In all these months of travel preparation, it wasn’t until I was on my second of three flights on my way to Thailand that I thought to myself, “What am I doing?” I bought a one-way ticket to a part of the world that I am unfamiliar with and I do not know the language at all. I had no itinerary nor an immediate plan for my arrival; I didn’t even have my lodging or transportation from the airport arranged. Oh, and I had no travel guidebook with me either this time because I didn’t want to carry the weight of it. “Great,” I thought, “this could turn into a huge mess.” But every step of the planning and preparation to leave the USA went so smoothly, everything falling into place at just the right time, that I could not deny that this was exactly where I needed to be right now. The doors were wide open, all I needed to do was walk through them.
And this is what happened when I did…
An EXPERIENCE at Bangkok Tree House
I don’t know what I was thinking. I had 20 minutes of free internet during my layover in Singapore. I figured that I could just find some recommendation for a place to stay via a snapshot of Thailand travel books online. The “5 Best Places to Stay in Bangkok” came up. I glanced at the hotels and figured that I didn’t need anything fancy or expensive. The Bangkok Tree House sounded nice so I googled it, checked the place out, looked at pricing (discount if you stay 4 nights so I put in for four nights–it seemed affordable), and took screen shots on my phone of the directions from the airport.
Once I landed in Bangkok, I took some time to get my bearings. (I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t get questioned at customs about my travel plans being that I came in on a one-way ticket; all visitors are issued a 30-day visa upon air arrival.) I packed everything into my big backpack, hid my important documents and spread them and my cash around, and changed out of my jeans as I could already feel the heat. I pulled some money from the ATM and exchanged a $20 bill so I could have some smaller bills as well. Thai currency is called “Baht” and the exchange rate is 35 Baht to 1 US Dollar. After meticulously studying the Bangkok train system (Skytrains, like BART, plus an underground Metro line) on a map I grabbed at the airport and calling the tree house from a pay phone to let them know I was on my way, I headed out.
For less than $3, I transported myself out of the airport and to my next stop. First success! And then I had to find a taxi in the streets of Bangkok. That proved to be slightly more challenging especially due to the language barrier, but “X” (he told me that was his name) was very patient, pulled up Google translator on his phone to facilitate conversation, and, though we got way lost when the pier was supposedly only 1.5 km away, he escorted me all the way down to the boat to make sure I was going to the right place. “X” and I were about the same age and one of the first questions he asked was if I had a boyfriend. I thought, “Oh, boy. Here we go again. Just like Central America.” This time around, though, I am not too proud to say, “Yes, I do have a boyfriend,” if it means I have an extra buffer as I am traveling solo. I’m not trying to prove a point like I was before. Safety first. As soon as I said it, he completely respected it and was just friendly, nothing more.
When I arrived at the Bangkok Tree House across the river, I was greeted with refreshing welcome drinks and the sweetest lady in the world–I’ll call her “Hana” because I can’t pronounce the rest of her name after the “Hana” part. The lodge was literally in the middle of the jungle at the river’s edge and pretty exposed to the elements. When we started going over pricing and she told me that the rate was just over a hundred and thirty dollars per night, I about had a heart attack. When I had looked it up, I thought that was the total for four nights; I obviously missed something. For a second, I thought about crossing back to the other side of the river, but it had taken such an effort to get over here, and I had no idea where else I would go, that I just sucked it up and told her I could stay for only one night. (She ended up only charging me $120, which was very kind.) Being that I set my weekly budget for $250-$300, spending $120 in the first night just on lodging was insane to me. But I told myself, “It’s ok. I can splurge this one time. I’ll just stay in a cheap hostel dorm room and eat street food for the rest of the week. Just enjoy this first night, you’ve come a long way to get here.”
It was a beautiful place, flowers and greenery all over, and each dwelling made of wood and glass walls, inside and out. My quarters consisted of a 3-story structure: downstairs was the bathroom, sink, refrigerator, and sliding glass door that opened to the outdoor shower; upstairs was the air-conditioned bedroom with 2 glass walls (with shades) out of four so you could see the jungle at all times; then, from the deck, you could climb up to the rooftop that had a bed up there for sunbathing or just lounging around. I kept thinking that this place/experience would be much better shared with someone, but since that wasn’t the case, I embraced the silence and peaceful surroundings. What a drastic change of pace from the busy Bay Area.
