Bangkok

Trip Start Feb 15, 2008
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Trip End May 31, 2008


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Where I stayed

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Life in Thailand's capital Bangkok is chaotic and busy but offers so much for its visitors. This is an attractive place to shop due to a strong exchange against the Thai Baht and there are temples and giant Buddas all over the city. There is always activity in the streets with markets generally selling local produce during the day and clothes, jewellery and souvenirs in the afternoon and evening. The city is the capital and largest urban area of Thailand. Once a small trading post, the location was made the capital of Thailand in 1768. In the span of over two hundred years, Bangkok has been the political, social and economic centre of Thailand and also for much of South East Asia making it a true global city, business centre and tourist destination.

Bangkok is the world's 22nd largest city by population with approximately 6.7 million but due to large unregistered influxes of migrants from the North East of Thailand and many nations across Asia, the population of Greater Bangkok is estimated at nearly 15 million people.

To get from the airport to your accommodation you can either take a taxi which should cost around 400 Baht or an airport express bus, of which there are three different routes and cost 150 Baht. I stayed at the Viengtai Hotel in Banglamphu which is a pretty cool tourist district with restaurants cafes and suit retailers... yes suit retailers... if you're after a new made to measure cashmere suit then Bangkok is the place to get one. A new suit of this material including a shirt and tie generally costs around 5000 baht or $170. Other specialties of Bangkok include silver and gem stones. I bought a few items in silver but was reluctant to spend too much money on any particular item in case it was a fake. I was advised on the presence of fake gemstone deals in this city and though I had no intention of buying any I think that if you visited a genuine retailer you'd probably be safe.

Your tuk-tuk driver will probably want to take you for a tour. I don't see anything wrong with this service and it is a fun way of getting around. Tuk-tuk tours are cheap or sometimes even free... just 20 to 50 Baht for two or three hours. A tour will include stops at a couple of temples or other places of interest around the city plus stops at the driver's sponsors which can be suit, jewellery or souvenir retailers.

Your driver will get a commission on what you buy plus he'll often get a card for a free tank of fuel just for dropping you at the shop. Single guys will also be offered to be taken to certain centres offering the 'gentlemen's services' which this city is famous for. Shopping in Bangkok is great, even for a bloke. You can get quality clothes, shoes, leather goods, souvenirs and pretty much whatever else you can think of at fantastic prices. You can also get those copied CD's and DVD's at most street side markets for 100 Baht each which is about $3.40.

Thailand is also famous for its 'lady boys' which are transsexuals. I'd heard before coming to this country that you could not tell the difference between a lady boy and a real woman though the ones I'd spotted were so obvious. The first one I saw was in a jewellery retailer that the tuk-tuk driver had taken me to visit. They generally talk with this feminine, though not female, gay boy voice which is a bit of a giveaway. This lady boy was about as tall as me and while tall women may be common in western countries, in Thailand the women are generally petite and delicate. Thailand also has more than its fair share of homosexual men. I happened to meet a number of them and these boys are obviously gay. This phenomenon has left many Thai women dateless and looking for a mate off shore as they continually find men to be either married, gay, lady boy or Buddhist monks.

One of Bangkok's most popular attractions is the Grand Place which features the Royal Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The complex served as the official residence of the king of Thailand from the 18th century to the mid-20th century. Construction of the palace complex began in 1782, during the reign of Rama I.

The palace complex sits on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. The other approaches to the palace are protected by a defensive wall with a length of 1,900 metres, which encloses an area of 218,400 square metres. Further out from the wall is a canal, which was also created for defensive purposes, making the area surrounding the palace an island, known as Rattanakosin.

This Complex is undoubtedly the most spectacular site in Bangkok and should be on the must see list of any visitor to the city. Entry is only 250 baht for foreigners. You'll need to have your knees covered to get in though if you've not come prepared there is a free service available at the entry which allows women to borrow a long skirt and men to borrow a comfortable pair of long pants. The Royal Temple of the Emerald Buddha itself is quite an impressive building though its centre piece, the Emerald Buddha which is actually made out of Jade, is a lot smaller than I was expecting. There are a number of different structures which you can walk around including the entrance to the Grand Palace and the Weapons Museum, which is somewhat unimpressive after having visited some of Europe's best war museums. I visited this site with my Thai friend, Nung, who I'd met the previous day. Being a local she didn't need to pay the entry fee and was able to give me a bit of a guided tour of the complex plus a crash course in Buddhist worship customs.

Bangkok is actually a bit of a Venice of the east and is connected by a series of canals. I was surprised to learn that the entire city was once accessible by canal, however many of the canals have since been filled and converted to streets. Later that day we took a cruise up the canals in a long boat which is a great way of seeing this part of the city. The long boats are powered by what looks like a car motor connected to a prop by a long pole which forgoes the need for a differential and the use of a radiator replaces the need for pumping Bangkok's filthy water through a marine engine. The canals are lined with houses on stilts and though they have mains water available I imagine that the raw sewage is simply dumped straight into the canals. The long boats are met by souvenir vendors in small boats along the way and there's also a spot where you can buy a day old loaf of bread for 20 Baht to feed the carp in the river.

I stayed at the Viengtai Hotel which is quite nice and has a pool. This hotel is located in the heart of the popular tourist district of Banglamphu. The area is really nice and there are so many places where you can get a Thai massage. Traditional Thai massage is done with your clothes on, in an open room with other people around and involves a lot of manipulation of your joints and can cost as little as 100 Baht for an hour. If you want an oil massage which is done without clothes in a private environment you'll need to go to a spa. These massages cost around 300 Baht an hour and are completed with a Thai style manipulation massage. In these spas you can also have body scrubs, facials or many other kinds of treatments done at a mere fraction of what it'd cost in a western country. The area also features cafes, restaurants and a fantastic night life with one of the main streets in the area being closed to traffic every evening and night markets set up along the street. There are also a number of venues featuring live music acts.

That evening I met my group for the 8 day trip through northern Thailand. Although Thailand could easily be negotiated alone I was glad to be in a group and this trip utilised local transport including trains, buses and songthaews which are basically pickups with the capacity to carry about 10 people in the back, sort of like a troop carrier. I was a little shocked to learn that not only was my guide female, but so were all eight of my fellow travelling buddies. It was actually pretty cool once I got used to the idea of being surrounded by women for a week. The following day we made our way to Phitsanulok by train.
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