Two weeks, two Thailands. Part 1: Bangkok

Since I have been living in Asia I have traveled to numerous countries and been continually impressed, inspired and had my expectations exceeded. The Philippines was serene, laid-back and beautiful; Vietnam was incredible from the French colonial streets of Ho Chi Minh to the deserted island of Phu Quoc; Japan was culturally stimulating and life happened at 5x the speed that maybe it should; Taiwan brought incredible people, stunning landscapes and peacefulness and of course living in South Korea has been a unique experience offering challenges, happiness and personal development. It was therefore expected that at some point I would come across a country that let me down. That country was Thailand.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a generally enjoyable holiday in Thailand. I just felt I didn’t come away with anything positive from it. Something that wowed me, taught me something or opened my eyes. Well at least in a positive sense.

I traveled to Thailand with Sam. To those that are not familiar with Sam Piper he is the good friend that I met in Manchester at work and traveled with to South Korea to begin what has been a roller coaster ride in Asia. We have been through a life changing experience in South Korea but have never been on vacation together since we arrived, usually because of involvement with respective girlfriends or our school schedules clashing in terms of vacation time. In many ways Sam and I are very similar, we have similar interests and great rapport and banter. In contrast we are also quite different,  me quieter and a little more cautious, Sam loud and bold. And of course, I’m much more intelligent, attractive and handsome than him!

Our journey began at six o’clock on Friday on the KTX to Seoul. After zooming up to Seoul we met each other in Seoul station as we left from different stations in Changwon and Busan, respectively. We checked into the grubbiest motel in Korea, ate some dodgy fried chicken, had a few beers and got our heads down for an early start on Saturday morning to catch our flight from Incheon. We awoke to snow lightly dusting the still dark and quiet streets of Seoul. All I could think was, ” GET ME THAILAND, NOW!!!”

Eight hours later we landed in sunny and hot Bangkok, Thailand. Our first four days were to be spent in Bangkok. We went to our hotel (clean, comfortable, modern and a swimming pool) in Ratchadaphisek district. Later that afternoon we met one of Sam’s old school friends Jon and his Thai wife Pam. They had kindly come down from their home in Nakhon Ratchasima to catch up with Sam and take us out around Bangkok.

Our first evening we went to a great Thai bar with a huge open terrace. Inside there was live music and outside there were some projector screens so we could take in some English football. We ate some nice Thai dishes, watched the football and then headed out to the Khao San Road. Khao San Road is a notorious backpacker hub/ghetto. For years this has been a place to sleep cheap, arrange travel plans and meet new travel friends. The area is buzzing with kids on their gap years, seasoned travelers and probably a few stuck in their ways expats. We went to the Lava Club and enjoyed some good tunes in a pumping underground cavern. Out on the streets you could buy Thailand’s notorious buckets (usually containing something along the lines of Sangsom Rum, cola and red bull) and watch the open terraced bars host parties, drunken backpackers mount passing trucks and the odd praying lady boy on the look out for some naive unsuspecting boy. Khao San was pretty fun but I’m glad we weren’t staying there. The next day was predictably dominated by hangover maintenance.

Imminent food poisoning

Chinatwon

Fortunately due to the comfort of my hotel bed and copious amounts of water I didn’t feel too bad when I awoke. We ate some delicious food in the local mall food court, which was arguably more authentic and value for money than some of the tripe we dined upon in the tourist areas. The afternoon was passed by the pool and later we went to Chinatown. This is where my holiday hit its first major hurdle. Sam loves seafood, I hate seafood. But being the open-minded kind of guy I am, I was willing to try some seafood. We went to a famous street-side restaurant in Chinatown. People sit at tables on the side of the street and are served their choice of freshly caught and cooked seafood. From a food lovers point of view it did look quite appetizing. From my point of view it looked terrible. Matters got worse for me as we were ushered inside as there were no tables left outside. We sat in what looked like a converted garage and I immediately noticed a few suspect (cockroachesque) bugs on the walls. In Thailand this is not uncommon and if I’m honest I expected to see the odd dining establishment bug. The food was ordered and duly came. I tried the prawns, calamari and a little fish. I lived…for now. Later in the evening we went to the same bar as the previous evening to watch some huge Premier League games. As the dire Tottenham vs QPR game finished I began to feel a little discomfort and by half-time in the Arsenal vs Man City game I was feeling less than well. We went back to the hotel and feeling pretty tired I went to sleep. The next 36 hours were what I would call horrific. The main culprit being the seafood, closely followed by some dubious food in the bar that hadn’t been up to the previous days standard. Our first proper day of exploring Bangkok was denied and Sam went off and enjoyed himself with Pam and Jon whilst I made myself familiar with the tiles in the bathroom.

