Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Bangkok Experience, part 1

Ah, Bangkok. I was bound to end up here eventually – and in fact this was the first visit of two on this trip. Getting into and out of Burma kind of required that I fly in and out of here. All roads lead to Bangkok, after all.

Well, I could have gone on the return pilgrimage flight from Bodhgaya in India, but that involves flying Myanmar Air. No thanks.

With a policeman stood by the arrival gate taking photos of arriving passengers, I assumed that I'd be profiled as a potential drug smuggler, and searched excessively at silly hours of the morning in places that really don't bear mentioning.

No, they don't care. Just fill out your arrival card and we're all good. Which they STAPLED into my passport. This might have triggered some small scent of OCD inside me – not impressed.

Then they decided to start ripping me off by charging me 150 baht to make a cash withdrawal. £3 to take some cash out of the machine! And that's EVERY CASH MACHINE IN THAILAND, bar those of one bank – but they only have about 6 ATMs in the entire country. And having worked on an easy exchange rate (100 rupees = £1) for the previous month, I went a bit mental and forgot that it was only 50 baht to the pound, and took out double what I'd hoped to.

Maths at 2am is not so fun.

Ah well, saves me £3 the next time.

Off to the hostel, and public transport was off for the night and so I had one of my favourite choices to make: taxi or taxi? Thankfully the prepaid system means that the airport drivers won't rip you off - and they have sports cars for taxis as well!



The lack of horns, actual lane discipline and roads that didn't have potholes every 10 metres seemed far too civilised given that I'd just come from India.

Everything's relative, I suppose.

This is definitely still Bangkok.

But we made it to the hostel eventually, paid about twice what I'd pay in India (yeah, everything's relative) and said hello to the people who were only just heading out. At 3am. This is Bangkok after all.

My body clock was so confused at the 90 minute time zone change that I considered joining them, but eventually it decided that it was tired and that sleep was maybe a good idea.

Next day. I needed to sort my Burmese visa out, so I sat and waited for Aung to turn up for his shift – 3 hours late. He was one of the ones going out the night before. The night shift guy was not impressed, but can't sack the manager eh?

Eventually we talked about getting into Burma and so on, and what on earth I was going to do there. Aung seemed to know a certain amount about the country, and was a bit of a legend. I'll let him off for going out without me.

It took me a few days for it to click that he was in fact Burmese.

I can be a bit stupid sometimes. With my newly sun-bleached hair, at least I have a good excuse.

So I went to the agency round the corner that Aung recommended for me, and paid them 400 baht to get up in the morning at silly o'clock and do it for me. Because getting up in the morning at silly o'clock just doesn't happen in Bangkok.

And by 4pm I finally made it out. I thought I'd head to the Khao San Road (where else?), but the novelty of Buddhist temples became too much and I just had to visit one on the way.


All pretty golden.

I never made it to the Khao San Road in the end.

Made it to a travel agency where I booked a bus to Krabi though. The trains were apparently sold out already, and the bus was only 50 baht extra – but I realised later that they may well have been lying, and that I overpaid by a fair bit. Should have just gone to the company directly, whether it was Boxing Day or not.

Happens to the best of us, eh?

So I took a wander back, but had to wait for the king's motorcade to pass by. Quite amusing how everything has to come in off the street – a lot of food stands and other tourist crap – and everyone has to stop and stand still.


It's his birthday after all, I suppose.

And they do like him here – even more than the British monarchy, who we just decide we like whenever the local republican opens their mouth.

And I'd rather not get arrested on my first day here. Might put a bit of a downer on things.

Far too much dodgy Thai whiskey later, I made it to bed.

Street food: this is definitely Bangkok
At least I actually made it to the Khao San Road this time. It would have been kind of wrong not to go. Even if I'd changed out of my usual smelly backpacker look because the plan was to go to the Skybar where Hangover 2 was filmed, and was far too overdressed for the place on the KSR.


Keeps the tuk-tuk crew away at least.

And given how late I woke up the next day, I'm glad I got an agency to do my visa for me. No way was I making it to the embassy for 8am.

Eventually I made it outside and thought it might be right to get the golden triangle of tourist attractions in Bangkok done. Everywhere has a golden triangle. Except they don't call this one the golden triangle, even though the attractions are very golden.

Oh, the rubbish I can talk about actually insignificant things.

First up: the Royal Palace.


Free entry today! King's birthday was yesterday!

Except I couldn't actually make it into the palace, only the Emerald Buddha compound next door.


