Meditation and monks at temples, deliriously delicious street food, and daily Thai massages helped me find my vacation zen amidst the chaotic traffic and relentless heat in the urban jungle known as "Bangkok." Sky scrapers, coconut trees, and Bhudda statues abound in this truly urban city that boasts markets selling everything you never knew you didn't want, an efficient subway system, and even its infamous Red-Light District. Bangkok was our first stop on our journey, and although it had that international big city vibe, it was the perfect introduction into Thai food, customs, and etiquette.
Traditional Thai Massage. For 8 bucks, you can have an expertly-trained Thai masseuse pull, stretch, and whirl you around, testing the limits of both your pain tolerance and flexibility.Traditional Thai massage is a mix of yoga and reflexology, and can be painful. I have a low tolerance for pain, but my yearning to experience an authentic Thai massage overruled those concerns.
The first and best massage I received was in Bangkok. We were given traditional outfits to put on, and seasoned Thai masseuses greeted us on the mat. The next 60 minutes was a practice in embracing pain to the point of surrender. This was an enlightening experience, and there were two things that helped me get through the severe discomfort that I felt: (1) My realization that pain is temporary. (2) My realization that in this case, pain was good for me, and it was a necessary detour on the way to relaxation.
I used deep breathing techniques--inhale calm, exhale anxiety. Inhale nothingness, exhale everythingness. Ironically, the more tension and discomfort I felt, the longer the masseuse would spend in that area--prolonging the discomfort. When I realized this, I figured out the only way to enjoy the experience was to accept the pain and transcend it. What is pain anyway?
Street Food. The food alone is reason enough to visit Thailand. I had already decided that I would be eating my way through the country. Some of my favorite Thailand eating experiences occurred in Bangkok. From the moment of checking into our hotel and being greeted with sugary-sweet pandanus leaf water, to freshly-made papaya salad at the Jatujak "Weekend" Market. The fresh fruit was a highlight of the entire trip, and the tree-ripened mangoes were sweeter than any mangoes I've ever had. The portions are large and the glass noodles, rice noodles, and even vermicelli are heavy enough to sit in your stomach, putting you in a near-coma. Or, maybe it's the MSG. But, either way, the food will have you in a peaceful state of near delirium.
Bhuddist Temples. It's hard not to find zen in a city with so many temples. We visited two of the most popular temples in Bangkok: The Temple of the Emerald Bhudda, housed in the Grand Palace's Wat Phra Kraew, and the 45 foot high, 150 foot long reclining Bhudda in Wat Pho.
The emerald Bhudda is the most holy of all of the Bhuddas in Thailand, and it is one of the smallest. The temple it's in was by far the most ornate and intricately decorated, and no photography was allowed. Like all temples in Thailand, you must dress respectfully (covering your legs and shoulders), and you must remove your shoes. Seeing this Bhudda statue reminded me of seeing the Mona Lisa--small, but fierce. And you are being shuffled through by security, unless you sit down to pray.
Across the street from the mayhem of everything that is the Grand Palace lies the giant reclining Bhudda statue at Wat Pho. The statue is so large that it's a wonder how it even fits into the temple. In stark contrast to the Grand Palace, the grounds at Wat Pho have few visitors. I took a few moments to sit by a fountain and relish in Wat Pho's charm before succumbing to jet lag due to a 12-hour time difference and a very busy first day in Thailand.