Bright lights of Bangkok

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
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Trip End Jun 01, 2011


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Where I stayed
Golden Palace Hotel, Bangkok

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Air India farce

From Kathmandu we flew to Bangkok, via Delhi, for our next leg around S.E Asia, and we were clearly reminded why, environmental implications apart, we hated flying. We were flying Indian Airlines / Air India who, it seems, can’t fly in the dark and can’t land at Kathmandu airstrip when the sun is at a certain angle. So already there was a backlog of flights when we checked in for our 10:30am flight. We eventually departed, but too late to catch our connecting flight, so when we arrived in Delhi at 4pm, we were ushered into the small transit lounge with promises that we’d be put on the next flight out, whatever the airline. Ten hours later, having been bounced around various Air India staff, one of whom tried to flagrantly blackmail us out of US$100, twice, we were eventually found seats on the 1am Jet Air flight, the flight that a few hours earlier we had been told was full. So we boarded feeling triumphant, Air India would have had us waiting until 2pm the next day with no freedom to leave the transit lounge, but our elation was quickly tempered. Our bags had gone missing. Thankfully Jet Air is partner with the ever-efficient Thai Air who, clearly unhappy about having to deal with Air India, tracked and secured our bags. A result, but lesson learned.

The Bright lights of Bangkok

Sa-wat-de kah from a brash, bright and festive Bangkok, a.k.a Krung Thep Maha Nakhon in Thai. Bangkok is great, as indicated by the fact that we’ve stayed twice now, ten days in all, and we’re due to return again for another four days at the end of January (sadly the marker for the end of our tour around S.E Asia). This behaviour runs counter to all the advice we’ve received from fellow travellers such as, ‘Bangkok, two days max, otherwise you go crazy’ and ‘you’ve got to have your exit strategy ready before you arrive’.

In Bangkok we lodged to the east of the infamous backpacker hub of Bagalamphu a.k.a Kao San Road, staying in the district of Sukhumvit on Soi 1 in the Golden Palace Hotel - not golden but mint green, airy rooms and a pool too. There were a few backpackers around other than ourselves, but there was plenty of everything else: street-food stalls and their delicious smells, colourful markets, corner stores, cafes, restaurants, massage and tattoo parlours, pretty boutiques, huge shopping malls swathed in Christmas glitz, tall palm trees with festive lights coiling high up their trunks, Buddhist shrines lively with worshippers, and on every street, golden dais and billboards paying homage to King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest-serving current head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history.

Wanting to understand what had made Bangkok so repugnant to our various ‘advisors’ we visited Kao San Road for an evening and sat and had a few beers, soaking up the spectacle of hundreds of Western backpackers and holiday-makers. Phil had stayed here 15 years ago and he was shocked at the changes that had turned the area from the edgy, but exciting, back-packer scene to a centre of unadulterated mass-tourism. It was vibrant and lively, but we returned to our hotel across town glad to be able to retreat.  

Getting around the Bangkok at street-level was interesting but tiring, in part due to the 80% humidity and 35’C heat. The carriageways were choked with multi-coloured taxis and tuk-tuks, motorbikes and cycles, and the pavements were cramped with parked mopeds, food stalls and their stools occupied by hungry people, stands selling t-shirts, sandals and ornaments, urns with flowering lily, water lettuce and perky little fish, not to mention the steaming drains and shin-high curbs. An afternoon deluge had us leaping to a stall to buy umbrellas and then wading calf-deep down Soi 1, understanding now why the curbs were so high. But the sky-train or BTS, looming large and grey overhead, whisked us effortlessly through the city, ten storeys above the congestion and, through the gaps in the skyscrapers, provided great views down over the city

The khlongs were fun to travel on too, but they’re definitely not for the faint-hearted. The canal boats, the Saen Saep Express Boat service, are definitely ‘express’, steaming up and down the khlong like speed-barges, while the on-board attendants sport crash-helmets; all signage is in Thai, so lots of guess work and kind-hearted locals involved; they dock very briefly pontoon-side for their passengers to disembark/embark, and they definitely wont hang about for you. The last point we know because Phil had one leg on the jetty and one on the craft as it began to pull briskly away. He managed to sidestep a dunking into the swirling grey waters, but it certainly got his adrenaline pumping. For the afternoon and evening of the 21 November all khlong traffic was suspended for the Loy Krathong festival, an important and joyful festival in the Thai calendar. Cheeky children ran about letting of fire-crackers (hurting their own ears in the process) and as the full moon rose hundreds of handcrafted krathongs (little floats of banana leaves, flowers, candles and joss-sticks) were set adrift across the city’s waterways, apparently taking with them sins and bad luck and bringing good luck for the New Year.*

Since our Everest trek we had been eating for England and we revelled in the fresh, flavoursome Thai food on tap on every street and street corner. Putting the pounds back was a swift process! We shopped for Christmas presents for the family (due to come out to visit us for Christmas and early New Year) and explored Siam Square and the huge shopping malls such as the Central World Plaza (newly renovated after Red Shirt protests), the Paragon Centre and Platinum Centre. In a designer mall we were astonished to find, alongside the Gucci, Versace and Louis Vuitton, a Lamborghini and Porsche showroom, on the fourth floor. We rounded off a couple of evenings at the Cineplex watching films on the IMAX and in 3D, and eating far too much popcorn.

We then got down to the matter of sorting out the next leg of our trip - shopping for beachwear, masks and snorkels, having hair-cuts, researching beach resorts using the free Wifi in Elefin restaurant and enjoying their freshly roasted coffee, and booking our sleeper train tickets. We planned to travel super-light and were very grateful to our hotel for looking after 3/4 of our kit, and for free, saving us many dollars in storage costs. Then, leaving our umbrellas behind, we hopped across town on the sky-train and then the metro to the Hualamphong Station for our fifteen hour, 845 km train ride south and to the Andaman coast. To find out how we got on have a look at our Thai island-hopping blog. 

We’ll be returning to Bangkok in January and we’ve saved the city’s cultural sights until then, so if you’re interested in Golden Palaces and giant reclining Buddha’s watch this space………

Best wishes
Nickie


* We were shocked to learn a week later that the Bon Om Touk (Water Festival) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia ended in tragedy as pandemonium swept across a packed suspension bridge and a stampede left hundreds wounded and 353 people dead, including women and children. This annual festival marks the turning of the flow of the Tonle Sap, a major occurrence triggered when the waters in the Mekong drop at the end of the rainy season. Local people are looking for someone to take responsibility for the tragedy. The Government has admitted making numerous mistakes and is giving victims families $12,000, but no one is being held accountable.  Source: SE Asia Globe Magazine (Jan 2011).
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