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.
It was my turn.