January 29, 2000 At home....
We are now home and settled in for 8 months and I am just itching to travel again. A couple of months ago an interesting offer showed up in the Sunday Travel section of the paper. I saw an advertisement for a 5 night package trip to Bangkok on China Air. It included RT airfare, 5 nights at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Hotel, breakfasts, transfers, 1/2 day sightseeing tour for $1199 for two people! Problem was, it was only good until the end of November. I said to David, "If they offer this package in the Spring, do you want to go?" My thought was that even though we spent so much time there before, we could easily fill 5 days shopping, sightseeing and eating. I hoped that maybe we could even entice some friends along and show them the sights. Well, sure 'nuf, the package became available again, but only through mid March, which would not work for David's schedule.
Hmmm....what to do? In a heartbeat, I thought, I'll just see if my Mother wants to go. Even though we have traveled together before (two weeks in Italy in a rental car, and a week in New Orleans) I was a bit reticent asking her if she wanted to go. Not that she's not an adventurous soul, but I thought she might be a bit put off by the third world thing. However, I had the knowledge that we would have a nice hotel room to go back to every night, and my prior experience in the city on my side.
So, I hesitantly approached the subject, and not missing a beat, she said, "Sure, why not?" What a trooper! My mother is my favorite type of traveling companion, she doesn't want to plan anything and leaves it all up to me. To be fair, I did not paint a romantically rosy picture of Bangkok. I told the truth; it's a dirty, polluted, huge metropolis that is at the same time fascinating, exotic, and exciting. I told her we'd eat at my favorite sidewalk food vendors, have massages at Wat Po, take a day trip to see the ruins at Ayuthaya, and cruise up and down the Chao Praya River on the local river boats. We even decided to book another night's lodging (only $41) so that we would have a full five days there (we arrive at midnight which counts as the first night). She had to get a new passport and submit herself to various inoculations. Now, all we have to do is wait for the departure day to arrive.
In case you're wondering, I'm still deciding whether or not to bring the digital camera and computer along since it's such a short trip. If I bring the digital camera, then I have to bring the computer in order to download the photos. On the other hand, if I bring a film camera, I will have to scan all the photos when I get home. I have become so used to the convenience of the digital camera (there are no bad photos, only erased ones), that I can't imagine working with a standard camera anymore. On the other hand, I am aware of the digital camera's limitations in terms of photo quality and am anxious to take better photos. I had also toyed with posting from Bangkok daily, but that may be too much even for me. And if I don't write in my journal right away, I know I will lose a lot of information and the details that diminish with distance and time. If I write in a paper journal, then I will have to transcribe it later. A dilemma, not one crucial to issues of world peace, I know, but a small dilemma for me nonetheless.
February 26, 2000
In the Air....
$1 USD=38Thai Baht
I realized the yesterday that I have very high expectations for this trip. I really want everything to go smoothly, especially because I have my Mother with me and I'm acting as "guide". I hope all goes well. I've found that in the past, when I re-visit places I am often times a bit disappointed. This time however, I plan on only hitting the highlights from before and seeing more new sights.February 28, 2000 3 AM Bangkok time....
This morning was a bit nerve wracking. I was up late last night packing and then woke up early, filled with nervous energy. We got to the airport three hours early (as instructed by the airline) and they checked us in instantly so we had two and a half hours to wait. The good news was, the plane was not full and we had a row of three seats for the two of us. The bad news was that we had planned to just do carry on luggage and our roll-a-boards exceeded the limit of 7 kilos each. I had to go and open my big mouth and ask, didn't I? Later, of course, we would see many other people with much larger bags getting on the plane.
So, with 2 1/2 hours to go before the plane was scheduled to depart, we had lunch at the Daily Grill and browsed the shops. By then, all nervousness was gone and I was back into the travelin' groove of things.
We are flying on China Air, the Taiwanese national airline. Aboard the plane, some things are nicer than our domestic airlines, and some things are just plain weird. The flight attendants are all incredibly friendly and well coifed. We were offered hot towels, a pack of playing cards, and disposable slippers before departure. Every seat has foot rests. Then we were told over the intercom that there would only be 2 meals served (dinner, 4 hours into the flight and breakfast right before we land in Taipei at 8 PM local time) during the 14+ hour flight, but "snacks would be available upon request". The "snack" seems to be a cup of Ramen noodles. No bottled water is available, but they do have cherry brandy. The in-flight magazine is in Chinese, with only a few pages in English. The in flight movies were announced over the intercom, but were unrecognizable and will most likely be in Chinese as well. We shall see....
Over 24 hours total travel time door to door. Ouch! We lost Sunday crossing the international dateline and it's now Monday morning here. On the plane from Taipei to Bangkok I felt horrible, I was so tired, and now, here at the hotel, I'm wide awake. Could it be because my body thinks it's noon?
