It was May 27th, and I had arrived at Bus Terminal 1, in Chiang Rai late at night. I grab my pack and step off the bus unto the pavement, looking around and trying to orientate myself. I was then quickly, of course, swarmed with a bevy of tuk-tuk drivers offering rides to me, which is one of my absolute strange loves in Thailand; always having the option for fun transport and being the center of attention for 3 minutes. With my phone being dead and not really sure how far my place was, I negotiated with one guy to take me to Mercy hostel, where I was staying and meeting up with Thomas, a friend I met in Pai days earlier.
The following day we took a grab to see Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Khun, also known as the “White Temple.” A temple designed by Thai visual artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat and one that opened its doors to visitors in 1997. As Thomas and I began walking up towards the temple the first thing I really noticed was how bright and shiny the temple was, especially in contrast with the blue sky behind it. It was almost a blinding structure to look at and one that was completely unique. In the distance I could see all of the traditional elements of standard Thai architecture, the tiered roofs and serpents but I knew this one was going to be very different.
We paid 100 baht to visit the grounds and as we drew closer to the temple we noticed a small pond and a bridge that led to it, known as the “Gate of Heaven.” In the front were sculptures of hundreds of outstretched hands in agonizing desire. Many people stood on the bridge and took their photos but loved to take their sweet ass time with it. Over a megaphone there was a repeated message in Mandarin and English saying not to stop on the bridge and to continue into the temple, but people still moved slowly. With the fantastical temple that can only be dreamed of behind us, we took our photos and of course, also crossed the bridge slowly. I then realized why the White Temple was so bright from the distance, it was completely covered in small mirrored tiles.
Continuing across the bridge and into the temple I began to feel a strange sense of peace despite the growing crowd of tourists flowing in. I removed my shoes and stepped inside. In the center I saw a beautiful golden mural and statue of the Buddha. I put my hands together and gave a Wai to pay my respect and then slowly looked at the interior walls. What I saw was the most curious and strangest thing I’d ever seen in a place of worship. It was very modern art. There were murals of swirling fire and demonic faces from Thai literature but also Michael Jackson, Kung-Fu Panda, Neo from the Matrix, a depiction of the 9/11 terrorist attack, a volcano erupting, Superman, a space station, an asteroid hitting Earth, the Terminator, Hello Kitty, nuclear warfare…
“I think we passed it” I yelled to Norm, my new Canadian friend sitting next to me as the wind whipped by. Our tuk-tuk driver was speeding down the busy streets of Chiang Mai, a beautiful city in northern Thailand known for its culture and cuisine. “I think he’s taking us to a different one,” I continued. I tapped the driver lightly on his shoulder not wanting to startle him. “Sorry. Thapae Stadium. Muay Thai.” He nods and pulls over to orientate himself quickly on his smartphone. “Okayyyy,” he said with a big smile as he began to drive again, taking the back streets. We were running late. The fight started at 9pm. And it was already 9:15. This was going to be my first time watching a Muay Thai match and I didn’t want to miss a thing.
Our trusty driver takes us right to the front of the stadium and we pay the fare, tipping him extra for his quick skillful driving. I had bought my front row ticket earlier that day and I invited Norm, since he was into martial arts and also my hostel roommate. We step up to the ticket booth and Norm purchases the seat next to mine. “This way, follow me,” says one of the casually dressed employees. He leads us down a hallway filled with parked mopeds, paintings of traditional Muay Thai fighters and a restaurant. He shows us to the front of the ring. Around the ring there were long portable tables and foldable chairs. We sat were my spot was reserved with my name on a piece of paper. Norm and I order two Chang beers from an attendant and he brought it to us with paper cups explaining to us that it was a holiday and that we couldn’t drink out of the bottle. It was the Buddhas’ birthday.
At half past nine, a Thai gentleman stepped into the ring with an oboe with a microphone clipped to it. Two men from a tall stand began to play a steady rhythm from a drum and small cymbals. The gentleman then began to play a high pitched tune from his oboe to the drum beat which lasted for a couple of minutes. Norm and I cheersed to our first Muay Thai fight and watched the pre-fight ritual. I knew a bit about Muay Thai from back home and if you grew up in the 90’s like me, my first encounter with Muay Thai was in Street Fighter 2. Remember getting to Thailand to fight Sagat? That insanely tall and frustrating character that would incessantly throw “Tiger” punches?
Muay Thai fighter.
