Thai massages. Lady boys. Pad Thai. The Hangover 2. Thai tea. Full Moon Festival.
It’s likely your typical American knows that much about Thailand. I wasn’t much different, even though I generally do some research on places I’m about to visit. All I knew about Thailand aside from the aforementioned is the fact that it has never been colonized (unlike its neighboring countries, Vietnam or Laos) and its government is a monarchy.
For some strange and totally foolish reason, I was pretty sure I would feel indifferent to Thailand (how easy is it to feel indifferent about an entire country??) but I attributed my reasons to the fact that so many people had warned me against visiting due to flood damage and that once we had finally touched down in Hong Kong, I just wanted to spend time there.
It’s a good thing we didn’t. My trip to Thailand, or Bangkok more specifically, was legitimately amazing. And more amazing than when the word is used to describe homemade cookies or something relatively weak in comparison to a trip to Thailand. Upon arriving, I was greeted by warm and friendly people at immigration which is generally unheard of in those parts of the airport. I would soon come to learn that Thai people are largely very amicable and laidback, unlike the Hong Kong-nese people I’d soon be surrounded by in a few days. (HK people are nice but they have a hard time relaxing or doing anything at a leisurely pace)
Between visiting enough Buddhist temples to last me a lifetime, eating burgers out of a plastic bag and verbally exchanging nuptials with a Thai guy (yes, I now have a Thai husband who lives in Phuket and is in marketing), it was an incredible trip that left me realizing more than ever how microscopic my view of the world is and how little I know about Southeast Asia. While the world quickly becomes a much smaller place when traveling to and from relatively close countries, it also becomes vastly apparent that you are one of many, many, many people in this world.
Though I only explored pockets of Bangkok and outlying areas, I feel like I got a fairly good grasp of the city and wanted to leave you with some highlights, should you ever find yourself in this land flowing with sweet rice and mangoes (which are SO stinkin’ delicious together).
Ten Things To Try When In Bangkok, in no particular order:
10. Corn pie from McDonalds. It’s rather lame that I’d include anything McDonald’s-oriented in this list but I find it endearing that Thai people love corn. Creamed corn, kernels of corn, corn in any fashion: that is their flavor. They even put kernals of corn in their rice. Americans have McDonald’s apple pie, Chinese have taro pie and Thai have corn pie.
09. Minced pork with basil, lime, egg and rice. I’ve been told Thai people don’t even know what Pad Thai or Pad See Ew is. It’s likely a Western translation of an Asian dish, like “chop suey”. I’m a fan of the fact that the “minced-pork-over-rice combination” pervades every Asian culture out there but I think my favorite variation comes from Thailand. The combination of basil with lime juice or actual lime peel gives any meat, much less any dish, an unconventional burst of citrus-infused flavor. This particular dish is a very homestyle meal that will leave you quite satiated. Don’t be too afraid of the small tents with portable stoves and flies buzzing amok — they often make this dish the best. I also highly recommend sweet rice with mango. Good LORD it is so deliciously wonderful and on par with the pork dish.
08. Water markets. Like most traditional landmarks, the idea of traveling on a boat through a floating marketplace is instant tourist fodder. But if you can find a boat that will take you through the neighborhoods outside of the marketplace, I’d say take the opportunity! The homes and irrigation systems the local Thai fashion for themselves are impressive and the landscape is without a doubt, beautifully serene. I can’t even begin imaging living on an elevated house over the Chao Praya.
07. Ride the water taxi and tuk tuks. So much of Thailand, at least in Bangkok, operates around water. Try taking a water taxi from place to place, as both locals and tourists do. It’s a very rigorous mode of transportation as you have to hustle your way on and off the boat or else be left behind (I saw it happen at least twice in my short travels). But it’s an extremely satisfying way to see the city and my favorite part was watching the fare collector do her work. She remembers who boards the boat and who needs to pay and has a very strategic way of tearing off tickets. Equally enlightening is the way the boat motor works. It’s operated by a navigator that lifts the entire motor in and out of the water. I loved how basically constructed the boats are, down to the maneuvering of the motor.
