Phil's Travel Pages (Asia and the Orient - Thailand)
- Martial Arts
I've wanted to visit Thailand for quite some time now, but on the few occasions that an opportunity has presented itself, circumstances have conspired against it.
I finally got to make a short visit to Bangkok, and although it was only for a couple of days, it was well worth it.
My brief visit didn't start quite as well as I'd hoped; After a 12 hour flight from Heathrow, I landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport on a typical late Thai summer day of 40°C with 99% humidity. The roads from the airport to my hotel (the Royal Princess Larn Luang in the old part of the city) were choked with traffic (thank all the Gods for airport limos with air conditioning) and it took about an hour and a half to get to the hotel.
Once I arrived I discovered that I had forgotten a hotel voucher, which the travel agent had impressed upon me was an essential document. Was it bollocks! The hotel staff were completely on the ball and immediately confirmed the reservation and within 5 minutes, I was tipping the bellboy and closing the door on a spacious twin room, with all the mod cons and a decent-sized fridge and mini-bar.
Once settled, I decided to do a quick recon of the surrounding area, just to get my bearings and to spot a few tourist essentials such as an ATM machine that wouldn't spit out my credit card and a convenience store where I could buy replacement beers for the mini-bar. It was then I discovered I had arrived on a public holiday (Chakri Memorial Day) and most of the surrounding area was closed.
This certainly didn't make a difference to the traffic, which remained heavy. Pedestrians making the mistake of believing that they have overall right of way are in for a nasty shock, as commuting in Bangkok is very much done on a law-of-the-jungle basis; only the strongest (or in this case the quickest) survive. Anyone stepping onto a level crossing without looking both ways will shortly be relinquishing their breathing privileges. You're not even safe on the pavement itself, as I learned when one of the scores of motorbike taxis in Bangkok, mounted the curb and rode down the pavement, honking furiously (I saw this happen at least another dozen times during my brief stay and I therefore figure it's the norm).
After stilling my pounding heart, spotting an ATM and popping into the nearest 7-11 for a 6-pack of Singha Beer and a couple of packets of nuts, I made my way back to the hotel as quickly as I could manage, looking over both shoulders every few seconds and feeling like an extra in some urban-assault war film. On the way up to my room, I stopped at the tour desk in the foyer and signed on for a half-day tour of the Grand Palace and the Wat Pho temples. Normally I prefer to wander around under my own steam and at my own pace but as this was a flying visit and time was of the essence, it made sense to spring for the tour (and at 1500 Baht - about 28 quid - it wasn't cheap) in order to make the most of my time there.
Back in my room, I ordered room service (a fantastic steak sandwich and good sized portion of freshly made Sushi) from a varied and reasonably priced room service menu, and washed it down with a couple of ice-cold beers, before drowsiness overtook me and I fell into a semi-doze for the rest of the evening.
At around 6am the following day, I rolled out of bed to the sound of the morning rush hour traffic (jeez they start work early around here!) and after a quick shower, I headed down to an excellent breakfast of fresh pineapple, three different varieties of melon, dragon fruit and other exotic produce, before boarding a mini-bus at 8am, bound for the Grand Palace. 10 minutes later, we were walking through the gates in the early heat of the day.
The words: "awesome", "spectacular" and "amazing" are often over-used these days, but all would be appropriate adjectives to describe the architecture of the Grand Palace. Every aspect and dimension of every building is testament to the craftsmans' art. Soaring walls and polished pillars give an overwhelming sense of grandeur and and the giant murals made up of gold and silver mosaics involving millions of tiny purpose-cut tiles, along with thousands of painted figures (each no larger than a pint glass), painstakingly hand-painted with hundreds of tiny gold squares, no bigger than the head of a match, are testament to the Buddhist virtues of beauty and patience.
The grand palace is also home to the Wat Phra Kaew Temple, wherein resides one of Thailand's most revered national treasures; the Emerald Buddha. I must confess that I was so overwhelmed by the temple itself, which is incredibly ornate, that the Emerald Buddha itself (which is made of Chinese imperial jade not emerald and stands only 42cm tall) was a little bit of an anti-climax, by comparison. Perhaps I am too easily dazzled by the shiny stuff (Lord knows I'm not spiritual!)
Thailand has over 30,000 temples and the two most common images are those of the Buddha and the current King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Their pictures are everywhere and the people treat both of them with a great deal of reverence (at my hotel, the tannoy played the national anthem at 8am and 6pm and the staff stand to attention as the national flag and the King's colours are lowered). Thailand has only been a democracy since the 1980's and is still going through a certain amount of transition from the previous Monarchy system which dates back to the mid 16th century. The democratically elected but sometimes corrupt government is kept in check to a certain degree by the monarchy which enjoys widespread and overwhelming public support.
