Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bangkok: Shopping

The morning after our dinner at Samboon Dee, and I'm still smarting from being hoodwinked by that taxi driver into paying more for dinner than I ever should have in Bangkok, and at a restaurant I would in other circumstances have crossed the street to avoid. “Right, this morning we're definitely going shopping at MBK Centre: no detours, no changes of plan, and NO taxis!”
There are many, many places for shopping shopping here, but MBK has taken centre stage in our consciousness; the guidebook says that everyone goes there and this is backed up by most taxi drivers' opening gambit: “You want go MBK?” I'm in the market for a new digital camera, so it also helped that I knew MBK has its share of “gadget shops”. We've decided to boycott the Bangkok taxi service this morning to punish them for last night, so instead we book ourselves a place on the hotel's hourly free shuttle to the nearest Skytrain station.
The shuttle is an old but thankfully air-conditioned minibus and we join three other people on the 1 mile, 30 minute journey to the Skytrain which, being a monorail, runs above street level and is therefore reached by climbing stairs to the station. It takes us a few minutes to work out which of the two lines we are on, which station we're at, and which one we need to go to for the MBK Centre, but we're soon on the platform, clutching our machine-vended tickets, and the train appears almost immediately. Our clean, air-conditioned train ride is brief – only three stops to the Siam Centre then walk the rest of the way. The correct route would have been to change lines at Siam Centre and take a second train one stop to the National Stadium station, which is right outside MBK, but I decided against that because I wanted to spend more time walking and taking in the atmosphere of street life. Come to think of it I didn't even enquire whether the rest of the family felt the same way, I just said, “This way” and they duly followed. As it turned out, going on to the next train stop would have saved us quite a bit of time and shoe leather, so I guess we should have discussed it at least, but I was on a mission to find the place “my way” and that was that; I do feel sorry for my family sometimes!
MBK is either a large shopping mall that was once invaded by an occupying army of market traders, or it's a purpose-built eight-floor indoor market that has been infiltrated by a few “proper” shops. Either way it's a fascinating hybrid where independent market stalls compete with retail chains for your attention, and your hard-earned cash. I was taken aback by the sheer scale of it: eight floors (and they're very large floors!), each one kind of themed.

MBK in full swing

One floor is all clothing and souvenir market, another is full of music and DVD shops. One houses the food court (Yes mr. taxi driver – MBK IS also good for eating eating!), another is full of hairdressers and massage parlours, and yet another (my favourite), electronics. These are joined by chains of criss-crossing escalators all grouped together in a vast central atrium, so while you're ascending or descending to the next level you can see everyone else travelling to every other floor, with a big basement-to-glass roof hole in the middle. Imagine a giant 3D game of snakes 'n' ladders and you get the picture.
First order of business, new digital camera! There are loads of camera shops in MBK but we only needed to look at three. The first was a market stall and the price was good but, as the second shop (Sunny Camera) explained, the market stall sells grey imports that don't come with an international guarantee. Their price (for the genuine article) was higher, so I went to a third shop for a ... erm... third opinion.
There's a great catchphrase in Bangkok that you hear regularly in a sales situation when the seller doesn't have quite what the buyer wants to buy, but he REALLY wants the buyer to buy what he has. And that phrase is, “Same same, but different.” They don't have what you want but they don't want to put you off by introducing a negative atmosphere into the negotiation, so saying, “No” is out. Instead they want you to believe that what they have is the same (or same same) as what you came in for, only of course it isn't, so in order to remain honest the, “...but different” has to be tagged on to the end.
The third shop didn't have the Nikon D70S that I was looking for, so they tried instead to sell me a Canon EOS 350d saying – altogether now - , “Same same, but different!”

My new toy :-)

Same same, but different

I went back to Sunny Camera and paid the slightly higher price for a Nikon D70S plus two zoom lenses, but got a full international guarantee and a VAT Refund form so I could claim 7% back at the airport at the end of the holiday. Even so, the camera was still around £150 cheaper than in either Saudi or UK, so... bargain! The pictures you will see from the next post onwards will have been taken with the new love of my life, my D70S :-)

Next we went to the market area on Level 3; lane after lane of tightly packed, fluorescent-lit, brightly coloured stalls selling everything from T-shirts to chopsticks.

