Alrighty, time to find some culture and take lots of pictures of it! We are both too tired to plan anything, so we fire up Google Maps, powered by our new Thai data sim, and set off in the 30-degree heat, my new little rucksack (more on that later) filled with bottles of water to keep us going.
First impressions of Bangkok: it’s hot, sweaty, dirty and smelly. Jo loves it, the organized chaos really speaks to her.
When the traffic lights change a million cars, mopeds and tuk tuks all drive at each other, duck, weave and dodge around and everyone ends up neatly arranged on the other side like a hot, sweaty synchronized swimming team. There are no left or right channels on the pavements, people mash around each other flowing around some going fast, some going slow. Crossing the road is an experience on your nerves. You go, the cars don’t hit you. You don’t step out in front of a truck.
They say if you take the warning labels off things in England Darwin would sort out a considerably large percentage of the population. Common sense rules supreme in Thailand, why would you need to be told which way to look when you step out into the road? Don’t jump in front of cars. Problem solved.
Day 1 – Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Democracy Monument & Giant swing
The first thing we come across is Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, it’s great. Later on (you mean I’m not writing this in real time?!) we found temples mainly had ticket entry, English signs everywhere and queues, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara had none of that, just Thai people sitting at the foot of a gigantic Buddha housed in a beautiful red, white and green temple.
We walked around the beautiful white columns snapping photos then removed our shoes and walked up inside to settle on the floor with a group of locals all sitting in contemplation in the shadow of a huge golden Buddha, although with all the open space ‘inside’ is hardly the right word for it.
I read, before we left, that the Thai people practice a very pure form of Buddhism, which focuses on the individual experiencing spiritualism in their own way, and you can really feel this in the temples. There was a young man on his knees bowing to the floor in a precise, practiced ritual, there were all ages and genders sitting quietly with their hands in prayer (which later we were told is to symbolise the Lotus flower, which in itself symbolises life,) people who looked like they were on their way to work and one young teenager was texting quietly on WhatsApp.
After a long while of sitting in calm contemplation (and stealthy photos) we moved on to another building in the temple complex, past a lady who was sitting in a small shrine on her own burning incense and onto another of the larger rooms. This had another large golden Buddha and an old crazy looking guy chilling against a wall. When he saw us, he started gesticulating excitedly at a mirror at one end of the room which we, after a while of cross-language struggle, finally realized was not a mirror but a door to a little anti-chamber with a reclining Buddha. We sat there for a while, thanked the gentleman and went on our way.
We continue wandering around the cultural part of Bangkok checking out the sights, sounds and smells (mainly the soft stench of the canals) and come across the Democracy Monument. The Thais are a very colourful people and they decorate everything, the trucks, the buses, the buildings – even the roundabouts which is case in point here. This commemorates the 1932 Revolution when they set up a constitutional monarchy. It’s an interesting read if you’re interested in this history, a complete overthrow of the monarchy (which was re-instated constitutionally) and not a single life was lost. If you want more, check out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siamese_revolution_of_1932.
This was also our first real experience of Thai street food – there was a small line of food trucks parked up along the road and we followed a bunch of giggling local school girls, as we figured they would have pretty good judgement on quality of food. We continued past one of the only McDonalds we managed to find in Bangkok – no we didn’t eat there but we went inside, and it looked pretty much the same deal which was disappointing.
We then got to the Giant Swing. It was ok, it’s a big archway which if you dangle rope from it then it would be a swing. But they didn’t, so it wasn’t. Thing is, with all their sheer disregard for health and safety here, the annual singing ceremony was held at giant swings like this one until 1935 when they decided it was too unsafe. Eesh, I would have loved to see that.
Finally, we get to the Golden Mount and have a wander around below, but the flight is getting to us and we go off in search of food then bed.
Day 2 – Wat Pho, Tuk Tuking around China Town, the Golden Mount & Go Go Bars!
We wake the next day and make our way to our usual breakfast place – the lovely beat-up shack with the great food. Then the heavens open.
This isn’t tropical ‘oh, that’s nice warm rain, good thing I’ll be dry again in 10 minutes’, this isn’t England ‘Rain? That’s mist.’ This is freezing cold, hammering down downpour. We run, like the stupid tourists I’m sure we looked like, back to the hotel and grab shoes, an umbrella and rain jackets. It stopped after a couple of hours, so thankfully we decided not to risk it and went back.
Jo found an app called Tuk Tuk go, which is like Uber for Tuk Tuks, you slap in your destination and a Tuk Tuk rocks up to take you there – no haggling and damn good prices. It’s a great find because at this point neither of us are any good at haggling.
