After a 13-month absence, we’re back in Southeast Asia. When we left in April 2015, we were determined not to go anywhere so hot for a long time. But then we heard about an opportunity to housesit for free in July and August in a fun part of Malaysia: the island of Penang. We applied and were accepted, and then we figured that such a long and expensive plane flight deserved a longer stay. So we made plans to travel in Thailand in June and Indonesia in September, and suddenly here we are, visiting the Thai capital of Bangkok for the first time.
It was hot when we left SE Asia, and it’s still hot. The heat index (which reflects temperature and humidity) is in the mid-100s F this week in Bangkok. We’re having to relearn everything we used to know about living closer to the equator: get up and out the door early in the morning, pay the extra money for an air-conditioned room, retreat to that room for a few hours of siesta at mid-day to recover, take three or four cool showers a day to feel human, cover your head from the sun, and always carry lots of water. We’re also having to remember basic developing-world skills such as staying stocked up on bottled water and remembering not to automatically stick your toothbrush under the tap. (Even the Thais don’t drink their tap water, so we’re not going to. Ice is made from purified water so it’s OK, thank goodness.)
Bangkok is a huge city: 8 million people in the city proper and 15 million in the greater metropolitan area. We were expecting it to be overwhelming, but so far, it feels less hectic than comparably sized New York City or Hanoi. Maybe that’s because of where we’re staying. We’re miles from the glitzy downtown, which is full of skyscrapers, or from the grotty backpackers’ enclave, which is full of bars and touts. Instead we’re staying in one of the oldest parts of Bangkok, called Ratanakosin, an area full of museums, universities, former palaces, and monumental Buddhist temples (wats). Most of the shops and apartment buildings around here aren’t particularly old or picturesque, but some of the official buildings date from the early years of Bangkok’s founding in the late 1700s. The only problem with this neighborhood is that it tends to shut down at nightfall, so we have to venture farther afield for dinner.
We spent yesterday, our first full day in Bangkok, touring the national museum. It’s housed in the buildings of a former royal palace. Some parts of the museum are well-displayed exhibitions in modern, air-conditioned galleries. Others are stifling rooms whose cases are filled with a jumble of miscellaneous objects. (If you ever visited the old Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian, you get the idea.)
The highlights for us were prehistoric objects found around Thailand (apparently, humans have loved hanging colored beads around their necks for many thousands of years); some very fine religious statues (mainly Hindu gods or the Buddha) showing the various artistic styles that prevailed in different parts of the country over the past 1,600 years; and huge glittering gold-leafed chariots used in the funeral processions of Thai kings and their relatives. The sheer scale and elaborate carving of those chariots have to be seen up close to be believed.