For my two week holiday break between semesters, I decided to go to Japan. Before I left for Thailand, I made several friends at the International House in Davis, William and Thomas (brothers from Taiwan), and Natsu and Taka (two lawyers from Japan). I decided to visit Osaka, Japan to see Natsu and Taka (who both live near/in Osaka) and travel with William and Thomas. Also near Osaka are Kyoto and Nara, two ancient cities (both formerly having been capitals of Japan) full of UNESCO world heritage sites, so I figured that I would have plenty to see without going to Tokyo (which is somewhat far away from Osaka and also more expensive).
To save money while travelling, I thus decided to take the bus to Bangkok and then fly from there to Osaka. While Ben decided to go to Indonesia for his vacation, we both made the bus trip down to Bangkok together so we could start our journeys together on a more familiar path.
The bus to Bangkok left at 6 PM, so Ben and I hastily ate an early, light meal so that we would not be so hungry on the bus (although I did bring a lot of snacks). We got driven to the bus station by Kru Kai (the head of the English department), and although she had to leave, two of the students stayed with us to help us find which bus was ours and see us off. It was pretty hilarious as the students explained to us in detail everything we needed to know about the bus trip. Finally, they helped us find the correct bus (about four buses bound for Bangkok arrived at once), and we boarded the bus.
On the longer bus rides through Thailand, there is always a steward/stewardess that passes out refreshments. On this trip, we received a free bottle of water, juice box of green tea, and a box of sweets (two pieces of cake and cookies). Around midnight, the bus stopped for twenty minutes in Phitsanulok (a province in central Thailand), and we were able to help ourselves to a free, buffet style meal of rice and assorted dishes that all tasted like bland forms of starch. I filled myself up nonetheless, and then put on my eyeshade and attempted to pass out for the rest of the ride.
Upon arriving in Bangkok at 4 AM, we found ourselves outside in pouring rain in the hazy darkness of the outskirts of the city. Tired and flustered, we let ourselves get talked into a taxi ride by a nearby man which turned out to be a mistake as we got absurdly ripped off, but at least we arrived at the city center intact.
I was staying at a hostel along Sukhumvit Road, a popular destination for expats and tourists. By the time we arrived at my hostel, it was still early in the morning, so we found a coffee shop to relax in for a while. Still having more time to kill after rejuvenating ourselves with muffins and caffeine, we decided to go see Wat Arun.
I had heard that Wat Arun was one of the most impressive temples in Bangkok, arguably more impressive than the overcrowded Royal Palace. To get there, we took the BTS (a skytrain – kind of like a monorail), and then a river ferry. As we approached the wat from across the river it did look beautiful and impressive.
The wat is covered with broken pieces of pottery and glass and seemed to shimmer in the sun as we approached. As we got off the ferry however, the heat permeating from the asphalt made me start sweating profusely, and made the area around the temple feel like a boiling mess of tourists. The wat was still interesting to see up close, although not as impressive as it had seemed from afar. I was able to climb the steep steps up to the top of the temple, from which I had a decent view of the river and the city.
After seeing the temple, we decided to see Wat Pho which was right across the river. Wat Pho is home to a giant reclining Buddha, one of the only poses I had yet to see a Buddha formed in. I was immediately skeptical of the temple as we were forced to pay a high entrance fee (also the foreigners have to pay in different lines than Thai citizens, and I’m guessing are charged higher prices), and as we entered we literally joined a giant mass of tourists swarming to get inside the temple. I did not enjoy Wat Pho at all, as there were so many people in the temple that it was like being a salmon forced upstream. Every time I tried to stop for a picture people would get in the way or step in front of me without any courtesy for picture space, but I still managed to snap some pictures in the elusive seconds in which no one was in front of me. After getting out of the wat I immediately was relieved, and was glad that I had already seen the other notable temples in Bangkok.
The rest of the day, Ben and I just walked around and explored the area of our hotel, before we parted ways (Ben was going to the airport and I was staying the night in Bangkok).
After parting, I relaxed in my hostel for a while before setting out to find dinner. I had heard that one of the streets off of Sukhumvit was known for street food, so I decided to walk there from my hostel. It turned out to be a very long walk, but I was able to see a lot more of the Sukhumvit area as a result. Although the area is busy and congested with cars during the day, it seemed to just get crazier at night. Street vendors set up stands all over the sidewalks selling food and fruit, and others even set up sidewalk bars where one could find all sorts of alcohol to drink in the congested atmosphere of the street.
There were also less savory sights, including multitudes of beggars and street children, and prostitutes plying their wares in a less-than-subtle manner. Nonetheless, the city was alive and seemed to resemble the Bangkok that I had read about online and in books.
I finally arrived at Soi 38, and was disappointed to see less food stalls than I was expecting (although still a good amount). I had planned on finding a stall with a long line, and trying it out but none of the stalls seemed to be more popular than the others, and many just had a few customers. I finally picked one, and ordered a familiar dish (guay tiao tom yum – noodle soup with a spicy broth), to see how it compared to the dishes in Nan. The dish was very disappointing; it was just okay and twice the price that I pay in Tha Wang Pha. After finishing it, I retired early to the hostel to sleep and prepare myself for the flight the next day to Osaka.
After arriving back in Bangkok (after my trip to Japan), via Osaka and Kuala Lumpur, I met Ben at a hostel we were both staying at on Sukhumvit Road. We shared stories of our trips (Ben went to Indonesia), and went to a bar to play pool.
The next morning, we decided to get bagels at a nearby shop. Although maybe not the most exotic sounding breakfast, bagels sounded heavenly to us after not having seen them since we left the U.S. The place we found was great; it had tons of different types of shmears and bagel sandwiches. I got an onion bagel with a lox and chives shmear that was absolutely amazing. Bagels are easily one of the foods I miss the most from home.
Our bus wasn’t leaving until the evening, so we had plenty of time to kill. Fortunately, the staff at our hostel let us leave our bags there after we had checked out, so we were free to roam the city unencumbered. We decided to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which is the largest market in Thailand (it covers about thirty-five acres). We were able to take the metro directly there, and stepped out into the blistering sun in the market.
The stalls at the market primarily sold touristy trinkets like t-shirts, carvings, and clothes but there were also tons of food vendors as well. While the main part of the market was composed of stalls along an outdoor street, there were also indoor streets and stalls selling higher priced goods. We mainly explored the stalls on the open street, which still took us several hours to browse through. After we were tired of the market, we headed back to the hostel where we relaxed until going to the bus station and heading home.
Overall it was a great break and vacation in Japan. I really enjoyed seeing a vastly different country in Asia, and trying authentic Japanese food. The only thing I may have done differently in retrospect was plan the trip so that it ended with a few days of beach time, as I did not have that much time to just kick back and relax. Nonetheless, it was a great two weeks and full of experiences I will never forget.