Our India adventure complete, we boarded a plane to Bangkok to spend a few days in Thailand’s capital city where we met the King of Thailand!!!
People had told us that Bangkok was a hectic, busy city, congested with traffic and noisy. But landing there, when your previous city has been New Delhi, this seems a million miles from the truth. In comparison the roads are quiet (I know we landed in the evening) both in terms of the volume of vehicles and the volume of sound. There are no horns!!!
And in another contrast to India, get this. People put rubbish in bags, they pile it up on the side of the road. And then, and this is the great part, some guys in a big truck come along and pick it all up. Every day!!! Wow!!!
Our first impression of Bangkok was one of (relative) order and cleanliness.
It was another flying visit with a lot that we wanted to pack in. Lots of temples, this time Buddhist as opposed to Hindu, and rich and luxuriant instead of old (and often ruined). Plus the royal palace, markets, the infamous Khao San district and a drink in a sky bar.
We actually did pretty well,
The temple of Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha was spectacular. Intricate, luxurious, colourful and as I said, very much in contrast to many (most?) Hindu temples. There lining Buddha is vast. It reclines along the whole length of a massive temple, and of course, masses of tourists file past absorbing the sheer size and opulence of it all. And of course taking selfies. I seem to remember reading that it is deemed disrespectful to be photographed with your back to Buddha, not that it seemed to matter to them. You have to remove your hat to enter a Buddhist temple, but some guys were disregarding that rule as well, and donning their baseball caps backwards for the obligatory series of selfies with their mates (and Buddha of course).
As we were wandering around the temple complex, we discovered that one temple area was classed for a special event. There was lots of white and yellow ribbon and decoration around, and a gazebo area where free coffee and pumpkin soup was being handed out. After a conversation with one of the ladies serving, and another with a security guard, we were directed around the back to where a group of a few dozen people, both tourists and Thai were standing. All waiting patently for the visit of the King!
When I said at the start that we ‘met’ the king, there may have been a little poetic license involved. But after 45 minutes, when we were told to sit on the ground (one of the officials immediately got Helen a chair to sit on when she explained about her back), remove all hats and glasses from our heads we heard the King’s Guard outside preparing to greet their monarch. A few minutes later we saw him stride in with his entourage and just as quickly disappear. No photos allowed of course.
Still, at least we saw him. I’ve never seen our queen. In fact the only royalty I’ve ever seen is Zara Phillips galloping past me on a horse…
We Much of our getting about was either on foot or by using the river ferry, the Chao Phraya Express Boat. This offers a different view of the city and we were able to see some of the sights from the river. The ferries are actually quite efficient and you can opt for a day ticket that allows you to hop on and off anywhere, and as a number of the sights are close to the river it makes for a relatively cheap way of getting around with the added bonus of missing the worst of the Bangkok traffic. (Interestingly, when we asked one driver for a price to the royal palace he declined saying it was ‘too far’!)
After Wat Pho though we ditched the river and walked to the Khao San Road to witness first hand what all the fuss and excitement was about.
To sum up; loud music and lots of it, street food, insects (to eat), bars and obviously shops. Ladyboy spotting was fun sitting street side. But not that difficult on the whole.
Day 2. Ferry again to the Royal Palace (now appropriately dressed – even men have to wear long trousers). There’s not much of the palace open to the public, quite a lot of restoration is going on, but the visit is really to see the adjoining temple complex and home to the Emerald Buddha. As seems to be par for the course here, and in other royal palaces elsewhere, no photos are allowed inside. I found that inside some of these temples was actually less impressive than the opulent exterior. I obviously don’t get the full appreciation of the religious experience though.
The buildings are quite spectacular though, words and even the pictures don’t really do them justice.
From there back to the ferry and a hop over to Wat Arun. Easily visible from the river we hopped off to look around. Again the area was adorned with white and yellow silk and ribbons. Presumably the King was due to visit here too as there was also a walkway and red carpet being laid out.
As we wanted to have a wander around China Town we decided not to go into the temple (would it really have been more impressive than the ones we’d already seen?) so it was back to the ferry to head back across the river again.
Maybe it was because we were there during the day, but it seemed less vibrant than I was expecting. Yes, all the street signs, Chinese stores and stalls were there on the main streets and down the alleyways but it all seemed a little quiet and subdued. We were hungry and thirsty, so we were easily seduced (appropriately by a Frenchman) into sitting on a street side table for a drink. We decided to eat there as well, and by the time we left to go back to the ferry again for the last leg home, dusk was settling over the area and more street food stalls and restaurants were starting to get going and more people seemed to be around.
As the gloom deepened we stood at the ferry dock waiting. As each ferry loomed closer, we edged toward the quay in anticipation only to be told that this wasn’t our boat. Eventually one, that was our boat, turned up and we hopped on board.
