The first class I found in Bangkok was excellent, and we were only here for a week so I didn’t bother trying out anywhere else. The class is taught by Beatriz, who is a long-time instructor and also a Zumba Jammer (choreography teacher for other instructors). She is originally from Guatemala but has been in Bangkok for several years.
In a nutshell, it was a perfect experience.
I found her class on Meet Up, where she included incredibly detailed instructions (along with photos) on how to find the studio, plus class prices, etc. (This is one of the few times I haven’t spent at least 10 minutes trying to find the exact building location or door to a studio.) And as a bonus, when I expressed interest via the Meet Up event, one of her students reached out to tell me how great the class was!
Also, all of her class info on zumba.com was accurate. (I hate that this comes as a surprise to me now.)
The studio was large, air-conditioned, with a great sound system and mirrors on all four walls! The other students were incredibly friendly (to me, and each other) – its clear they have a nice little Zumba family. And best of all, her cueing was perfect – it was so easy to follow along.
It goes without saying that she’s a great dancer, and her choreography was super cute, too! Several songs had little sassy moments in them. One song included high-fiving your neighbour (which I think terrified the Japanese guy who was closest to me). I also loved the bollywood song that we did like a “battle” (facing each other), but the choreography was kind of a call & response of different Bollywood moves.
Definitely catch her class if you find yourself in Bangkok!
We were in and out of Bangkok several times since it’s a major transport hub. Here are a few other observations and adventures, in no particular order:
I’m obsessed with one of the stops on the Bangkok Skytrain called Nana. The pre-recorded announcement sounds so soothing… I’m sure it could lull even the most stubborn baby to sleep:
Much like the kid in the above video, I can’t help but repeat the name every time she says it, like an obedient cult member. (It’s worth nothing that while slightly embarassing, The German much prefers this to the hours he spent listening to me mimic the British voice of Waze when we drove from SF to Miami.)
Beware the wires…
As I mentioned previously, electrical wiring is a little insane:
It’s not uncommon to hear a humming sound as you walk past. We were always extra-careful not to brush up against them as it just didn’t sound safe.
One day, we were walking down the street and heard what at first sounded like a gunshot. A bunch of birds flew off as one fell to the ground. Guns are not readily available in Thailand and people don’t seem to be bothered by birds… plus, we didn’t see anyone in the vicinity. And that’s when we had the dreaded realization that we just witnessed a birdie electrocution. (I knew that wiring couldn’t be safe!)
The German really wanted to see Arrival, but it hasn’t been released in Thailand yet so I got to see Fantastic Beasts instead. There are plenty of large cinemas in Bangkok, several of which offer a “luxury” experience. (I’m not sure why these are so rare in the US – it seems like a missed business opportunity!) The tickets were only about $2 more than a normal show, so we decided to check out the Emprive Cineclub.
It started with a lobby reminiscent of a nice hotel. The staff were all friendly, there were no lines, and the tickets looked like boarding cards.
The lobby – ticket counter on the left, concessions on the right
The concession stand had 4 kinds of popcorn: salted, caramel, BBQ or “corncheese”. It turns out this is popcorn with both cheese and corn flavouring… it wasn’t awful but it was definitely weird. (Why does popcorn need artificial corn flavour added to it?)
We went mid-week, mid-afternoon and there was literally only 1 other person in the massive theatre! The seats were large leather recliners, and the theatre provided blankets (which was nice given the AC is always blasting).
Before the movie started, there were the usual ads. It was entertaining to try and guess what they were for since they were entirely in Thai.
Then there was some sort of propaganda piece about how great the King was, shot in the style of “behind the scenes” footage. They showed a group of people sitting around a table discussing how impossible it would be to convey the incredible wonderfulness of the King in only 2 minutes. Some of them wiped away tears as they talked about him, others talked passionately about how his image appears on all the currency (?)… it was certainly interesting, I’ll give them that!