Random temple

The following day I gingerly resurfaced to discover Sam was fully embracing his second hangover of the holiday so I went into downtown Bangkok and did a little shopping and checked out a random temple that I stumbled upon. In the evening we checked out the seedier side of Bangkok. Bangkok, and to a certain extent Thailand in general, suffers from what can only be described as sex tourism. What makes this even more peculiar is that it is openly accepted and arguably embraced by modern Thai culture. This can be verified by Bangkok’s government labeling these certain areas as “tourist safety zones”. We went to an area called Soi Cowboy. Bangkok.com describes it like this: “Flashing neon lights up a colourful streetscape comprised mainly of middle-aged expats, Japanese and western tourists, and of course a lot of sexily dressed girls.”  It sounded like quite the carnival but behind the eye-opening go-go bars, fancy neon and general cheeky persona of the girls there is of course a darker side. We chatted to the owner of one establishment, a late middle-aged Thai man, who we questioned about the mechanics of the area. Most of the bars were owned by a rich Arab, who apparently is a man not to be messed with, bribes were paid to police chiefs, girls came from all over the country and were available for a price to takeaway if you wished. Beyond the neon it didn’t seem bright at all. The owner had quite a unique story as well, he lived in England and was a personal chef for Shane Ward, a previous X-factor winner. He adored Gareth Gates and had a penchant for Chico?!?! It was certainly an experience to see this side of Thailand and if I am quite honest prostitution, under whatever guise or facade, was virtually everywhere. If you can imagine the frequency of a Starbucks or MacDonalds in England, then you could apply that frequency to red light districts throughout areas in Bangkok and the tourist resorts of Thailand.  Similarly imagine those annoying charity fundraising muggers that adorn Britain’s high streets and you could compare it to the harassment you receive from street walking prostitutes and lady boys in Thailand. We stayed out and fended off the attention of the girls until we had too much of it and headed back to the hotel, satisfyingly alone. The next day we would head to Phuket and eventually Koh Phi Phi (and you can read all about that in Part 2!)

Sam at the Soi Cowboy

When we finished our island adventures we returned to Bangkok. Intent on experiencing the traditional culture of Bangkok and trying to get a view of the life of  a “normal” Thai.

Throughout our journey we had winged our accommodation and generally booked places the day before on agoda.com or just turned up. Our second visit to Bangkok brought a comparable hotel to the first, reasonably priced with a pool and good quality rooms. Unfortunately we didn’t check the location beforehand and it turned out to be on the same road as another one of the “tourist safety zones”. Thankfully, it was at the quieter end but any trip to a restaurant or the sky train involved running the gauntlet of Bangkok’s questionable nightlife…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHtemZBYbgE … Trying to walk down a street in Bangkok.

Derelict Mercedes truck on the walk the Thailand Tobacco Company

Man rescuing possessionss

Our first visit to Bangkok had memories that I would rather forget but our second stint would prove to be fantastic and would leave us with a memorable and positive image of Bangkok. On the final Thursday we walked south from our hotel and walked through the properties of the Thailand Tobacco Company. We encountered some interesting security measures and some ageing vehicles parked up before we boarded Bangkok’s subway the MRT. We headed to Hua Lamphong Station and began a walk to the Chao Phraya River where we hoped to catch the ferry up the river to Wat Arun. Our little walking adventure took us across a Khlong (canal) where we saw a man rescuing possessions from a freshly burnt down building, we walked along a street where every shop had huge mountains of spare automobile parts that were ready to service Bangkok’s Tuk Tuks, scooters and cars, we bought delicious spring rolls from street vendors and NO-ONE harassed us. It was a definite change of pace, this was a real, living, breathing area of Bangkok where people just got on with their lives.

Auto-parts?

Guarding the entrance to Wat Arun

At the river we found one of the many ferry stops that line the Chao Phraya and are used by tourists and commuters alike to travel from north to south through Bangkok. In fact the river ferry is arguably the fastest, cheapest and most convenient form of travel in Bangkok. We paid a mere 15 baht to travel up the river to Wat Arun and just 3 baht (6p) to cross the river on another ferry to get to the right side.

Wat Arun Porcelain statue

Clay statues in the making

Wat  Arun  is a 17th century Buddhist temple. It has distinctive spires that pierce into the Bangkok skyline. The main spire (prang) rises about 70m into the air and unlike most famous temples you can actually climb it. Climbing it however is done at your peril. Steep steps rise on all four faces with much-needed handrails appearing as the gradient increases the closer you are to the summit. A fall down the steps would be crippling if not even fatal. The spires are adorned with colourful porcelain decorations and gargoyles that watch over Bangkok and the Chao Phraya from the walls. The grounds that surround it are filled with small temple buildings, golden Buddhas and statues but the star is most definitely the main spire.

