Hello readers . . . Today I want to share my journeys about traveling through Thailand. Though I only had 8 days, I crammed in as many experiences as possible. It was an incredible trip, and I can’t wait to go back again! I don’t want to overwhelm you with all my adventures all at once, so I am going to break this entry into segments. This is part one of my journey, Bangkok and Ayutthaya!
My trip to Thailand could not have come at a better time. Just as I was leaving, a 3 day snow storm and record low temperatures took over the Korean peninsula. I was very ready for some tropical sunshine!
Unfortunately the snow storms caused many flight delays. Originally I was supposed to depart at 9:00am, fly to Guangzhou, China, have a 3 hour layover, then fly to Bangkok. When I checked in, the attendant informed me that I would miss my connecting flight, so they rebooked me with a different airline that flew out later in the afternoon. The airport is over an hour from where I stay in Seoul, so I really did not want to journey back and forth again.
Luckily, Incheon Airport is one of nicest airports in the world. Inside there is a movie theater, spas, and even an ice skating rink. The night before, I had slept like a child does on Christmas eve, so I decided I would take a nap at the airport jjimjilbang (spa). For those of you who do not know, a jjimjilbang is a public bathhouse/sauna which also provides public sleeping areas. The first time I experienced a jjimjilbang I was a little nervous and uncomfortable, but afterwards I really enjoyed it. Now I go regularly on Sunday afternoons, especially during the cold winter months. Even though I was anxious to get to Thailand, I figured some extra rest couldn’t hurt.
When I arrived, the jjimjilbang was not very busy, so I was able to sleep in the “female only” room which is much darker and quieter than the coed room. I took a 3 hour nap, then relaxed in the hot bath. After my bath, I got ready ,had a late lunch, then checked in for my flight. It was finally time to head to Bangkok!
When I arrived, my friend Sam met me at the airport. It was so great to see him again. Sam and I know each other from living in Atlanta, GA. He also used to teach in Korea, but he left a month after I had arrived. It had been a year since we had seen each other, so we had a lot of catching up to do! Originally we were going to go out drinking in Bangok and have a nice dinner, but since I arrived so late (1:30am), we decided to go to Sam’s place and rest up for a big day of exploring.
The next day Sam and I took a van to the train terminal in downtown Bangkok. The transportation is not as systematic and convenient as Seoul. In Seoul, the subway goes everywhere and even extends to remote neighborhoods. In Bangkok, the subway only goes to the main popular districts. Most people travel by vans, tuk-tuks, rusty old buses, or taxis. Sam lives about 30 minutes from the center of the city, so the most reliable form of transportation is the commuter van. We told an old woman where we needed to go, she hauled us a van, then we jumped in. I am glad I had Sam, as it would have been difficult to figure everything out on my own. When we got in the van, I was very confused about when and how we were supposed to pay. Before I could mutter my question, someone nudged me with a basket. I found this to be amusing, because I am so used to systematic nature of Seoul. In Korea everything is payed for with the swipe of a card, so passing around a basket seemed quite rustic in comparison. Also the traffic flow was very different. The streets of Bangkok are filled with motor bikes, and everyone weaves in and out of traffic in a very unorganized fashion. I decided that is was best not to pay much attention to the driving, otherwise I might get car sick.
Sam decided that the best way for us to get to Ayutthaya would be to take the train, because it only cost about 1$. We bought our tickets, then decided to grab a few beers and people-watch while we waited for the train. I was most fascinated by watching the monks. I was very curious about where they were going. In the airports and train terminals, there were special seating areas designated for them, and I frequently saw large groups traveling together. I particularly admired their vibrant orange robes. It was much more exciting than the dull grey robes Korean monks wear. Also people in Thailand show much more reverence to monks than they do in Korea.
Another interesting thing I noticed were all the pictures and memorabilia of the king. Sam told me that it is a crime to say anything against the royal family. If one speaks against the King, they will surely go to jail, and depending on the case, sometimes even get a death penalty. The kings picture is in every public building, on all of the currency, and even plastered on giant billboards and buildings.
As we sat and waited on the train Sam told me all about cultural etiquette and customs in Thailand. Here are some that I found rather interesting:
Do’s and Don’ts to Observe in Thailand:
Remove your shoes: Whenever entering someones home or a temple, one must remove their shoes. There were even instances where I had to take off my shoes when entering hotel check-in areas.
Hand Gestures: In Thailand, the wai is a prayer-like gesture with the hands together in front, and the head is slightly bowed. It is impolite not to return a wai, however the king and monks do not have to return a wai.
Use your right hand: Apparently the left hand is considered dirty, because it is used for functions in the “squat” toilet. Therefore whenever paying or handing over an object, you should use your right hand. If you want to be really polite, touch your left hand to your right forearm.
