|December 7, 2009
We had a nice quiet morning today, getting up a little later than we have been and taking a leisurely stroll into the centre to get some breakfast. It already felt hotter today than it had most days in Cambodia. We were quite glad it hadn’t been this hot as we had a couple of pretty sweaty days in Phnom Penh as it was!
We had arranged for our tuk-tuk driver to pick us up about 11am and he was yet again on time. The drive to the airport took about 20 minutes and it was really pleasant with the breeze blowing through the open vehicle.
Once we were checked in and had rid of our luggage, it was a nice relief to get sat down and relax for a while. Or it would have been. Siem Reap airport does not have any air-con or any type of fans in their brand sparkly new, glass-exterior terminal which creates a nice sweaty greenhouse effect! Even Elizabeth couldn’t bear to look at the books for too long as she was too hot and that is a first!
The flight was a short one, just around 50 minutes but that was time enough for the super-efficient air stewardesses to serve us lunch which was actually edible.
At Bangkok airport we got through immigration really easily although we only got a 30 day visa which is a pain – we are due to be here exactly 31 days! We now have to decide whether to get an extension or just risk the fine at the airport when we leave. In theory the fine is a lot less than the extension fee so we will probably go for the cheap option.
Once we had our luggage and had picked up a few maps and leaflets from the airport, we jumped in a taxi. For once, the Lonely Planet book was spot on and our taxi ride was within the range the book said. We were staying in Chinatown at the China Town Hotel and we got checked in and chilled out in the room for a while deciding where to go for dinner.
We found a small place called Hemlock which served Thai dishes. It was a little distance away from where we were but was reachable by ferry. We left the hotel and headed to the ferry terminal. The lady at reception had told us (we thought) to go left and then left before the big intersection. We hadn’t really heard properly and both thought we just needed to take the first left! We ended up in the backstreets and with the help of a few friendly, finger-pointing locals, we found the ferry terminal and were helped to find the right ferry, too. The ride was quite nice despite the dirty river conditions – the light had faded and all the temples along the river were lit up which made them all look very impressive.
Leaving the ferry terminal we noticed the timetable which said the last ferry was at around 7.30pm. We couldn’t believe how early it stopped but it seemed to be mostly used by commuters so it made sense it ran around office hours.
We found Hemlock along the main road almost directly opposite the ferry and the menu looked good and it looked busy. This is always a good sign although I really wanted some authentic Thai food and this place was packed with tourists!
Regardless, we both chose dishes we thought would be spicy and when our red and yellow curries arrived they were both fantastic. We greedily gobbled down the whole lot, along with a starter helping of spring rolls!
It wasn’t too late by the time we had finished dinner but it was way beyond last ferry time. We had an option of a taxi or a tuk-tuk. We knew that fares around the city should be around 50-100 Baht and the first tuk-tuk driver tried to tell us that because of traffic at this time of night it would be at least 200. He eventually dropped it a bit but not enough so we walked away. The taxis are metered and we knew a taxi would not be anywhere near that. While waiting for a taxi, another tuk-tuk driver pulled up and he started the bargaining at 150 and I told him I’d pay no more than 100 and he eventually agreed.
By the end of the ride, I was happy to part with 100 Baht, even if it was a bit over-priced. The tuk-tuk raced through the streets like a mad man and Elizabeth and I both had to hang on at points but it was such good fun and he got us to our hotel in no time at all and despite what the other driver said, the traffic was nowhere near as bad as what I’ve seen in London! Why does every big city assume they have the monopoly on traffic congestion?!
So, we’d made it to Thailand, we’d had an almost authentic Thai curry and we’d ridden the ferry and a tuk-tuk. And I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of all three of those over the next few days and weeks!
December 8, 2009
Today was temple day. We had an idea of things to do with our time in Bangkok but by the time we actually got here we had already started to reconsider some. We have seen so many temples in the last couple of months from China to Japan to Vietnam and Cambodia that we are now happy being more selective! We couldn’t come here and see none but we quickly narrowed the field down to two.
After a decent enough breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to try and find the ferry by a more direct route. We still didn’t realize which intersection the lady at the hotel meant and this time we ended up walking through a market area which ultimately led us to one of the roads we’d walked along last night. It still wasn’t the most direct route but we found the ferry easily enough! This route took us through a market area which had stalls selling everything from unrecognizable food items to massive stuffed toys and games.