The music stopped and two young girls no older than 14 or 15 stepped into the ring. Both began to go around the ring counter-clockwise stopping at each corner where they would get down and pray on their knees bowing three times, paying respect to the judges, their teacher and to the Buddha. At each corner their coaches would finish prepping them and give them last minute words of advice. The bell rang and the live music started again. The steady beat of the drum and clanging sound of the two cymbals rang throughout along with the eerie high pitched melody of the oboe.
The two stone-faced girls draw near each other, both with their hair tied back and with a serious look in their eyes. One red, one blue. They throw light jabs testing each others distance and power all while tapping their left foot the beat of the music being played, which is known as Sarama. Suddenly, “Thawack!” a quick low right kick connecting to the thigh followed by another jab. They exchange punches and return to their stance sizing each other up and tapping their left foot again, keeping themselves light. Another quick exchange of punches and kicks gets thrown which then develops to a clinch: Legal in Muay Thai. “Swaap, Swaap, Swaap!” The girls pound each other in the torso with their knees and the art of Muay Thai begins to show itself. One girl throws an elbow to the face and the other pulls away, immediately throwing a roundhouse kick to her opponents face but not connecting. More punches to the face were thrown followed by a frenzy of kicks to the legs. The two girls trade blows furiously and become entangled. “Ding!” The bell sounds and the Sarama music stops. The two warriors retreat to their corners and sit down on small stools for their two-minute rest period. Their coaches and assistants place a large metal tray under their feet and dowse their legs with ice water, massaging them for the next round.
This is Muay Thai, literally meaning Thai Boxing. The national combat sport of Thailand which use stand-up striking and clinching techniques. The discipline which is known as “the art of eight limbs” because of the use of fists, feet, elbows and knees, can be traced back to the mid 18th century during the battles between the Burmese and the kingdom of Siam (Thailand). During this tumultuous time a famous fighter by the name of Nai Khanomtom was captured by the Burmese army and knowing of his excellent hand-to-hand combat skills offered him the opportunity to fight for his freedom. A boxing ring was set up in front of the throne and he was to fight against a Burmese champion skilled in the martial art known as Lethwei, or Burmese bare-knuckle boxing. Prior to the fight Nai Khanomtom performed a traditional pre-fight dance, which paid respect to his teacher, ancestors and spectators alike, slowly dancing around his opponent. When the fight commenced he charged towards the champion and dominated him with a fury of kicks, punches, knees and elbows till he was knocked out. The referee then stated that the Burmese champion was too distracted by the Wai Kru dance and that the win wasn’t valid. The King Mangra then asked Nai Khanomtom if he would fight another 9 Burmese fighters to prove his skill. After agreeing, Nai Khanomtom won every single fight…with no rest in between. Nobody else dared to challenge him after. The king was so thoroughly impressed that he then said, “Every part of the Siamese is blessed with venom.” King Mangra then granted him his freedom along with the choice of two wives or riches. Nai Khanomtom chose the two wives, stating that money was easier to find and then set out back home to Siam.
His fighting style was then known as Siamese-Style boxing, later to be known as Muay Thai. In the 19th century the martial art of Muay Thai then advanced and grew in popularity throughout all of Thailand. Today, it is considered to be one of the most effective and brutal of all the martial arts and is practiced by many all over the world.
“Ding!” the bell rings again and the two girls rush to each other throwing punches and kicking, each sweaty and giving their all.
A Muay Thai match consists of 5 rounds with three minutes each and a 2 minute rest period in between and the two girls fight all the way. Norm and I watch intently and he critiques a bit. “These girls are pretty tough” he says. I nod in agreement. But I must admit that when I first saw two young girls step into the ring for the first fight I was skeptical. But both girls fought bravely for all five rounds without either of them getting knocked out. This was my first experience with Muay Thai and I immediately became a fan. One girl is declared the winner and they both give thanks to the judges and the crowd.
There were 5 more fights that evening and I began to notice the effectiveness and brutality of this sport. Each following fight was with young men, mainly teenagers, and each one was won by a knockout. The blows that they delivered were very audible and their kicks were strong and precise. One was knocked out by a roundhouse kick to the face. One with a devastating cross. Another was knocked out with a menacing right hook and then a powerful downward right elbow to the forehead. Blood spurted out and he was knocked unconscious. A doctor rushed in to attend to him and he was carried out of the ring. Every single fight was fierce. And each started the same way. With the very interesting traditional pre-fight dance ritual.
