In early February we had a visit from Andrew (left), a former colleague of Chris's, and his buddy Laurence (right), seen here drinking at Boat Quay, where we failed to get a picture where they both had a straight face at the same time, although hopefully Laurence's girlfriend liked the one they e-mailed to her. Apart from showing them around Singapore, we also did a short hop up to Bangkok with them, on Thursday Feb. 11.
We got up ridiculously early (6ish) in order to catch a 9:15 flight.
The flight wasn't direct but stopped in Phuket, where we spent half an
hour wandering around the one room airport.
When we arrived in Bangkok we went to change the time of our return flight, and ended up in a strange discussion with a guy at a tour desk who didn't believe we had booked a hotel. Found the rep from our tour company who took us to the van (even on "Free and Easy" packages with airfare and hotel but no tours, airport transfers are often included here). After getting settled in at our hotel (no recommendation here! not horrible, but not worth visiting) and having a bite to eat, we set off to explore. Armed with several maps, we headed for the World Trade Centre, choking on the exhaust fumes, and sweltering in the blistering afternoon heat. Every time we stepped out of the shade it was like stepping into an oven. We walked along one major street then turned left onto another. The sidewalks were narrow and uneven and were often half filled by vendors. The only trouble we had was trying to figure out how to cross a major road with no lights or pedestrian overpasses. Eventually we joined a small group of locals and just went for it.
The World Trade Centre turned out to be a very large and impressive shopping mall. We were amused by the Zen Central sign in the background of the shrine outside it.
From there we decided to walk to Siam Square as it was fairly close
by. It turned out to be not so much a square as a series of small
roads lined with shops and restaurants. Wandered around for a while
being pestered by touts then eventually went to the Hard Rock for supper.
Since it was happy hour and we were all dehydrated we had several pitchers
of Singha beer. For dinner most of us had the Big Pig sandwich (after
all "If you haven't had the big pig then you haven't been to the Hard Rock".)
It was nice but we all found the heat had affected our appetites, and had
some trouble eating.
Friday morning we headed off to the Royal Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. One of Bangkok's quirks is that the taxi drivers generally refuse to run the meter for foreigners, and you have to bargain a price before starting (which is usually at least double what the meter would run). The first taxi agreed to take us for 100 baht. After we were in and started moving he said he would only take us for 100 if we went to his cousin's store first. Obviously, we didn't like this scheme so we all piled out. Got another cab who agreed to take us for 170. Although it wasn't that far the Bangkok traffic ensured that it took an hour to reach our destination.
Went around the Palace/temple on our own as there didn't seem to be any guides available. First problem was finding the ticket office! It was very dis-organised. We went around inside the temple complex first. The shot above, complete with Jen's head in the corner, is the outside of the bòt containing the Emerald Buddha. No photography is allowed inside. The Emerald Buddha (or Phra Kaew) is about 60 cm high, and is in a glass case raised high on a pedestal above the alter, making it hard to get a good look at. It is considered the 'talisman' of the Thai kingdom, and the legitimator of Thai sovereignty.
bòt is surrounded by various other shrines and reliquaries. The
walls of the covered galleries surrounding the temple are covered with
beautiful, intricate murals (but unfortunately we didn't take any digital
shots). We walked around the palace grounds for a bit, as the Chakri
Palace (again no digital photos!) is not open to visitors, and replenished
our energies with ice cream at the cafe.
From there we
walked to Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (seen
here with Chris & Jen). We knew we were on the right course when
a passerby tried to convince us that Wat Pho was closed, and he could take
us somewhere more interesting. As soon as we went in we hired a guide.
Mr K knew his stuff! It was typical that afterwards he took us across
the road to a friend of his who sold silk copies of some of the wall carvings.
They were a bit expensive, but not outrageous, and Chris bought a set of
three, which still need to be framed for the living room.
Walked down to the river boat terminal to get a boat to the Oriental Hotel, having decided to take the river ferry down to visit the famous hotel. There was the usual total anarchy as we tried to figure out how to choose the right boat among the several piers, given that all the signs are in Thai. In the end we were pointed to the correct dock, and it only cost B6! The tricky part was getting on and off the boat as it swung in to the various docks for about 30 seconds, total!
Approaching the Oriental Hotel, still considered one of the world's best, we noted the big "No Backpackers" sign. Now, we were all dressed respectably, as we had spent the day visiting temples. As soon as we walked through the door, and stood looking around the lobby, a "manager type guy" came straight over to us and asked if he could help. Chris switched into expat mode and said that we wanted to have a drink in their bar overlooking the river. He immediately became extremely helpful, and showed us the way. The bar was really more like a restaurant and was on a terrace over looking the river. It was so nice that drinks became a late lunch. Andrew and Chris had Mee Grob (although Andrew started with French Onion soup), Laurence had Pad Thai and Jen had Samosas. The food was superb. This is not a spot to visit if you're on a tight budget!
