As busy as a bee in Bangkok...part i


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February 27th 2011
Published: March 1st 2011
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HE SAID...
We woke in Bangkok to the sound of torrential rain at 5.30am. The walking tour we had planned was looking completely out of the question, but by the time I’d showered the rain had stopped, so we ventured out at 6.30am and headed for the Grand Palace. However, as always happens on the first day in a big city, we were a little disorientated so we ended up heading off in the exact opposite direction. When we ended up at Democracy Monument, I realised the navigation skills I had so adeptly picked up in cubs and scouts had deserted me entirely, so we jumped in a taxi and pointed to the Grand Palace on our map. The taxi driver looked bemused - and for good reason. The Palace is immense, and has any number of places of interest where we could have been dropped. Ren kept saying “anywhere near the Palace”, which amused him considerably, as it is very open to interpretation. We really need to work on our navigation and communication skills.

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the Palace around 7.30am. The taxi fare was 40 baht (or $1.30 Australian). The Palace didn’t open until 8.30am, so we wandered through the Amulet Market for an hour, getting lost in the small covered lanes (and even ending up on a family’s doorstep after taking a wrong turn down a residential lane). The place was sensational - there were no tourists in sight, and the street food stalls were spectacular. We love seeing a city rumble to life in the early morning.

We headed to the entrance of the Grand Palace at 8.30am and started walking in. I didn’t get far before a voice on a microphone asked me to proceed directly to a special change-room to borrow a pair of trousers. I’d completely forgotten to zip on the legs of my travel pants, and I hate it when I transgress the mores of another culture. I quickly zipped on my legs and headed into the Palace. By now it was around 8.45am and the heat was intensifying quicker than we expected. The Palace was also beginning to swarm with tourists, and by 9.30am you simply couldn’t walk two steps forward without ruining at least three picture perfect posed photos. I’m sure my head will appear in hundreds of holiday snaps to the great annoyance of photographers and their subjects.

The heat eventually got the better of us, so we grabbed an ice cold lemon drink and headed back to the hotel. We dropped our stuff off and headed into the street to lunch at a sensational street food stall. We sat on small plastic chairs on the footpath after selecting from boiling pots of food which also sat on the footpath. I had a pla gaeng lueng (fish curry) and gai pad khing (stir fried chicken with ginger), while Ren had a kaeng phed gai normai (red chicken curry with bamboo shoots) and a khaeng pak (vegetable curry). The taste was simply unbelievable. Even the slowly dying cockroach under our table made no difference to the experience. I freshened up with an ice cold beer and we finished the meal with an iced coffee. The price all up was 190 baht (or $6.50).

Thailand is hot and so is its food (and we love hot food). But what made this first day in Bangkok so memorable was the way in which we were so openly welcomed into this fantastic culture. This isn’t to gloss over the incredible poverty that permeates Bangkok’s streets in the early morning. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for the people sleeping on the footpath when the torrential rain hit during the night. And I’ve come into a country without a full understanding of the political unrest that becomes so conspicuous when you drive past protest banners and policeman sitting quietly with riot shields and helmets at their feet.

And before I forget, I can finally tell my favourite joke:
“Man who walk sideways through airport turnstile is going to Bangkok.”

After relaxing in our hotel room we headed out into the afternoon heat to relax in a wifi wine bar with a cool drink. We checked email, uploaded our blog and slowly melted into the Bangkok evening. Man, this place is hot! The internet was intermittent, the music (a Thai jazz version of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”) was eclectic and the atmosphere was laid back. Well, except for the ubiquitous grumpy tourists complaining about slow internet speeds and the lack of decaffeinated coffee in Bangkok. Why travel, guys?

PS - Yvonne, thanks so much for posting pictures of Oscar and Jasper on Facebook. It’s great to see they are enjoying their holiday in Upper Yarlington.

After a shower we met our travel group for the next two weeks and ventured out for a meal in a small upstairs room in one of the local restaurants. I accidently misheard the menu and ordered a mild beef massaman curry (thinking it was the hottest on the menu), but it was fantastic all the same. We wandered the streets, relaxed with beers and Long Island Iced Teas and then retreated to our hotel to prepare for the days ahead.