The other mode of transportation you need to try is a tuk tuk. With the Sky Rail (the Bangkok railway service) and water taxis available, we almost forgot to ride them. As in many countries, Thais are very crafty with welding their own modes of transportation. This is one prime example. Tuk tuks are essentially small pick up trucks that have a converted cab area built to transport four to six passengers in the back (Did you know Thailand is the largest consumer of pick up trucks in the world??). And similar to other heavily populated cities, the driving is plain crazy so a ride in one of these babies is exhilarating.
06. Feed some fish or some turtles. Buddhism is heavily entwined in Thai culture. Many activities Thai people engage in are for the purpose of accruing merit in their next life, including feeding stray dogs and buying gift baskets for monks. It’s actually pretty fascinating how embedded Buddhism is in everyday life. Couples and high schoolers alike are often seen, taking time out of their day to feed fish or stray dogs. There are countless areas where small ports have been built for people to feed fish for a few baht per bag, as an act of gaining merit. Watching enormous schools of fish clamor over the food, over and over again, is enthralling for what it is. And watching one of the world’s slowest moving creatures slow-fight over some bananas is just bananas.
05. Eat on the street. I love street culture, everything about it, from the pace to the people to the food to the lights. I think eating on the street in any country is a must. Once you’re certain you can handle a certain amount of foreign food, you can probably stomach street food. We visited Bangkok’s Chinatown and joined hundreds of people eating out on a warm December night. Our culinary spot of choice was a dessert cart serving up bowls of black sesame balls, lychee and nuts in a mildly sweet, syrup. It was almost more satisfying to sit so close to the traffic whizzing by our ears than it was to eat the dessert being served.
04. Visit the Bang Pa In and the Vimanek Mansion. If you want to get a sense of what it is like to live in a monarch system, try visiting the Vimanek Mansion and the Bang Pa In (or Summer Palace). When you drive up to the mansion, there is no denying just how grand it is. This is truly a place royalty would associate themselves with. Pictures were not allowed inside, but like many other temples we visited, women wearing pants had to wear skirts (which we had to buy from their “skirt store”) and any men wearing shorts that didn’t go below their knee cap had to get a wrap as well. Inside the Vimanek is an absolutely gorgeous display of Thai art, ranging from teak wood panels that tell the story of a Buddha getting lost in a forest to gilded carriages, clocks, tapestries and paintings, all done completely by hand. The intricacy and skill put into each piece of art is a complete feast for the eyes. Many of the pieces were done by 30 or more artists, each who had taken a class on their particular line of work, whether it be tapestry, carpentry or pottery. The works of art were commissioned by the queen who wanted to create jobs for the rural poor. Then she had a big fete where she invited a lot of A-listers (mostly rulers and royalty from other countries) to view the artwork done by the poor people. That was a bit disappointing. I was warned when I first arrived that saying anything negative about the king is taken very seriously and can easily get you in jail. That being said, I’m not in Thailand anymore and I wasn’t a huge fan of queen’s project — I mean, the least she could have done was invite those “poor people” to her party or list their first and last names on the display case.
The grounds of the Bang Pa are just as elaborate though it’s mostly the acreage of the palace that will leave you breathless. Plus it’s fun drive the golf cart around from landmark to landmark.
03. Visit Ayutthaya. Known in the past several months for its flooding, Ayutthaya is home to some of Bangkok’s most impressive ruins. These stone temples scrape the sky, spanning three to four stories (at least), and are well worth the hour and half travel out of Bangkok. Ayutthaya was previously the capital of Thailand and at one point, the strongest kingdom in Southeast Asia. If you do a little further reading on Ayutthaya as an ancient kingdom, you’ll learn interesting things about the old city being a great intersection point for different Asian and Southeast Asian cultures, including Chinese, Burmese and Indian.
