Day 33-35: Bangkok, Thailand

by - May 31, 2011

Day One: ‘Hey, hey, where you go?’

Khao San Road, Bangkok
Bangkok is vast.  To see it in one day is impossible, to see it in two days would have to be done at a sprint.  With my last three days of the trip in the city, I didn’t fancy rushing around.  I also wanted to spend a day at the nearby town of Kanchanaburi, home of the immortal Bridge Over the River Kwai.  As a result of these considerations, I decided to cut my losses and cover a few sections of Bangkok well, rather than rush around - a policy that is in direct contradiction to the one I have used for the rest of the trip.  Another factor that influenced my decision was that I was staying on the infamous Khao San Road, which is the 'backpacker ghetto’ of the city and is full of aggressive tuk-tuk drivers who positively man handle you into their vehicles with the awful phrase 'hey, hey, where you go?’.  For the next few days I was content to not give them any business.

Marble Temple, Bangkok
Wat Arun Temple, Bangkok
I didn’t actually have much of a response to the famous tuk-tuk driver phrase - I didn’t actually know where I was going and was content to walk to places where I was vaguely sure that there were sites.  I started at Khao San Road - a fairy short strip considering its fame, but worth a look around to get a measure of what it would look like if all of the backpacker areas in South East Asia were squeezed into one road. There is a certain type of person who could spend days at the bars on Khao San, but it is hideously overpriced and westernized and totally not what I came to Thailand for.  I decided to head north to start with, towards Dusit Park, the home of the old parliament and a few temples, the most interesting of which was the Marble Temple as it contained images of Buddhas from all over the world - each nation has its own distinct style and it was interesting to see statues from Pakistan and Myanmar, which are two places that aren’t particularly high up my travel wish list. 

From here I looped back down towards the river, past the Royal Palace.  It was here that I found out that I had semi fallen for a tuk-tuk driver trick, but had actually had the last laugh.  I had intended to see the Royal Palace in the morning, but as I walked towards it a tuk-tuk driver said that it was closed and that I should instead head north.  This is an infamous trick whereby the driver tells you that somewhere within walking distance is closed, to encourage you to take his tuk-tuk further afield.  Unfortunately for him, I intended to walk anyway so all that it meant was that I will save the Royal Palace for another day.  Getting down to the waterfront was interesting, as this was a place that not so many tourists visit - it is a hive of commercial activity, but of the traditional food and spices kind.  I wandered through the warehouses and docks and got a tiny glimpse into the real Thailand.  

I crossed the river and headed for a Khmer style temple, Wat Arun, dedicated to an Indian god.  It had some Angkor-esque steps up to a fantastic view point over the city and the river, and was covered in an impressively intricate facade.  After 5 minutes of having the temple pretty much to myself a few tour boats turned up, so I hastily retreated back along the river.  In the old days Bangkok was known as the Venice of the east, for its network of canals that drove its commerce.  Now the canals have been largely replaced by more modern transport systems, but people still use the waterways for washing and swimming.  There are amazingly, considering the foul look of the water, a lot of fish in the rivers and canals and on my walk back I saw a lot of locals with nets and rods trying to catch their dinner.

View over Bangkok from Wat Arun
By now I had walked for an awful long time and was still at the furthest point of my journey so resigned myself for a long walk back to Khao San Road.  The tuk-tuks were very tempting, but I saw no reason to use them while I still had enough energy and not enough money.  The walk back took me through Chinatown, an area that wasn’t quite as blatantly Chinese as those in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but which had the same busy and mercantile feel about it.  My intention had been to stop at a few sights, but I was tired and aching and therefore called it a day, having an amazing £1 Thai green curry from a street seller that was a few blocks away from Khao San.

Day Two: Kanchanaburi - Bridge Over the River Kwai

British and Dutch cemetery at Kanchanaburi
Today was going to actually be my last proper one for sightseeing.  I wanted to do something a bit different to the temples and therefore arranged a tour to the nearby town of Kanchanaburi, home of the Bridge Over the River Kwai and also a Commonwealth War Grave.  On top of this vital piece of WW2 history, it was also positioned in one of the lesson known beauty spots of Thailand, in the mountains at its border with Burma.  The tour was split, with the morning spent at the War Cemetery, the bridge and a museum, the early afternoon spent on a train that travelled the Death Railway itself and the rest of the afternoon having a brief look at the countryside, stopping at a waterfall.

