(As mentioned in the first blog post, the author went on a solitary Yuletide trip in December 2013 to Thailand and Cambodia for more than two weeks. In a series of blog posts, he shall recount his travel experiences as a first-time solo backpacker at the young age of 22.)
ARRIVAL IN BANGKOK
After months of convincing my loved ones that I’d be all right when I traveled on my own, I found myself traipsing vigilantly in the Suvarnabhumi (pronounced as soo-wah-na-poom) International Airport in Bangkok just minutes before midnight. I was filled with enthusiasm, until my roaming subscription did not work and I was worried that my parents were worried about me. I was also afraid that my Bangkok-residing Filipino friend (Guill), who promised to host me while I was in Thailand, would not be around to fetch me. He would be returning to the Philippines three days later as I explored Bangkok on my own.
That busy Friday evening was an insult to my ego. There were a multitude of foreigners moving about the concourse as they strolled away from the diminishing crowd. I was left sulking by myself, unsure if I was in the right place. Backing out was not an option, but I could always curse under my breath as I figured things out. So I went to the information center and ask if there was Wi-Fi, and sure there was. I immediately keyed in Facebook and discovered that my friend was online. He quietly assured me that he was patiently waiting at the airport lobby. By that time, my confidence had already climbed a notch higher. Then I remembered I had Viber and informed my family that I had safely arrived in Bangkok. 🙂
After going through the immigration process, I swiftly “skated” with my sneakers across the gleaming halls of chlorinated tiles and whitewashed walls. Guill spotted me among the crowd of tourists. We exchanged hugs and asked each other how we were. There were trains that would directly ferry the passengers from the airport to the city center of Bangkok but, by the time I arrived in Bangkok, the service was already over for that day. So Guill and I took a taxi, instead, which cost around 300 Baht for a 30-minute ride to Sutthisan, where Guill’s apartment was located.
Halfway through the taxi ride, a Thai song from the extremely popular teen series Hormones was played, which quickly set the tenor of my midnight. When we reached his place, we felt famished so we decided to grab some snacks at a nearby 7-11.
WAKING UP AT CHATUCHAK WEEKEND MARKET
It was a sunny Saturday morning that greeted our sleepy heads. I opened the window to witness how the gentle 7 o’ clock sunshine washed the smooth pavement gold. The sun was peeking through the nimbus windows as the cirruses were flapping their wings. After taking a shower and buying soy milk and shrimp burger at 7-11, Guill and I headed for the Chatuchak Weekend Market (CWM). As the name stated, it is only open on weekends, got it? 😛
To get to CWM, take the MRT and get off at Kamphaeng Phet Station, NOT Chatuchak Station. (MRT Directory here.) Take Exit 2 to reach the entrance of CWM. The entrance would be right in front of your nose once you exit the station.
Arriving in Bangkok on a Friday evening was not an option for me, but starting my cultural immersion in Thailand on a Saturday morning proved to be beautifully unexpected. Where else is it best to experience the richness of a culture than in a marketplace? In the market, you encounter food, pottery, handicrafts, art, music, clothes, jewelry, etc. Anthropologists and sociologists argue that the marketplace is a venue where people gather to engage in what they value. If the market has a large section on clothing, one could say that the people of that culture (where the market belongs) value fashion.
The Chatuchak Weekend Market is too huge to be explored in a day. In fact, we arrived there at 9 AM and did not finish shopping until 5 PM! Visiting the market should be planned, so I’m dropping the map here. It was very interesting to know how much Thais or, more particularly, Bangkokians value shopping and business the way the Chinese do. A marketplace that is humongous and is open every weekend tells about how central it is in the lives of the people that it sustains. Apart from this weekend market, there are several other markets in Bangkok that are open everyday. In short, nobody would run out of places to buy food, clothing, or souvenirs.
Guill and I spent the first hour scanning the entire marketplace as we took note of which places/stalls to return to to get the deals done. CWM was too flavorful, and every rush of air into my lungs was a lustful invitation to partake in meals every hour. We found an eatery that sold cheap local food in the midst of a crowd of hungry tourists. A plate of pad thai (flat noodles with bean sprouts, shrimps, scrambled eggs, and lime juice) cost 40 Baht, and a bowl of tom yum goong (hot and sour shrimp soup with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal) cost 50 Baht. A cup of rice was worth 5 Baht. Since Guill and I shared the food, we ended up paying only 50 Baht each. Both the pad thai and the tom yum goong were fantastic and were twice as delicious as the ones served in fine-dining restaurants abroad (aka The Philippines) and for even a much much cheaper price.
So here is my piece of advice. If you wish to get the most of your visit in a foreign country, splurge on the local food especially the ones that are sold in the streets. If they are cooked right in front of you, you can be sure they are clean. By preferring local food, not only do you save money but you also strengthen your memories about the places you visit. Why go to Thailand if you would only eat bland fried chicken and greasy hamburgers? And when you come home, you’ll crave Thai food and be disappointed that the nearest kitchen that serves it is a posh restaurant that serves pad thai made of gold and diamond?
Go local and realize it would be an investment of a lifetime. The streets are filled with food stalls because street food kicks asses, and people keep on coming back to have their asses kicked. When you return home, the smell of lemongrass will suddenly bring back memories of your visits to Buddhist temples, of resounding Thai pop when you passed by Siam Square, of a humid afternoon along Sukhumvit Road….
