With the song One Night in Bangkok playing in our heads during a handful of days spent in the ‘City of Angels,’ we admired Buddhas in a multitude of poses, tried our hand at Thai cooking, fought back tears during our first Thai massage, and observed revelers celebrating the Thai king’s 84th birthday.
This was my second trip to Bangkok, a bustling metropolis of nearly nine million people. It was a first visit for my husband, Shawn. To Thais, Bangkok is known as Krung Thep or its formal name Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.
In 2009 when I was in Thailand solo, a tuktuk driver whisked me off to see Bangkok’s famous Buddhas – the Standing one (100 feet-tall), the Reclining one at Wat Pho (160 feet-long), and the Lucky one. I was eager to show these gleaming golden statues off to Shawn as well. It wasn’t until this trip, however, when the tuktuk driver took Shawn and me to the Lucky Buddha my supposed second time around that I learned that I’d paid the so-called “stupid tax” in 2009 and yet again in 2011. (“Stupid tax” is a term coined by my globetrotting friends Jim & Barbara, who used it to describe payments they’d made for faux products or overpriced services during their years of living throughout the world).
When I didn’t recognize the Lucky Buddha statue this second time around, I learned that there really is no Lucky Buddha in Bangkok! The Lucky Buddha statues are merely a way to enhance a tuktuk driver’s itinerary, which traditionally also features stops at suit tailor shops and bogus official travel offices with heated sales pitches. Any purchases, of course, would bring the tuktuk driver hefty commissions. We were dismayed that a seemingly-warm woman that we met on the street upon arriving in Bangkok (who gave us recommendations, told us it was a Buddhist holiday, resulting in lower taxi fares; and hailed a supposed stranger off the street to take us around) was really all part of the fraudulent network that our Thai guest house owner later warned us about.
After a few hours, we “earned our stripes” in Bangkok, eventually realizing that the majority of the newfound ‘friends’ who mysteriously approached us on the streets were really ‘bait’ for the relentless tuktuk ‘fishermen.’
All the big city scams aside, we did meet some wonderful locals – particularly the proprietors of a family-owned restaurant that we frequented for scrumptious Thai curries and omelets, the two playful hair stylists who coiffed Shawn’s hair and an elderly woman at a temple who’d long ago studied in the United States.
The Buddhas in Bangkok came in all sizes and poses. After we’d seen the two biggies, we were whisked off to the tranquil Golden Mount Temple.
From there, we walked to the river that had wreaked so much havoc in the weeks preceding our visit. Even though the floodwaters had receded prior to our arrival in Bangkok, mounds of sandbags were still visible in front of storefronts.
Locals had also erected makeshift walls around their shops’ entrances to keep the highest waters Bangkok had seen in 70 years from destroying their businesses.
One night, we happened upon the much-talked-about party for the Thai king’s 84th birthday. It’s one reputed to have attracted Thai citizens from hours away. King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s palace was adorned with white, twinkly lights, as were the streets lining all the main boulevards. It was beautiful! Thousands of meters of yellow and white bunting was strung on walls throughout the entire city, and numerous tents and several gigantic stages were erected to house traditional music and dance performances, as well as festival food (tropical ice cream, dried fruits, fried insects, Thai curries, etc.) and displays chronicling the life of the king.
We had seen the royal birthday boy’s image on virtually every street corner, town square and government-building front from the moment we crossed into Thailand from Malaysia. Gigantic gold frames cradled the monarch’s likeness in a variety of poses – with a pencil or SLR camera in hand, donning a sparkling cape, or wearing military uniforms. Some locals told us that the government printed official calendars of the monarch and issued them to all shopkeepers. The king’s December image showed him sporting a cowboy hat and sly smirk. We saw it in every establishment we entered, along with the more formal framed images of the royal couple.
Certainly, it was dramatic to contrast the posh palace with the slums we passed in the Thai countryside. Despite this disparity, the Thai people we spoke with were eager to talk about their king – how he was educated at MIT, how he’d done much to help the people in the years leading up to the floods, and how his birthday celebration was a happy time that was helping them forget the recent difficult weeks when flood waters swallowed up their cities. Thailand’s king is the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
In preparation for our seven-hour overland journey into Cambodia the next day, Shawn and I wrapped up our last night in Thailand with a traditional Thai massage at a more-upscale hotel than the one in which we were staying. With a petite female masseuse standing on Shawn’s back next to me, and a more voluminous woman burrowing the ends of her elbows into the tight knots in my back, I did my best to fight back tears and yelps of discomfort. When the thirty-minute session had ended (and particularly after my stubborn and now knot-less trapezius muscle recovered a day and a half later) I sang the praises of the massage, which only cost $3.
The next morning, we piled into a minivan bound for the Cambodian frontier. I’d last made the journey in 2009 and I was eager to see how Cambodia had rebounded in the years since my first visit.