Bang! Bang! in Bangkok - days 39 to 48
Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
13Trip End Ongoing
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The Thai immigration official was unimpressed at Ross' request to put their stamp in the right place of his new passport to maintain chronological order, but obliged anyway. Our bags were some of the first onto the carousel, and we had only waited for one minute. We made our way to the taxi rank, and didn't have to queue. The start to our time in Bangkok was going really rather well.
As we neared the city centre, the traffic slowed to a real crawl. We had already tried to make small talk with the driver, asking him about the protests in the city, but he couldn't understand English. He understood what 'Red Shirts' meant, however, and as soon as he saw one of the dark patches he was quick to point them out to us. The reason for the traffic soon became clear, as we passed one of the several road blocks controlling the flow of traffic around the protest zone. We actually drove through a thick soup of dark smoke, and realised that we were traveling over a bridge beneath which the protesters were burning tyres, as we had seen pictures of during the preceding days in Penang. It was quite odd to actually be in the place that had dominated world news, particularly since the militia leader had been shot in the head by a sniper a couple of days before. We wondered if it would get any worse.
We had decided to pre-book so that we had somewhere to go immediately rather than having to travel around. We arrived at the hotel in the historic district which we had pre-booked, dropped our bags in the room, and ventured out. We quickly found ourselves in the thick of tourist-ville, right on top of the famous Khao San Road. The hotel had been recommended in Lonely Planet, however, their maps had already proved slightly misleading for us and this was another instance. We found that Soi Rambuttri where we were was only about 100m from the entrance to the famous 24hr tourist zone of Thanon Khao San (Khao San Road), compared to a tranquil and culture-safe half kilometre or more as suggested on the map.
That evening was spent acquainting ourselves with the almost equally touristic Soi Rambuttri and the Khao San Road which ran parallel, enjoying cheap beer (we had been relatively sober in Malaysia owing to the price of alcohol in a Muslim-controlled country) and having our first taste of Pad Thai - disappointing - from a street stall in the early hours.
The following day we were woken from our hangover by reception, asking if we required the room for another day; it was 1pm! We had heard about a weekend market, known to be one of the largest in SE Asia, and were keen to get away from tourist-ville and immersed in that as soon as possible. We reached Chatuchak Market, and were quickly amazed by the scale of the place; a maze of covered stall after covered stall of anything you might imagine, given some order by a track running in a ring around the heart of the market. Most stalls even had an 'address' nailed up, showing which section of the market and which soi ('street') they were on, and their unit number. Order in chaos. We saw for sale antiques and clothes, jewelery and puppies. After four hours we made our way out, having bought nothing! It was then that we had our first tuk-tuk ride, back to Soi Rambuttri. In our room we watched a lot of Thai news coverage of their prime minister making announcements, and we were told by the BBC that things were picking-up. The Thai stallholders in the street had their radios tuned in to the voice we couldn't understand but had become familiar with.
The next morning was spent looking for new accommodation, as we couldn't justify staying in the comfortable hotel room at almost twenty pounds per night. We eventually found something clean and spacious at the Green House in the section of Soi Rambuttri parallel to Khao San Road. Ross convinced Lauren that it was best to try to forego air-con in order to save some money and get used to it before we reached the more 'unknown' destinations. The night was torturous, and neither of us could sleep properly. In the morning we managed to get a new room, even bigger and with sanity-saving air-con; for the equivalent of just one pound per night more, it was very justifiable.
A few days in we thought we had better start tackling the number of sights in the city, starting with everything in walking distance. We headed out early for the national museum, as the Lonely Planet had helpfully pointed-out that a free English language tour was offered on Wednesdays at 9.30am.
We weren't far away when we were stopped by a guy who greeted us with pleasantries of the morning, and asked us where we happened to be going to so early, he himself just on his way to work in his office at the nearby government mint. He regretted to inform us that the museum was closed, and proceeded to advise us that a visit to the local floating market would be a good use of our time instead. On the spur of the moment, directions were ingeniously written on a leaf! He gave us a warning that a tuk-tuk from here might charge unsuspecting tourists X amount, whereas the fare for the locals would be x. Low and behold, a tuk-tuk had just pulled-up asking if we wanted to go anywhere; how convenient! The guy had started to usher us towards it, when the penny dropped. We made our excuses and carried on, despite them at our heels for some way. We next had an encounter with an honest ID-badge-wearing tourist information official, who just happened to be hanging around. It was clear by the time he had started to draw the location of a tour agent on our map that he was another guy out for a dodgy commission. We were walking away from the truly-closed museum (closed for the next few days for safety from protesters) that we were stopped by a well-spoken and polite professor from the nearby university. Once he started to recommend the very same tour agent and also gave the 'oh, here's a tuk-tuk!' trick, we politely told him he was rumbled. After these annoying wastes of our time we never again stopped for anyone out to 'help' us, though they did try!
Disappointed but still keen for the sights, we went to a pier to catch a ferry down the river. Instead, we went across the river on one of the crossing boats (there are boats to cross to the opposite side, as well as ferries running the length of the river), having been recommended to see the 'Tinkerbell' temple by a local lady commuting to work. This was her affectionate term for the temple, it being adorned with various fairytale statues; we still haven't managed to find its true name. Next was Wat Arun, visible from the river; it is hundreds of years old and the entire facades of the buildings are made of porcelain and ballast salvaged from Chinese merchant ships, giving it an unusually pretty appearance. Whilst there, we were astonished to find repair work being undertaken with the use of bamboo as scaffolding! And this in a modernised city! We have seen it several times since. Our final temple was Wat Pho, having crossed back to the other bank of the river. This temple is adjacent to the Grand Palace (also closed owing to the protests), and is famous for the huge image of the Reclining Buddha; the statue is 46m long and covered in gold plating, with mother of pearl for the eyes and feet. Impressive. The temple grounds are sprawling, and we spent a considerable amount of time trying to keep up with a group of Indian tourists who had paid for a guide. The Wat also houses the national academy for (Thai) massage, though the prices for treatment here were several times that of a street-side massage.
