Begin the beguine in Bangkok


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Asia » Thailand » Central Thailand » Bangkok
January 15th 2020
Published: May 27th 2020
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Wait until the tree has fallen before you jump over it… ~ Thai Proverb



HE SAID...
Today we were continuing to explore the bustling city of Bangkok.

Having explored a few old haunts on our first day in Bangkok, we’d succumbed to jet lag and crashed early, which often occurs when travel exhaustion and unrelenting heat collide. It’s such a heady mix. But here I was, wide awake at 3:30am the following morning, my body clock struggling to adjust to Indochina Time.

I decided to start work on a quotation request we’d received hours before leaving Australia. It was a major project, and one we couldn’t ignore. Unfortunately, the submission deadline was 29 January – the day before our return flight home. I had to prepare it as we travelled through Thailand and Laos, and my preference was to complete it sooner rather than later.

We headed down to Siam Champs-Elyseesi Unique Hotel’s diminutive dining area for an early breakfast at 7am. The fried rice, fried noodles and crispy fried chicken were fantastic (because they were local), but the sweet toast, doughy croissant, orange cordial and weak tea were fairly ordinary. Why do people expect to be served western food in eastern countries? This human affliction that refuses to wane – our incapacity to cope with difference, and our desperate need for familiarity. I felt so sorry for the poor kitchen staff who had to prepare unfamiliar food for the foreigners.

Anyway, we enjoyed the company of the efficient and affable old man in charge of breakfast. He was very talkative, and he wanted to share with us the best highlights of Bangkok. Unfortunately, we had to bunker down in our room until midday, but we listened attentively as he talked about his city. We were the only ones in the dining room, so he had a captive audience.

Having worked through the morning, we decided to visit Chinatown in the early afternoon. Our travel excitement was reignited. We clambered into a taxi and asked to go to Wat Traimit, but the driver didn’t seem very sure about our requested destination. However, he did a great job to find it, and his metered charge was so much less than the tuk-tuk prices we’d been quoted since arriving in Bangkok. He was a grumpy old man, but we forgave his continual mumblings, because he dropped us within metres of Wat Traimit.

It was extremely hot in the early afternoon sun, so we picked up a couple of tickets and clambered up the stairs to the fourth floor of the temple. Wat Traimit – better known as the Golden Buddha – is home to the world’s biggest golden Buddha (according to the information on the back of my ticket). We’ve seen many larger Buddha’s in our travels, but this one is apparently made from solid gold – hence the biggest golden Buddha tagline. As I stood in front of this extraordinarily extravagant icon, which is costed at a whopping £28.5 million pounds in current world prices, I couldn’t help but wonder what Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) himself would think of a solid gold image of himself? Especially given the poverty that was so apparent in the streets surrounding the temple.

The clambering of tourists to get photos of themselves in front of the golden Buddha became far more interesting than the sculpture itself. We wandered around the top of the temple for a while, but the searing sun was getting unbearable, so we descended the stairs to ground level and made our way towards Chinatown.

Chinatown in Bangkok is best described in two words – utter madness. Actually, make that three words – complete utter madness. We tried to navigate the sweltering, manic, crowded and anarchic streets, but progress was slow due to the sheer volume of people streaming through the place.

We escaped from the streets into an air-conditioned 7-Eleven store to cool down, but heaps of others were doing the same, so we continued on until we found a less crowded shopping centre that was (thankfully) air-conditioned.

At one stage, as were waiting to cross some traffic lights, a young local bloke behind us started taking photos of the backs of our heads at very close range. When I turned around to see what he was up to, he kept taking photos of my face, and there was less than 40cm between us. He didn’t seem to care about privacy, and he was fascinated with Ren – the bulk of his photographic effort was targeted at her. I assumed he was an overly-enthusiastic photography student, but Ren wasn’t as forgiving.

