The Land of Smiles

Arriving in Bangkok from Delhi could not have provided a greater contrast. We were amazed at how stunningly beautiful the Bangkok airport was. Though we wish it hadn’t been the case, we felt as though most people we had interactions with in Delhi were not particularly welcoming. Imagine our excitement when upon landing, we discover that the unofficial slogan of Thailand is “The Land of Smiles.” After a seamless transit through immigration and the baggage check line, we took a taxi to our very fashionable and ultra-modern hostel, Take a Nap. Having not gotten any real sleep in almost 24 hours, we ate breakfast at the hostel and quickly crashed into our beds, whose sheets had been washed to a shade of brilliant white that we had never seen in India. Waking up in the middle of the afternoon, we breathed in a deep breath of centrally air conditioned air with enormous relief. We had made it to Thailand.

One of our favorite restaurants (and one that will cater at our December wedding) is Rama in Baton Rouge. This Thai restaurant, run by an awfully sweet Thai woman, was our first introduction to genuine Thai food. One of the reasons why we were so excited to come to Thailand was to sample the food! In preparation for the trip, I had read that Thai people are fairly meticulous about cleanliness, so we decided to seek out our first Thai meal in the form of some delicious street food. We certainly didn’t have to venture far– dozens of vendors were just down the street from our hostel. We were so excited, and shocked, to see how many vendors had their arms elbow deep in basins, washing used dishes in soapy water! Much of the food we found in Bangkok was like this– served in settings that can better be described as street restaurants than just simply “street food” per se.

We slurped down two huge, hot bowls of soup. Full, but a bit more sweaty after it, we caught a taxi to a Thai inspired Catholic Church for mass. After mass, we video conferenced with our parents and tried to finalize a few more last minute details regarding our upcoming trips to Sabah and Ko Tao. With our sense of time a bit warped from our early night flight and late afternoon nap, we decided to go see the new Indiana Jones at a nearby cinema, since we had not been able to in Delhi.

An interesting twist to our movie viewing experience occurred before the feature film was projected. Everyone in the theater rose and a “music video” of the Thai king doing ordinary, everyday tasks (like he was running for reelection or something) was played to the accompaniment of the national anthem. Afterwards, everyone sat down and the fourth Indiana Jones movie began! While watching the movie, I had the sense that the crew must have had a lot of fun making it; it was a bit sillier than what I was expecting so I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped. A bit hungry after the movie, we went on a midnight quest to find pad thai, likely one of our most favorite Thai dishes. Though it is likely Thailand’s most well known culinary export, we couldn’t find a restaurant serving it! Evidently, its status in modern Thailand is a bit like America’s hamburger- a bit too “junk food” to find its way into most restaurants. Fortunately, after catching a taxi to our hostel, we found some street vendors serving some, along with huge bottles of beer. Entirely satiated, we slept deeper that night than we had in quite a while.

Everyone had told us about how fabulous shopping in Bangkok was. So, our first activity of the day was to go checkout Siam Square, home to several shopping malls and countless stalls in a market area. We suspect that some dual pricing takes place there because though there were lots of Thais shopping as well, the prices we were quoted were so similar to the costs at home, we opted not to get anything. Many of the fake Polos and Lacostes that I saw were a bit too obvious, so although they were actually well made, it would have been a little embarrassing to wear such an obviously counterfeit name-brand shirt. Better to just shop at Target.

We had lunch at a noodle shop in the square, but unfortunately, Katie’s was so spicy that it made her feel a bit ill for the rest of the day. Weeks ago, I had also heard that Thailand is a great place to get custom tailored suits at a fraction of their cost. I figured that since I will need to upgrade my wardrobe from t-shirts and flip flops to something more dignified for medical school, I decided that I wanted to get several shirts and pants made. I explored several shops in the Sukhumvit area. Some were too expensive, some were too pushy, but I ended up settling on one that had a beautiful store front, a very pleasant staff, and quite reasonable prices. I decided to sleep on it, but had a good idea that I would be returning the following day. Our final activity of the night was a trip to the Suan Lum Night bazaar where all sorts of fun trinkets and things can be bought.

The next morning, we decided over breakfast to go ahead with the tailor. $25 a shirt and $40 per pants is hard to come by in the States. Here, I had full control over detail and it would fit perfectly- color, texture, collar shape, if I wanted French or barrel cuffs, chest pockets, you name it! It was wonderfully fun getting to pick everything. I decided to have a special suit made for the wedding. Considering I scoured Baton Rouge for a suit for under $250 a few years ago, I considered the $220 suit I got made from Italian Merino Wool to be quite the steal. Fortunately, they will also hold my measurements for the next 10 years, so just in case I can not come back to Bangkok anytime in the next decade, I can request to have fabric swatches sent and then “my tailor” can make it and send it via DHL within the week.

We had also hoped to obtain a wedding dress for Katie as well while we were in Bangkok. Based on a few pictures we had seen, plus a few ideas of our own, we went to go see one particular dressmaker on the opposite side of town that had been particularly well recommended to us by a friend of Mrs. Faust’s that travels abroad, and to Bangkok specifically, quite often. Unfortunately, the amount she wanted for it was almost double the US retail price so we decided that it made better fiscal sense to just wait till we returned home. Not to mention that she’ll actually get to see herself in it at home, whereas in Bangkok we were a bit limited to imagination and sketches. We had heard that “backpacker central” was this pedestrian street in Bangkok called Khao San Road. Our hostel actually wasn’t located there; it is more in the CBD. We nearly laughed when we got there, though. It looks almost like Bourbon street. It was just filled with Americans sitting at bars promoting cheesy happy hour specials or shopping at “trendy” t-shirt shops. We couldn’t tell if it was really cool, or just lame, but we left with the impression that we basically weren’t missing all that much.

