As we left from the airport from Chika’s grandmother’s house, a new feeling of excitement came over us as we both entered into the unknown of our backpacking trip. While Japan was a completely new experience for me, Tokyo is like a second home for Chika. She was born there, visits once every year or two, and has a lot of family in the area. That this is another home to her became clear when we were walking in the Imperial Palace gardens, where the Japanese emperor lives. A beautiful bridge crosses the moat and enters gardens. As we passed by here, Chika mentions that they had family pictures done here, as if it’s nothing at all. At that moment, it became very clear that this is another home for Chika.
So as we headed to the airport, everything from here became new for both of us. Neither of us will speak the language or had any idea what Bangkok would be like. A certain level of anxiety was there as well, as we had just saw on the news a few hours earlier that a bomb had went off in a group of anti-government protesters in Bangkok. We did our research and decided that as long as we stayed out of the protest areas, we should be fine.
From our 4 days and 5 nights in Bangkok, we saw almost nothing out of the ordinary. We did walk by Lumpini Park, which is one site where demonstrations are taking place. From a distance, it seemed as if the protests were being done without aggression or violence. Other than this park, we never once saw of felt anything of demonstrations. We have been keeping up with the news, and it seems like the media is making things sound worse than it really is (but what’s new, right?). However, we are keeping up-to-date on the protests to be smart about it all.
Arriving in Bangkok
Our red-eye flight from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur and then onward to Bangkok ended up being a long day of travel. After taking an incredibly long time to get through the Kuala Lumpur security, we decided to stay in the airport for our 5 hour layover. A smooth security process would’ve made 5 hours a risk. So we had no chance with the slow operations here.
Arriving in Bangkok was quite the experience. An overnight flight left us tired and dazed, and we were both nervous about the language barrier. We left the Don Muang Airport and found the train station just outside. However, there was no information in English and the ticket office seemed to be closed. But people were waiting, so we couldn’t be too far off. We talked to a couple from Boston who seemed to know what they were doing, but they were just as confused as we were. After about 30 minutes, the ticket office opened. Another 20 minutes later, the train arrived and we jumped on hoping that it was heading towards the city.
The train was not what I had expected in Bangkok. It was an old train, probably 50 years old at least. Getting in was like going back in time. The crowded train was full of seats similar to those of an old school bus. Fans hung from the ceiling, blowing dust around the train. While working out way to the city, we went through many slum areas, as food stands were set up outside of the small wooden homes with zinc roofs. After about an hour, we started seeing high-rise buildings behind the beat-up homes around us. Finally, we made it to Haulumphong Station and switched to the more modern metro system.
During my senior year of college, I had an international business class. I had just gotten back from London and had taken an interest in international students at the University of Iowa. In my class were two Thais, named Fon and Kan-t, and I eventually became project partners and friends with them. After hearing more about Thailand, I had told them that I wanted to come visit them. Years went by, and I kept in touch with both of them. Now, just over five years later, I arrived in Bangkok, and Fon was waiting at the Wienwang Yai train station in west-central Bangkok to greet us.
Over the next several days, Fon and Kan-t were incredible in showing us around their city. Fon picked us up from the train station in her car and took us to our Airbnb condo, where we’d stay for the next four nights. Later that night, they took us out to Chinatown. The night before leaving, they also took us out to eat at Asiatique, an up-scale mall area on the east bank of the river. And they made us eat and eat and eat.
Chinatown consists of three blocks of street food vendors. Fon and Kan-t would explain each food and would always ask if we wanted to try it. As we sat and ate just off the main street, the crowds of pedestrians passed by as well as mopeds and traffic, and I could not help but feel like Anthony Bourdain. By the end of the night, we had tried grilled duck with rice, roti bread, squid mouth, green tea ice cream, and sticky rice with mango. This was a perfect start to our days in Bangkok. The quality of the food really surprised me. Everything we tried was absolutely delicious and the quality was like eating at a Thai restaurant in the US. And we were eating on the street for cheap! I was pleasantly surprised.
Throughout our time in Bangkok, we found that a meal on the street typically costs between $1-$2 (30-65 Thai Bahts). And there is no lack of option. Everywhere we went, there was plenty of street food to choose from, serving all kind of Thai food like fried rice, soups with fishcakes, noodles with pork, etc. The portions are perfect, as well. They’re filling but not too big. We find ourselves eating at least two meals on the street every day, and sometimes even three. I oftentimes feel disappointed when I walk by something that looks tasty but I am feeling too full to try it. This is not a bad problem to have.
Fon and Kan-t also took us out for a night at Asiatique, an outdoor mall area on the south side of the city, resting right on the bank of the river. At the restaurant, they took the lead in ordering everything, and Chika and I had the privilege of trying all these new foods. Softshell crab, shrimp, spicy Thai soup, and squid. Everything was so fresh and incredible. I would try to describe the taste, but I would do it no justice. It’s just a perfect blend of spicy, sweet, and sour. I’ll just leave it at that.
A few things about Thais that we learned. Thais typically eat with a fork and a spoon, using the fork to push the food onto the spoon and only ever putting the spoon in their mouths. Meals are often ordered to be shared, as the dish sits in the middle of the table while each person has their own plate of white rice. Thais usually just take a little bit at a time to not mix flavors. So as Chika and I filled up our plates with a little bit from each dish, Fon and Kan-t would take just a little from one dish before moving onto the next. They were very proud in having us try the foods and happy to see how much we enjoyed it.
Afterwards, we walked around the Asiatique area, which is a large market for anything from trinkets to bags to watches to silk. Wanting to try something new, we saw the fish foot massage. This is not a Thai tradition, but we had the curiosity to try it. You may have seen this before; your feet are put in a small glass tub which contains many small fish. For whatever reason, the fish eat the dead skin off of your feet and ankles. I don’t know what I expected, but I was shocked by how strange it felt to have 40 fish biting off dead skin cells off of my feet. At first, it was almost unbearable. It was a strange ticklish feeling but the knowledge that they are actually biting the skin was weird. It was especially bad then they’d bite in between the toes or on the bottom of the foot. After about 20 minutes, it became more bearable and actually kind of nice. I could still feel the fish biting me for another 30 minutes after we finished. I think that was something I’d call a one-time experience.
Fon and Kan-t treated us great while we were in Bangkok. They took us out to a few places we might not have gone, showed us new foods, taught us about Thai culture, and were just incredible to be around. It was great to catch up with them after five years since we had last hung out in Iowa. I’m hoping it’s not another five years before seeing them again!