It was time to return to the hotel. We jumped into a taxi and made our way through heavy traffic in the general direction of the Democracy Monument, which was very close to where we were staying. However, on the way we recognised a small café (Kassi Coffee) that we’d stumbled upon the day before, so we asked the driver to pull over. We knew our hotel was within walking distance, so we relaxed with another Thai milk tea on ice in the mid-afternoon. We were getting our bearings and feeling comfortable in the area around our hotel, and it’s a feeling we always love when we travel.

Feeling suitably refreshed, we ambled back to our hotel, taking a picturesque shortcut through Wat Ratchanatdaram (which we had renamed Harry’s Temple after the resident cat). We settled in our comfortable room and continued working on the quotation into the late afternoon.

We walked to nearby Dinso Home for dinner in the early evening. The place was deserted, which was good in a way, because it was quiet and relaxed. I had a red chicken curry, which was spicy and full of flavour, while Ren had a green chicken curry, which was also fantastic (but not overly spicy). I also had a large Chang beer, which was welcome after our long and slightly disjointed day. We were checking out early the following morning, so we headed back to the hotel to prepare our packs. We were spending the first half of the day in Bangkok, then leaving on an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the mid-afternoon.

I woke a little later the next day (5:30am), so my body clock was slowly adjusting to Indochina Time. After working in the quiet early morning, we headed down to breakfast at 7am. The sweet and sour fish, fried noodles, fried rice (with fried egg) and freshly made omelette were all fantastic. However, the doughy croissant, orange cordial and weak tea were not so fantastic. The less said the better.

After breakfast we dropped our packs in a shared room and walked to the Chao Phraya River, which flows through Bangkok before dissipating into the Gulf of Thailand. We waited patiently on the bank for our long wooden boat to arrive, then clambered aboard and chugged our way down the bustling river. Chao Phraya is as busy as Bangkok’s streets, and I was surprised our helmsman decided to take us down the very centre, dodging all manner of river craft (including long laden barges that could not turn quickly).

However, the working river was not the focus of this journey. It wasn’t long before we turned into the khlongs (canals) of Bangkok, where the pace of life slowed considerably (apart from a few bogan helmsmen speeding by in their long boats). We watched on from the middle of the narrow canals as Bangkokians went about their daily lives, and they watched on as our long boat broke the silence of their morning. It wasn’t long before our interest turned to monitor lizards, because there were a lot about. They were sunning themselves on slabs of concrete on the banks of the canals, and their laid back lifestyle was very alluring.

We eventually emerged from the serenity of the canals into the bustling madness of Chao Phraya, which we had to cross to get to our next destination – Wat Pho – a famous Bangkok temple that sits right on the river bank. We clambered off the long boat and made our way into the temple complex. The place was crowded and hot, and it was only 10:30am. We wandered through the serene temple grounds, marvelling at the many stupas, halls and shrines. One of the key attractions at Wot Pho is a 46 metre, gold-plated reclining Buddha which is meant to symbolise his passing into nirvana (death). I was impressed by this immense sculpture back in 2011 when we first visited Bangkok, and I was equally impressed on this visit, although the volume of people streaming past seemed to have increased immeasurably in the years since we were here. I have to admit, I am getting a little intolerant of crowds.

We were wilting in the late morning heat, so it was time for an early lunch. We headed over the road from the temple complex and settled in an empty upstairs room of a small restaurant. The room was air-conditioned, which was a major bonus, because the crowded downstairs dining area was like an oven!

After refreshing and rehydrating with Thai milk tea on ice, we ordered our meals. I went for the fried rice with chicken, while Ren opted for the green papaya salad. The food was great, and it was such a relief to be out of the searing sun. I needed to use the toilet (I hope this isn’t a recurring theme), so the friendly restaurant manager instructed me to go downstairs (as the upstairs toilet was occupied). However, when I got downstairs and asked where the toilet was, the staff said there wasn’t one, and that I would have to return upstairs. This resulted in a lot of stair activity at a time when stairs were not my friend. I trudged back upstairs and informed the manger there wasn’t a toilet downstairs. It was time for him to intervene. He guided me downstairs, took me into the kitchen and pointed to the staff toilet – right beside the cooking area where everyone was working. No wonder they didn’t want me in there!