The next day we woke at 5am. Organised bags and packed for the day, then headed out for an ice coffee/mocha for breakfast. We came back to the hotel, changed into appropriate clothing (for Wats) and walked 15 minutes to the river. We jumped into a longtail wooden boat and headed on a tour of the fascinating canals of Bangkok. We then jumped off the boat and walked to Wat Pho for a tour which included the immense reclining Buddha. The juxtaposition of the wealth within the temples and the poverty of the canals was difficult to reconcile, but it always is, and it’s certainly not isolated to this country.

We taxied back for lunch at 12pm - the day was certainly heating up. My kaeng phed gai normai (red chicken curry with bamboo shoots) and look chin pla kry pad cha (spicy fish balls) were HOT, but it was sensational. The cold beer made absolutely no difference, so I had to recover for a few minutes before heading straight for the cold water. It was a great preparation for the two hour bus trip we had ahead of us.



SHE SAID...
Customs and Immigration at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok were pretty painless. However walking out of the airport was like stepping out of an ice box into a hot pot - even at 9pm at night. But only for a brief time. Then back we went into the ice box of our airport transfer. Ah…Asia and its affair with maximum air conditioning! This is Andrew’s first time in Thailand, and I have only been to Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. The latter two not being ringing endorsements for Thailand, I cannot wait to get to know this country much much better.

I remember the first time I arrived in Bangkok in 1999 it was all a bit overwhelming. However on this trip, the manic traffic, clouds of exhaust fumes, crushing crowds and even more crushing humidity have not bothered me as much. More used to Asia 12 years on? Or better/more relaxed traveller? Not sure, but it also helps when you are travelling with someone who does not get fazed by things...as opposed to my travel companion 12 years ago who was prudishly bothered by everything and wary of her own shadow. It may have been 12 years, but as we arrived on that first balmy evening I realised that I still remembered the smell of Bangkok. It’s an intense mix of humid air, teeming humanity, open drains, exhaust fumes, incense, cooking spices, hot frying oil, and a hint of wet dog when it rains. Sounds repulsive I know, but strangely it’s not! 😊

The Viengtai Hotel was very clean and comfortable and much better than its three star rating suggested. It’s in the very convenient and lovely old area of Rambuttri Road in Banglamphu, and walking distance from the Chao Phraya River -a significant feature of the city. However it is also near the backpacker area of Khao San Road which is swarming with farangs (foreigners). I can’t decide if the proximity to Khao San Road is a good thing or not - we were far enough away from it to fully appreciate the ancient Ratanakosin (Old Bangkok style) buildings, sois (narrow back streets) and local street eateries that are plentiful here; but still close enough to it to access the public transport or neon bright night atmosphere if we so chose. We got a taste of the ‘lively’ side of Khao San Road (as our driver from the airport called it) when we arrived late on a Saturday night and had to dodge drunk farangs, and then fall asleep to the muted thud of bad music wafting through our 8th floor window from two streets away.

We love a good walking tour and could not resist the Lonely Planet Guide’s walking tour of the Koh Ratanakosin route which was supposed to take us past the Universities and the three major temples in Bangkok (Wat Phra Kaew at the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun). The start of the walking tour was apparently walking distance from our hotel and even though our 6:30am walk started well, we got lost twice and had to resort to a taxi to take us to the old temple area. This was a great way to get our bearings in this part of town using the river and temple complexes. We started by walking through the amazing and mind boggling Amulet Market. We absolutely loved this market which is dedicated to all manner of Buddha icons and other Buddhist paraphernalia. It has stalls spilling out onto the street and monks and locals absorbed with shopping for their talismans. We got there at 7:30am and even though only half the icon stalls had already set up, the food stalls were doing a roaring trade. We were so tempted to pull up a seat at many of them, but we had no idea what most of it was or how to even order it. This market makes quite a symbolic picture of one of the main faces of Bangkok, and Thailand for that matter. We loved meandering through this circuitous area, and spent much more time in there than we thought we would, which meant that when we got back to the temple area by 8:30am the sun was beating down on us and the rest of the walking tour was abandoned. By happy coincidence, 8:30am was the opening time for the Grand Palace and the attached Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), so after watching the changing of the guard we joined the streams of people charging in.

