Bangkok (not so) Dangerous

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bangkok: City of ladyboys, fat old sleazebags with underage girls, the 'Bangkok Hilton' prison and women firing ping-pong balls at each other without use of their hands. This was all I knew about the place prior to arrival, but I now had a whole week there to form my own impressions. I wasn’t overly keen on spending much time here, but was here for two reasons - to get a visa from the Vietnamese embassy, and because it was the starting point for the final leg of my Asia trip – a month long loop around Indochina.

The flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok was effectively a journey in a time machine. Within a few hours, I was transported from medieval, clapped out Kathmandu to gleaming space-age Bangkok airport, flying over the futuristic looking cityscape as we landed.

I certainly didn’t make the most of my week in Bangkok – I rarely ventured out of bed before 11am, and didnt even leave my room on some days. After the last two months of non stop activity and group tours I was utterly spent, and found it almost impossible to motivate myself to go out sightseeing. Also, I was in a really nice hotel for the first time in months, with a double bed! And an ensuite western toilet!

When I did manage to overcome my inertia and battle the oppressive heat and humidity outside, I decided to give the ladyboys a miss and instead visit some temples. The first one I went to, Wat Phra Kaew, is a 17th century temple in the heart of Bangkok, and the most sacred temple in all of Thailand. I was surprised at how new it all looked, every surface was brilliant white or covered with shiny gold plating or sparkling multicoloured jewels. There are gleaming golden spires everywhere, and jewel encrusted statues of animals and demons. To me it looked fake, lacking any sense of reverence or antiquity. The fact that it was utterly crammed with tourists made it seem even more like a tacky Las Vegas style attraction. The second temple I visited was Wat Pho, which is in a similar over-the-top style with more golden spires and jewel encrusted tilework, and a gigantic golden statue of a reclining Buddha.

Once I’d had enough of tacky temples, I had a wander down the tourist haven of Khao San road, which was full of sunburnt and drunken British tourists. It is lined with cheap bars, shops selling fake designer clothes and crummy market stalls selling sunglasses and comedy headgear. It reminded me of Magaluf. 

The next day, in search of a civilization-fix, I took the futuristic Skytrain monorail to Siam Paragon shopping mall. I was amazed at how expensive everything was here, especially clothes, which were probably made in some sweatshop just up the road. I quickly gave up on the idea of shopping, and instead visited Siam Ocean World on the bottom floor of the mall, which is one of most impressive aquariums I have ever seen. That evening, I dinner in the Vertigo restaurant – 61 storeys high and with incredible panoramic views over the city. At this point I was feeling rather bored and lonely, and looking forward to starting my trip. Big cities aren’t my favourite places when I’m travelling alone, and I was beginning to wish I had stayed somewhere more sociable than my comfortable but impersonal hotel. I hardly spoke to a soul all week, and for this reason my memories of Bangkok aren’t overly fond.

I met my tour group at the end of the week. We had one day in Bangkok, where we took a boat trip on the city’s canals. It was interesting to see so many houses lining the flood prone canals, some no more than decaying shacks and others that were mansions, surrounded by security fencing. Despite the litter and pollution in the canals, they were full of wildlife. Huge monitor lizards grazed by the water, and we had a go at feeding the large fish that live there.

That night we took a train up to Chiang Mai. At the train station, I had my first insight into the ‘King worship’ that goes on here. A huge screen at the back flickered to life, and started playing a montage of soft-focus images of the Thai King, looking all benevolent and wise. The national anthem played in the background. As soon as it started, everyone in the station immediately stopped whatever they were doing, stood up and put their hands over their chests. It was surreal – as if a switch had just been simultaneously turned on in everyone’s head. They remained like this for the duration of the anthem, and when it stopped they just carried on as usual. They really worship their King here – you can get arrested just for making a disparaging comment about him!

Due to problems with the train, we didnt arrived into Chiang Mai until late afternoon. As we only had one night there it wasn’t possible to see much of the place. We visited another gaudy, gold plated Buddhist temple on a hill overlooking the city, and left early the next morning to drive to the border with Laos.

So that was Thailand – Im sure it has a lot more to offer than the tiny bit that I have seen, and I may well come back one day to see it properly, when I will hopefully be able to summon up more effort!
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