Thailand and Laos - part 1

Trip Start Jun 22, 2008
Trip End Jul 04, 2013

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

March 31   We arrived in Bangkok in the rain.  Our guide met us at the airport and took us to The Davis Bangkok after a very long ride in traffic.  We ate dinner at the hotel after finding no restaurants near the hotel except for a Lebanese place that looked very nice.  We didn't come to Thailand to eat food from Lebanon.  For dinner we had Pad Thai and Lab Po then called it a day.

April 1   The next morning our guide met us after breakfast for a half-day tour of Bangkok.  We started at Wat Pho which houses the giant Reclining Buddha.  It’s 15 meters high and 43 meters in length.  It’s big and gold with mother of pearl inlay on the bottom of its gigantic feet.   There are also many other Buddha images both seated and standing.  The temples and stupas (where cremated remains are laid to rest) are covered in colorful tile work and gold decoration.  Many of the tiles are recycled pottery and china that was destroyed during battles.  There are also painted panels depicting folk stories and historical events.  Wat Pho was the first public university in Thailand where the subjects of science, medicine, and massage were taught.  One building had a variety of painted panels showing the massage pressure points and anatomical drawings.

After Wat Pho our guide decided we should see Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, even though it wasn’t on our itinerary.  So we took a ferry across the river.  This is the temple complex you see in photos quite often.  The tall tower that is the focal point of the grounds depicts heaven, earth and hell on its 3 levels.  The bottom is hell with carved demon figures all around the base.  The second level is earth with monkey figures all around.  The top level is heaven with more angelic figures.  We climbed the very steep stairs to the landings at each level where you could walk around the tower to see the view of the temple compound and across the river.  Since this wasn’t on our agenda we didn’t stay long.  We’re not sure why it wasn’t on the agenda but that’s ok.  Put it on the list again for next time and make a note to look more closely at itineraries.  We got back on the ferry to the other side of the river again and moved on to the Grand Palace, the official residence of the King since 1782.  In addition to the palace, there a more temples and more stupas, even larger and grander that the others we saw since they hold the remains of past royals.  The main temple houses the Emerald Buddha.  It was much smaller than expected, especially after seeing the huge Reclining Buddha.  It sits on top of a heavily gilded altar and is considered sacred.  Monks are ordained here and many Thai make pilgrimages here sometime in their lives.  The Emerald Buddha was held in Laos but was taken to Bangkok by King Rama I during the battles over control of Lao territory.  We heard the story from both sides while on this trip, and of course the stories differ.  It’s still a point of contention in Laos.  If you go there, don’t bring it up. J

This was officially the end of the tour but our guide wanted us to have a nice Thai lunch so we took the private ferry to Supatra River House where we had roast duck with red curry, papaya salad, tom yum soup, and chicken fried in pandan leaves.  All excellent.  After lunch we ferried back across the river and, since our driver was off duty, our guide showed us how to navigate the river taxi system.  These boats taxi people up and down river in a system similar to a subway except all the lines run parallel.  Each line has specific stops.  We took the express line to Central Pier where we got the BTS Skytrain to Phrom Phang station.  We then convinced our guide it was ok for us to walk to the hotel from there. After a rest we took a walk in the blocks around the hotel to find dinner.  After several blocks of walking, still nothing.  We ate at the hotel again.  For a street lined with hotels and residences, its very strange that there aren’t also a lot of places to eat.  We’ll remember to stay in a different part of town next time. 

April 2   A free day in Bangkok.  After breakfast we decided to tackle the Sky Train on our own, getting off at Siam station.  Within a minute of getting to the street, a woman approached us asking if we were visitors and offering assistance.  She pulled out a card saying she was a member of the tourist police but she was dressed in street clothes.  We were leary but she was giving us a lot of info and not asking for anything in return.  Then she asked if we were interested in Thai handicrafts, which was exactly what we were interested in.  That resulted in her corralling a tuk tuk and before we knew it we were on our way to…  the GEM center.  Ugh.  This was one of those places the tour buses always make a stop where they try to get you to buy expensive jewelry and souvenirs.  We were scammed but at least we got to ride in a tuk tuk.  We had the driver take us back to Siam Center where we walked around the malls and had lunch.  There was actually a line of small restaurants advertising they specialized in shark fin.  Numerous shark fins were displayed proudly in the windows.  Considering the horrible way the fins are harvested and all the pressure to stop the practice, we were surprised and saddened there is still such a market for it.  We opted for a nice looking Thai restaurant with no fins on the menu.  Then we took the Sky Train back to the hotel and had a swim and shower before our guide showed up to take us to the train station for our trip to Laos. 

At the train station there were lots of people sitting on the floor waiting for trains to board.  We were there before our train arrived and waited on the platform bench with our guide who wanted to make sure we got on the train properly before relinquishing responsibility.  It is bad for business to lose your clients.  When the train arrived we found car #12 and first class berth 19/20.  It was a very small cabin with a seat that converts to an upper and lower bunk.  There was a small table and a metal wash basin in the corner.  There was barely enough space without actually having to sit on our bags which had to be rearranged whenever we wanted to use the sink.  A metal door gave us privacy.  One window looked onto the hallway and another out to the world passing by.  Homemade curtains were a nice touch.  All in all, this was at least a level up from our Vietnam train experience.   See last year’s post if you want to compare.

The steward came to take our dinner order before the train moved out.  We had Tom Yum soup and Chang beer.  The soup was surprisingly good.  Then it was time to use the bathroom to get rid of some of the beer.  Hmmm.  Squat behind door #1 or sit behind door #2?  #2 was occupied so squat it is!  Not so bad but a bit awkward on a moving train, especially if there is a sudden stop.  The upside is I imagine this would be a really good way to build leg muscles and balance.  The steward came back later to make up our bunks.  Next question – who gets the top and who gets the bottom?  Logic said Russ gets the top since he never gets up in the middle of the night.  Up he went using the little, metal ladder.  We didn’t consider in this decision what the affect of beer consumption and movement of the train might have on Russ’s usual nighttime habits.  He ended up having to navigate the little ladder a couple of times.  We also found it difficult to sleep in the beginning of the journey since the movement of the train wasn’t the monotonous and smooth click-clack we had on the train in Vietnam.  In this way, the Vietnamese train experience was better.  This ride was more jerky and there was obviously turning.  We were apparently going up into the mountains but you couldn’t tell what was happening outside since it was dark.  And there was banging and clanging sounds coming from a couple of sources within the cabin that needed to be identified and dealt with.  One was the railing on the top bunk which stopped when Jane wedged a sock in it and started again when Russ knocked it out during one of his trips down the ladder.  Down came the railing.  Russ would just have to lay flat and avoid rolling out.  The tracks must have improved because we slept pretty well the rest of the night.  In the morning, breakfast was served.  Bland and greasy scrambled eggs, hot dog and bread.  We should have stuck with the Thai option.  Orange juice was actually soda but the coffee was surprisingly good.  Russ made an attempt to use the toilet but someone had taken a shower in the sit down toilet stall.  There actually was a shower hose for that purpose.  Water was everywhere.  So Russ opted for the adventure of the squat toilet.  He could have just wiped the toilet seat down with toilet paper but perhaps he was looking for a new challenge.  It all worked out ok in the end – no pun intended. 
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