When we finished our meals, we decided to part ways so we could focus on our own shopping. I found an area where souvenir foods were sold. There were durian candies, all sorts of dried fruits like kiwi and mangoes, spicy fish crackers, etc. I bought green coconut jellies, dried kiwi, and spicy tamarind. The vendor thought I was Thai so she initially spoke to me in Thai. But realizing that I was still Asian (albeit not Thai) when I started to bargain, she knew I was educated in the art of haggling. And because I was so good at it, she whispered to me to soften my voice because the other foreigners would hear our deals. Most of what I bought I got for 50% the original price. 😀
I always buy pasalubong first whenever I reach my destination because I wish to make sure that I have something to bring back with me. I bought fisherman’s pants, pouches with elephant motifs, key chains, small notebooks, bookmarks, and silk scarves. I wanted to buy some ceramic pieces but decided not to so I could save on luggage space and weight. Besides, I’m not a fan of ceramics, anyway.
After three hours of constant walking and looking for my way out, I chanced upon an artist who was carving soaps on the spot. The floral shapes were spectacular and they came with covers with intricate paintings. I thought these flower soaps would make special gifts, so I bought some. Later on, I found out they were also available at MBK Mall for almost the same price, sans the experience of witnessing a artist carving them live.
After exiting the main market trail, I was greeted by topical fruits like guavas, papayas, watermelons, and pineapples. They were a perfect companion to an overly heated body.
By 3 PM, the market was more crowded than hours before, and I was to escape the sea of sweaty bodies by entertaining myself in the artist villages in the market, where there were considerably fewer people. Here, there were folks playing traditional Thai instruments, and each artist seemed to be busy painting and drawing in his/her own mini art gallery.(Please ask permission first before taking photos of any of the artworks! )
Chatuchak is blazing with colors and sensory attractions that, even if you get hungry, you might not feel it right away because your senses are constantly bombarded with sights and sounds unless, of course, food is shown to you…like in the photo below.
How could I decline when my own tummy was in agreement with this kind man’s offer? Freshly fried basil cakes with spicy sauce made of melted palm sugar and chili? It was a deal! I quickly paid him and grabbed the food, not until I took a picture of him and the basil cakes. After a few mouthfuls, I realized I was terribly hungry. My hands were already shaking. 😀 One box was a piece of heaven worth 15 Baht!
Once finished, I scurried to the neighboring ice cream stall and feasted on coconut ice cream for 25 Baht. Truth be told, there were so many other foods that I tried after this ice cream, but I am not going to post them here anymore for the sake of brevity. Hahaha.
EVENING FOOD TRIP WITH THAI FRIENDS
It was 5 o’ clock when Guill and I decided to meet to return to his apartment. When we reached home, we munched on heavenly som tam (green papaya salad with chilies, lime juice, peanuts, and shrimp) while I drank grass jelly juice. Guill left for a nearby Iglesia ni Kristo for a choir rehearsal, and I freshened up for my reunion with a Thai friend, Jar, whom I met in the US back in 2007 when we were both exchange students. We were to meet at Nana – a district in Bangkok populated by Arabs and Muslims. “Wonderful,” I mumbled to myself. A place with a predominantly Muslim population meant 0% encounter with pork. (I I don’t eat pork.)
To reach Nana, take the MRT and get off at Sukhumvit Station, which is connected to Asoke Station of the BTS Skytrain. Take the Skytrain to Nana. Prepare your eyes as you find your way out of the station. Sukhumvit Road, where Nana is located, is notorious for sidewalk shops selling X-rated stuff. (Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.)
The prices in the menu of the Arab restaurant that we visited were extremely high for a budget traveler like me that I ended up ordering a cup of Turkish coffee only. I suggested eating street food, instead, and my decision was to be applauded. A serving of warm chicken falafel (Middle Eastern pita bread filled with garbanzo balls, yogurt, and spicy herbs) was glorious! The streets of Nana were very much alive that evening. It was a Saturday night, after all, and people were either dining out (or making love) or looking for a place to dine out (or to make love).
Guill arrived at Nana with two Filipinos whom I also happened to know because of the exchange program that I participated in. He suggested that go to Ratchathewi for some late-night dinner. We took two cabs (three persons in each cab) from Sukhumvit Road to Ratchathewi for 60 Baht each cab. Cabs can be cheaper than the MRT and the Skytrain especially when traveling in groups, because the fare can be divided among the group members. Furthermore, taking the train in Thailand can be a tad too expensive unlike here in the Philippines. The minimum fare is 25 Baht and there are places that are still not accessible via trains. My advice? Think twice before riding the train. Sometimes, taking the taxi would be cheaper.
Then we reached Ratchathewi…
The evening was dark and the cold air made love to my skin every so often as we laughed sweetly over dinner. I was so grateful that Tiggy offered to help me communicate with the noodle lady when I needed to specify the toppings that I wanted, and that I needed a spoon because I was not very skilled in using the chopsticks. We talked about how AFS had changed our lives, and the evening breeze was filled with stories from six years ago. One moment everybody was talking in English then, suddenly, the Thais would switch to Thai and the Filipinos to Filipino. And we would all giggle in unison.
This day marked the start of a thrilling trip to Thailand. When I arrived in Bangkok the night before, I almost convinced myself my trip would be a failure, that I mocked bravery and courage. But just as the night was about to end, my heart was smiling softly under the canopy of stars.
Your Pinoy Joie de Vivre