We're now in our hotel in Bangkok and I'm feeling better , having checked in this morning and gone straight to bed for five hours. I still have that general feeling of the body not knowing what time of day it is that is characteristic of jet-leg, but the flu-like symptoms I'd been feeling on the journey here have gone. We got so little sleep overnight on the plane that we didn't really have much choice to sleep through most of the day -- but I think I'm going to regret it later.
We had landed at Bangkok's brand new Suvarnabhumi Airport, so approached the city in our cab from a different direction from last time: the Southeast. A hot, stop-start journey that seemed to take hours but was actually only around 45 minutes, including a necessary detour to an ATM so that I could get some local currency -- not only for the fare but also to repay the driver for the two road tolls he had funded on our behalf. Bangkok's taxi and tuk-tuk drivers get a bad press, and it's true there are a lot of them out to con you, but in fairness we did met several who were nice and helpful, and a couple even joked about their collective but not universally deserved reputation.
Our constitutions weren't up to braving any kind of transport system other than Shanks' Pony the first evening, and we found a really nice shopping and dining centre called Silom Village just a short walk from the hotel. We joined several other holiday makers in the romantically lit outdoor dining area of one restaurant for a delicious and excellent value dinner, including a couple of curry dishes and -- the "top of the bill" for us -- salted pork with chilli sauce: a rare treat indeed for us Saudi dwellers!
A typical Thai tailor's shop close to our hotel. Note the "value added services" listed by the window.
On Saturday morning we took the Skytrain to Lumphini Park where, according to the excellent Groovy Map 'n' Guide we found in our hotel room, is where many locals go to perform Tai Chi in the morning. The Groovy Map 'n' Guide series covers all major cities in Asia as far as I can gather, and it has a really neat format that combines a fold-out orientation map with a concise digest of recommendations, from parks to nightclubs, shopping to eating out; the blurb on the front says, "leave your 500-page guidebook at home", and I'm inclined to agree; if you're just visiting for a couple of days this little map is all the guide you'll need. We had overslept (body clocks still being set to the wrong time so we were up half the night) so by the time we arrived at the park there were just a couple of Tai Chi-ers left, along with lots of joggers and a small but perfectly formed lake. Bangkok's Sky Train system is modern, punctual, and efficient, with air-conditioned carriages and great value fares; an unlimited one-day pass costing 120 Baht (around £1.90). Its one drawback though is its lack of coverage. There are only two lines and they don't venture much outside the city centre. It is being constantly extended however, including a new line to take travellers all the way to/from the new airport. Our next intended port of call for example was not accessible by Sky Train, so we had to switch to the Metro: a similarly modern and efficient system -- you can even use your mobile phone down there -- but similarly fledgling (with only one line) and therefore not very comprehensive. The subway took us to Asok pier, where you can hop on a Klong boat to take you along the canal. This particular form of public transport has to be experienced to be believed and is definitely not for the faint-hearted!
The Klong boats are long, about fourty feet, and can hold about eighty passengers. They travel up and down the narrow canal at high speed, passing each other with only inches to spare. There is a conductor on each side who remains standing on the side panels of the boat and perform the dual role of taking fares and also mooring up at stops to let people on and off. Simply riding these boats is hairy enough in itself, but the really scary bit is embarking and disembarking from the regular scaffolding-poles-and-wooden-plank "stops". What makes it scary? The boats have low canvas rooves, and a wall of plastic sheeting along each side designed to keep you from getting soaked from the wash of the other Klong boat racing past in the opposite direction. At each stop this sheet is lowered on strings, and if you want to disembark you have to simultaneously climb the high seat and get your leg over the plastic sheet (whose second purpose in life seems to be to trip you up), and duck your head and upper body down to avoid giving yourself concussion on the roof poles, before making your carefully-timed leap onto the ramshackle jetty. All of this must, naturally, be done at the same time as twenty other people all trying to do the same thing, on a boat that manages to deposit all its disembarkers and take on new passengers without actually stopping. Once we had got off we realized we were at the wrong stop, but couldn't face going back on so instead opted for a taxi to take us the rest of the way.
Next stop was the legendary MBK Centre -- excellent, busy, frenetic, cramped shopping followed by another delicious and great value lunch at The Fifth: a trendy food court on the fifth floor. Bought a few presents for the children and friends at MBK, and I bought myself a trinket that I had been wanting since we first saw them on our last trip back in August: a Japanese treasure-beckoning cat. These cute-yet-creepy examples of Japanese kitsch and anime-style characterisation are toy cats, made of either gold or silver plastic with a cat's face painted on. If you've never seen one, imagine on of those Easter eggs shaped like the Easter bunny with a cartoon bunny's features on the foil wrapper and you'll get pretty close. The neat thing about the cats though is the perpetually waving arm. Each cat has its left arm raised up by its head, and a clever gizmo inside the body uses the power from a single AA battery to keep this arm swinging in a back-to-front waving motion for months. The end result is a creepy-looking gold cat that sits on a shelf and waves, for ever. I'm told that it is beckoning treasure towards it and therefore brings its owner good luck, but it seems to shooing something away, not beckoning. I think my treasure-beckoning cat may end up getting its very own blog posting soon...
