BANGKOK OR THE LAND OF RENTAL CLOTHING
Trip Start Mar 15, 2011
35Trip End Jun 11, 2011
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Where I stayed
_ We arose bright and cheery (!) at 5am to await our ride to our bus to Bangkok. Well, minibus that is. Our hotel had recommended the 'faster' and 'better' route, slightly more upmarket so we were told, to get to Bangkok. This meant we were meant to get there in around six or seven hours as opposed to 10. So, there we were waiting for our pick-up in the lobby at 5.30. Alas, no-one showed until 6am at which stage we were packed into a little sedan already carrying three other people (plus driver) and luggage precariously hanging out of the open trunk. An excellent start. We were taken to the minibus pick-up point and hung around for half an hour or so waiting for it to arrive, and wondering just how it was going to fit all 18 people sharing our early morning bliss.
Well that was quickly answered when the bus finally turned up (seating about 14 and luggage all together) and we were the lucky ones hastened to another car and barrelled in with two other guys. We thought we were on something of a winner with air-con and a relatively decent amount of space! We careered towards the border, lapping up the sites. Our car companions were two British students from Cambridge who had waited for their bus to Thailand to arrive since 1.30am that morning... it never showed so they were lumped in with us. Exhausted, they were catching up with whatever sleep they could on the way. Mainly on a rather bemused Erin.
We struck the border well ahead of schedule and cruised straight through immigration on foot - a process we were told could be long and annoying. So we walked into Thai territory feeling pretty damned good, thinking we could definitely be in Bangkok by lunch. Oh, how quickly dreams are shattered! It turned out we then had to wait for the original minibus to catch up to us, and after about an hour it turned up and we met our fate!
We squeezed into the back row as it was the only place where Justyn could sit without a little bone realignment! Looking back, it's kind of funny... we were packed in with bits of luggage sitting on top of us, at our feet, and almost everywhere you could look. Most people on the minibus already looked green as we took off at breakneck speed. Our driver was living out his dreams of the Paris-Dakar rally on the roads of Thailand... or something. He hit the accelerator hard whenever he took off, even if he was only travelling 5 metres towards the next car stopped in traffic. He used every road resource he could, bouncing us between the shoulders, five different lanes and using creative red light avoidance...often barely missing oncoming traffic when he ventured to the other side of the road! There was no suspension and so we jerked up and down for the next five hours. It's interestingly difficult trying to keep yourself in one place so you don't hit the seat in front or bang your head on the roof!
With little air available thanks to the struggling air-con, we couldn't have been more relieved to finally reach Bangkok, around 2.30pm (two hours after the scheduled time). And then for the next adventure. We'd been told to avoid tuk tuks in the city and take metered taxis instead. While all equipped with meters, we found out that many drivers don't like setting them, and demand a flat fee only. Dropped at a fair distance from our hotel and absolutely desperate to our destination, we found ourselves in the frustrating position with half the loitering drivers refusing to take us, and the others demanding a ridiculously high fee, at least three times the fare the meter would have produced.
Dying to reach our destination, we caved and jumped in one, who could not for the life of him find our hotel. This was partly due to the fact that while our hotel had a street number, none of the numbers in the street were in order! Apparently it's a common problem in Thailand. So, he was angry and couldn't find it. We were exhausted and couldn't readily get the phone number for the hotel. After accosting other cab drivers (we found out later... most can't read maps or really have much of a sense of direction) we procured the number from an English call centre and arrived at our hotel about an hour after the evil bus ride had ended.
Baan Pra Nond is, it has to be said, a little out of the centre of town, but it was an absolute oasis of calm! It's a little bed and breakfast, beautifully outfitted in the style of a traditional Thai house, with an awesome pool at the back that we ended up using extensively during our couple of days there!
After recovering somewhat from the day's experiences, we headed out later that afternoon to explore. The B&B was a short walk from the Skytrain so it turned out to be incredibly easy to get around from the slightly obscure location. Having spent the last few weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, it felt odd being on brand new, airconditioned public transport! Then it was an easy few minutes ride into Siam, the centre of the city, where we launched a wee bit of exploration.