Ah well, saved myself 350 baht. And gold stupas were still fairly exciting at this point, so we were all good.


And the vest-top and shorts crews had to pay to hire some really dodgy clothes to cover themselves up. Very amusing. Serves them right. Chavrists can go to Zante and save the rest of the world for the rest of us.

Next, time for Wat Pho. It had a reclining Buddha. The entire concept of a reclining Buddha is just far too amusing for me.


And some poor guy had an epileptic fit, I presume because the gold got a bit too shiny.

Given the heat, the guy selling cold towels is one hell of an entrepreneur. Pretty smart that one.

Free bottle of water downed, I went to find the pier to get across the river to Wat Arun. Having tried several battered-looking piers first, I eventually joined the usual lost crowd of people who were being guided towards the correct pier, and who were also trying to avoid the boat trip salesmen on the other piers. Of course.


Cost me 3 baht. 6 pence to get across the river. Now we're talking!

And Wat Arun must have the steepest steps ever.

Just in case I didn't realise
But it's a bit of a good view from the top - even if there's definitely not enough space for us all, and whoever opened it to tourists is probably getting some bad karma for denigrating a place of worship.


But yeah, golden triangle done far too quickly, as only I can manage.

Well, the other option is staring at some gold for far too long.

Getting prescription sunglasses is a bit out of my budget.

Though they can probably do laser eye surgery quite cheap here. As long as they don't try to sell you, let's say, alternative medical therapy.

Apparently this was the sunset temple, but it was still a little early for that, so when someone offered me an hour-long boat trip for 300 baht they were on to something, especially when they promised me a floating market. Because floating markets are kind of cool.

Spontaneous boat trips are the best kind of boat trips, after all.


Even if there was most certainly not a floating market.

But I couldn't really complain, because I was that guy who left his camera case on the boat, and had to get them to call the boat back over so I could pick it up again.

I'm not sure if I didn't stick around long enough, or if the sunset was just a bit rubbish, but either way, I could have just saved myself 300 baht and, well, sat around and done nothing for an hour.

This'll have to do
Yeah, it was probably worth it after all.

So I made it back a bit later, and my visa was already waiting for me, about 4 days ahead of my expected schedule. So I got overexcited about having another sticker in my passport, especially since it had a shiny silver part.

Yeah, travelling makes me go a bit mad.

So a few of us went for some beers on the rooftop and laughed far too much. Oh, and we avoided getting into a long, drawn out conversation about immigration, like the poor guys on the other table.

Those conversations never end well.

It's quite surprising how much I actually managed to get done in Bangkok actually, even if I did wake up too late to make it up the Golden Mount. I wish I'd gone up, just to prove the tout who claimed it was a Buddhist holiday and therefore closed wrong. Oh the look on his face when I laughed at the suggestion and he realised he'd been had.

It's always a Buddhist holiday for the jewel shop touts.

So I just went to the weekend market at Amphawa, on the basis that it was floating.

Cheap canal ferry? Score. Cheap skytrain? Score.

It was all working far too well.

Amphawa?

What are you trying to say, you stupid white man?

Amphawa? No, that way.
Amphawa? No, keep going.
Amphawa? No, just round the corner?
Amphawa? Fifth one down.
Amphawa? Yes, jump on!

Made it.

Even if the driver was definitely sniffing something at some point. The crystal meth thing might well be true...

I love the Thais. They laugh about everything – even going flying down the aisle of the minivan when it braked suddenly. Because wearing seatbelts is overrated.

Eventually we made it to some sort of town, and I got told to get off. The driver didn't speak enough English to tell me where to go so I did the usual confused foreigner act and, of course, got accosted by a tuk-tuk driver.

Amphawa was still 8km away. That's 100 baht in a tuk-tuk.

Seemed fair, even if I'd only paid 70 for the minivan that had taken me more than ten times the distance. And drivers in Bangkok would probably try to ask for 400 or something.

And wow, the tuk-tuks are fun. So much faster and more powerful than Indian autorickshaws.


Seemed a shame to get out actually, but the floating market was decent – even if half the action was on the sides of the canal.

There weren't as many boats as I was expecting though. This was a real Thai floating market, with Thai prices to match. I'll have to make it to the tourist one at Damoen Saduek at some point, just to see the craziness of a floating market on steroids. Or crystal meth, as seems appropriate in this country.

FOOD
It didn't really get going for a couple of hours, so a boat trip seemed appropriate.

300?

