Category Archives: bangkok places

Temple Necks and Market Sweats pt. 2

There’s nothing you can’t buy in Bangkok. There are markets on just about every street corner where vendors sell everything from fish ball skewers to second-hand flip flops. On our way back from China Town (more on this below) we drove through a night flower market (the day is just too hot so the market starts at dusk and is open till almost midnight) that stretched over four blocks and it was just brimming with every kind of bloom imaginable, with the scents and aromas to match. This pretty much epitomises the Bangkok markets; there are no half measures and no matter which one you end up in, you can be sure that your eyes will be darting furiously, while your brain lags exhaustedly behind, unable to comprehend the sensory overload.

Night time Flower Market

Apparently, Bangkok used to be known as the ‘Venice of the East’ due to the extensive labyrinth of channels and rivulets that snake around the city. So we thought it fitting  to start at the Damnoensaduak floating market, which was touted as the oldest and the biggest. It is about an hour and a half out of Bangkok, and the longtail boat ride there was definately one of our highlights. As with many of the ‘authentic’ Thai sights we have visited, Damnoensaduak was heaving with tourists, but this actually added to the atmosphere for once.  After what seemed like a mandatory detour down the quiet canals of the market where the usual tourist fare was on offer, our paddle boat (Thai gondola-style longboat) turned the corner and we were greeted with pandemonium. The main canal was absolutely jam-packed with deadlocked boats. Credit must go to our oarswoman, who tried doggedly to forge us up the canal that seemed to be more boats than water, but it just wasn’t going to happen. Every time we gained a metre, a motorised longtail would come pummelling through the entropic mass and just push us straight back to the start of it all again, while the oarswoman’s slew of verbal abuse was drowned out by the engine. After many attempts we had no choice but to do the rest of our exploring on foot, which was actually a very good way to see everything. The local Thais usually come to do their market business early in the morning before the tourists arrive, but the social dynamics of the traders remain evident throughout the day. Many are weathered women who have honed some inspiring skills when it comes to navigating busy canals with boats loaded to capacity. Some even juggle this with working over piping hot burners as they make some pretty delicious bits and bites. We eventually found a good vantage point where we could just sit back and watch the the river and its intriguing occupants pass us by while we guzzled our coconut pancakes.

That night we wanted to venture into China Town and hopefully get to see a different side of Bangkok, but the side we saw was not the one we expected. Apart from being an entire suburb of Shark Fin restaurants there was nothing that really distinguished it from the rest of Bangkok, until evening fell, that is. Despite being decidedly disheartened by the awful amount of Shark Fin on display, we stuck it out to see the lights of Th Yaowarat blink to life, and all of a sudden, China Town woke up. After bargaining a no-stops around-the-block tuk-tuk ride we were carted through the hustle and bustle at rocket speeds as China Town gave us real a taste of her sights and smells.

Shark fin restaurant

The following day we headed off to Chatuchak, aka ‘The Weekend Market’, with absolutely no idea of what was in store.  It is an enormous, warren-like series of undercover market streets that all spill out onto a number of open central thoroughfares, but knowing which one you’re in is almost impossible – most of the time we were just grateful to be out in the comparatively cooler and fresher Bangkok air. Once we realised that attempting to navigate the place was a practice in futility, we simply started wandering, crossing over from one market city to another, browsing and haggling on the way. There is no general theme to the goods on offer, though there were a surprising number of Country & Western type stalls, complete with Willy Nelson soundtracks, chaps, plaid and spurs.  If you’re looking for an enormous Swastika tapestry to fill the space above the fireplace, this is really the place to get it (we really saw one). South Africa was arguably dubiously represented, as the only things we found were a Die Antwoord t-shirt  and a badge of the old flag that said “Fuck you, I’m a white South African” (not surprisingly, this was also one of the Nazi regalia shops). Despite this, we found some kindred spirits in one shop and had a great chat (across the language barrier) about the status of punk and rockabilly in the Bangkok music scene. It’s that kind of place. We spent the entire day there and we did not even see half of it.

Die Antwoord shirts at weekend market

A strange store, we found these right next to the Gay Pride flags and peace signs.

Just as things started shutting and we decided to leave, the heavens opened and we got stuck in a spectacular Bangkok monsoon downpour while we waited for our bus, so by the time we got home we were exhausted and sopping, but slightly refreshed.
That night, on the way home from dinner, the sounds of some very good music drew us into Ad Here 13th Blues Bar, where we were blown away by the bluesy prowess of the Banglumphu Band while enjoying a couple of hard-earned Changs.