The rest of my stay included trying to enjoy a VERY spicy green curry fish spaghetti dinner in the company of bats and a dog, using the outdoor shower to rinse off the sweat and stickiness of the jungle multiple times with chirping geckos skittering around eating bugs, and sharing my sleeping quarters with at least 2 crickets, one of which I found dead on the floor in the morning and being devoured by ants. It was charming. But I slept like a baby. In the morning, I was served the most delightful breakfast (poached eggs over toast, fresh fruit, corn flakes, coffee, and orange juice), and I took advantage of the wifi to download a PDF version of Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” travel guidebook to my iPad, which will be my lifesaver–and moneysaver–for the rest of my trip. No more accidental luxury tree houses!
Hana told me that there was a floating market nearby and suggested that I take one of the bikes to go over there that day to check it out. Normally the floating markets were only on the weekends, but that day was a Buddhist holiday so they were open. I rode a rickety bike through through the tiny, jungle-entrenched island, following signs pointing me in the right direction. It was a great way to explore, although the narrow cement roads and walkways made me a little nervous. When I arrived to the hustle and bustle, I parked my bike at the end of a row of other bikes. I thought I should probably lock it up, but in only one day, I had learned that the honor system over here is very important. People don’t usually mess with other people’s things. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t thieves, but thievery is not a prominent lifestyle over here.)
The reason it is called a floating market is because the big market takes place along the path of the river on an area supported by stilts above the water, not necessarily floating ON the river. It was vibrant but clean, with vendors selling everything from food to flowers, and clothing to artwork. Being among the people there felt great. No one was pushy, just very friendly. The sights and smells were wonderful as I peeked into booth after booth, exploring all the new kinds of food and snacks. There were families there as well, just perusing the market or stopping to share a meal. It was so fun to just be there and observe locals and visitors alike participating in the community.
After peeking into just about every food stand to find something appealing, I finally decided to go with some spring rolls. I saw a man eating them at a table nearby which made my mouth water, plus I figured they were safe enough for street food. The ladies packed them up to go for me and when it came time to pay, they spoke enough English to tell me the price was 30 Baht and they were just so patient and kind. In other countries, I look like an easy target so people try to take advantage, but here, they are so freakin’ honest. I think everyone here must have a strong belief in karma.
Feeling triumphant that I acquired food and had a cultural outing, I decided to head back to the tree house to return the bike. But as I exited the market and glanced down at the row of bikes, I noticed that mine was missing. Gone. Vanished. I thought, “Man, I knew this was too good to be true. I should’ve locked my bike up. But who would want that bike anyway? It’s kind of rickety. Oh, crap. What do I do now?” Just in case, I decided to look over the edge of the walkway and sure enough, there was my bike, submerged in the bank of the river!
What happened next was amazing to me. I started thinking, “How the heck am I going to get my bike out of the river? It’s too far away. Maybe I’ll jump over to the bank, but I’ll probably have to step in the muddy river anyway.” As I was staring down at the river, all the passers-by started noticing and looking, too. They all started to figure out what was going on and I pointed at my bike and then at me and we all busted up laughing together. Then, some of the local men stepped in and started working together to retrieve the bike. One of the men found easy access to the bank and hopped over there, initiating the rescue while a couple of others grabbed a giant stick to hook on to the wheel. I got it on video so if you want to check it out you can click this link: http://youtu.be/65n1x-2fKEQ.
After the bike was out, everyone went on their ways, but all who passed by me and my dripping bike started pointing and laughing and I could do nothing but laugh with them. It was very funny and I actually got a little emotional about the whole experience because I was in such awe of the willingness of complete strangers to help solve a problem that wasn’t their own. As I rode back to the lodge, I was feeling good about choosing to travel to Southeast Asia as opposed to any of the other places I had been considering for this trip. Immersed in a culture of kindness, warmth, and friendliness is the perfect place to be right now.
