Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bangkok part two - Thailand

It was a great feeling coming back to Thailand and especially Bangkok as we both wanted to spend some more time here before our flight to Christchurch, New Zealand in a couple of weeks.  Having stayed in the popular and bustling backpacker mecca that was Khao San Road when we first arrived in the capital, we decided instead to find some budget digs in the more upmarket area of Siam.  We found a small street which was home to some guest houses in our price range.  We stayed at the good enough White Lodge guesthouse which was in a great location for the price.  It was close to the MBK Centre, a massive shopping mall which had an entire floor as a dedicated ‘food centre’ but more on that later!  It was also a stone’s throw from a stop on the Sky Train which could take you to most places of interest in the new city.  Round the corner from us was the National Art Gallery which was awesome.  We spent about a week in this location using the canal system, sky train or taxis to get around and see more of Bangkok.

The MBK Centre

The food vendor at the end of our street

Chowing down at the MBK centre
The canal boat transport system was a thing of interest in itself.  For less than twenty pence per head you could hop on to a boat which spent very little time waiting for you to board as it roars up to the little pier with all sorts of clientele waiting.  The rickety long boat is then driven like it is in a race and customers shield themselves from the dirty river spray using the tarpaulin.  Boats wiz past in opposite directions within inches of each other and the driver lowers the roof when necessary as you go under the bridges.  This came as a shock the first time round as the roof is at head height.  The boat was useful for getting to places in the old city so we only used it a couple of times as we had already explored this area first time round.

The canal boat transport system

Thai Akha lady selling nick-nacks

The MBK shopping centre was somewhere we spent quite a lot of time.  There are plenty of places to shop for clothes on the first couple of floors although not at very competitive prices when you consider how cheap you can get your t-shirts and flip flops in the more rural areas.  But this was the new city so you would expect to pay a little bit more, all this air conditioning doesn’t come for free after all.   Whilst it was a shiny shopping centre, it still provided amazing dining experiences on the upper levels and we had our fair share of meals in here.  Again, it isn’t the same as the street food but you are spoiled for choice of cuisine and it only cost a little more for a bit of service and somewhere to sit.  The top floor is solely home to the MBK cinema complex which shows recent Hollywood and Asian movies.  Here we watched the animation picture ‘Rango’ and nearly froze to death from the Aircon!  It was great to experience everybody respectfully standing before the start of the film as images of the King were projected to us with patriotic music playing for some time, I wonder how this would be received back in the UK?! 

Highlights of our dining experiences include a sixty baht (one pound fifty) all you can eat noodle bar buffet, some inexpensive all you can eat sushi (well, all you can eat in in your time slot), the food court where you have to pay for everything in vouchers that you exchange for cash at a kiosk, the restaurant with a name I can’t remember where the staff inexplicably put their trays down and unenthusiastically danced out a routine to music blasted over the speakers and finally our delightful first Swenson’s ice cream experience.  There were also the usual fast food chain choices as per the rest of Bangkok.  We did a little bit of clothes shopping, personally buying some warm Levi jeans and Kate some Converse trainers along with some very pretty shirts and shorts.

Because an all you can eat sushi buffet always needs rules

Wasting valuable eating time for the photo

We didn’t do all of our shopping in the MBK centre however, we decided to go to Chatuchak market which is a weekly affair.  It sounds all lovely and quaint but having spent a lot of time in the comfort of MBK air conditioning to go into this elbow rubbing smelly sweat centre was quite a step down.  The market is massive and easy to lose your sense of direction when negotiating the roasting and incredibly narrow indoor grids of stalls.   There were plenty of things to buy from live animals to plants and the more usual stuff like clothes and belts.   Shopping here was cheap but also a pretty damn stressful experience depending on the limits of your disposition.  We got a couple more things here then bought some food on sticks to eat in the park before we went back to Siam.  That evening we had a lovely meal at a pizzeria next door to the guest house which was exceptionally authentic down to the black pepper and chilli oil, great choice for one of our few proper restaurant meals.  We even treated ourselves to a glass of red wine which didn’t fail to disappoint (it can be a pretty big risk in Asia!). 

