Bangkok or Bust!

It feels like it’s been forever….but it really hasn’t.  As you will recall, Zoe was taken out of the water and put on the hard (on dry land) for the winter.  Dan and I returned home for the holidays and to spend some much needed time with family and friends.  After several months of us being US bound, we were very eager to continue our exploration of the world.  It wasn’t long after we returned home, that we excitedly began planning a trip to Southeast Asia.  I use the term “planning” very loosely.  The only thing we had booked was our flight to Hong Kong!  There were no flights booked to the places we planned to go see, no hotels booked, no excursions booked.  We were truly winging it!  We decided we wanted to spend anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks on this journey visiting several different countries.

Fast forward to January 27th and our scheduled departure.  Boy, if we thought getting to Croatia was a complicated endeavor, Southeast Asia really took the cake.  The easiest part was the one hour flight to Los Angeles!  From there, we had a one hour layover before catching a 15 1/2 hour flight to Hong Kong.  Once in Hong Kong, our plan was to fly stand-by to Bangkok.  Unfortunately, flights were very full, and we ended up sitting in the airport for 5 hours before finally catching our 3rd flight.  Mind you, we have now been traveling for about 26 1/2 hours.  We also did not have a hotel booked until our flight was pushing back from the gate in Hong Kong!  By the time we landed, we both looked like death warmed over.  Whew!  That was brutal!  But we had finally arrived.  After collecting our bags, we headed for a cab to take us to our hotel which was 30 minutes from the airport.  Oh silly tourists!  Did no one tell you about traffic in Bangkok?  Holy cow….our cab ride took over an hour (with much of it spent sitting at a dead stand still).  By the time we arrived at our hotel, I was ready to crawl out of my skin!  NEED SHOWER!  NEED SLEEP!

Bangkok skyline from our hotel

Okay, so enough of the travel horror stories.  Let’s get to the good stuff.  Let’s face it, by the time we finally got to the hotel, our day was history.  We fought our body clocks to force ourselves to stay awake until a whopping 7:30 p.m. before we both crashed hard.  Unfortunately, this also meant the inevitable 3:30 a.m.wake up by our internal clocks.  We forced ourselves to try and sleep some more and got up at a more respectable 6:30 a.m.  It was now time to plot out our day.  We decided that today would be spent touring the Wat Pho Temple and the Grand Palace.  We grabbed a cab and were on our way.  Well, sort of.  As we were heading out, our cabbie was busy trying to convince us that we needed to go to the floating market (an hour away) and then to the temple.  We explained to him that we did not have time for the floating market today, and we just wanted him to take us to the temple.  After several rounds of telling him NO!  No market!  He finally gave up and took us to the temple.  Oh, did I forget to mention that our 7 mile cab ride took over 45 minutes thanks to Bangkok traffic!  I highly recommend a visit to Bangkok…..just be prepared for the ridiculous amount of traffic….ALL THE TIME!

As we exited the cab, we were immediately greeted by a charming young man very eager to help the wayward tourists.  After making small talk with us, he gave us the lay of the land along with a free map.  On the map he told us the places to go, and the maximum amount we should pay for each thing he showed us.  Such a warm and caring fellow!  You can already see this coming, can’t you?  Next thing we know, he is telling us that the monks are in prayer, so the temple is closed until 1:00.  He has a Tuk-Tuk (a motorcycle with a decorative cart attached to it) ready to take us to several other places before bringing us back to the temple by the time it opens.  Hmmm….Dan quickly recalls the warnings in our guidebook about this little game.  We politely thank him and tell him we are just going to explore, and off we head to the temple.  Shocking….it was not closed for the monks’ prayer time.

As you enter the temple grounds, the sight is absolutely breath taking.  All around are beautifully ornate buildings which are brightly colored, their gold and jewels glistening in the sunlight.  Sadly, as hard as we tried, pictures just could not do justice to what the eyes beheld.  Along with the glistening structures, there were a number of halls which contained a multitude of statues of Buddha.  Another building housed the reclining Buddha which was 150 feet of reclining, gold splendor.  This statue is the largest Buddha in Thailand.  It was quite a sight to behold (ask any of the hundreds of people clamoring to get pictures of the giant Buddha).  I can honestly say, I have never seen so many statues of Buddha (or any one thing for that matter) in one place.  In addition to the spectacular buildings, the multitudes of Buddhas, and the many other stone states that adorned the temple, there were also a number of beautiful little gardens scattered throughout the temple.  As I have said in many other posts, my words cannot do the Wat Pho Temple justice, so I will let the photos do the talking.