Steep spire at Wat arun

River View from Wat Arun

After exploring Wat Arun we headed back across the river and experienced a small market by the river. It sold everything from food, to small carved stones for Buddhists to take to the temples as offerings. The area included Wat Pho and The Grand Palace but we arrived too late and decided to check them out the following day. We walked back to the river and headed south before attempting blindly to walk to Hua Lamphong station. Somehow we ended up in Chinatown again but eventually found the subway station. The Thailand Tobacco Company grounds were closed and we had to take a looooooong detour to get back to the hotel. We estimated we had walked about 8-10 miles (in the heat) and we certainly felt it, the aching was relieved by a nice swim in the pool and the satisfaction that Bangkok had surprised us in a positive way.

Khlong (canal)

Getting lost in Bangkok with the locals

Grand Palace

The following day we returned to the Grand Palace only to discover we needed to be wearing trousers to enter. Our shorts were deemed unacceptable so we took a few photos over the surrounding walls and headed to Wat Pho. Wat Pho is another Buddhist temple but is different to Wat Arun architecturally. Wat Pho is home to the famous reclining Buddha. The reclining Buddha is 45m long and 13m high. After you have fought the crowd of tourists to get to the front it is quite impressive. Buddha looks pretty chilled despite the flash of cameras and the din of coins being sprayed into donation boxes. The rest of Wat Pho is equally impressive and considerably quieter. The ignorant tourist seems to not get beyond the main attraction. Lots of smaller buildings, porcelain spires and numerous statues and idols litter the temple complex. If all the crowds have stressed you out by the reclining Buddha you can go to the Thai Massage school to relax.

Statues at Wat Arun

Gargoyle

Reclining Buddha

Prang at Wat Pho

Wat Pho is regarded as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage and if you have experienced a real Thai massage (not a dodgy one!) then you have a lot to thank to Wat Pho.  I had a Thai massage once in Korea to try to alleviate the pains brought about from my old age and mid-season football injuries. It was great but expensive (30 English pounds). In Thailand I had two and each time it cost no more than 6 pounds and was even better. Thai massage is both relaxing and painful. I noticed each time that the masseuse could recognise where I had tightness or injury without me even mentioning it and put extra effort into relaxing the muscle or joint. I had my back (surprisingly) cracked to the tune of me exclaiming (Holy s#$@!), I was walked on and I was subjected to positions that I would not generally consider possible.  I would thoroughly recommend Thai massage but don’t expect it to be a purely blissful experience!

Ornate door at Wat Pho

Guard in Wat Pho complex

In the grounds of Wat Pho

Our final day would be a long one. We checked out of our hotel at midday and entrusted our backpacks with the reception staff. Our flight left shortly after midnight so we planned to visit Chatuchak Weekend Market. Chatuchak is Thailand’s largest market and the worlds largest weekend market. It sells virtually everything from vintage clothes to knock-off gear, household items to antiques, Thai crafts to live animals. You name it, Chatuchak probably sells it. We explored it for four hours and probably only managed to see a fifth of the five thousand stalls. Sam was able to hone his bartering skills and I got a few items of clothing. Sam met his match in one store lady though who continually told him she would cry if he didn’t pay her price. I think it was the first and only time he lost out to a trader, hotelier or taxi driver all holiday. After the throng of Chatuchak we headed to the more luxurious shopping centres of Pathum Wan. Pathum Wan is representative of the typical Asian aspiration that many countries in Asia embrace of the image of wealth and style. From the Siam Paragon to the Siam Discovery and the MBK mall, brand hungry Thais can shop ’til they drop. It is comparable to the never-ending Shinsegae store and Lotte department stores in Busan, where affluent Koreans love to be seen and spend their hard-earned won.

Chatuchak market

Our trip was done and we headed to the airport for the last time on our Thai adventure. Bangkok has so many faces, good and bad, beautiful and downright ugly, innocent and seedy, rich and poor and luxury and squalor. The sad thing is the negative aspects are the ones that are more eye-catching, they grab your attention and make you question how this situation can be possible and even accepted. You could walk down Sukhumvit Road (a main city artery) and begin in the Siam Paragon Centre gazing at super-cars in the Lamborghini store on the fourth floor, walk past skyscrapers with opulent sky bars and then hit an area where you can buy Viagra and Valium on a street stall, be propositioned by a lady boy, walk past a homeless amputee or three and have a Tuk Tuk driver offer to take you to a brothel fronting as a massage parlor. You will do well not to be ripped-off buy a trader or harassed by a taxi driver who will promise you the earth but equally you need to keep your guard a little open for meeting the genuine, affable people who live in Bangkok. I’m not sure if I love or loathe Bangkok. It can be either on any given day.

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