Angkor Wat and the Outlying Temples (March 2010)

We wanted to rent bikes to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, the only bike rental place we found that was open at 5am was owned by a tuktuk driver who had tried to sell us a day’s worth of services, and who we had, rather unsuccessfully, tried to bargain down to a much lower price. It was pretty awkward (we’re not exactly naturals at the bargaining thing) and we decided to look elsewhere. We did take a tuk-tuk out to the wat, and made it in time for the sun to come up; but the haze in the sky, combined with the scaffolding on the wat, the coffee hawkers and thousands of other tourists made for a sort of anticlimactic sunrise. We decided to head in before the crowd, and were able to see a lot of the wat a little ahead of the crowds. Angkor Wat itself is an incredibly large three-tiered pyramid temple, the sheer size of it impressive until you see the intricate detail inscribed on every surface. The entire first ring of walls is paneled with ancient bas-relief carvings representing Hindu mythology: perfectly proportioned celestial apsaras, the churning of the Sea of Milk in which the gods and demons engage in an epic tug-of-war that produces the elixir of immortality, and dramatic battles that collide at the center in a mess of soldiers, elephants, monkeys and demons.

After wandering through the rest of Angkor Wat, the crowds thickened until it became difficult to find any parts without people all around us, and we decided to beat the massive crowds to the next attraction. Of course, we were on foot while most other people had gotten bikes or tuk-tuks, so there were plenty of people already there when we crossed through the south gate into the ancient city of Angkor Thom. The gate in the city wall still stands, straddling a modern road crowded with tour buses and tuk-tuks fighting to make it through the single lane. The bottleneck does give you some time to ponder the fantastic bridge over the causeway, decorated on either side with a life-sized rendering of the same churning of the Sea of Milk myth we’d seen in the wat. Long ago Angkor Thom was a superpower in southeast Asia, and one of the largest cities in the world, the area within the walls filled with people. The Khmer at the time believed that only the gods were allowed to dwell in stone buildings, and now everything but the temples has disappeared entirely; there’s little to see entering Angkor Thom from the south but forest and monkeys, until you arrive at Bayon in the center.

The Bayon was the main temple of Angkor Thom, and unlike most wats it doesn’t appear to have a wall or a moat to guard it, until you understand that Bayon’s wall was the city wall itself. Angkor Thom’s wall was short without battlements, and would have provided little protection to the city, however it was symbolically fitting for the city’s temple. The best way to describe Bayon in a single word would be “cramped”, with so many passages and chambers crammed into the lower tiers that you can rarely cross paths with someone without turning sideways. As you ascend to the upper levels it begins to open up, but the other tourists quickly fill in all the open space and it’s impossible to walk through a doorway without being in someone else’s picture. The trademark smiling faces, said to represent either Lokesvara the Buddhist deity, or Jayavarman VII – the god-king of 12th-century Angkor Thom, seemed a little less mysterious in the company of our fellow tourists, so we decided not to dwell too long and headed east, which according to our map led to the Gate of the Dead.

The current road that travels through Angkor Archaeological Park leads north past the Bayon, and passes near additional ruins before heading east and leaving the city through the Victory Gate, which leads east from the Royal Palace and is the one gate not centered on the Bayon. The standard way to explore Angkor is to travel one of the Circuits, which leave via either the Victory gate or the north gate; we, being on foot without a tour guide, decided to head along the dirt path towards the Gate of the Dead, being intrigued by the name. Dead is an apt description for its current state, because it lacks any easy outlet to the rest of the ruins (the dirt path we took would have been unpleasant in a tuk-tuk and impossible by bus, and didn’t continue beyond the gate). There were also no other people there except for two Cambodians in hammocks. The detail on the gate was fantastic, the huge serene faces overlooking the roads and the walls made up of thousands of smaller carved stones with little perfect holes covering their surfaces, although we weren’t sure if this was for anchoring decorative coverings now long eroded, or for lifting the larger base stones underneath. There were cavernous doors within the gate that seemed to lead into secret passages in the walls themselves, and our flashlights were useless to illuminate the interior.

