Thailand - Bangkok

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Our taxi from the airport to the city centre struggled to find our hotel, despite being given the name, address and a telephone number - apparently this is a common problem in Bangkok. They obviously don't give the drivers the 'knowledge' test like they do in London!
After eventually checking in and unpacking we ventured out to the Khao San road a few blocks away for our first 'walk of enlightenment' down the famous strip. It was actually less hectic and bustling than we had imagined from other travellers tales (PICS). Still, it isn't somewhere you would want to linger for too long and you would need to be brave, deaf or stupid to stay in accommodation along it.
We had heard multiple times about the 'great deals' that are to be had along the Khao San Road for onward flights within Asia so spent a couple of days trying to find where these illusive deals might be. We eventually found them...on the internet and by booking directly with the airlines. Every tour agent went straight to these websites, found the price we found and then added their commission on top - a waste of time! At least a couple of agents had the decency to admit that this was exactly what they were doing!
Undeterred we returned to one tour operator and booked a day trip out to Kanchanaburi, a local floating market and the Bridge over the River Kwai, for a few days later.
The weekend in Bangkok sees the unfurling of the gigantic Chatachuk market, where everything and anything can be found and bargained for. Both locals and tourists alike frequent the place as a shopping mecca. To give you an idea of the sort of scale we are talking about; there are well over 6,000 stalls crammed into a maze-like area with even more customers jockeying for position. 4 hours later, a bag full of fisherman's pants (the travellers staple), and some tasty local sweet treats digested, we had barely begun to scratch the surface of the place. In summation - it's HUGE!!
In a couple of quirky little incidents that were to become reminiscent of the whole of Thailand, we witnessed the complete freezing of all activity, commotion and conversation as the national anthem was blasted out over the markets speakers at exactly 6pm - very surreal! To add to this alien event we spotted a couple of local policemen surveying the smooth (and legal) running of the market from atop their Segways - looking like something out of Robocop - Bizarre!
The main reason for lingering a little longer than planned in Bangkok was to sort out our Vietnamese and Indian visas. With the Indian one taking an anticipated 5 days to complete and the embassy only open during the week we rose early on the Monday and negotiated the minefield that is Bangkok Taxis (rip-off merchants) in order to be stood outside the Indian Embassy when they opened their doors at precisely 9am.
We had been warned about the bureaucracy related with Indian visas so had planned to spend the day at the embassy. With uncharacteristic good luck we were out of there by 9.30am (to return that Friday to pick up the visa). Wanting to test our luck we headed straight for the Vietnamese Embassy to try and kill two birds on one day!
The sun even shines on a dogs arse some days and our luck had stretched to getting the Vietnamese visa sorted that same day. An afternoon nap was our reward!
The aforementioned day trip began with another early start and a bus leaving Bangkok at 7am. The first, unscheduled, stop was pitched as an 'opportunity' to sample coconut sugar, or rather another opportunity for the locals to try and flog their wares to the unsuspecting tourists.
We finally reached our first real stop, jumping on a long boat to meander through the waterways en route to the floating market (PICS). The market itself is actually only still running to feed the tourists insatiable appetite for 'authentic' Thai life and the souvenirs that go with it. We played along and parted with our Thai Baht for a couple of traditional masks - finally agreeing the sale only moments before leaving the market when the seller was happy with her negotiated 'cut' of the price.
Another unexpected detour took us via a local teak carving studio, full of intricate and expensive pieces that could take up to 8 months to complete (PICS). Some were worth up to $20,000. Although this was another selling opportunity it turned out to be quite interesting and the skill and craftsmanship were impressive...though not enough to tempt us into parting with our money.
If only we had seen the film of the same name, we may have known whether the Bridge over the River Kwai in the movie actually looked like the real one (PICS). Apparently the one used in the film was purpose built in Sri Lanka - don't ask us why! Or as Andrews Dad would say - "don't ask us Kwai!" :) We walked across the bridge, making strategic stops to take photos and to dodge the train that ran along the same path as all the pedestrians. Safety isn't high on the agenda in Thailand, as suggested by the huge gaps and lack of railings all the way along the bridge.
The bridge was built in the space of 18 months by a collection of British, Australian and Dutch POW's, mostly in their 20's and captured in Burma. The workers were subjected to various diseases (must have been staying at some of the backpackers along the Khao San Road!) and thousands died in the process. They were all buried in the nearby cemetery - our final stop of the day (PIC). The searing heat was almost too much to bear so we spent most of our time in the shade waiting for a few die-hard history buffs to waltz around the giant cemetery.
Our journey back to Bangkok took us via a giant Buddhas shrine in the shape of an enormous bell (PIC) - it wasn't on the itinerary and had a funky Thai name so we have no idea where or what it was - sorry!
One thing we have noticed in Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, is that the Thais REALLY love their King. To be fair it's not hard to spot! Every lamppost is adorned with the Thai flag and the kings flag, most houses have a picture of the king and giant posters are erected all over the city with various portraits of the king throughout his reign. Almost all Thai workers wear yellow t-shirts with the Kings emblem and roads are even lavishly decorated with tributes to their ruler (PIC). What's even more amazing is that you can be thrown in jail if you so much as mutter defamation about the King! The Sex Pistols wouldn't have lasted long out here!
