Thursday, December 05, 2013

Four Nights in Bangkok

On Monday we set out on our epic adventure, a three-month backpacking trip to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia.  Our first port of call was Bangkok and we have a very rough travel itinerary which will take us as far as Ho Chi Minh City, after that we're winging it. My favourite way to travel. :)

So -  Bangkok - what to say?  It's an incredible city and nothing at all like what I expected.  It's a huge contrast of the old and the new - huge skyscrapers appearing in the distance next to tiny little dilapidated buildings.  It’s in constant state of development and the Bangkok in a few years time will be completely different.  Bangkok smells of street food and petrol.  It is crazy and busy, you weave your way along the sidewalks single-file, past the other pedestrians and the street carts.   
We arrived in Bangkok on Monday and made our way to our hotel via an airport taxi which cost the bargain price of 300 baht (about £6).  The hotel we booked had just been renovated so instead of being Fred Flintstone Trailer Park it was a sea of minimalist white.  The hotel is really nice and everyone seems really friendly and helpful, however none of it feels real just yet.  I think that when I flew into Bangkok I had certain expectations based on previous travel - I'd prepared myself for the culture shock, and it's not really happened yet.  Instead we've both pretty much settled down and got stuck in.  Perhaps it comes later when we're in less modern cities.  The part of Bangkok we're staying in has a McDonalds, a Subway, and a Boots, I've even spotted a Tesco!

On Monday night we really wanted some Thai food, so I consulted our trusty Lonely Planet and found a place called Thonglee, a few Soi's down from where we were staying in Sukhumvit.  After such a long journey it was very much a case of eyes being bigger than our stomach as we ordered an obscene amount of food (and polished off the lot).  We had moo pat gu-bi (pork fried with shrimp paste), mee grorp (sweet and spicy crispy fried noodles), red thai curry, rice and tom yum soup with shrimp.  Lonely Planet says that Thonglee is one of the few remaining “mom and pop” places remaining in our hotel area, which I find really sad.  I guess a lot of their business is going to the fast food restaurants on the main strip, but I find that quite odd as Thai food is very quick to cook so it makes no sense.  I do hope the place stays in business and do go if you’re ever in Bangkok – it was an amazing introduction to proper Thai food.

Excuse the lack of correct inflections on the written Thai – I’m still working out this keyboard.

On Tuesday we decided to go out exploring – unfortunately we couldn’t go to the Wat Phra Kaew or Wat Pho as it would mean going through the protest zones.  So instead we headed towards China Town.

On our way we stopped off in one of Bangkok’s brand new shopping malls – Terminal 21, located just a few Soi’s away from our hotel.  This mall is insanely massive with each floor dedicated to a different international city.  We had a giggle walking through London – with Carnaby Street, a Routemaster and Tube Station all present and correct.  Not wanting to indulge in too much tacky Western style consumerism, we fortified ourselves with a Pad Thai before jumping on the Metro and setting off in search of the real Bangkok.

A few hours, and wrong turns, later we arrived in China Town where we spent a few happy hours getting lost in the maze of narrow alleys, side stepping speeding motorbikes and market stalls.  China Town was a real assault of the senses – food sizzling on every corner, the heady scent of chillies combined with motorbike exhaust, confused-looking tourists with street vendors ready to descend.  At all times you’re checking over your shoulder looking for motorbikes which may be about to take on the nerve-wracking journey of potential doom down a minuscule alley.
After hours or wandering we sat down at Tha Ratchawong for a cocktail and some water and I examined my ruined feet.  I wish I’d broken in my Birkenstocks a bit more before we left the UK.  Taking pity on me, Mark suggested a riverboat trip south so we could catch the Metro back to the hotel and rest up for a bit.

Food is constantly on my mind and I’d read about a place called Bharani which I really wanted to check out.  Navigating the mean streets of Bangkok is fairly tricky and we walked up the same street about five times before we finally found it.  It was worth every single new blister. Bharani is a cheap and cheerful cosy Thai restaurant that specialises in ‘boat noodles’ – we ordered these in a beautiful spicy soup along with Thai red curry and rice.  Afterwards we decided to try salak – which is a local fruit, also known as snake fruit (the outside skin of the fruit is scaly, like a snake).  It was served up on a bed of chilled iced water and tasted a bit like papaya, sweet, but also slightly salty.  The texture was interesting, really chewy and each bite released a different flavour.  I later found out from Mark that eating too much can make you constipated.  Nice.