No, that's to charter your own boat. Puts Bangkok prices into perspective. This is the real Thailand, after all – even if it is the real middle-class Thailand.

50 baht for some five temples tour. Yeah, that'll do. £1 for 90 minutes on a boat seems like a good idea.

It was a good trip too, and temples were still a novelty – and I can assure you, in this country, that's always a good thing. They do like to say hi to Buddha now and then.


Even if I was told off for unbalancing the boat. Two months away and I'm still a hefty bugger.

Boat trip done, I had a look around, grabbed some cheap food - which was miles better than anything you'd find in Bangkok – the Thais demand better food than a drunken 4am kebab – then had another look around; it was starting to kick off.


T-shirt with a tiger on. That'll do the job. It even says “I don't like vegetables” on. Even better.

Even if there's no apostrophe on “don't”. I'm sure I'll live.

Somehow I spent a while there, then sunset came round, I took the requisite photos and got out of there. Especially when the ladyboys started trying to accost me. They're strange characters.


Minivan back to somewhere in Bangkok, I jumped back on the skytrain and took it all the way to Siam Square on the basis that the canal boat probably wouldn't be running this late.

Mistake.

First: the skytrain deposits you in a shopping centre. It was quite cool, but I kind of wanted to get out of there. I thought I'd managed it twice before I actually made it on to the street, by which point I was totally disorientated and didn't have a clue where I was going.

So I tried to get a taxi, but they were refusing to use the meter.

It'll have to be a tuk-tuk.

Told them the address, and I thought he was trying for 300 or something like that.

No, 600.

Apparently there's “lots of traffic” at 8pm.

In my shock I still managed to tell him that I'd give him 100 or he could bugger off.

300?

No, 100.

200?

No, 100.

Some Thai spoken and another driver took me for 100.

That's the price, and yes you'll take me rather than just sitting on your backside for another hour in the elusive hope of another of rich white man. Don't mess me around please!

And the canal boat was still running. Apparently they have lights on the boat at night. The high life they lead.

So after that, I stayed up with some Kiwis who were drinking the time away before going to the airport at 5am. Fair play.

Will I make it to Ayutthaya today?

No.

I'll make it to the weekend market though. Shared a taxi with a Swedish guy called Magnus who was in my dorm, and the driver put the meter on straight away. Good man.

The market's massive. Shame it's only a weekend market.

And we went to see the animals too. They're cool.


Then we hit the handicrafts section, which is always my downfall. I bought a four-faced metal Buddha – and I still don't know why – it was just mildly amusing for me. Best reason to buy something.

And a Buddha wood carving.

And a Burmese hat. Got to fit in somehow.

Oh, and I need some new sunglasses don't I? Oh yeah.

Didn't even spend that much there in the end. It wasn't a tourist market after all.

After nearly failing to stand still for the national anthem (they take it seriously over here) it was time to go back, so I went to look for a taxi that would actually use the meter. Magnus had taken the Skytrain to Siam Square to get his phone fixed, so I definitely needed a metered fare.

A couple of people were also struggling to find a taxi and were heading in the same direction, so they asked if I wanted to share. Yeah, that'll work too. And one of them, Bo, was a local too, so she had more chance of getting a taxi to use the meter.

No. They don't even do that for Thais. We'll have to walk round the corner.

There was a Dutch girl called Hannah who was setting up an export business and lugging a load of stuff too. Highly amusing for me until I had to assume my manly duty of carrying heavy things.

I am far too cool
In the end I grabbed dinner with them, and Bo invited me to have dinner with all of them, cooked by her, the next evening.

Sorted.

Except the next day, the protestors decided to come back out again.

So I went for a wander through their protests, which took me far too long – even if the protests were fairly tame. Large numbers of people wearing yellow shirts and blowing whistles – but who walk really slowly. Slow walkers need to be punched in the back of the head. Or a whip would work too.

Let's sit down and blow whistles, because we're the educated people
And by that point it was time to attempt to get across the city. To the other side of the protests.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Taxis just wouldn't take you unless you paid them far too much. So it took a tuk-tuk, a ferry, large amounts of walking and finally finding an empty cab on the other side of the river, to..... take us back over the river and to the other side.

Ah, logistics...

The beef curry was definitely worth it though. And it all ended with 7 of us being squashed into a taxi to the Khao San Road, in a night that ended at 6am.

The team
Which is great fun when you've got to leave for the airport at 11.

See you in two weeks Bangkok. And probably many more times in the future – I've been converted to this travelling thing.

Time to head to Burma!

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