As we headed along the river this time, it was interesting to see how different things looked in daylight, particularly how dirty the water was and how built up the area along the river was.
Our first stop was Wat Pho which is the largest and oldest temple in Bangkok, dating from the 16th century. The temples here were amazing and very colourful. The roof of each one used really bright tiles which were formed into a rectangle of one colour with two borders each of a different colour. The effect was really striking and impressive. The main sight here though was the reclining Buddha, a 46m long statue of Buddha, er, reclining! The Buddha is completely covered in gold leaf except the bottom of his feet which are inlaid with mother of pearl. The designs on the feet also show the different characteristics of Buddha. It was really impressive to see, despite all the many other Buddhas we’ve seen already, and it was amazing to see the huge collection of other Buddha statues around the temple.
The guardians to the temples were also really cool with their scary faces carved into the stone statues. The giant guardians were brightly and intricately decorated and towered over all of us mere mortals.
Next, we headed to the Grand Palace grounds which also house the Wat Phra Kaew temple. On the way there, we passed a security gate and a man tried to tell me that I wouldn’t be allowed entry with my shorts on and that the temple was currently closed until 2pm. We didn’t think this was true, particularly the latter part, and were convinced he was full of shit when he took our map and scribbled a load of sights on it that he could take us round by tuk-tuk for just 10 Baht – this is about 30 cents. At this point I laughed and told him in no uncertain terms that I was not going to fall for his scam and would check out the temple opening times myself. We wouldn’t have taken this trip anyway but it was interesting to note that all the guidebooks say you will be offered tours for 10 Baht which then take you to expensive stores instead where the drivers earn commission and we had seen it first hand.
Of course, when we got to the entry gate, the temple was open to the public and although I had to rent some fetching long trousers we paid our fee and joined the hoardes walking around. We started off in the small museum which talked about some of the royal treasures and also displayed the different coats worn by the Emerald Buddha to depict the season – there is an outfit for the hot season, cold season and rainy season and these are changed every four months. Only one was on display right now (hot season) as the Emerald Buddha had just been changed out of the rainy season and into the cold season one. Elizabeth and I both enjoyed the irony of anything around here being called cold!
The temple buildings were very similar to those we had seen earlier but equally impressive, being very distinct in my opinion from those we have seen in other countries. When we were in Vietnam you could see the Chinese influence but any such influence here by neighbouring or previously occupying countries seemed to be less noticeable.
It was interesting to note the dress code here. We had known to dress conservatively here as our guidebook had mentioned it so Elizabeth had worn longer trousers and I had worn a pair of my shorts which were longer than the others. However, as I mentioned before, I still had to hire a pair of trousers to cover up my legs. Here you are not allowed to show much flesh at all, seemingly the arms being the only allowable thing while even open-toed sandals are supposedly forbidden despite seeing many people walking around with these on. This one foxed me a little as most of the temples you took your shoes off to go inside so what does it matter what kind of footwear you wear outside them?
Whilst on the subject of the lowest part of the body, it appears that Buddhism considers feet to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body and it is disrespectful to point your feet at someone (especially Buddha or another religious figure). Thais however don’t take much notice of this it would seem except for when in the presence of Buddha when their feet are positioned away from the statue. It isn’t uncommon to see the locals picking their feet in public and lying on benches with their uncovered feet sticking up in the air. Why tell Westerners this behavior is considered offensive in Thailand if the Thais do it themselves?
We got to see the Emerald Buddha inside one of the temples. The statue is actually made from jasper and is quite small, especially given that it is placed high upon a pedestal way in the back of the room. We did get to see his winter coat though!
The Grand Palace buildings are massive and are still used today for certain ceremonial occasions, such as the Coronation Ceremony (which last happened in 1950 so it isn’t exactly used on a regular basis!). Some of the smaller rooms are open to the public and housed collections of arms and armoury but all of the main rooms of the house are closed off.
We enjoyed walking around these two temples, despite the heat, and it was great to see something different. We had expected to spend longer going around them but we have quickly come to realize that nothing takes us as long as the guidebook suggests!
