It has been over a month since we returned from our Big Adventure and two months since we were in Bangkok. Despite this we still wanted to post this missing blog post. Part of this was written while in Bangkok and some as we left Thailand for Malaysia. It seemed a bit of a waste not to fill in the gaps and complete the story of our adventure. Most of the story was written by Vicki with just a few edits from me.
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Travel Dates: 4th – 7th November 2013
Day 1: Please let us in!
We arrived in Bangkok with no delays and having successfully negotiated the taxi queue were soon heading into Bangkok. We spent most of the drive being confused, after the driver asked us to pay a toll and then hung on to then change…we hoped that this was because there was another toll ahead, but the cynical part of us was thinking that he was trying to rip us off. As it happened, he wasn’t trying to steal our money, and we arrived outside our hostel having paid a reasonable fare.
The next challenge was to check in. We found the hostel, The Smile Society, with no problem, but then faced the issue of their being no one at the reception desk. Getting to the reception wasn’t easy either as the door was locked and we had to sneak into the hostel when someone opened the door to come out. We had chosen this hostel based on it’s good reviews on TripAdvisor, and so weren’t impressed with this start. Having waited about 20 minutes, and rung every “ring here for attention” buzzer we could find, Rich eventually found a suitable number and phoned the owner, just at the moment that a member of staff appeared. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak English and couldn’t check us in, but was able to at least give us a key to the room so that we could drop our luggage off and settle in. The owner told us to wait 20 minutes and she would check us in, but after an hour we gave up and headed out for some lunch. It was then that we found the owner in reception, having been side tracked by other problems. However, check in was relatively simple, and she was able to give us lots of information about what to see and how to get there. She also helpfully provided a long list of scams used in Bangkok that we should avoid – this didn’t fill us with confidence!
Having waited around for the owner, we were now ravenously hungry and so headed out for some noodles. Bangkok was such a complete contrast to Siem Reap that at first it was quite overwhelming – so many people, motorbikes, tuk tuks and taxis everywhere! Our road was particularly busy – the pavements were in many parts impassable due to all the various carts selling food, clothes and tourist tat. It was great to be somewhere lively, but it did take a bit of getting used to.
Our hostel was one street away from one of the red light district roads – Patpong. It now has a night market to lure more tourists, but is first and foremost an area where there was once only one thing on the agenda. I was surprised how open it was. We were walking down the street that has the market on, and looking left I could buy watches and sunglasses, and looking right, I was looking straight into a bar with women in very little gyrating around a pole. There were many people keen for us to go into these bars and see a “ping-pong show” – said quickly it sounds like “pink poncho” which is much more innocuous.
The street next to the market was a little bit more creepy. Every shop has a row of very dressed up ladies sat outside on little stools who call to you as you walk past. I guess it is like window shopping – all the goods are on display so you can choose who you would like to share your evening with. However, despite all of this going on, the area itself felt very safe, not at all threatening and intriguing in a weird sort of way!
Having explored the area around our hotel and not really wanting to experience any the offerings, we headed downtown via the skytrain (like a subway but up in the air, kind of like a monorail) to do some more exploring. The area round the Central Pier stop wasn’t that appealing, seemingly to be an area for drunks to crash out and big dogs to run around barking, but once we got a few streets away things improved, and we found a little beer stop in the corner of a food court, enticingly called “Beer Corner”. Having had a late lunch we passed on the food, but sat in Beer Corner listening to a band and just soaking up the atmosphere.
A little while later we decided we should explore some more, but every way we turned seemed to lead us into dark deserted and smelly backstreets and so we gave up and started to make our way back to the hostel. It was then that we ran into a nice little pizza place attached to another hostel. Another beer and a pizza and we were ready to hit the hay, and so we skytrain-ed it back to our end of Bangkok.
Day 2: So much bling!
The next morning, after a carb heavy complimentary breakfast served in a side room where we had to climb over disused exercise equipment, luggage and hotel maintenance equipment to find a seat, we were ready to hit the main sites. First up was the Royal Palace, in the west of Bangkok. It is a transport black hole, with the best way to get there being a boat, and so that is what we did. There are various types of boats, each stopping in different places and costing different amounts – confusing is not the word. We opted for the tourist boat, which stopped at only the main sites, and cost 40bht (less than £1). It felt like most of the tourists in Bangkok had also decided to get this boat, as they kept cramming people on, despite everyone being like sardines already. Luckily Rich had bagged a spot next to the railings so we got a nice breeze and view as we went along, otherwise it would not have been a pleasant journey.
The Royal Palace is the top attraction in Bangkok, and as such there are a myriad of scams surrounding it, such as tuk-tuk drivers telling tourists that it is closed for a special day, offering to take them around the other sites and instead taking them to all the shops they get commission at. The Palace is also one of the only places that you need long trousers and covered arms, and despite clothing being rented for free inside, there are lots of clothes sellers outside the gate, tutting at tourists bare flesh in a bid to scare them into buying cover ups.
