Khao San Road, The Floating Market & The Tiger Temple
"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world."
A very good friend of mine from my days at Jasper Park Lodge was traveling through Thailand with her boyfriend and had informed me that she was going to be passing through Bangkok soon after my arrival. Having it been several years since we last saw each other, I caught a (thankfully air-conditioned) shuttle bus to Bangkok, off to experience Thailand’s “city of angels” for the very first time.
I had been instructed, once I reached Ekkamai station, to either catch the 511 bus to Khao San Road or hail a cab. After no one was able to tell me where I would catch said bus, I walked to the road to hail a cab and enter the frenzy that is Bangkok’s traffic. I was hailed down by an ancient Thai man in an old, rickety cab that would not have passed for street legal in any other part of the world. Being as no other cabs were in sight and I was anxious to get to my guesthouse and meet Brandy, I hopped in, clicked on my seatbelt, and mentally prepared myself for the haphazard, maniacal driving that I had experienced so far in Chachoengsao. Instead, as a hilarious alternative to the speeding cars and bikes around us, this little pink cab could barely move. Several times I saw passing drivers give us incredulous looks, as if they couldn’t believe anyone could move so slowly. I had to stifle my laughter several times as the little car struggled over small hills and I half expected it to simply stop working in the middle of the street.
I quickly lost all traces of amusement, however, when it became evident that this cab driver had no clue where he was going. Khao San Road is THE backpacker road in Bangkok, and I was disgruntled that he had told me he knew the way there when he clearly was lost. Despite his constant reassurances in very broken English, there was still an incident where he stopped to ask another cab driver the way and proceeded to drive down a street that was absolutely not a road - which became apparent as tourists and locals alike had to jump out of the way. Not only that, but his constant encouragements for me to go to Chang Mai (about 12 hours North of Bangkok) became extremely real when he tried to drop me off at the station where the train to Chang Mai was. I’m sure the relief was evident on my face when we finally found my guesthouse and I was free of the little rambling cab with its little rambling driver forever.
When I met up with Brandy and Brent, we celebrated our reunion at a little vegetarian restaurant down the street from our guesthouses. (So far, being a vegetarian in Thailand has proved to be quite a challenge. They put fish sauce on everything and generally seem appalled at the very idea of not being able to eat meat. I had encountered this kind of reaction in New Zealand as well, but the language barrier made everything a little harder this time around.) We spent the afternoon and evening on Khao San road, taking it all in. Brandy informed me that our mutual friend Ross, who she had just seen in Koh Tao, had described Bangkok in one simple sentence - “it’s just so much STUFF” – and he was completely right. The roads are lined with vendors selling knock off designer sunglasses and clothing, souvenirs, “street meat” (complete with flies), Pad Thai, beer, tailor made suits, and just about everything else you would expect to find. Thais and foreigners alike flood the streets, haggling with vendors about prices and flaunting their wares to their friends. We found a stall that advertised a trip to the Floating Market, which we were interested in seeing, as well as a Buddhist temple that was inhabited by tigers. Thoroughly excited at the prospect of seeing my favorite animals in real life, we booked the day tour, had some dinner and a few drinks, and prepared for the early morning bus.
The Floating Market
The first stop on our day tour was the Bangkok Floating Market. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the title – Thais in long boats bearing different wares float serenely down the canals, speaking to friends as they pass and making sales to the tourists passing by either on the sides of the canal or on the little boats commandeered by a Thai man wielding a large stick for steering purposes. The Market, while interesting, was fairly uneventful, although I did hold a 10-foot reticulated python and had my first experience with a public toilet. I won’t go into too much detail about Thai public toilets, but it’s important to know most of them are BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) and are merely porcelain holes in the ground. I’m sure my leg muscles will be able to handle any amount of squats after this trip! I bought some delicious pineapple from a boat vendor, but Brandy was displeased when she discovered that what she thought was mango was actually durian – a fruit so stinky it is banned in most hotels and public areas.
The Cobra Show
After the Floating Market we were loaded onto a speed boat that took us through the canals, depositing us at a fairly dubious looking location where we were informed that we could go in, pay an extra 200 baht, and watch some men fight and kill some cobras. Opting not to support this appalling bit of animal cruelty, we sat and waited for the rest of the group – but not before catching a glimpse of the so-called “snake farm” that was the setting for the show. Beautiful, 20-foot long pythons were crammed into small glass cages that contained nothing but a hollow log for partial concealment; beyond this was a chain link cage that could not have been larger than a king sized bed, which housed a 7-foot crocodile. Feeling depressed and indignant about the living conditions of these animals, we were nervous about what we would find when we reached what we were really looking forward to: the tigers.
The River Kwai
After a quick lunch, we were driven to our next destination: the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, which was built from 1942-1943 by 180, 000 Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war. The bridge is 415 km and spans from Bangkok, Thailand, to Rangoon, Burma. The living and working conditions of the forced laborers who built the bridge led to the deaths of 90,000 Asian laborers and 16,000 Allied prisoners of war. Stories of the horrors, starvations, and sickness led to a book being written and later, a movie was released that won seven Academy Awards, including best picture.
The Tiger Temple
We had been notified that due to the tigers living in a temple with Buddhist monks, we would be required to dress in a way that would be appropriate for that environment, which meant long pants and shirts. Normally there would be no complaints, but it was 40 degrees and we were essentially in the middle of a desert. Nonetheless, we donned our more humble clothing and excitedly trekked down into “Tiger Canyon”, where we were met with the sight of 12 fully grown, beautiful Bengal tigers.
I don’t think I have ever felt such a sense of confliction as I did when I was at the Temple. On one hand, I was able to give a tiger a belly rub and I really enjoyed just being in the presence of those gorgeous animals – the stupidly big smile on my face in every single picture is enough evidence of that – and being as tigers are an endangered species whose numbers are quickly dwindling, I know it is important for them to be in spaces where they are safe from poachers and habitat loss. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the tigers were being completely exploited for tourism purposes. I think that, for being called a Tiger “Temple”, the lack of monks or any discernable temple was a little worrying. The employees said that the money you pay to get in or get “professional” pictures taken with the tigers all goes back into taking care of the tigers, and I sincerely hope it does. I think it was just the sight of the tigers lying with chains around their necks while endless lines of tourists patted and posed with them that troubled me. I realize that many conservation projects are extremely under funded, and maybe inviting tourism is the best way to get the vital funds that these projects need in order to be successful. Inner conflicts aside, I was still beyond happy that I was able to meet my favorite animal, and I have been looking into different tiger conservation projects for volunteering purposes ever since.
All together, Bangkok was a giant, rambling, messy, overwhelming city that, while an integral experience to any Thailand trip, made me thankful that I live in a non-tourism driven part of Thailand. After two days I was ready to pay my 59 baht and head back home.