Bangkok

Our Stay in Bangkok Part 1

I did not start writing about our stay in Bangkok until we were ready to leave. Looking back now, as we prepare to go to the airport, a flood of thoughts rush in as we parepare to get on the plane to Vietnam. These thoughts were somewhat of an emotional roller coaster. I am familiar with all the emotions stirred up by leaving a place, and all the stress associated with preparing for an international flight. There are so many mental lists and little to-do’s to keep in mind, that it usually makes the otherwise exciting time of embarking on a new adventure, rather tense. Arriving at an airport, thinking we had plenty of time, caught up in a very long line, and then just barely making it to the gate in time; those stresses were familiar to us.

Our first view of Bangkok–with sleepy eyes, we were rushed down the Sirat Expressway at dawn.

Today was different. Even after we made it onto the plane, got seated, took off into the early morning clouds, I expected to feel that lift of burdens as we set out on my main reason for our adventure. But the multi-layers of clouds made me want to wax poetic and think metaphorically about how this past week had gone. Layers of dense cloud cover and intermittent sunlight changed rapidly as we soared through one to the next county. Memories of this past week and its occasional downpours seem to fill me with mixed emotions. The week reuniting with our exchange student after about a decade seemed to go quickly with much joy, amazing surreal contrasts, but also, some underlying dread…

To those unfamiliar with our blog, to clue in the reader, my writing is in plain text, and Rebecca’s writing is in italics. Her writing, you will notice, is full of observed detail. She tends to get names, types of food, and names of places better than I do. I, on the other hand, try to inject some research and will often be writing days or even weeks after the event. We start off our adventures in Bangkok with Rebecca’s observations from ten days ago, when Big, (our former exchange student from 15 years ago) picked us up from the airport at 5am.

Big was fairly quick to find us. He has definitely a grown-up now and looks most handsome. He wears glasses now. He drives an 8 year old Mercedes that is in good condition. He drove into the city from the airport under a heavily clouded sky that was getting lighter by the minute as the sun rose. Bangkok looks like a confusion of building styles. As we drove in, I saw old Colonial-style buildings, some in need of repair, and some lovingly cared-for. These were right next to brand-new steel and glass structures that towered over the tin-roofed huts of the poor. Everywhere there are crumbling concrete structures that show tropical weather is hard on cement. The supports for the overhead Skytrain need work, that’s for sure. The traffic moves along in a confusion as well, much too fast. Motercycles and mopeds zip in and out, defying anyone to hit them. Big was saying how light the traffic was because it was so early. He navigated calmly and a bit slower than the rest.

We got to the neighborhood where our Airbnb was, called Pathum, and because we were so early, we found a cafe in one of the fancy hotels for breakfast. We ate outside… We chatted with Big and caught up on ten years since we had last seen him. At about 7:30, we met our Airbnb host, Kay, who owns the apartment.

She took us up to the 16th floor of the Residential Hotel Grand and showed us around. She uses the place for family when they visit, so it has more of a lived-in feel. The kitchen is small–no oven and only two burners, but the rest of the rooms are good. The balcony is tiny–hardly big enough for the tiny table and two chairs. She left us some papaya and mangos, and tea and coffee. Nice touches. She showed us the pool–it looks inviting. then she said goodbye. Big drove the car closer so we could get out the rest of the luggage, and then we agreed to meet later after we had a chance to settle in and take a nap.

Our ten days in Bangkok were packed. Big took time off to show us much of this giant city. Big’s tiny studio apartment had no room for us, so we rented a nice Airbnb near his place. (Affordable luxury at only $45 a night, we stayed on the 16th floor of a highrise with a nice view.) The first night, he took us to the very busy part of town at the end of the green line of the Skytrain, near where he lives. We found the entrance to a station near our hotel and bought a “Rabbit Card” most economical multi-ride card. We took the train two stops to the end of the line, then followed his directions to his apartment.

Big led us to a busy part of his neighborhood to a restaurant he likes that specializes in vegetarian cuisine. We had a half hour wait for a table, so we wandered up the mall. There were lots of high school aged kids out–it is a Friday night, and this section is geared for them. There were loud bands everywhere, a display for kickboxing, and free rides on motorized standing scooters. Woody tried one. Dinner was upstairs and crowded. Lots of vegetarian options. Everything was slow but we didn’t mind because we got to visit with Big.

The first night was just the start of a very eventful week. Big took us on a walkabout the next morning. We went to the Thompson House, named after the American entrepreneur who made a fortune in the silk industry. He used much of his wealth to preserve traditional ethnographic houses and antiques. The Thompson Museum was just a couple of blocks from Big’s apartment.

The Thai government honors Jim Thompson for starting a worldwide silk market that brought jobs to thousands, and benefitted Thailand in general. Of course he made millions, but he also bought antique statues and porcelains to preserve them. He also bought 200 year old Thai houses and had them reassembled on a large tract of land bought in the middle of the city.

