Bangkok 23 June to 2 July 2008
When the immense skyline of Bangkok appeared on the horizon we were a bit panicked, particularly as many of the signs were purely in Thai, and the road system was immense with roads heading off every which way. We stopped at the traffic policeman's hut and were given a complex set of instructions in T-inglish which amazingly got us to our hotel with only one wrong turn! Our hotel the Atlanta was a real find. It prides itself on being the oldest original hotel in Bangkok and on forbidding sex tourists from crossing its threshold not necessarily in that order! It would take pages to detail the delights and idiosyncrasies of this great institution so have a look on their website www.theatlantahotelbangkok.com Whilst the stunning original 1950's foyer and restaurant were not matched by the rooms which were fairly ordinary ..for the budget prices they charge that degree of ambience together with a jungle-theme swimming pool and free Wi Fi is pretty hard to match. We were also very fortunate that the Baptist Church next door allowed us to park in its car park all week which saved us a lot of money and stress!
We had various chores to get done whilst in Bangkok - sorting out visas, new tyres for the car- but pretty much top of the list was replacing the laptop as the insurance money has thankfully come through. We had already done our research on this and headed off to Pantip Plaza which is a 5 storey store packed with all things IT based, both legit and pirated. We were keen to replace our Sony Vaio so got the same one as before with a few new updates. We also invested in a new lock which should hopefully help assure that this one doesn't end up going the same way! Fingers crossed!
We next visited Jim Thompson's house which was very beautiful. JT an American born in 1906 is credited with moving the Thai silk industry from a tiny cottage industry to being at the forefront of the world textiles market. In 1959 he built himself a very beautiful Thai style home on the river and filled it with antiques, and art from the region and it is now preserved as a museum. Whilst in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967 he disappeared and was never seen again, which has prompted much speculation..was he a spy (he was ex-CIA) ..was he murdered by a business rival …did a tiger get him etc. Apparently the tea room where we had afternoon tea in the Cameron Highlands (see that section in our Malaysian entries) was actually the house he habitually stayed in which we hadn't realized. His gardens and house were beautifully cool shady and green a real respite from the heat and noise of the city outside.
The 25th was Andrew's birthday and we headed off to the WP Hotel which had just opened "Bangkok's first" wine pub. We had an immense cheese platter with imported cheeses and a real good Aussie red….first sniff of either since we'd been on the road a real treat! We saw a few of the beautiful people ..Bangkok is an extremely wealthy city in parts and the designer set were out in force which we no doubt noticed as we don't usually see them in the places we go! Actually the street food in Bangkok is some of the best and cheapest we've ever had so it doesn't have to be too expensive here, but if you're into gourmet food and designer labels the shopping opportunities here are immense! You can even get a new body while you're at it! As mentioned previously Thailand and particularly Bangkok is a big magnet for people coming on package surgery trips particularly plastic surgery. The papers run daily adverts for all things from face lifts at $850 USD to a full sex change which is a snip (as it were!) at $1670 USD. During our stay Andrew had an ear infection and we ended up at a local private hospital. It felt more like a luxury hotel with Starbucks, McDonalds and a few up market restaurants and shops as well as Wi-Fi throughout. The whole place was choc a bloc with foreignors, many of whom are over for cosmetic procedures, particularly eye laser surgery to cure short sightedness. Apparently, even with flights and accommodation this works out much cheaper than getting it done at home.
Bangkok is ripe with various scams and despite being on our guard we got a bit sucked in. We had already decided that we weren't going to drive around the city and generally we used the Sky train which is a very efficient way to whizz around but occasionally we succumbed to a Tuk Tuk. These little vans are like an up market version of the ones we often travelled in back in Indonesia. They are great fun to zoom around the city in, though with them all weaving in and out of the traffic and the odd brave (or suicidal!) motorcyclist going into the traffic the wrong way it can all be a bit of a white knuckle ride. The scam is to offer a really cheap ride 20 baht anywhere but it involves stopping off at either or both tailors and gem sellers. I guess it's not a scam as such as you're not being tricked but once there you have to put up with a lot of hard sell which us a bit wearing. The other trick is to tell you the attraction you are due to see is closed for some reason or not open until midday so you take the Tuk Tuk ride (via the said tailors or gem shops) to fill in time. We actually bought a couple of Thai silk tops (me) and a winter coat (Andrew) and the latter will be pretty useful when we hit the UK if not before, and we were actually pretty pleased with them but after this we decided to stick to public transport …cheaper in the long run!
Next we decided to take a river trip. We met up with an American guy Joe on the way down to the wharf and the 3 of us hired a longboat and went on a trip taking in a Wat on the way and dropping us off at the Grand Palace. The river and the khlongs or canals which are off it were once the major means of getting around here, and it is still a real hive of activity with fishermen, commuters and monks from the various wats on the river getting on and off boats. There are many beautiful luxury houses now on the river alongside the original corrugated shacks and there's always something to look at. After our trip we went off to the Grand Palace and adjoining Wat Phra Kaew- or temple of the Emerald Buddha. We hadn't really set out to go to wats that day and so had to borrow some clothes so we were decently covered….Andrew and Joe some delightful pull on trousers and me a shirt still damp with the previous wearer's sweat…ukk…next time must remember to bring the cover all sarongs!
The temple is extremely ornate so much so that the Emerald Buddha in a box very high above and only 66cm high was not easy to see! You cannot take pictures inside anyway but take it from us the whole thing was extremely ornate. On the way in was a pleasant (thankfully) shady area with murals all around which are over 200 years old and depict an ancient story. They are constantly being renovated to keep them in good order. The palace itself is unsurprisingly grand considering the esteem in which all things royal are held here. The King no longer lives here, but it is used for ceremonial occasions and greeting heads of state - Clinton and Bush were both entertained here, as was Queen Elizabeth the 2nd. The architecture is a mixture of styles - Thai, Chinese and some European and is very striking.