Once I returned the bike and shared the video of the bike rescue with Hana, laughing even more with her, I gathered my things and prepared to leave. I felt so blessed to have Hana at that lodge; while her English wasn’t perfect, it was pretty darn good, and she helped me so much. She even made the boat ride with me to the other side of the river and went off to find a taxi for me and communicate with the driver where I needed to be dropped off. She was so awesome that I wanted to take her with me! She made the experience at Bangkok Tree House so enjoyable, and I would recommend that place as a getaway for travelers–well, for people traveling in pairs and with a little higher budget than mine.
With the help of my handy dandy PDF guidebook and its maps, I selected a hostel and navigated my way through the city via Skytrain, Metro, and foot to my next destination. S1 Hostel is in a pretty good part of town from what I have seen. Although slightly far from the downtown area, it is in a low-key neighborhood in the business sector with easy access to anywhere you want to go in the city. Trying to recover from my tree house splurge, I selected to stay in a dorm room (the cheapest option), paying only about $9.50 per night. I was prepared for the worst because hostels can be a hit or miss, but I was pleasantly surprised to walk into a clean, 6-bunk room complete with its own bathroom and shower, 2 sinks, and air conditioning. The building has wifi access on every floor, a small kitchen with a refrigerator, a washer and dryer, AND an amazing rooftop garden lounge that is now my favorite hangout spot and workspace.
What started out as only 2 nights has turned into 6, with one more night to go. I have taken advantage of this space to acclimate and get organized with my writing projects and photos, and I have made some serious progress. I also venture out daily for an outing, whether it be a formal destination or just wandering around and seeing where I end up. There is so much stimulation here that it is facilitating the creative process, however, I also have enough down time and time alone to focus.
Bangkok is an amazing city and I want to tell you all about it and the people here, but I am going to save that for my next Backpacking Bonus as it deserves a chapter of its own.
At the end of one entire week (7 days) in Thailand, my spending came to a grand total of $280, averaging about $40/day. Not bad. And that was including my luxurious stay at the Bangkok Tree House, another big splurge on a meal at “namh” (located inside the Metropolitan Hotel)–one of the fanciest restaurants in Bangkok, entrances to all the sites and temples I visited, a Thai massage, a pedicure, AND a caramel macchiato from Starbucks. (Yes, Starbucks.) I don’t feel like I’m skimping by at all. I have everything I need, plus a little extra to indulge in the fancy-shmancy every now and then. ”
While I am not finished with this city by any means, and have decided that Bangkok will be my hub city while I am in SE Asia, it is time for me to move on to the next place now so I’ll be heading up to Chang Mai in northern Thailand for a couple days, or maybe a week, who knows…
TRAVEL TIP: Gadgets and electronics can be heavy and hard to keep track of (especially if they are small, like SD cards or USB sticks). To lighten the load and lessen the worry, try to reduce your load to only 2 multi-purpose electronic devices. Last time I traveled, I had a phone, a laptop and its charger, a camera, a backup camera, a small tripod, lots of batteries, plus a heavy guidebook. If you have the resources, bring an iPad or tablet instead of a bulky laptop; this eliminates the issue of carrying a guidebook as well because you can download the PDF version to your device. Also, having a smartphone (get it unlocked through your carrier before you go if you plan to buy a local SIM card and use it on your own phone) is a great way to go because it can double as a camera and instead of dealing with SD cards to save and backup photos, you can set up an automatic backup to the could (Google +, iCloud, Dropbox, etc.) as soon as you get internet/wifi access–no plug ins or slow public computers necessary. Plus, on either device, you can access email or personal information whenever you have wifi. As for the necessary small electronic gadgets–plugs, converters, chargers, batteries, etc., store them all together in a thick ziplock bag or other pouch. (I prefer quart and gallon-sized Ziplocs because I can see through them, not having to dig in a dark bag, and they are also thicker than a sandwich bag which means they’ll last longer and offer better protection.)