We bought some fabrics that Rebecca would give her sisters and some friends. Later, we bought amazingly flavorful and picant street food, washed down with fruited tea. By contrast, later that evening, we went to a swanky high-rise observation bar, where we met his sister, Shen. We all posed for photos with the urban skyline below us.

Shen is an enterprising young lady, 11 years Big’s senior. Over the years, she has managed her mother’s store, worked her way through college, and now works now as a hospital supply manager, and is studying pharmacology on the weekends to improve here position at the rural hospital where she works. We would be able to visit with Jen on the weekend. She travels from her hometown of Nong Chan, to stay in Big’s tiny apartment on the weekends so that she can attend classes, then she drives the three-hour trip back to be at work on Monday mornings. We first had dinner at a restaurant that belonged to one of the clients Big’s design company. It was a small diner in a comercial development at the base of a office building, but a part of a bigger chain.

Later, we drove to a fancy hotel called the Banyan Tree up to the 54th floor where there is a 360 degree rooftop bar, but it was closed for a special event, so we had to settle for the 53rd floor, which was high enough. We sat in comfortable chairs and enjoyed a lovely view of the skyline as the clouds thinned out. We saw the moon peaking out and took several photos of the skyline. Big paid for the drinks. We really like Shen, she is quiet and sweet and doesn’t look 42. She was delighted with the presents we brought her. We stayed talking until about 10pm.

On the two days when Big was working, Rebecca and I set out on our own to see the sights. We arranged for a tip-based bicycle tour guide to take us to see the “backstreets, alleyways, and hidden gems of Bangkok.” Prayuth was our guy that met us near the last stop on the green line of the Skytrain, near he outskirts of Bangkok. He had two bicycles ready for us. (How he got them there, I wasn’t sure.) But we dived right in and hit the streets on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Prayuth is a fit man in his 30’s. He forgot the helmets. Oh well, off we went through a part of the city where regular folk live–narrow lanes with one and two story buildings–dwellings above and shops selling food or clothing or plastic household items below. We sped by restaurants with meaty stews in big metal pots, motor scooter repair shops, etc.. People call out to Prayuth and he answers back “sawadee krup” (good morning). They smile at us.

Some of the streets were paved, and some were not, but most of them were too narrow for a car, and many of them were nothing but a raised paved or concrete path just above a swamp or drainage ditch. Along these roads, we were able to see how the common folks live. That is to say, the commoners of Bangkok typically do not own a car. Most of them ride a motorscooter, often riding two or three together, and usually carrying some sort of load, either tied down somehow, or hand held. Since we did not have much confidence riding the narrow cement paths, suspended a foot or two above he mucky ditch below, we stopped and whenever there was traffic and allowed the motorcycles pass.

Prayuth proudly showed us various temples from each neighborhood we passed through, noting the type, Hindu, Chinese, Burmese, Malaysian, or most likely, a blend of several styles and traditions. The most interesting thing we noticed was the fact that these temples served not as a stayed pillar of some sort of dogma, rather these centers were gathering places for all the people. A child care center was welcoming children at one temple; a yoga class was underway at another; some women sat and had morning tea; and a lecture from an elder was just concluding at another. These activities are not unlike the “Men at Ten,” The Winters Community Center Senior Lunches, or the Catholic Spaghetti Feeds we’ve seen around home. They serve the spirit of the community and, arguably, the soul of the individuals.

The bikeways are narrow and a bit intimidating for me. I have to keep reminding myeslf to be calm and I can do this The hardest part are the little bridges that go up and over the numerous canals- and staying steady on the descent. I start to wobble or worry I’ll go off the edge Each side has a one to two foot dropoff into muddy water but the bridges go up six or eight feet. Some paths are only three to four feet wide, but at some points only two feet The hard part is when scooters want to pass you. I almost ran into a mom and her child. That would have ended badly and it would have been my fault. There were five or six near misses, but they weren’t as scary. Crossing through a coconut plantation Prayuth suggested we get off our bikes and walk. I said he was thoughtful of me. It was green and verdant. The trees grow in raised rows of earth, with water flooding the low ground between the rows. Some bright green-small leafed plant grows in the water and fallen coconuts float among the leaves. Walking, we have more time to look around us and can take pictures.

I did have one accident coming off one of the bridges where we also had to turn right. There was plenty of room, but I didn’t slow down enough and I ran into the back of Woody’s tire. Down I went and landed on my side. I had long pants and long sleeves to escape most damage. I did scrape my elbow, but it it didn’t tear my shirt.