Some important spots in Ayutthaya include Wat Phanan Choeng, home to a 19 meter (or 62 feet, for Americans — it was HUGE) golden Buddha where Buddhists will go to the temple to purchase cloth to dress the large Buddha. This cloth is blessed by the men who dress the Buddha and the cloth is thrown back down on to the Buddhists as they pray to the statue. If you can stick around to watch the process of blessing the Buddha, you should. In this temple, like many other temples, you can also have your fortune read and pray to a wall full of miniature Buddha statues, Wat Mahatat, where a Buddha head from ancient times lies in the trunk of an overgrown fig tree, is also another iconic area as is Wat Phra Si Sanphet, where the three pagodas lie.
It’s quite sad to see how badly Ayutthaya has flooded — flood lines are still visible on signs and buildings — but luckily I think many Thai have taken great care of those affected by the flooding.
02. Go to a dance club. (Sorry guys, no photo but hey doesn’t that Santa look Asian..?) Am I being for real? Well, yes and no. Honestly I think there are a few elements about nightlife that really aid in one’s understanding of a particular culture — like I said, this is where I met my Thai husband. (I wish more of you could understand this great inside joke but I guess you had to be there) My good friend, El, who has been living in Thailand for the past two years, took me to a club where we slinked our way around tourists and locals alike. It was a nice break from the mall culture that so deeply consumes the time and resources of many young Thai people (cus clubs are like way better than malls, duh). I liked hearing what type of music is “hot” and observing how guys and girls interact with one another in these types of settings. This part I’m serious about — it’s really interesting to watch how gender dynamics play out in other countries, especially in settings like this. Nah, I’m not as serious as I think I am. Thai guys are very hands off — they do not touch women and generally keep a considerable distance as opposed to other dudes I have observed in the US. Gender, in general, is an interesting subject in Thailand where the concept has become very fluid amidst the rise in homosexuality and increased recognition of what it means to be transgender.
01. Talk with some Thai people. From a cafe owner to a college student, meeting people in another country is just as fun as meeting people at home. While in Thailand I met several Chinese Thai and was able to communicate with them in incredibly broken Mandarin (my command of the Chinese language is no doubt, broke as a joke) but I think it was mutually fun for both of us to meet someone that shared the same culture, within another culture, though our respective cultures are vastly different. I know that you know that I know that you know what I mean. My siblings and I also talked with a student who talked about his holiday schedule and what it’s like to go to university in Thailand. It’s always intriguing to learn about another culture from those who live within it.
00. Travel with a good, or even better, a GREAT friend.
— Try a Thai massage. Most depictions of massages in Asian countries bother me. I actually think this is why I’ve never been attracted to the spa culture that exists in the US. This was my first “professional” massage and I was hesitant to try it after hearing that Thai massages involve a lot of stretching and moving of limbs — I’m pretty ticklish so the idea of someone rolling me around like a piece of dough was a bit unsettling. But I have to say, this is a huge industry and the portion that exists legitimately within Thailand is for good reason. The masseuses in this country know what they are doing (again, I am not talking about the seedy ones). I don’t think I’ll ever feel this limber again. Until I go back.
— Stock up on snaxx from 7-11. I bow down to the 7-11 franchise as it exists in Asia. Talk about selection. Have you ever wondered what seaweed potato chips would taste like? Or taro oreos? Uh, come here and wonder no more. I see why the older generation wonders about the younger; they never had bagged rice burgers in their day! What are rice burgers? I had the great privilege of sampling these 7-11 rice burgers which are an ingenious invention, consisting of a patty of meat between two patties of rice. As a connoisseur of self-contained food items — other such items include The Burritos, The Sandwiches and sushi — I definitely placed this guy in the one food category I covet so dearly. The meats were available in a range, from Spicy Pork to Original Grilled Pork to Northern Spicy Pork. Culturally inclusive, naturally ingenious, total win.
— Thai taxis. If you can’t get to a club, try the inside of a taxi. This was the inside of a cab we rode and I am pretty dang sure you cannot get that kind of interior design here in the States.