Thursday, November 25, 2010

Welcome to Thailand - Bangkok Thaliand

After a long and in the most part sleepless flight, we arrived at Bangkok's international airport of Suvarnabhumi only to be at a loss as to where our free transfer was.  After half an hour of wandering up and down we eventually found our man who had the smallest badge you have ever seen in order to announce his representation of our hotel 'Great Residence'.  Having instigated a conversation with the driver we realised it was easier to concede that were indeed from 'Chelsea' and not Jersey.  After a short journey in the car we arrived to a clean and air conditioned room at about 6pm local time and slept.

The next couple of days were spent wandering around Ladkabang district in Bangkok on the outskirts of the major city, in the most part acclimatising, getting use to the currency and dodging ridiculous amounts of stray and potentially rabid dogs wandering around sleepily or actually dosing on the pavement.  We rejoiced at the cost of every meal, it is a great feeling for foodies like ourselves to know if we break the bank the culprit is more likely to be expensive alcohol, travel or accommodation as opposed to the price of food!  The street food is especially delicious and we now often prefer to chow down on some steps when the hunger pangs arrive rather than have a scheduled, formal sit-down meal.  One place was especially good, boasting a family run shop above it with their sun faded portraits hung proudly to the wall along with pictures of the Thai Royal Family.  The Tom Yum (hot and sour) soup was to die for.  We also noticed many of the Buddhist 'spirit houses' round this area, these look like sophisticated standalone birdhouses upon which the proprietors place offerings of food and drink such as red Fanta and chicken on a stick.    

Cooking up some breakfast

One of the spirit houses

There were extremely few westerners around and we didn't find anybody who spoke much English at all.  We (I) got to catch the Man United vs Wigan game at 8pm, a great time to watch footy as it doesn't get in the way of your day!  The highlights of this location were attending a packed guitar singer/drum duo performance at a popular local haunt for young Thais, the singer looking like an Asian Buddy Holly.  We were literally the only Farang (foreigners) in there and made the faux pas of getting a little tipsy and accidentally leaving before settling the tab.  Needless to say we had a waiter hot on our heels having barely left the place.  Another highlight was whipping the Vietnamese at pool three times in a row in a different bar, we got a little stung on the alcohol there but weren't really experienced enough to fully argue our case at that stage but got plenty knocked off.  Woke up the following day to a bit of a 'Chang' over.

Having had a dip in the pool we got a taxi to Khao San Road and we were lucky enough to discover from the driver on route that we were arriving on the day of the Loy Krathong festival.  This is when everybody lights a candle on a lotus flower shaped float made from leaves and flowers and sends it down the river as a representation of their bad fortunes, the taxi driver laughed when I suggested that they probably end up in Cambodia.  This was an extremely romantic evening, we let our own bad mojo go down the river, releasing our flowers from a boat with the most improvised engine ever; I think it was a fan attached to a broom and there was half of a large empty water bottle holding most of it together.  

Before releasing our flowers, we ate at an all you can eat outdoor food hall for 99 baht, fortunately arriving early as the queues soon became ridiculously big.  I can't comprehend how lucky we were stumbling upon this place.  It was full of hundreds of Thais and the idea is you elbow your way to the buffet to take your raw or cooked food with way too much to choose from, then they bring you a sombrero shaped tin bowl with charcoal underneath that lets you fry on the top, or boil in a moat of water that sits around the side where you can create a broth from herbs and spices.  The waiters are constantly going round taking drink orders, topping your water up from tin kettles and replacing charcoal where need be.  In addition to the DIY food cooking we also enjoyed some grey mullet and soft shell crab from a charcoal grill at no extra cost.  The streets were swarming with people and we ended the evening by watching  beautifully lit up boats with images of the King drift under the bridge that we were stood on, before some of them let off fireworks as they approached the new city against a sky dotted with as many sky lanterns as there may have been stars. 

