Diplograph
By Paul Knight
A longboat speeds along the Chao Phraya river.

Bangkok

This is the first post in the ongoing series Around the World 2016.

I’ve been trying to write this post for almost two weeks. Most every night I’ve sat down and typed something out but a dozen tries later I’m still sitting here with an empty document.

We’ve officially been on this trip for nineteen days now. It’s starting to feel different from one of our vacations: we won’t be flying back home in a couple of days, we get to keep doing this for months. We get to spend a year traveling the world.

I feel like I should have something important or profound or at least pithy to say by now. After all, this is The Introduction, Wherein Paul and Ava set off on a Grand Adventure.

I don’t have anything like that. I only have some disconnected ideas and photos and stories. I don’t even have any answers to the obvious questions: why did we want to quit our jobs and give up our rent controlled San Francisco apartment and put all of our stuff into storage? Maybe I’ll be able to explain that later, but I can’t right now.

In the meantime, I can write this: On December 30, 2015, Ava and I boarded a plane in Los Angeles. We crossed the International Date Line and landed on the morning of January 1, 2016. I can’t think of a more significant way to start the new year.

Here’s our stuff! I wouldn’t call us hardcore backpackers—I don’t want to be thought of as a hardcore backpacker anyway—but we did pack light. We’ve got about 100L of backpack between us.

Two 50L backpacks are propped against rows of airport gate seating in the international terminal of Los Angeles International Airport.

Rattanakosin

We’re starting our trip in Thailand. We’ve been here once before in 2011 so there’s enough we remember to make it easier to ease into the patterns of travel.

A wat is a Buddhist temple. Technically there are rules about what a wat is, but in Thailand the word is used loosely enough that ruins and even Christian churches are called wats.

We saw several of the major tourist attractions last time: the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and so on, so we skipped them this time. Instead we mostly tried to get over jet lag and feel around the idea that we should take our time instead of squeezing as much as possible into three weeks before returning home.


Khao San street is lined by five story buildings and huge signs advertising cheap rooms, drinks, and McDonalds.

Khao San Road, once the place to be for backpackers in Bangkok, is not my scene. These days it’s aggressive and intense, and while I’m sure it’s an amazing place to have a drink and people watch I was in no hurry to stay.

The photo above is not a typical Bangkok street. While there are more motorcycles in Thai traffic, and there does seem to be a bit more of “smaller vehicle yields to larger vehicle” as a general rule, most streets look like they would in any city. This is the first thing I’m going to do a very bad job of getting across: I’m taking photos of tourist areas and attractions, or areas that are different, because they are different. But there’s a lot in big cities that isn’t different, or at least it’s more same than not.

Anyway: Khao San is still plenty busy during the day. Restaurants and bars, tattoo shops, massage parlors, clothing and souvenir stores, travel agencies, and fake ID sellers are all squeezed together and spill into the street. That last one was new to me. They displayed the options—literally hundreds of them—on huge posters next to smoothie menus and tour advertisements.

Ava drinks out of a fresh coconut along Soi Rambuttri. Cheap, simple restaurants with plastic chairs line the street.

The nearby Soi Rambuttri is more our style. It’s more relaxed, less crowded, greener (in the plant sense) and quieter. We grabbed lunch and a fresh coconut there. I’m not claiming it’s more authentic, whatever that means, just that we enjoyed it more.

The Chao Phraya River

A couple of larger ferry boats are tied to the banks of the Chao Phraya river. Restaurants and shops are supported on stilts above the river, and the buildings seem to have been piled on top of each other over the years.

The Chao Phraya River winds through Bangkok and defines a lot of its layout. It’s about 700 feet across in Central Bangkok but the last time we were here it had risen during the terrible flooding. A lot of the restaurants, shops, and houses built along the banks were several feet under water.

We somehow managed to get ourselves lost on the wrong side of the river. I’m pretty impressed, actually.

There are several large motorway bridges, but sometimes the fastest way across is to take one of the ferries that bounce between the two banks. It costs 3 baht (0.08 USD) to make the trip.

There’s also regular express boats that run along the river and stop at the dozens of piers throughout Central Bangkok. We got stuck behind several huge Chinese tour groups and learned that when even Buddhist monks push their way through the crowd it’s time to assert yourself.

Buildings

The one thing that always seems to stick with me about Bangkok is its skyline and architecture. While it doesn’t have an immediately recognizable landmark like the Eiffel Tower or the Petronas Towers there are at least a couple of buildings that I kept noticing.

Though covered in gigantic billboard advertisements, Sathorn Unique Tower looks to be rotting away. It's a shame, because otherwise it's a beautiful building of rounded balconies and verandas for dozens of floors.

The 600 foot Sathorn Unique Tower was never completed. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis bankrupted many of its investors and today there are more than a dozen of these “ghost” skyscrapers.

MahaNakhon, in stark contrast, looks very modern with its surface of reflective glass. There are chunks missing from the building almost as if it were a computer model that hadn't finished loading, or as though parts of the geometry were corrupt.

Meanwhile, the MahaNakhon building will be the tallest in Bangkok at 1,030 feet when it’s completed later this year. The missing voxels along the side aren’t a construction artifact—the building really is that cool. It’s being built in the Silom area of Bangkok that we stayed in, and it was pretty rad to look at while we walked around.


We left Bangkok to make our way north to Sukhothai, and that ended up being a story in itself.