Travelogue: Thailand, Bangkok (Part 1)

It’s been said that the pleasure derived from anticipating a vacation is actually greater than that which is experienced on the vacation. But I think that might be flipped during the young-child years. The anticipation stage is stressful: packing and planning, figuring out the logistics and the room configurations, getting vaccinations and stockpiling bug sprays and sunscreens… and asking oneself questions like: “can we all survive 26 hours of travel to get there?”

But once we were there, once we were in Bangkok, it was really just so joyful and wonderful! And it went by far too fast. For all that anticipation and travel—really, anticipation that goes back 10 years to our honeymoon, when Aron and I were in Thailand together—I wish I could have made it last longer.

So here’s the version where I do my best to savor every minute of our two weeks in Thailand—starting with Bangkok!

The flight times we chose looked crazy on paper, but they worked out really well.

The first leg was a 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Taipei, that departed at 12:40 a.m. To our surprise, the kids stayed up and ran about until we boarded—just before midnight; and to our delight, they fell asleep before we we were even off the ground. As soon as Skyler was out, we put an eye-mask and some earplugs on her, and we handed out the same to Hudson. His sleep was a bit more fitful than hers (those carseats are magic), but they both slept almost 8 hours straight. That left us just enough time for a meal and some entertainment before we landed in Taiwan. Aron had loaded up two old smartphones with some games and shows, and the airline (EVA) gave the kids some items, so we barely even dipped into our carry-on full of toys for this leg.

After a short layover (about two hours and just long enough for the kids to run past the themed lounges and turn their noses up at the idea of soup for breakfast), we got on the next flight on Thai Air for four hours, to Bangkok. Skyler fell right asleep for a nap and Hudson, with a little help, followed suit. Between the two flights, they got about 9 or 10 hours of sleep, and the timing allowed us to arrive in the morning, and have plenty of daylight for resetting our clocks.

As soon as you step off the airplane you can feel the tropical heat. I always get a little thrill when it hits me and I know we’ve landed far from home. Another sign that we’d arrived was the attention the kids started getting right away. While we were waiting for our bags, a small group of tourists from China gathered around them to take their pictures and one man hoisted Hudson up for a selfie together. Hudson was a great sport—but it reminded me that we should talk about how he could always say “No, thank you” and decline with a courteous wave of the hand if he didn’t want his picture taken. (Skyler didn’t need instruction in this: she has that move down pat.)

I had arranged a pick-up with a car service I’d found online a day or two before our trip, TransferBKK. For 1200 Baht, they’d meet us at the gate and take us to the hotel. They could also provide car seats if needed, so when we got into the van, there was a booster waiting for Hudson. It’s about an hour drive into the city from the Suvarnabhumi Airport–BKK, but there’s a lot to look at. We saw bananas growing just off the freeway one minute, and giant skyscrapers with bold ads and Thai words the next.

We also saw many billboards in memorial to the late King. The much-beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej died last October, after more than 70 years on the throne, and his image was everywhere during our time in the country, usually paired with words of gratitude.

We’d planned this vacation to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Ever since our honeymoon to Thailand, we’d talked about returning for the milestone. So we decided to start the trip off at the same hotel we’d stayed at ten years ago. I had such fond memories of walking around the hotel and smelling lemongrass oils and finding trees brimming with orchids. It smelled the same when we stepped inside!

Once a Marriott, the Anantara Riverside is on the banks of the Chao Praya and is actually considered one of the best choices for families, in part because of its pool (which, oddly enough, we never used when we stayed there ten years earlier).

After checking in, we all changed into our bathing-suits for the afternoon. Rather than try and do any sightseeing on the first day, we figured that swimming was guaranteed to keep the kids awake and out in the light for the most hours possible.

We’d told them this would be the plan, and for weeks, despite all of the other details we’d share, when anyone asked them if they were excited to go to Thailand they’d answer “Yes! We’re going to the pool!”