Wat Pho in Bangkok
99 stupas in total surround the complex
These three stupas were huge and magnificent
Reclining Buddha
The gallery surrounds the complex and has dozens of buddhas in the same pose

The day was extremely hot, so following the advice of our guidebook, we headed to a restaurant with a deck overlooking the river to enjoy a cool cocktail.  This gave us the opportunity to sit, relax, and cool down before heading to the Grand Palace….home to the King of Thailand.  Apparently EVERYONE decided today was the day to visit the Grand Palace.  The roads had been barricaded in order to funnel everyone into a Disneyland style queuing set up.  Again, if you know me at all, this was a very unhappy place for me….haha.  We entered the palace grounds with thousands of other people and attempted to capture a few cool pictures over the heads of the many.  By now it was not only painfully crowded but brutally hot (and somewhat humid).  We did not last long here and decided not to pay the fee to enter the interior of the palace grounds given that much of it was closed off due to renovations for the King’s upcoming coronation in May.  We grabbed a cab and headed back to the cool comfort of our hotel room.  We cleaned up, checked out of our room (a late check out of 4 p.m. was awesome!). We moved on to our next hotel room a little deeper in the city.  Once again, a 5 mile cab ride took 45 minutes thanks to traffic.  I have never seen such horrendous and constant traffic.  I was really grateful we were not driving ourselves around! 

Bangkok is sometime referred to as “Venice of the East” because of the river it sits on. Wat Arun sits across the river
Royal palace in Bangkok

We had booked a Bangkok food tour for the evening.  On this tour they take you around by Tuk-Tuk, making 6 different stops over the 4 hour tour.  We rested up a little bit more before meeting our guide and driver.  He quickly explained our 6 stops and off we went.  Our first stop took us to a small little local eatery (no tourists here) where a variety of dishes were placed before us.  There was a soup with some type of meat.  I am guessing lamb or pork based on the size of bones that the meat was attached to (do not say dog or horse or you will make me cry!). There was a spicy salad dish, a ground meat dish, a spicy pork dish, and rice.  All the dishes were typical of the area of Thailand near the Laos border.  All were quite delicious.  Our next stop was to a well renowned chicken and noodle bowl place.  The guide suggested we try one with cooked egg topping and one with runny egg topping.  I ended up with the runny egg one which made me a little uneasy.  He must have not liked the way I was mixing it all up because he took my chopsticks and vigorously mixed the egg into my dish.  In the end, the runny egg dish was much tastier than the fully cooked egg.  After we ate, he took us out to the back alley to show us how the dish was prepared (probably better to see that after you have eaten rather than before)!  It was quite fascinating to watch.

Scooters are everywhere!!!
Street cooking at it’s finest
Michelin recommended street food under way!
In the back alley learning how Thai food is prepared
Our guide explains northern thai regional cooking

Our third stop took a break from food (thank god….I was already full)!  We headed to the flower market.  This was the largest flower market I have ever seen.  Our tour began with our guide giving us a lotus bud which he then showed us how to gently pull the petals down and fold them into this most amazing looking bloom.  The women in this market spend all day folding petals on various flowers, weaving banana leaves, and creating the most intricate and beautiful arrangements and adornments you can imagine.  The amount of flowers they move through this market is overwhelming and most appear to go to the many temples as offerings.  As we made our way out of the flower market, we stopped at a street cart where our guide offered us slices of rose apple and miniature pineapple slices that had been decoratively sliced.  As I watched the man slicing the fruit in his bare hand, my mind told me this was a really bad idea!  But my heart said, “don’t be rude.”  Needless to say, I tried the offerings and prayed I wouldn’t get sick.  The fruit was sweet and delicious (and I did not get sick….bonus!).

Learning the art of preparing a fresh lotus blossom for display
Some examples of the amazing hand made floral displays in the market
Bangkok flower market
Vast majority of these floral arrangements will be purchased for Buddhist “merit” at a temple

Next was the Wat Pho Temple which we had been to earlier in the day.  Although we could not go into many of the places we had accessed during the day, the brilliance of the colors and gold really shined in the lights that lit everything up.  It was also amazing to explore without the throngs of people.  You will see what I mean about the colors when you compare the day photos with the night photos.

Wat pho by night.

Our last two stops were going to be a drink on a rooftop bar overlooking the river and to the most famous Pad Thai restaurant in Thailand.  Our guide explained that because the line for the restaurant is typically over an hour, he asked if we would mind if our driver went and picked it up so we could enjoy our Pad Thai at the rooftop bar.  Hmmmm, not standing in line for an hour or more….I was totally game.  Dan, on the other hand, was worried about them doing the old “switcher-roo.”  Well, this was a total switch in roles!  I am usually the one who questions whether or not we are being duped.  I guess it could’ve been that I wasn’t really hungry and therefore didn’t really care where the Pad Thai came from (shhhh…don’t tell him I said that).  So, we ended our night at a rooftop bar that overlooked the river and the brightly lit sights of the temples and the Grand Palace.  It was a really great tour and a lot of fun.  We struggled to understand our guide through his thick accent which is why I am lacking a lot of details on things.  Needless to say, by the time we got back to our room, we both crashed hard from our long day of exploring.  

Roof top bar views of What Pho
View of the royal palace

The next day, we hit the ground running once again (seems to be a common theme on our trips).  We booked a full day tour, 8-5, to the city of Ayuthaya.  This was over an hour drive north of Bangkok, and one of the original capital cities of Thailand.  Our itinerary on this day would be to visit 6 different temples, some of which were now ruins, and a floating market.

