Thursday, May 03, 2007

Bangkok, one night is never enough

Written by Lynn

Having previously visited Bangkok in the fall of 2004, we knew we were heading for a city that we really enjoyed. Many people have expressed concern about the recent political upheaval in Thailand, and it's true that there are problems. But by and large these problems are confined to a small region in the south where there is presently a militant separatist group that is causing significant upheaval. The military coup in September 2006 which saw the then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ousted was apparently all very low key, and barely caused a ripple in the lives of the average person living in Bangkok (except, of course, for the tanks in the street that they had to drive around).
It is hard to define what makes this such a great city. It's certainly easy to get around for such a big place. There's the Sky Train, the underground Metro, the cabs, the river taxis and the ever present tuk-tuks drivers. All of them competing for an opportunity to take you where ever you want. Then there is the food - whether its a street vendor, a high end restaurant, or a small family run place, the food in Thailand is unbeatable.

Incredibly, one of our new favourite places to eat this time round was a mall food court, which sounds horrible, but theis place has to be seen to be believed. Located in the basement of an upper class mall, Siam Paragon, the food court must cover 5 acres (seriously!) and contains about 100 different food stalls and restaurants. There was everything from mango and sticky rice, to penang chicken curry, to spicy satays and delicious spring rolls. And of course, if you wanted, you could go for the usual assortment of Starbuck's and Subway, or choose from many of the international restaurants if your hankering was for Vietnamese pho, Japanese sushi or Indian vindaloo. The vast choice meant we could eat there almost every day and never have the same thing twice. And the other upside - it was cheap the average supper being less than $6 including drinks and dessert!

Of course for price we couldn't beat the little Indian restaurant we found on a back street by one of the canals, where for less than $4 two couples could eat a incredibly delicious meal. Sadly, in spite of trying numerous times since we have not been able to find an Indian place that comes even close to the food produced in this rather scungy looking alley way.

We passed back and forth through Bangkok a few times, it being a great central hub for all of Thailand. On our first stop we spent the better part of a week there. The first few days were on our own, and then we were joined by Harkiran and Tod, who were just finishing up a three week holiday before returning to Jakarta.

While here we made the obligatory tours of some of the wats and temples, including the Standing Buddha, which was built in 1867 AD and stands 32 metres tall. Apparently bringing the head of a mackeral, a boiled egg and a lei of flowers to the temple will ensure a blessing of success on your ventures. Sadly we couldn't find a fish head, so will have to continue to rely on dumb luck!!

We also saw the Black Buddha and the Reclining Buddha. Like dumb tourists (you'd think we'd know better by now) we fell for a scam. we were told that because it was a national holiday, the tuk tuk drivers were obligated to offer a special deal on the tour of all the important sites. For a mere 20 baht (about $0.60) we would be ferried around all day if necessary. What the trick is, is that between all these beautiful and ancient temples, the tuk tuk driver will take you to various stores - a tailor, a travel agent, a jewelry store - where he gets money for getting you in the door. Once inside you will be exposed to high pressure sales. Luckily most of these stores quickly recognized us as a lost cause. Getting a bit peeved about all the stops and the massive traffic jams (an endemic problem in Bangkok, but hard to handle when stuck in a tuk tuk exposed to the toxic deisel fumes), we aborted the mission and insisted our driver drop us off at the guest house we were staying at. Without tipping. This is unusual for us as we're happy to tip, sometimes very generously in a relative sense, though giving someone who charges you a buck a whole extra fifty cents doesn't seem like that much. But we'll only do so if we feel our driver has been friendly AND honest with us, a situation more rare than you'd wish. So it was back to relying on our usual mode of travel, our own two feet.
While here we also managed to take in a few of the markets, including the Lumphini night market, the MBK and the awe inspiring Chatachuk weekend market.

Held every Saturday and Sunday, this massive market covers 35 acres and houses over 9000 (!) booths. Here you can purchase everything from t-shirts for less than a dollar to exotic hand woven silk bed coverings, to hand carved wooden statues and even small fluffy puppies (I don't THINK they were for eating?!). Bargaining has been raised to an art form here, and is carried out in a friendly, competative fashion with lots of sad head shaking on the part of the shop owners as they let you get away with "much too little price". Sadly, the size of our packs, combined with the emptiness of our wallets, meant that the massive shopping spree we had embarked on our last time in Bangkok was not to be repeated. It was, however, a good time to replace well worn t-shirts and shorts with new stuff.

We were also lucky to land in Bangkok for the annual Songkran Festival, the Thai New Year. For this festival, local Thai people will clean their entire houses from top to bottom, to remove the previous year's bad actions so that they can start over with a clean state. Traditionally water is poured over a family member or friend as bad luck will flow away with the water. What it boils down to here is a three day water fight involving thousands of people. Woe the person that is foolish enough to ride in a tuk tuk on these days, they are guaranteed to be assaulted with bucket fulls of water from locals camped out beside the road.

We tried to sneak down Kho San Road (backpacker heaven) without getting wet, but had to give in after about 100 metres once we realized it was a lost cause. Not only do you get SOAKED, you are also blessed by the local populace as they spread a muddy mixture of talculm powder all over you face and wish you "best luck in new year" with a big grin on their faces (they love getting the farang.....that's a foreigner to all you whiteys out there).
We also celebrated Gilles' 36th (!!) birthday with Harkiran and Tod. After a dinner out we took him to a cafe where he managed to consume the largest brownie sunday I've ever seen.

Otherwise, one of the highlights was the Jim Thompson house. Jim Thompson is singlehandedly responsible for resurrecting the silk trade in Thailand and creating a world wide demand for the product. For his services to the kingdom he was awarded the Order of the White Elephant, an honour reserved for foreigners who have rendered an exceptional service to Thailand. While residing in Bangkok he built a house that was made up of 6 traditional Thai huts joined with a unique hallway. The grounds are a lush garden full of tropical plants and orchids, as well as a friendly Koi, called Oscar, who actually seems to enjoy being petted.
As well, when in Bangkok we visited a snake farm where they raised the snakes in order to milk them for the production of anti-venom. We happened to get there on the 114th anniversary of the founding of the Red Cross in Thailand, which meant, not only was it free to get in (always a good thing), they had some interesting demonstrations on showing us the various snakes and how to extract venom from them.

A lot of our time here was spent basically doing nothing - sitting in cafes, reading books, going to a few movies. As mentioned, we used Bangkok as a rest stop between many other places we visited in the rest of Thailand...............

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