And we were back into a very modern Asian city, with new skyscrapers all over the place, order on the streets and green spaces all around - including a massive and gorgeous looking golf course right in the middle of it all. And not to disappoint, it held a huge amount of meat-on-stick carts everywhere we looked. We took a walk down to Lumphini Park which turned out to be quite stunning, especially at dusk. We also found, to Erin's great excitement, paddle boats in the shape of ducks, and spent the next while paddling around the lake in the middle of the park. It's a complete lie to say that Justyn did all of the work!
After some more sightseeing we headed to the infamous 'night zone' that is Patpong Street and wandered through the various strip clubs, lady boy cabarets and special massage parlours... oh, and a ridiculous amount of golf stores! It probably wasn't the night action we were after, so we wandered around, found a happy hour establishment and worked out where to go for dinner.
We were pretty wrecked from the earlier bus trip, and just resorted to our Lonely Planet for a restaurant recommendation not too far from our hotel. We jumped back on the Skytrain and attempted to find our way on foot to the restaurant - although we soon found out our map lacked a lot of street names, oh, and the streets lacked a lot of street signs! So it was quite lucky this funny tuk tuk driver decided to follow us, circling around the block to surprise us every few minutes. He ended up offering to take us there for what would have been about 10 cents - score! And so within minutes we were sinking our teeth into some pad thai and other local delights.
The next morning we decided to take advantage of staying so close to the river and went down to the pier to catch the ferry into town. On the way, we spotted a local barber. Justyn's fro had become completely unmanageable so we popped in and he got a quick buzz.
Once we got to the pier, we looked at the tours on offer, and were seduced into opting for one that took us to a nearby floating market, fish farm, the Wat Arun or Temple of Dawn, and then onto the Grand Palace which was to be our ultimate destination. Plus it allowed Erin to tick off one of her James Bond experiences in tearing around Bangkok in a longtail boat a la Man with the Golden Gun. Sounded terrific.
Well, it was interesting - that's one way to put it! Our driver whipped us off to the canals towards the 'floating markets', shooting past everyone else on the same tour. They seemed to be stopping to look at things and take pictures, but not us. No, our guy was definitely playing his part in the James Bond longtail boat chase... without another boat to chase. After about ten minutes he slowed somewhat, so that a woman in a boat loaded with fairly crappy tourist items could come up and try to sell us something. There were three women like this parked under a tree in the middle of the canal. Towards the end of the tour we clocked that that was the 'floating market' they promised!
He sped on and stopped at the snake farm, which we'd actually asked not to go despite Erin's ardent love of snakes (no, she's not affected at all by all those brown snake encounters in her youth, nor the green tree snake who spent a summer outside her bedroom window!) and asked him to press on. If there was a fish farm, we somehow missed it. Unless they were referring to the fish that happen to be in the canal already! We did however get to see a lot of the local communities by the canals which was really interesting - and a world away from super modern Bangkok. There were loads of leaning shacks perched right over the water. They looked like they might not have running water or electricity, such was the state of them, except for the gleaming satellite dished perched on the rooves!
We sped ahead to Wat Arun, the huge and beautiful temple on the river. Our captain yelled at us '20 minutes!' so we ran to start the ascent to the top. And then a minor hitch. Erin had dutifully remembered her cardigan to cover her bare shoulders as a sign of respect, but had totally failed to notice she was wearing short shorts. And we all know, no short in the pagoda! So the 20 minutes was weaned down somewhat while Erin rented a tasteful pink sarong to climb the steps!
The temple itself was amazing. It's known as the Temple of the Dawn, and you can see how stunning it would be at that time of the day, rising up from the river. It was quite a change too from the temples at Angkor Wat, with dragons and elaborate tiling and colours. All enhanced by a rental sarong, of course!