Next up was a message in Thai and English that said everyone should rise to honour the King (which we did – they have thrown people in jail for years for making jokes about the King so we weren’t going to risk it, even with only 1 other person in the theatre)
The tribute that followed was presumably the 2 minute piece the weepy table folks were discussing. I actually found it very moving – lots of authentic footage of people gathering at the palace to mourn, singing and holding candles. When the visuals abruptly changed to the trailer for Assasin’s Creed, we figured it was safe to sit down.
All in all, the movie was a fun bit of escapism for a couple hours, but the whole experience of having comfy recliners in a nearly empty theatre made it even better!
There’s not really any distinction between “breakfast foods” and other foods here. While there are fewer hawker stalls in the mornings, you still see people eating anything from spicy noodles to chicken satay to seafood soup for breakfast. This is how I justified eating mango sticky rice for breakfast on our last day.
I desparately needed a haircut – it had been at least 8 weeks since my last one. I did a lot of research online and found a salon that seemed to be popular with expats. I thought this was a good approach since my short and thick hair is the opposite to that of the local girls’, plus being able to communicate in English was imperative. After a brief email exchange with a salon, they set up an appointment with one of their “master stylists”. I told The German he was obligated to come with me.
I didn’t realize at the time that the location was in the middle of nowhere… it looked like a deserted mall next to a freeway. Our Uber driver got extra-lost taking us there, and our Uber driver for the way back also struggled to find us. (I had to get someone from the salon to explain in Thai where we were.)
I walked into the salon, and while it was full of expats, they were all getting hair extensions put in… if the drive over wasn’t already a bad sign, this definitely had me worried.
It started with them washing my hair in ice cold water. The stylist then took a brief look at my reference photos, asked the assistant to use her iPad to take a pic of the photo on my phone (?), and starting cutting away at the back of my head. Every time he made a cut, I held my breath and looked to see if The German, who was sitting behind me, had a horrified expression or not.
The only question the stylist asked was if I parted my hair on the side. I offered him the reference photo again halfway through but he said he didn’t need it.
By the time he was done, I was relieved to have a solidly mediocre haircut. Though I discovered later he missed cutting one chunk behind my left ear, it’s not a total disaster so I’ll consider myself lucky. And all for the bargain price of $15 (plus 2 Uber rides).
I am looking forward to getting it improved in Melbourne.
We also went to the Sky Bar that was a location in the movie The Hangover II. This photo doesn’t do it justice – stepping outside of the building takes your breath away… the view of Bangkok is excellent and the bar feels like it’s hanging off the edge of the world.
And since we were traveling on the The German’s actual bday, we had a do-over that included more lattes and a giant steak:
It’s a bit challenging to try and make a birthday extra-special given that we don’t really have any sense of “normal” anymore… we are constantly changing countries or hotels/apartments, which results in us changing any semblance of a daily routine, too. Plus, we don’t have any friends around and we don’t really have room for more “stuff”… hopefully a vegetarian-organized steakhouse made it feel a little out of the ordinary.
Now it’s time to head to Melbourne!
Having spent several months in the hot & muggy weather of Southeast Asia, I’m worried it is going to feel cold by comparison! (The current forecast shows termperatures ranging from high 70’s to high 50’s). While I am not looking forward to things being more expensive, I am excited to be able to read everything, see some friends from SF, and get some good wine & cheese (as I am having serious withdrawals).
We are committed to staying in Melbourne through the holidays, then it’s all loose until mid-February when we head to Bali. We’ll see what happens!
I felt like it would be unacceptable to come to Thailand and not experience the fabulous beaches I’ve seen in everyone’s vacation photos. Unfortunately, the majority of those spots (like Koh Samui, Phuket, etc.) meant an expensive plane ticket and inflated accommodation prices, so we just couldn’t justify it. Instead, we opted to visit Hua Hin – a seaside resort town that is popular as a weekend getaway for residents of Bangkok, including the King. If it’s good enough for the King, it’s good enough for us, right?