With our energy replenished, we bid farewell to the friendly restaurant manager, wandered out into the searing midday sun and caught a taxi back to the hotel. We freshened up, showered in a shared hotel room and prepared for our overnight train to Chiang Mai. We settled on thick wooden chairs in a comfy hotel alcove and worked on our travel notes, only venturing outside to pick up some snacks from a nearby 7-Eleven store. It was a great place to reflect on our time in Bangkok, and to prepare for our northward journey.



SHE SAID...
I was awake at 3:30am and then again at 4:30am. We’d arrived in Bangkok the day before, but it usually takes about three or four days before I can sleep until 6 or 7am local time. We decided to have an early breakfast at the hotel, as it was going to be a morning of work in our room to hopefully get a proposal finished before we left Bangkok.

I was very glad the hotel breakfast wasn’t just a western breakfast. The bread was as unappealing as most bread in Asia tends to be – sweet and spongy, and almost brioche like… which is totally gross with eggs. I enjoyed the Thai breakfast options on offer and got my fill of fried rice, fried noodles and tropical fruit! The pineapple and watermelon were really lovely, and we took some short fat bananas for snacks during the day. The Asian bananas always have slightly brown overripe skins, but the flesh doesn’t tend to go mushy or brown as easily as our Australian bright yellow skinned bananas. I can’t cope with overripe bananas. We were also re-introduced to weak Asian tea and that weird fluoro-orange cordial that’s called orange juice, but is closer to the ‘Tang’ I used to drink in the 1980s. 😊

Andrew finished a section of the proposal just before midday, so we hopped into a taxi and headed to Chinatown. Even though tuk-tuks are very cute and local, on this trip we were finding metered taxis to be cheaper and more comfortable (and far better for our lungs). We started our visit at Wat Traimit to see the biggest solid gold Buddha statue in the world. It wasn’t the most spiritual or peaceful place, with loud tourists parading through without a thought for the people trying to pray. I’d say it was my absolute least favourite of all the temples we visited in Bangkok… although standing back and watching the tourist spectacle was very amusing.

We had planned on doing the Lonely Planet guide walking tour of Chinatown, but the area was nothing like I’d imagined. I had pictured a warren of tiny old world lanes, but we were faced with massive multilane streets and noisy traffic; and it was also seriously hot. So we merely walked down Yaowarat Street, through the heart of Chinatown. We stopped at a 7-Eleven on the way for some much needed cold drinks and air-con. We tried a cold Thai tea flavoured soy milk – which was okay but not anywhere near as nice or refreshing as a proper Thai iced tea would have been.

We then walked through the market street of Talat Mai. The market paths were small and crowded, which made for constant shuffling to let people and motorbikes pass, and sometimes even required ducking into narrow doorways and under low awnings. This was much easier for my shorter frame than for Andrew! While the large Chinese signs, shops of Chinese medicine, stalls of Chinese dried goods and food carts of Chinese inspired food may have looked the same for hundreds of years, the overabundance of tacky mass-produced clothing and tourist crap left us in no doubt that we were in a commercialised modern market!

As yummy as most of the food smelled, neither of us were hungry, so we decided to skip having lunch in Chinatown and look for a cafe to have a cha yen (Thai iced tea) instead. We gravitated to the Grand China Mall on Ratchawong Road to cool down. We didn’t see any cafes we liked, so we caught a taxi back to the small Kassi Coffee cafe near our hotel. The very affable owner recognised us from the day before and was very happy to get our repeat custom. Quite oddly though, as the day before, there was a monk sitting inside the miniscule cafe chatting to her (but it was a different monk to the day before). My curiosity was aroused, but I thought it might be rude to ask why there was always a monk in her cafe. And Andrew refused to sit inside so I could have a sticky-beak. 😄

We walked back to the hotel around 4pm. I decided to skip my planned Thai massage, as I was too hot and bothered to enjoy being touched! We turned the air-con to maximum and peeled off our sweaty clothes off as soon as we could.

