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Trip Start Nov 22, 2011
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Trip End May 13, 2012


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Flag of Thailand  ,
Thursday, March 8, 2012

Considering the toil and toll it took to get there, I am happy to report that we had an excellent week in Thailand's capital Krung Thep – City of Angels, or Bangkok, to you and me. After a whizz around the super-modern tube network to check in at our hostel, we bought a bag of much-needed Beer Chang’s, joined our fellow travellers on the fantastic rooftop beer garden, and steadily worked our way through said alcohol. Needless to say chat soon turned to our bus crash of a couple of days previously; it’s a hard thing to skirt around when people ask "So where have you just come from?", plus I think my ear being swollen to roughly the size of a Ford Ka was a bit of a giveaway. Reactions varied from the nonplussed to an American imploring us to fly straight home and head to the psychiatrist’s (he may have had a point), though the most common reaction was “Wow, Christ…err, don’t tell my friend about that eh, we’re getting the bus to Cambodia tomorrow”. On a side note, culturally it intrigued me that not a single local, on either side of the border, showed even a hint of surprise about our crash; instead the reaction was a uniform grin and “Ah, you so lucky” which, despite being true in hindsight, was a tad strange to be told ten minutes after the crash when leaking and surrounded by mayhem. I guess it just shows how used people have become to killer roads, but it still felt a bit odd to me anyway. In truth it took a few days to get going again properly in Bangkok as we were still in a bad way, with aching bodies and racing minds, and the unbelievable temptation of flights to London every few hours so nearby.

                                                                                                                                                           

We tried to keep busy though, and in the morning set out to the massive Chatuchak weekend market. Unfortunately I was incapable of putting 2 and 2 together and reasoning that, it being a Friday, this wasn’t really going to happen, so we had a walk around the nearby park instead before tubing over to Bangkok’s electronics mall Pantip Plaza in search of replacement laptops, ours having seen seriously better days. And it was ginormous; five floors of laptops, tablets, TVs, MP3 players and anything else with a plug, and plenty of bargains to be had, though not as many knockoffs as I was expecting. In the evening we crossed over our road to the famous Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, the modern home of Muay Thai Boxing, which as far as I could tell essentially consists of kneeing the other guy in stomach and ribs as much as possible over 5 rounds.  I’m sure there was more to it than that, and there were a few kicks and punches flying about, but it mostly just looked painful as opposed to overly violent…oh, until that one boxer took an elbow to the face and hit the deck in a bloody heap. The locals didn’t really seem to care too much about the actual boxing though, much more interested instead on the gambling aspect, bets being placed via a truly bewildering array of hand movements aimed all over the place. In fact the place was really quite quiet until the third or fourth round of a fight, when punters started backing whoever was on top at that point in time and roaring them on thereafter – must be a bit demoralising for the other guy. Unsurprisingly the confusing betting system apparently leads to frequent arguments and bonus fights outside the ring, so now there are armed Military Police in place to break up any trouble. Good thing we weren’t betting anyway; never mind predicting the winner, after several of the bouts we were still left stumped by the outcome.

Saturday yielded a return to Chatuchak, a market on such a ridiculous scale I think my expecting it be open every day is forgivable; it really is the size of a small village, to the extent of detailed maps around the place. Needless to say we were repeatedly lost and I don’t think we got to a quarter of the stalls, but it was a fascinating mixture of the bric-a-brac and the bizarre. And also the truly awful, with hordes of screaming girls going mad for an 8-piece band that was performing precisely 3% of each song live (I’m giving the drummer his cymbal hits, you can’t exactly silence those). As I write this, in Malaysia now, a 3-piece band has just started up at the bar I’m sat in. They sound so good I was about to launch in to a tirade about the many mimed/awful performances I’ve seen across Asia, having sat in many a bar in Thailand wondering if I’m watching something different to the contented masses, but after a good stare at their hands and mouths for the last five minutes I’m fairly sure they’re just amazing (albeit drowning in reverb and with the obligatory shocking backing drum track). Not 100% sure though, I may be being conned by some pros. I’ll let you know. Back to the past though, and after a chill out sesh to calm down from all that retail therapy we headed to Silom for one of those famous Bangkok nights out. To be completely honest, the plan was to watch the football, get plastered, and brave the notoriously seedy street of Soi Patpong. We clearly didn’t drink enough though, which I’ll put down to the dismal results of both our teams, and turning up close to the surprisingly early enforced closing time of 1am our Dutch courage failed us; after a couple of truly eye opening lengths of the street, and more propositions than your local planning authority gets in a year, we well and truly bottled it.