After a sandwich for lunch, we had a walk around. We headed away from the main sights by the river and along towards the Democracy Monument stopping briefly at the Lak Meuang Shrine to take some pictures and, most importantly, take a toilet break! The shrine had a small stage near the toilets where three large Thai women and one Thai man were supposed to be demonstrating traditional Thai classical dancing but it just seemed like they were making a lot of noise in-between their arguing and two-left-footed dancing!
On the way to the monument, we encountered our next scammer of the day. We had come out of the shrine and were checking the way to the monument. A guy came up to us and started listing a load of things we could do with him in his tuk-tuk. We weren’t even interested but as we crossed the road he started to tell us not to go that way as “Wat Pho is closed today so you should let me drive you around”. By this point, I was fed up of the drivers pulling this crap and I turned around to him and told him quite openly that he was a liar, telling him we had already visited Wat Pho today and it was open and busy. I don’t think he was expecting such a response and it certainly shut him up. I can’t see that these scams ever work as you would have to be dumb or desperate to fall for them!
After wandering around, we found the monument and I snapped a few pictures. The street where the monument stood had many stalls along both sides of it and I recognized the street as one we had passed on the tuk-tuk the previous night. It had been closed off then due to some celebrations for the King’s birthday which had been celebrated the previous weekend.
It was still pretty early and so we decided to hit a third temple. This one was over the other side of the river and we had seen it last night all lit up and earlier this morning in the morning sunshine. It looked pretty cool and as it was cheap to get there and cheap to get in we thought it would make a good time killer.
The ferry over to Wat Arun cost a whole 3 Baht each and actual entry was only about $1.50. The temple is covered in thousands of little porcelain tiles which decorate it. The main spire looks quite like some of the buildings at Angkor. As we walked around, we saw some people at the top so decided to climb it as well. The stairs leading up the first level were big and steep but they were nothing compared to the steepness of the second level, which almost felt like you were going to topple backwards going up it. At the top though, you were afforded some nice views of the old city and the river below while getting a half-decent breeze to cool you off a little. Getting down wasn’t as bad as we thought and we certainly got down easier than the girl who came down after me in her high heels!
After that, we were both quite tired and hot, having had a really full day. We crossed back over the river and took the ferry back to Chinatown. You see lots of weird and wonderful things here in Bangkok, it really is a cosmopolitan city. On the ferry, we saw a middle-aged Englishman with his arm around a young Filipino boy. This isn’t all that unusual but the Filipino boy appeared to be quite close with another young Filipino! Elizabeth and I ran through the permutations of the situation and decided the tourist had probably hired the two boys as “company” on his holiday!
We headed straight out of the ferry terminal and walked in one straight line until we reached the main road. We now saw where we were meant to go to get there from our hotel and quite frankly it couldn’t have been much easier!
After a brief nap, a shower and a change, we headed out to Siam Square and the Hard Rock Café. The prices here were actually reasonable compared to some we’ve been to along the way and whilst it wasn’t exactly the cheap Thai prices we could’ve got elsewhere, we stayed within our budget and I even got steak! Elizabeth got a massive taco salad too and even the soft drink refill offer included getting to keep the glasses! After the inevitable magnet purchase (this one was massive and cost almost as much as our dinner!) we walked around the area but many of the shops around here were closed or closing.
We’d had a pretty long day so decided to head back but getting a ride proved a bit of a problem. We found one tuk-tuk driver and he wanted 200 Baht. Our taxi out here had been 70 Baht and I was not willing to pay much more than that. I told the driver, he got annoyed and just drove off. Right behind him was a taxi driver but as we flagged him down he just shook his head and carried on driving. Maybe he had seen us negotiating with the tuk-tuk driver or maybe he just didn’t want to earn any money; I don’t know. Eventually another tuk-tuk came around the corner and the driver was of a much cheerier disposition and after some playful bargaining we agreed a price and we hopped into his little rally racer and let him throw us around the streets of Bangkok! Whilst the bargaining can be a pain sometimes, I have started to find that you just need to be relaxed and laid back about it and if you don’t like the offer, walk away and find someone else. At the end of the bargaining though, it feels like you’re getting a lift home and a fairground ride for one price!
