My brother Scott was the one who came up with the idea to spent the last weekend of this trip in Bangkok, Thailand. He found a flight and a hotel on short notice and in less than a week we were ready to spend three days visiting another new city in southeast Asia. Bangkok is the capital and largest city in Thailand, with more than 14 million people living in its greater metropolitan area. This is one of the most visited cities in the world for tourism, with more than 20 million people annually traveling to Bangkok to visit its beautiful monuments and take advantage of its rock-bottom prices. I was consistently shocked at how cheap everything was in Thailand, much less expensive even in comparison to prices in China. We were flying by the seats of our pants on this trip without doing a whole lot of planning ahead of time, but still managed to see a good portion of the big tourist attractions in Bangkok.
The two of us flew from Hong Kong to Bangkok on an airline that I'd never heard of before called Orient Thai. This was a Thai-based airline company that no longer operates, and we were among a little group of roughly five Westerners on a flight that was otherwise full of Chinese and Thai passengers. The safety videos that played during the flight were broadcast in Mandarin and Thai; this was one of the most notable situations I can recall where I definitely felt out of place. (I'm not suggesting that Orient Thai should have been catering to me, only that I was a real fish out of water here.) We stayed at a place named the Bangkok Centre Hotel situated on the eastern side of the city, close to one of the major train stations. We decided to walk through the crowded streets of the city towards the downtown area with the major tourist attractions, and almost immediately came across a small Buddhist temple named Wat Trimitr. This was the first of many beautiful Buddhist sites that we would come across on this trip, complete with monks in their distinctive orange robes. We left a small donation and continued onwards.
We were passing through the Sampheng neighborhood of Bangkok, one of the older parts of the city with a historic marketplace area. This was the first place where we came across the cheap prices in Bangkok, as Scott purchased a big basket of fresh strawberries from the market for the equivalent of less than one dollar. We were also able to get a full entree at a restaurant for about five dollars each, working across the language barrier by pointing at pictures of food that were helpfully included on the menus. I also need to mention here the importance of the king in Thai culture. Thailand still has a monarchy and they take the image of the king very seriously there; it's actually illegal to speak out against him in any way. Images of King Rama IX were everywhere when we visited the city, and the long-ruling monarch seemed to be a genuinely beloved figure. This is the only place I can recall seeing stands with a big photograph of the king set up on random streetcorners just to extol his virtues.
It took well over an hour of walking to reach the monument district in the downtown portion of Bangkok. I had insisted that we walk and Scott insisted that we should take a cab; afterwards, I agreed that he had been correct and we would rely on the extremely cheap tuk-tuks to get around the city. The first place that we visited was the Buddhist temple complex known as Wat Pho. This ornate temple houses the largest collection of Buddhist artifacts in Thailand, including a gigantic statue of a reclining Buddha. It was first built in the 16th century, only to be greatly expanded by King Rama I in the 1780s, which is the period that most of the current buildings date from. Wat Pho provided a striking example of the distinctive Thail form of architecture, made up of dozens of small stupas that stuck up into the air and tapered to a point. Each one of these stupas was beautifully decorated with carvings of different flowers in a rainbow of colors. I had never seen anything quite this like before, a completely alien form of religious architecture as compared to Christian cathedrals or Islamic mosques.
Wat Pho is best known for its enormous reclining Buddha. Formally known as the Phra Buddhasaiyas, this statue was built by King Rama III in 1832 and represents the entry of the Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations. The figure is 15 meters / 50 feet tall and stretches out for 45 meters / 150 feet in length. It took up the inside of an entire building and I found it difficult to capture the size of the thing into the frame of my pictures. As much as I'd like to claim that this huge figure is made out of solid gold, it was actually fashioned out of a brick core and then covered with plaster and gilded. The reclining Buddha is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Bangkok, unfortunately overshadowing the rest of the stunning Wat Pho complex to a certain extent. As impressive as this was, the rest of the temple was equally deserving of attention.
