There are no short cuts to any place worth going… ~ Thai Proverb
We touched down at Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok
) at 5:30am, and we were seriously excited. We were about to embark on our Thailand and Laos adventure.
It took us a while to navigate the large crowds at the customs counters, but it wasn’t too arduous. When we finally found the first floor exit (after some well-meaning but inaccurate advice sent us in the wrong direction), we caught a public bus to Banglamphu in the heart of Bangkok. It was a great (and cheap) way to travel into the chaotic city, and our stress levels dropped considerably when the friendly ticket attendant promised to let us know when our stop was coming up.
We clambered off the bus, donned our packs and tried to find our way by foot to the Siam Champs-Elyseesi Unique Hotel (our accommodation in Bangkok). A well-dressed couple was walking towards us, so we asked if they knew where the hotel was. They were so friendly and so intent on helping us. I had the contact details of the hotel written on a piece of paper (in English), which they took and discussed with a few nearby stall holders. No-one seemed to know the
place, so they called the hotel on their mobile. They wrote the name of the hotel in Thai – just in case we needed to ask someone else who didn’t speak English – then described in detail how to walk to the place. I was taken by their friendliness, and how willing they were to give 15 or so minutes of their time to help us.
Armed with their directions and good will, we set off in search of the hotel. It was tough going. The heat from the early morning sun was intense and the humidity was high. As the perspiration began to stream down our backs and faces, we decided to relent. After negotiating with a few drivers, we jumped into a tuk-tuk for the final kilometre of our journey. The cost was only marginally less than our bus fare from the airport, which was more than 30 times the distance! We‘d heard the price of tuk-tuk travel had increased significantly since our last visit in 2011 due its popularity with tourists. We decided to use metred taxis from this point on…
However, our tuk-tuk driver was very helpful, and he called the hotel to get
directions. Despite being very near to Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, our hotel was very difficult to find. We finally arrived at 8:30am, knowing full-well the hotel’s check-in time was 2pm. We hoped, on the off chance, that a room may have been ready, but none were available. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we had a five hour wait until we could shower, change our clothes and lie on a bed! This wasn’t great news, because we’d been travelling (door-to-door) for just over 22 hours, and we were starting to feel the discomfort of being hot and sweaty without an option to freshen up. However, we had no intention of sitting around and waiting, so we changed as best we could in the hotel foyer, left our packs with the concierge and headed out into Bangkok’s intense morning heat.
Our first stop was Wat Ratchanatdaram, which was just down from our hotel. In fact, we stumbled upon it accidentally on our way to Wat Saket. The temple was interesting enough, especially as it contains the Loha Prasat (Metal Castle). However, the main attraction was the resident cat who was very attracted to Ren – as all cats are. We
named him Harry. There was also a beautiful old dog who was a bit unsteady on his back legs (due mainly to arthritis), but a friendly local woman suggested he was too fat for his own good. Poor old guy!
Our next point of call was our old favourite Wat Saket. We loved this place the last time we visited Bangkok, so we were determined to revisit it on this trip. On the way we dropped into a beautiful little café called Kassi Coffee and had the most incredible Thai milk tea – we’d forgotten how refreshing the drink is on a hot day, especially when it is poured over ice. We sat outside at a low table on the sidewalk and recovered our strength in order to tackle the many steps to the top of Wat Saket – which we could see from where we were sitting.
Wat Saket – otherwise known as the Temple of the Golden Mount – affords an incredible view of the city of Bangkok, as it sits upon a small hill that rises from the otherwise flat landscape that surrounds the city. The climb up the 344 steps was tough in the
heat, but we managed it okay, hugging the shade wherever we could. The 360 degree view was amazing, and the strategically placed fans were very welcome. We noticed a couple of blokes recording snippets of audio, including the prayer bells, gongs and pre-recorded chants that contribute so much to the temple’s ambiance. With such a dedicated focus and impressive array of recording equipment, I was fascinated to know what they were up to… so I asked. Poor blokes – lucky they didn’t mind! They were recording sound and vision for a travel blog which they share via a dedicated YouTube channel (Nomadic Bard), and they had just embarked on a four month tour through South East Asia to capture the sounds of various cultures along the way. I’m looking forward to listening to their blog when we return to Australia.
