Friday, September 1st

Bangkok, Thailand

We had a difficult time sleeping last night until we turned the air conditioner down to about 23 (from 25). It is still quite humid in the room so it is a bit uncomfortable. I have had to wash my pajamas now after only a few days of wear. We ended up getting up at 8:30 then heading down to breakfast at 9. We stole a bit of the peanut brittle to eat on our travels today.

The goal was to get out on the water in Bangkok so we headed back out to the park we visited the first day on the main river. I had seen the boat on the canal beside the hotel the other day advertising 200 baht/day hop-on-hop-off so was keen to find it. The river still looked quite full and very muddy as we followed a concrete pathway that followed the shoreline.

Very quickly it became apparent the boat I had seen was not here with many offering 800 baht for a one hour tour or 180 baht for a trip on the river but not, what we wanted to see, the smaller more residential canals we have been walking along for the past few days. The big river is fine but I don’t think you would see much along it except for some big hotels and lots of other boats. We were both getting a bit frustrated so left the area to see if we could find the canal boat I had seen.

Eventually we walked back to where we had passed by on the first day: “The Golden Mount.” A temple with a hill crowned with a large gold stupa. We figured if we couldn’t find the boat we could visit the temple but I also knew it was beside the canal so perhaps we would be able to spot one of the boats. We spent quite a few minutes crossing through a very large, wide traffic junction to get to the road that led to the temple.

On a small bridge over the canal (“Phanfa Bridge”) I spotted it - The boat tour we were looking for had a dock right there! We found the path to the dock, paid for our day tickets (yes, 200 baht; £4.58 each) and waited for the next boat to arrive.

Looking at the very helpful map of the service we were given (showing attractions and walking distances for each stop) we could see that actually we were at the second last stop with the last stop being right beside our hotel! For some reason we had not noticed it but, to be fair, it was just in the water off of the far side of the bridge - We don’t normally cross on that side of it so we never saw it.

The boats are long and slender and move very fast. Four seats across, they are open on all sides (no air conditioning here) with the pilot seated in a nicely padded chair at the front. It was not that busy with the two of us being the only passengers when we got on and the driver would really open it up when there were fewer buildings and other canal traffic around. The canal is built up on either side and we passed by many poor-looking shanties and small communities. It is very vibrant with signs of life everywhere: Laundry hanging; people preparing meals; trees and other greenery; and ramshackle, flimsy, houses mostly made of wood. Certainly a much different perspective on the city from the water.

We passed under several very modern bridges eventually electing to exit the boat at stop “2”, “Hau Chang Bridge” to visit the MBK mall which I had read had a great food court.

The boat pulled up to the dock which was a concrete platform over the water with a set of steps leading up to the shore which was in the middle of a covered crude set of small, cheap restaurants and shops with cracked concrete or dirt floors.

We followed the meandering path through these then out onto the clean, busy, modern street with towering, glistening high-rises and offices. A bit of a shock. The route to the mall was on the pavement beside a busy road. Towering over us was a high elevated concrete mass transit structure that, thankfully, shielded us from the heat of the sun. The vehicles all look quite nice though the occasional bus is a bit rough looking…

We climbed some steps up to a walkway that crossed over the road and it was like we had stepped into another world - Concrete ribbons of roadways passed over and below us with the curved pathway stretching out in various directions between various large, modern buildings, all around us. The traffic a dull roar invisible as it passed below us. Public art was everywhere with a large colourful mural decorating the front of the “Bangkok Art and Culture Centre”, various human height mushroom-shaped structures with paintings under their caps all along the concrete pathways and the huge statue of a white cat-like creature stood at attention outside the “MBK Center” itself (yes, many pictures resulted).

The air conditioning of the shopping centre was a bit of a shock, though welcome as we entered around about noon. We were surprised to find a “Dairy Queen” (a big chain of fast food restaurants specializing in soft-serve ice cream) which is one of the things I miss not living in Canada any longer. So we had a look to see what they had on offer but, sadly, my choice dessert was not there (a “peanut buster parfait” - a soft-serve vanilla sundae with dark chocolate and lots of peanuts) so instead Mel had a chocolate blizzard (60 baht) and I decided to try something a bit more local: A durian blizzard (50 baht). Of course, the durian fruit is a rather pungent yellow-fleshed fruit with a spiky green skin whose presence is banned in many places (such as buses in Singapore) but I had never actually tasted it. It was quite nice, thank you.