December 9, 2009
Today was a day which was supposed to comprise very little other than sorting out some things we had to do.
We had decided not to spend the full week in Bangkok and to head north a couple of days earlier and make some stops on the way. Before we could do this, we needed to cancel a couple of flights and arrange refunds. It wouldn’t be worth forfeiting the flights completely so we decided to try and cancel them with the airline.
We started off however at the post office. We wanted to go to the main post office but got lost on the way, eventually relying on a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the nearest post office. We were coming here to package up and send home our second box of goodies, the weight of our souvenirs getting a bit much for us to carry. The lady there spotted us immediately and came over to help, providing us with the boxes we needed for our stuff. Not only were we sending home souvenirs but we were also sending our sleeping bags as we didn’t think we’d need them anymore, having bought them mainly for the safari in Africa and the train ride in Russia. We packed two boxes full of stuff and in total they weighed over 12kgs! Considering my pack on the last flight weighed 22kgs and Elizabeth’s was about 20kgs, not to mention our stupidly heavy hand luggage, this was literally a weight off our shoulders! We chose the cheapest shipping option and we expect the goods to arrive in about 2 months! Thankfully, there is no rush!
Outside the post office, we looked for a taxi to take us to the Thai Airways office. It looked close on the map but we’ve found nothing here in the city to be very close really. The driver tried ripping us off, saying once again there was bad traffic and it would be a good deal for us to agree to 100 Baht and ignore the meter. I disagreed and told him I wanted the meter running. He said he would “show us” we should’ve taken the fixed price. Once again, the traffic was light and we reached our destination quite quickly. The meter had just ticked over to 41 Baht but as we turned the last corner, Elizabeth and I both saw the driver press the reset button on the meter. He knew he was trying to rip us off and we knew too. He said the fare was now 60 Baht but I told him I had seen the meter and had seen him reset it – I gave him 40 Baht and we both got out. He didn’t argue, he knew he’d been caught out.
As it turned out, he’d dropped us at the airlines old offices but thankfully the new one was just around the corner, just a 2 minute walk away. The girl at the airline was really helpful and made some calls for us to the other airline involved in our flight plans. Unfortunately, they told us we had to go through our travel agent in the first instance to get our refund processed. Elizabeth and I both knew this meant another round of painful conversations with that bag of shit, Expedia. It is totally frustrating dealing with them – the prices they get you are almost always better than other websites but their customer service is appalling.
So, we headed back to the hotel so I could make the required phone calls to Expedia. Without going into too much detail as I’ll only get wound up again, I spent nearly 3 hours on the phone going backwards and forwards between Expedia, Thai Airlines and Bangkok Airways, with each person telling me something different from what I had been told before. Originally, Bangkok had told me to contact Expedia. Then Expedia told me to contact the airline directly. I called Bangkok and they told me I had to call Thai as it was a flight with them. I called Thai and they told me I had to call Bangkok as it had been ticketed through them. The end result was that neither the carrier I was flying with, the company that ticketed it nor the agency I used to book it was willing or able to cancel and refund my ticket, each one passing the buck to someone else with no-one knowing what to do or what the process was. It was really pathetic but totally, totally frustrating.
As a result, we are just going to do an overnight trip to Ayutthaya as thankfully our hotel are great and have allowed us to just cancel our room for one night as we please and come back as we want. See, airlines, that is how you do customer service. Arseholes!
So, the day hadn’t really gone to plan and I just felt like we’d wasted the whole day and achieved so little.
In the evening we headed out to Sukhumvit, once again having trouble with the taxis and tuk-tuks in trying to negotiate a price. The first couple of taxis wouldn’t agree to turn their meters on and wanted a fixed price (we all know this equals tourists being ripped off) and had one tuk-tuk driver quote us 200 Baht just to take us to the closest metro stop. Perseverance paid off as we finally found a nice helpful driver who knew where we wanted to go and used the meter!
We found a nice little Thai restaurant called Thong Lee just off the main road. It was a tiny family run place and was empty when we arrived – they were getting ready to shut for the night and it wasn’t even 7.30pm! We quickly ordered and consumed a beer and two hearty and tasty dishes and headed towards the main road for some more beers.