 


Temple Necks and Market Sweats pt. 1

Being a tourist in Bangkok means four things: Temples, Markets, Buddhas and Beer. There is absolutely no way to escape them, and there really is no good reason to! A cold Chang – the cheapest, most refreshing beer (in our opinions, at least) — at the end of a temple- or market-heavy day is just the sweetest way to unwind, cool down and rest overworked legs and necks.


Coming to a place like this, there was always the danger of running out of adjectives that could adequately describe what we are experiencing. We got our first real taste of this limitation when we visited Wat Phra Kaew  (Temple of Emerald Buddha) and The Grand Palace. Both are joined as one big complex that is contained by 1900m of wall (it’s really big!), in Bangkok’s historically significant Ko Ratanakosin district.

The latter is the former royal residence, built by King Rama 1 after his ascendency in 1782, and The Emerald Buddha is one of the most revered religious images in Thailand. There is a remarkably strong Hindu influence on Thailand’s Thervada Buddhism, which is evident in the incorporation of many myths and deities into the breathtaking adornment of the various buildings. From the architectural prowess, to the awe-inspiring detail, to the sheer scale of the opulence, it was almost impossible to take it all in.

Amazing hand crafted detail

There are also throngs of devout pilgrims who travel here to worship and pay respect, which makes for quite a solemn atmosphere, despite all the boisterous tour groups. We felt very privileged to be there.

But, when one considers that most of the wonderful sights are situated at roof height or higher, appreciating it fully in one day became quite a physical challenge. Hence we have coined a new medical diagnosis aimed at temple-goers;    Temple Neck Syndrome (TNS for short).  Symptoms include; acute stiffness in the neck, a dull ache at the base of the skull, fatigued and squinty eyes, and general clumsiness caused by not watching where you are walking.

Following this, we further aggravated our TNS by going to see The Reclining Buddha, a 33 metre long, 5 metre high Buddha who resides at Wat Pho. Getting the colossal figure into a photo was a challenge we eventually lost gracefully, and after that we simply walked around and enjoyed the beauty of the larger temple complex. Despite being almost delirious with TNS at this point, it really was a sight to behold, and the final discovery of a number of monks worshipping in an spell-bindingly ornate inner temple was a fittingly serendipitous way to end our day..

Monks in prayer

In retrospect, we should have savoured the serenity of the day more fully, as our exploration of Bangkok’s markets would prove to be a onslaught of chaos.


Tuk-temple-Tuk.

Getting around Bangkok is very easy and mostly inexpensive if you know where you are going, how much it should cost, and what your options are in terms of the public transport routes. Once again, the staff at Sam Sen Sam Place have been wonderfully helpful with this kind of info, and for our first couple of days sightseeing we managed to get to our destinations with no hassles and no unexpected deviations or cost hikes. The river ferries are a scenic way of getting to some of the big temples that line the lively Chao Phraya River, which bisects the capital, and the busses are cheap, efficient and regular.

Long tail boat on the Chao Phraya

So after a few days we were starting to feel rather confident in our ability to stave off persistent tuk-tuk drivers and get where we were going quickly and cheaply. And then it happened… On the morning we had planned to walk to the nearby ferry pier and take a quick boat trip down to nearby Wat Arun – a royal temple on the banks of the river – a friendly pedestrian caught up with us halfway and struck up a lively conversation about Joff’s hat. What started off as some friendly chit-chat quickly escalated into an almost incomprehensible barrage of tourist info and advice about what we still ‘had to see’ before we left Bangkok, during which she hijacked our map and started plotting what seemed to be an ‘essential Buddha tour ’ that covered the four corners of the city. In the midst of this, she also managed to hail a passing tuk-tuk for us, and shrilly haggled the driver down to a reasonable price of 40baht for all the stops she had so excitedly pointed out on the map, including a convenient stop at a nearby TAT office so we could book our onward bus to Phuket. In a matter of minutes we were speeding through Bangkok’s side streets (in precisely the opposite direction of Wat Arun), a bit shell-shocked, with absolutely no idea of what exactly had just happened. Of course, it all just seemed a little too coincidental, and a bit too good to be true, but despite our concerns and better judgement, we couldn’t really identify what the problem was with the whole deal.

Surprise Tuk Tuk Ride

We booked our bus to Phuket at the TAT office, then quickly sped off to see the ‘Lucky’ Buddha who apparently bestows travelling mercies. Whenever a tuk-tuk driver tells you he is going to make ‘one stop’ it means he will take you to either a tailor or a jewellery store, where some very convincing sales people will try to persuade you that you will miss the deal of a lifetime if you do not place an order in their shop. The tuk-tuk drivers receive petrol coupons for bringing customers here, hence the decreased cost of your journey. We weren’t really surprised to learn that we were making ‘one stop.’