First stop, our first experience of a proper touristy template, Wat Pho (or the temple of the reclining Buddha.) We get into the ‘foreigner’ queue and shuffle through the gate into the temple grounds. Immediately we are greeted by a gentleman who wants to be our tour guide. We were quite happy looking around in temple number 1, but we figured we would give it a go. He stood us in front of a tree, hands in prayer and got us to repeat a Thai prayer with him, then spent ten minutes trying to explain the complexities of Buddhism to us: “you in circle, you matter, matter no go speed of light, you suffer, go heaven, still in circle, suffer in paradise, but free mind you no longer matter, you know what that mean? You travel faster than light!” as he spun his arms around to highlight his point. Bless him, ‘A’ for enthusiasm, but not great on the detail. We have had much better guides since then, but I think he was one of my favorite.
Anyway, we read on some plaques that Wat Pho used to be a University (I think most temples are) where
they still have scripture of early Thai herbal medicine and massage techniques which we saw hanging in a few places around the complex. I think it’s quite a big thing this temple as there were large groups of Thai children being entertained by monks and shown around the complex. We had the pre-conception that monks are rather sombre chaps who walked slowly and prayed a lot, so seeing how these guys laughed and joked with the children was incredibly fun to see – especially one young monk laughing with a Thai kid over something on a smartphone.
Oh, and it’s beautiful. The beautiful temple buildings, the little gardens scattered throughout, and the colorful trees were amazing to see.
Then it’s back to the Tuk Tuk app and on to China Town. We intentionally hopped to places far away from each other, because whanging through the Bangkok traffic was great fun – although I think the smog knocked a few years off my life.
I’m not really sure what to say about China Town, it’s more Bangkok crazy with Chinese style food and buildings. Oh, but it’s HUGE, so many alleyways filled with markets pushing out into the pavement, so people have to squish past each other to get past.
We stopped at a little Dim Sum place which was highly recommended on Trip Advisor and discovered that the ‘amazing Dim Sum you can only try in Asia’ is just as good as the ‘amazing Dim Sum you can only try on the Lotus Flower in Canary Wharf.’ London has spoiled us – but in a good ‘mmmm food’ kind of way.
Back on the Tuk Tuk and it’s a quick trip around the Throne Hall, King Rama V Monument and the Marble Temple – all very beautiful.
Our time on the app comes to an end (it’s a per-day thing) and we re-attempt to climb the Golden Mount (Wat Sraket), and it’s very much worth it. We wind our way up the stairs looking at the beautiful Bangkok scenery below, the golden temples shining out across the grimy Bangkok rooftops, backed by modern skyscrapers reaching up in the distance.
Something starts happening below, a procession of monks and brightly dressed people start assembling at a small temple across the road from the Mount. We watch idly as the procession starts walking down the street, and then right up the stairs leading up the Mount. People start quietly filtering into the square at the top of the mount and taking their seats, first a long line of Monks, then young women with golden headdresses, then people dressed in white. We start to feel a bit in the way (by the fact that as it fills up with people we are, quite obviously, in the way) so we leave before the event kicks off, but the run up is beautiful.
We have a little energy left, after finally having slept an 8-hour night, and after much persuading Jo agrees to see something different in Bangkok. My good friend recommended Soi Cowboy as the place to see Go-go bars as it is the least-aggressive and you can really take in the sights and sounds (um…) of the area. He was not wrong – I only got groped by a lady-boy once.
We stopped in one bar and much to Jo’s disappointment they didn’t let us take photographs, but we had a drink anyway and watched a small line of ladies dancing on poles (the metal type, not Jo’s native-people type.) Jo points out that they aren’t really that great at dancing, I point out ‘boobies’.
Jo then drags (pun intended) me into a lady-boy bar to compare and contrast the dancing styles, but they tell us we have to buy one of the dancers a drink and it’s a bit pricey considering. I kind of regret that we didn’t as Jo’s ability to get people to open up and talk would have been fascinating in this situation.
Day 3 – The River, Flower Market & The Temple of Dawn
Last full day in Bangkok and we decide to take the boat down the river. Thanks to a lovely couple we avoid
the 100 bhat tourist boat and hop on the 15 bhat commuter boat. Just like the roads, the river is chaos. There is a guy hopping wildly on and off the boat to tie it to the shore as people get on and he has this little kazoo whistle which he uses to give a series of toots and whistles meaning different things for the driver ‘back a bit’ ‘forward a bit’ ‘the last person is almost pretty much on the boat so let’s go and let them almost fall in’.
The river is beautiful, and a great way to see the city. Ok, not the river itself, that’s kind of gross but the buildings and temples on the banks of the river are beautiful.