The following day we set out to take in the River, Grand Palace and Wat Po Temple. On our way to the Palace we were approached by a friendly local who asked us about our plans. He pointed out that the Palace was closed that morning due to a local celebration but there were a number of other temples close by that were open for this special occasion and we should go see them in the meantime. The man also added that there was a good tailor who had a one-day sale today. He accosted a tuk-tuk driver and agreed a dirt-cheap price to see these few temples and we (slightly suspiciously) agreed. SCAM ALERT!
We had heard that tuk-tuk drivers have a habit of taking you to various shops en route to your destination so that they can get a free fuel voucher - 'no matter' we thought, we would play along, show no interest in these shops and then get to our destination for a fraction of the price (PIC).
At the first temple we ran into another local who was now living in the UK and he confirmed that we were lucky to be able to get to these smaller local temples. He also mentioned the same tailor nearby that had an excellent sale on today. SCAM ALERT, SCAM ALERT!
The tuk-tuk driver, as expected, took us around to a jeweller, tour shop and the "famous tailors" in between temples. We showed such little interest at the jewellers that we were asked to leave within 5 minutes - what a result! We pacified the tour operators by asking a few questions before leaving, and that just left the tailors.
We entered the shop, known as Voglee Tailors, and told the staff that we weren't at all interested. After quickly being ushered to an upstairs room we were presented with drinks and a glossy catalogue of men's and women's clothing. We continued to maintain our disinterest until Andrew decided that perhaps he should get a winter coat (obviously the 30-degree temperatures were too brisk for Andrew!). We looked through the samples and eventually agreed on a decent price for the coat and 3 shirts. We paid up and filled out the forms to get it all sent back to the UK.
The tuk-tuk driver, obviously pleased with his three fuel vouchers, then took us to our penultimate temple but explained that he could not park outside as the police would move him on - he would be driving around until we had finished.
We knew as soon as he had dropped us off that we would never see him again. The money that we would have paid him to drop us at the final stop was nothing in comparison to the value of the fuel vouchers he had gained. We returned 10 minutes later and he was nowhere to be seen!
Slightly peeved and feeling slightly stupid we had to get another tuk-tuk to take us to the Grand Palace. This was not as easy as it sounds - especially as we insisted they take us there directly! We finally reached the Grand Palace and found that it was just closing - and it had been open all day!
We were able to get into the Wat Po Temple before it closed and spent some time looking around the grounds. Tip: Don't pay the dodgy man at the ticket office on the left hand side of the entrance - go in and walk anti-clockwise and you can see the whole thing for free - just like the guidebooks say it should be! (PICS)
Returning to our hotel after an exhausting day we checked the Internet for the name of the tailor. What we read stopped us in our tracks and left our jaws firmly embedded in the keyboard! The tailor's name "Voglee" appeared on several blog sites detailing an elaborate scam that is designed to get you through the doors of the store. Everything from the local by the river to the local at the temple; from the Palace being closed to the special sale at the tailor. It was all written in black and white and the days events unravelled like a scene from a film before our eyes. We had been scammed!!!
It's not as if there were any signs!
The blogs said that if you asked for the goods to be sent home then you would never see them. It also said that some people who had tried to cancel the order had been met with aggression from the tailors and had been unable to get their money back. Even involving the tourist police and government citizens' advice had led nowhere.
We decided our only plan of action was to play dumb and ask for our clothes to be ready for collection before we left Bangkok. We told them that we had friends that were interested in placing an order and wanted to see our clothes first. After an anxious wait in a secluded back room on the third floor, surrounded by henchmen, we walked away with our clothes. We even got another free shirt thrown in! The clothes may not have been the finest quality but it was a lot better than walking away with nothing - or worse 'disappearing' at the hands of the dozen henchmen who were permanently stationed on the ground floor of the tailors!
We simply couldn't believe how stupid and na´ve we had been. We had read about all the scams, are naturally cynical with smartly dressed English-speaking locals, and still managed to fall for it.
Oh and by the way, the temples we saw were nothing much to speak of! (PICS)
During one of our ramblings around the city we stumbled upon the Suan Saranrom Cultural Park. The park is set up as a place for locals to enjoy their pastimes and for tourists to experience locals enjoying said pastimes. Dancing, jogging, aerobics, stalls with local food, and various other activities take place all at once. By far the most impressive and entertaining sight was a group of locals playing keepy-ups with a wicker ball (PICS & VID). These middle-aged men were awe-inspiring; their agility, flexibility and skill with the ball would embarrass a premiership footballer. The Liverpool team could do with a training camp at Suan Saranrom Cultural Park!
We spent our final day in Bangkok safely holed up in a Starbucks. We paid for a days Internet access and indulged in coffees, frappes, cakes and pies, whilst updating the website and booking our accommodation in Chiang Mai.

Our relatively uneventful day took a turn for the worse at about 2am when Andrew awoke to the dulcet tones of Verdi throwing up in the hotel toilet. Food poisoning had struck with a vengeance and the most frustrating thing is that we can only deduce that it came from a Subway sandwich - should have stuck to the dodgy looking street food!
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