Greetings from Siem Reap, Cambodia. I made here yesterday unscathed, crossing the border at Poi Pet via bus. I'd read some horror stories about how bad the scene can be but thankfully some improvements have been made over the years, namely a Cambodian-run direct bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap -- up until a few years ago, you'd take one bus to the border from Bangkok, go through a myriad of hassles obtaining a visa, then have to take a tuk tuk to the bus station across the border to continue on with your journey to Siem Reap. Also they've apparently paved the road in Cambodia which means a faster trip all around.
Anyway, after making my way to my new hostel on Day 1, I wandered around my neighborhood and grabbed some lunch at a little cafe across the street. Crossing the street here is reminiscent of Mumbai, although not quite as horrific, just takes a bit of nerve to watch the incessant onslaught of traffic in both directions, then play chicken against the drivers by stepping out with some assurance that they will stop -- or at least that's what you convince yourself to make it across the street. (In my case, I was actually pretty hungry, which helped.)
After devouring a very delicious (and very spicy) vermicelli salad with squid and shrimp and a few hours checking out the nearby hood (finding, amongst other things, a ginormous Tesco larger than any Walmart I've ever been to, as well as a Swensen's Ice Cream store and Dunkin Donuts inside a large, very air conditioned shopping center), I got in to my hostel room and promptly fell asleep. For hours. So much sleep that I woke up, delirious, around 8 pm, tried to convince myself to venture out, failed, slept until midnight, decided on a whim to take care of a Cambodian e-visa online, then fell back asleep until 7 am.
I ventured out of the hostel around 9 am and set off to take in at least one sightseeing outing before heading out the following day for Cambodia. I settled on Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Grand Palace, which seemed big and important (according to my Lonely Planet, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is Thailand's most important temple, while the Grand Palace is the former royal residence and represents more than 200 years of royal history). Usually when I'm in a new city, I like to get the few major attractions out the way right away, in part to orient myself to the city, and also so I simply check them off the list right away. To be honest though, what I was more excited about than anything was hopping on Bangkok's elevated sky rail that I'd seen whizzing over the city. (To be even more honest, the first thought that crossed my mind that morning was "Maybe I should just ride the skyline all day, back and forth, throughout the city!" The second thought that crossed my mind was, "No, Jenne, that is being a terribly lazy tourist. You must say you have been somewhere, instead of going nowhere."
I took the BTS skyline to Siam Center, a giant shopping mall in the heart of Bangkok, surrounded by crazy traffic and no discerable places to cross the road. A few minutes of aimless wandering later, I escaped down a side street and hopped in a real taxi, who whisked me away to the Grand Palace.
Twenty-some minutes later, we pulled alongside the high white wall surrounding the Grand Palace, right behind a giant coach sputtering purple exhaust into the air. A giant coach pulled up behind us. I stepped out of the taxi, counting not two but at least ten or eleven coaches idling along the road near the entrance.
I approached the gate of the palace, plunging into a sea of people: elbowing, shouting, squawking, barking, pushing, shoving. Was I on the F train? No, no, the sun beating off the concrete was too strong to be mistaken for the subway. A Chinese lady screamed something to a group her fellow tour mates, about one inch from my right ear drum. I snapped out of my ponderings and bought a ticket to enter.
From there, it was a battle for space and sanity. Selfie sticks josted into the air at random; another Chinese lady stepped on my foot while backing up to take a photo, a man elbowed me out of the way hurrying to catch up with his tour mates. No, this was pretty much like riding the F train, just with some much prettier surroundings to take a look at, if that group of posing Japanese girls flashing peace fingers at their iPhone would just move out of the way.
I found a bench in the shade and observed a large group of American women pose at one door of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha for a picture, then observed a beautiful woman taking selfie after selfie of herself against the colorful tile inlay of the temple's walls. Did she plan on her dress matching the temple's walls? Since when did travelling become a giant photo shoot, anyway? Has travelling just been reduced to proving you've been there with pictures? #thoughts #justasking #butseriously
Despite the crowds and the chaos, I managed to enjoy myself. I rounded various corners and found nooks and crannies totally unoccupied (a phenomenon that always intrigues me -- why is everyone somewhere, and then there's nobody just around the corner?). I removed my shoes and tucked my camera in my bag to see the Emerald Buddha with my own eyes (no selfies are allowed -- no photos either). It's a Buddha figure carved entirely of emerald, resting atop a giant, gold-gilt tower of other Buddha figures and decorative flourishes; the whole thing sparkles and glitters. Various believers were actually, you know, believing, dousing various figures with oil, or bent over in prayer.
I continued making my way throughout the 94.5 hectare grounds. I couldn't help but find myself growing a little giddy. Sure, it was crowded and hot and the packs of tourists squawking at the top of their lungs wasn't adding to the mood. But it looked like how Disney might envision Exotic Olde Siam! I pictured myself like Anna from "The King and I," running from building to building in a giant hoop skirt. My heart lifted a bit.
I spotted a cafe in the distance. Water! We're saved! I bought a large bottle of water and drank it in approximately 45 seconds, then sat at a table in shade, wiping sweat from my face and wondering what to do next.
I looked at the map I'd been handed with my ticket and noticed there was a textile museum assocaited with the palace. Perfect. Firstly, I love textiles and secondly, I love air conditioning. The textile museum promised both. I found the entrance and the museum delivered on both fronts: cold, delicious blasts of air swirled through a fashionable gift shop. From there, I headed upstairs to the exhibitions, a short film about traditional Thai clothing and the work by Queen Sikirit to initiate a new Thai style in the '60s when she went on an extensive tour of the U.S. and Europe. Thais were ordered to wear Western clothing in the '40s, thus rendering 'traditional' Thai clothing obsolete; the Queen's work was to resurrect the importance of traditional Thai textiles and weavings, working with European designers to merge the fabrics with modern clothes that alluded to traditional attire. In numerous outfits, the dresses and suits worn by the Queen feature a sash draped over her left shoulder; this feature speaks to an element of traditional Thai clothing. The rest of the exhibition shows off many gowns worn by the Queen over the years, in all their glittery, beautiful glory. Maybe it's because I'm a dork (or a dork who loves air conditioning) but personally I found this to be the most interesting and worthwhile aspect of my whole visit. (And maybe it helps that no photos are allowed, thus turning off all the selfie seekers.)
Rejuvenated from the air conditioning, I headed outside the palace grounds. Eventually I found a taxi and sat in relentless traffic for 45 minutes to get back to the BTS stop that took me to my hostel. And eventually I found my way back to my hostel where, exhausted from walking around in a lot of sun (nevermind waking up at 6 am), I promptly fell asleep at 4pm. But -- you should be very proud of me -- I woke up at 8, grabbed some dinner, showered, packed and got ready for my big journey the next day: travelling by bus across the border to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Btw - I'm posting lots of pics on my Instagram feed! Follow me at @jensetgo.