The next day was a Saturday. Saturday in Bangkok sees the opening of Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of the biggest markets in the world. You can buy anything there apparently, so to try out the theory the BTS Skytrain, a few minutes walk from us, would take us right to the door. Unlike many metro systems in cities around the world, the BTS is a raised mono rail system that affords good views of the city and suburbs as you rumble along. It’s also clean, efficient and cool. A relief from the warm humid air outside.
The market is indeed huge. In fact it is so large, the guides suggest that you need to spend a complete day there! My reaction was that it’s so large I really don’t know where to start or where to go. They do help with the last bit though. Dotted around the site there are maps. Conveniently, the market is divided up into sections, so clothes are in one part, paintings and handicraft in another, household products somewhere else, etc. etc. We started off wandering to the clothes section. I needed some shorts, and one of the first stalls had about a thousand pairs of shorts piled up and hanging about. Foolishly I looked at some, this acted like an electric shock to the young man selling to gear there who tried to insist that he had every size and colour under the sun, that he absolutely had my size (I’m sure he did…) and that he had the best deal in the world. Obviously, that had the opposite effect on me and with his protests falling on deaf ears I walked off. I didn’t look at another pair of shorts, or any other clothes, that day.
The claims were probably true though. I think you probably could have bought anything there. One of the first stalls we saw was a food stall come bar with a larger than life western looking chef cooking massive pans of paella. It actually looked pretty good and it was pretty popular. We saw all sorts of stuff while we were there. Paintings, wood carvings, artists hand painting canvass shoes, silk and pashmina, shoes decorated with buttons, clothes, clothes and more clothes. And although we could have bought anything, we actually bought nothing. I’m sure there were bargains to be had, and I’m sure there were locals buying there, somewhere, but it had the feel of a tourist market. Certainly the parts we saw seemed geared up for that lucrative group with their foreign dollars.
Not satisfied with a busy day at the market (we didn’t actually spend the whole day there) it was a Saturday, and our last night in Bangkok. Three things were left on our list, drinks in a sky bar, a wander through the red light district and finding a bar to watch the rugby as it was the start of the autumn internationals.
I can’t quite remember how many stories high we were, maybe 38 or so, but from up there you realise a) how big Bangkok is and b) just what a modern skyline it has. Not just a small concentrated area of skyscrapers and offices, the hi-rise seems to extend out in all directions. I was expecting to be able to pick out some of the temples lit up in the night, but couldn’t. This is the modern Bangkok, a new and expending city with a growing sky line centred around a small and historic heart.
From there, a quick walk to the Patpong Night Market. This small area is an odd mix of market and seedy strip club bars. As you walk past the market you’re on one hand hassled to buy a fake Rolex and on the other whether you want to see a ‘ping pong show’. To one side, stalls with t-shirts, the other an open door to a bar with partially clad girls pole dancing. At the end of this street, not unexpectedly really when you think about it was an Irish bar complete with multiple screens showing sport. A quick bit to eat in a surprisingly good restaurant (surprising considering the area) and we were back at the bar, two eyes on England vs S Africa and the other two on Wales vs Tonga.
As we walked back to the hotel, the t-shirt sellers had pretty much gone home but the ping pong shows (I suspect) were in full swing…
For our last few days in Thailand we caught a short flight to Phuket, where some old family friends of Helen’s mum and dad lived in a quiet part of the island on the north west coast.
Gareth and Maureen picked us up from the airport, not too far from the airport, and took us back to their apartment in Bang Thao, a small resort with a long curve of white sand fringed by trees.
As we drove back, Gareth drove us through different areas of the town and they explained to us how the area had changed over the years. Russian tourists, accompanied by considerable Russian investment had seen the rapid expansion of the area with new hotel and apartment complexes, many of which resembled the grey, Cold War, communist blocks of the Moscow suburbs.
We we made to feel very welcome, the apartment was cool and spacious with a balcony overlooking the main leisure pool (there was also a second pool designed for swimming lengths alongside a gym). As we’d arrived at lunchtime it seemed only polite to test out the water…
We spent a few relaxing days there. We dined in the local restaurants on tasty Thai prawns and noodles (and mango sticky rice) and spent time strolling along the miles of soft white sand.
You could see the influence of the Russians everywhere. The most obvious thing was that the signs were mainly in Thai and Russian (English seemed to be third choice in many places. Where the new developments had been built thumping bass drifted over the sand, even during the day. The music and buildings seeming somewhat incongruous in such an otherwise laid back resort.
When we dined next to the beach one evening however, the lights of the restaurants at the bottom of the resort (where Gareth and Maureen’s apartment was located just 10 minutes walk from the sand) twinkled in the evening light, which along with the long tail boats made for quite a picturesque scene.
Whilst we didn’t get out to see too much of the surrounding area we didn’t really need to as the peaceful beach was actually what we needed after a full on and hectic trip through India and then into Bangkok.
A big thank you to Gareth and Maureen for making us so welcome and sharing their quiet corner of Phuket with us.