We felt that we couldn't come to Bangkok without soaking up the atmosphere at a Muay Thai (Thai boxing) stadium. Lumphini was closed as it was close to the protest zone, so we only had the option of Ratchadamnoen. We hopped into a tuk-tuk, but found the stadium unexpectedly closed on arrival. It was only after turning around that the tuk-tuk driver decided to tell us that of course it was closed; the government had imposed a curfew! (Needless to say, he didn't get the full fare.) Whilst in the tuk-tuk, we saw on the horizon several great plumes of smoke (you can see in a photo we took, also showing the normally jammed roads virtually empty); the militant protesters had torched a major shopping mall and other buildings during their retreat.
We had gathered from excited street vendors earlier in the day that the protest zone had been invaded by the military and protesters dispersed. The curfew was imposed from 8pm to 6am over that Wednesday night. The tourist area where we were wasn't truly under curfew, but the workers would be unable to get to and from work, so most places had closed and left a ghost town. Close to midnight we dared to take ourselves past the police station to Khao San Road, to take pictures of the completely deserted street for posterity. That must truly be a rare sight. The curfew was renewed everyday thereafter, and though some businesses worked out how to keep running into the night, the place was relatively quiet. We took to watching screenings of movies on DVD at a nearby guesthouse. Bangkok wasn't banging for us!
It was safe where we were, and with the curfews only being announced a couple of days at a time, we ended up staying to see if we would be able to experience a bit more of Bangkok once normal service resumed. However, we soon realised that was not to be with the repeated last minute extensions of the curfew. During those days, we spent a lot of time in Internet cafes, such is the wont of the modern traveler it seems, but we also revisited Chatuchak, and booked ourselves on a trip out of the city to visit the biggest floating market in Thailand. (There is one in the city, but it is much smaller apparently, and the chartered boats are extortionate.)
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is about an hour and a half's drive west of the city by minivan. We imagine that in days gone by such a place would have been bristling with locals trading local produce, but today it has fallen into the hands of the tourism gods, and the only serious visitors were foreigners. As a result, the majority of the stalls (static on the concrete banks of the canal, and floating paddle boats in the canal) sold the same repetitive and tacky souvenirs found everywhere else. The disappointment was compounded by being cajoled into chartering a paddle boat complete with elderly lady and paddle for a cheeky sum, and then being forced to endure a stop at each and every souvenir-selling trader as we floated down the canal. Lauren got some good shots of the more authentic aspects, though, making-up for the let-down.
We needed to escape our boredom, so needed to escape Bangkok, and indeed Thailand entirely given the unrest being released in other provincial cities. We could have taken one of the numerous journeys offered by the tour agencies lining Khao San, but we had read about a great-sounding journey which many tourists take; crossing the border into northern Laos and then down along the Mekong River to an old French colonial city, from which the rest of Laos would be accessible. We were to take an overnight coach to Chiang Khong at the very north of Thailand, from which we would disembark and then take a ferry across the river into Laos, landing in the border town of Huay Xai. After a night there we would board a 'slow boat' along with fifty or so other passengers and float down the Mekong for the day, stopping overnight at a village called Pak Beng, before another full day of riverside scenery on our way to historic Luang Prabang. This sounded more like the traveling we had anticipated and wanted to do, and was a handy way of seeing the Mekong (which Ross had been so keen to do) and countryside, rather than continue flying from one urbanisation to another.
So, we got a tuk-tuk to the bus terminal and booked our seats on a 'VIP' sleeper coach (costing about sixteen pounds each) leaving on the Monday evening. When the time came, the same friendly tuk-tuk driver took us and our big bags back to the bus terminal. The journey was quite scary, as this particular tuk-tuk was the worse for wear and prone to stalling. It didn't feel very safe taking corners as we desperately tried to keep hold of our bags. During the initial journey, Ross had struck up conversation with the driver who we later came to know as 'Louie'. He was from the countryside and struggled a lot with English. However, his heart didn't seem to be hard like his city-bred fellow tuk-tuk drivers (who are eager to take you anywhere but the place you want to go, so they can earn a commission, which is far more lucrative than simple fares), and he was honest about what the tuk-tuk drivers get up to and appreciated the frustrations it poses for tourists. This was reflected in the coming days when we saw him several times, each time telling his friends to stop hassling us. So, we gave him our final fare, despite his knackered motor.
The roads were very busy getting to Mo Chit bus terminal; Louie (his eyes suspiciously reddened - idling away the days on drugs?) was quite exasperated, particularly as the tuk-tuk kept cutting-out. Ross was flexing his teaching- English muscles trying to get Louie to understand the word 'traffic', when Lauren pointed-out that Louie might be struggling considering his current challenges, and best to leave him to concentrate on getting us there alive! When we arrived at Mo Chit, we realised that we had left behind at the reception desk the neck pillows we had bought for a few pounds to ease us through the night's journey, and also for our bums on the wooden benches on the slow boat. So, we told Louie that we had left them there, trying to encourage him to go back to get them. At first he thought we wanted him to bring them back for us, but somehow we broke the language barrier and he realised that we were telling him to keep them for himself, for his long days waiting for a fare perhaps. We are not sure he got the entire message, however, and since we had already let him know our intention to be back in Bangkok in about 2-3 months' time, we half expect him to greet us on Soi Rambuttri with a wide smile and two carefully looked-after neck pillows, still in their plastic wrapping!