We had come to this area as Elizabeth and I had decided to see a “show”, the kind of show you don’t take your kids or grandparents to! Unfortunately, I had messed up and confused the two main “adult” areas and we ended up on Soi Cowboy, a road packed door to door with strip bars. We started in a regular bar on the corner and had a couple of beers doing plenty of people watching. For us, it was so interesting seeing the more mature gentleman walking up and down the road, some alone but a fair few with a young Thai lady on their arms.
After that, we went to a couple of bars, one appropriately called Fannys where two very disinterested girls danced on the chairs while the very fat manager lady served us beers. The second bar was called Cowboy 2 and the girls here were equally disinterested. Elizabeth wasn’t comfortable here at all despite what I perceived to be a pretty tame area compared to Patpong, the red light district which is apparently the only place to see the famed ping-pong shows.
The funniest thing about the whole night though was the girls stood outside one bar holding a sign which read “Dollhouse – 20 gorgeous girls plus a lot of ugly ones and a few fat ones”! I had to get a picture of that!
December 10, 2009
Having had a quiet day yesterday, we got back to sightseeing today.
We headed out first to National Museum which claims to be the largest museum in Asia or something. It seems that museums can’t just be museums any more; they have to be the biggest or best or oldest or whatever. They have to be something!
The museum started off with a large display on Thai history starting with Prehistoric man. To me, Prehistoric stuff from any country all seems the same and revolves around someone finding a skeleton, carbon dating it to about 10,000 years ago and claiming that is when the human world started. Whilst this probably has some truth to it, these prehistoric displays are the same all over the world from Europe to Africa to Asia. I’m quite skeptical too about some of the amazing finds – a piece of rock in a triangle shape was used by early man to cut stuff, historians tell us. Sometimes I look at these things and think “that is just a rock” and have my doubts over whether it was shaped that way by someone or whether it is just naturally that shape. Sure, prehistoric man hunted animals and used rocks to build and hunt and cook but that doesn’t make every rock you find an ancient artifact! I know – I’m cynical as well as skeptical!
The latter part of the display was much more interesting to us as it talked about the current Thai dynasty and each of the nine kings up until the current monarch, Rama IX. We had seen a lot of stuff about these kings in the museum at the Grand Palace and the stuff here made more sense because of that. The current king is the longest reigning monarch in Thai history and is also the longest reigning currently anywhere in the world.
The rest of the museum site housed various artifacts from porcelain to wood carvings to large throne seats and everything imaginable in between. The museum was quite cool but there was a lot of renovation work being done to many of the outer buildings and walking between them in the baking heat with a bit of a hangover from last night was not much fun!
We grabbed a sandwich at the museum café before heading out to the Royal Barges Museum. We weren’t sure how to get there but the guidebook and free map we had both indicated some kind of free ferry across the river. We stopped at a tourist information centre and the woman there looked a bit puzzled when I mentioned a ferry but said it was about a 20 minute walk just across the bridge. When we got to the other side, there were no signs of where to go and before long we were walking around a small back street completely lost. A group of Thai men offered to show us the way and we ended up walking down a load of tiny pathways in amongst all the houses – it almost felt like we were being setup and taken down a blind alley but a group of women further along the road pointed out the building we were supposed to be heading towards. I felt bad for not totally trusting the men but I guess it is better to be safe than sorry.
The Royal Barges Museum was really isolated on the banks of the river and hidden in the houses. Inside a single, large roofed area were about 12 barges used throughout history by the royal family during ceremonies and celebrations. The barges were all wooden and looked quite aged and it was hard to imagine these actually being used in the present day but there were pictures around the walls confirming that the barges still get used nowadays.
By that point we were both beat having had a late night last night and so we headed back to the closest ferry terminal and caught the boat back along the river. The ferries seem to be packed whatever time of day you catch them and this was no exception, especially as we waited about 15 minutes for one as well.
Back at the hotel we took a nap before heading out for dinner. We headed to Khao San Road but because of some political demonstration, the taxi couldn’t drop us very close and we didn’t know exactly where we going from where he did drop us! It wasn’t difficult to find though – the bright lights, large restaurants and thousands of tourists soon gave it away!