The shopping centre is a bit unusual compared to what we are used to. Many floors consists of large number of small shops, much like a market, with narrow aisles between them. I wanted to visit the food court which is on the sixth floor so we used the modern escalators in a large open atrium in the middle of the mall.

I had been told the foot court was one of the best in town for authentic Thai food and from what we saw this seemed to be very true. The food court occupies one end of the floor with a number of stalls selling all manner of food around the outside with lots of tables and chairs. The variety was quite incredible with a lot of rather strong smells coming from many stalls. Fish seemed to be quite common as well as noodles with stall after stall of great looking food.

We stopped for a few minutes in a coffee shop to have a drink then stopped at the toilets before having a look at some more of the mall. A “foreign food” food court on another floor was quite tiny with still a number of stalls selling Thai food. Passing a Dunkin’ Donuts we noticed a sign for “Durian Donuts” so went in to have a look - I hope they don’t mind us not buying anything and taking a bunch of pictures - So many varieties!

Stepping out once again into the heat of the day (literally, it was 1 pm, the hottest part of the day) we made our way back to the dock to pick up the boat again. We waited for a few minutes before we saw the boat speeding along the canal with large waves on either side of the bow. We did see other boats stopping that were obviously full of locals using them for transport around the city.

When our boat finally arrived we got on board for a short trip to the last stop on the route “Pratunam” where we read there was a large supermarket, “Big C” (which had been pointed out to us by one of the people operating the boat). We later learned that this is a chain of stores throughout the city.

The boat dropped us once again at a dock looking a lot like a bus stop where we exited to climb up to the street level. Another ultra-modern cityscape surrounded us as we followed a narrow pavement to our destination (once we figured out which way to go, that is) passing by a few more small street vendors mostly selling food (the pass time, it seems, for locals).

A short walk later we entered the mall and spotted a McDonalds which was selling one of my favourites - Coke slushies (not quite a slurpee, but not bad) - So we picked some up.

The mall is dominated by the “Big C” supermarket which occupies several floors and reminded me a lot of a Wal-Mart with lots of different things available at very good prices and where people have large shopping carts piled high. We walked through the 2nd floor where I had a look at the electronics to see what they had on offer (interesting but nothing extremely new to me) and the DVDs to see if they had anything we would find difficult to get in the UK (no, not really). We did buy some snacks for the room (one bag looks like wasabi-flavoured puffs).

Back in the mall we tried some samples at “Mr Donut” which then convinced us to buy some (the four we chose - “Glazed”, “Bavarian”, “Peanut” and “Coconut” - came to 82 baht). Very nice looking indeed.

At the dock we had to wait for a while for a boat to turn up. As we were leaving one of the staff members literally jumped from the boat back onto the shore as several tourists arrived on the dock looking for tickets. I guess business is slow. We did give her a bit of an round of applause and she gave us a broad smile in return. We took the boat back to stop #5 to actually see something perhaps a bit more cultural, Wat Saket, the “Golden Mount” which we keep seeing but had not yet visited. The walk from the dock was across a busy road bridge with a very narrow, and high walkway immediately beside the roadway which was a bit unsettling.

“Wat Saket Ratcha Wora Maha Wihan” is a Buddhist Temple whose main attraction is the tallest hill in Bangkok with a tall golden stupa perched on the top. Inside the gate we followed a road along the base with various buildings to the main entrance.

We had to pay 20 baht (£0.46) each to climb the stairs that lead up and around the hill in a spiral to get to the top. A light mist was being pumped out to keep the air cool as we began our ascent. Oddly there were very tacky plastic figurines and cheesy displays along the side of the path (344 steps to the top) - Pink flamingos, gnomes, plastic monkeys and squirrels…

Half way up there were a number of large prayer bells hanging so, of course, I could not resist ringing them. Mel was not impressed. The big gong at one end was particularly loud.

The final part of the climb was out of the trees and very warm once again out in the sun. The city began to spread out around us and it was quite a view. The obviously modern city to the east and the old city to the south and west.

The building at the top has a number of altars as well as a few refreshment stalls which we passed by before taking a final small staircase onto the roof to the giant stupa. There were still a number of worshippers here as well as several monks paying their respects at altars around the base of the stupa. We were spending our time simply taking in the amazing view on a wonderfully clear day though we could see clouds coming in…We spent quite a few minutes taking pictures and I was particularly pleased with a couple of panorama shots I was able to take with my mobile phone. Mel was using the “proper” camera (a Canon DSLR) so was playing with that.