Our next stop was Wat Suthat, which houses an enormous Buddha sculpture. The place was alive, because a young man was being ordinated into the monkhood, and all of his family was there. We got caught up in the rigmarole, especially when he started throwing small bundles of coins wrapped in patterned fabric into the crowd. People screamed and
clamoured for the good luck charms. Ren asked an elderly woman what the charms where (we didn’t realise they contained coins at the time), and she took Ren’s hand and gave her all the charms she’d collected from the temple floor. We felt terrible and tried to return them, but she wasn’t having a bar of it. She was so generous, and maybe the act of passing them on to us increased the good luck that had been endowed upon her. Anyway, it was a beautiful gesture. We wandered around and enjoyed the temple’s ambience before deciding it was time for lunch.
I’m a little hesitant to share an experience at Wat Suthat, but I think it’s a story worth telling. I needed to visit a toilet (sorry for the detail here), and fortuitously one appeared in a quiet corner of the temple. As I hastened towards the entrance, an old guy – who appeared to be in charge of toilet protocol – demanded that I remove my thongs (flip flops). This somewhat unhygienic protocol took me by surprise, because I couldn’t recall ever having to remove my footwear to enter a public toilet. It was not something I
cherished, but my options were limited…
Anyway, I emerged unscathed. After wandering the peaceful temple grounds in the early afternoon, we tried to find a nearby restaurant recommended in our Lonely Planet guide, but we discovered it was only open for dinner, so we opted for a small roadside eatery just along the road – Thai Food at Sunramrat
. I went all conventional and ordered a pad thai
(thin rice noodles fried with egg, tofu and shrimp and seasoned with fish sauce, tamarind and dried chilli), while Ren went for pad see ew
(fried rice noodles with chicken). The food was fantastic, and it was great sitting on plastic chairs at a small table on the roadside. I also had my first Chang beer, and it was sooooooo incredibly refreshing!
We’d used our five hours of waiting time in Bangkok perfectly, because it was now 2pm – which meant our room would be ready! We slowly made our way back to the hotel, picking up some snacks and drinks along the way at an air-conditioned 7-Eleven store. I’d forgotten how much we used these stores during our previous visit to escape Thailand’s relentless heat.
We gathered our
packs from the concierge, grabbed our room keys and headed to the top floor of the hotel to finally, finally freshen up after 28 hours without a room to call our own. We showered, changed and settled with our collection of snacks and drinks. It was time to recover.
Slowly succumbing to exhaustion, we caught up on our travel notes and grazed on our selection of snacks as the afternoon disappeared into nightfall. It was time to sleep horizontally in a bed for the first time in two days. SHE SAID...
As much as I’d like to start this blog off with the cheesy pop culture reference of ‘One Night in Bangkok’, I can’t – because we had three days and two nights in Bangkok
After nearly 20 hours since leaving home in Hobart, we landed in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. We arrived bleary-eyed but alive with anticipation. Our last two overseas trips had been to Europe and North Africa, so we were very glad to be travelling a relative shorter distance to our destination this time, and with a much smaller time zone difference. Thailand is only four hours behind Australia, and adjusting
our body clocks to this time zone has never been too problematic before.
Walking from our plane to immigration seemed to take forever, but our immigration and customs clearance was swift. Very happily, our packs reached the baggage carousel almost as soon as we got there – which meant not having to put up with the infuriating behaviour of people pushing and shoving to stand as close to the carousel as possible. They clearly don’t realise that it doesn’t make their bag arrive any quicker.
We nearly missed our bus into the city. We hadn’t realised we were already on Level 1 and unnecessarily went up a level… and then got distracted by the various food stalls on that level! Anyway, we got to the bus just as it was leaving. The S1 is a new bus that I think is aimed at tourists, but of the five passengers on the bus, we were the only foreigners. The drive into the city was through peak hour traffic, on ugly above-ground freeways, and in hazy early morning light. Australia had recently been ravaged by bushfires, and our air quality had been pretty crap with an almost constant smoke haze.