It was actually our plan to spend the entire day at the hotel—even dinner—but there was a huge wedding celebration there during our stay that often took over the hotel restaurants. In hindsight, I don’t mind that it pushed us out that first night. We still went for convenience, and took a taxi a few minutes over the bridge to the Asiatique market, a relatively new attraction that’s been built on the site of the former docks of the East Asiatic Company (there are free boat shuttles that run there, too). A mix of night bazaar and mall, it’s clearly been carefully designed, but it was an easy introduction for our kids to the experience of wandering through stalls and trying different snacks. Hudson developed a taste for fresh-coconut juice that night!

You can see our hotel behind me, above, across the river.

We had dinner at Baan Kanitha, a traditional Thai house where we could sit outside and watch the people and the boats on the river as they passed by, though there were a ton of appealing options. The taxi ride home that first night felt like an eternity—all of us fell asleep at some point during the ride (which is maybe why).

Hotel breakfasts were a highlight of our trip, not going to lie. And this one was definitely my favorite. Guests at the big hotels are from all over the world, and so the buffets tended to reflect that. I had fresh dosas and dim sum, waffles and croissants, yogurts and juices… but the best part was all the local, fresh fruit. Between the four of us, we’d routinely finish at least a dozen halves of those yellow mangoes every morning—preferably with some lime, salt, sugar, and chili on top.

We soon enough figured out that we’d like to sit in the shade outside—by the river and by the woman with the cart full of mangoes—but we started our first day inside with some gifts for the kids. We gave them each travel journals and let Hudson have our old point-and-shoot camera to carry for the trip. We attached a neck-strap (which worked really well to keep him from setting it down), and he was thrilled. It was wonderful to see what caught his interest throughout the day, as we could see what prompted him to stop and lift it to his eyes.

From the hotel each morning we’d take their teak junk-boat style to cross the river to the public dock at Saphan Taksin, where one could catch the Silom BTS (Skytrain station) or board a water taxi heading up the river.

For our first day, we’d decided to hire a guide to take us on a tour. A friend had suggested the company Context Travel and we discovered they’d just started offering tours in Bangkok. I recalled how much we enjoyed taking a market tour in Mexico City—being free to listen and look without holding up a book all the time—and so we signed up for two of their private walking tours.

The first was to be a three-hour introduction to Bangkok with a local historian to trace the course of Bangkok’s history, from its days as a small trading post to today’s status as a cosmopolitan global metropolis. We met Ren Davies, who was from the UK but who has lived in Bangkok for over 20 years, at the Skytrain station, got our bearings for the afternoon, and then took off walking toward a khlong (canal) from where we’d catch a commuter boat—the Saen Saeb Khlong Express Ferry.

The boat moved quickly past houses along the water on our way to Wat Saket, Bangkok’s Golden Mountain, making stops along the way that simply felt like pauses.

You had to be fast getting on and off! When the boat arrives, you jump down from the pier using the ropes as handholds and grab a seat—or stand near the engine for a view. The conductors walk on the outside of the boat and will come around to collect your fare, while fellow riders pull up blue plastic sheets to make sure the khlong water doesn’t splash into the boat.

The Golden Mount isn’t the holiest site in the city, but it has one of the best views of the city, and gave us a chance to better understand the city’s layout. Ren gave us a history lesson, explaining how Bangkok became the country’s capitol after the fall of the Ayutthaya dynasty.

We were able to ask lots of questions about social practices, and it helped to understand which customs at temples it would be appropriate to take part in.

And whether we were prepared or not, it was also an opportunity to talk about how other cultures and religions might have different ideas about death and about what happens when we die.

Skyler also used her first squat toilet (ah, memories), and Hudson diligently counted 344 steps to the top of the mount.

The kids loved ringing the gongs and bells (all the gongs, all the bells), shaking the fortune-telling sticks, sitting like Buddha, and listening to coins fall in donation bowls.

I was telling a friend how nice it was how often the kids’ interests aligned with ours on this trip. Instead of taking them to see a painting in a museum, we were taking them to giant, shiny gold things. Shiny!

They also tended to get sort of treat—juice or ice cream—at lots of stops, which didn’t hurt. In fact, while Ren was telling us about the city’s canal structures and natural defenses, I looked over to see Hudson on a chair in the shade. He was being included in selfies and being offered honey candies by passersby and staff.

