Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Good morning Bangkok!

We have found big cities daunting and Bangkok was no exception. We arrived by train at 7:30 am when Bangkok was just getting up and starting her day. We knew there were a series of rapid transit options but didn’t know where they went or if we could use them to get to our hotel. A quick stop at information and we found that Chinatown was close by and that walking or a tuk tuk were the options available.

We negotiated a fare and hopped onto a tuk tuk. When we saw how far it actually was, we were glad we had not attempted to walk. I had booked us into a budget hotel in the heart of Chinatown to be in a culturally interesting neighbourhood. The hotel somewhat aptly named “Check Inn Chinatown” was on a small back street connected to Yarowat Street (one of Chinatowns main historic thoroughfares) by a maze of small back alleys. If we wanted colourful, we certainly got it!

The hotel was perfect for the price. The young man at the front desk was as good a tour director as they come, and gave us tips and instructions each day to get to our destinations and to get as much out of the transportation as the sights. Where necessary he gave us a note in Thai to give to the taxi or tuk tuk driver to be sure we got to the right place. The rooms were neat and tidy, the laundry service quick and cheap and the location was perfect for day and night markets of every description.

Still our first day was challenging. It is a big city and there are underground trains, sky trains boats, taxis and tuk tuks to get you from “A” to “B” and it does take a while to figure out which to use for what and to get where. We were tired too, and it is very hot. We used the first day to get business out of the way and headed for the Vietnam Embassy to get our visa sorted out and we also made arrangements for transportation to our next destination: the Cambodian border and Seim Reap from Bangkok. There was a lot of traffic and the city seemed impossible. Tomorrow will be better I told myself.

Walking down a narrow street in Chinatown

We ended up at a very touristy gem market later in the day and felt quite embarrassed that we didn’t see this coming when a local hotel employee we met on the street encouraged us to find the place. Tired and a bit deflated we returned to the hotel for a bit of a rest and a shower and reluctantly left our air conditioned room to go out again for a night wandering the streets of Chinatown. By this time we were overcooked with heat and exhaustion and would have been better off staying in for the night. Nevertheless we found some very interesting night markets on several streets close to our hotel, had some food and called it an early night. Tomorrow will be better, I reminded myself one last time before falling asleep.

Walking down another narrow street in Chinatown

And of course I was right. Bangkok is absolutely amazing! By day two we had all of the transportation maps in hand and proceeded to use all modes to get to our destinations. We started out walking to the nearest Pier to catch a boat to Bangkok’s most famous tourist attraction: The Grand Palace (which was so awesome, we both were dumbstruck for the entire visit).

Golden Buddha

From there we walked to Wat Pho temple of the reclining Buddha (which was also mind boggling). Then we hopped on yet another boat at a different pier, which dropped us at the skytrain station, which with one transfer got us to the Vietnam Embassy to pick up our visas. From here we walked to the Lumphini Boxing Stadium for an evening of kickboxing (I know, I can’t believe it myself, but I actually did this). From there we took the underground back to the Hua Lumphong train station which is sort of near Chinatown. We should have taken a taxi or tuk tuk at this point but decided to walk and enjoyed all that Chinatown has to offer after 10:00 pm!

Grand Palace

We let ourselves sleep in just a little on day three, as we knew we were planning a day at South East Asia’s largest market: Chatuchak, which is way the hell and gone at the other side of Bangkok. Luckily the underground subway takes you right there. Over 35 acres of market stalls open only on the weekend. And it is not what you would expect. No junk at this market except the collectible kind. The market is divided loosely into sections; clothing, crafts, furniture, plants, food, accessories etc. There is fashion of every description from classic one of a kinds to tourist t-shirts. There are handmade leather bags, hand painted skateboards, women sitting in shops beading, sewing, painting and making earrings. Full food sections, as well as food vendors in each of the other sections so that you do not need to stop shopping if you need a quick drink or hotdog on a stick to regain your strength. We even saw a tattoo parlor. We barely scratched the surface in four hours. By then our feet were tired and our bellies were full.

It is a good thing we don’t need anything (and don’t have room for all the things we really don’t need but want!) because you could spend a lot of money here on really interesting stuff. For those of you that know about ETSY (an online shopping venue for everything handmade), this place was like being at a physical ETSY market. Everywhere you looked there was something really interesting on a shelf or being made.

On the way back to Chinatown, we stopped in Sukhumvit, which is the neighbourhood for all of the high-end shopping malls in Bangkok. After about half an hour in the Terminal 21 Mall, we realized that this was not for us and got back on the subway to our air-conditioned hotel!

We had one day left in Bangkok and we spent it with our mouths wide open at the Anantasamakhom Throne Hall, admiring the frescoes as well as the displays. This marble masterpiece of architecture houses the most exquisite display of Thai crafts in the form of gold filigrees, tapestries and embroideries. We were taken aback by the detail and high level of craftsmanship in all of the work we saw. Her Majesty the Queen of Thailand has apparently taken a huge interest in these crafts since the beginning of her reign. Through her efforts, women in the countryside of Thailand have been trained in these crafts in order to create for themselves a new source of income. The items on display were a tribute to the efforts she has made to keep these crafts alive and to move them a step further in their evolution. Many artifacts were embellished with iridescent beetle wings. We had never seen anything like it.

After a day of admiring artifacts, we stopped at a street seafood restaurant in Chinatown that we had walked by every day, commenting on how busy it was. It was our last chance to try it out for ourselves. We took seats at the tin tables and plastic chairs, literally on the street, and ordered from the extensive menu of fish and other seafood. It was so hot and I was so thirsty that I ordered a beer with a bucket of ice. I filled my glass with ice and poured the local Thai beer over it. I can’t even explain how good it was! The scene was just starting to heat up at our corner seafood restaurant. More tables were being set up all around us, and just as quickly filled with hungry locals. It was the perfect dinner spot for our last night in Thailand.

Chinatown was the perfect base for our four days in Bangkok. Early the next morning we would be off to the train station to catch our mini bus to the Cambodian border. Our overland journeys have all been exciting. The trip to Cambodia will certainly rank up there as one of the most frustrating. But that my friends, is a tale I will reserve for the next post.

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