It is known as Wai Kru or Wai Kru Ram Muay, meaning ‘war-dance saluting the teacher’ and it goes something like this: The fighters after entering the ring the circle it counter-clockwise and pray at each corner, bowing their head three times in salutation to the Buddha, Rama and the Sangha of monks. After this they both perform the Ram Muay dance, movements based on Hanuman, a god in Hinduism. Each Ram Muay dance is unique and personal to the fighter and shows respect to the fighters teacher, parents and ancestors. From what I noticed, the movements usually consist of slow spinning of the fists, slow stretching and bent knee movements. They can also contain clues of where the boxer is from and who their teacher is. All of this is accompanied by the aforementioned live Samara music. The boxers are also wearing a special headband called the ‘Mongkol.’ It presented to the boxer by the trainer once that he feels that the student has learned a great deal about Muay Thai and ready to represent the gym in the ring. After performing the Wai Kru, the trainer will take off the Mongkol and place it in the corner of the ring for good luck. The fighters sometimes also wear a special type of armband called ‘Pra Jiad’ which is usually made out of pieces of cloth by a close family member and is worn for good luck and confidence. The Wai Kru is a very interesting and special aspect of Muay Thai. Other than it being traditional, there is definitely a spiritual aspect to it that really grabs my attention.
This is more than just fighting it would seem.
There is something magical about it.
As if somehow, the Wai Kru gave the fighters divine power in the ring.
It was May 15th, my birthday and I was in Phitsanulok. A historic city in lower Northern Thailand with a population of around 84,300 and known for having one of the most sacred statues of the Buddha in all of the country, which is in the Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat temple, also know locally as Wat Yai . The city itself is very modest and not really visited by many travelers, so naturally it had a very local and authentic Thai feel to it. I was staying at a place called Karma Home Hostel which was owned by a friendly guy from England named Mark and his Thai wife Mint, along with their young daughter. They also ran a small school for children together. The night before I had met a young guy from Texas that was also staying there named John. Mark had told us about a temple with a large statue of the Buddha and we had decided to check it out. We weren’t exactly sure where it was but it was nestled in the mountains somewhere in a town nearby called Khao Kho, in the Phetchabun province.
We were looking for Wat Phra Thart Pha Kaew. We leave the hostel around 10 am. and take a tuk-tuk to the local bus station, where we jumped on a bus that took us down a highway. We drove by some nice towns and saw a great deal of the landscape. After enjoying the scenery for almost 2 hours, the driver slows down and drops us off on the side of the road with no bus stop. As soon we got off it began to rain very hard, so we went into a 7-11 that was in front of us. Inside we waited for the rain to lighten up but we also bought some disposable ponchos just in case. From where we were, we could see the mountains in the background. The rain stops and we begin our 2 km walk up some hills and through some villages towards the temple. The morning was damp and cool and it looked very nice with all of the vegetation all around. After walking for 40 minutes or so we find the entrance to the temple and walk up a flight of stairs that was completely covered in colorful glass mosaic tile. There we saw statues of a Hindu-looking elephant in a battle pose, another statue of an Indian monk in a white robe and a gilded statue of Ganesh. The stairs were beautiful and fairly symmetrical in design, and it was a good preview of what was yet to come.
The stairs led up to a pagoda which housed a beautiful golden Buddha in the center, yet what really caught my attention was the overall decor of the room. We take off our shoes and step inside. All around the room there were more statues of the golden Buddha but the center piece and the walls were unlike anything I had ever seen. The main Buddha in the room was flanked by two smaller statues and was sitting on a cloud shaped platform. Around the platform were flower offerings, two oversized electric candles and other ornaments. The wall directly behind it was a trippy mural of the galaxy painted in white, pink and purple. The entire area was definitely not your typical Buddhist temple but it was this psychedelic quality that made it special.
I pay my respects to the Buddha and exit the room to the left quietly. Across the way was a large building with an even larger white statue of the sitting Buddha followed by decreasingly smaller replicas of the statue in front of it. Kinda like a Matryoshka doll effect. The day was cool and overcast with the rain drizzling from time to time and in the horizon were the green misty mountains standing in complete silence. I stood there and gazed on what I had found. I was not expecting anything like this. The entire sight seemed otherworldly to me. I turn around and notice that the temple that I had just stepped out of was completely covered in more colorful glass mosaic tile, which even included some complete glass bowls, plates and teacups. The ground between the two temples was also covered in mosaic tile and had puddles of cool water from the rain which felt refreshing between my toes. I walked past some Buddhist monks and other visitors to the temple of the large Buddha statue. Outside there was a old man with sunglasses seated in a plastic chair speaking Thai into a microphone. I had no idea what he was saying but he would talk casually and slowly, ending each sentence with a little chuckle, which of course added to the bizarre factor of the entire place. Inside on the walls of the room were beautiful pictures of the story and teachings of the Buddha, many of which I took my time reading, trying to learn and attain some . . .