You can see the place change as you start in the Old Town, with shanty houses and temples lining the sides but as we get towards the New Town there are sky scrapers, offices, and a massive high-end shopping centre (aptly named River City.) The people change too, the further down the river we go there are more suits and business people going about their daily lives.
We get off the boat at Central Pier and go for an explore. This is real Bangkok, there are people everywhere, huge strings of electrical wiring obscuring the view and boutique shops. It’s still crazy, just crazy with more polish. We go for a walk down the river and come across the catholic ‘bit’ and the Islamic ‘bit’ right next door to each other and make our way down tiny back-streets smelling fantastic street food.
It’s boiling hot and around about this point we both start to dehydrate so go in search of café – which we eventually find in River City, which is a high-end air-conditioned shopping centre. We stumble into the beautifully cool air conditioning past the concierge desk staffed by smartly dressed women and make a beeline for the café at the end. The cold air gives us a few minutes from the dehydration and we do check out a few of the high-end shops on our way, including one devoted to selling elephant models in all kinds of shapes and sizes. The café is pretty much a Costa with Costa prices, so we get giant cups of coffee and a bottle of water, which is tiny and really pricey, so I face down the scolds of the baristas and refill our bottles with the free jug of water on the side.
Back on the boat and we make our way down to the flower market. Just when you think you’ve seen all the colours Bangkok has to offer, it gives you more. The stalls are fantastic – each has hundreds of brightly coloured flowers spilling off the wooden tables, or hanging from the ceiling in bags, fruits in neat packaging. Jo manages to snaffle a free sample of fruit from a tour guide (not ours!) and we get to taste papaya and pomelo. Everyone is really friendly, and Jo snaps dozens of pictures of the stall holders going about their day, crates on trollys being pushed up and down the isles and a quiet chatter of people making transactions.
That’s something that is very Thai – people are very quiet here. Where the roads are crazy, no one is leaning
on their horn and in the markets, no one is shouting – just quietly doing business, the hustle and bustle audible but not offensive.
Jo spots an old lady drinking a shiny can of coke, she looks like she’s about a hundred and five so Jo nicely goes up and asks if she can take a picture. The lady quickly loses the can of coke and pics up a cigarette, leaning on a barrel to look cool. Awesome 😊
We stop for a quick lunch from a street vendor (which turns out to be one of the best dishes we’ve had on the trip so far, and we ate it on a grubby market curb) and head back to the boat to go to the Temple of Dawn.
It’s magnificent, one of Jo’s favourite. She goes into proper tourist meltdown and takes pictures of everything. I’m running behind like a sidekick juggling mobile phones, selfie sticks and the camera as she tries to get the best shots. I’ll let the pictures speak for the Temple of Dawn, as there are enough of them!
Khao San Road
We grab the boat back to Old Town and go in search of food. Jo wants to see Khao San road, but I politely
inform her that that’s ok, but if I don’t get fed in the next few minutes I’ll be taking her arm for dinner – so we stop on a street market / roundabout for some food. We wind our way down the stalls, weaving in and out of the hippy backpackers (for this is the tourist centre) sampling the food. We discover overly-hot green curry isn’t just an English thing. We risk the potential toilet nightmare of a mixed fruit smoothie with ice and it’s totally worth it (didn’t get ill and it was fantastic.) Satisfied we go on a trek for the famous Khao San, taking great little backstreets until
we regurgitate into….the worst place in the world. Oh my god is it awful. The loud thumping music from the bars mixes together badly to create a cacophony of bass-lines and auto-tune. There are people everywhere, few of them Thai, even less sober. Street sellers are pushing fried insects, bad sunglasses and little box things that turns your mobile phone screen into a slightly larger phone screen, so you can watch football. We fight our way to the end of the road and find a much quieter street nearby were we stop for a massage.
I had a colleague at my old job called Mike – Mike is great, he handles dogs (this bit is important) and has a great sense of humor. Mike learned how to massage from his work with dogs – when Mike gives you a massage it is both the most painful and most serene thing you could experience. I think Mike learned from the Thai. An hour of rough elbowing in the back, punching on the shoulders and one moment where this 4 ft nothing old Thai lady grabs my arms behind me, kicks her feet into my back and pulls me in half backwards and my back feels like it’s floating on air. It’s the best feeling in the world, all of the tension that’s been building over the months is gone and I don’t have a care in the world.
We stopped at a roof bar for a couple of beers before bed, and listened to a guy play guitar with the trendy Thai crowd.
And that’s a great place to leave this monster blog post – if you made it this far well done, and I’ll see you on the next post!