One night in Bangkok (plus three more!)

Trip Start Sep 21, 2008
Trip End Jun 19, 2009

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

We got lucky and got a direct flight to Bangkok from Hong Kong.  We were supposed to go through India since it was originally the next stop on our world tour.  We decided India would be too much for us, so we skipped it to spend more time in Southeast Asia.

Our first stop was Bangkok.  We decided to stay on Khao San Road, so we caught a shuttle bus from the airport for just 150Baht each.  (Paul tried his negotiating skills with rogue taxi drivers first, but failed to get a better price than the bus!)  We had a quick 45 minute ride in air conditioned comfort and were dropped off at a lively strip just as it was getting dark.  We found Four Brothers Hotel on our second try, and found a clean and spacious double room waiting for us for only 600 Baht.  We decided to look for other options the next day, depending on how our first night went.

We dumped our gear and headed out to the streets.  Khao San Road is an area known for its night markets, with street vendors hawking clothes, accessories and fake CDs/DVDs.  There are bars and restaurants lining the streets, and the entire road becomes a pedestrian walkway after dark.  We spent a few hours walking around, getting oriented, trying the street food (the Pad Thai and Mango Sticky Rice were great!), watching the street entertainment and getting pestered by bars, tailors and tuk tuk drivers trying to sell to us.  We also found some great original art, and having learned from the earlier lessons, we bought two paintings right away.  We ended the night somewhat early and enjoyed free movies and air conditioning in our room.  But the bathroom stunk like sewer gas, so we decided to try our luck finding another room in the morning.