Next to Wat Pho was another one of the biggest tourist attractions in Bangkok: the Grand Palace. This large complex of buildings has been the official residence of the kings of first Siam and then Thailand since 1782. Today the Grand Palace is used mostly for ceremonial occasions and the royal family no longer lives here on a daily basis, but the massive walled complex remains a deeply impressive sight. Scott took a picture of me outside the entrance to the Grand Palace with its golden spires rising up in the background. (I wore my Orioles hat on this trip to see if anyone would recognize the logo, and not surprisingly no one did.) There's a rule for entry to the Grand Palace that stipulates everyone must wear long pants to get inside. I had seen this in a tourist guidebook and brought a pair with me, but Scott didn't know about the restriction and had to borrow some pants from the visitor center. My brother is 6'2" in height (188 centimeters) and with most people in Thailand being much shorter, he ended up having to wear a comically oversized pair of pants while walking through the palace complex as seen above. This still cracks me up years later.
The Grand Palace was full of gorgeous buildings, all of them in different variations of the same Thai style of architecture with lots of spires and sharply peaked rooftops. The whole complex was massive in size with 35 different buildings listed on the map handed out to visitors, divided up into multiple different color-coded sections. The famous of these buildings was the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or more properly Wat Phra Kaew, which houses a small jade statue of the Buddha believed to have divine properties. This temple was the building pictured above with the Pepsi logo on an umbrella in the foreground. I snapped a picture of the interior, which of course didn't turn out properly on this camera. Here's an image of the Emerald Buddha taken from the Internet. There were far too many other buildings to list all of them, and I don't know nearly enough about Thai history or culture to attempt to describe them. The main point is that there's a ton to see here, and the Grand Palace should be near the top of any list of attractions in Bangkok.
After we left the Grand Palace, we hopped on one of the many boats in the river and took a short trip across to the other side. Bangkok lies along the banks of the Chao Phraya River (formerly listed as the Menam River on European maps), with the river emptying into the Gulf of Thailand only a few miles to the south. Since the Chao Phraya splits up into a wide delta at its mouth, this was effectively the closest place to build a port city, much like how New Orleans isn't located directly on the Gulf of Mexico. This was a great way to catch some cooler breezes and get a break from the stifling heat. After crossing back again, we finished up the day by walking through Sanam Luang public park (which wasn't very clean and had some shady characters in it) before passing by a large display in honor of the king on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. If we had ever wanted to see a bunch of gigantic framed photographs of King Rama IX, this was the chance to do so. With the sun setting and the light fading, it was time for us to head back to our hotel for the night.
The next morning was a Saturday and we traveled on Bangkok's fledgling metro system to Chatuchak Weekend Market, a shopping area in the northern suburbs of the city. This outdoor area contains the largest marketplace in Thailand, with more than 15,000 individual stalls selling pretty much anything imaginable at those same extremely cheap prices. The marketplace has opened each weekend since 1942 and more than 200,000 people visit on a weekly basis. I was most interested in some of the vendors selling books here, where there was a whole section with English-language books for sale. I ended up buying a copy of the American history textbook that I had used in high school, which I was able to get for about two dollars. (Then I had to lug it around in my backpack for the rest of the trip - not the best planning.) After spending a few hours at the marketplace, we headed to the Dusit Zoo back in the central part of the city again. We were hoping to find an opportunity to ride an elephant here; unfortunately the zoo didn't provide that kind of service. The animal enclosures were definitely more rudimentary than what we would have seen in a Western country, and we were able to reach out and touch the elephants past the flimsy barrier. There had also been a story in the news at the time about a tiger who had eaten a zoo visitor somewhere in the United States, and the somewhat lax attitude in terms of animal security here wasn't reassuring. I was pretty sure that the tigers at this zoo could have hopped their fence if they really wanted to.
We tried to visit the royal residence in Bangkok during the afternoon since it was located close to the zoo, only to find a locked gate that visitors couldn't pass behind. This was basically a bust, something that we would have avoided doing if we'd been able to spend more time researching this trip ahead of time. When evening fell we traveled to the Suan-Lum Night Bazaar, another outdoor shopping area similar to the one that we had visited earlier the same morning. It was blessedly cooler at the night bazaar and there was no shortage of good restaurant options. We had a fantastic dinner here and I wish that I could remember the name of the specific restaurant. When browsing through the market stalls, Scott purchased a copy of the Thailand national soccer team's jersey, which would have been all but impossible to find elsewhere. I turned up a copy of the Soviet Union's old soccer jersey from the 1960s with the letters "CCCP" across the front, which I bought and have kept around as a gag souvenir ever since. I used to wear it when I delivered a lecture on the Soviet Union to see if anyone would pick up on it.