I never thought I’d see the day that the air quality in Melbourne was rated worse than that in Bangkok!
The bus dropped us off near Khao San Road in Banglamphu. I knew our hotel was near the Democracy Monument, which we’d just passed on the main Ratchadamnoen Klang road. So we decided to walk back in that direction, but not before asking a nice couple for directions. They looked puzzled at our hotel’s address, and called the hotel to clarify directions, but obviously realised that it was too complex to convey to us, so pointed us in the right direction and also wrote the hotel’s name in Thai to help with further enquiries.
We knew our hotel was one street away from the main road. We were faced with two street options, and on asking for directions a second time, we were pointed further down the street we were walking on. However, after a few more minutes, we realised it couldn’t possibly be the right road and we should have taken the other option!
By now we had walked double the distance we should have done, and we were hot and tired… so we decided to
catch a tuk-tuk (Bangkok’s iconic three-wheelers). I was a bit pissed off at myself. I’ve always stayed in the Ko Ratanakosin and Banglamphu areas of Bangkok, so this hotel should have been easy to find. However, I forgave myself when I realised that the Siam Champs Elyseesi Hotel was so difficult to locate that even the tuk-tuk driver had to call the hotel to get directions!
As we’d expected, our room wasn’t ready at 8am. We’d already decided to do a circuit of three big Buddhist temples (called Wats) in the neighbourhood that morning… so we changed from our warm long sleeved plane clothes into t-shirts and headed out to find a cafe and plan our explorations for the day.
We’d only walked a couple of seconds along the narrow soi (small lane) our hotel was on, when the eye-catching Wat Ratchanatdaram complex came into view. An opportunistic and enthusiastic scammer (and tuk-tuk driver, as we later realised) chased after us to tell us the temple was closed and ‘the big Buddha this way, the big Buddha this way’ as he pointed in the opposite direction. He promised to give us a very cheap tour of many nice
temples and bring us back to Wat Ratchanatdaram when it opened in the afternoon. We were tired and probably looked ‘fresh off the plane’… so the bloke clearly thought we were newbies who’d never heard of this popular scam. Even though we gave him points for trying, we smiled very politely and said ‘no thank you’ as we walked into the grounds of the certainly ‘not-closed’ temple. 😊
Wat Ratchanatdaram is a sprawling complex which also incorporates the striking Loha Prasat (Iron Castle) with its multiple levels of spires. The lowest level has 24 small golden spires, the middle level has 12 and the highest level has a central grand spire. The 37 spires apparently represent the 37 virtues in Buddhism.
We were still looking at the main prayer hall of the Wat when I got very distracted by a very cute ginger tabby kitten. He had a collar and a bell, so I know he was one of the temple cats. I approached him for a pat and even though he was friendly, he sprinted off as I was about to touch him. However, his curiosity soon got the better of him, and he relented. He quickly
realised that pats were good things, and cuddles were even better! But he was clearly not very used to either. Andrew was very patient with my love for ‘Harry’, but I knew he wanted to keep exploring the rest of the temple… so I walked off, only to have Harry follow us and keep demanding pats and cuddles. Such a cutie. So yes, the temple complex was very striking and beautiful, but I could tell you much more about Harry than I can about the temple. 😄
On a serious note though, it really is an amazing temple complex, and I really don’t know why it isn’t more popularly known. We essentially had most of the place to ourselves, but I suppose it wasn’t even 10am yet.
We exited Wat Ratchanatdaram (or Harry’s temple as we came to call it!) on Maha Chai Road and almost immediately came upon a small cafe that advertised cha yen
(Thai iced tea). We are both big fans of this orange beverage that is sweet, creamy and absolutely refreshing. It’s basically black tea with spices like star anise and cloves, condensed milk and crushed ice. I know that black tea leaf isn’t
always used, and most cafes now use a powder mix, but I don’t really care – it’s still delicious. I plan on drinking my body weight of this stuff while we are in Thailand; and we also hoped to come back to this tiny oasis cafe of Kassi Coffee.