Day two started out with breakfast, laundry drop-off and an attempt to find a different hotel.  We were successful with the first two items on the agenda and had a great breakfast with real coffee and dropped off our laundry right away.  We wandered the streets and found some great new areas surrounding Khao San Road, with more quaint hotels, bars and cafes, but after finding many places full and other places no better than where we were staying, we decided to stay put in Four Sons Place.  Luckily were able to switch to a sweeter smelling room (moth balls are better than sewer gas, right?) that was also 50Baht cheaper per night.
Once our jobs were done for the day, we headed out to see some of the sights of Bangkok.  First on the agenda were the temples - and in particular Wat Pho - the temple of the reclining Buddha.  We negotiated for a tuk tuk and finally found one that was a reasonable price and promised to only take us to the temple, not on a wild goose chase to their cousin's shop or their friend's tailor on the way.  In no time we were at the entrance to the temple.  We decided to explore the grounds and other structures before passing through the temple with the reclining Buddha.  The grounds were big and there were buildings and stupas everywhere.  For almost two hours we wandered and shot pictures in awe of the gilding and detail and sheer magnitude of the place.  It was truly a feast for our eyes and our cameras. 
Finally we had explored everything except for the Reclining Buddha, so we headed in that direction.  Just before we entered the temple we had a good laugh when we saw a scantily dressed woman being lambasted by a security guard for not dressing appropriately.  We find it amazing that despite all the signs posted and tips in the guide books, that tourists still disregard the requests to dress respectfully!  In most cases the locals will direct tourist to a stand that either loans or rents sarongs to cover up.  But in this case the dress-code violator was flat out being refused entry.  I guess there is a point when trying to make tourists respectful is a lost cause! 
Dutifully we got in line, left our shoes at the door and entered the temple.  The Buddha was indeed huge and completely filled the temple.  We jockeyed for position as we took shot after shot as we circled the building and the Buddha.  It was a great end to our visit to Wat Pho.
Our next stop was Wat Arun - a mosaic temple just across the river from Wat Pho.  We walked two blocks to the ferry dock and for a mere 6 baht each (that's about 20 cents) we jumped on a barge ferry and headed across the river.  Bangkok rests on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and has a system of canals that are used regularly for transport.  It is sometimes called the Venice of Asia and being on the river you could see the bustle of activity. 
The ferry ride was a grand total of about 5 minutes and we were dropped off at the entrance to the temple.  Our first vision of Wat Arun was of monks robed in their trademark vibrant orange wandering around and again providing a feast for our cameras.  We payed our fee for the entrance to the temple and walked in.  It was described as a mosaic temple, but we were blown away by the detail and the sheer volume of mosaic tiling.  We wandered a bit, then realized we could climb to the top of the Chedi on a set of steep stairs, more the vertical rise of a ladder.  We carefully made our way up and were rewarded by a great view of the river and the city beyond.  We finished our tour of Wat Arun by watching the sun slowly begin sinking behind the wat (of course there were more pictures for that).
We were wat-ted out for the day, so he headed back across river on our ferry barge, then slowly walked our way back to our hotel on Khao San road.  Along the way we came across a festival in a town square and watched the local kite flying competition for a bit before walking the rest of the way back in the steamy evening air.  We arrived at Khao San road just as the street markets were getting into full swing and conveniently found another cheap street food meal followed by our favorite street desserts - mango sticky rice and banana roti.
We decided to stay a little longer in Bangkok, particularly because we decided to book a day trip to Kanchanburi - a town a few hours out of Bangkok with Tigers, river markets and the River Kwai (see next blog entry), so we had another full day in Bangkok to explore.  We decided to use the day to venture into the heart of Bangkok to get a flavor of the city center.  Being the budget-minded travelers that we are, we chose the local bus to take us there instead of the tuk-tuks.  With a little help, we got on the right bus and arrived at our first stop with very little trouble. 
The Jim Thompson house is the house of an American who relocated to Thailand and helped build the renowned Thai silk industry.  He mysteriously disappeared some years later on a vacation in Malaysia, but his home has been preserved as a classic example of a traditional Thai house.  We learned about it from our friend (conveniently also named James Thompson!) when we were in Brazil.
It was a beautiful house set along one of the Bangkok canals. It is filled with Chinese antiques, silk tapestries and antique Buddha's, and the lush grounds are filled with ponds and jungle vegetation and orchids.  All the visitors were required to tour the house in groups with trained guides.  Unfortunately our group had a couple of unruly kids who made hearing parts of the tour difficult.  Thankfully their mom pulled them out of the tour halfway through and we had a nice time learning about Thai tradition and the house for the rest of the tour.
We left the Jim Thompson house and made our way to the canal, as we could hear, but not see boats on the canal during our tour and our curiosity got the best of us.  There was a constant stream of water taxis on the canal, and the force of the water as they passed lapped high up the canal walls and pushed out into overflow pits that kept the canal from overflowing its walls.  We walked along the canal and could see the homes and businesses that butted right up to the edge.  People were busy going about their daily business seemingly numb the steady stream of water taxis roaring by. 
We exited the canal at a main crossroad and killed our original plan to see another local market.  I think Paul was tired of seeing vegetables and fruit and smelling the overwhelming odor of (somewhat) fresh fish and meats!  Instead we decided to head off the beaten path to an area called "Little Arabia" that Paul had read about in the Lonely Planet.  He thought it sounded interesting - I think mostly because he wanted to try the Sheesha pipe at one of the restaurants!
We jumped on the overhead train and had a quick and efficient trip to our stop.  We headed a few blocks down the street and crossed a railroad track on the way.  We had a glimpse down the tracks and could see the homes and people living just a few feet from the tracks, their lives spilling out on the tracks when no trains were coming and retracting when a train passed through.  What a life!
After a few more blocks through congested streets and food, clothing and DVD/CD vendors (and some entertaining people!), and we arrived at Soi 3 (street 3) - the location of Little Arabia.  We made a left and it was like we had left Asia and arrived in the Middle East.  Men in their long flowing robes and caps were everywhere.  Women walked along in full burkas with just their eyes showing, there were restaurants lining the streets with full lambs on display in their meat cases.  A little further and we found an intersection lined with Sheesha bars -- over the top aluminum-gilded cafes with men sitting and puffing on sheesha pipes.  (Women technically weren't supposed to be in the Sheesha bars!) 
We stopped at a restaurant for a kebab snack, then walked the length of the street, then headed to a Sheesha bar so Paul could give it a try.  I dutifully sat and watched as Paul puffed away on the applewood tobacco (it would really have been frowned upon if I took a puff - it was enough that I was just sitting in there!)  We sat there long enough that we decided to have a snack of Feta cheese dip and naan bread, and even then there was more Sheesha left.  I think Paul got his fix until we get to Egypt later on our trip!
Our next stop was the redlight district of Patpong Road, an area known for its sex industry and "ping pong shows"  (I'll leave what that means up to your imagination or your own research!).  However lately it has become a novelty and an area more for tourists than a hardcore sex industry.  Hey, we had to see it all didn't we?.  We took the train again and arrived at the stop near Patpong road.  It was a crowded area lined with fast food restaurants and vendors just setting up their stalls for the night markets.  As we walked the streets, we occasionally had to dodge a man or woman dragging themselves along the sidewalk begging for food or money.  It left us both with an empty pit in our stomachs and a feeling of sadness at the number of people with debilitating deformities or handicaps that fall through the cracks and are left to fend for themselves.
Despite solicitation from a number of different shows, we decided to forego the ping pong show.  Paul said he only wanted to go if I would use it to learn more tricks and I decided that wasn't necessary!  Besides, our feet were tired and our minds were full of a full day of touring, so we headed back to our hotel for a good night's rest before our early wake up call for our day tour to Kanchanburi.  For the third time we made a meal out of the street food on Khao San road.  (This was becoming a habit!) 
After our tour to Kanchanburi, we had a final day in Bangkok before a 6pm bus to Chiang Mai.  We used the morning to catch up on the internet and catch up with family on Skype, then decided to use the efficient water taxi system to see life along the river and make our way to Chinatown.  The water taxis were great fun and we were able to see all the temples and sights along the river for less than a dollar.  Chinatown wasn't so special, however and we found the description in the guidebook to be very inaccurate.  It wasn't really a place for tourists, but instead was an area loaded with cramped warehouses of market stalls selling knockoff items in bulk.  We did find a few temples to explore and some great fried bananas on the street, but otherwise we couldn't get out quick enough!  On the way back, we accidentally got on the wrong water taxi, so it cost a little more to ride.  But it ended up being the tourist taxi, so we got a guided tour of all the sights on the way back to our drop off point.
We arrived back at Khao San road with enough time to get some lunch and supplies for our overnight bus ride.  The bus was supposed to leave at 6 pm, but we were informed that it was delayed and would not leave until 8pm.  We learned that they meant 8pm Thai time after being told the bus would arrive in 15 minutes for the next two hours!  Finally we were on the bus and out of Bangkok at about 10:30 that night!
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