We walked most of the rest of the small circuit, including to Takeo, with a few sets of imposing stairs (the Khmer used excessively steep stairs in temple architecture to force visitors to stoop in the presence of the gods) and Tah Prom, which are the ruins that house some of the more iconic sights of the ruins, including ancient doorways completely choked by wild tree roots. In fact, many of the ruins that we saw were engaged in a very slow battle with huge, wrinkly tree roots, and much of the funding for conservation goes towards saving the ruins from nature; there were plenty of seemingly makeshift wooden props counteracting the force of a tree’s weight, keeping certain walls from crumbling completely.

The next day we decided to give in and hire a tuk-tuk for the whole day (having stubbornly walked 9 to 10 hours the first day in the intense sun) which was actually pretty pleasant, and we were able to see some of the outer farming edges of Siem Reap. The city is dry and beautiful in March, with kids swimming in mucky green water reservoirs, houses with blue window sashes swaying high up on stilts, and motorbike drivers with three full sized pigs stiffly strapped over their back wheel.

We toured the grand circuit, which would have been unwalkable anyhow due to its size. We wanted to see East Mebon, located at the center of the Eastern Baray, a now-dry manmade reservoir of water measuring 2 by 7 kilometers that had at one point provided water for the entire city and which represents a great engineering feat of the era. The Mebon was originally only accessible by water, and had landing docks on all four sides guarded by monolithic stone elephants; we were unclear whether the Khmer had built the temple and then flooded the Baray to the appropriate depth to match, or vice versa. We also liked, among many of the other ruins, Prah Khan, a city sized, walled in giant similar to Angkor Thom. It’s a geometrically fascinating structure with small galleries in the center nestled within increasingly larger walls, and corridors extending to the cardinal directions from many of the small rooms. Unlike many of the other temples, this one was mostly empty of people and refreshingly explorable, with no paths cordoned off.

From the road to each of the sights, there were vendors outside, many of them children, all competing for the same clients, offering cold water and soda, fresh pineapple, and souvenirs. On the longer paths there were often bands comprised of landmine victims, missing limbs and eyes and skin, a reminder that the Khmer Rouge genocide and destruction is still living history for all Cambodians (over 25% of the population was brutally murdered or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge, and the entire capital city of Phnom Penh was completely emptied for 4 years), and that landmines are still hidden in many areas, injuring and killing people every month. The Khmer Rouge also considered the ruins (and the restoration efforts, mostly by French-led teams) to be irrelevant to their mission of an agrarian society, and some temples which had been disassembled for repair were left with pieces scattered and exposed to the elements. Visiting the ruins was also forbidden, robbing Cambodians of a chance to experience their cultural heritage. It was strange to think that only a decade or so after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime, we were casually wandering through the ruins, eating pineapple pizza and mango shakes in Siem Reap, and haggling with tuk-tuk drivers over a few dollars.

The next day we took a taxi back to the border (100% unstressful compared to the taxi ride in) and crossed back into Thailand without problems. We took a songthaew back to the tiny Aranyaprathet train station, had lunch, and waited for the ticket counter to open. While we were waiting, two tourist police officers came up to us and handed us a brochure, and proceeded to take a bunch of pictures with us: posing with the brochures, shaking one police officer’s hand, shaking the other police officer’s hand (handshaking isn’t customary in Thailand, and the officer’s grip was comically similar to that of a mannequin). It was really strange. We took the train back to Bangkok, stayed overnight in the same guesthouse by the train station, and got up bright and early the next morning to catch a flight to Beijing.

Crossing the Aranyaprathet-PoiPet border (March 2010)

On March 21st, we got up early to catch the 5:55 am train to Aranyaprathet, one of the major border crossings into Cambodia. We arrived about 5 or 6 hours later, and after being hounded by a tuk-tuk driver (he saw us while we were still in our seats on the train pulling into the station and followed us through the crowd for a few hundred yards trying to sell us a ride) we hopped on a songthaew (a small bus built onto a pickup truck) to the border. Having read about the myriad scams involved with this border crossing, we managed to maneuver through all of the “helpful” offers for visa service–the earnest, the aggressive, and the outright lying– and ignored the official-looking signs directing foreigners to go the complete wrong direction to the “consulate” and visa service offices. We waited in a very long line that we hoped was the right one, behind a few busloads of tourists from Khao San Road.

We asked the people behind us in line, a nice middle-aged Australian couple, if it was okay to be in this line, since we still didn’t know where we were supposed to be going. They thought so, but had been on a bus from Khao San that stopped the whole group and basically forced everyone to get visas through a fake consulate that charged them more than twice the normal price. They knew better, and waited for the border to apply also (the woman had her visa already but the man didn’t).

