When my friends and I went to Bangkok 2 years ago, I didn't get the chance to see it that much. We headed straight to Koh Pangan from Luang Prabang in Laos for the Full Moon Party - a long, arduous journey by land that lasted for 3 days. After the party, we sailed back to the mainland and stayed in the capital for a couple of days before we flew to Burma. Exhausted from the long trips and partying, we locked ourselves in our Couchsurfing host's townhouse throughout our stay. Thinking that capital cities in Southeast Asia probably looked the same, I thought I didn't miss out on anything. Obviously, I was wrong to assume that when you've seen one, you've seen them all and Bangkok, my first stop, rubbed it in the moment I stepped out of the airport.
I stayed in a Bed Station Hostel in Petchaburi - a stone's throw away from MRT station and about 10 minutes away from shopping centres on a gigantic scale, massage parlours, restaurants and a gorgeous minimalist building that is the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. To save on cash, I bought a Rabbit Card (the MRT card in Bangkok) for THB 180 and wandered aimlessly around the city with a few travellers from the hostel.
If China is red, Thailand is gold. Gold accentuated the streets, temples, buddhas, monuments, buildings, Thai umbrellas and traditional clothes. Whether it's paint or the real gold, it's something that I saw more in Thailand than in any other place I've visited in Southeast Asia, and there was more in the Grand Palace. Grand was a fitting description of the complex. Built in 1782, it was once home to many generations of Thai Kings.
Apart from its historical value, what made the Grand Palace appealing to tourists is its architecture. It was a burst of colours against the blue summer sky. Walls and columns were either clad in brightly coloured tile mosaic or painted with murals; golden finials crowned the roofs.
So many buildings, so little time. I wasn't even sure if I was able to see all of them. I heard that some areas were not open to the public. In order for me to really learn and appreciate the buildings and the story behind them, I would need at least 2-3 days to go around at a slower pace. When I went to the Grand Palace, I was with another traveller from the hostel who wanted to see the China Town in the afternoon and so we only had a few hours to see the entire compound.
Bangkok's China Town was busy day and night. Apart from the cheap food and the cheap finds, it was a visual treat. In the day, everyone was preoccupied with their own business. Crates filled with vegetables pushed around, people in office attire walked about and cars and motorcycles zoomed in and out of the narrow alleys. Low-rise buildings were haphazardly maintained and decorated with Chinese ornaments crammed the area; the air was filled with smoke and the noise that came from kitchens and vehicles. At night, the streets glowed with colourful lights from the food carts and huge store signs. This was the time when the China Town got even more crowded. Even on a weekday, restaurants, food stalls and hole-in-the-walls were packed with people dining with their friends and family.
In the intersection about 10 minutes away from my hostel were MBK, Siam Centre and the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Whenever I walked to MBK to buy some food in the grocery store, I would pass by Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) before heading back to the hostel. This building is dedicated to all forms of art you can think of - from visual to audio and even wearable ones; from traditional to modern. There were art cafes, galleries, shops selling things made by local artists and an art library inside it. For an artist like me, spending one whole day in this building wasn't enough.
After spending four days in Bangkok, I hopped in a sleeper train to Chiang Mai. For two days, I managed to see only 3 temples out of over 300, according to Google. There were no MRTs so getting around was difficult for me because I couldn't ride a motorbike. I relied on Google Maps for directions but it took me to the back streets, parking lots and highways that were clearly not built for walking. On my first day, I dodged speeding vehicles to get to the other side of the road and walked further until I finally reached the old city late in the afternoon, just in time to see the monks pray in Wat Chedi Luang. From there, I made my way to another temple called Wat Phra Singh, about 10 minutes away on foot.
The following day, Nattida, a Thai Couchsurfer who's only a few years younger than me, took me to Wat Umong. This ancient temple was built close to Doi Suthep National Park some 700 years ago and has been home to monks who offer to teach meditation. Unlike the other temples in the city centre, it was heavily forested. It was relaxing to see all the greens and breathe in fresh air after spending days in the streets of Bangkok breathing in smoke that came from the vehicles.
3 hours by bus from Chiang Mai is a more laid back town called Chiang Rai. It was more like a pitstop, or at least that's what the hostel receptionist told me. He said there's not much to see in Chiang Rai. Still, I thought it was fascinating in its own right. I stayed in Mercy Hostel in Jet Yord Road. In the same street, I saw quaint restaurants, bars and shops that occupied in the rundown buildings.
Day 1 was spent with another travel from the hostel. We left the hostel after lunch and shared a songthaew (some call it the red bus or the Bhat bus) for Bhat 1000 going to Wat Rong Khun and the Singha Park. In the late 20th century, the original temple was in a bad state and was later on rebuilt by a Thai visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Though this place was intended for learning, meditation and teaching (just like any other Buddhist temples), it also has its own art gallery. The gallery was closed when I was there, but the main temple - the main attraction in the compound - itself was a piece of art. Wat Rong Khun stood out from the dull clusters of commercial buildings that is impossible miss when you're driving in the highway looking for it.
I was not able to see the rest of Chiang Rai because I suffered from food poisoning but I made sure to make the most of my stay. Last on my list for that day was Singha Park. I was told that the best time to go there would be in the afternoon for sunset, though I wished I went there earlier for a quick tour around the tea plantation. After seeing so many temples (4-5 is too many for me), I thought the tea plantation was a wonderful place to visit for a change. Within the park, there's a fancy restaurant that offered a lovely view of the sunset. I took pictures most of the time and didn't realise that the food I ordered went cold.
My last 3 days were literally "shitty". My Day 2 in Chiang Rai was spent in the hostel recovering from food poisoning. I flew back to Bangkok that evening and was hoping that I'd feel a little better in the morning so I could do a quick tour in the floating village but I ended up ditching that plan. As much as I wanted to see more of Thailand, I could no longer muster the strength to walk outside even just to get food. I spent half the time in the toilet and the other half in bed.
Food poisoning aside, I still think that Thailand was a country worth praising. It was a wonderful combination of local culture and outside influence. The the country progressed but it did not eliminate the elements that formed its identity completely. Some of the modern buildings' design included traditional elements, while there's the White Temple built by an artist that dared to make it different.