Afterwards we took a bunch of pictures of the temples and surrounding area, because honestly the whole place was so surreal and we just couldn’t get enough of it. John and I then walk back to the main temple passing some peacocks (Yes. Peacocks.) and climbed its spiraled staircase to the top which offered magnificent sights of the grounds and the mountains. The entire section again was all mosaic and so colorful that I felt like I was in some kind of candyland-funhouse. Very odd for a Buddhist temple. After spending a good while taking in the majesty of the landscape and snapping some more photos we walk back down, go up the road and walk into a log cabin style bistro called The Piney. It had a wonderful patio area and actually reminded me a bit of Colorado, with its thick wooden chairs and tables and spectacular views of the mountains. There I have some delicious Thai tea and we shared some green curry and vegetable dumplings for lunch.
We must of spent three hours there because the place was so tantalizing and trippy that it was hard to peel away from. We finally began to make our walk back to the main road and end up hitchhiking twice to a bus stop. There we waited for about 30 minutes till a bus pulled up and it turned out to be the same one that had originally dropped us off. Back at the Phitsanulok station we grab a tuk-tuk and criss-cross through the crazy streets during rush hour back to the Karma Home Hostel. John and I arrive late in the evening and we chill on the rooftop with the other travelers we had met the day before. There everyone wished me a Happy Birthday and we played music and had beers late into the night.
It was May 13th and from Ayutthaya I stopped in a small town called Lop Buri, popular for some of its ruins but one that really stands out for its inhabitants. The slow blue train pulls up to the station and as I get down I was immediately greeted by a rickshaw driver that offered me a tour of the town for an hour for 150 baht, about $4.70. It was raining a bit, so I agreed and decided to take a look before moving further north. I follow him to his cool blue rickshaw where I jump in and he begins to pedal me around. I felt bad that he didn’t have anything to protect him from the rain but it did lighten up. And he was cool with it. We squeezed between small cars and food carts towards some ancient grounds and temples where he would stop and I would walk around taking some pictures and soaking in the ambiance while getting wet in the rain. The first stop was at Somdet Phra Narai National Museum, the second palace of King Narai the Great, which was built in 1666 and is located in the center of town. The King would use the palace for relaxation, hunting and receiving ambassadors and other official visitors. On the grounds were the remaining sites of some storage houses, stables and what looked sleeping quarters. When the King died, according to history, the palace and the town of Lop Buri was abandoned.
After the ancient palace we went to a small gated Buddhist Temple where we paid our respects to the Buddha and then continued through the village. As he took me around the food market I could feel everyone looking at me as my trusty driver pulled me along. Some would smile and wave and others would stare straight into my soul. I would smile often and wave back, giving a respectful Wai with a kind hello in Thai. He took me down narrow streets and alleyways passing by street food vendors selling all kinds of produce, prepared foods, noodles, insects and a variety of live fish in buckets. The sight of the food market was so visually appealing and exciting that my head was turning everywhere. I took it all in… The damp street with the locals walking back and forth exchanging money and produce, the smacking of wet flip flops against their feet, the splashing about of fish in the buckets of water, the colorful array of local fruit and vegetables stacked together neatly, the sound of spoken Thai and the smell of different grilled meats in the air… It was and always is a sight I love to see.
After a couple of more streets he turned the corner that led to the Prang Sam Yot, where I began to see gangs of Macaques running across the street and jumping the fence to congregate at the temple. It was a real sight to see so many wild monkeys running around the city so freely. The temple itself wasn’t very big but had a nice tower in the center with a total of three Prangs. We get off in the front and I pay 30 baht to walk the grounds and to get a closer look of the monkey-ridden temple. I circle around and pass by some large pots of water where the macaques were jumping in and out of splashing around and playing. Some would approach curiously and looked like they were ready to pounce on me. After taking some photos I continued around, turned the corner and one came running up to me. He jumped on me and almost immediately, four others came and hopped onto my backpack and shoulders. I continued walking towards the entrance with these monkeys on me and took some photos with them but of course one had the audacity to grab my hat that I had just bought in Bangkok. He jumps off and runs up the temple with it and another monkey began to tug on my hair. I walked more and brushed them off without getting bitten with the help of a Thai lady with a stick. I then ran towards the temple trying to find my hat.