View of Bangkok from the Golden Mountain

View from Golden Mountain

After we escaped the tailor, we were swiftly ferried (no moving vehicle with open sides should ever take corners that fast) to The Golden Mountain, which turned out to be a great place to take in some panoramic views of the city. But when we came out, our tuk-tuk had disappeared (without us even paying the 40baht fee) and so our only option was to take another tuk-tuk and make another ‘one-stop’. It seems to be the case that if you simply humour the salesperson for about 10 minutes, then explain politely why you cannot buy now, and leave (you will have to be quite insistent), both driver and passengers get a good deal (he gets his coupons, we get a very cheap/free journey). If you have some time on your hands and a strict budget, this isn’t the worst way to get around Bangkok – especially if it’s a sweltering day – just know your story/reason for not being able to buy something and stick to it firmly. It turns out that even though we escaped buying the three-piece cashmere suits, we were still scammed, if only slightly, as the friendly pedestrian turned out to be an accomplished tout for the particular (unofficial) TAT office that we were taken to first (our friends at Sam Sen Sam  enlightened us).

Wat Arun

We did, eventually, get to Wat Arun that day, and it was well worth it. The towering grey-ish facade is easily recognisable against the colourful rooftops that surround it. However, upon closer inspection, what first looks a bit like a ruin from an Indiana Jones film, turns out to be an exquisitely detailed mosaic temple.

Wat Arun

Walking around the outside, it is hard to fathom the amount time, skill and patience that must have gone into its making and upkeep. In addition,if you have the energy, the guts and steady feet, you can climb some very skinny, ridiculously steep stairs, and take in a view of the Chao Phraya and its bustling banks that is second to none.

View from Wat Arun

The extremely steep stairs are a worth while price to pay

Wat Arun stairs

Walking on Wat Arun

Another view from Wat Arun


In the beginning there was Bangkok

Well first off, Qatar Airways was superb! Honestly, we don’t want to gush but there was ample legroom, the seats reclined to a comfy sleeping angle and the food was fantastic. So, apart from the 6 consecutive number-two-ers who made use of the facilities that were right behind us at the back of the plane as soon as they could undo their seatbelts (apparently doing one’s business at 3000m in a tiny awkward cubicle is far more rewarding than using the spacious ablutions in the airport – go figure), what we expected to be a gruelling 30hour journey turned out to be quite bearable.
After the heat we experienced in our thankfully brief transfer in Doha, we were met with a comparatively temperate 30degree evening in Bangkok. After many attempts at conversation with our taciturn taxi driver (who, to be fair, is probably sick to death of starry eyed foreigners asking him questions about the city and his background) we just sat back and enjoyed watching the city pass by.
Sam Sen Sam Place is the best value for money accommodation we’ve found in the Banglamphu area. It is clean, quiet , a short walk from the river ferry and the infamous Khao San Rd, and the staff/owners are incredibly friendly and helpful which is invaluable for newcomers such as ourselves. A substantial breakfast and wi-fi access are included in the 500 Bht/night fee (this is a reduced rate that they offer for bookings of four nights or more – another perk).  Following the advice of one of the aforementioned staffers, we headed down Th Samsen (Th = road) to Soi 2 (Soi = numbered side streets branching off of this road) to a really great, affordable restaurant – the name of which will remain a mystery as we could not decipher the Thai sign and the pronunciations we got were as varied as the menu, but there is a picture below (just in case you wind up in Samsen Soi 2 looking for a hearty meal and a cold beer). More effort will go into this kind of research in future, we promise, but one night’s grace is in order after a long flight. In short, it was the perfect meal to start our Thailand experience, and with a big bottle of Chang to wash it down, happiness abounded.
Today we took the bus(aircon- pleasant)  to Pan Tip Plaza – an outlandishly huge electronics centre. It was a great place to earn our haggling stripes, but this turns out be quite dangerous as the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies getting something for what is ostensibly a ‘bargain’  after some theatrical negotiations involving dismissive hand gestures, looks of outrage and feigned disinterest  is rather addictive.
With our not-much-cheaper-than-normal ‘bargains’ in hand, we headed back to Khao San road by bus (no aircon- hot, noisy but  very interesting ) and the conductor waved away our 7Bht with a smile after Joff gave his seat to an elderly lady, so our trip was free.  Khao San Rd is exactly what its reputation promises: touristy, busy, and quite pricey, but also exciting, atmospheric and energising. The afternoon downpour we found ourselves in was a perfect excuse to take shelter in one of the numerous bars and enjoy and over-priced beer. We will definately be heading back for some more serious explorations before we leave Bangkok on Monday.