Back to the sightseeing circuit then after a few weeks teaching and successfully not dying, and we kicked it off in trademark style with a visit to Thailand’s interesting National Museum – more coherent than Laos’s ragbag, but with more variance then Cambodia’s ('here’s some stuff we nicked from Angkor’) or Vietnam’s (‘communism is brilliant, honest’). Highlights included the unquestionably red Red House, and the 14 tonne, crazily elaborate royal funeral chariots. We then moved on to Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha due to the huge 43m long prostrate Buddha statue housed in one of the buildings in this large complex, which contains over 1000 Buddha images and is also apparently the home of traditional Thai massage. I should probably say that it’s taken me a long time and a fair amount of reading to get my head around Buddhism, and I’m definitely not there yet, despite the dozens of temples we’ve visited. But what I have learnt is that, contrary perhaps to some non-Buddhists perceptions, Buddha is not a God. ‘Buddha’ generally refers to Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, the spiritual leader whose teaching founded Buddhism, but ‘Buddhahood’ is the state of perfect enlightenment (awakening/attaining Bodhi/reaching Nirvana). Indeed, Buddhism differs from other major religions through its non-insistence on a creative omniscient power, although Buddhists do believe in higher realms, called Devas. These though are not immortal, and are trapped in the same suffering cycle of birth and death (samsara) that Buddhists believe all sentient beings to be in until enlightenment, only attainable from the Human domain we are all currently in, is reached. This is despite the Human domain being ‘lower’ than the God and Jealous God domains, though higher than the Animal, the Hungry Ghost and the Hell spheres. Movement between these six domains is governed by the concept of Karma, essentially that intentions now lead to corresponding results in this life or a future rebirth. Pfft. I don’t think I’ve explained that very well, but my head hurts a bit now, so I’ll have to leave it there.

On Monday 5th we caught a cab down to the Grand Palace compound, home of the Thai monarchy (and previously the King of Siam) since 1782, and also home to a quite staggering number of beautiful buildings. Interestingly (perhaps) current King Rama IX is the world’s longest-serving head of state at over 65 years, ahead of our own Liz. Absolute monarchy was ended in 1932, so his power is limited, but he is highly revered, mostly for managing to keep a semblance of peace and order despite presiding over 15 coups, 16 different constitutions and 27 Prime Ministers. Alongside the dozens of royal and state buildings, both historic and operative, sits the most sacred Buddhist temple in the country; Wat Phra Kaew, or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This Wat proudly hosts a 46cm tall figurine of the sitting Buddha, actually made of green jade not emerald, that is considered the palladium of the Kingdom of Thailand, or in other words an image on which the country’s safety depends. Legend has it that the statue has spent much of the last 2000 years circulating Asia; it was supposedly created in India in 43BC, taken to Sri Lanka in the 300s to save it from civil war, given to the Burmese to encourage Buddhism in 457, lost on the journey there and landed in Cambodia instead, captured by the Thai’s in 1432, and thereafter variously transported, misplaced and pillaged around Laos and Thailand through boundary changes and wars before it finally ended up in its current home in 1784, where it’s probably enjoying a break from all those visa fees. The statue is also fascinatingly dressed in one of three gold garments throughout the year corresponding to Thailand’s summer, rainy and cool seasons, and the entry etiquette and dress code to see the statue itself are stricter than any other temple we’ve visited. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to enter any of the royal palaces themselves, with visiting confined mostly to the religious buildings in the complex, and so after these we crossed the river to visit another of Bangkok’s most important temples, Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn. With the central stupa of this pagoda towering at about 80m high, and the structure sat on the edge of Bangkok’s main waterway, this is a very attractive structure. Climbing the ridiculously steep steps to the balcony level was a bit killer, but afforded great views over to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho as well as the city’s high-rises in the CBD. In the morning we had moved to a new hotel, the Danish-run New Road Guesthouse, and this it turned out was a very good shout. After a shower and rest from the heat of another long day sightseeing, we ended up on slightly mad, very boozy, but thoroughly enjoyable night out with the Thai hotel staff and a bunch of Danish backpackers.

A monumental hangover dragged well in to the next afternoon, putting an end to any plans for the day, but come evening we decided it shouldn’t be a total write-off, donned trousers and shirts, and went out…to another bar. Not just any old bar though, the Sky Bar at State Tower hangs off the edge of Thailand’s 3rd tallest building, providing the somewhat unnerving experience of drinking in the open air a quarter of a kilometre up – fittingly, given the lingering pounding heads from the night before, this is the rooftop bar featured in the film The Hangover Part II. (By the way, the band I’m watching has just affirmed their authenticity with an impromptu version of Happy Birthday, in both Thai and English, followed by a slightly peculiar ragtime rendition of Your Song – I liked it). Having seen most of Bangkok’s major sites we took it easy again the next day, indulging in some retail therapy at the colossal MBK shopping centre, before satisfying our burgeoning bowling habit and catching a cheap film, where we were caught unawares by having to stand for the National Anthem played after the trailers. Unbelievably, and I’m still not sure why, we got drinking with another group of Danes back at the hostel and embarked on a second crazy night out on Bangkok’s hedonistic Khao San road. And so we finished up our time in the nation’s capital with another pounding morning hangover as we caught the tube to the airport for a flight to the next stop on our grand tour.
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