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Saturday, 25 August 2012

Welcome to Bangkok!

Leaving Australia after a year of living and working there was a weird feeling full of mixed emotions. Our plane flew right over the red centre reminding me of the amazing road trip we had taken through the Australian outback just a few months earlier. I have found Australia to be a country of great contradiction; the majority of its residents reside in comfortable leafy suburbs around the major cities and live life in their cars from drive through takeaway restaurants to sprawling shopping centres with anything they might want immediately accessible. In stark contrast other towns we drove through on our travels were 3 or 4 hours’ from any sign of civilisation and contained a pub, a post office and a general store. It was everything I’d expected it to be and a great shock all at the same time. what I had enjoyed greatly about our stay was the great earning potential we had found in Australia and we were leaving the country in a far better economic position than we had arrived in despite a 3 month road trip during which we earned nothing, spent thousands of dollars on petrol and lost out considerably when we were forced to sell our van for only 40% of what we had bought it for.
As we caught our last fleeting sights of the north west coast I tried to get myself into a different mindset; an Asian mindset. This was my first time visiting this exotic continent (and the fourth I can cross off my list) and I was unsure of what to expect. I hadn’t even been to a non-English speaking country since we had lived in France, and my French is passable so I was nervous about our ability to communicate with locals. This was made worse by constant stories of rip-offs and scams we could encounter on the streets of Bangkok. When we landed we were detained for over an hour by a gate change resulting in us disembarking away from the terminal and being transported by bus to immigration. The terminal building was surprisingly clean and attractive and immigration was pretty hassle free (although none of the pens intended for filling out the arrivals cards worked) we found our way to the airport express train station (by following English language signs) and boarded a train of the exact same design and furnishing as trains in the UK. The train deposited us at our stop of choice and we made our way the exit. As we walked onto the street the humidity finally hit us and we were heckled by a bunch of taxi drivers who wanted to drive us to the city for a flat fee (something to avoid as the metered rate in Bangkok is always a bargain) we followed the directions we had for our hostel, getting lost a few times and stopping to buy water at a 7-11 (there is a 7-11 every hundred meters in Bangkok) and finally found our way into a quiet residential neighbourhood with narrow alleyways and uneven streets. With a little help from a nice Thai guy who we were wary of due to the endless tales of scamming, we found the guest house and sunk into our beds for a much needed night’s sleep.

We had only booked the guest house for one night as it was easily accessible from the airport but far away from any of the sights of the city, so the next morning I tried to plan a route into the hub of the city. This proved challenging so we decided just to hail a taxi. One stopped immediately and despite some initial confusion about where we wanted to go, aggravated by neither of us speaking even vaguely the same language, and the driver having forgotten his reading glasses, we arrived in Banglamphu 25 minutes and 80 Baat (less than 3 dollars) later. We wandered away from the tourist ghetto of Khao San road and towards the slightly more tranquil riverside area, where our guide book indicated that there were a lot of reasonable places to stay. We came across one of the properties mentioned in the book, noticed that the prices were reasonable, and checked in. at this point we had been lugging backpacks around for a while and hadn’t eaten anything since the plane the night before so went on the search for food. We bought some bananas from a stand right outside our hotel and some mystery juice from a woman crushing an unrecognisable fruit at a stand on the corner of the road. We followed the river south hoping to find yummy eating spots and ended up in a university which we later discovered to be Thammasat. We continued following the river and unknowingly wandered through the amulet market, where a legion of discerning Thais were inspecting a wide variety of useless looking things with eyepieces and magnifying glasses. We stopped at a seemingly popular barbeque meat stand and bought some chicken skewers which were delicious. We meandered aimlessly and ended up at the Grand Palace, however lacked the energy or commitment to actually enter. We tried to relax in the park next to the palace but got sick of being harassed by people trying to provide unofficial and illegal tours of the grounds and decided to head back towards the hotel to search for sunglasses, as the sunlight was glaring and starting to give us headaches.

We made our way down a winding collection of alleyways (which I’m pretty sure I couldn’t find again if I tried) and somehow ended up on the road adjacent to Khao San, where there was no end of stands selling “Ray Bans” and “Oakleys” we found pairs that we liked, parted with the 300baht (10 dollars) we were asked for, being too lazy and frazzled to haggle, and avoided TukTuk drivers who wanted to take us on magical mystery tours of jewel shops and antiques dealers. We scurried back to our quiet little corner of the city and found a restaurant with an extensive cocktail menu and some adequate food options. After drinking a mango daiquiri I realised that it was almost entirely crushed ice and gave up on my attempt to avoid the drinking water. The food was uninspiring but the setting very relaxing and a combination of the previous day of travel, the lunchtime alcohol and the heat made us feel extremely lazy and relaxed. We decided to head for the river and cruise down to Chinatown on a passenger boat. After purchasing our tickets we realised we’d been ripped off, being sold tourist boat tickets for 10 times the price of the normal commuter ferry, but since it was still only a few dollars weren’t largely bothered. After seeing the commuter ferry we were glad we were on the spacious, uncrowded tourist boat as it was rammed with people and lacking in seating space. We enjoyed cruising down the river with a cooling breeze in our faces and were somewhat disappointed to have to disembark in Chinatown. We navigated the cramped alleyways watching a mainly native (bizarrely no one looked Chinese at all) crowd haggle and barter for a vast and somewhat strange selection of goods. When the people and lack of personal space became too much we headed back to the ferry terminal and returned to our hotel room, desperate to shower away the dirt and sweat of the day.

