We arrived in Bangkok a bit tired from the long flight and little sleep the night before, but it wasn't so bad. We managed to make it through the airport fairly quickly, though we had no idea where we were supposed to go and it was a bit difficult to read directions in Thai. But, of course, we were able to follow the herd and figure out what/where we had to go. Once we got through customs (it was a snap, not even close to how strict Australia is), we had to get a cab, and the herd was no longer able to help us. A friend gave us the tip to go up to arrivals and get a cab from there because of some rule the cabbies have to follow. If we had gotten a taxi from departures, there's no telling where he would've tried to bring us. Cabbies get deals from hotels (and other establishments) to try to bring passengers their business. So we followed our good tip and got a relatively cheap ride (we were in the cab, in traffic, for over an hour and a half and it only cost us about US$13) to our hotel. As we were taking the ride, we got to see quite a bit of the city. Not only is the language very foreign, but so is the culture in many ways. In some ways though, it's quite similar: capitalism is alive and well as is the love of technology.
The drive brought us through the outskirts of the city, which looked pretty poor. The holes in the roofs and the cramped apartments were pretty big clues. We also got to see the city from a distance, and the city is huge. HUGE I tell you. HUGE! And the smog lays quite a blanket over the city in the horizon. There are about 7.5million people but it feels bigger. Everywhere seems busy: kind of like Times Square at lunch time on a hot summer day.......mixed with some chinatown.....on crack....and then multiplied by 2 or 3. Suffice it to say that it's a busy place. It kind of reminds me of the old Times Square in New York, as opposed to Sydney, which reminded me of the newer New York. The old New York, pre-Guiliani, was dirtier, seedier, and smellier than it is today, and Bangkok has its own special way of bringing those sentiments out. Where we stayed had people with more cell phones, but there were fewer cell phone stores than Times Square....a paradox, i know. More lady-men, but fewer porn shops (until you get to that one street with all the "ping-pong" shows); more of that pee/sewage smell, but fewer rats (i hope!). More people demanding money from you, but those "requests" came from businesses, not individuals. So there were some similarities, but of course differences too, some funny, some a bit off-putting.
But truthfully, the smell and dirtiness is what turned us off the most. The small canals (Bangkok is sometimes called the Venice of the Orient) are used for garbage disposal and they stink like it. I don't know if there's a rule against it or not, but you just need one look in the canals to see it. The smell wafts up to meet your nose quite frequently, and the humidity doesn't help the situation either. Our hotel wasn't much better, and we tried to spend as little time there as possible. We chose it because it was relatively near the Vietnamese Embassy, which was where we had some business to which we had to attend. We had to get our visa before leaving Bangkok. So we decided to get it ASAP so we could get the heck outta Dodge. But i gotta give them credit for the Sky Train. It is very effective, clean, and fast; we had to use it to get to and from the Vietnamese Embassy.
We managed to get our visa in 3 days, and we were very happy about that. The longer we spent in Bangkok, however, the more we got used to it and the less we were repulsed by it. We had to look for places in which to eat that didn't seem dirty, but when we found them, we loved them!! The food was so tasty and the people were really nice. While we were waiting for our Visa to be processed, we found refuge from the street and our hostel in the form of two huge malls, where we hung out for a few hours each day. They were actually really nice, very upscale, and Air-Conditioned :)!! One floor had a Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini dealership on it. We didn't do any shopping (that just means we have to carry it), but we did get a Thai massage from a nice place. All I have to say is, Ouch. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and when we were changing into the typical clothing, Laurie asked me if I knew what a Thai massage was, and I said, "nope." Well, now I know; I was pushed and pulled in all kinds of directions, ones I didn't even think the body bended in and out of. I even started sweating at one point, but I'm glad I did it nonetheless, and maybe we'll go for another some other time.
We did visit some temples, and they were certainly awe-inspiring. We visited the Golden Mount and it was golden, with lots of it: Solid gold, gold-leaf in paintings, gold statues, gold bells, gold, gold, gold. It was beautiful, no question about it. Then we visited another temple, and fortunately, we were able to be alone and able to soak up the beauty in near silence and at our own pace. It was a much more enjoyable and interesting time. Again, lots of gold. Beautifully serene statues which were in contrast to the chaotic and active scenes painted on the walls. It was a beautiful temple, and free, and we would've contributed some Baht (the name of the money here) if we could've found a box for that purpose. But we didn't and then headed to the Grand Palace, which is a huge tourist attraction. We got there and saw it was free for Thais but cost foreigners 250Baht, not a lot of money in US$. Not that I have a problem with it being free for Thais; I actually like that, as it means that locals get to visit one of their greatest monuments whenever they want. If I want to go to the Statue of Liberty or the White House, it still costs me quite a bit just to look through it and learn about its history. But while we were there, it wasn't very pleasant because it was so crowded. The sights were outstanding and a lot of these photos posted were taken from there, but we weren't allowed to photograph the most-mesmerizing of all the sights: the temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is just that, a buddha carved out of a huge Emerald. I can't imagine how they found a single Emerald stone to carve the buddha from. It must have been 15-20 inches tall! And the golden statues surrounding with all the other ornamental beautiful objects surrounding it. Apparently, the King himself, to whom there are tons of photos and monuments dedicated all over the city, is the only one who can change the garments placed on the Emerald Buddha, and it's a very big ceremony when the seasons change. Nonetheless, the temple is absolutely awe-inspiring. It's got to be on the level of the Vatican or some place like that. So as we were sitting in the temple admiring the beauty, I began to question what I was looking at. I saw boxes where people could put donations -- a few were fairly large donations. And I saw guards come in and take the boxes and empty them and then replace them to their original spots. Now, I'm no expert on Buddhism, but I'm pretty sure the religion/philosophy tends to expound on the idea of rejecting materialism. Thus, I can't quite understand the amount of money spent on these temples and the palace grounds, especially when I saw the condition of most of the citizens in the city. I really am confused by it, and if I ever get the chance to ask some monks about it, I plan on doing so. Hopefully, I'll get that chance in Northern Thailand. People were making huge donations in those boxes, most were 20 baht notes, but I saw some 500 and 1000 bills too. These donations are made right in the face of all this Gold and what has to be the biggest Emerald ever. All these donations to given to gold, when poverty is causing much suffering in the outlying areas. We heard a tour guide say ONE (there were easily 20 or 30 statues total) of the large statues was 76kg of pure gold. Right now, gold is about $800/ounce on the market. Again, I'd like to ask some monks about it, if I get the chance. The art was fantastic, but it seems like it might be in conflict with the philosophy; I don't know, maybe I'm missing something. I'll try to find out though.
After visiting some Temples, we were happy to leave Bangkok for the quiet of a Southern Island, Koh Chang. We decided to pass on the popular islands of Koh Phi-Phi (pronounced Pee-Pee) and Koh Samet because we heard they have gotten really touristy and built up. Koh Chang is headed there but isn't so bad yet.