds contain more than a thousand likenesses of Buddha, most of which were transferred from Ayuthaya and Sukhothai.

Almost two hours later I check the Grand Palace again but I find out that the admission fee exceeds my daily budget so I content myself just looking at it from outside its white walls. The palace is adjoined with the Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which has been described as the greatest sight and the most important and sacred temple in Bangkok. Even from a sidewalk outside its gates, the colorful buildings and gold-plated spires, which were created at the same year as the foundation of Bangkok, are visible. A tour bus grinds to a halt at the front gate and spills out a wave of Korean vacationers.

I try to walk some more around its perimeter but the heat has become unbearable and I quickly find myself walking to the nearby Sanam Luang park to take a rest in a tree shade. I ask a policeman how to go to Siam Center and he writes “60” on a piece of paper while saying “bus,” and I take this as his instruction for me to ride bus number 60. When that bus arrives a few minutes later, I hop on. It’s a dilapidated bus that seems in tune with all the historical sights I’ve been seeing this morning, but it’s nonetheless a welcome respite from the sun and, considering that I’ve been carrying my backpack since I left the airport, an opportunity to rest my increasingly weary legs. However, after a few stops at the Pratunam area, I realize that I’m not seeing Siam Center yet and take this as an indication that I’m not going where I’m supposed to. I get down at the first stop near a mall and ask around, but either I get embarrassed shrugs or nervous headshakes. Like an oasis in this information desert, I find an Internet café after aimlessly walking around. Google Maps reveals that I am in the eastern part of Bangkok, far from the area where Siam Center is; as it turns out, the bus was going to Siam Park, which apparently the policeman mistook for where I am actually going. For the second time in a few hours, I resign to hailing a taxi.

The design of the Hua Lamphong train station features Italian Neo-Renaissance motifs.
Sleeper trains are convenient ways to get from Bangkok to several cities in Thailand.
Pad thai is a quintessential Thai dish.

SIAM CENTER is but one of the many malls in Siam Square, an area of Bangkok known mainly as a shopping district with several large shopping centers dominating the busy streets. It’s a large frenetic area, with a potpourri of bargain items, from clothes to food, gadgets and books. Siam Paragon, one of the youngest malls in the city, turns out to be the more inviting mall, with its top-line stores and comparatively relaxed vibe.

I go inside to relish the air conditioners and watch a movie, my idea of an authentic cultural experience. Hah. But paying at the automated ticketing booth turns out to be more complicated than I thought and there’s a long line forming behind me, so I give up. Instead I go to Kinokuniya, a well-stocked bookstore that never fails to remind me of how a professor regularly gushes over its stocks. I browse some travel guides and magazines and reconnect with the ardent wanderlust I used to have.

The rest of the afternoon has turned into a blur of navigating the alleyways of the city. I do recall buying a universal adaptor in the nearby MBK Center and eating McFlurry in a McDonald’s just to be able to use an outlet to charge my phone.

In the evening, just over an hour before I leave Bangkok, I return to Hua Lamphong. I can’t leave the city without eating pad thai, a stir-fried rice noodle dish, which due to its accessibility outside Thailand, has become the starting point for those who want to venture into the wonderful world of Thai cuisine. It’s not the most exciting nor the most adventurous choice but its balance of flavors – from tamarind pulp, fish sauce, dried shrimp, and palm sugar – and familiarity always work for me.

This, I realize, along with the temples and the urban chaos, is certainly the Bangkok I have been craving for.

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