We had a relatively uneventful afternoon and evening which mainly consisted of drinking beer and cocktails in a variety of bars and having dinner in a very inauthentic restaurant with the largest, and most misspelt, menu we had ever seen. The vastness of the menu was accentuated when we realised that the menu that The BF was holding varied in many ways from my own. We went to bed quite early, worn out from the chaos and unfamiliarity of Bangkok.

The next morning we decided to throw ourselves into the deep end of city sightseeing and to visit The Grand Palace, stopping at a restaurant to have breakfast of a surprisingly delicious stuffed omelette. We arrived relatively early and were ushered into a room to cover up my immodest shoulders and legs. We spent a couple of hours wandering aimlessly around the beautiful temple and palace, admiring the craftsmanship and grandeur and watched the changing of the guards in a pretty courtyard. By this point I was swelteringly hot, swathed in what felt like many layers of robes so we left and headed back to the university area we had discovered the previous day. we took the opportunity to cool off and chill out by the river and watched a group of Thai girls wearing what looked like graduation robes and posing for pictures. After a stroll down a road that was described in my guidebook as “the Champs eleysees of Bangkok” and a few good photo opportunities we decided it was time for lunch and found a nice air conditioned place right next to the river. I thought it looked like a more authentic restaurant as everyone inside appeared to be Asian although once seated we realised that none of them were actually Thai. One couple spoke with strong American accents whilst another group was from Hong Kong and all were speaking English. Never mind! I ordered something described as spicy and found the mixture of herbs, chillies and peppercorns a little overwhelming, it definitely seemed authentic in flavour and The BF agreed that his stir-fry was the tastiest thing he had eaten since arriving.

It had got to the point in the day where a shower seemed necessary so we headed back to the hotel room to relax a little then spent a second lazy afternoon hanging out in bars with free Wi-Fi, uploading pictures for our friends and families and organising our finances and other exciting things. We took a tip to Khao San Road, the tourist ghetto and discovered that our skills of tout avoidance had improved considerably from the previous day. We nursed drinks at a busy bar and people watched, enjoying the chaos of the street outside. We had dinner in an awesome jungle style bar which seemed to specialise in Northern Thai cuisine. The food was amazing and we decided that eating-wise the day had been a great success. We returned to the hotel criminally early and planned events for the whole of the next day in an effort to ensure that we would get to see everything that we wanted to before the arrival of friends in the evening. We were planning on leaving Bangkok the next day and heading to a slightly less touristy spot.

Free with entry to the Grand Palace was a ticket for visiting a giant Teakwood mansion somewhere north of the neighbourhood we were staying. We decided we might as well check it out and set out early. It was already a swelteringly hot day and as we walked I dreaded having to cover up my legs and shoulders again to gain entry. The walk turned out to be much further than expected and when we finally made it we were shoved into a guided tour in a language we didn’t understand (either Thai, Korean or Chinese we deduced) with hundreds of school children and bus groups. We were the only white people in a sea of Asians and kids kept staring and pointing at us! The mansion itself was stunning and was obviously cleverly designed to be kept cool regardless of the temperature outside. The grounds were also beautifully maintained by a literal army of gardeners and we strolled through them towards the old elephant stables which now housed a museum on the subject of the relationship between Thai royalty and the animals. Leaving the grounds of the mansion we headed towards the river, past a very pretty flower market and took the ferry boat to Chinatown. We were excited to try some of the district’s famous street food but found the whole thing a little overwhelming and didn’t actually know what anything on sale was! All we had had for breakfast was some mystery baked items from a stall and we were reluctant to get the guidebook out in such a bustling area, so we found a reasonably priced restaurant with an English menu, specialising in something called fish balls and ate there. After the food we were less grumpy and headed towards the metro station. Just like the airport express the system was ridiculously efficient and clean and we found ourselves in Lumphini Park before we knew it. Exploring the park consisted of a lot of time sitting next to the lake, where we watched huge aquatic lizards climb out of the water and explore the banks. We had planned on renting a paddle boat and cruising around the lake, but the idea of peddling seemed unnecessarily difficult so we just relaxed and watched the world go by. .....

to be continued

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