After zipping back on the bottoms of our trousers we headed into the palace. The main attraction is the Emerald Buddha, and it is housed in a spectacular complex, possibly one of the most bling temples we have ever seen. Everywhere you looked there was gold, shiny glass and amazingly decorated statues.
We then headed over to check out a reclining Buddha at Wat Po. It is 47m long at 15m high. It has a surprise in its feet, where there are 108 images carved into the soles and inlaid with Mother of Pearl – absolutely stunning.
Here again, covering up is mandatory. I was very relieved to have brought the correct clothing. The alternative was a think canvas robe covering you from head to foot. Given that I was roasting in trousers and T shirt, I’m not I would have coped in the smock!
The Wat Po complex has a really good collection of other temples and stupas, including some funky guards.
By this time, we realised that again we had missed lunch. We still had one more temple on this list for the day, on the opposite side of the river. To kill two birds with one stone we picked up pork balls, spring rolls and mango and then munched away as we hopped on the very cheap (6p) cross river ferry to Wat Arun.
The Wat is an older style Wat, made of stone, and undecorated, which was a nice change from some of the very glitzy Wats of earlier in the day. You can also climb up the Wat to get a view across Bangkok. Never one to miss a climbing opportunity, Rich was straight in there. I went to halfway, but the scramble the rest of the temple was too much for my little legs so I volunteered to stay and guard the halfway point.
By this point we were getting a bit hot and grumpy so we decided to head back. We had arranged to meet some of the people from our Cambodia trip that night for a sunset drink, and so headed back to relax before heading out again. We hopped back across the river, and on seeing the queue for the boat back to where we caught it that morning, we opted for a taxi. Remembering our hostel’s advice on only using metered taxis, we tried to find one. I think we tried about 5 before in the end before negotiations which a security guard from a nearby Wat joined in with resulted in a non-metered taxi ride. They are all against the meter (including the security guard). We think it is because they get paid by the distance rather than the time, so if they get stuck in traffic, they get nothing extra for the trouble. Resigning ourselves to the fact that all the taxi drivers were on to this fiddle, we negotiated one down to a reasonable price of £3 (I’m sure we were still getting ripped off though compared to the meter) and hopped in. Bangkok traffic is terrible – made even worse by the daily anti-amnesty protests happening in the west of the city. It must of taken at least 45 minutes, but it was air conditioned and so we didn’t mind too much!
A quick turnaround saw us back on the street in about 15 minutes, ready to head off for drinks. We were heading for the SkyBar in the tallest tower in Bangkok, Baiyoke II. We were aiming for sunset, but the Bangkok traffic was against us. As it happened, the smog is such that I don’t think we would have seen much of a sunset as the sun just disappeared into the haze.
We met up with some of the Cambodian group at the bottom of the tower and made our way up, stopping for the obligatory group photo on the way. As part of the entrance ticket a free drink at the 83rd floor bar was included, and most of the group were more keen for this than the view.
After checking out the view on the revolving deck (very disconcerting, as it moves around the central column of the building) we headed out for dinner. As usual when with a big group, trying to get a decision on dinner was like trying to herd cats. In the end we settled on a restaurant at the side of a lobby of a hotel – very strange to be sat there eating dinner whilst looking at the reception desk!
We then decided to head over to the other group’s hotel, so that we could check out another area. This involved taxis, and given our lack of success earlier in the day we didn’t hold out much hope of finding a metered one. Apparently, by law, the taxi drivers have to take you by the meter if you ask, and there was even a sign saying this at the tower we visited. We took a photo to try and convince taxi drivers, but even once you had shown them the notice, they would either refuse to take you at all, or refuse on the meter. There is an email address to send the details of taxi drivers who do this to and they will be fined. We didn’t report any as we weren’t feeling that cruel. We should probably have done so though as something needs to be done about the Bangkok taxi Mafia.
Eventually we got (unmetered) taxis and made it back to Khao San road (a big backpacker area), and found a pub for drink. What started out as “just a couple” ended up as “quite a few” and we eventually got a taxi back across Bangkok about 1am. It was good to see our Cambodian group again, and plans were made for Roar to come over in February to run the Valentines 10k, and we are to head to Oslo at some point to run with him – a good way to see a new city!
Day 3: These shoes were made for walking
After a somewhat late night the previous night, the morning got off to a slower than normal start. We had a walking tour listed in our book covering the downtown area, and so that’s where we started, looking at the variety of different styles coexisting side by side with modern skyscrapers.
Whilst we were on the walk, we were offered a boat trip in one of the little long boats that putter up and down the river. As we had thought about doing one, and we managed to haggle the driver down to below half his starting price, we decided to go for it. It was fun to see the scenery from a different angle, and was certainly interesting to go through a lock with all of the other boats!
Although we didn’t get to see much of a floating market (I think we were too late in the morning) the houses next to the river were very interesting – particularly how they were still standing and not floating away in pieces down the river.