We wanted to take the train, but unfortunately, it was sold out? (Though in hindsight, that may not have been true – the Thai websites were confusing and not always available in English.) The same website offered us tickets for a minivan, which was cheaper and faster than the train (less than $11 for both of us), so I assumed there had to be a catch, right? I envisioned a 12 seater van with about 20 sweaty people in it and I’d have to hold a chicken on my lap.
The departure point was nowhere near other public transit (which is a strange choice, but whatever) so we took Uber from the hotel. Our Uber driver decided we didn’t know what we were talking about and took us to a different destination. (To be fair, half the time we don’t know what we were talking about, though this time we did have a voucher with a different address, which we did try to show him.) He insisted the southern bus station had recently moved and thought he was doing us a favour. It sounded plasuible, but after 45 minutes of checking with various attendants, we were fairly confident we weren’t in the right place. Yet we also couldn’t deny there were buses and vans to Hua Hin departing from where we were.
The German tried calling the “if you have any problems, call this number” listed on the voucher. I heard him say a few times, “We can’t find the departure point…” and apparantly they just kept answering “45 minutes”… so we abandoned the voucher and bought tickets for another van which was leaving from where we were standing at that moment. We had to buy an additional seat for our luggage, but all said and done it was less than $20, so not the most expensive mistake we’ve made this trip.
The van was certainly a tight squeeze, but I didn’t have to share my seat with a chicken and it had air conditioning, so it was already working out better than I expected!
What would’ve been a 4 hour train ride was 2.5 hours by van, thanks to our driver, Speed Racer. At no point did I feel a need to screem out loud, so I guess that’s saying something, and no one was barfing so it was better than the Zanzibar ferry experience.
Hua Hin Beach
The resort we chose wound up being lovely, though Hua Hin beach wasn’t exactly the “Thailand beach paradise” I had pictured… there wasn’t much of a beach, and the water was more brown than blue. Still, the pools at the hotel were lovely, it was very affordable, and it was nice to be in a smaller town.
One of the two infinity pools…
The ocean was more brown than blue
The German approves of the bed
Massage is very popular in Thailand, and it’s not uncommon for locals to go multiple times per week to relax. You see tons of storefronts offering massage services, and they are always very full in the evenings. (And yes, these are legitmate massage parlours, though there are certainly places in Bangkok that also offer additional “services”.)
I’ve had a lot of massages, but never Thai style. It’s very different… they don’t use any oil and it’s much more physical. They give you these loose-fitting pajamas to wear, as they climb all over the table (and you) as part of the experience. In the movies, Thai-style massage is where the girls are walking on people’s backs. While they don’t do that anymore, there is a lot of facilitated streching, and even back cracking. They bend you into all sorts of different positions, then use their elbows, knees, feet and hands to massage you. If you like deep tissue massage like I do, it’s fantastic. But if you’re looking for a more relaxing, light massage, this isn’t the one.
You can get a 90 minute massage for less than $15, so I figured I should get as many as possible!
Elephants, Gibbons, and Otters – oh my!
I really wanted to have some kind of wildlife experience while we were here, but the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to the abusive practices of elephant tourism, or take photos with tigers or monkeys who had been sedated and stolen from their mothers. So I was thrilled to learn about the Wildlife Friends Foundation, which is located not too far from Hua Hin.
This sanctuary rehabilitates animals that have been abused, and whenever possible, releases them back to the wild. They also do a lot of educational outreach, and try working with the Thai goverment to advocate for animals. You can visit the sanctuary for a day, or volunteer for a week or longer… if we didn’t already have flights to Vietnam, I would certainly still be there!
My day started with a tour of some of the habitats, where we got to hear the stories of how each animal came to be there. Suffice to say, these aren’t happy stories… if a non-domesticated animal (like a monkey or bear or elephant) is being used for tourist activities, it has certainly suffered some major abuse. (Details on how elephants are broken for the trekking industry are here if you’re interested.) If you like animals at all, you should never support these industries – these practices will only stop when demand goes away.