Abigail with two new friends

They even had T-shirts with “SAME SAME” written on the front and “BUT DIFFERENT” on the back; so of course I bought one.

After an hour or so in this area we were feeling a little tired, with aching feet. We went down to Level 2 found one of several massage parlours, each with about twenty masseurs all in uniform, giving shoulder and foot massages en masse to a similar number of customers, all in full view of passers-by. Our aching feet were screaming for some relief by now so I negotiated a special price of 1000 Baht for all four of us to get a foot massage together (1000 Baht is about £15, for which we got four foot massages lasting a full hour). So we went in and lay down on beds, and so became part of the show, watched by the passing shoppers.

Aaahh... that's better!

A Thai foot massage is a pleasant though sometimes uncomfortable experience. They include reflexology techniques designed to treat the whole body, which means they finish off with a shoulder/head massage to balance you out (good), but also go to work on the ends of your toes with a sharp stick (bad).

Ouch! Watch what you're doing with that stick!

Suitably refreshed foot-wise it was then time for eating eating which, contrary to local taxi driver advice, IS possible in MBK at any time. Lots of food choices as usual, but we chose The Fifth, a designer food court on Level 5 where you can eat any kind of Asian & European food while listening to a mix of Asian pop and sophisticated fusion music.

Eating eating at The Fifth

After an excellent (and good value) lunch it was back to the hotel to freshen up in time for our next evening jaunt.
I wanted to get a couple of accessories for the new camera, so while Karen and Abigail were getting ready Elliot and I nipped out to another nearby shopping marvel: Pantip Plaza.

So many gadgets, so little time!

This time only five levels and on a smaller scale from MBK, but ALL electronics stores. Everything from cameras to PCs, video games, and every kind of pirate software you could want.

Yet again an amazing place that I wished I'd had more time to explore. I did, of course, have enough time in Pantip Plaza to find my new camera at a lower price! >:0

Friday, August 25, 2006

Bangkok: Eating

You know you're in for a unique holiday culinary experience when, instead of shortbread fingers, your hotel room snack tray consists of two Pot Noodles and a few packets of foil-wrapped, fish-flavoured seaweed.
No need to go hungry in your room at The Baiyoke Sky!

Eating – or, to give it it's proper Thai-pigeon-English name, “eating eating” - will never be the same again. Why “eating eating”? It's an amusing verbal tic among those Thais whose English isn't very good to say certain keywords twice in quick succession, as if the second utterance confirms the first (“...eating. See? I told you I meant eating!”).

So, after checking in and unpacking (and taking a photo of Pot Noodles & seaweed), we venture out of the hotel to explore downtown Bangkok – without the aid of a safety net. As I've said before, the first thing that hits you on the streets, apart from the heat and humidity, is the noise; the cacophony of voices, car horns (although, curiously, never a police siren), tuk-tuk engines, music. And one of the most striking sights is the abundance of street vendors offering cooked food for sale. Pork noodles, chicken satay, duck fried rice, deep-fried banana, barbecued salted fish (salted and barbecued while still alive, I should add), and every possible way of serving shrimp. Food is everywhere.
In a refreshing departure from the usual guidebook advice to “avoid buying food from a street vendor like the plague”, Bangkok guidebooks (we used the Lonely Planet one) positively encourage it for, while it's true that the ramshackle wheeled cart that serves as mobile kitchen, the hammered- aluminium “mess tins” you eat out of, and the chef's broken-toothed smile do not exactly whet one's appetite, the food itself is made from good ingredients, expertly cooked under difficult conditions, and delicious.
For our first “go” we pick a man selling spicy pork noodles on a busy main road just down from our hotel.
"What ARE we doing??"