At the Thai border I tried to confirm with the border officer that we could get visas after exiting Thailand and that I could get passport photos taken (I used all mine up applying for China and India visas and stupidly forgot to get more), and he smiled and nodded but I wasn’t sure he had understood me, so I tried to reconfirm at the Cambodian quarantine gate in no-man’s land. The woman there told me that I had to have a photo, that there was no where to get one taken, that she didn’t know what I should do, and that I would have to “make an arrangement” with the Cambodian border officer (to which I replied “excuse me?” but meant to say, “what the hell does that mean?,” assuming the worst). Luckily it didn’t turn out to be that big of a deal and the border officer seemed to overcharge us only a little. We waited in another line for an hour or so, and finally entered PoiPet, Cambodia, crossing the border on foot.

The Australian woman, Rachel, made an agreement for a taxi fare of $25 USD, to the protests of the indignant translator of the driver (she lives and teaches in Siem Reap and seemed to know what a normal fare was). The taxi itself may have been Thai, for while Cambodians drive on the right side of the road, this car’s driver’s seat was also on the right which, in addition to the fact that we spent more time passing on the left or driving down the middle of the road than actually driving in the right lane, made for a rather exciting car ride. It wasn’t so bad, though, since this is how all of Cambodia drives. However, the taxi driver did stop at a car wash for an excessive amount of time while the storeowners tried to sell us overpriced water, maps, guidebooks, pineapples and coconuts. Then, when we arrived near Siem Reap the driver claimed (through another, different interpreter who also happened to be a certain guesthouse’s pusher) that not only could he not take us any further and that we’d have to take and pay for a tuk-tuk ride into the city, and that we had to pay more because the taxi was originally for 2 people (not true, we were all standing there as Rachel bargained for a better price), but also that he had to pay an extra fee to the police for having 4 tourists in the car. Now, we knew that wasn’t true since we had been in the car the whole time and he very obviously hadn’t paid any fees to any police, and we knew he hadn’t pre-paid the police since he claimed to not have known there would be 4 passengers. Daniel and I took the tuk-tuk after Rachel confirmed it would be free (she was admirably aggressive, and I was so grateful to have her there to keep us from being further taken advantage of) and she and her husband stayed to fight the fare with the driver.

Feeling very exhausted and overwhelmed (me, at least), we got a mildewy but comfortable guesthouse room, and dinner and a beer, and set the alarm for 4 am again to go see the sunrise over Angkor Wat.

Chiang Mai and Sukhothai, Thailand (March 2010)

We took an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, which was sort of out of our realm of experience (it involved a few straightfaced announcements by the attendant that we mistook for “this bus is going back to Bangkok and you’re all out of luck” as it was shortly accompanied by a giant u-turn, but it turned out we were just stopping at a rest stop; seats that reclined all the way back to the point that your legs were pinned and you couldn’t actually move them; and a woman behind us who took the opportunity to spend the entire night on the phone) but overall was pretty comfortable, and another passenger even gave up his window seat to let us sit together. When we arrived in the city, we managed to find ourselves a tuk-tuk driver who dropped us off on a random corner in the city when we declined to stay at the guesthouse they drove us to, and the first guesthouse we stayed in had a resident drunk, possibly mentally unstable, family member who sang loudly and unintelligibly directly into our screen window while watering the garden from 2am to 9am–we were fairly certain we were going to get watered as well in the middle of the night.

For the rest of Chiang Mai, we stayed on the second floor of a beautiful teak guesthouse with tall ceilings, a huge mattress on the floor (it was actually three small mattresses lined up in a row), and a private bathroom. We spent most of our time inside the walls of the old city, visiting sparkling wats covered floor to ceiling in gold leaf, and green, blue and yellow bits of mirrors, occupied by young monks in yellow-golden robes chanting surrounded by beautiful murals depicting Buddhist and Hindi mythology.

