One crazy city (CONTAINS VIDEO)

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Saturday, December 16, 2006

Food stalls and little knick-knack shops are everywhere in Bangkok.  The food stalls are lined along the side of the road, many accompanied by plastic chairs that leave only a small channel for foot traffic.  Your basic stall is a ramshackle barbeque featuring some intimate part of a chicken or pig being unceremoniously hacked into meal-sized portions by a wizened old lady.  Another lady squats next to the barbeque scraping leftovers from used plates, briefly rinsing the plates in dirty water and returning them into circulation.  The plates of food themselves look quite tasty but not when you see how they are prepared.  The road from the hostel to the train station is lined with these stalls, stores selling a variety of rusty autoparts, a few nice-looking Japanese restaurants and about 15 7-Elevens.
The train, and the subway we switch to, are, in contrast, very clean, sleek and orderly.  It's a big change from the mayhem of the street to the first-world efficiency of the public transport system.  At the Hualomphong Railway Station we buy the last two available train tickets to Chiang Mai, in the north of the country for a week hence; quite luckily considering that this is the busiest time of year and Bangkok-Chiang Mai is the most well-worn tourist route.  As soon as we're done, an official-looking lady approaches us and says, "come with me, please".  She leads us upstairs to a busy travel agent and seats us in front of another nice lady.  We hadn't planned to make any further arrangements but end up booking bus transport to and from Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, accommodation there and in Chiang Mai, and a three-day trek in the hills and jungles north of Chiang Mai.  Although we bargain a fair bit, we may well have got ripped off a little, but we got all our arrangements done in one fell swoop, saving a lot of hassle.
Alongside one of the unused railway tracks are a row of people giving haircuts to locals.  I need a haircut and this looks like it might not be too expensive so we go up to the head guy (so to speak), point to my unshaven pate and make a sound like a buzz clipper.  "Ah, skinhead!" he shouts happily.  Not quite the description I would have preferred to be yelled in public but that is in fact the hairdo I'm after.  A girl who speaks good English talks to us while my hair is quickly and efficiently removed.  She explains that they are volunteers who do this every weekend as a free community service. As only a very short-term member of the community, I feel a little guilty for accepting this service for free, so we give the guy a few baht at the end. 
The road down to the central tourist area look pretty easy on the map, so we decide to walk it.  Well, if we thought walking along the street in Hong Kong was challenging, we ain't seen nothing yet.  The sidewalks are completely clogged with stalls selling everything from cow stomachs to soapholders to lawn mowers to pieces of unidentifiable deep-fried meats.  Add in thousands of weekend shoppers heading in each direction and moving along the footpath becomes like pushing your way through a crowded nightclub.  The street isn't any better, with cars, buses, motorcycles and tuk-tuks all haring around like kids in fairground dodgems.  Traffic lights don't seem to make a difference as the vehicles zoom around in all directions regardless.  Crossing the road is simply a matter of walking out into the traffic and letting it drive around you.  You can't wait for a gap because there never is one.  The pollution from all the traffic is so thick that it colours the air.
At the end of this street is Wat Pho, one of the major tourist spots in town, a huge golden temple surrounded by a bunch of pointy structures and fierce statues.  Right next door is the Royal Palace, home to the King of Thailand.  The Thais absolutely love their king and his photo can be seen everywhere.  Every second person, it seems, is wearing a yellow t-shirt, bearing the king's emblem and a 'we love the King'-type slogan.  Apparently the King just celebrated his birthday the other day - a big occasion.
By this time it is 4pm and we still haven't had any lunch, slightly offput by the unsanitary-looking food stalls and unable to find anything resembling a restaurant.  Once we locate Khao San Road, the options become much wider.  Khao San Road is the backpacker area, a manic street of hostels, restaurants, t-shirt and cheap jewellery sellers and loud Thai music.  It's so over-the-top that it is almost a parody of itself and I'm glad that we aren't based here.  Food is easy to come by though, so we have a passable meal.
No trip to Bangkok would be complete without a ride on a tuk-tuk, the ubiquitous little three-wheel death traps that zip around the streets.  One guy quotes us a high price back to our hostel then offers to drop it if we make "one stop" at a jewellery store along the way.  A second guy says our hostel is too far away but agrees to take us to the closest subway station for 100 baht.  We're only after the experience of a tuk-tuk anyway, so we zip around with this guy.  Tuk-tuks only top out at about 50km/h but that feels like really fast, due to their opennes and the guy giving it everything he's got to reach that speed.  Being half-car half-motorbike, they weave in and out of traffic like motorbikes, taking only the most cursory of glances before changing lanes.
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