He stands behind his cart, barely visible through the billowing cloud of savoury-smelling steam bubbling up from the large pot from which he ladles a generous helping of noodles, pork, spring onions, and little dumplings of tofu (all swimming in a light-grey “soup”), into a dented aluminium bowl, while we wait in anticipation, seated on brightly-coloured miniature plastic garden stools at a folding camp table. He serves us the bowl (one bowl between four because we're not sure we'll like it) and we tuck in while trying to avoid inhaling the traffic fumes on our one side, and to not get in the way of the steady stream of pedestrians flowing past on the other, and after the first spoonful wishing we'd ordered a bowl each.

The first evening, and time to indulge in Bangkok's second-most popular past-time after eating eating; shopping shopping. Our guidebook tells of the Mahboonkrong – or MBK – centre being a must-see place, so we negotiate a fare of 200Baht for our taxi driver to take us to MBK (before getting in the taxi of course). Once in the taxi and on our way (crawling along in first gear), it begins...
“You want nice restaurant?”
“We'd just like to go to MBK please”
“You want shopping shopping, or eating eating?”
“Erm, well, both really.”
“Oh, MBK just shopping. No good for eating eating. Also is closed now. You want go nice Thai restaurant? Very good seafood!”
“Umm, well, we just wanted to look around the shops at MBK and get something to eat nearby.”
“No shop tonight. Tomorrow better for shopping shopping. Tonight good for eating eating.”
At this point I gave up and let him take us to a “nice restaurant he knows”, which turns out to be a long Portakabin-like structure a bit off the beaten track, wedged between a major road artery and a railway line and reached via a long, dark alleyway. Karen and I exchange worried, “we've been had” looks, but decide to make the best of it; it's getting late, it took about 45 minutes to get here, and we're all starving. I pay the taxi driver without saying thank you, and we walk under a kind of car-port of corrugated plastic roof panels to be greeted by “mine host”, who promptly thrusts plastic baskets into our hands and guides us to a row of large algae-dimmed glass tanks along the right-hand side so that we can pick our main course – nice!
Elliot and Abigail draw the line at this, neither being a huge seafood fan, but Karen chooses the least sorry-looking sea bass from a sorry-looking bunch and I choose the smallest lobster I could find. Choosing a live lobster from a tank for my dinner was a life experience still on my “yet-to-do” list, and I think this was one of the main reasons we didn't jump straight into the next taxi and retreat to “civilization”.
My dinner: before...

Inside, the long dining room of Samboon Dee (I gleaned the name of the establishment from the back of the staffs' T-shirts) was almost empty - just two other tables occupied. We choose a table about half-way down on the right and settle down in the plastic garden chairs to listen to our dinner background music - by Led Zeppelin, Oasis, and AC/DC. Elliot commented that the playlist could have come from my iPod.
Dinner arrives, looking very different from fifteen minutes earlier. My lobster (which I'd ordered stir-fried in sweet and sour sauce) has turned bright red from its original bluey-grey colouring (you would too if you'd been boiled alive) and Karen's sea bass is nicely presented on an oval metal tray, having been poached in an onion and garlic broth.
...and after.

Despite the threatening ambience and seen-better-days d├ęcor, dinner was very good, but also very expensive by Bangkok standards (that's whole lobsters for you). We sat in the taxi back to the hotel wondering how much commission the first taxi driver got paid for persuading us to visit his “sponsor”.

Bangkok: Traffic

I guess every large city has its own particular traffic problems and unique features, but in Central Bangkok the traffic seems to dominate one's experience. From the various interesting vehicle types to the complex junctions with their technical-looking roadsigns,

from the noise and the fumes to the ever-present chance that – even walking through a crowded street market – you could be nudged out of the way by a family, baby and all, on a motor scooter: you can't ignore the traffic.
Watch out mate!