We had some wonderful food in Chiang Mai, like the rest of Thailand. Tom Kha Gai, a coconut soup with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal (related to ginger but quite different), chicken and chiles. Khao Soi, a curry and egg noodle soup served with a chicken thigh, with pickled veggies and fresh dry green beans on the side. Tom Yum, a clear tomato-y lemongrass and kaffir lime soup that was by far the spiciest thing I ate in Thailand. Beef, pineapple and pepper kebabs from street food vendors, fresh ripe mango with sticky rice and thick coconut milk, fried wontons filled not with cream cheese, but a hardboiled quail egg (surprise!), lemon and strawberry “ancient” ice cream. Of course, we had to have more spicy basil stir fry, green curry with thai eggplant, and pad thai, and a few mystery snack foods including some crackers we’ve come to refer to as “angry exploding hotdog snacks” because of the picture on the bag.

One morning as we were lying in bed, we heard megaphone announcements, cheering and honking, and ran out to follow on foot a motorcade of red-shirt protesters snaking out of the old city. We followed them to the provincial democratic party headquarters where they were rallying, megaphoning protest chants in Thai, dancing on pickup truck beds to recorded music, and burning a coffin representing the current Prime Minister Abhisit; the red shirts are more or less in support of the former PM Thaksin who was ousted in 2006, although from what we can tell the protesters were not only pro-Thaksin, but also against the military coup that dissolved Thaksin’s party and awarded the PM position to the opposing party. The protest’s mood was excited and positive, and supporters included young men in bandannas and aviator glasses, songthaew drivers, and groups of smiling grandmothers with red, heart-shaped noisemakers; and the police, while in riot gear and at the ready, were pretty relaxed during the whole affair. It was a really interesting thing to witness, we feel pretty lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.

From Chiang Mai, we left on a train for a town called Phitsanulok near Sukhothai, another former capital of Thailand with beautiful ruins spanning the entire old city. However, the train we took left hours later than it was supposed to, after many delays and mysterious intercom announcements that we didn’t understand and a very extensive train-washing process. We sat across from an elderly couple squatting on the floor of the train, eating balls of sticky rice and salted meat from a banana leaf; food vendors come on the train to sell meat and rice, hardboiled eggs with mini handpacked inflated bags of soy sauce, crunchy, green apple-y jujube fruits with a mixture of salt, sugar and chile for dipping, quartered pineapple on a wooden skewer, or translucent glutinous rice balls filled with peanuts and chiles. Because of the delay leaving, we arrived in Phitsanulok at 2am, tired and sticky and covered in chaff from the still-burning fields that blows steadily in the open train windows, stopped on the side of the road for some glass-noodle soup with blanched mystery meatballs, and after wandering around looking unsuccessfully for a guesthouse while dodging cockroaches the size of small mice (that’s not an exaggeration, by the way) we decided to just walk to the bus station and wait for the first bus to old Sukhothai.

When we got there, we had hot coffee with sweetened condensed milk and rice for breakfast, and rented bikes to explore the ruins (not unlike, apparently, hundreds of other tourists crawling the ruins in droves–going early to avoid the crowd is a failed venture in Thailand). The ruins themselves were really interesting; the fascinating Wat Sri Chum houses a massive, legendary talking Buddha. An early Thai king brought his forces to the statue that spoke to the men, commanding and inspiring them to fight bravely in battle. Later, an echoey secret passage was discovered which led up and behind the statue. We watched the sun set over Sukothai historical park–it was beautiful. Check out our photos from Chiang Mai and Sukhothai at http://picasaweb.google.com/mradyfist/ChiangMaiAndSukhothai.

Ayutthaya, Thailand (March 2010)

Ayutthaya, not too far north of Bangkok, is a city built on the ruins of the former capital of Thailand–it was one of the most powerful and prosperous cities in Southeast Asia from the 1300s to the 1700s, and had a population of over a million near the end of its heyday. It was sacked in 1767 by the Burmese, and never recovered; the damage was bad enough that the Thai moved their capital to Bangkok.

We took the train to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, which was a great deal (tickets were 15 Thai Baht apiece, about 50 cents at the current exchange rates), and gave us the opportunity to see Bangkok with a very different perspective than we had had before. The train took us through more industrial areas of the city, past the old Don Meuang airport (the international hub until it was replaced by the shiny, modern Suvarnabhumi Airport) as well as miles of shanty towns built on the side of the railroad tracks, modest homes with families and kids and dogs, built from bamboo sticks, 2x4s, cinderblocks and corrugated metal, and past farms running controlled burns on the fields to prepare for the new crops.