Before our trip to Bangkok, we’d discussed which of the major temples we’d like to revisit. Andrew was very clear that he had no desire to go back to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), and seeing as I’d visited it multiple times, I was quick to agree. So we agreed we’d try to revisit Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) and definitely Wat Saket (also called the Golden Mount Temple) – our most favourite temple from our last visit.
The Wat Saket stupa is set on a small hill and requires a hot and sweaty walk up 344 steps to get to the marble temple, plus a few more steps to the golden stupa (called a chedi in Thailand) on the roof. The last time we visited had been in the afternoon and it had
been packed beyond belief, but at 11am it only had a handful of people. The start of the climb was pleasant with many trees and water features creating a cool breeze, and halfway up there were also resting platforms with beautiful lines of prayer bells and a gong. However, it was a little gruelling on the open higher steps, even that early in the morning.
We did one circuit of the interior of the temple, looking at the variety of the statues, including the popular altar with the ‘day of the week’ Buddhas (I’ve only come across this in Thai Buddhism so far). As a Saturday child, my Buddha is quite elaborate, sitting in a meditation pose and protected from the elements by the seven headed naga
king (mythical serpent). Apparently this Buddha represents being focused and overcoming temptation. Andrew’s Sunday Buddha, on the other hand, is in ‘pensive thought’ – standing with hands crossed over his stomach while he contemplates life. Apparently this Buddha depicts satisfaction. It kind of explains our very different personalities quite well. 😉
On our last visit the tiny elevated central room of the temple (which holds a much smaller version of the
gold chedi) had been so crowded that we had to line up and could barely set foot in the confined circular room. This time we had it entirely to ourselves. We then sat in front of a fan and cooled down while looking out over the city through a wooden window. The views of greater Bangkok from this elevation were hazy but still lovely. I loved the contrast of the shiny skyscrapers in the distance with the old-world shop houses and traditional temple roofs in the foreground.
We eventually climbed the spiral staircase to the rooftop to admire the iconic golden chedi. The sun was already mercilessly hot on the open rooftop, but despite this, we spent much more time up there than we intended. While the golden chedi was the same, the surrounding statues and bells were quite different to when we visited last. As we meandered clockwise around the chedi many times… we quietly absorbed the beautiful and calm vibe of people praying. I was so glad that the few tourists standing on the periphery were being respectful.
I loved the stark shadows cast by the chedi and the holy statues, and the soft chimes of
the many inscribed small metal bells. I even banged the smaller of the gongs for good luck. It was a beautiful place to spend time in, and I was so grateful we’d been able to revisit Wat Saket. I loved it even more this time! 😊
The rest of the Wat Saket complex is scattered around the hill and at its base. We walked around the temple grounds for a while, and I came upon a small building with some very life-like wax figures of monks, complete with stubbly hair on their heads and faces! Andrew had wandered off to look at the shrine dedicated to the vultures, and I’m not sure exactly why, but I suddenly got rather spooked by the figures and hurried off to find Andrew. 😱
We then began what felt like a long walk (even though it was only a couple of blocks) to Wat Suthat, which has a giant red swing-like structure at its entrance. We walked along a street that was lined with a myriad of shop houses that seemed entirely dedicated to all manner of Buddha images and statues. We came across a girl painstakingly attaching tiny diamante beads to
a large Buddha statue – one by one, with tweezers!
I wasn’t immediately in love with Wat Suthat, probably because Andrew had to use the toilet as soon as we got there, and he was asked to take his shoes off to enter the toilet! I was so seriously grossed out on his behalf that it influenced my interest in the temple. However, I got over that quite quickly and realised how beautiful the complex was.