For the tourist there are several ways to get around: there's apparently a metro system, although I never saw any evidence of it. There are buses, but I don't know if tourists ever use them – we didn't. We did, however, use the Skytrain – a modern monorail system that, while efficient and good value for money, disappoints due to poor coverage - there are only two lines and they seem pretty short. I may be doing it an injustice because we only used it once and I didn't research it thoroughly, but the fact that the hotel lays on a free shuttle service to the nearest station tells you that it's not the most comprehensive mass transit system.
The two most commonly used forms of transport are the taxi and it's cheekier, smaller brother, the tuk-tuk.
Tuk-tuks look better at night, with their many, multicoloured rear lights

Tuk-tuks are motorized three-wheelers with a roof; kind of a modern-day rikshaw. The driver sits up front and has motorcycle-style handlebars and car-style pedals, and the single bench seat in the back can take three adults quite comfortably, although I did see a couple of tuk-tuks laden with four and even five people. The taxis themselves are regular saloon cars, but what's striking about them is the variety of colours available. Very bright, day-glo reds, pinks, purples, greens and yellows make taxis hard to miss.

The hotel warns you not to use either taxis or tuk-tuks on the basis that the drivers' motives are less than honourable, but we didn't have much choice if we wanted to get around town so we chanced it with the taxis, drawing the line at tuk-tuks.

The main thing to know when using a Bangkok taxi is to ignore the sign on the roof saying, “TAXI-METER”, because very few of them actually bother using their meters. What you need to do is tell them where you want to go and negotiate a fixed price for the journey before you get in, otherwise you'll get a nasty shock at journey's end when the drivers tries to overcharge you. This is actually a good thing, since even short journeys can take half an hour or more due to the congestion, and a metered trip could work out quite expensive.
Roads near the King's Palace were brightly decorated with royal tributes; the Thais really love their royal family. Note the sticky tape holding the windscreen together!

The other thing you need to remember is, once you've told the driver where you want to go, stick to it and don't let him talk you into going somewhere else, which he will try to do. We fell for that trick on our first night, which I'll tell you about in the next posting.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bangkok: Cityscape

Bangkok is full, like an overstuffed suitcase.

Everywhere you look, the space is fully occupied, with humanity spilling out over the edge into the street. Look up, and the skyscrapers, shopping malls and Skytrain rails compete for their own piece of skyline.

Look down, and you need a verbal machete of “excuse me”'s and “sorry”'s to hack your way through the jungle of narrow streets, pavement food vendors, three-deep market stalls and their non-stop throng of customers.

Looking down from our 67th-floor room at the Baiyoke Sky hotel it's almost like studying an ant farm.
See the Johnnie Walker ad on the tower? Our room was about at the end of JW's coat-tails

Being behind the ad picture, city photos taken from our window were a bit fuzzy.

What seems at first a static vista becomes, on closer inspection, a labyrinth of hustle and bustle with tiny dots scurrying back and forth, hurrying as if to meet some anonymously imposed scurry quota.
Just being here is tiring.

Another striking image is all the wires. Some eccentric city planner seems long ago to have had the bright idea of stringing all the power cables and telephone wires along the street, about ten feet off the ground. So between the undergrowth of human jungle and the soaring canopy of concrete towers, you have this tangled nervous system of black lines pumping conversations, light, and information around, like a network of veins protruding from the skin of this monster city.

When the Thai people have had enough of jostling for position on the pavements, they jump into or onto a vehicle and do battle on the roads. When we first arrived I saw many buildings along the streets that were soot-blackened, like scarred victims of a long-extinguished fire, but the soot is from the incessant belching of thousands of exhaust pipes as they pass by or, more often, stand in gridlock waiting their turn to creep forward another few feet.
But more of traffic another time.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Bangkok: Intense!

It's Monday afternoon and, having completed the Bangkok portion of our trip to Thailand, we're at the airport waiting to board the one hour flight to Phuket, where I hope we'll have a well-earned rest!

Bangkok is a truly amazing place. Crowded, tightly packed, noisy, colourful, smiling, delicious, smelly, frightening, beautiful, ugly. I could write for hours about the three days we've just had, and it's going to be a tough job choosing just a select few of the hundreds of photos I've taken, for publication here.

There's so much to tell you and show you that I'm going to split it into several entries, each one on a different theme. I hope that this way the photos will look better together and help to explain the many different, unforgettable memories that I have of this city.

