Escaping Bangkok Traffic By Air and Sea
Bangkok traffic is no laughing matter. About 15 minutes outside the Mahidol Campus and I’m stuck sitting on the road (in a taxi, mind you) with my friends and fellow Carolina Southeast Asia Summer Program participants, Calvary Diggs, Kristin Kent and Brenna Yellin. We’ve not moved in an hour.
But don’t let the lack of motion confuse you. Dealing with traffic in Bangkok is a full-fledged sport. Take tuk tuks, for example. These virtual tin cans on three wheels deny the forces of physics and the fear of death, winding in and out of buses and cars at high speed. Only the motorcycle taxis top their gumption. They drive on the lines instead of zigzagging between them.
Earlier in the week, my friends and I decided to avoid Bangkok traffic and try a different method of transportation: the water taxis. Granted, we had to take regular taxis to and from the river (thus our aforementioned street squatting), but once we arrived at the water, we were suddenly free of the crowds and fumes.
Our first stop was the original Mandarin Oriental Hotel. With five stars, it was more palatial shopping mall than hotel. Dressed in shorts, T-shirts and sandals (proper water taxi gear, considering the potential splashing), we were glaringly out of place in a marble-floored entranceway, accented by gigantic orchid-filled birdcages and a wall of windows, opening to the riverfront. (My outfit did have a touch of class. After all, my bright red T-shirt read “Coca-Cola Classic” in Thai.) About five seconds after entering, a guard dressed in a black button-down suit with gold buttons followed us into the courtyard and asked us, politely, civilly, mind you, but with great authority, how he could help us (find the exit, that is). He gave us directions to the water taxi stop (located directly behind the hotel), and we slowly made our way out of the hotel, soaking up the scenery to the very last moment and wishing that we exuded the same moneyed glow of the hotel’s flip-flopping shorts-wearing patrons.
But we were happy with our wardrobe choice once we got to the water. For 15 baht (about 50 cents), we took an enjoyable ride along the river, stopping along the way to tour several temples.
The most beautiful temple we came across we never actually toured. Not that we didn’t try. We made it to a large white gate sandwiched between two parking lots. Beyond those gates, we could just see Wat Ratchaburana Ratchworawharn. (In Thai, “wat” means “temple.”) The dying sunlight twinkled off window mosaics of red and blue glass, illuminating intricately carved Hindu-inspired golden statues.
But like I said, we only admired from afar. You see, the double parking lot and extensive gates, fortified by the construction of a gigantic gas station blocking off the back entryway, kept us outside. We renamed the “wat” a “parking wat” and moved on to the Temple of the Dawn, which Kristin’s guidebook suggested viewing at dawn, a suggestion that our sleep schedules simply would not permit.
The highlight of the afternoon was our more than 300-stair ascent to the top of the Golden Mount, the highest point of the old city. (It’s illegal to build high rises in historic Bangkok.) During our climb, we were treated to the cathartic reciting of Buddhist chants. The top of the mount offered a spectacular view of the city: new and old, sparkling and decrepit buildings were constructed side-by-side. The Thai and monarchy flags flapped regally in the wind, as we watched a group of kids playing soccer on a nearby roof.
We took a tuk tuk back to the riverfront, where we took one more luxurious ride over the water to return to the heart of the city. And so, as we sat on the highway, talking over our relaxing day and listening to the Thai radio, we didn’t even mind the long wait back to the university. After all, we’d avoided traffic by way of water and mounts. We’d headed off campus to see Bangkok from a new perspective. And as we headed out of the city at 5 p.m., we were afforded one last view of Bangkok. This one was from the taxi window, and it didn’t change at all for over an hour.
Emily Palmer, a junior global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for the Carolina Alumni Review. She is blogging for the Review and wants to hear about your can’t-miss experiences while at Carolina.