We decided we liked the hotel so much we went for a drink in the Bamboo Bar. Jen and Chris tried some Kloster beer while the boys went to the adjacent cigar shop and bought some havanas.
Once we felt it would be dark/cool enough to head out again we set out on foot. We walked past the hotel Chris stayed in previously and on to the Patpong night market. Went up and down the Patpong 1 alley looking at the various stalls and avoiding the various touts for the various sex shows. (The area is considered pretty tame, the real red light district has moved) We were looking for a pub called The Bobby's Arms which had been recommended by some Bangkok expats on the web, but couldn't find it, so we carried on walking down Silom Road. Found an Irish pub called O'Reily's where we stopped for a quick though somewhat expensive pint.
On Saturday, after breakfast at the hotel, we met Laurence by the pool
where we hung out and read the paper. Andrew was
getting a traditional Thai massage in their room. When he joined us, he was having trouble walking as his legs were so relaxed they felt like jello. Then we headed off to visit the Chatuchak (Weekend) Market. As the Lonely Planet guide said, this market has 8,672 stalls, caters to 200,000 visitors a day, and sells everything from live chickens and snakes, to opium pipes, jeans, and pots and pans. On the way, we encountered the usual taxi problem: tried to get a taxi outside the hotel but again he would only take us if we agreed to go to his cousin's shop on the way. Found another one near the main road who took us, very quickly, to the weekend market.
The market is fascinating, and definitely directed to locals, not tourists, which made it much more interesting than the copy watches and fake designer bags, wallets and shirts found in the Patpong Night Market. Chris noted the antique section's resemblance to some parts of Camden Market. We wandered around for quite a while but the only thing anyone bought was ice cream, and a hurricane lighter that Andrew bought. At the very end we were in a section filled with roosters under wicker baskets. There was a small cock-fight going on but the roosters appeared to be unarmed. In spite of the awnings covering the stalls, it was incredibly hot, especially in the centre where there were no breezes. Much of our wandering stuck to the edges!
Getting back from the market turned out to be a bit more complicated. We got a cab without problem as there was a large line by the exit. The rather young driver didn't speak english but got the point that we wanted to go to Siam Square. The traffic was horrible as we headed out and we seemed to spend more time stopped than going. It was during one of these stops that the engine started to stall. It would start up again without too much trouble but then the driver would crank the AC again and the engine would stall again.
After five or ten minutes we reached the front of the traffic at a huge
intersection. As soon as the light changed the driver
did a U turn and started going back the way we had come. After a few more minutes the car died one last time and wouldn't restart. The driver managed to get it to the side of the road and then leapt out and hailed us another cab. The meter was at B50 but given the state of the cab we gave him B20 and he seemed happy enough.
The second driver took off like a rocket and continued that way. At several points on the journey Andrew was praying for more traffic so he would have to slow down. A few minutes after we started we passed the market again and realized that we would have saved a lot of time and a bit of money if we'd walked across the bridge and got a cab going the other direction.
As we were in a bit of a hurry we went to MacDonald's for a quick lunch. From there we set out on foot for Jim Thompson's house. We got there just in time for a tour but there was considerable chaos involved in getting everything started. The tour ended (naturally) in the gift shop where Andrew bought a tie. The house, composed of six traditional Thai houses that silk entrepreneur Jim Thompson purchased and had moved to Bangkok is well worth a visit. It also provides an opportunity to speculate about his mysterious disappearance in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967.
We caught a cab back downtown to Patpong, as we wanted to do a bit of shopping, and have another look for the Bobby's Arms. Jen also wanted to visit the Jim Thompson Silk store. As we approached our destination, Chris spotted the Silk store, and had the cabbie stop and let us out. We bought a few items, including an elephant (Andrew) and several metres of silk and a hairband (Jen). We wandered about a bit, found the Bobby's Arms, after walking up the ramp of the parking garage it is hidden in! The Singha and Guinness were good, and Jen was impressed that the list of Scottish Clans on the wall in the stairs up to the washrooms included the MacKinnons.
After a wander through the market where Jen was in charge of bargaining for a belt for Chris, a shirt for herself, and a pair of boxer shorts Laurence bought as a gift to take home, we headed for Silom Village Restaurant. Although too late for the traditional Thai show, we enjoyed the food at this open air restaurant in the square.
Sunday morning meant it was time to leave, and after waiting for our van (which almost left without us, as the desk didn't seem to remember that the four of us sitting there across from them in the lobby were the ones waiting), we headed back to the airport and home. While we enjoyed visiting Bangkok, we wouldn't want to spend any longer there. It's hot, noisy, incredibly polluted, and there seem to be touts at every turn. Next visit to Thailand will be to some of the northern cities, with their ancient buildings, which are highly recommend by everyone we've talked to.