Afterward, we took our first Tuk Tuk ride, as it was terribly hot and seemed daunting to take the longer route on foot with the kids. We’d brought a travel stroller and a carrier daypack, and though Aron made a wonderful sherpa, I’m sure he also appreciated the ride. All five of us squeezed into the tiny cab and held on as we zipped past Khaosan Road over to a market.

I have a feeling we spent more time there than some of Ren’s other guests might have, but the kids couldn’t get enough of all the live animals! I’ve gone through Hudson’s photos from the trip, and there are so many of eels in buckets from this stop.

At one point, a fish splashed out and landed on the floor and a boy just a bit older than Hudson rushed over to put it back. It was hard to pull him away after; I think he was hoping it would happen again.

Our guide was really great with the kids, telling them what they could touch and what they couldn’t, and mirroring their enthusiasm. It’s so interesting to me how quickly Hudson and Skyler will connect with other adults who smile and pay attention to them. After a day with Ren, he was “our friend.” When were we going to see him again?

I anticipated that we’d be going to a lot of markets in Bangkok, but it turned out that our days were often otherwise filled. I was so glad for this stop!

We walked from the market to a nearby pier on the river. At the dock, the kids peered over the shoulders of vendors making offerings with flowers and we bought some fish food (that looked oddly like rainbow styrofoam) to feed the huge groups of snakehead or catfish that were surrounding the dock. Apparently they’re released and fed as a part of merit-making, for good luck.

From there we hopped on a ferry and traveled down the Chao Phraya River past Wat Arun and the Grand Palace and got off in the southern part of the historic district to stop into the Amulet Market.

The Amulet market is a maze of tiny stalls and footpaths, a dense network where small talismans and religious items are for sale. It would be hard for us to understand how differently the amulets are valued upon first look, with the exception that some are kept behind glass and some are not, but it was another interesting stop. There were so many stalls that to an outsider would appear identical.

We also had our first stop at a sweet roti stand—a favorite dessert-like snack with bananas and sweetened condensed milk in an unleavened bread that comes out like a pastry. An egg is optional.

Our final stop was Wat Mahathat, which predates Bangkok, and which is the home for the largest monastic order and of the Vipassana Meditation centre. It was very quiet and tranquil there, and it was our first reminder of all of the customs one should observe when visiting temples: Remove your shoes and your hats inside; wear long pants and have your shoulders covered; and avoid pointing your feet at the Buddha.

We realized we’d spent almost five hours together and though Ren offered to still take us to another stop, we thought it would be wise to get some food. We caught a TukTuk to Roti Mataba, a tiny little cafe that had been one of our favorite stops on last visit. A mix of Thai, Malay, and Indian flavors, Roti Mataba has been open since 1943 at the northeast end of Phra Athit Road, right across the street from Santichaiprakan Park and Phra Sumen Fort.

Hudson and Skyler would often catch the attention of others who would ask for their pictures, sometimes emboldened after Hudson had asked for theirs. It was such a nice way to meet others we might not otherwise. Most spoke very limited if any English, but smiles and gestures were usually enough.

We debated going to the Grand Palace from there—we were SO close—but decided we’d had a full day and should go back to the pool. If we weren’t with kids, we surely would have—it’s a long trip down the river to the palace—but even though they weren’t complaining it felt like they deserved an activity just for them.

So we took a boat back to the Skytrain dock, where a boat from our hotel would pick us up and shuttle us back—with lemongrass-scented towels. We swam for an hour or so, grabbed some drinks, and then kept it simple with dinner in the Avani hotel behind ours.

There was a small mall inside and a restaurant with a cooking school (always a good sign), and to the kids’ delight, there was also an entire floor devoted to play—we payed a few dollars and their wristbands allowed them into all kinds of bouncy houses, and those little wristbands stayed with us for the rest of the trip!

Afterward, at dinner, Skyler fell asleep in my lap—soon to be a common theme.

We’d seen a lot already, but had just scratched the surface of the city.

Next up: Bangkok (Part 2), Khao Sok National Park, Ko Yao Noi, and Phuket.

Previously: Countdown to Thailand, and our Honeymoon. And on Instagram.

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