Amidst all the western food and inflated prices for foreigners, we found a nice little Thai restaurant and tucked into a pretty decent Pad Thai each. After that, we wandered around and looked for a bar, eventually settling on one and getting a few beers in. We got talking to the people on the table behind us. There was a Thai girl with her British husband and a couple from Croydon! I couldn’t believe coming all this way and meeting someone from my home town. Not to leave Elizabeth out, the bloke’s sister lived in Houston and worked for Continental – the same as Elizabeth’s uncle! Some bizarre coincidences! Later, a couple of the Thai girl’s friends joined us and before we knew it the bar was kicking us out and it was time to go home. I felt pretty drunk and was very tired but Elizabeth wanted to keep drinking. I think given how bad her hangover was when she woke up, she was glad I stopped her when I did and insisted we go home!
We spotted our first ladyboys here, too – a couple were staff at the pub we were in and were quite obvious. One girl on the table just behind ours was not so obvious. The Thai girls in our group said that “she” was but none of us were convinced and “she” seemed to have the two blokes she was chatting to convinced “she” was a she, too! However, as they got up to leave and the girl stood, her adam’s apple was really apparent but it had not been when she was sat down. It was quite funny after that playing the guessing game of “is he/is she?”!
December 11, 2009
After a lengthy lie-in this morning, we finally dragged ourselves back down to Khao San for some lunch. We wanted to be around that general area in the afternoon to visit a couple of places and thought it would be a good place to find some hangover quenching food! We decided on pizza and it wasn’t great but for a short while, it delayed the inevitable!
We walked around a bit more then jumped in a taxi to Dusit. Part of our entrance fee to the Grand Palace included two other smaller museums here so we thought we would check them out. The main building in the park, Anantasamkhon Palace, was huge and could be seen as we drove towards it. However, there was something going on in the park and there were lots of people in front of it setting stuff up, all wearing pink. Whilst Elizabeth was also luckily wearing pink, I was wearing blue and stuck out a little! We headed around the area and found the entrance to the palace.
Many places here have dress codes which include just basically dressing respectfully. However, it was totally different here with a dress code which stated exactly what you had to wear. Men had to wear trousers and women had to wear skirts. This really pissed off Elizabeth as she had worn her long trousers deliberately knowing we were coming here. The woman at reception couldn’t understand why we were annoyed and said they had items we could BUY to wear instead so we could go inside. There was no point arguing as we weren’t going to get anywhere but while we stood outside for a few minutes in the shade, we noticed at least 10 women going past us into the building and not a single one wore a skirt, all of them having to buy something inside. It was just strange.
Around at the second of the two sights in the park, we experienced the same thing and the same sign. Heat and hangovers and annoying rules lacking common sense were not a good combination and I just gave up and suggested heading back to the hotel via the grocery store for some drinks and snacks. Elizabeth wasn’t feeling too good either and agreed. Finding a taxi was difficult as no-one wanted to go to Chinatown and given the awful traffic I sort of understood their point. One tuk-tuk driver tried to charge us 300 Baht – the same price we paid to get from the airport last week – whilst a taxi driver we had to wake up was not willing to use the meter and wanted to set a fixed price. We carried on walking and eventually got a driver willing to use the meter.
Back at the hotel, I took the opportunity to update my travel journal, watch some TV and have a nap and before I knew it, the time was dinner time!
We were heading out of the city tomorrow for one night so after packing my bag (which now feels half empty having gotten rid of my sleeping bag!) we headed to the restaurant next to our hotel called The Canton House.It had been busy every time we had gone past and we thought we would try some Chinese food in Chinatown. We both picked a dish along with some spring rolls, rice and spinach in oyster sauce. Elizabeth chose a chicken with chilli and cashew nuts while I went for the meat and peppers, which turned out to be pork with peppers and garlic and ginger in a peppery sauce. Elizabeth’s turned up and the chicken was deep fried. I don’t really like deep fried food so I tried a bit of it and wasn’t very keen so stuck with my dish, which was really peppery and very tasty, especially with the spinach and rice. To drink, we both tried a chrysanthemum juice which everyone around us was drinking. The juice was a bright yellow colour and sickly sweet, tasting like flowery syrup. I didn’t like that very much either but Elizabeth said she liked it the more she tried it.