I stepped off the plane and felt a huge smile cross my face. It's good to be back here. We had quite a wait to get through passport control, but then were able to pick up our checked bags right away. As we exited customs, there was our "tour leader" named Apple. I use the quotation marks around "tour" because that's how she referred to herself, even though we're not really on a tour. Just a hotel/fly package. Actually, the package comes with a 1/2 day tour but we're not going to take it. We had to wait a bit for the rest of the group who were also going to our hotel so I found an ATM and was able to get Thai Baht at a good exchange rate with no transaction fee right there before we even left the airport. This is new since we were last here; then, the only ATM was downstairs in the Departure terminal.
Finally, we arrived at the hotel, checked in, and made it up to our room. It's not a bad room, as far as big hotel chains go, although a bit musty smelling. Hungry, we ordered french fries from room service (what else does one eat at 2 AM?) and a couple of glasses of Taylor's Port (my favorite!) to help us sleep. Tomorrow, it's off to Wat Po, hopefully for a massage in the morning.
Day 1- Take me to the River....
We started our day with a great breakfast buffet in the hotel, which is included in our package. Then we set out for what turned out to be a long day of walking and sightseeing. As we left the hotel, we commented on how it didn't seem that hot. After all it is "winter" here. At 10 AM it was probably about 80 degrees out, but this coolness was not to last...
First we walked toward the river where it's possible to catch the local Chao Praya River Express boat which, with its' many stops, is a great way to avoid the traffic congestion of Bangkok. For only 6 Baht each we were able to go up the river a few miles on a big white wooden boat. The boat pulls up to the peer and a man on the back deck (where people exit and enter the boat) blows a sharp whistle to let the driver know where to stop. Then it's up to the passengers to jump on and off as quickly as possible to avoid falling in the river. This is the equivalent of taking the bus around town in terms of local transportation. Pack them in and off we go!
So, we took the boat up the river about 8 stops and got of only a block from the entrance to Wat Po. A Wat, is a temple complex, and Wat Po is the oldest one in Bangkok. Instead of 1 main church like in Christian religions, a Wat is usually in a compound surrounded by a wall with many buildings and shrines inside. Wat Po houses a building in which is one of the largest gold covered reclining buddhas in the world. This buddha is over 120 feet long and 45 feet high. He's made out of plaster covered with gold leaf and has mother of pearl inlays on his feet. The reclining position symbolizes the Buddha's transition into nirvana.
The other reason for going to Wat Po is that it contains the oldest massage school in Thailand that teaches the ancient art of traditional Thai massage. For 200 baht, you get an hour massage in a large fan cooled pavilion. There are raised platforms with three mats across, with space for about 24 people at a time. They are always full, morning 'til night with people being stretched and massaged. Traditional Thai massage is similar to the Chinese method which relies on steady pressure on certain points on the body. The masseur uses hands, feet, and body weight to put the right amount of pressure on these points.
After the massage we walked through the amulet market, a place I've never been before. There you can find all sorts of different religious icons, most small enough to wear around one's neck. By then, we had had enough walking, so we hopped in a tuk tuk (three wheeled covered motorbike) and headed toward Khao San Road. This is the backpacker tourist mecca, and I wanted my mother to have a chance to relive her Hippy days. But first we had to get past the tuk tuk driver who, while he was still driving us, tried to raise the price we had already agreed to. When we arrived at our destination, and tried to pay, he of course did not have the 10 baht change for us. So my Mother went into a store, bought a piece of gum, and made him wait for his fare.
Khao San Road was in true form, filled with the lost youth that had been out too long (see my rant on this issue on our Nepal page). My mother was appalled at the tattoos, piercings, dreadlocks, and general attitude of entitlement going on. After an hour of walking around, it was time to go and we headed back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. At the hotel, we upgraded to a nicer room and we now have a stunning view of the city all the way to the river from the 20th floor.
We ate dinner on the street, in a little soi (alleyway) off Silom Road (soi 20) as we headed toward the Patpong night market. From one of the street vendors, we had roasted duck over rice and some barbecued pork satay, all for about $1. After that, it was time to brave the throngs at the Patpong Night Market which a cross between a swap meet and Times Square in NY before they cleaned it up. It's filled to the brim with tables and vendors selling anything and everything; counterfeit clothing, watches, sunglasses, purses, Thai crafts. Add to that, strip bars with sex shows, gay nightclubs, and tourists from all walks of life. The goods are cheap and all that that implies.
We avoided the bars, of course, but did do a bit of shopping. It's hard not to when you ask a price, get quoted something outrageous, and then try to walk away. Within 30 seconds the price drops 75%. With a little negotiation, it goes further. I don't blame the vendors for trying to get all they can from the tourists. If people are too stupid to bargain, then they deserve to pay too much.
Walking back to the hotel we saw an elephant in the street and for 20 B each got to feed her bananas and take pictures. The issue of elephants is an impassioned one here in Thailand, where there are hundreds of out of work elephants. Recently, there was a demonstration, a strike of sorts, that blocked street traffic, protesting the government's lack of support to the elephants and their owners. The problem is that elephants have an average life span the same as humans and were bred and trained to be workers in the forests. Now that they are no longer needed as technology improves, there is no way to support them and what it takes to feed them for the rest of their lives (which in some cases could be another 50 years!). So essentially, they and their owners are out of work and have been reduced to begging in the streets. The owners want the government to support them financially. After all, no one wants an unemployed hungry elephant on their hands, do they?