On our first night in the city, we signed up for a ferry tour of a few ruins sites on the outside of the river (Ayutthaya is in the Chao Phraya river valley, and the main part of the city is surrounded on all sides by river, which was nice because it made it hard to get too lost). We went to a few wats (temples) that were kept in good shape, including Wat Phananchoeng, which is home to a what is supposedly Thailand’s largest Buddha image–this was one of the first actual wats we had been in since we got to Thailand, and it was beautiful and impressive. The next day we rented one-speed bikes to meander around the city, which was really pleasant and relaxing, and the weather was great. We spent the whole day visiting different wats throughout the city and exploring these crumbled and burned fascinating ruins. It was a very intense experience to be standing on the site of what must have been a very bloody and violent attack on an ancient superpower, one that effectively ended an entire kingdom.

One of the most interesting things about this city was that the ruins are interspersed throughout the city–we’d be biking past houses in a residential area, and come upon a clearing with the ruins of a wat, followed by a 7 Eleven and food carts. Some were in better shape, and while many were cordoned off into parks others had become a part of the urban landscape in the area, with kids in school uniforms playing around them.

We biked around U-Thong Road, the “frontage road” that ran around the city inside of the river’s boundaries, and got to explore a covered market in an extensive alley system (much larger than it looked from the tiny entrance we found), narrow little aisles filled with toys, clothing and shoes, produce, every cut of meat you could imagine (including a whole pig head), live eels trying to escape their confines, stands with hot coals and frying pans and noodles. We bought a pair of sandals for Daniel, and had the unique experience of trying very hard to communicate with someone who didn’t speak any English at all (you kind of forget about that staying in the more touristed areas), and the only Thai I’ve really figured out for sure is “hello” and “thank you”– the Thai phrasebook I have is nice, but I really haven’t gotten my brain all the way around the tonal language idea. In the rare case that I am able to get out an intelligible sentence a Thai person might understand, any follow-up questions are useless and I feel like a hard-headed American.

We stayed at a guesthouse called Tony’s Place on Naresuan Road Soi 1, a sweet little raised wooden structure painted sea-foam green like plenty of the guesthouses in Bangkok. It had a shower and toilet in the room, as well as an electrical outlet, which we came to miss in KhaoSan, and there was a restaurant on the main deck. We had some good food there–wide rice noodles with seafood, pineapple fried rice, and delicious fresh watermelon and pineapple shakes. Overall, it was great–check out the photos we took from the ruins!

Getting visas in Bangkok (March 2010)

On our second full day in Bangkok, we got up early in the morning to go to the Chinese Embassy on the other side of the city to apply for visas. The guidebook listed the hours as 9am-11:30, so we left fairly early, caught a taxi, and showed the driver the address in the book. The taxi driver ended up getting pretty lost and, after stopping at a bathroom, pulled over by a pay phone, took our guidebook, and called the embassy to see where it actually was (pretty far behind us). The guidebook’s listed address was the same as on the embassy website, but it didn’t mention which soi (sidestreet) the embassy was on (it’s on Ratchadaphisek soi 3, if you’re looking for it, not soi 57!), and we arrived at the embassy around 11:45. We were frustrated, the taxi driver was frustrated, we were late, and we couldn’t tell which building the embassy was actually in, as it wasn’t marked.

We finally got up to the office around noon, hoping that they had after-lunch hours which weren’t listed. As we were walking to the door, a man walking out with a briefcase pointed to the hours listed on the door, and said that we would have to come back after the weekend to apply for a visa (which was a little confusing, since we hadn’t realized that it was Friday). He said he could process the visa for us though, which in retrospect was probably a poor choice; we were worried about not having enough time to get the visas we needed while in Bangkok though, and he offered same day processing for that afternoon. We agreed, and followed him outside where he helped us hurriedly fill out the forms, and charged us an excessive fee per visa.

At the time we assumed he was a visa clerk at the embassy, since he was leaving around closing time with a briefcase full of applications and even had a business card for himself as the “Assistant Chairman for the Chinese People Association (Thailand)”, but after looking back it’s more likely he ran a visa service for tourists like us, and charged us what he thought we’d be willing to pay. We didn’t actually have enough cash to complete the transaction that day, so we ended up coming back on Monday (after a stressful weekend of speculation as to whether or not we would ever see our passports again) to pick up our passports at the visa application center. The good news was we got our passports back with shiny new Chinese visas; the bad news is that we paid probably 2000 baht extra for each.