The Intrepid Travel Thailand and Laos Adventure group meeting was at 6pm, and we met our group leader Naa and fellow travellers Dave (US), Carole (UK), Philipp and Christina (Switzerland), Susan (UK), John and Yvie (UK), and Christine (UK). Peter and Elizabeth’s (Aus) flight was delayed and we met them at breakfast the next morning. Naa’s introduction wasn’t the warm and excitement-inducing ‘welcome to my country’ we normally get from a group leader. It was more an austere list of things we should be aware of. She was an older ex-school teacher, so that made sense.

It was a rarity to have a minority of Australians on an Intrepid Travel trip, and it was also the first time we’d had a group with ages ranging from early 20s to early 80s. Everyone in the group seemed quite easy going… but from experience we know that any ‘oddities’ in personalities don’t start revealing themselves until Day 2 or so! 😊

We all walked a couple of blocks to have dinner at a restaurant called Dinso’s Home. I had a delicious gaeng kiew wan gai (green curry with chicken) and Andrew had an even more delicious gai pad prik gaeng (stir-fried chicken with red curry paste). The chilli levels were quite manageable, so I think they blandified it for us.

We chatted with the group and got to know the interesting backgrounds of our fellow passengers sitting immediately around us. John had travelled extensively in Africa and Asia for work and I could tell he was going to have some amazing stories to share with us; Susan was a consultant on Brexit related projects and had a very similar project management-esque persona to me; Chris was extremely well travelled and was the only other person in the group who was a regular Intrepid traveller; and Carole seemed like heaps of fun but was too far down the table to chat with properly. We had plenty of time to get to know the others on the upcoming overnight train, and on the long minibus and boat trips.

As we walked back to our hotel past the well-lit Democracy Monument, I realised I had never seen it at night. The four large winged columns commemorate the introduction of a constitutional government in 1932. But to be honest, for years this had been nothing more than a grand roundabout to me. It was only because our hotel was so close to the monument that I read up on what it really was.

We had to check out by 8:15am, so we had an early start with breakfast at 7am. I had a breakfast of fried noodles, fried rice, sweet and sour fish and a fried egg. I also had a big plate of fresh tropical fruit (papaya, pineapple, cantaloupe and watermelon). The guy running the breakfast room was lovely and very jovial, but the lady at the egg station had taken a dislike to me… for the second day running I had returned my fried eggs for further cooking because the white was still uncooked. I’d rather suffer the wrath of the egg lady than get salmonella poisoning. 😊

We had to check-out before we left for our activities that morning, but Intrepid had organised three shared day rooms for the whole group so we could freshen up before our overnight train trip. We left our bags in a shared room with John and Yvie and left for a boat cruise in the Chao Phraya River, which is a significant feature of the city. We walked through Khao San road and down lanes we had used many times to get to the Banglamphu pier. We boarded a traditional wooden longtail boat and started our cruise.

The boat first cruised the wide Chao Phraya River, which wasn’t as busy with ferries and commercial boats as I remembered it being. We then explored the famous khlongs (canals) of Bangkok on the southern side of the city in Thonburi. A network of khlongs branch out from the river, and they gave us a close up look at a calmer and more intimate traditional Thai life which happily coexists with the modern Bangkok only kilometres away. The traditional wooden stilt houses we passed were quiet, and the only life we consistently spotted were water monitor lizards sunning themselves on the riverbanks after breakfast. 😊

The boat then doubled back to the river and docked at the Tien pier, close to the Grand Palace. We walked to Wat Pho to revisit the gold leaf covered 46m long reclining Buddha. It was as hot and sticky as on our last visit, and just as crowded! However, I must be getting better at holding my own in crowds, as I could actually stand under the colossal head of the Buddha statue, and at his mother of pearl inlaid feet, and admire them without being jostled and moved along by the sheer momentum of the crowd. I quite like this temple, but my mind mentally expands the walls of the hall to let the Buddha statue breathe. It bothers me that the size of statue is totally out of balance with the space around it – so much so that it feels like the statue has been squeezed into the building. I’m sure there is a symbolic reason for this massive imbalance, but it still perturbs me.

