Messing about on the river

Trip Start Sep 23, 2004
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Tuesday, November 9, 2004

After spending all day in bed yesterday, suffering from a peanut-induced stomach upset, I dragged myself out of my nice air conditioned hotel room to explore the sticky steets of Bangkok. This time, I was determined to avoid tuk tuks and was armed with a much better map.

I decided that the most pleasant way of doing this would be to take an express boat trip. So I invested in a tourist ticket (with free bottle of water and map featuring tourist stops) and off we plunged. I decided to be a good little tourist and make my first stop Wat Arun, a major temple decorated in china tiles, and unusual for being built in the Khmer style, centred on a tall corn-cob shaped tower. Then back on the express boat, this time half-filled with a contigent of monks. Most boats have special seating for monks at the back. Every Thai man has to do service as a monk at some point in their life. During this time they are not allowed to touch women- to brush up against one means they need to undertake lengthly purifying rituals- so special seating means they remain unsullied if the river gets choppy.

Next stop was Chinatown, a major shopping experience. A maze of stalls and warren-like shops separated by narrow alleyways, Chinatown is the place to buy anything from bathplugs and tupperware to large dried squid and giant cuddly powerpuff girls. And it's certainly the place to fulfill all your jewellery needs, from gold chains sold by weight to ornate ruby pendants, through to the plastic beads and baubles favoured by the hordes of school girls personalising their school uniforms during their lunch hour. Many of the streets I visited consisted purely of hundreds of little jewellery stores, as if Claire's Accessories had bred with Accessorize and reproduced uncontrollably. My favourite was a giant bead store, akin to my favourite in Covent Garden, whee you could buy not just jewellery but beads of all colours, patterns, shapes and sizes, with all the pliers, wires and coloured strings you needed to turn them into your own creations. Somewhat miraculously, I escaped with only a silver metal choker which will go perfectly with the silver dragon I ought on the giant street market that is Kao San Road.

After a refreshing tomato sandwich (not a peanut in sight), I boarded the boat again with no firm destination in mind. We passed towering skyscrapers, some with curves and balconies designed to reflect the Angkorian temples, and little clusters of teak buildings on stilts above the water. I got off the boat at an obscure stop near the end of the line to the south of the city. I was met with many strange looks and giggling children, who said hello then ran away. I don't think they get many tourists round here (well, it's not even marked on the Lonely Planet!). I was rewarded with the chance to explore the narrow streets between the little houses on stilts, wander round a temple and watch the children at the local primary school enjoy playtime- with a basket ball court for the upper school and a playground complete with climbing frames and roundabouts for the younger children. Secondary school had finished already, the kids stocking up on sweets and plastic bags of cola before walking to the pier to get the boat home.

It took a while for the next boat to arrive. It was pleasant sitting by the river, watching tourist boats and nippy little long-tails speed past the huge tugs hauling long lines of timber. I was suprised to see two dark objects bobbing up above the water like a pair of seals' heads. Turned out they were coconuts, still in their dark fruity shells, floating their way down the river. I wonder how far they'll make it before they get washed ashore and find a place to grow.

Eventually my boat turned up. The sun was going down and a golden haze settled across the huts and skscrapers; the picturesque side of pollution. The sky slowly turned pink and the end of the clouds lit up like molten metal. I was treated to a sunset tour of the city as the neon lights switched on, the techno beats started and Bangkok made herself up for the evening.
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