For 150 years the Grand Palace served as the home of the King and his court as well as the entire administrative seat of government. Within its grounds is Wat Phra Kaew, a temple built to house a sitting Buddha image carved from a solid piece of green jasper and clothed in gold. The Buddha has three different sets of gold clothing and the king dresses the statue to symbolise the start of each season - summer, rainy and cool. The Buddha seemed to still have his cool season clock on even though the hot season is not that far away. The entrance is guarded by two massive stick holding Yaksha(mythical giant guardian) statues, and the highly decorative external walls of the buildings are filled with references to Garuda (mythical half man half bird) and Naga (mythical serpent). There are many beautiful large golden, copper and decorative chedi (stupa), and the buildings also have the most exquisite and ornate chofah (bird like curved decorations) on the end of the temple roofs I have seen. The complex is extensive and eventually the overabundance of chedi, towers, pagodas, halls, open pavilions, statues, murals and other holy buildings in every conceivable colour and Asian architectural style got a bit overwhelming. The complex illustrates the long and diverse history of Buddhism and Thailand, and we would need to allocate a full week to suitably appreciate and make sense of the whole complex. There were also many interesting secular building in the complex to investigate, but walking between the buildings and navigating the crowds was hot and tiring work; so we opted for an early retirement and went looking for lunch.

I feel I could write volumes on how elaborate, intricate and beautiful the style and design of the ancient architecture is here, but I won’t. Instead I will only mention one of my favourite aspects of it - an important and ever present symbol that unfailingly catches my eye - the Naga - a mythical serpent headed deity that looks similar to the dragon depictions in Chinese and Vietnamese architecture. In temple architecture it usually edges a roof or borders a staircase. We have only been here a few days, but I have already seen it beautifully represented in many shapes and forms.

Unlike other Buddhist countries I’ve visited, Buddhism is not relegated to just a religion here; it’s a very active and visual part of everyday Thai life. It is firmly interwoven into the fabric of the culture, social structure, and architectural styles. It is also obviously linked to business, politics and the monarchy. It appears that the national identity of Thailand is very much bound together by Buddhism and the monarchy.

That evening we started our Thailand Adventure Intrepid Travel trip which is a combination of the Beautiful Thailand trip of northern Thailand, and the Thailand Beaches trip of southern Thailand. The group was very mixed as always. Our group leader Golf is a fantastic young guy with a sly sense of humour and he is clearly passionate about his country and sharing it with us. The rest of the group are Kim, Lee, Lindsay and Julie-Anne from England, and Tim and Paul from Canada. So far it seems like the group will get along very well as we all have the same attitude to travel and equally importantly we understand each other’s sense of humour. We had our first meal together in the upstairs private room at Au Thong Restaurant across the road from our hotel. Golf was playing it safe and taking us to a ‘safe’ restaurant as he wasn’t sure of everyone’s taste yet. My yum pla hmik (Thai style squid salad) was perfect, but other meals were a bit average. After dinner Tim, Paul, Julie-Anne, Andrew and I wondered around the night streets and then settled in for beer and cocktails at Macaroni Bar. I thought sipping on cold Long Island Iced Teas was a perfect end to the evening. 😊

The next morning we all caught a longtail boat down the Chao Phraya River to explore the famous khlongs (canals) of Bangkok on the southern side of town in Thonburi. The network of khlongs branch out from the main Chao Phraya River. This 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.

When preparing for our trip to Vietnam two years ago, I had read that Hanoi was the ‘Paris of the East’ but saw no resemblance to Paris when we got there; so I totally disregarded the label ‘Venice of the East’ for Bangkok. But this tag has some justification. The Chao Phraya River and smaller klongs (canals) are major transportation conduits with ferries (the Chao Phraya Express boats used for public transport), water taxis and long-tailed boats. The waterways are also thriving commerce and social hubs, with markets, restaurants, shops and floating homes all claiming their bit of water. We watched the Chao Phraya Express boats in action and it seemed to be much quicker and definitely more scenic than using the roads to get around Bangkok, we will have to try it out when we come back to Bangkok in two weeks.

