Every morning, the buddhist monks of Bangkok set out from their temples to chant prayers for the faithful. In exchange for their blessings they receive alms—gifts of food and drink—from the people. I set out one morning at the break of dawn to find this ritual; it happens all over the city, but I heard there was a particular neighborhood where I was more likely to find it.
I wandered aimlessly around grand boulevards, across bridges, and down back-alleys. At one point, I got so turned around that I lost track of where I was. I still hadn't see any monks, and I was pretty sure I was lost.
Soon, outside a shuttered temple, I saw a flash of orange as two robed monks made their way to a busy crosswalk. I thought I had found what I was looking for. I walked behind one of the monks, hoping to capture some of his interactions with the local shopkeepers. I tried my best not to be a creepy tourist. I smiled to people as I walked past, discretely making my presence known, and engaged as best I could—given that I don't speak Thai. I'm not entirely sure if I succeeded, but the locals smiled back, and didn't seem to mind my presence.
Down a side street and across a busy thoroughfare, one of the monks suddenly turned down a narrow alley. Before I realized where I was, I looked up and saw that I was in the middle of a busy morning market. The smell of brewed coffee, fresh fruit, twitching fish, cut flowers, and baked bread swirled around me. Vendors yelled warm welcomes, buyers laughed with their whole bodies, and monks hummed solemn chants. I set out looking for monks, but found much more.
Before I knew it, I had spent over three hours in the market. The minutes and hours rushed past me as I chatted with the few vendors who spoke some English, bought enough snacks to make up for my skipped breakfast, and took (perhaps too many) pictures. I couldn't believe that an enormous city of 8 million could contain such an intimate, natural feeling place.
I lost such track of time, that it wasn't until I decided to head home that I realized something: in three hours hadn't seen a single foreigner other than me. I was somehow lucky enough to be the only tourist lost in this place—in a city with over 15 million visitors a year. I carefully retraced my steps to exit the maze of alleys and side-streets, memorizing the location so that I could come back a few more times over the coming days.
I visited the market twice more. Each time it was slightly different. Many of the similar stalls set up each morning, but they were in slightly different locations, or selling slightly different variations of their signature snack or dish. And after spending a total of about three hours per day in this place, for three straight days, I still didn't see a single. Other. Tourist.
What I find interesting is that I never would have found a place quite like this if I had been looking for it. I was out looking for monks but what I found was so much more. And had this place been in any guidebooks, on any map, on any website, it probably wouldn't have existed, because it would have been swarmed with people like me.
I know that, obviously, I am still a "person like me." By virtue of the fact that I am a tourist, I played my own role in slightly ruining this place. I did my best to be a respectful visitor, and not an obnoxious tourist. I can only hope that I succeeded. I tried to be discrete, but honest with my camera. I am grateful that everyone smiled back. Some asked to see their photo, and smiled or laughed when I showed them.
Ultimately, I am grateful. I am grateful that I was the only one. I am grateful that everyone in this beautiful little corner of Bangkok was so friendly, and (at least pretended to be) pleased that I was there. And, perhaps above all, I am grateful that I got lost. I would not have found this place if I hadn't gotten lost.
Too often when we travel, we're on a schedule. We're on the clock. Or we're just following instructions. The ease of travel, and the spread of travel guides, wi-fi hotspots, and google translate have made it increasingly difficult to have a genuine adventure. But if you're a little bit brave, and little bit lucky, there is still plenty of unknown out there to be found.
So the next time you travel, set aside the planned itineraries and carefully calculated timelines for a few days, and do yourself a favor: get lost.