The main prayer hall had the characteristic sweeping tiled roofs of most Thai royal temples, and was surrounded by small Chinese stone sculptures and petite hexagonal pagodas. There were beautiful frescoes on the walls, heavy teakwood door panels and highly decorative windows. However, we couldn’t spend time in the main prayer hall as a prayer ceremony was taking place and we didn’t wish to intrude. I normally love listening to the hypnotic rhythm of Buddhist chants, but this ceremony was being led by a monk whose voice was decidedly unmelodic and he lost his breath before the end of each chant. I think my favourite part of the whole complex was the very serene cloistered courtyard with hundreds of Buddha statues.
My interest was also raised when we came across an ordination of a monk. We watched from afar as he prayed at different statues around the temple grounds, but as he entered a small prayer hall, he started throwing little colourful good luck charms into the gathered crowd. He threw a few our way, and when I asked the lady next to me what it was, she and all her friends (who were his guests) gave me all their good luck charms too! My embarrassed pleas of refusal fell on deaf ears. The charms were little coins wrapped in brightly coloured cloth or plastic. We had quite a collection by the end and decided to give most of them to the cleaners who were hustling for the coins.
There were two Hindu temple close by, and even though we decided to skip them as we were starting to fade, we were drawn into the courtyard of one of them when we heard drums and children’s cheers. It turned out there was a primary school in the temple and there was a game of basketball going on. Very uniquely, instead of two basketball hoops, there were two small boys standing
on chairs with plastic laundry baskets held above their heads! It was hilarious watching the nervous children and the overzealous whistling umpire. But I was very disturbed to see that the little girls weren’t playing sport but were dressed in American cheerleader costumes with full make up… and striking sexy poses. Yikes! It stopped being funny after that.
We decided we needed to find some food quickly. Unfortunately, the restaurant we really wanted to try was closed, so we tried a random street side stall on Maha Chai Road. Andrew had a Chang beer with his pad thai
(rice noodles stir-fried in a sweet and sour sauce with meat, shrimps, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, chillies, peanuts and lime); and I had a coke and pad see ew
(flat rice noodles stir-fried in soy sauce with chicken, egg, greens and vegetables). They weren’t super brilliant noodle dishes, but they were tasty, fresh and light – exactly what we wanted. However, somewhere with air-con would have been perfect, as we were very hot and sweaty beings by then.
We’d already visited two 7-Elevens in the first few hours to buy water and cool down in the air-con; and we returned
to get some snacks, beers, drinks and more water. I couldn’t find my favourite cassava chips (crisps to you non-Australians) that I’d discovered on our last trip, so we tried some shrimp flavoured corn chips (which were hideous). Luckily, the cuttlefish flavoured potato chips were nicer. We also bought what we thought were wasabi peas, but they also turned out to be cuttlefish flavoured! I see a fishy pattern here! 😄
As we walked back the hotel we stumbled upon Th Banrung Meuang. It’s one of Bangkok’s oldest streets and used to be an elephant path to the Grand Palace. It’s now chock full of small shops selling all manner of religious paraphernalia. It had Buddha statues ranging from tiny to enormous, and baskets of offerings for the monks (full of personal use items like toothpaste, razors and even chocolates). One shop had the life-like wax figures of famous monks I'd seen earlier at Wat Saket! This covered street was right next to Harry’s temple and our hotel, so we used it as a shady short-cut quite a lot during our stay.
We finally checked-in at our hotel and got our room just after 2pm. Our top floor
room was huge and comfortable, and the bathroom alone was bigger than some rooms we’ve had in European hotels! It was a relief to peel off some of the clothes I’d had on for over 28 hours. My shower was fabulous, after which I melted into bed. We’d missed a whole night’s sleep, and four hours of sleep on a flight isn’t even a close substitute. I was feeling totally zapped from the lack of sleep, and the fact that we’d walked many kilometres for over four hours through the hot and sticky streets of Bangkok!
I’m not sure how, but Andrew found the energy to stay up to organise himself and write some travel notes as well. I didn’t get my second wind until much later in the night, by which time Andrew was almost asleep on his feet. It was a good thing that neither of us had any interest in heading out for dinner that night.
We have another two days in Bangkok, which we are very much looking forward to.
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