After lunch we took the Sky Train for Sukhumvit district to find a spa that Karen found in the Groovy Map 'n' Guide. The trouble with mass transit is that it only covers part of your journey: the bit that the line covers. To get all the way from Point A to Point B you have to do half the work yourself, walking from Point A to station, walking to change trains, walking from station 2 to Point B. No wonder people still prefer to use their cars in places like London, where this disadvantage is compounded by high fares and poor service. The service here though is good and the fares very cheap, so ordinarily I'd be glad of the exercise but in 80 degree heat and high humidity, plus still having to limp because of my bad leg and carrying several shopping bags, this walk took its toll on us, so we descended the steps from the Sky Train station in Sukhumvit in dire need of refreshment. What luck! The Black Swan -- English pub right there on the street at the foot of the staircase! John Smiths bitter on tap, draught Guinness, and free wireless internet to boot, so in we limped. A small place but quite cosy and English-looking, apart of course from the all-girl, all-Thai staff. I took the middle-aged Englishman looking at home propping up the end of the bar to be the proprietor, a guess which was rewarded about 30 seconds later when I heard him ordering the staff around. Later as we enjoyed our drinks and a quiet sit-down we saw his Thai wife emerge from the back room with small son in tow. Here's something else I learned while we were there: you know how when you're overseas the English papers that are available are a few days old because of the journey they have to take to get there? Well now there an internet service called Newspaper Direct that provides today's edition on-line and in a special format designed to be downloaded and then printed locally. Because of this The Black Swan had several current English dailies on the shelf so that expat customers can catch up on news back home. This is a really neat idea. Karen and I wondered whether his wife/staff have to do all the printing or whether he uses a local print shop. Our whistles whetted, it's time to get a massage, and we find Chivit Chiva about 5 minutes' walk from the pub.
Later, back in the hotel room, we pick another of Groovy Map 'n' Guide's recommendations for dinner. Naj is a gourmet Thai restaurant set in a colonial teakwood house. We didn't have a reservation but got a table anyway, and were seated next to each other on a sala at one side of a largish table (the waiter removed the other two place settings, by a small indoor fountain.
The food, drink and service at Naj were all outstanding and we had one of the loveliest meals we've had in a very long time. From the appetizer of Sweet 'n' Sour crispy vermicelli to the Thai recipe crispy aromatic duck with thick black soy sauce, to the Pad Thai noodles, every dish was superb and beautifully presented.
After dinner a stroll down the street led us by accident to The Irish Xchange: an Irish Pub ALSO mentioned in the Groovy Guide. What better to complement our succulent and sophisticated Thai meal than a pint of Kilkenny and England v. Argentina rubgy match, live on the big screen?
We roll out of bed at about 10am, and after breakfast take a walk down to the river to catch the ferry up to the Grand Palace, home of the famous Emerald Buddha. The ferry stations consist of a low-ceilinged corrugated iron structure right on the river's edge, with small shop stalls inside. When we arrived the river must have been at high tide because the whole thing was flooded with about six inches of water, and passengers had to walk down the middle of the scruffy structure along a wooden gangplank covered with flattened sandbags.
Exiting the ferry station was a bit of an adventure. The stop where we got on was very similar but I was too worried about dropping my camera to get it out.
All a bit tricky, especially when you've got freshly disembarked passengers coming at you from the opposite direction. The river ferry was a much larger boat than the Klong boats from yesterday, and our was packed with what must have been 200 people. Again the seat-of-the-pants element of travel was there, with the ferry swooshing up to each jetty, passengers jumping off and jumping on while the conductor holds the boat to a mooring post, when swooshing off again up river all in one fluid motion. You feel like to complain or ask the conductor to stop the boat bobbing about so much would be letting the side down, as all the locals and other tourists are leaping on and off as if they do it every day.
The problem with living on the riverbank.Finally back on dry land, we enter the Grand Palace where King Rama IX was crowned sixty years ago this year. The Palace compound is also home to many beautifully designed and decorated Buddhist temples, including one housing the Emerald Buddha, which is carved from a single block of Jade.
More riverfront property, this time better designed for high tide
More riverfront property, this time better designed for high tide
Like the Mona Lisa in The Louvre and the Manikin Pis in Brussels, the Emerald Buddha is surprisingly small when you see it for real: only about two feet tall (sitting). Another thing the Buddha has in common with Brussels' most famous little statue is that it has its own collection of clothing: national costumes, policeman's uniform etc. for the Manikin Pis, but the Emerald Buddha's wardrobe consists of a collection of robes and other regalia made of gold; one for each of the seasons. Today it was dressed in the Autumn robe, but we could view the other three sets in the special exhibition adjacent to the temple.