WFFT has had great success releasing gibbons to the wild. Most gibbons that wind up there have previously been kept as pets, usually in tiny boxes or cages. To rehabilitate them, they start them in small cages, where they are often kept solo to adjust. Then they move on to larger cages, possibly with other gibbons or in sight of them, so they can re-learn how to be a gibbon. They eventually go to a cage-free island habitat before releasing them to the wild. This helps them transition from being pets to wild animals again.
They recently rescued a pair of 2 month old gibbons who are ridiculously adorable… I could have watched them all day:
They have everything from monkeys to bears to porcupines. All of them were illegally taken from the wild to be used for entertainment or as exotic pets. I missed the story about how these otters came to be there as I was overwhelmed by their adorable squeaky sounds:
The highlight of the day was my time with the elephants. I had the chance to see how happy they are here, to feed some of them, and to walk and bathe one. It’s an indescribable feeling to be walking down an open road with a 4 ton elephant following behind you, completely free of any fences, chains, or ropes. It was really magical.
Elephants used in the trekking industry rarely have the opportunity to get into water. We had a chance to help bathe an elephant (which they are accustomed to from their former lives):
At WFFT, all the elephants have access to ponds, though they can be unsure about hot to react to this luxury. The staff try and encourage them by tossing fruit into the water. This guy obviously loves going for a swim, based on his entry technique:
All in all, it was a really amazing day and I got back to the hotel smiling and filthy. (Who knew their trunks were so slobbery?) You can tell the volunteers and the animals are all very happy to be there. I am definitely going to look into visiting more sanctuaries and seek out volunteer opportunities, as it was such an incredible experience.
Next up, we are bouncing back to Bangkok for a couple nights before heading to Vietnam…
I am so grateful to my amazing friend Dan, who speaks Thai fluently and has spent a ton of time in Thailand, for giving us an incredible amount of detailed advice. We could have stayed here for months following his recommendations, and we arrived feeling better prepared because he educated us on all the basics.
That said, we started in Bangkok (against Dan’s recommendation). He warned us that the city can be overwhelming, especially the choatic, never-ending traffic. He wasn’t kidding. On the way to our hotel from the airport, our Uber got rear-ended. It was not our driver’s fault and everyone was fine (we were stopped in the ever-present traffic and someone rear-ended the person behind us, who got pushed into us). We then spent about an hour on the side of the road while all the drivers sorted out the details and received paperwork from the traffic cop. Welcome to Bangkok!
Traffic really is relentless. Hotels and other venues hire staff specifically to stop traffic just so cars can enter and exit their driveways. And walking is also a challenge. In Pengang, you had to be constantly vigilant about large holes, pipes, parked motorbikes or a million other things that could be obstructing the sidewalk. In Bangkok, if there even is a sidewalk, you have to dodge street vendors, motorbike taxis and the occassional giant cockroach. Plus vehicles don’t stop at the few crosswalks that do exist, so crossing the street is a nightmare unless you can find a pedestrian bridge. In other words, its like playing an advanced game of frogger, but you only get one turn.
His Royal Majesty
Thailand’s king died on October 13, 2016. He reigned for 70 years and was beloved by the people (as mandated by law). Even though we arrived over a month after his death (the first 30 days are the most intense mourning period), there was still plenty of evidence of his passing. Many people were still dressed in black, and the king’s portrait (surrounded by tons of flowers) and messages of condolences were everywhere. Entertainment, like concerts and sporting events, ceased and many bars and clubs had to close early, though that seems to be lessening now that the first month has passed.