I spotted him. He was a the tippy-top of the temple and had it in his mouth, ripping it up and dragging it through monkey shit. I had lost my hat but I just laughed at the whole experience and began to leave. As I walked away he finally dropped it to the ground. I go to pick it up and found it wrecked and dirty. More monkeys jumped on me as I left but by then I had enough fun. We the go to another temple with a statue of the Buddha covered in square gold paper. Inside was all kinds of fruit offerings and the smoky smell of incense. I take off my shoes and a guy calls me over to put some gold on the statue. I pay my respects and the leave back to the station with my driver where I paid and tipped him something extra. There I bought my ticket to Phitsanulok on a 3rd class train leaving at 12:30. And as I would find out, I was in for a long ride.
It was May 11th, and I had just arrived to Ayutthaya from Bangkok by the local train. It was 4:20pm and I begin my walk from the station down a road with some small stores and restaurants on both sides. It was hot and the sweat immediately started to trickle down my back as soon as I stepped into the sun. I walk up to a dock by a brown river and look across. I wasn’t quite sure but the city center seemed to be just on the other side. I didn’t see any boats but I did see a bridge to the left of me in the distance and wondered if I had to cross it. I backtrack and decide to eat something first.
I sit down in a patio restaurant and was greeted by a Thai woman that wasn’t too welcoming. I sit, say hello in Thai and she plops a menu in front of me. I flip through it looking at the pictures but before I even order, I saw a western girl sit at a table right behind me. She was skinny with long brown hair and was wearing a trucker hat. Something about the way she dressed told me that she was American and I just had to know. I turned around and said hello to initiate some small talk. She spoke English with a slight accent and was quite friendly, so I asked if she wanted to join me. She smiles and sits in front of me. Her name was Lauréline and she was from the French part of Switzerland… I was off. She had large light green eyes and a kind smile. We order some food and talked for a while exchanging pleasantries. I had some Pad Thai and she a Papaya Salad. We pay after our meal and thank the lady whose mood had changed. Lauréline finds out that I didn’t have a place to stay for the night and recommends me the hostel that she was at. We walk back to the dock and find a brightly painted longboat with a long tail boat shaft coming our way. We pay 5 baht each to get across and on the other side she unlocks a bike that she had by a side street. We stop at a small guesthouse by the river, so I could have a Thai tea but also to ask for pricing on a room, since it looked nice from the outside. A small Thai lady shows me the private room she had available and it was decent enough but I decided to see Laurélines hostel first.
Lauréline leads me to Allsum Hostel on Bang Ian Road where she was staying. The hostel was very clean and modern, so I paid 400 baht for two nights, which is about $12.70. The place had several floors, some common areas, had breakfast included and even some bikes to rent. I lock up my bag in my dorm, rent a bike and we went to a popular weekend night market in town. It had just finished raining and it was already dark, so we quickly ride down two long streets, pass some roundabouts and reach the market that was next to some ruins. We lock our bikes under some trees in the front and begin to walk around. There was a long stone path that wrapped around a small creek flanked by tall leafy trees with hanging lights on both sides. Along this path there must of been more than a hundred bamboo stalls selling all sorts of very delicious looking Thai street food and delicacies: All kinds of skewered meats grilling over binchotan charcoal, crepes, vegetable curries, coconut desserts, insects, ice creams, teas, sodas and other regional foods I didn’t recognize.
The path was illuminated by the hanging braided bamboo lights which gave the entire area a beautiful glow. All the locals were out and about and some of the young kids would stare at us, as Lauréline and I were the only foreigners there. The night was warm and everyone was smiling and enjoying themselves. We strolled by a little girl singing Thai pop music on a karaoke machine and other vendors selling handicrafts. They would smile at us and say hello from their stalls, saying “Sawatdee Ka” and giving a slight wai. I felt that Thai people were friendliest people in the world that night and it gave me a really good feeling about my upcoming journey through their beautiful country. Feeling curious, I walk up to one of the stalls and a buy a semi-sweet coconut dessert that was green in color. It came in eight pieces and it was delicious but kind of chewy. I share some with my new friend and we talk back in forth in English and in some French. Her English was quite good but at times she would have to say some words in French, which I would understand…despite my mediocre command of it.