We walked through the temple grounds to admire the many chedis (Thai stupas) decorated with gorgeous pieces of Chinese porcelain. There are many outbuildings filled with gilded images, golden statues, intricate murals and medical diagrams that look like ancient artwork… but far too many to take in. Nonetheless, I think we did well given the crowds and the heat.

As in many Asian countries, the best old art in Thailand is often religious art. So visiting temples doesn’t just give us an insight into Thailand’s beloved religion and its associated culture, but it’s often also a visual history lesson. However, I have to take note of the visual overload I often experience in temples. The temple grounds are usually full of many buildings that are, sadly, rarely well-planned. Each building might be beautiful in its own right, but often the complex as a whole is visually overwhelming, doesn’t flow logically or have an overarching or consistent aesthetic. I cringe when I see moulded plastic chairs scratching beautiful tiles, ugly concrete seats placed haphazardly in a beautiful garden, or even uglier rubbish bins propped up against beautiful frescoes. Sigh. Often on a visit to a temple, while I’m trying to absorb the vibe of the space, I’m also simultaneously writing lists in my head of what could be changed! Andrew finds this hilarious, but it’s just my personality I suppose.

Naa took us to a restaurant across from the Grand Palace for lunch, and even though I expected it to be super touristy, the food was authentic and the prices were reasonable. I ordered a som tum (green papaya salad), and the menu suggested a range from ‘no spicy’ to ‘very spicy’. I asked for medium spicy, and it was still on the upper range of my chilli tolerance. The salad is made of strips of crunchy unripe papaya pounded in a mortar and pestle with fish sauce, tomatoes, long beans, dried shrimp, palm sugar, chilli and lime – it was well balanced and delicious, but I had to pick out the bits of chilli! Andrew was feeling quite hot and bothered, so he just had a small plate of fried rice, and we both cooled down with glasses of Thai iced tea.

Carole, Dave, Andrew and I caught a taxi back to the hotel. John and Yvie had gone to the Grand Palace, so we had the shared room to ourselves for a while. We showered and got ourselves ready for the 13 hour overnight train to Chiang Mai. While waiting for our 4pm departure from the hotel, we walked down to a 7-Eleven to buy water and packets of chips for the train trip. The chips came in ‘Thai flavoured’… we will find out soon enough what that really means. I also got a delicious taro ice cream for the walk back to the hotel.

Before I end this blog, I wanted to reflect on how it felt to be back in Thailand and Southeast Asia. We were last in Thailand in 2011 and Southeast Asia in 2014, and while some things like ignoring the drain smells and getting used to the currency had to be re-learned… we still had the muscle memory for many other things like crossing the busy roads! We also recaptured the joy of balancing on tiny plastic chairs on a pavement and getting served tasty street food… remembering to ignore the sugar and fish sauce condiments, and reach for the chilli flakes or delicious nam pla prik (fresh chillies in fish sauce and vinegar).

And 7-Elevens! I had forgotten what an essential lifeline they are here – to change big bank notes, to buy water and cold drinks, to buy snacks, and most importantly, to quickly cool down dangerously overheating bodies that had started to shut down! I also love perusing the shelves for weird and wonderful flavours of chips, biscuits, lollies (candy) and drinks. As I’ve already mentioned, sadly none of the 7-Elevens or small family corner stores seemed to be stocking my beloved cassava chips, or the gorgeous mango juice I discovered on our last trip (and had been dreaming of having again). Nor did they seem to be stocking the small cans of Nescafé iced coffee that were perfect for road trips. But I will keep looking. In lieu of the mango juice, I tried a guava juice that looked vaguely familiar – it was nice, but not something I’d buy again.

