In November 2016, two friends from Portland and I began a junket to Southeast Asia that would take us to Thailand and Vietnam. Cindy, Kristi and I were to spend a couple of days in Bangkok to visit my friends Sakun and Yim, friends from the outdoor industry, then spend two weeks traveling in Vietnam.
This was my 8th visit to Thailand. I love Thailand – the people, the culture, the cuisine, the varied environments. From tropical paradises in the south, to the go-go capital Bangkok, the spirituality of Sukhothai, to the mountains north of Chiang Mai. It’s always had a special place in my heart.
For me, the primary reason for this trip was to see Vietnam. I’ve also been to Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Bhutan – and it was high time I experience Vietnam. But I couldn’t just go to Vietnam without visiting my Thai friends! I’d been in a business arrangement with them distributing kayaks and gear in the USA under the brand Feelfree. Sakun and his wife Yim are fine examples of the generosity, tolerance and hospitality Thais are famous for. I also have hosted them on their visits to my home town Portland, Oregon. And I was anxious to give Cindy and Kristi the experience of meeting them.
We arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport just before noon, seriously jet lagged but determined to stay awake the the entire rest of the day. We were very fortunate to be in good hands! Sakun and Yim had sent a van to pick us up! Once loaded we got to experience a Bangkok traffic nightmare first hand. The traffic crawled to a snails pace, but we eventually, through some crazy maneuvering, got to our hotel.
Checked in, it was time to get out and experience! First up, grab a long-tail boat to see, smell and just be amazed by a first-hand on-the water drama of life on a bustling SE Asian river and then check out Bangkok’s klongs (canals). Hopefully check out Wat Pho and get a massage after. To do that, we had to cross Sanam Luang. It is a park adjacent to the Royal Palace grounds, in between our hotel and the river. But three weeks before our arrival, the reigning King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, on the throne 70 years and revered by every single citizen, died. The country was in a national state of mourning, with 10,000 people a day using Sanam Luang as a staging point to go pay respects to the King at the Royal Palace. Respectful attire was mandatory – black top and bottom, no flip flops, no baseball caps, no t-shirts. We all had learned about this before the visit so we came as prepared as possible.
The streets surrounding Sanam Luang were closed to traffic and the area fenced off, with security checkpoints at entries. The guards were perfectly friendly to us. Inside, there was an unusual to us, but 100% Thai, phenomenon going on. While people were mourning the king, others were gladly volunteering themselves – time, goods and services – to comfort those mourning – some who’d traveled hundreds of miles. All wearing black mourning ribbons on sleeves.
Food service companies donated food. Massage therapists tended to the weary. And cooks prepared food – all day – as volunteers – for those who’d made the trek. What an awe inspiring sight! We were offered food as well, but we felt very awkward about accepting it, considering the circumstances.
Even the military and police from around the nation came and paid respects.
Having crossed Sanam Luang, it was only a couple of blocks further to the river and a pier, where a long tail boat could be arranged. There was so much going on at once Cindy and Kristi were snapping tons of photos. The crazy motorbike traffic. The Buddhist monks.
Motorbikes are one of the primary land transportation modes!
Upon reaching the pier, I was able to grab a long-tail boat for what would about to about a 90-minute trip across the river and through the canals. The Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok, is practically as busy and seemingly chaotic as the streets. We loved it.
Back in the canals, known as klongs, it’s a mish mash of rich and poor, expensive homes with gazebos over the water, temples, riverside parks, and families who make their living right there, eeking out a living day by day. It’s not Amsterdam by any means. Standards of cleanliness and pollution are, well, perhaps ignored altogether. Still, it is an interesting place to visit. Many homes have spirit houses perched outside.
Once back on shore, we meandered toward Wat Pho. Wat Pho is famous because it contains the largest sleeping Buddha in the world. It lies east of the south wall of the Grand Palace. All along the way we pass hordes of mourners dressed in black. When we finally arrive at the gate, Wat Pho is closed for the day. And right at that moment, our luck turned bright. An entrepreneurial Tuk Tuk driver struck up a conversation with us, and we told him we were hoping to find a seafood restaurant for dinner. He says, “Jump In – I’ll take you to one.” Not knowing much of anything about Bangkok’s neighborhoods, we went along – it turned out to be a riverside restaurant on the edge of Chinatown. Of course, the tuk-tuk ride is always fun, especially for the uninitiated! A tuk tuk ride is a must for anyone visiting Bangkok.
After a hot, humid afternoon, a riverside restaurant, with its cooling breezes, was welcome. As was the views of boats going back and forth!
Hunger satisfied and tired after a very full day we head back to our hotel. Tomorrow we’d view some more Buddhist temples and then grab a massage – followed by dinner with Sakun and Yim!