Getting our Chinese visas was not the highlight of the trip, but we ended up being luckier with the Indian ones. After leaving on Monday with our passports, we caught a bus down Ratchadaphisek to Sukhumvit to catch a second bus back to the KhaoSan area. As it turns out, the Indian embassy is near Sukhumvit, and since we had gone to the the Chinese embassy early in the morning we decided it couldn’t hurt to stop by and see what we needed to do. When we found the embassy there was a line out the door to get in, but apparently this wasn’t where you applied for a visa anyway; the guard at the door showed us a map, which had the visa application center about 1km away on Sukhumvit.

After getting slightly lost, we eventually found the building (Glashaus, on Sukhumvit soi 25) and made our way to the 15th floor. The guard at the door checked our bags and waved us through, where an English-speaking clerk explained to us that Indian visas for non-Thai residents take 5 working days to process, with no expedited service available. If we had waited until the next day to get our visas we would have been without our passports for the whole week and weekend, but since we were there on Monday we could get things finished up by Friday (a good thing especially, since we were hoping to be out of Bangkok by the weekend to avoid the protests scheduled for Sunday). We filled out the applications and submitted our information, paid what still seemed like too much due to the added fees for our US passports and the visa processing center, and left feeling poor, but more comfortable than last time since the person we gave all our money and passports to was actually sitting behind a desk. Tuesday we left Bangkok for Ayutthaya, the city built on the ruins of the former capital of Thailand–but that story is for the next post.

On Friday we returned and picked up our passports, feeling better about our experiences after listening to other people in the waiting room who had more problems (including the woman who had a ticket to fly to India the next day and was just submitting her passport, and the man who was leaving that afternoon and wanted to collect his passport before the official time). It feels pretty good to have our passports back and have the major work we had to do for the rest of our trip taken care of!

Bangkok Diaries (March 2010)

We arrived in Bangkok late at night on March 3rd, caught a taxi straight to our guesthouse, and despite having gained six waking hours that day had a rather difficult time sleeping due to jet lag, techno bumping late into the night, and an unfortunately-placed air conditioner that dripped directly on our faces all night long. In the morning the area was much more bright and beautiful–hot pink and purple taxis, lush green leaves spilling out of guesthouse verandas, and yellow flags in rows fluttering over the streets.

We’ve been staying on Soi Rambutri, a prettier, quieter street by Thanon KhaoSan, Bankgok’s backpacker ghetto filled with the worst of the West–loud, sweaty, sunburned tourists showing fleshy patches of skin, hairy legs and bare shoulders. The whole neighborhood is narrow alley/streets filled with weaving cars, trucks, stinky tuk-tuks, loud motorbikes and plenty of pedestrians maneuvering over the red tiled pavement. The smaller streets don’t seem to have clearly-defined priorities: that is, Soi Rambutri might be a pedestrian thoroughfare until a motorbike comes barreling down it bobbing around the tourists and Thais alike, and taxis will sometimes drive straight at you and turn off or slow down at the last moment, or crawl past you so closely that you have to keep track of exactly where all of your toes are.

On KhaoSan you can buy anything you want–there are street food vendors everywhere (selling pad thai, rice dishes, grilled meat on sticks, papaya on ice, a plastic bag full of something to drink, sticky rice with mango, armies of sun-dried squid, a fish skewered through the face) clothing vendors (thai fisher pants, knockoff Armani suits, shoes and flipflops, oft-misspelled english joke t-shirts), stalls to buy tours to anywhere in Thailand and Cambodia, and plenty of aggressive taxi drivers and even more aggressive tuk-tuk drivers to get you where you want to go, for a price. You can also get Thai massage and fish massage (putting your feet in a tank where fish nibble your toes) while watching stray mangy dogs who seem very good natured for how hungry they must be amble by. We’ve passed by monks in gold-orange robes, a man with no legs scooting around on a skateboard, and kids swimming in the polluted offshoots of the Chao Phraya river. The air is warm and very humid, filled with contrasting smells of delicious grilled foods, cigarettes, car exhaust, raw sewage and incense.

So far, the city is a lot to take in; we’re currently north of Bangkok in Ayutthaya, the town built atop the ruins of Thailand’s former capital in the 14th-18th centuries. Next blog post: our adventure getting a Chinese visa in Bangkok!