Very happily, Thailand still felt the same… old tuk-tuks zipping in and out of traffic; buses billowing trails of pollution; the constant buzz of motorbikes and beeps of cars; glittering skyscrapers soaring towards the sky; sparkling and ornate temple architecture; the cool blast of air-con as we walked past random doorways; the smell of hot bitumen; horrid drain stenches temporarily masked by incense smoke from a small shrine; stalls with piles of bright tropical fruit; grilled food emitting enticing aromas at dusk; and the endearing friendly smiles of locals…

Ah, it is lovely to be back.

Next we travel north to Chiang Mai, our most favourite city in Thailand.

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27th May 2020

Klongs are my favorite transport mode in Bangkok.
Love the klong life pics. The klong taxi from Wat Saket through to Ramkamheang in the east were my favorite mode of transport when I lived there in the pre-subway days. More recently, the easternmost stop leads to the Aircraft Graveyard which is my new favorite “attraction” in Bangkok. Hope you enjoyed Chiang Mai. Looking forward to hearing more about your experiences in Laos, particularly alms giving in Luang Prabang the hedonistic backpacker haven of Vang Vieng.
27th May 2020

Re: Klongs are my favorite transport mode in Bangkok.
We didn't catch as many klong taxis this time as we did on our last trip, as we only had a short time in BKK and walking gave us a better sense of the area we were in. I remember reading about your trip to the Aircraft Graveyard. Chiang Mai was our most favourite place in Thailand, so we were super excited to go back :)
28th May 2020

Generic
Nice blog post, Heard lot of things about Bankok and my desire is to roam Bankok, thanks for the post will get some help what to in Bankok.
31st May 2020

Re: Generic
Thanks for your comment :)
30th May 2020

Asia of old
Your descriptions of Bangkok are identical to my memories of 20 years ago. Change is a funny thing ain't it? Thank you for the many rides down memory lane.
31st May 2020

Re: Asia of old
Thanks Chris. Change is indeed a funny thing :)
30th May 2020

Wahhh
Wishing I could binge read the whole lot today! I miss travel but this is my second best option for now. Thnx
31st May 2020

Re: Wahhh
Having been slack with editing and posting our blogs, it's actually quite nice to do it now and distract ourselves from the current no-travel situation :)
30th May 2020

Back to Bangkok!
I enjoyed reading about your return to Bangkok! I had hoped to visit Thailand many years ago but sadly I don't think it will ever happen now. Seems you saw a lot for the short time you were there especially given the crowds in some places and the heat. I get agitated very easily when there are crowds and intense heat and humidity when traveling. (And, as I've been just writing about Marrakesh, I remembered how hot and sticky it was while in the souks.) But some Thai food and the iced Thai milk tea would go a long way toward making things better. Great photos! Eager to read your next blog installment!!
31st May 2020

Re: Back to Bangkok!
Thanks Sylvia. It would be so much easier on our bodies if we could ease into the hot and humid weather... but getting slapped with it right on Day 1 was a bit hard! I hope you can make it to Thailand one day, I think you will love the culture and the people... not to mention the food :)
6th June 2020

Renewing your relationship with Bangkok
Time passes and yet some things stand still. It sounds like you've found both familiar and some changes. The heat and humidity will always be ever present. Those cold drinks are always welcome. It sounds like you are traveling with a diverse group. Enjoy getting to know everyone. You are right about the aesthetics of all those plastic chairs. Have fun.
7th June 2020

Re: Renewing your relationship with Bangkok
Regardless of how many times we return to Bangkok, that heat and humidity will always knock us down! There's just no getting used to it or escaping it. The group was extremely diverse but so lovely and easy going - always a pleasure to meet such people :)

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