We reach the end of the long path and ended up at a small square. There we saw some teenagers dressed in classical Thai costumes performing a show depicting an ancient Siamese battle with warriors, kings and demons which was very entertaining. They all fought against each other with swords and had elaborate make-up. One even startled everyone by quickly drawing a pistol that let out a very loud and unexpected bang. One side emerged victorious and the crowd gave a hearty applause after they all bowed. We leave the square the same way we came and then bike back to the hostel in the dark. We stay up and chat for a while before calling it a night. Lauréline was to leave the next day and I had plans to see the town. I had read that the historic city of Ayutthaya was once the capital of the Siamese kingdom and I wanted to learn much about it.
On May 8th I woke up from my bed and rose to my first real day in Bangkok. The sun was peering through my window and I was ready to explore everything that the city had to offer. In my dorm I met Joni, a young guy from Spain who was also traveling through SE Asia, yet was on the last leg of his journey. I decided that if I was going to be in Thailand for at least a month that I should get a sim card for my phone. I get dressed and head out to a nearby Tesco-Lotus store a couple of blocks down Rama I. The day was hot and humid and the streets were noisy with rushing traffic. Inside on the third floor was a Dtac cellular kiosk and there I purchase a data plan for a month with a Thai number, which was around 400 baht ( $15.34). I return back to the hostel and download an app called Grab, which is like an Uber but for Asia, and then set out to see the city with Joni.
On the street Joni teaches me how to use the app and we first head out to Wat Phra Chetuphon, also known as Wat Pho to see the stunning architecture and the famous Reclining Golden Buddha statue. On the way there I noticed images of the new King; King Vajiralongkorn or Rama X, all over the city. Just a couple of days before was his coronation. After getting dropped off, we make our way around the temple perimeter looking for the entrance and of course some tuk-tuk drivers stopped us and assured us that the temple was closed. One tried to sell us a tour around Bangkok to see the other temples but I knew that the temple was open and that this was a very common scam in the city. We smile and walk away. Towards the back we find our entrance and pay 100 baht to enter the grounds. We pass through some groups of Asian tourists and make our way towards the Reclining Buddha, marveling at the Thai architecture around us. Completely golden and massive, it was a breathtaking wonder. The statue was resting on two box-pillows covered in glass mosaic and the Buddha had a slight peaceful smile with a relaxed posture. At 15 meters high and 46 meters long, it’s one of the largest statues of the Buddha in Thailand. I’ve seen many pictures of it in books but I was happy to finally be in his presence and the serenity of the statue filled me with good fortune. Circling around the area, Joni and I took some photos and paid our respects to the Buddha before exiting the building.
We continued walking around the temple complex taking in all of its splendor and entered the main hall, Phra Ubosot. Inside there was another gilded Buddha statue sitting on a tiered pedestal and under a tiered umbrella. The Phra was constructed by King Rama I in Ayutthaya style and then later reconstructed in the Rattanakosin style by Rama III. Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples and has been around even before Bangkok became the capital of Thailand. The temple contains many Phras and also houses over 1000 Buddha images, which is the largest collection of its kind in Thailand. There is also a school of Thai medicine and the temple is also known as the birthplace of the traditional Thai massage, where it is still taught and practiced today. In addition, it’s also considered to be the earliest public education center in Thailand. The entire complex is filled with exotic Thai architecture and it is a definite must if ever in Bangkok.
After Wat Pho, Joni and I head out to Bangkok’s Chinatown to try out some of the famous street food there. On Yaowarat street, everywhere I looked there were signs in Chinese, traditional-herbal medicine shops, restaurants and food carts. The traffic was dense and crossing the roads was a challenge. To do so, we would wait and then jump in front of traffic with two or three others, passing quickly as tuk-tuks and mopeds swerved around us instinctively. In the street all kinds of food were being sold from the stalls: Thai curries, brothy noodle soups, dumplings of every variety, skewered BBQ pork and fried chicken, coconut desserts, fruit juices, jelly teas and of course the infamous durian fruit. Joni and I shared some skewered chicken with sweet chili sauce and dumplings. We spoke with the locals and continued to get lost in the alleyways in search of more interesting and delicious food. We then came across what I had been looking for: Insects. By the side of a small street I found a lady with her cart catering to three other local ladies snacking on the crispy bugs. Upon seeing it I was in awe. It was something I had seen many times on travel food shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and I was excited to see it. At first I was a bit hesitant, but I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
All of the Thai ladies were staring at me and upon seeing my curiosity, egged me on to try some of the insects. On the cart were crickets, grasshoppers, scorpions and fried caterpillars. Joni and I look at each other laughing and he tells me in Spanish that the fried caterpillars were good, so he has heard. I pay for a little mix of the crickets and caterpillars and she hands it to me in a small styrofoam bowl. I grab one caterpillar and slowly bring it to my mouth. I crunch on it…and to my surprise it wasn’t that bad. It had a salt and spice mix on it and it reminded me of the small Pik-Nik shoestring fries that we use on Cuban sandwiches back home. I then try the cricket and it flaked off into pieces in my mouth and it felt like a was chewing on a thin piece of bark, which was unpleasant and had no flavor. Joni then filmed me trying the black scorpion on a stick and although the gross factor was there, I wasn’t too fazed out by it. I move the arachnid to my mouth, pause and bite down hard on the claw. I was expecting some kind of meat inside, yet it felt like I was biting into plastic. It had no taste and was hard to eat. It was obviously just an exoskeleton and a novelty food item directed towards curious foreigners. I don’t know how much of a delicacy it actually is in the region but I’m sure some eat it. We explore a bit more and I try a lemongrass jelly drink that I found in a dark alley from the only stall in the area, which was quite tasty and refreshing. We also end up finding a small sweaty stall in another alley that was selling noodle soups. We have one each and pay the young girl before going to Khao San Road.