We managed to make the 15 kilometers riding up narrow ramps, carrying our bikes over narrow bridges, and riding in sometimes heavy traffic without any blood. That is until Rebecca was coming down a steep ramp and ran into my bike, barely. Trying to avoid a more severe collision, she ended up taking a spill, and landing on the pavement. (Thankfully this did not take place along one of the narrow pathways near the ditches.) She hid her bloodied elbow from Prayuth, not wanting to make him feel responsible, so she took it like a champ and kept riding to the end. (We doctored her up with alcohol and bandages later at the apartment.) At least there were no broken bones!

We also nearly made it without getting wet. We first heard the drops hitting the leaves of the banana trees we were passing first, then started to feel them hitting us. By the time it really started to pour, Prayuth had found us a nice shelter near one of the temples. There, we waited for about 15 minutes. When the rain did not let up, we broke out the rain gear we had brought. Sensing our reluctance to continuing in heavy rain, Prayuth decided to cut the tour a bit short, and dropped us off at a train station a few kilometers from where we had first met up with him. (How he got the extra two bikes back to his place was a mystery. He just said, “I know a guy…” Anyway, we tipped him handsomely, or at least he acted pleased at whatever we handed him. I supposed that 1000 bhat was good pay for a half-day’s guiding. We left a smiling Prayuth as we ascended the stairs up to the Skytrain station.

Next on the day’s agenda was a vegetarian cooking class we had signed up for earlier. While the bike excursion was outside Rebecca’s “comfort zone,” the cooking class was definitely out of mine. The first challenge was to get to the class from where Prayuth had left us. It was earlier than expected, since our class was cut about a half-hour short so we were able to make it back to our apartment, dry off, eat some leftovers, and head out on the Skytrain again, this time in the opposite direction.

We went to the end the line going toward the Stadium, then (according to Google maps) looked for a number 15 bus. We waited under some eaves until a 15 arrived at the bus stop, and boarded. The bus got us to within ten blocks of our destination, so we got out and navigated the slick streets umbrellas in hand through the downpour. We were relieved that when we got to the end of the final alleyway we saw a small hand-painted sign saying “Thai Cooking School.” We knew we were at the right place and by 2:45, fifteen minutes early! After we shook out all our rain gear, took off our wet shoes and climbed up three sets of stairs to a large kitchen, we were informed that we were not on the list for that afternoon’s class. “There must be some mistake,” I said as I showed her the reservation voucher I had made the day before on my phone. And indeed there was.

Somehow, I had managed to book online (and pay for) a reservation at one cooking school and found and followed directions on how to get there at a completely different cooking school. I could not figure out who to blame, but I figured oh well, that was that. No cooking school, and some $70 in prepaid fees into thin air like the steam billowing off hot rice.

But wait. The woman from the first school used the info on my “e-voucher” to call the correct school and kindly inform them that they had two soaked and hopelessly lost students there that could not possibly make it across the city in time for the 3pm class. Then she handed me her phone. No worries, a kindly man with a British accent (I thought) told me. Just come tomorrow. Well I guess I wasn’t getting out of it that easily.

So on our second day without Big as our guide, we took a leisurely time to make our way to the correct cooking school. At a coffee shop near one of the Skytrain stations, we met the man who I thought had the English accent, Bjorn, who was originally from Norway, but learned his English in school and listening to the BBC growing up. Bjorn is the husband of Mam, his petite wife who teaches Thai cooking at their home. Bjorn drove Rebecca and me and a traveling duo from Hamburg, Germany to their home kitchen in a small neighborhood in the south of the city.

Mam, Bjorn’s Thai wife and our cooking teacher for the day, led us into her tiny kitchen and gave the four of us a space to work at her countertop. She had us all prepare ingredients for sauces, salads, and meat dishes. While Rebeccca worked on the vegetarian portion of the meal, I was relegated to the mortar and pestle. I figure I could handle that easily enough. I carefully took to grinding the ingredients, gently smashing them with a grinding motion. Mam watched me for a few seconds and had had enough. “Let me show you,” she said in a somewhat impatient way as she took over. “Look, you have to smash it,” she said as she took a what reminded me almost of a golf backswing, delivering a blow that I was sure would either break the pestle or the small bench below. Then she handed it back to me. Fifteen minutes later, she came back and said something in Thai which I suspected to be, “Oh, well, I guess it’s ok now.” Thank god, I thought, wiping the sweat away!

Cooking school in Mam’s compact kitchen

In the end, we had prepared for ourselves a wonderful meal. The Germans shared some of their chicken and rice curry with me, and I had some of Rebecca’s basil tofu green curry dish. We topped it off with mango with sticky rice. All good.

4 thoughts on “Bangkok

  1. Rebecca and Woody – We are so grateful to be included in this 2022 travel blog! Living every minute vicariously through our friends. Be safe and have fun.
    Linn and Paul

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  2. So wonderful. Your descriptions make me feel like I was there with you. You know I have travelled my whole life and can appreciate diverse cultures. Mesmerizing. Thank you for including me in your blog and FB. You didn’t mention alcoholic beverages with your meals. What do they drink? Curious.

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