We had also gone to the Suan Luang district where the night market was held because it was the same area where Muay Thai competitions were held. Muay Thai is a fighting style that has gained notoriety due to its use of kickboxing; it's probably best described as a form of boxing where the combatants can also use their legs. This was a Saturday night and we went to an event where there were a half dozen fights scheduled in a row, one after another. I was shocked at how young the participants turned out to be, with everyone fighting seemingly a teenager of some kind or another. It was hard to avoid the sense that these young kids were being exploited by the fight promoters. The venue itself did little to dispel this notion, with a more expensive area where we sat catering to Westerners and then a larger, rowdier section with local Thai fans behind it. We stayed to watch three different fights and they turned out not to be as action-packed as we were expecting. There were relatively few blows traded and no one was knocked out while we were watching. It was quite a spectacle and the crowd was really into the action, cheering wildly when someone landed a punch or a kick. I don't really enjoy watching people hurt each other and I was ready to leave after a few of the fights.
The next day was a Sunday and we only had the morning and afternoon free before we needed to catch our flight back to Hong Kong. Our main goal for the day was to visit Wat Arun, the tallest of the major Buddhist temples in Bangkok and one that stands by itself on the other side of the river. Wat Arun translates as the "Temple of Dawn" and the name is a reference to the Hindu god Arnua, often personified as the rising sun. While the temple has been around since the early 17th century, the big central spire (known as a prang in Thai) was built in the 1820s under King Rama II. This central pagoda rises to a height of about 85 meters / 280 feet and therefore catches the first light of each morning before any of the other buildings in the area, thus providing the origin for its name. Each terraced level of the pagoda was carved with an incredible riot of intricate patterns, flowers and mythological animals and the like. It was a breathtaking piece of religious architecture.
Wat Arun wasn't just a pretty monument though, as the central prang included a series of staircases and it could be ascended up to its top. We were able to get some of our best views of Bangkok from the top of the spire, especially looking across the river at Wat Pho and the Grand Palace. The river was packed with narrow boats shuttling passengers from one side to the other or carrying freight of some kind, and everything was taking place under clear sunny skies. If there was a downside here, it was the heat: the temperature was above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (above 30 Celsius) every day that we were in Thailand despite this being January. Bangkok is only about a dozen degrees north of the Equator and it never gets cold there. The seasons are monsoon versus non-monsoon, not summer versus winter.
I snapped a picture of one of the tuk-tuks en route to our next destination. Tuk-tuks are a three wheeled motorized version of a rickshaw, somewhere between a moped and a proper automobile. They are popular throughout southeast Asia and were the main way of getting around the downtown portion of Bangkok. This is a city that grew very quickly with little to nothing in the way of urban planning, and the traffic in the streets is consistently a disaster. We started taking tuk-tuk rides from place to place once Scott figured out that it cost about five dollars per ride, much faster than walking everywhere for next to no cost. This picture was typical of the rides that we took throughout the city.
We visited a place known as the Royal Barge Museum next, a smaller museum located along an offshoot of the main river. This museum was situated on a floating drydock and showcased a series of different river barges used by the Thai royal family in earlier decades. These boats had the same long, narrow design as the modern day rivercraft but with far more golden lacquerwork and elaborate designs on their bows. One of the boats that I photographed had a large eagle on the front while another appeared to contain a seven-headed dragon that looked a bit like King Ghidorah from the Godzilla series of films. If I were a 19th century Thai peasant working on the river and I saw a boat like that coming my way, I think I would be suitably impressed. This was a genuinely cool museum to visit even though it was a bit lacking in terms of signage for the individual boats. I'd recommend stopping here for an hour to check it out.