British graves
Bridge on the River Kwai
Train beside the River Kwai

There was a fair bit of confusion to start with as there were numerous tours running with different itineraries and nobody really seemed to know who was going where.  We set off for the 2 hour journey to Kanchanaburi after moving between a few different minibuses.  our first stop was the war cemetery.  This had been donated by the Thai government to the Commonwealth War Cemeteries organization and contained the bodies of British, Australian and Indian soldiers alongside many Dutch and Americans.  It was a typically sombre place, in the same way as Normandy or Ypres, but was made slightly less peaceful by the touts outside and the traffic on the adjacent main road.  Nonetheless it was a poignant reminder of just how far and wide British soldiers have fought for our country.

Next up was the 'Jeath Railway Museum’.  This was a very odd place, with a mixture of highly relevant exhibits (guns, shells, trains, jeeps etc) and some totally irrelevant exhibits such as one about Thai currency.  It also appeared to be about several other conflicts, but I couldn’t work out which particular ones they meant.  The real gem of the museum was the rooftop terrace that I stumbled upon (there were no signposts and everyone else probably missed it) which had great views over the bridge, the river and the surrounding mountains.  We were basically given an hour in the centre to do what we wanted, so I went to the bridge itself and walked across on the lines.  It is a fully functioning railway line (the Thais bought it off the allies after the war), so there are places for tourists to take refuge when a train passes.  For those of you who are thinking that this is a dangerous arrangement, Thai trains are pretty slow.  I have realised that up until this point I have neglected to mention my incredible guide.  I don’t know his name, but he was exactly how a western person would imitate a gay Thai guy.  He was amazing - kind and hilarious with a machine gun laugh, an over the top prance of a stride and a tendency to say 'pwease’ at the end of every sentence.  He didn’t do 'sombre’ particularly well - “Hello, hello now we go cemetery pwease”, but I forgave him this for the nonstop innuendo and entertainment he provided.

We were now able to catch the train north.  The government now charges a tourist fee for the stretch of railway line and has even included a premium package that entitled you to a free bottle of water and a cold flannel, which I decided to pass up in favour of the cheaper option.  The journey was cool for the first half hour, but was pretty uncomfortable for the remaining hour as the impressive scenery sunk in and the hard wooden seats began to take their toll.  The train slowed down for one of the more impressive views of the river, where the track had been built into the cliffside over the water below.  Our minibus picked us up from the northern station (I can’t remember the name of the stop) and drove us to a nearby village where we were given a very impressive free Thai meal, with a seemingly endless supply of food.  One thing that the tour company hadn’t considered however was that by having lunch before visiting the waterfall, people wouldn’t really fancy the swim.  The falls weren’t particularly great for swimming anyway - compared to Luang Prabang at least, so I contented myself with walking around the village and surrounding jungle for a bit.  We then made our way back to Bangkok where I went to dinner on Khao San.

Day Three: Back to Bangkok and back to England

The Royal Palace
Having been half-tricked by the tuk-tuk driver on the first day, I made my way to the Royal Palace in the morning.  The palace is still home to the King of Thailand and as a result the rules on dress etc are pretty strict and there is a lot of the complex that you cannot get anywhere near.  The dress policy poses plenty of challenges to your standard flip-flop/singlet wearing backpacker and there were an amusing array of them walking around in improvised saris.  As you would expect, the Royal Palace is stunning - and actually a very unique building architecturally.  The grounds are beautifully kept and smartly dressed guards parade intermittently.  There are lots of different museums and exhibits within the grounds of the palace itself - displays on ancient weapons and the like.

Inside a mall (with the King looking on..)

My last site, and I use the term loosely, was the head over to the modern heart of Thailand - downtown amongst the skyscrapers and shopping centres.  Having seen some pretty abject poverty in South East Asia (having left Singapore and Kuala Lumpur at least) I was interested to see some of the contrasts between Bangkok’s rich and poor. Granted, you don’t get much more of a contrast than the Royal Palace, but at least that has a traditional and ceremonial role.  As I walked towards the looming skyscrapers the contrasts became wider and wider.  On one hand the brands become more and more familiar - there is even a Tesco in downtown, not to mention the designer clothing and jewellery companies.  On the other hand, feeding off the scraps of the wealth are an obvious group of families who are living in makeshift accommodation and looking through the bins to make a living.  I can’t work out whether Bangkok is a rich city pretending to be poor or a poor city pretending to be rich.  Either way, its definitely a city of contrasts.  Having finished the trip with this illuminating, if fairly miserable, tour around, I made my way back to the hostel and grabbed my backpack ready to make my way back to London.  It had been a really special trip - my first time in Asia, a continent that I have every intention of returning to as soon as possible.  I won’t be leaving myself much time to catch my breath however - a week after arriving from Bangkok I will be off to St Petersburg on the next adventure.

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