Another exhibit for my "Lost in Translation" filesWe leave the Grand Palace and again we're gasping for a drink after the gangplank-walking and boat-hopping in the heat, but in the area around these temples there is not much on offer by way of a hostelry. We need a nice sit-down, a pint and a spot of lunch so we unashamedly unimaginatively opt for a return to The Black Swan, a twenty-minute taxi ride away, where we enjoy Scampi 'n' Chips (Karen) and Roast Pork with Apple Sauce (me), and a photocopy of the Sunday Times. After lunch another taxi takes us back to Silom Village where we finish our present-shopping before walking back to the hotel to rest and get ready for dinner.
Three "B's" outside the Grand Palace: buskers, Buddhist monk, beggar.
Three "B's" outside the Grand Palace: buskers, Buddhist monk, beggar.
The Groovy Guide comes to the rescue again in recommending Bed Supperclub: a spacey fusion restaurant and nightclub where you have a gourmet meal while reclining on -- yes, you guessed it -- beds. Diners lie on four rows of beds all joined together and covered in pure white sheets and pillows. The room is a squashed cylinder (the end flat oval rather than circular) decorated all in white, with the four rows of beds lining the long sides -- two on the ground and two upstairs in a gallery -- so whichever row you sit on you're facing the centre of the room and can see everyone on the row opposite you. The upstairs gallery is better because you can see both rows opposite: top and bottom. In between all this is a small dance floor, a live DJ, and the open kitchen, while hanging from the ceiling are state of the art (white) speaker systems and an LCD projector beaming videos onto the blank white wall at the end of the room. Another excellent meal follows, and we chill out to the ambinet soundtrack while watching the mixture of tourists and local clubbers to an fro. I embarras myself (as usual) by walking downstairs and into the hall to ask a waitress where the loos are, only to have it pointed out to me that I forgot to put my shoes back on, and I probably don't want to visit the urinals in my stocking feet. I sheepishly scurry back through and up the stairs to put my shoes on and come back down, trying to look cool for the four long rows of people watching me and no doubt wondering what the hell I'm doing. Bed Supperclub is a copy of -- but not part of -- Supperclub, a worldwide chain of bed restaurants, the Amsterdam branch of which I have also visited, during business trips.
The only aspect of our two visits that we found a little unsettling was getting around. The traffic is extremely heavy with constant traffic jams, few taxis -- and no tuk-tuks -- have seatbelts fitted, locals whizz about on scooters without crash helmets, sometimes even carrying children. I was amazed that we went the whole weekend and saw only one minor collision. Even walking is dangerous because the pavements are really bad: cracked, loose stones, uneven edges, fire hydrants that force you to step into the road to get past them, that sort of thing. The Sky Train and Metro are the cleanest, safest and cheapest form of transport, but they seldom get you exactly where you want to go. Another irritation is the constant hard sell of the multitude of stall-holders, tailors, massage parlours, food vendors, tuk-tuk drivers and boat renters who all have a cheap offer for you; they want your money and don't like to take No for an answer.
Most guidebooks tell you to be wary of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, and rightly so. Many want to take you for a ride in more ways than one, and an acceptance of a seemingly attractive offer of "one hour tuk-tuk tour for 50 Baht" will invariably end up costing much more and land you at a fake gem store or backwoods sleazy restaurant run by the driver's brother. However it is possible to use both quite happily as long as you remain firmly in control. Only take taxis that display "Taxi Meter" on the roof, and always ask the driver to turn the meter on as you get in, otherwise he won't and you'll end up paying about three times what you should. If you know the city well enough to guess what the metered fare should be (the meters calculate the fare based on distance, not time, so traffic jams are irrelevent) you have the option of negotiating a fixed price for the journey before you get in, but I wouldn't advise that for the first-timer: I did that last time and paid about double what we paid on this second trip. Never accept an offer of a tuk-tuk ride that you didn't instigate yourself. If you want to take a tuk-tuk, state your destination before you get in and agree a price, and whether tuk-tuk or taxi, NEVER let the driver con you into going somewhere else, and don't believe a word he says if he tries. It's not as bad as it sounds as long as you don't give them control of the situation; we took several taxis and even one tuk-tuk on this trip, and found them all very good value. Also remember that all this talk of rip-off fares is relative. When the proper fare for a cross-town trip is only £1 and you get "ripped off" to the tune of £2.50, it's no big deal. Taxis and tuk-tuks really are very cheap IF you follow the advice above.
Bangkok has a seedy reputation as a centre for sex tourism, and that side of it is present and, I'm sure, appropriately seedy, but don't let that put you off going to visit if you get the chance. We didn't go looking for it and it didn't intrude on our enjoyment. Bangkok is a buzzing, lively, happy, dangerous, smelly, delicious, beautiful place that should definitely be on everybody's list of Places To Visit Before You Die.