Our guide, a very nice young man who spoke impeccable English, picked us up at our hotel, and we were on our way.  Our first stop was the Wat Niwet Thammaprawat Temple.  It is located on a small island near the Bang Pa-In Palace.  This particular temple was built by the 5th king of Thailand.  We climbed aboard this little wooden “gondola” that cabled us across the river to the temple grounds.  The temple was very different from the typical Thai style.  We were told that the king had visited Europe prior to it’s construction, loved the European style, and erected the temple in a similar style.  It is very easy to see that it is unlike any of the other temples we had visited.

Our next stop was the temple of Wat Phanan Chong which was built in 1324.  The highlight of this temple was the 19 meter high Buddha which was created in 1324 and is surrounded by 84,000 small Buddha images.  Outside of this beautiful temple is a Chinese shrine which shows their own depiction of Buddha (quite different than the Thai’s version).  This was a very colorful and ornate shrine….quite a sight to see!  By now, it is beginning to get quite toasty out and the crowds are starting to pick up.  If you come to visit, the morning is the best time to come see the attractions.  From there we headed to Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon (I couldn’t even hope to pronounce most of the places we saw).  This was built in 1357 for use by monks who had returned from ordination in Sri Lanka.  This temple was built in honor of the Thai victory over the Burmese.  Here you will find a 7 meter long reclining Buddha.  Many of the temples we have visited to this point have been built by some of the earliest kings of Thailand.  As we continue through our tour of the temples, they are becoming more and more ancient ruins (still absolutely amazing to see what humans were capable of constructing).  By now, we have wandered through 3 temple grounds.  The heat is becoming more and more oppressive and the crowds continue to grow.  We are wearing out quickly.  Like any well planned tour, our guide tells us it is time to go to the floating market and have some lunch.

Amazing Buddhist shrines with our guide, Tun
Buddhists place gold foil stickers on the statue for “merit” or to make a wish

As we make our way to the market, we pass many large elephants that are beautifully adorned and carrying around local visitors.  While it is a sight to see, it makes me feel really sad watching these majestic animals being used in such a manner.  We fully plan to visit an elephant sanctuary during our stay, but it will not be one that has their elephants perform tricks or be ridden by visitors.  Anyway…..we arrive at the market and wander the wooden platforms along the river.  The platforms are packed with vendors hocking souvenirs, treats, and a variety of eats.  Our guide takes us to an area along the river where we are able to sit down and relax.  It is still ridiculously hot despite being by the river and under the canopy of trees.  Our waitress notices my red, sweaty face and was kind enough to move a fan very close.  We enjoy a fabulous lunch, selected by our guide, and a very cold glass of beer.  It feels really good to sit and rest for a bit.  After lunch, we jumped onto this gondola type boat which was powered by a big water pump.  This was a quick cruise around the river (not really worth the line and crowds on the boat) before heading off to our final 3 temples.

Elephants taking tourists for rides near the temple grounds.
Floating market with lunch with our guide.
Water jet powered boat rides around the floating market
Our turn…

Our final 3 temples, in no particular order, were Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Mahathat, and Wat Chai Watthanaram.  Since I am pretty sure you are not reading this for a Thai history lesson, I will give a brief synopsis of each as they are listed above.  The first one is noted for its 3 stupas (the pointy looking monuments) and one of the holiest sites.  This was built in the 15th century.  This was Ayuthaya’s largest temple and once housed a 16 meter high Buddha covered in 143 kg of gold.  Sadly, the Burmese conquerors melted down the gold.  The second temple was founded in 1374 by the first king of Thailand.  This was the seat of the supreme patriarch and considered the kingdom’s most important temple at the time.  A sandstone Buddha head is held above the ground by tree roots.  When taking a picture in front of the head, you must sit on the ground so that you are below the Buddha.  It is considered unacceptable to stand in front for a photo as you should never be elevated above the Buddha.  The final temple is comprised of a 35 meter high prang (the more rounded style of monument) still in very good condition.  This was built in 1630 and took around 20 years!  It was built to honor the king’s mother and is noted for it’s resemblance to Angkor Wat in Cambodia (also on our list of places to visit this trip).  So that was the splendor of 6 magnificent temples in the city of Ayuthaya….cliff note version 🙂

Wandering the amazing ruins. We had the place to ourselves
UNESCO World Heritage site

As amazing as all the sights were, we both dropped into the back of the car roasting hot and extremely exhausted.  Lucky for us, we didn’t have to do the drive back to Bangkok and could just chill out.  Our guide dropped us off at 5:00, and quickly warned Dan against eating the street food around our hotel after Dan expressed an eager desire to have dinner at the cart vendors!  Needless to say, we heeded that warning!  Tomorrow would bring a new adventure as we hop a flight to the northern city of Chiang Mai and head off the beaten path to the countryside and mountains….now that is my kind of paradise!

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