We get there around 6pm and begin to walk up the infamous road. To the left and to the right of me there were hotels, cheap hostels, restaurants convenience stores and massage parlors all with glowing signs. In front of these buildings there were all kinds of stalls and food carts selling all kinds of exotic foods drinks and treats. One was selling crocodile meat that was skinned and skewered and grilling over some coals. Along the street, hawkers paced up and down slowly selling everything from selfie sticks and scorpions on a stick to small portable electric fans and silly tourist glasses. Joni and I sit at an outside table at a bar called Khaosan 1986 to have couple of beers and people watch. I sat there taking it all in and gazed at the ebb and flow of people from all walks of life and of every description: Hippies with dreadlocks sporting Hindu tattoos and wearing elephant print harem pants, young Europeans on holiday from school with oversized Osprey backpacks and hiking boots, bearded Israelis that had just finished their IDF service wearing velcro sandals and filling the air with Hebrew, old couples navigating through the craziness with Lonely Planet books in hand, groups of Chinese or Korean girls wearing beautiful flowing dresses and floppy sun hats, Thai punk rockers, ladyboy performers, soulsearchers, drunks, musicians and lost travellers tired of the west. Everyone was here it seemed.
I went to the restroom quickly and when I returned there was a street magician at our table showing Joni some tricks. The magician guessed all of our cards from a shuffled deck and did a rope and ring trick that was absolutely amazing. From the bottom of a thin rope tied at both ends forming a circle he would slide a metal ring up halfway with the string inside the ring and not touching the sides. Naturally, it should have fallen to the table once he released it but when he did, the ring would tie with the rope and not fall. He performed it may times and it left us completely baffled. We chatted him up and he performed some other good tricks, so we leave him a tip and pay our beer tab.
Joni and I then walk across the road to Charlie’s massage parlor where we get an hour long Thai massage for 250 baht, which comes out to around $8. The ladies take us in, wash our feet and give us some light clothes to change into. The lady lays me down on a thin mattress on the floor and Joni was laying on the adjacent one with his masseuse. They closed the curtains and played some light Oriental flute music. The whole hour was very interesting and relaxing. She massaged my entire body using her fingers, elbows and forearms to hit all of the pressure points and used her body weight to twist and crack my spine using her feet. She was very pleasant and we would make light conversation but she really went to work on body when she got to my neck and back, massaging me vigorously and working out any knots and sore spots. When the time was up Joni and I thanked the women, changed into our original clothes and headed back to the road feeling great.
It was nighttime and the road was buzzing with activity. Live music from the bars and the sound of travelers cheersing over Singha’s and Chang’s filled the air. Thais mixed with the foreigners on the streets conducting business and haggling on prices. Everyone seemed free and happy to be here and I was no exception. We walk towards the end of the short Khaosan Road and decided to head back to downtown. On the ride back I began to think of how happy I was to be in Thailand and I thought of all of the travelers that had been here before me. Of all of the people that came from faraway places arriving here for the first time. How excited they must’ve been, as I’m excited now, to be starting in Bangkok and to pass through the famous Khaosan Road… To make the first big step of a long journey. “And now I’m finally here”, I thought to myself.