On the way back our driver decided he didn’t want to take us back to where we agreed and rather unceremoniously dumped us at one of the other piers. Apparently here there was a landing fee, but as we didn’t want to be there, and were planning on getting a boat straight out again, Rich opted not to pay, and decided instead to have a stand up argument with the fee-collector. After a while the man relented, and spent the rest of the time whilst we waited for the boat to take us to where we wanted to go glaring at Rich. We are still not sure whether it was a scam or not – he only seemed to ask certain people for money – but either way I was happy to leave, having been standing around nervously waiting for the Thai police to turn up and arrest Rich for non-payment of tolls!
Lunch was held in a shopping centre food court – every possible type of food you could ever want was there, and as a change we opted for Turkish and Mexican, which was very nice, and after a morning outside we certainly appreciated the air conditioning.
Our site-seeing for the afternoon was the Jim Thompson house (for some reason every time I say it, it comes out as Jim Robinson, as in, the guy from Neighbours) – a collection of bamboo houses and accumulated possessions of an American chap who moved to Thailand after the second world war and resurrected the Thai silk industry. He went missing in Malaysia in suspicious circumstances (some people suggest CIA involvement) in the 1950’s but a trust set up in his name now runs the house as a museum, with guided tours. We both found it very interesting and were amused to watch the poor guide tearing her hair out at our Chinese/Korean tour group mates who insisted on trying to touch all the museum pieces!
After a quick rest we headed out for dinner to the Chinatown area. An interesting walk down some dark alleys lead us to consider running away home but pushing on was worthwhile. We spent the evening eating squid on sticks, some delicious pork and rice, and some HUGE prawns, which whilst very messy to eat, were delicious!
A hair raising tuk-tuk ride, in which at times had both Rich and I were gripping the rails in fear with our eyes closed, brought us back to the area of our hostel, by which time it had started to rain. In typical South East Asian fashion, no sooner had it started to spit then the heavens opened and the sky fell in. We took shelter in the Patpong night market, watching with interest and amusement as the stall holder tried to put up their rain covers, and create drainage channels for the torrential downpour to flow away. It completely distracted us from the market – watching the stall holders was much more fun.
Our final full day in Bangkok started with a run around a park. Lumphini park was at the bottom of our road, and was full of all sorts of people doing tai chi, running, chatting and any combination of activities. Despite being early in the morning, it was still and hot sweaty and after 5km we had covered pretty much every inch of the park and were ready for breakfast.
Due to a cancelled train our stay in Bangkok was extended one night. As our hostel couldn’t keep us in the same room we made the decision to change hotels, and moved to one across the city, closer to the airport, and closer to our evening activity – a bike tour. Our taxi driver was reluctant to travel across the city due to the protesters blocking roads. We still hadn’t seem any protests so were sceptical about this excuse.
Getting to the other side of the city we realised there were in fact many protestors around. We were very lucky that when we were in Bangkok, the protests against the government and the amnesty bill were peaceful, and seemed to mainly consist of lots of people (mainly police) standing around barricades in the baking heat waiting for something to happen. This has changed drastically in the last few weeks, and we are grateful that we were able to see Bangkok in more peaceful times. Hopefully the conflict will be resolved quickly, without too much destruction or bloodshed.
Another advantage of moving hotels was that we got to see and explore another area of the city without lots of lengthy metro trips. Our destination for the day was Dusit. This the the government area and heavily guarded by police against the protestors. We didn’t think we would be able to get to any of the sights we wanted to see but it turned out that the police were quite happy for us to wander in and out of their barricades.
Once through the barricades we visited the Viamanmek Mansion, a teak palace. This was included on our ticket from the palaces from two days ago. We weren’t quite sure what was included in our ticket and it turned out nearly everything was. We toured the teak palace and the adjacent throne palace. The first was like a National Trust property and the second more akin to Buckingham palace. There were many other exhibitions that we could also have seen but were toursisted out by then. The other benefit of new hotel was calling by this time – a swimming pool, which although a little on the cold side, was very refreshing.
That evening we had planned to do a Bangkok by night bike tour. There was only one problem with this: our hotel was on one side of independence square (where all the protests were happening) and the bike tour was on the other. Luckily we fought our way across just in time for the tour, and spent the next 3 hours riding round the back streets of Bangkok, even taking our bikes on the ferry! It was a bit of a shame that it started tipping down about an hour in, as visiting the flower market would have been much more fun if we weren’t dodging the drips. Our guide was kind enough to head off and get us rain covers though so Vicki finally got her Pink Poncho. Seeing Wat Arun and Wat Po by night still made it a worthwhile trip and a fun way to tour the city.
Whilst we were completely soaking after the tour, we decided that it would be too much of a waste of time to head back and change and so we headed straight out for dinner on Khao san road. For me, having heard so much about the street, it was a bit of a disappointment, as it just seemed to be bar after bar selling cheap beer to get the backpackers drunk, and lots of massage parlours with dodgy looking offerings. We found a dry outdoor table at a restaurant on the adjacent street where it was a little less chaotic. We recovered from the cycle with a few drinks and our final Bangkok meal.