Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Logic of 7/11s in Bangkok

Day 1 

The best thing about having a job is taking off from it. As soon as you buy your first ticket, a little butterfly breaks out of its cocoon, fluttering about from Tripadvisor to Bookings.com, going a little nutty looking at photographs of deluxe rooms and aqua-colored waters, then laying back to dream of a wide expanse of land with no office to go to…

I actually made a word document scheduling my vacation, and I’m only a little embarrassed about it. I did have Fahad with me, to slow down the planning and cut off sunsets that require 40minute bus rides and snorkeling trips that warrant a 7am wake up time, instead replacing it with slow walks down bright streets and swimming in the most amazing clear sea in Thailand.
The first thing I loved about our trip was not starting with a sleepless night. The flight was comfortably scheduled at 11:55 pm, giving us the whole day to relax, pack (who am I kidding, I was packed two days before) and have some chai before leaving for the airport.

The second thing I liked was the bright pink and purple décor of Thai airways (even the seatbelt was an inky indigo!). And the soft blanket and pillow waiting for us on our seats. Seriously, we know it is going to be freezing as soon as the seatbelt lights go off and then the awkward flagging down of an airhostess and requesting a blanket while five other people want water and headphones and chocolate milk for their screaming kid… putting the pillow and blanket saves us all that trouble.

We did have the customary screaming baby (the prolonged shrill crying that makes you vacillate between sympathy and murder) on our flight but the entertainment system had enough movies and TV shows to drown out most of the sound!

We landed feeling really sleepy, especially Fahad who had chosen his PC over practical sleep the night before, but all we needed was to step out of the plane into the humid warmth of Bangkok to feel alive again. Woohoo. The first breath in foreign air is always energizing, the thought of several days ahead with new sights, soft beds and colorful food, relaxes out my shoulders and puts a super cheesy grin on my face.

The efficient taxi-ticketing system of Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi) got us into a bright green taxi but didn’t solve the dilemma of trusting the taxi driver’s flat rate of 500baht or following the advice of traveling websites and asking for the meter rate. We went for the meter but there was definitely something wrong with it because it sped up faster than hail in a crazy Lahore hailstorm so we reverted to the flat rate.
We realized later that the meter was rigged or something because our other taxis had a much more calming rate of increasing!

 Bangkok is a brilliant city. It’s an eclectic mix of giant billboards, snazzy malls, temples, street vendors, dingy streets and speedy rickshaws. I loved the organized transport – clean trains and buses right on time, easy to hail a taxi or just walk around. I also admire how locals don’t really speak English that well, we had a grand old time at a 7/11 trying to buy our budget airline tickets. Speaking of 7/11, can someone explain why there are more 7/11s in Bangkok than allergic reactions in Karachi? And another mystery is that of Muslim showers in Thailand. And even Laos! The joy of finding a Muslim shower in foreign bathrooms is more than waking up at 6:00 am on a weekday to realize you have an hour and a half of sleep still left.

We got an early check-in at our hotel (only Thailand can give you fancy hotels for the price of less fancy ones) and set out to conquer the city. We managed one temple and decided to take a break – in our defense, it was hot and we were wearing jeans. And uncomfortable shoes.

Tip for fellow travelers: invest in comfortable shoes, if it’s a hot destination then go for those geeky but adventurous looking sandals.

St Louis has trained me well in the art of map-reading, otherwise Fahad and I are both prone to being lost. We bought some mango and corn on our way to the pier where ferries took you to all the temples and plazas and markets tourists need to visit. I don’t think it was the magic of being on holiday (which makes us look at everything – even rickshaws cutely called tuk tuks in a happy light. How quaint! A bazaar with carts set up with brightly colored purses and key chains! Chicken hearts on sticks next to the signpost! Wow!) – that corn was out of this world. It melted in our mouth, the perfect blend of salty and sweet, fresh as if the cornfields were a five minute walk away…

The ferry ride is nice, you can look at a lot of buildings on the side. I especially loved the ancient government houses and offices, and the brilliant green leaves budding in the cracks of dilapidated shacks, their wooden balconies broken, tilting, and a person here or there sitting casually smoking a cigarette, as if on a postcard.

However, I wouldn’t recommend taking the ferry for each destination. It costs 40baht per person per trip and actually, if you go into the city from any one of the ports, you can just walk or hail a tuk tuk or even get a bus to most of the tourist spots.

We got off at the pier in search of the flower market I had read about, only to find lots of cool vegetables, fire red chilies, giant shiny ginger and rows and rows of onions. No flowers though.

Our walk to Wat Pho rendered me into a shiny lobster-face but the temple and its surrounding compound was beautiful. The golden Buddha lay stretched out languorously, leaning on one elbow, smiling beatifically into the distance. Wait for the full photo opportunity towards the end of the hallway, where you rotate among other tourists to snap a picture with all of Buddha.     

If it had been a cooler day, we might have sat at one of the fake waterfalls and had some juice. But the heat spotted our faces in dots of perspiration and my toes hurt so we google mapped our way back to Sukhumvit.

Oh, invest in a tourist SIM and use google maps to get anywhere in Bangkok! The public transit options are accurate and excellent.

The buses are a great way to see more of the city, passing through different neighborhoods, hurtling down wide streets and screeching to stops at the traffic lights. We got off randomly and found ourselves in front of a bar that had jazz music on Sunday afternoons. And it was a Sunday afternoon indeed! It was a cool, baroque bar, practically empty. The jazz ensemble included two old Americans and two young Thai boys – the bass player was really good. I pulled up my feet and had a strange lunch consisting of fish bites, baked potato and spring rolls.

Back to our hotel, a short siesta and then towards MBK center in search of Fahad’s electronicky things. What a lovely time of the day! The sun was resting up in the cloudy sky and the wind became cooler, breezing through our hair and clothes, cooling the humidity of the afternoon. Everything is bathed in a lovely yellow, early evening glow. MBK was not my cup of tea but the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center right across from it was AMAZING! Lit up, clean, airy, with three floors of art and literature. Cute shops, notebooks, tote bags, paintings, coffee – need I say more?

After the center we got a tuk tuk to Khao San Road. The tuk tuk driver seriously thought he was a Formula 1 racer. I’m from Karachi and I have been in some thrilling rickshaw rides but this guy reminded me I’m not 18 anymore!

Had the most delicious pad thai, sitting out on the patio of a restaurant. An interesting thing about Thailand is the number of dogs. Most of them look super cute, with curly hair and floppy ears, but in dire need of baths. People lounge about with their cats and dogs quite casually, and at our restaurant a tiny but dangerously nippy pup chased one of the waitresses, chewing on her ankles as she yelled and everybody around her laughed.

Quite a trippy street! Good for souvenirs and gifts for people back home. After the earlier tuk tuk, I suggested a bus ride home. It was rickety, fast, with no air conditioner but wide open windows. Absolutely loved zipping down the streets, passing lit up monuments and shops, with all the city life showing no signs of sleep, people crowded in restaurants over chopsticks and beer, walking up and down the sidewalks, laden with shopping bags.


What an accomplishment to get off at the right stop on our first day in Bangkok! 

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