From Lucca my father and I went to Venice and spent a couple of days there. Although, to our misfortune it was rainy and windy, but we did make the most of it and enjoyed our time talking and having some delicious food in various restaurants, like La Profeta. Yet, this is where my father and I parted ways. He had decided to fly back to Spain and I decided to begin my Asian trip by flying into Bangkok. From the Venice Marco Polo airport my father was to head to Barcelona and I to Frankfurt, where I would then fly to my destination. At the airport my father wished me luck on my journey and I gave him the biggest hug. It was a fantastic month traveling with him and I am truly glad to have been able to spend time together backpacking. It was really nice to be able to share crossing the Atlantic and exploring Italy together. But this was the end.
In the Frankfurt airport, I began to grow excited as I was eating some currywurst and enjoying a cold German beer. Finally, the country and region of the world that had eluded me for so long and the land that had been the subject of countless hours of daydreaming was approaching. I was finally going to Thailand. The mysterious land of Muay Thai, misty mountains, delicious cuisine and friendly natives. The land of smiles was just 10 hours away and on the plane I was smiling the whole way. Next to me were a young couple originally from Bangkok and they gave me the in’s and out’s of Bangkok and Thailand in general. They explained to me some cultural norms, some basic greetings and food recommendations. The flight was a bit long, but after some movies and a quick nap, the plane was just two hours away from the capital.
After landing, I collect my bag and thanked all of the flight attendants for their hospitality. I walk off the plane, into Suvarnabhumi airport and pass through customs and immigration. They stamp my passport and I had one full month to explore their beautiful country. I had no real plans on how to go about my travels but I did have a rough outline of the places that I wanted to see: Bangkok, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and Pai. I know from my previous travels that I almost always deviate from any original plan and go to a lot of small towns in between and learn about sites that shouldn’t be missed. Or sometimes, I find a place that I like and stay there for longer. My aim is always to travel slow, talk with the locals, eat local, soak up as much as I possibly can and write down a good amount in my journal.
I take the Airport Rail Link, and make my way to the center of town by transferring to the BTS Sukhumvit line and get off at the Siam stop on Rama I Road. I had no cell phone service and no pre-booked hostel for me to stay at, so I walked into a large shopping mall called the Siam Center and come across a bubble tea kiosk on the second floor called The Alley. Here I had my first bubble tea in Thailand, a delectable brown sugar and milk concoction with tapioca pearls. They didn’t have wifi, so I took off looking for another spot. And of course I found a Starbucks and used their wifi to connect and find a place to sleep for the night. I settle on a place called Lub d Hostel, which was right up the street on Rama I and close to the National Stadium. I check in around 5pm, receive my key and was shown my room that had four beds in total yet was empty. The hostel was clean, large, had open air patios and was mainly blue in color. I get some much needed rest, since I had been non-stop from Venice and later in the evening do my laundry, because my filthy clothes desperately needed it and I was on my last pair of underwear.
Later in the evening I go out for a walk to explore the town by night and to find something quick to eat. I was on the hunt for my first street stall noodle soup and whichever would have been perfect. I stroll along the streets taking in the facade of Bangkok and was elated to have finally made it. The buildings were old, lacked paint and had weeds growing from the cracks. Everywhere I looked, there were telephone wires crisscrossing and gathering into knots and locals making their way in and out of restaurants. The night was damp and the moped traffic was fierce, which made crossing it a challenge. Each small restaurant that I passed by was like a little window into their business and world. The experienced elders would cook and the younger ones would take the orders. From the stalls that dotted the streets, vendors would be chopping meat and all kinds of greens with their heavy cleavers making a loud “chop chop” sound or straining fine noodles into a bowl of steaming broth filled with morning glory and beef. All of the aromas filled my senses and I struggled to settle on a place, yet finally did.
A young girl no older than 15 approaches me as I sit at a small steel table and on a low plastic chair. “Sawadee ka” she says smiling and in a low voice. “Sawadee krap” I said and returning the smile. I then point to two plates on the plastic menu. Minced pork and tofu soup with some fried shrimp cakes on the side and a spicy lemongrass sauce for dipping. She jots it down on a paper pad and runs off quickly. Thai, which I have only heard on occasion back home, now filled the air and it was melodious and exotic. Some would stare at me and some would smile as I ate, as I was the only foreigner there. It was all delicious and I pay the bill after thanking them. Thailand had always captured my imagination and I always wanted to experience it for myself. And I could only dream back then. Every time I would hear stories from others that had been there, it only made me want it more. I craved Thailand. All of it. And now I was finally here. No real plan. No real idea of the city. No real sense of direction. And no knowledge of Thai. A guest in a faraway land. Alone and out of my element. And exactly where I like to be.