Use a spoon for eating: The proper way to eat Thai food is with the spoon in your right hand and a fork in your left. The fork is used to rake food into the spoon, and the fork never goes into the mouth. Chopsticks are rarely used or available.
Respect monks: Monks receive a higher wai than ordinary people, and monks are not required to return the gesture. Woman are not allowed to touch a monk. If a woman needs to hand something to a monk, he will use a special cloth to receive the item.
Don’t point your feet: Resting your feet on a chair is seen as extremely rude. When sitting on the ground do not cross your legs or leave your legs extended out. Never ever use your feet to pick something up. Also never step on money, as it seen as disrespect to the royal family.
Don’t touch someone’s head: As the feet are considered the dirtiest and lowest part of the body, the head is seen as the most sacred. Therefore it is important to never touch someone’s face or head. This means to not playfully touch someone’s hair, and do not step over people who are sitting or laying on the ground.
Ok now that you know the etiquette of Thailand, let me get on with my adventure. . .
Sam and I decided to buy the cheaper seats to get a more authentic experience of how Thai people travel. There was no AC, instead just open windows and fans. I could smell delicious wafts of street food fill the air. I was very excited to see the sites from the train. Occasionally someone would come by and offer to sell mangos or a variety of snacks.
As the train took off it moved very slow, and kept stopping every 5-10 minutes. Sam and I realized that we had definitely chosen the slow route to our destination, but we did not care. It gave us time to talk, enjoy a beer, and see Bangok and the countryside.
After an hour-and-half snail-paced train ride, we finally arrived in Ayutthaya! Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and it was the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai. In the 1700′s it was the largest city in the world with a total of 1 million inhabitants. It was also know as the trading capital of Asia as it was conveniently located centrally to India, China, and the Malay Archipelago. In 1767 Ayutthaya’s grandeur came to an end due to the Burmese invasion, where the city was almost completely burned to the ground. Though most of the city was destroyed, the remaining structures give tourists a glimpse of how impressive this city must have been.
Before deciding where we would go next, I decided to use the bathroom. As I was walking in, suddenly I was stopped by an attendant asking for money. I then realized that you must pay to use the public bathroom facility. It was slightly inconvenient, because I was really anxious to pee, and was not in the mood to hunt for spare change in my wallet. Also I was not paying for some glorious toilet, instead it was a disgusting squat toilet. Luckily I have been exposed to the squat toilets in Korea, so I was not shocked or surprised, but I was hoping to at least get my money’s worth for a nice commode. Using the bathroom cost 3Baht which is equivalent to 10 cents in USD.
After the bathroom, I was ready to finally get on our way. Sam and I perused a line of tuk-tuk drivers looking for the best deal. I was glad to have Sam, because I was clueless about what a “fair price” should be. Sam has a very sassy and confident nature, so he was very good at negotiating a bargain. We ended up paying 600 Baht (16-17$) for a tuk tuk driver to take us around for 3 hours to anywhere that we desired. Apparently that was actually a little expensive, but having our own private driver for less than 10$ each seemed like a deal to me.
The first place we visited was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, or otherwise known as the ” Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory.” I wish I knew more about the history of this sacred monument, but from what I read it dates back to around 1357, though some historians think that it may date back to later periods. When I first arrived I was in awe of the beautiful architecture and spiritual essence. When looking at the rows of Buddha statues, I could not help but feel serene coupled with a sense of wonder. It was an incredible feeling, that also made me realize how lucky I am to travel and see the sites of the world.
I do not remember what the other temple was called, but it was just as amazing. I am not sure why, but there were elephants roaming around which were decorated in beautiful ornate garments. It seemed as if they were setting up for some sort of festival or event, but we did not stay long enough to find out what was going on.
The elephant was not the only animal we observed. There was also a sweet little dog that followed me and Sam around the temple grounds. We were not sure why she liked us so much, because we were not carrying any food or treats. She stayed with us the whole time, but not in an annoying way. When we left, she seemed that she wanted to come with us, and she even tried to chase our tuk tuk as we drove away. I am not sure why, but Sam and I were very moved by this dog’s companionship.
There was one particular moment that I found to be the most captivating; it was a Buddha head that had been overgrown inside of a tree. I was not sure if it was originally placed inside the tree, or if enough time had passed to cause it to become overgrown. However, I could not help but stop in awe of its presence.
As we left the temple, the sun was setting and we were ready to head back to Bangkok. We decided to take a commuter van which was much faster than the train. Sam and I were a little tired from our day of exploring, however we were ready to take on Bangkok! Stay tuned to my blog for more of my Thailand adventures . . .