Fabulous and Fabled sights in Thailand
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Where I stayed
Baan Soontree Hotel
After relaxing in the sun we moved on to Bangkok and suddenly there is so much to see and do that if I don't write it up now I know I shall forget.
The coach from Koh Samui travelled through the night and we arrived at Bangkok new coach station at 6am. There seems to be a policy in South East Asia to build new bus stations miles from the town they serve which means it is a challenge to get to the accommodation, but in Bangkok it was more of a challenge than usual. None of the signs had any English and of course Thai has a totally different script. We asked for the bus and someone lead us across the huge concourse from one side to the other, which was very kind, but then he discovered there wasn't a bus (or not one recommended for us?), so back we went, cases towed behind
We were off – for all of 30 seconds. He pulled out of the concourse and said 'toll?', to which we didn't have an answer so tried to say whatever you think but he understood no English and our Thai is non existent. Two seconds later he pulled over to where another road joined the service road, tucked in to the side and parked. I thought he was going to look at a map or call someone but he sat looking into space. We stayed like this for at least 5 minutes. I tried to see from his eyes if he was on something but I didn't think so – he just seemed to have switched off, his mind as well as the engine. At this point Jim started getting fidgety and saying, 'ask him why we're here, ask him why we're here.' Why I could ask any more than he could is unclear, but as the driver was clearly on the edge of a nervous breakdown I thought it risky to ask such a profound question anyway. We sat a few more minutes and then I tapped the case on the front seat and pointed back to the bus terminal
Although the traffic is horrendous the air is amazingly clean and it seems most vehicles and certainly all taxis use LPG. The LPG tank is in the boot so only a small case can fit in there and the large case takes place of honour next to the driver.
On our first day we took the Sky train to the river and bought a hop-on-hop-off boat ticket as most of the interesting buildings are along the river. We went to the Grand Palace, which is really a large complex of structures, all of which are worth visiting. Around some buildings are covered corridors similar to cloisters, but providing more shade, and along all of these are intricate and comprehensive murals telling stories from Hindu and Buddhist teachings. There are Buddhas everywhere, of all sizes, reclining or sitting, and even one of emerald. The temples and halls are elaborately decorated. I don't know enough to know if the different decorations have specific meanings, but I do know there are different styles from various historic periods and ethnic groups. So Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Thai and Indian all have their own styles and influences. Our ticket was also valid for the Regalia Museum which displays artefacts of high office as well as personal objects such as the Royal betel nut bowls, spittoons, pipes, silver dishes etc. Thai society was highly ritualised and used possessions to reflect status and ritual. With the ticket we received another ticket to something called the Vimnanek Mansion which we saved for another day
Because of the size and complexity of Bangkok we decided to book a tourist excursion for the next day to the floating market, Rose Garden, and Thai village. The floating market is a visual joy, the boats, vegetables, fruits, food sellers, riverside stalls – it is full of colour and movement - really not to be missed.
We then moved on in the minibus but became confused as some people were going to a snake show, others to an elephant show, or to see crocodiles etc. Very little information is provided and when it is we don't usually understand the English. On the Tesol (Teaching English as a second language course) we were told that most people are learning it in order to communicate with other non native speakers. How true that is! English is used as the common language here and people from the different Asian countries seem to understand each others' English, but we can't, not sure why.
Anyway, everything became clear eventually when we arrived at a large entertainment park that housed all the different shows and a replica Thai village. I wandered about for a while looking for the Rose Garden and then managed to embarrass myself by asking a little Thai lady where it was. She studied me closely, obviously to see if I was showing other signs of mental illness and then said very gently, (and using her arms in an all encompassing movement), 'this is the Rose Garden'. I felt like saying, 'I knew, just testing' and I had thought it was a little too hot for roses here anyway. I had not been able to read the Thai sign at the entrance.
We felt we should use up the ticket for the Mansion on our last day so took a taxi as it was off the public transport route. The taxis are really good value in Bangkok. The Mansion is the largest (gold) teak building in the world. It was built for a king as a palace but was never used as the king died shortly after it was finished. After falling into disrepair it has been restored by the present Queen. It is one of the loveliest buildings I have visited, big but with a homely feel, beautifully furnished and decorated but comfortable and welcoming and not too formal. Unfortunately all bags/cameras had to be left in lockers elsewhere so no photographs.
With the same ticket (it was a really good buy) we could visit two other buildings, a throne room and a superb building housing exhibits created for the Queen's Support Foundation. The present Queen was concerned about rural poverty so established a charity to help farmers achieve additional income from craft work and to protect traditional crafts. Again photographs were not allowed but the creations were spellbinding. For example there were gold filigree thrones and ships decorated with beetle wings. The wings are a vivid dark green colour and shine and reflect light like mother of pearl. The beetles have to die a natural death for the colour to remain true. I can't imagine how they manage to gather so many wings, as some objects must have thousands integrated into the design. Other crafts included wood carvings of giant panels illustrating lotus flowers and ponds, and embroidery so fine it looked like delicate water colour paintings. So all in all the £7 tickets for the Grand Palace proved a very good buy.
We also managed to visit the Vietnamese Embassy and obtain visas for September
Leaving Bangkok at 8am on the bus we travelled for eleven hours up to Chiang Rai in the far north of Thailand, and are staying three nights, just long enough to visit some sights. We took a trip with a car and driver to the Hill Tribes villages (resembles American Indian reservations), the Golden Triangle, (where Thailand borders Myanmar and Laos), an opium museum, a very old Wat and the new White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). Looking across to Myanmar a large town extends from the border, whereas there is very little to see apart from countryside across the Mekong River into Laos.
There are a number of Hill Tribes in the area most of whom have moved south from China and Burma over the years, but they try to retain their own cultures. They were also heavily involved in the production of opium so the government is trying to find alternative employment without breaking up the communities. It was especially interesting to see the little school in the Long Neck village where the teacher called us in, and as we walked around the villages we saw only one other couple visiting.
The White Temple is an unbelievable sight, designed to incorporate pieces of glass in such a way that when the sun shines it looks as if it is made of ice. Contemporary cultural icons, both real (Bush, Bin Laden etc) and fictionary (Batman, Spiderman) are used to illustrate the battle between good and evil. There is a life size predator half buried in the grass and heads hanging from trees. It really is an extraordinary place.
Unlike the Balinese temples, which were often gloomy because of the dark or black stone and concrete used in their construction, the Thai temples are colourful and chaotic in design. We don't know enough about Hindu or Buddhist traditions to understand the relevance of symbols or deities. The temples and palaces have certain things in common, usually having a structure which houses bells or drums, at least one Buddha in a large hall and usually guardians at the entrances. Apart from that they are very different in finish, sometimes relatively simply decorated (especially the older ones), at others they have a touch of Gaudi about them (to be honest some have huge dollops of Gaudi!), and in places there is an almost Disneylike feel. But Thai people treat them all with great respect even when they pass them on the bus.
Tomorrow (25th August) we return to Bangkok before taking the train to the border with Cambodia. It is necessary to walk across the border and then try to find transport onwards to Siem Reap (to visit Angkor Wat), a two hour journey. Hopefully we will find a taxi.