The group visited Wat Pho and the guided tour by Golf was fascinating. This temple was founded in the 17th century and claims to be the oldest temple in Bangkok. This temple is also home to the amazing Reclining Buddha, one of the largest in the world at 46 metres long and 15 meters high - that’s a lot of gold leaf! This Buddha’s face is said to depict the achievement of Nirvana, and his mother-of-pearl inlaid feet have beautifully detailed stories. This temple is also the national headquarters and custodian of the amazing school of Thai massage and medicine.

Thai massage is by far my preferred massage style and I would be lying if I said that I haven’t been dreaming of massages ever since we decided to come to Thailand. I am hoping to convert Andrew’s view on massage which is on the ‘definitely no’ end of the spectrum at the moment. However we are here for a month and there will be many many many massage opportunities along the way. 😊

For those of you who have never had a Thai massage - this is why I love it so - it is a full body yoga meets acupressure action massage. You get bent, crunched, cracked, folded, pulled, prodded, twisted, squashed, squeezed and reduced to a limp mass of muscle! It hurts in every good way possible. The masseuses/masseurs use their own body weight to assist with the process, so this is probably not something for the non-tactile amongst you! My favourite part is when they kneel on the back of your legs and pull your arms backwards to stretch you to near-snapping point! It draws out every fibre in your being and the blood rush afterwards is intense. I usually ask for an Indian head massage as well and end up feeling like I’m walking on air for a few hours afterwards. Just divine.

And now to something I’m very very very excited about (yes, even more than Thai massages) - Thai food! It’s one of my favourite cuisines in the whole world, even possibly my absolute favourite. Even after just two days here, I’ve realised what a small sample of Thai food I’m aware of. We’ve been eating at road-side food stalls, and the abundance of noodles, curries with rice, stir fries, BBQ meats, soups and salads are just beyond comparison. Like many of its Asian cousins, the classic Bangkok eating experience is sitting on a small plastic stool by the side of a road and eating a bowl of noodles or curry and rice that has been cooked right there. Thai food is a mixture of regional food from all the old kingdoms that now make up Thailand, as well as borrowed flavours from China, Malaysia and India - but they have ingeniously made it all so very deliciously Thai. Pen Thai was our eatery of choice this time around, and being 200 metres away from our hotel was extremely handy. The old couple who run it are just gorgeous and spoke a little English too which was immensely helpful when we were unsure of how to order. Our favourite dishes here were the kaeng phed gai normai (red chicken curry with bamboo shoots) and gai pad khing (stir fried chicken with ginger).

By the way, if anyone lost a 7-11 store in their city - I’ve found it. They seem to have all migrated here! There is literally one on every corner. They are brilliant for a little AC cool down when we over-heat on our walks, and I also love scanning the shelves for weird and wonderful chip and lolly flavours. They are also very good for breaking the big baht notes the ATMs spit out - you need small denominations for food, drink and transport.

The only fault I can find with the Viengtai Hotel is that they don’t have free wifi. However the Green House Restaurant across the road (on Rambuttri Road) is a cool little place with free wifi and an extensive drink list. The down side is that the outside seating is always full of smokers.

Well that’s Bangkok for the moment. We will be back here for a few days on our way south, and later on our way east... but right now we waiting for taxis to take us to the Southern Bus Station to catch the 2:20pm bus heading westward. See you in Kanchanaburi!

P.S I CANNOT believe Andrew told you his ‘man who walk through airport turnstile’ joke when he expressly banned me from telling anyone my ‘two nuns riding their bicycles’ joke when we were in Rome (and there were nuns on bikes everywhere too)! Google it. 😊

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1st March 2011

Slow!
I don't get the joke!!
1st March 2011

Hot Weather, Hot Food
And some very interesting language cross-overs. Keep it coming. Will you be there in the hot season?
1st March 2011

Re: Slow!
Hi Aileen! Andrew said he will explain the joke when we get home :)
1st March 2011

Re: Hot Weather, Hot Food
Thanks KD...will be here for the start of the hot season, but will be down south so it wont be that bad :)
1st March 2011

Still laughing at Andrew's joke. Excellent!
2nd March 2011

Re:
Hi Penster! Andrew does love his 'Confucius say' jokes :)
2nd March 2011

mmmmmmm food
My taste-buds are doing crazy things right now! Major food-envy happening :)
6th March 2011

Re: mmmmmmm food
Tegs you would LOVE the food here! We should make it a mission one day :) xx

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