Soon enough we had to get out of the heat and into shelter. Directly under the stupa in the floor below there is small stupa inside with four small shrines along the outside and a small narrow walking area around them. These were quite active with a number of people praying and leaving gifts. A light breeze was very welcome as it came through the large open windows and causing a number of small bells hanging from the roof to softly chime. Quite peaceful and relaxing.

We picked up some water (10 baht; £0.23) before heading back down the hill. There were other buildings on the way down that were far less touristy than the tacky displays on the way up and we could see the extent of the temple to the north with a number of very large buildings. There were a number more bells so it was a noisy descent for us.

At the base of the hill I noticed the statues of several odd looking creatures in front of the monastic buildings. They looked like cows with upright heads, very long, hanging, pink ears and a hump on their back. Unhelpfully they were labeled as “oxen” but they were unlike any oxen I had ever seen and unlike anything I have ever seen outside of a science fiction film…I wonder if we will see any of these on our trip through Cambodia?

We returned to the dock to catch the boat one last time to the end of the line, very close to our hotel. It was the end of the day for our ticket anyway and it was getting close to dinner but we also believed we needed to be at the hotel for our pre-tour briefing. We travelled very slowly and this was the prettiest part of the canal that we had seen so far with a number of pretty trees and buildings on the banks. We sat back and enjoyed the trip. As with most of the other times, we were the only ones other than the driver that were on the boat.

As we passed the 7-11 beside the hotel we greeted the dog sitting once again in front of the door enjoying the cool air coming from within.

We sat in the foyer to await the briefing which I believed would have been today, the day before the tour was set to begin, however, after about 20 minutes we took yet another look at the notice now up for our tour in the lobby and realized that the first “day” of the trip actually consisted solely of the briefing at 6 pm in the evening! Not really much of a tour day to be fair…Anyway, I panicked a bit at this point as I realised that the hotel had told us we were checking out tomorrow but if the tour briefing is tomorrow that means we needed to stay until Sunday morning! I confirmed this by calling the local Intrepid representative who asked if he could speak to the people at check-in but they were all busy on the phones. I have to admit I was getting a bit nervous at this point and rudely attempted to interrupt someone checking in. Eventually I hung up the phone call then shortly afterwards I was able to talk to the check-in clerk who was able to extend our stay after confirming our presence on the tour. Our initially unintended extended stay at the hotel no doubt had caused them some confusion. Much relieved I spotted the gentleman I rudely interrupted earlier to apologise for my behaviour which he accepted with a large friendly smile. A nice way to end the day.

For dinner we went to the street market to see what we could find and eventually settled on a vendor selling “Tao Chicken” for 40 baht or 45 baht for “extra” (I think we got the extra). We were shown to a rickety metal table then first brought a bowl of delicious soup with taro root then a plate with a mound of rice and fried chicken slices (like katsu) on top with a lovely hot/sweet dipping sauce.

It was absolutely delicious and we thanked the lady before heading out. Delicious, fresh, cheap, cheerful, and definitely quick.

We had not seen Khaosan Road at night so we took the opportunity to have a look. It was quite busy with the bars on either side packed and the streets alive with street vendors and pedestrians. A few people were selling deep-fried scorpions, cockroaches and tarantulas but I noticed they all had a sign attached that indicated if you took a picture it would cost you 10 baht (£0.23) which made me suspect this was not food for local people but more for tourists. Never at any point did we feel uncomfortable and the food was all very good looking indeed.

We stopped for a couple of nice looking egg rolls at one point which were helpfully cut up into small bite-sized pieces, soaked in a lovely dipping sauce and two long wooden skewers to eat it with.

Mel was looking for trousers as one of her pair had ripped earlier so we ended up in a shop where she picked up some that we have seen many tourists wearing - A light fabric trouser with a rope holding them up and decorated (typically) with a pattern featuring elephants. In some respects she was more interested in saying hello to the owner’s pet dog - A cute and friendly, small, white Pomeranian - Than in actually shopping.

We did keep looking for 7-11s with slurpees but, alas, came up short…

Back at the hotel we dug into our “Mister Donut”s - Very nice indeed and a great dessert for a great day. As a bonus we get another unexpected full day in Bangkok tomorrow! I wonder what we should do…We have some ideas.

We are really enjoying Bangkok - The people, the food, and the sites – All are incredible. It is such a vibrant, alive city. An experience to remember.

>> Saturday, September 2nd