The boat driver
Sending away the bad spirits

Khao San Road itself is an amazing place but for a few annoyances.  You can't walk ten yards before being offered a tuc tuc and it has been a learning experience to master the tact of how politely you can decline without looking as though you could potentially be swayed.  Ignoring people and losing ones 'Britishness' becomes easier with every passing day!  The food is awesome again and pad Thai or chicken kebabs are on offer everywhere for around 20 Baht (less that 50 pence), eat in meals are about double that.  There are also frogs, crickets & bugs, salty fish, good fish (we had some delightful red snapper) and some lumpy bits which we can't identify.  We have tried most of this stuff and eaten down back streets with the locals with one cabby even saying that "Most Thai's do not eat as cheap as this!" Kudos!  The further from the road and temples you go, the more genuine the people appear to be and also seem happier for your company.  Whilst the offerings to buy suits are pretty annoying to say the least, if you are around long enough to have proper chats and convince the touts that you are no way going to have a suit made up (although they still try!) you could grow fond.  Most of the suit shop owners or at least those who work in them are Burmese (they give you a big smile if you correct them and say Myanmar) and are very friendly and chatty when they get going.  Basically, they love it if you show an interest in where they come from and who wouldn't. 

We took a stroll into the night two days ago to find Poj Spa Kar, this is the oldest restaurant in Bangkok which has recipes handed down from a former palace cook.  A delicious lemongrass omelette and a plate of large shrimp cooked in garlic were served to us, otherwise there wasn't a lot to distinguish it from other eateries.  On the way we stumbled upon a warehouse containing a production line of giant golden Buddha's! When questioned, a gentleman told us that they were commissioned for the nearby temples which kind of made them seem a little less godly to us with a factory backdrop.  Other than the mass of sights and smells, a highlight here has been the 'Fish Massage' where hundreds of tiny fish set upon your bare feet when you dip them into the tank, offering the strangest breath-taking sensation that requires some commitment to remain submerged at first, but after a while simply feels like lots of minute vibrations.  There were a couple of cool characters who arrived after us, I eagerly awaited the reaction of a large French black gentleman chewing on a toothpick to dip his feet in and to my delight he was reduced to a cowering sissy.  Amazing! It was an instant conversation piece.  We have also indulged in a 'Royal Thai' massage (190 Baht each) which was painful at times but otherwise felt great!

Fish Massage

We have stayed in two places here on KS Road, our favourite being the New Siam III.  Whilst it is not as cheap by half as some of the sweatboxes round here at 560 Baht (about 6 pounds each sharing) per night it has very friendly staff, a great room with air conditioning and offers an in-house tour guide who speaks the best English to date. We've enjoyed chatting to other travellers on the road, especially Jonathon and Adi from Israel with whom we had cocktails with from a Rasta van pumping out reggae whilst sat next to some lady boys.  We have also done a bit of shopping and I'm currently wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and boxer shorts which I bought yesterday for a pittance.     

Yesterday we visited the Grand Palace having avoided the scammers and saw the Emerald Buddha.  I again made a bit of a faux pas by pointing my feet at him and was swiftly reprimanded by a visiting worshipper.  Amazing artistry and historic buildings are contained within the palace walls and we spent about three hours pottering around taking photos. 

The Grand Palace

Today we got up early to visit the 'reclining Buddha', which was pretty massive and a bargain entry price compared to the Grand Palace with just as much to see.  He isn't the largest Buddah in the world, a guide mentioned that this would be in Burma (Myanmar) but he was big enough for me and seemed very happy.  Ultimately, these places offer a valuable rare moment of tranquillity amidst the sheer vibrancy of Bangkok city life, just watch out for those scammers.

The reclining Buddha, goes without saying really...

Tonight we are leaving on an overnight bus, aiming to arrive just in time for a boat over to Koh Tao tomorrow morning in order to do our PADI open water diving introduction course.  This is a four day course which altogether with transport and accommodation for four nights has come to 9300 Baht each or about two hundred pounds.  We found places offering similar packages for slightly cheaper, but Mr. Joe, the hotel's live-in travel agent has earned a soft spot in our hearts and he seemed to be more straight talking than most so we aren't simply going for the cheapest option; in terms of value, as always time will tell!  We will hopefully do some island hopping after this before heading north, perhaps taking a day out to check out the floating market in Damnoen Saduak before heading to Chiang Mai.   

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