Every single building has some kind of display honouring His Majesty – usually a portrait in a gold frame, surrounded by fresh flowers and black and white ribbons. Here is a small selection of photos, which I took subversively as I was unsure if it was ok to photograph them:
One day we wandered into the area of the Grand Palace, not realizing that for the first 100 days there is a chance for people to pay their respects at the king’s grave. Thousands of people per hour head there every day to mourn the king, clad in black and carrying their own portrait of him. Impressively, everything is calm and organized, facilitated by a huge community of volunteers who offer information, prepare food, distribute water, etc. Everything was provided to the mourners for free, which was so lovely – even the flowers to place on his grave were being given to each person as they entered the palace gates.
As we stood near the gates looking bewildered, a volunteer came over and welcomed us in. However, neither of us was wearing black and my passport (which was needed to enter) was at the Vietnam Embassy receiving a visa, so we didn’t venture inside the walls.
The Unicorn Cafe
On a lighter note, I read about a unicorn-themed cafe and felt it was imperative to check it out. It’s pretty much what you’d expect/hope for: a pastel coloured room filled with sugary treats, playing non-stop Disney music with stuffed toys and figurines of all sizes on every available surface. Even the ceiling was decorated with unicorns. And they have unicorn onesies you can wear while you eat. The German was a very good sport about this (and not the only guy who had been dragged there).
I bribed him with cheesecake to take this photo…
My favourite wall
The silverware was bejeweled, naturally
The cafe is very easy to find, as this is in the window.
This was undrinkably sweet – must be meant for unicorns
Yes, even the toilet was themed
What else would you expect them to serve?
We were surprised to discover that two different friends from Apple were randomly in Bangkok so we all got together for dinner. Caro was on her way to Bali with her boyfriend, while Ivan was on his way back to SF, having just completed a motorcycle trek in Nepal. It was so fun to see some familiar faces and catch up!
We met up with Ivan again on a subsequent evening, and found ourselves in the charmingly named “WTF Bangkok” bar, where a local demanded everyone join her in singing along to everything from Britney Spears to David Bowie to Guns & Roses.
Several drinks later, it was time for a midnight tom yum fix:
We finally decided to heed some of Dan’s advice and book a day trip to Ayutthaya, which was a capital city of Thailand until the Burmese invaded and destroyed it in 1767. There are so many temples there it would be impossible to see them all in a week, let alone a single day. We managed to visit four before taking a boat ride back to Bangkok.
Thailand’s Buddha is tall and thin and always has a peaceful expression. Even though we were part of a large group, we had time to explore on our own and I found it very calming to be in the temples with the soothing smile of the Buddhas.
The temples tend to be very ornate (if they haven’t been destroyed by war). Though our guide made far too many jokes along the way, he was also very knowledgable and it was really nice to learn more about Buddhism, the customs, and how to enjoy the temples without interfering or accidentally disrespecting anyone.
There are many headless Buddha in these ruins – no one is sure how this head wound up as part of this tree.
I’m not sure who this guy is, but he is creepy…
The King’s pavillion for relaxing… its only accessible by boat.
The largest golden Buddha at this temple (filled with gold Buddhas)
One of th elargest reclining Buddhas in the world
A pavillion for the ladies.
A previous King loved animals, so there is a lot of topiary on the property.
A peaceful Buddha in front of the temple ruins
The German is in constant danger of hitting his head on things here…
We ended the day by taking a boat back to Bangkok. It was interesting to see the various buildings go by – from temples to modern skyscrapers to small houses and even the Grand Palace. Though I think the most exciting part was when we barely cleared a low bridge and everyone had to hit the deck:
Most buildings have ornate little altars out front. They are always covered with fresh flowers and often have drinks (with straws) and small dishes of food in them. It turns out these are designed to appeal to spirits. Some spirits are mischievous, so giving them a nice place to stay deters them from causing trouble in the home or business. I find this approach to problem-solving very charming… rather than trying to get rid of the spirits, they make them feel very welcome somewhere else.
Now we are off to a smaller, coastal town to take in the quieter side of Thailand before we head to Vietnam. Though we will be bouncing in and out of Bangkok a couple more times since its such a central transit hub, so I think I am destined to keep humming “One Night in Bangkok” for a couple more weeks.