We then visited the Wat Pho the oldest (16th century) and largest Wat in Bangkok with the longest reclining Buddha and the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand. Having seen a few reclining Buddhas on our travels we finally gathered that the reclining pose depicts Buddha just as he was about to ascent to heaven. The lady with the yellow bucket in our picture was emptying the money given to the Buddhas ..it was like painting forth bridge after finishing she'd have to start again as behind her the collection plates were constantly being refilled.
We also took the ferry boat across the river to the Wat Arun an imposing looking temple built in the early 19th century. It can be climbed by fairly steep steps (a bit un-nerving when viewed from the top!) and is beautifully decorated with Chinese porcelain.
The Wats really are quite spectacular but, particularly in the intense humidity, we were getting a bit jaded, (and there are over 700 in bangkok so we hardly got started really!) so we jumped on the ferry river boat and took an hour's ride up to the end of the river. The plan had been to go for dinner there but when we arrived we were about to miss the last ferry back so we ran and caught it and headed for a look at China town instead! There were many monks travelling on the ferries and the front seats had a sign "Please give up your seat if a monk needs it" which was a new one on us!
Chinatown was very lively much the same as its counterparts elsewhere in the world. Many of the Chinese came from China in the late 18th century onwards as penniless immigrants and also like elsewhere many have established huge business empires and are amongst the wealthiest people in the City. We had dinner on a street stall and took in the atmosphere.
We had a couple of jobs to do on the car which involved driving it around a bit ..we were doing ok until we tried to go a short trip to get a 2nd opinion and ended up getting on the freeway and having to do a 60 km trip around before getting back to where we started …not so good with the way diesel has been going up and up (more than double the price here of Indonesia and Malaysia) but at least we got a good look around!! Getting around in Bangkok is always tricky, whether you drive or are driven. The maps are often very inaccurate, the one way systems very random and no one seems to have much of a clue when you ask directions. Many of the taxi drivers are economic refugees from the very poor north and when rice farming is over they come down and borrow a relative's cab to make a bit of money but they really don't know the city any more than we do. The fact that many streets have similar names and rely on correct tonal pronunciation to identify the correct one (there are 5 different tones extremely hard for a farang to separate) makes the whole thing a total nightmare! Best stick to the Sky train!
So with only a couple of days left we headed over for a quick look at the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road which featured in the opening scenes of "The Beach "apparently. It was very full on loads of travellers a totally different vibe to where we're staying -we'd never have got parking here it's very over- crowded. Good for shopping, cheap eats and crowd watching though!
One thing we had delayed seeing despite it being advertised extensively (via loud speakers from vans in great T-inglish) was the national sport of Muay Thai or Thai Boxing. When out and about we had got talking to a Spanish guy who was very into Muay Thai. He advised us that rather than pay the high prices (twice as much for farangs as for Thais) at the stadium we should go on Sunday morning where a bout was being televised for channel 7 which was free to attend, so we took a train ride out to the stadium. To be honest it wouldn't really have been something I'd be particularly into but when in Rome and all that. Muay Thai is huge in Thailand and this fight was absolutely packed. Considering it was the best of the best they really didn't stand on ceremony the competitors being bandaged and psyched up were just sitting to one side as we queued to get in. We watched 4 fights in all including one knock out. The crowd around us were a spectacle in their own right most of them following the fight (or more likely their bets!!) too closely to sit down! The fighters aren't particularly big and some of them look incredibly young but god are they fit!! The whole thing was an interesting experience but don't think it'll become a regular routine!
Before we left we were determined to make it to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar where Margi (our friend Chris's mum ) has her clothing store. The market is immense but eventually we found Margi's clothes store "Lee Lar Dee" and met Jang the lovely Thai girl who works there. She had some lovely things, and indeed there were some great products throughout the market:- handicrafts, pottery, jewelry clothes etc There is also a central beer garden and it is a really nice place to hang out. Sadly it has been decided that the bazaar will be replaced by a new mall though no one is quite sure when this will happen so Margi and Jang will have to find a new venue. It seems a shame as there are enough malls here but the night bazaar is something a bit different.
Whilst in Bangkok, in between all the above activities we had been running around doing our research re: various visas. The story so far is : it looks like China is definitely off the agenda as far as driving through goes, with the earthquake and other issues they have had of late there is no way at present they will allow foreign vehicles in - especially those going through Tibet as we had planned to! As far as Myanmar goes we have been told to write a letter to the consulate explaining why we are wishing to enter and the precise itinerary and then (they say!) there is unlikely to be a problem. In reality we will believe it when we see it but nothing ventured nothing gained so we'll give it a go!
If the Myanmar visa fails to come good, once we have been round SE Asia we go to Plan C and backtrack down to Malaysia and ship from there to Chennai in India so there's always another way! In the meantime our visa to Thailand finishes on the 15th July and as we have to leave the country by then one way or another we have booked a cheap flight to Vietnam leaving on 14 July. We can't drive there anyway as they only allow left hand drive cars in (god only knows why!) so we will leave the car at Margi's in Rayong ..our next stop ..and spend a month travelling from North to South Vietnam before returning to carry on around Asia. If we fly out of the country we can claim back the VAT (GST in Australia) paid on the laptop which we cannot do if we leave by a land border and this should just about pay for one of the flights which is helpful. So on Wednesday 2 July after picking up our Vietnamese visas, we were on the road again but only for 120kms to Rayong where we are very much looking forward to seeing our friend (and Chris's mum) Margi.