One day we spent the entire time in a dedicated electronics shopping centre with good reason.  We had finally decided to take that big leap in our relationship and get a laptop together.  Whilst this may come as a surprise, we did the maths and worked out that for the amount of money we would spend over our remaining travel time in internet cafes it would be worthwhile.  It took ages to see what we wanted and how much we actually wanted to spend.  We got dizzy from the going up and down on escalators to different shops on different floors to see what offers they had and whether they had certain things for cheaper than their competitors. 
Once we found the specification of laptop we wanted (which took half the day) we spent the remainder of time going from shop to shop to see if they had the model any cheaper.  It turned out that they were all relatively the same price, so we decided to buy from a shop which had a few boutiques, better customer service and a better all-round brand.  The laptop itself is excellent value and it is easily a couple of hundred pound cheaper than what you can get off even the UK sites like Amazon so worthwhile provided it doesn’t get nicked!  For an added bonus the shopping centre had the excellent distraction of a robot football competition taking place on the ground floor.  It was great being able to look over the banisters to see a robot take forever to line up and take a penalty to the delight of the surrounding nerds!

The overpass on the way to the tech centre

Inside the technology centre with the robot football tournament

Another highlight had to be our date evening where we went to a traditional puppet show in a very modern and impressive theatre albeit poorly attended.  The puppets are more aptly called manikins and are about two feet high.  Each one is operated by three people who are also part of the show.  The people move together and dance in unison as the puppets interact with each other to the music, there is an explanation for each scene in Thai and English before it begins.  At the end the puppets and their operators come down to the audience for a photo opportunity and plenty of fun which is a nice touch and one was lucky enough to get a kiss from Kate.  The show is short at around an hour but a worthwhile visit all the same. 
We had had a nice meal in a restaurant across the road beforehand consisting of a whole sea bass and a pizza which we shared as usual, just as well because they were both absolutely delicious.  After show drinks were due at the Banyan Tree hotel, in the rooftop bar known as Vertigo where you can sip a cocktail (or have dinner if you need to get rid of a few baht) whilst looking over the city.  Vertigo certainly lives up to its name, I’m not sure how high it was but when you’re looking down on helipads on top of other skyscrapers you certainly feel a bit squiffy.  We managed to find a place to sit and enjoy our drinks which was good as it was pretty busy but didn't get any shots cause the camera ran out of battery.  After a great evening we missed the last train home but a taxi on a meter is no big deal and we were soon back at the guesthouse safe and sound.

 Chowing down before the show
The puppet with its puppeteers

Kate getting intimate with the star of the show

On Kate’s birthday we began the day with a visit to Khao San Road where we treated ourselves to a massage, Kate had a bit of pampering and I used this time to put together a makeshift cake and candles from a seven eleven to present to her in the salon, how romantic!  We also visited the National Art Gallery to get our spoonful of culture amidst our visits to the MBK.  There were excellent exhibits from local art students ranging from photography to modern art sculptures.  There were professional photography exhibitions which did not disappoint.  Later we visited the renowned Pad Pong area.  We had a drink after our taxi ride to the general area then we headed towards the market. 
We were a little bit like fish out of water when heading through the stalls and being asked to go to a sex show at the end of every side street.  Stopping off for another drink to gather our thoughts landed us on a street which was full of cocktail bars and gay men.  It was kind of strange having a wall of gay staring from across the alley so we headed on to a beer garden which ran along the length of the street with no grass in sight.  There were lots of friendly staff and locals here and we were befriended by some who upon realising it was Kate’s birthday brought over a little cake and we sang happy birthday.  We were then serenaded by the daughter of one of the members of staff who did the funniest little dance on the table and seemed to love every minute of it.  In bars meters away there were adults doing similar but wearing less (or so I’m told).  

Kate in the National Art Gallery

Kate's birthday cake in the beauty salon

Hanging out with the girls in Pad Pong

The dancing queen in Pad Pong
We were having plenty of fun with Ging, her friends ‘Joy’, Suwadee and the dancing child so decided not to part with cash for one of the many shows.  Instead, Ging took us out on the town and we had a great night.  We spent most of the evening in a bar in Pad Pong which had a live cover band who played a good range of songs getting us up to dance, admittedly on the podium in the centre of the dance floor towards the end of the night.  There had been a couple of extroverted lady boys on that podium most of the night and a couple of American lads were more than happy on several occasions to get a face full of what the doctor had graced them with for all to see!  When the bar began to die down Ging called her tuk tuk driver friend who picked us up and took us to Khao San Road where we had some shisha and a couple more drinks until the Sun came up.  We met some English and Irish blokes and left Ging with them after being a great host and trying her best to not let us pay for anything.  We grabbed some street food and then took a cab home after a great day.

Ging and the singer in the live music bar

Kate and Ging in the tuktuk

The tuktuk driver

Finishing off the night in Koh San Road

Bangkok was starting to wear us down a bit, and having spent a week in the same guest house we were getting itchy feet.  We decided to head to the sleepy nearbye town of Nakhon Pathom in order to escape the city and get to see some ‘real Thailand’ before we left for a second time.

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