On the way up to the restaurant we walked through Sukhumvit Market – a crazy local market that seems to be aimed entirely at tourists.  They sold everything under the sun – from knock-off Little Kitty bags to Chinese throwing stars, from Viagra to tasers, friendship bracelets, sarongs and shawls and the odd pair of knuckledusters.  Truly an eccentric collection and I assure you that we didn’t buy anything that UK Customs wouldn’t look kindly on.

We also walked down the Soi Cowboy, a street full of clubs and pubs full of scantily clad ladies touting for business.  Mark held my hand all the way down the street – I’m not entirely sure why. :)

Wednesday was a crazy busy day – we booked ourselves onto a tour to go to the Damnoen Saduak floating market, the Allied War Cemetery, the Bridge over the River Kwai and last, but certainly not least, a trip to a Muay Thai boxing evening.

The taxi picked us up at 8am and drove us to Damnoen Saduak floating market, about 45 minutes drive from the city.  The tickets for the floating market set us back 5000 baht – we were totally ripped off and we should have queried this.  Part of the reason was because we weren’t part of a tour group – so it meant a whole boat to ourselves.  You live and learn.  Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun, although the market was very much tailored to tourists and full of utter tat.  We bought some mango and sticky rice for breakfast, and once sustained, defences up, settled in for a long session of, “mai, korp kun”.
The boat ride was wonderful and a lot of fun, sadly we annoyed our driver as once the market had been navigated he returned us to the main dock.  However, he’d forgotten to take us to the temple and we hadn’t realised that it was part of the journey, so he was swiftly recalled by staff, face like a slapped dog, and refused to speak to us for the final leg.  Oh well.

Afterwards we headed to the Allied War Cemetery which is maintained by the War Graves Commission.  The soldiers buried here were all POW’s in WWII and of the 6,982 graves here, nearly half are British.  These soldiers were set to work building the Bridge over the River Kwai and their deaths were a result of brutal working conditions and Japanese cruelty whilst in captivity.  The Cemetery took my breath away.  It was so beautifully maintained and reading the nameplates of all those who lost their lives and the notes from their families was really moving.

We then headed to the Bridge over the River Kwai – which Mark said was much smaller than he’d imagined!  The bridge is 300m across the river and only the curved outer spans are part of the original bridge as it was severely damaged in the Allied attacks in 1945.  We decided not to get the train across as it was apparently a four-hour journey and we only had two hours before we had to head back.  Instead we crossed over on foot, stopping on the other side to grab some photographs.  As we were there the first week of December they were setting up a firework show to mark the anniversary of the Allied attack so at several points throughout the day the sky was full of the sound of gun-fire, which was quite unnerving.

Whilst returning to our car we stopped off to see a man with a baby leopard, whom we’d actually spotted whilst on our way to the bridge.  We had a little chat with him, the leopard was called Mokka and he was seven-months old, born into captivity and hand reared.  They were offering the chance to give him some milk and a stroke in exchange for donations towards the zoo.  We were both a bit hesitant, mainly because a lot of the zoos in Thailand have reputations for cruelty and secondly, because I knew my mother would kill me.  However, Mokka looked happy and healthy with clear eyes and a glossy coat and the man seemed very nice and knowledgeable.  Before I knew it I was sitting there, feeding a baby leopard chicken pieces and milk from a bottle!
When we got back to the hotel later that night, Mark looked up the park on the internet and like many zoos in Thailand they didn’t really have a good record for animal welfare.  Although they’d recently started a very successful volunteer project focussed on improving the care for their wildlife.  This seems to be a very big area in Thailand that is under scrutiny at the moment.

Next on our busy day’s itinerary was an evening trip to Lumphini Stadium to watch some Muay Thai boxing.  We had ringside seats so we were really in the action and I was in total sinus-overload from the overwhelming scent of Tiger balm!  According to Thai tradition, ladies are not allowed to touch the boxing ring so of course Mark had to hold me back from desecrating their boxing shrine.  It was absolutely amazing – there’s so much skill and focus involved and it’s not nearly as violent as you’d think – it’s all very controlled.  It’s a sport that the country is very passionate about and watching the spectators at times was as entertaining as the actual bout!
Tired and happy we took the Metro back towards our hotel area.  And I’m ashamed to say that in the land of incredible Thai cuisine... we went to McDonalds.  In our defence, all the great restaurants were closed and all the good street vendors had long since cleared off home.  A double Big Mac (yes they do doubles here!) was very nice, but not a patch on a good Pad Thai.

More soon – we’re having a lazy day today – off to Chiang Mai tomorrow to meet elephants and learn the art of Thai cuisine!

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