After returning to the centre of the Grand Palace to watch the changing of the guards, we re-boarded the mini-bus and headed off to the nearby Wat Pho Temple, home of the giant reclining Buddha and the birthplace of traditional Thai Massage. The sheer size of the reclining figure of Buddha is very impressive; forty-six metres long, fifteen metres high and gold plated! Nuff said!
After the obligatory trip to a wholesale jewellery outlet (not mentioned in any of the tourist literature, but apparently mandatory) in which we were subjected to a short film about sapphire mining and hustled quickly through a neon-lit workshop into vast showrooms, where countless salespeople waited to separate tourists from their wonga at an alarmingly efficient rate. I simply put my head down and strode straight to the exit. Once outside, I was directed to another mini-bus in an outgoing convoy and 10 minutes later I was on my way back to the hotel, albeit through extremely heavy traffic, which slowed our 15-minute journey to a crawl. This was caused by a large-scale demonstration by the "red shirts", rent-a-mob "supporters" of the ousted PPP prime minister Samak Sundaravej, who is a sort of oriental version of Silvio Berlusconi*. As we sat waiting for the traffic to move, food vendors moved up and down the queues of stationary traffic selling their wares and our driver bought a bag of freshly fried chicken bites and without a word (just a smile) passed them round the passengers. They were delicious!
Back at the hotel and after an ice-cold shower and a cold beer or two, the jet lag finally caught up with me and I decided to have 40 winks ... and was awoken around 5:30pm by a spectacular tropical storm. Water ran down the walls of buildings in sheets and ball-lightning crackled across a dark and foreboding sky. Within minutes the streets were 10 inches deep in places and I seriously thought I would have to cancel my plans for the evening. But by 7pm the storm had passed and the waters had receded completely. So at 8pm I headed out to the Patpong night markets.
My guidebook informed me that the Patpong markets were not the best markets in Bangkok, but they did appear to be the only night markets open during the week. The markets are also based right in the heart of the notorious red light district and "farang" visitors to the Patpong markets can expect to be hassled a fair bit by the go-go bar and porn DVD touts. The markets themselves are geared largely at the tourists and therefore feature the usual array of t-shirts, copy watches and other nick-nacks. Disturbingly, there are a fairly significant number of non-firearm weapons for sale, including throwing stars, nunchaku, switchblades and even tasers and mace. However, there are also a fair number of interesting curios and if you are prepared to bargain hard, a deal or two is definitely possible.
Humour will serve you best here; I managed to break the ice a couple of times by asking the price of the item and then in mock horror declaring to all within earshot that I did not want to buy the whole shop. This got a laugh from the vendor who then reciprocated the ham acting and this in turn captured the attention of the nearby vendors, who are always looking for a little side entertainment. Soon we had a little sideshow going, in which inevitably, the vendor I was negotiating with would the victor ... but I got a couple of items at around 15% of the original (albeit highly inflated) asking price, and had a great time into the bargain.
Towards the end of the night, I wandered away from the din of the markets and go-go bars, to grab a bite to eat at a little roadside vendor (a delicious mix of noodles, pork balls, won tons and spicy chicken in a light soup, flavoured with jasmine), which at 30 Baht (less than 50 pence) was far and away the cheapest item I had bought all day! Between mouthfuls, I watched the bustling mix of tourists, vendors, pimps, touts and hookers start thinking about packing it in for the day and heading back to their homes and hotels. A few of the younger ones were no doubt heading onto one of the nearby nightclubs, but I wasn't up for that ... and I suddenly felt rather old.
No visit to Bangkok would be complete without a ride on a Tuk Tuk and so after I finished dinner, I wandered over to the nearby rank and worked out a deal with a young bloke who was sitting on a well polished Tuk tuk, covered in polished chrome and bedecked with all manner of coloured streamers. Five minutes later we were racing through the back streets of Bangkok as the driver (who obviously dreamed of a time trial at the Bonneville salt flats) opened the throttle and honked his horn at passers by who had the audacity to be using his pavement. I held on for dear life and revelled in the sensation of speeding along tropical streets on a hot summers night. Ten minutes later, he pulled a handbrake turn into the driveway of my hotel and two minutes after that I was 180 Baht (about 4 quid) poorer. A beer or two at the bar and I returned to my room to gratefully collapse into bed after a pretty eventful day.
Thailand was a great place to visit and I was pleased that I was able to squeeze in as much as I did in such a short time. I just wish I had visited Thailand ten years ago when I was possessed of a little more energy that I have now. I certainly plan to return for a longer period ... and hopefully not too far in the future.
*A few days after I left Thailand, the protest turned violent and a state of emergency was declared.
More Photos available Visit the Thailand 2009 Photo Gallery
Update: I've since gone back to Thailand in 2010, you can read about it in our blog article: Bangkok Revisited.