Getting on the plane soon so I'll sign off for now. I'll try to get the first couple of chapters posted in the next few days.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Passage to Bangkok

It's Friday afternoon, one o'clock, and we're in Bangkok. As I write we've not long ago checked in to our rooms at the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, which, at 88 floors, is Thailand's tallest building. Our rooms are on the 67th floor so looking at this picture

you can imagine me looking back at you from my window, about three quarters of the way to the top.

This promises to be one of the most spectacular holidays we've had, and as usual, Karen's done all the work of researching destinations, resorts, and hotels online, and has done all the bookings on the internet too, so although I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the details she's shown me, I'm looking forward to discovering the holiday as I go along.

We started on Wednesday, as soon as Karen got out of work shortly after 3pm with the now familiar road trip to Bahrain. King Khalid Airport in Riyadh is not the nicest place in the world, and a night in Bahrain is a good way to start any holiday. On top of that she saved money by flying us out to Thailand from Bahrain over what the fare from Riyadh would have been, so result all round.

In our own car and with my new GPS fully loaded with Middle East maps there's no stopping us now, and we cruised around finding shopping malls, restaurants etc. We chose a different hotel from our last visit: the Radisson SAS Diplomat, located in the Diplomatic Area of Manama.

A litte pricy but very nice. They even have the obligatory "Fiddlers Green" Irish pub on the ground floor.

Come Thursday evening and it's time to head to the airport. We'd arranged with the Embassy in Manama to leave our car in their car park, so we called our now regular taxi driver Abdul (see earlier Bahrain trip posts for stories about Abdul) to pick up us and all our luggage from outside the Embassy gates. I told him to bring two cars, because there's the four of us plus four suitcases, plus carry-on bags of assorted sizes, and I knew it wouldn't all go in his boot. Abdul arrives on time but his cohort has to be nagged several times by Abdul on the mobile before he finally shows up, ten minutes late. We all pile into Abdul's car with half the luggage in the boot, leaving late bloke (who's name I don't know so we'll call him Speedy) to bring up the rear of the convoy with the rest of the bags. Abdul dodges the Thursday evening jams by taking another route he knows, and gets us to the airport just on time.

It is at this point that I need to mention the first of the surprises Karen has up her sleeve; she's got a good deal on the internet and bought us First Class ticket on the Gulf Air flight to Bangkok! The first dividend of this is that we are allowed to use the special First & Business Class entrance to the terminal at Bahrain Airport. I pay Abdul for both cars (again, I have to decide what the fare is! - see earlier Bahrain stories for explanation) and tell him to give Speedy whatever cut he thinks he deserves. Then we say our goodbyes and stroll through to First Class check-in. Boy, this is the way to travel! Leather sofas, check-in desks that are actually proper desks, with chairs so you can take a load off while checking in, and maroon-suited porters weighing and labelling all the bags while the check-in clerk taps away on his computer keyboard and completes the process for all four of us without having to uncross his legs. Passport control and security screening are similarly fast-tracked affairs and before we know it we're in the terminal and browsing round a shop or two before making our way to the Gulf Air First Class lounge, which is a seperate area accessed via the Business Class lounge, so you have to enter the Business Class lounge first, then walk through it, past all the Business Class passengers and then walk through a smoked-glass double door into the Holy of Holies. The lounge is very nicely designed and decorated, and we have what I can only describe as an Arabian tent to ourselves, it being a raised platform with two huge sofas covered in scatter cushions facing each other across a long, low table, and all under a four-posted canopy of striped cotton - not bad eh?

We while away almost two hours here, sipping G&T's, nibbling nuts and olives, and generally feeling quite smug. Come boarding time and we are among the first to board, and have the rare pleasure of entering the aircraft and then turning LEFT! Our seats are 1A&B, and 2A&B, and we settle down to 7 hours of champagne, a la carte food prepared to order by our on-board chef, personal video tape library, blah blah blah. Oh yes, and we slept a little too, seeing as it was actually an overnight flight. We took off at 11.15pm Bahrain time, and landed around 10.20 am Bangkok time (four hours ahead of Bahrain). Even in large, fully-reclining seats I find it hard to sleep on the plane, so we land at Bangkok airport (which, bizarrely, I notice seems to have a golf course running right through the middle of it. Not kidding, there are runways both sides of the fairway and the plane actually had to taxi across it!) feeling very tired.