We each needed to make some calls to Boston so after a pleasant beer and pad thai dinner, we ducked into an internet cafe for some time. The previous day, we had actually arrived too late to really appreciate the night bazaar– many stalls were closed or closing when we finally got there. So, from Khao San Road we caught a taxi back there. What has been interesting in Bangkok has been how closely integrated the taxis are to what one could consider “traditional” public transportation. Because we often need to transfer from the subway to the monorail to go to those areas that interest us most, it has usually been cheaper to simply take a taxi. We have felt like we’re in a Seinfeld episode- we have had lots of conversations in the back of a taxi! We got dinner at the market, bought a few things, but decided to just think about a few other ones before we bought anything else.

Bangkok doesn’t have too many sights you normally would think of as being “touristy.” It’s mostly a place you come to eat, play, and shop I think. Well, on our fourth day here, we felt as though we had to go see some kind of cultural site so we decided to go see a few temples and the Grand Palace. Thailand has had a king for the last several hundred years. The one now, Rama IX, has mostly a figurehead role, but it is amazing how much the Thai people adore him. His portrait is everywhere. (Interestingly, he is technically an American citizen; he was born in Mount Auburn Hospital in Boston because his father, who was not Rama VIII, was at the time finishing up his final year of medical school at Harvard.) Unfortunately we were not able to see either the Wat Po temple or the palace because we had taken a bit too long that morning and but were nearing their mid-afternoon closing time.

Since, I was scheduled to see the tailor at 5:30, we took off first to Bangkok’s Chinatown in search of a restaurant that I had read about in a New York Times travel article. Though we ended up sampling lots of snacks along the way, we weren’t able to find the specific restaurant. The hour was getting late so we returned to the tailor. It was so exciting putting on one of my newly tailored shirts. We checked out how flexibly I could move in it, tucked in a few baggy parts and gave my suit jacket a try. It was nothing more than a vest full of white threads at this stage, but I could tell that it was going to fit beautifully– it was tapered in a very flattering way on my torso, but at the same time, not at all restrictive or uncomfortable. I know now that I’m going to have to stay in shape during med school! After we were done at the tailor, we were fortunate enough to find a nearby internet cafe where we solved our restaurant riddle. The place we ate at was wonderful, as NPR and NYT told us it would be. I can also add that though it was better than Rama’s in Baton Rouge, it wasn’t by much. They really know how to cook! We ordered mee krob, a sweet fried noodle dish, a sauteed eggplant dish, a whole fried fish, and tom yum soup. Full and happy, we decided to spend our third night at the night bazaar one last time where I was able to buy cheaply a few very nice silk ties as well as get a few other things for our future home.

We got up early on our final day to ensure that we could visit the Grand Palace. It’s name certainly didn’t disappoint. Part of the extensive self-tour you can take is visiting the temples that are part of the palace. Never before had we ever seen such elaborate and painstaking work on a building. Millions of small glass tiles, all laid by hand, covered the temples. I was hoping we could visit the king’s mansion, but it wasn’t part of the tour unfortunately. Another part of the palace was closed for a lying-in-state ceremony. Despite the closed parts, we still believe that this was one of the most impressive palaces that we’ve seen on the trip; I’d put it second only to the Hapsburg in Vienna or maybe the sultan’s Haram in Istanbul. On the way to Wat Po, we got some bubble tea and a few snacks to hold us over through lunch. Wat Po was quite impressive; it contains the world’s largest reclining Budda, and gilded in gold at that!

On the way to pick up my shirts and suit, we stopped by Siam Square one last time to make sure that we weren’t forgetting anything that we had intended to buy. Unable to find anything, we just went over to the tailor. It felt great to put on my suit. It fits wonderfully and my name is even embroidered on the inside breast pocket. The shirts all came out well, too. It was a bit risky because it was difficult to predict how a shirt color would look on by only putting fabric up to one’s body, but they all turned out to be great. We had intended to go to bed early that night so that we could get some rest before our 07:00 flight, but between using the internet, eating dinner, and packing, we only managed to get little more than a “nap” before our alarm clock woke us up at 03:30.

I had intended to carefully pack my suit and take it along with me till we got back in July. Well, when checking into our flight for Phnom Penh, we discovered that we were nearly 9 kilograms (almost 20 lbs) over the tiny budget airline weight limit! At the rate they would charge us for oversize luggage over the next few flights, we could just mail the suit home. Fortunately, a post office was open at the airport and we were able to mail it with insurance back home. After repacking our bags a bit more, we returned to the counter only to find we were still 3 kilograms over the 15 kilogram limit! But right when Katie and I began visibly stressing about if we should pay for the surcharge with a credit card or cash, the airline employee, who by now was beginning to blush a bright shade of red, gave us our boarding passes and activated the conveyor belt. We smiled back, thanked her as discreetly as we could and headed off to passport control. Shortly after a delicious light breakfast of gourmet chocolate muffins and coffee, we took off for Cambodia!

Photos from BangkokĀ 

4 Responses to “The Land of Smiles”

  1. Mom F says:

    Tommy, I was wondering just how you two were fitting ANY extra gifts or clothes in your backpacks! So is the suit the only thing you’ve had to send home?
    Gorgeous pictures,
    With love,
    Mom F.

  2. Tommy says:

    Impressively, yes!

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