We ran up, we ran down, we dropped the sarong back and found our boat. Within 3 minutes the tour was over. We'd reached our destination at the Grand Palace! In about two thirds the estimated time! We wandered through some awesome food stalls and filled up on fresh juices before heading to the Palace. Once we got to the gates we eyed a problem... short shorts were banned there too! Without reading the entire sign, we returned to the other side of the road, where there was an excellent trade in sarongs and gigantic pants going on.
With a gorgeous new elephant emblazoned sarong covering the offending articles we trekked back to the other side of the road to discover... the palace has a wide variety of free clothes to loan to both men and women! It turns out Bangkok really is the mecca of the rental attire! Justyn too had to cover up (no short in the pagoda rule) and got himself a spiffy pair of green pants for the occasion. Since he's a little, um, taller than the average resident, he had to go for the XXL variety to reach his ankles. They looked special.
We toured the palace for the next couple of hours. It was simply amazing - a must see for Bangkok. It's filled with gold temples and ceremonial rooms and is just stunning. By the end of our exploration we were melting, so we took a ferry from the pier back to the hotel and threw ourselves in the beautiful cool pool (via collection of meat-on-stick)! The hotel seriously was one of the highlights of Bangkok.
After recovering from the heat we set off for the Banyon Tree to swan about on the rooftop bar at sunset - just magic. Except for the fact that Justyn wasn't wearing appropriate footwear (no toe in the rooftop bar!) but it was OK, they had complimentary loaner slip on shoes. Just a few sizes too small!
When the sun went down, we decided to try to head to chinatown that evening for dinner, based on a recommendation from the hotel - plus many other tips on Bangkok! So we skipped back across on the ferry and started the walk up to chinatown, befuddled at the fact that the streets were completely empty! As we wandered into darkness a tuk tuk driver came up to us and broke the news: Chinatown is closed on Mondays! So he ended up driving us to another market area, promising to take us to food - and what we thought was market food! Alas, it was a big, bland seafood restaurant full of tourists obviously led by other tuk tuk drivers!
We walked in and ran out, and started investigating up the street. There was barely a thing around until we walked into... the amazing all-you-can-eat cook-it-yourself buffet! And we're not talking dodgy buffet here! It was packed with locals, absolutely nothing in English, and big screens playing thai movies to the couple of hundred people packed in. We wandered up to the food bars, full of mystery raw meat, veges and noodles, and set to it, cooking a mystery meal at our mini hotplate on the table! We're really not sure what we ate, but it was delicious!
We headed back to the hotel fairly early considering we'd arranged to make a last ditch attempt at floating markets and hired a boat driver to leave from the pier at 5.30am the next morning. We rose bright and early, took collection of the awesome breakfast boxes the hotel had kindly whipped up for us and set off for the pier. It was pretty empty when we got there... and stayed that way for the next half hour! No sign of a long tail boat driver, or tour operator or... anyone. Just lots of local dogs! The tour people (with whom our hotel had booked the driver) turned up at 6am, completely befuddled. They called a driver to come get us and tried to talk us into going to the 'floating market' we'd been to the day before. We said no, we wanted to go to this market we'd read about, which was about 45 mins away. He agreed and we were on our way.
It was a totally different world out there - proper river living with floating houses and riverside communities. Loads of people were commuting out on boat buses and we saw monks rowing around collecting alms as we'd read we would. Unfortunately when we got to the place where the market was meant to be... there was no market. Our driver, who hadn't talked to us the whole trip, suddenly piped up and said there's been no market there for 10 or 15 years! It was a wee lesson that listings on the net aren't always accurate! Nevertheless, it was a fascinating journey, and we sped back towards the city at sunrise, which was gorgeous.
Having been up so early and knowing we were flying out later that afternoon, we thought we'd take the opportunity to relax that day. We turned up for an amazing breakfast of thai rice soup and then proceeded to spend the rest of the day unwinding by the pool with a brief excursion for lunch. A little more pool time and we said our goodbyes and we were happy to be headed to what we hoped would be a tropical island paradise... Koh Samui!