My first impressions of Bangkok, gleaned only from the taxi ride to the hotel, are that it's a city of lots. Lots of tall buildings, lots of trees, lots of traffic, lots of people, lots of concrete, lots of huge advertising hoardings, lots and lots of telephone wires running conspicuously at low-level the length of each street. It's as if some grand designer had bought all the parts to make a city, only then to discover that he's only got half the area to work with. It looks like two cities' worth of city parts crammed into one.

Right, that's it for now. Karen and the children have been asleep for the last hour and tiredness is catching up on me. More soon, and photos too.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

On the road again

The summer here has been pretty dull in comparison to the first few months of our stay, for simple and obvious reasons: it gets so hot here in the Summer months that thare are fewer large functions (which are outdoor), desert trips are out of the question, and many ex-pats leave Riyadh for an extended Summer break. So we've been without some of our friends and with a suddenly much less active social calendar than we've become used to.

That said, we've not been sitting around at home twiddling our thumbs; there have been pool outings, Wadi Club gatherings, a murder mystery party and even a poker night, so still entertaining although not on the scale you've read about here before.

I've also found yet more photos of our UK trip - ones taken with Elliot's camera. I'll post them soon.

Later today we'll be setting off on our own Summer holiday. Driving to Bahrain for an overnight stay before flying to Bangkok where we stay for three nights, then flying on to Phuket for 8 nights: can't wait! I'm sure I'll be online while I'm away and will try to post about the trip in small bite-size chunks, rather than keep you waiting til I get back, and then having an epic to write!

Stay tuned...

Sunday, August 13, 2006


I think I mentioned before that friends of ours down the road were trying to palm one of their six rabbits off on us. Well, Abigail to be specific. Needles to say it wasn't too hard so we now have a little addition to our household.

He used to be called Churchill but none of the members of McFly is called Churchill, so Abigail renamed him Dougie. We have two atriums in the house (or should that be atria?). Anyway one of them's full of plants but the other one has made a perfect home for Dougie. It's open to the air (at roof level) but free from too much direct sunlight and safe from birds, cats etc., and he's got plenty of room to run around.

Here's a small video of Dougie in action, battling it out with one of Abigail's flip flops, which drive him mad for some reason! (Please be patient - video may take a while to download)
Oh, and sorry if it shoves an advert in your face before playing. I don't make the rules up.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Finally! UK Trip Part 2

Sorry I haven't posted anything for what must seem like ages. You've heard the excuses before - busy with work, computers dying left right & centre, and so on. Plus the children being on holiday are around the house most of the day so the quiet time I used to spend blogging has been replaced by helping with homework and trying to suggest things for them to do.

Anyway, still busy workwise but at least my computer's working again, as is Karen's. It turned out that Karen's data hadn't been damaged but I lost all of mine, so by the time I'd restored my latest backup I'd still lost quite a few photos :-(

After the cricket match on the wednesday we had a six-day holiday in the UK. I picked Karen and the children up from Heathrow and we had a very pleasant few days visiting family and friends. Here are some of the highlights in pictures:-

Elliot & Lucas. Note the "same-colouredness" of Elliot's hair...

Elliot & Abigail like to dye their hair for the summer. Elliot likes to wear plastic bags on his head.

The dyed hair look; and there's that Lucas kid again!

Elliot & Abigail with Lucas, Daisy and Ruby

"Cap'n Jack Sparrow at yer service, Yaar!"

Elliot & James having some good clean fun

A lovely afternoon for a barbeque with friends Sue & Steve

Pete on bass and Elliot on guitar - watch out Journey South!

Champneys Health Spa from the gardens

All this scenery, and a massage too!

It doesn't get more different from Riyadh than this