February 29, 2000 Day 2- The crush of humanity...
This morning we decided to follow the walking tour through Chinatown outlined in the Lonely Planet guidebook. We took the riverboat to the Rachvongse Pier, headed in the right direction and promptly got lost.
Our goal was to find Wat Mangkon, Chinatown's largest and oldest temple with Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian altars. The problem was that we didn't have a detailed map and sometimes even the large streets aren't marked with street signs. So, we made a wrong turn and walked in circles for a bit. Finally, we found a street vendor who could tell us the name of the street we were on and point us in the right direction. Suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of a narrow alley, filled with fresh food stalls, what is commonly known as a "wet market". This is where people go to buy all manner of meat, fish and poultry, both prepared and raw. The sights and smells can be a bit over powering at times and it's definately not for the squeemish. But we loved it! It was facinating.
At the end of the alleyway we found the temple on the right street and entered the compound. The temple was thick with incence smoke and filled with offerings of fruit, candles, and more incence sticks in front of the many statues. There were many people praying to their ancestors and for their family members. We met a woman in front of a row of statues which were draped in orange silk, who was on her knees, shaking a wooden cilinder filled with thin wooden sticks. When one finally fell out, she stopped the shaking and picked up the stick. She explained to us that she way praying for her mother's health to one of the gods that the statue represented, and that she would take the stick with writing on it into the herbalist's office inside the temple. There, she would be given an herbal remedy for her mother, based on the writing on the stick.
Back out on the street, we went back through the market from which we came, in order to follow the tour outlined in the book. As we got deeper and deeper into the market, it changed from selling food, to housewares, to fabrics and clothes. It just kept going and going, packed with people shoulder to shoulder, along with heavily laden pushcarts, and people trying to drive though the crowd on motorbikes. Still, we were able to buy a few things, including some Muslim-style white cotton top and pants set that will make great pajamas (only 190 B each set). As we kept walking, we got hotter, hungrier, and more irritated by the crush of humanity and then we got lost again!
Somewhere along the way, Chinatown gave way to Bangkok's Little India district and finally, we reached our next destination, the Royal India Restaurant, a tiny oasis in the middle of chaos. Down another alley, the Royal India (392 Chakraphet Rd) seats about 25 people in an air-conditioned room. We had an excellent, authentic, chicken curry, cucumber raita, and garlic naan bread. Along with a bottle of water, the entire meal cost us 132 B, less than $4 US for two. It eas a fantastic break from the heat, smog, and frantic pace of life outside.
Refreshed, we set out to find the river boat and head to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. Before we could get there however, we found ourselves in the middle of the flower market, teeming with beautiful colors and scents. The Thai people are especially fond of flowers and use them abundantly in temple and shrine offerings. Bright yellow crysanthimums are popular as are orchids. Two dozen roses can be purchased in the market for only 30 Baht (less than $1)!
Wat Arun is supposedly the most photographed object in all of Thailand. It is named after Aruna, the Indian God of Dawn, although it is best photographed at sunset. Even though David and I spent quite a bit of time here in Bangkok last year, somehow we managed to miss seeing this striking temple, except from a distance. From the river, the Wat looks like it is solid white, but up close it is a multitude of colors, plastered with millions of shards of broken pottery. According to the Lonely Planet, Chinese ships calling on Bangkok in the 1800's used broken pottery as ballast and then dumped it here. The broken plates and cups were then set into the plaster which was a common way to decorate temples in that era.
Overly hot and exausted, we decided to head back to the hotel to rest, but it was not yet meant to be. My Mother wanted to buy something in the departement store across the street from the hotel. After over 30 minutes of searching for the right thing she attempted to pay by credit card. Big mistake. She had printed on the back of her credit card, in the space for the signature, "ask for picture ID", to guard against theft. Well, the clerk, trained to compare signatures on the reciept against the card, freaked out when they did not match. On top of that, she didn't speak English and neither did any of her co-workers. We spent almost 15 minutes trying to explain/convince her it was ok but she would not give us the receipt. Finally, we had her void the transaction and paid in cash. It was a very frustrating experience.
We had a great dinner at a restaurant around the corner from the hotel called Ban Chiang (14 Srivieng Road). It's in an old teak house set back from the road filled with Thai antiques. The clientelle seems to be mostly foriegn, along with wealthy Thais. We had an excellent roasted duck curry, a mediocre shrimp and asparagus dish, and a nice spicy chicken dish with broad, flat, rice noodles. Along with steamed rice, bottled water, and a Singha beer our dinner cost us only around $10US. They accept AMEX cards and we had no problem using my mother's card there!
Bangkok Journal Part 1
Bangkok Photos Part 1
Bangkok Journal Part 2
Bangkok Photos Part 2
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last updated on April 5, 2002