We finished up our time in Bangkok by traveling downriver on the Chao Phraya on one of the water taxis. This took us past the Old Customs House, a Western-style building that looked to be crumbling into disrepair and badly needed some maintenance work. I also tried to take some pictures of the tiny riverside huts in which some of the poorer residents of the city lived, in an attempt to remember that very few of the people in Thailand made their living in glittering palaces. We came across more Buddhist temples and a monument shaped like a big ship; I'm not exactly sure what the purpose of that thing was. We ended up with an hour to kill before catching a taxi back to the airport, and my brother used this time to get his hair cut from a local barbershop, using gestures to work across the language barrier and let them know what he wanted. I wasn't quite brave enough to give that a try myself. References to King Rama IX were omnipresent throughout out time in Bangkok, and even the departure gate at the airport had a message proclamining "Long Live The King". It was a fitting end to our time spent in Thailand.
That was the end of our trip to Bangkok, but I still had one more day remaining in Hong Kong before returning back to the United States. I decided to use this time to visit another one of the outlying islands, taking a ferry over to Lamma Island. This is the third-largest island in the Hong Kong SAR, a largely rural area with a fraction of the population of Hong Kong Island and even Lantau Island at roughly 7000 people. There are two main villages on the island and the ferry brought me to the northern one named Yung Shue Wan (Banyan Tree Bay). It was a small community with somewhat ramshackle houses and a bunch of bars and restaurants along the waterfront. This would have been a great place to get lunch if anyone else had come along with me. The slow pace of life on the island has made this community a popular place for artistic types to live. I began the short hike across the island by walking on one of its trails; there are no roads on Lamma Island due to its small size. I passed by small houses engaged in local farming and several deserted sandy beaches. This is a popular area for Hong Kong residents to go swimming in the non-winter months of the year.
There was a power plant of some kind located to the south of Yung Shue Wan, the one bit of industrial development that marred the otherwise peaceful nature of the island. As I walked along this path, I found a number of delightful little coves where the water was a clean blue color and I could see down to the rocky bottom. After about an hour of leisurely walking, the elevation increased and I began to pass over the ridge of hills that formed the spine of Lamma Island. From this height I could see the geography of the island clearly, with the land wrapped around into a distorted "L" shape. This was the first day in Hong Kong where the weather was returning back to its normal self, and it was fairly warm outside when I wasn't catching the ocean breezes.
At the eastern edge of Lamma Island was the other main village, Sok Kwu Wan (Rainbow Bay). This little town was dominated by the fishing industry and a good portion of the buildings seemed to be floating out on the water itself. Most of the restaurants here sold different kinds of fresh seafood. There were also signs for "kamikaze caves" on the path to Sok Kwu Wan, places where Japanese soldiers had dug out hiding spots for suicide boats intended for use in defending Hong Kong after its capture. The path running to the town passed by a little shrine named the Tin Hau Temple, with a centuries-old fish inside said to bring good luck. This was another temple that seemed to lean more towards traditional Chinese Taoism as opposed to Buddhism, although the line between the two can be hard to tell sometimes.
Lamma Island was the last place that I visited on this trip. I took a different ferry from Sok Kwu Wan back to Hong Kong's Central district, then said goodbye to my brother and caught the long flight back to the United States, again having a direct flight to New York and then a shorter flight to Baltimore. This time the time zones were working in my favor instead of against me, and my 16 hour flight ended up taking about 3 hours by the clock. The net result was a really weird day that lasted about 36 hours in total, and I found it was easier to stay awake for the whole duration rather than take a midday nap. It was a day that seemed to last forever. Fortunately I'm pretty good at adjusting to time zone changes and it only took me one night's sleep to be back to normal again. (My wife Liz is not quite so lucky.) These pictures above showcase my favorite souvenir from this trip, the three replica swords that I purchased at Stanley's market. They had no cutting edge but otherwise looked realistic.
This was a wonderful trip to a part of the world that I'd never seen previously. I don't have anywhere near the same level of knowledge about China as I do for Europe, but that was part of what made this such a special trip. I was able to experience a different culture with its own ancient traditions in a region that was mostly easy to access for an English speaker. My visit to Hong Kong helped inform some of my own teaching when it came to the British Empire, as it offered me the chance to see one famous example of cross-cultural exchange up close and in person. If I were to travel to this part of the world again, I would like to visit some of the other parts of mainland China that I haven't seen before, somewhere like Beijing or Shanghai or Xian. I've seen these city names plenty of times in the Civilization games and it would be amazing to visit them in person. As always, thanks for reading through my travel ramblings.