After India, this really is paradise, and I haven't even seen one of the beautiful beaches of Thailand yet!
16.10.2010 - 30.10.2010 32 °C
Thailand - Bangkok - First stay
Before anything else, I must point out how blessed I feel to have had this opportunity to travel. And once again, take this opportunity to mention the wonderful people I have met. Really, it is the people that make the trip just as much or more so than the sights. Some great moments I have had lately was staying up late with 3 dorm mates from Malaysia and taking about the differences of our respective countries and customs; meeting a very kind Filipino woman and her family or the pleasure of hearing the Swiss French accent again after having been away a few months. But back to Bangkok...
Where to start? It was so nice to arrive in Thailand, get a ride from a taxi driver on decent roads, where traffic drove following road regulations, where the driver did not try to scam me and where the air quality was good.
I checked in to the Lub D hostel in Silom, in a business district (I didn't want to stay on Khao San Road which is fairly crowded and noisy), which was certainly the cleanest place that I'd been in since I left the Arch-Ist hostel in Istanbul. And it was so nice to not have paneer on the menu… Thai food is excellent and quite varied as well.
Some interesting things I noticed about Thailand… People do admittedly smile a lot, which probably explains why it is referred to as the land of smiles. Thais are also a lot less aggressive when it comes to trying to sell you something or offer you a ride (tuk-tuk or taxi). If you smile and say "no", they will leave you alone pretty much immediately. Another completely unrelated oddity, is the traffic lights. An orange light lasts less than 5 seconds. Shortest orange lights I've ever seen (and a bit of a surprise when as a pedestrian you have just started to cross a street, it turns orange and 4 steps later it switches red and the cars start to drive...
Neighbourhood - Indian and Hindu festival Navaratri
I discovered on my first day that I had inadvertently selected a neighbourhood that has lots of Indians in it. I figured this out by stumbling upon one of the largest Hindu temples in Bangkok, just about 150m from my hotel just as they were celebrating the end of Navaratri. It was a huge street party, though it felt odd to be seeing this outside of India. I was also a little taken aback by the number of Indian restaurants - by then I'd had my fill of Indian food and didn't yet know where to find good Thai food, so it was a little disconcerting. After having considered it, it appears that Indian food is fairly expensive in Thailand such that there really is no point in sampling it here rather than the Thai food (which is so good anyway).
Another thing I noticed regarding the food is despite how extraordinarily good both Indian and Thai food can be, eating any "foreign" food non-stop for two weeks or more does get to be a little tiring. Don't get me wrong, I love shah paneer, tom yam soup etc… but I long for some simple good bread and cheese… (I seem to never be content as when I was in India, I was craving raw vegetables… :-) Anyhow, still loving the variety of food, just which I could have Swiss food on Monday, Italian on Tuesday, German on Wednesday, British on Thursday, Turkish on Friday, Indian on Saturday and Thai on Sunday (and the odd foul sandwich and koshary top foil).
On my second day in Bangkok, I went to a market with a girl I met at the hostel named Nicole. It was the last day of her year long round-the-world trip and she had some shopping to do. I figured why not start with the weekend market as I didn't think, at the time, that I'd be staying as long as I did in Bangkok and didn't think I'd be there for the next weekend. To get to the market, we took the Skytrain from the Chong Nonsi stop a short 5 minute walk from the hostel. The Skytrain is very modern and even nicer than the already very nice Delhi metro. The market was huge! I didn't buy anything, as my goal was more to visit the market than end up having more to carry in my backpack. Upon returning to the hostel, I finally found a street with decent restaurants, lots of variety as well as good prices. Yay, Thailand!
Next morning, I set off to visit the main sites of Bangkok in the neighbourhood of Rattanakosin, which is to say the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun (Wat is a temple, in case you were wondering…). I got there by taking the Skytrain to the Chao Phraya, and then taking a boat up the Chao Phraya 9 stops. The Grand Palace grounds are very nice and fairly crowded with lots of foreigners as well as domestic tourists. The architecture is rather fascinating, really, including as part of Wat Phra Kaew, a miniature of Angkor Wat (of Cambodia). The main focal point of Wat Phra Kaew is the Emerald Buddha (made out of jade, actually) which is nice, but smaller than expected. The Grand Palace is also nice, but honestly, you don't get to visit much of it as it is still in function, as far as I know.
Wat Phra Kaew:
After that I had my first "street vendor" meal in Thailand which was a good pad thai (not particularly original, I know…) followed by squid on a stick. I then investigated the amulet market, which was fascinating, not so much because of the amulets, but rather because of the people's fascination with those amulets (for me, at least…). I was also amused to notice a cat on a lap - on the lap of a stone buddha, that is…
Visiting Wat Pho was also interesting. It houses the large reclining buddha statue which unlike the Emerald Buddha, is actually way larger than expected. Wat Pho also houses the national Thai Massage school.
I then crossed the Chao Phraya to have a quick look at Wat Arun, which is a completely different style. It is also free to visit, which is another appealing change.
There are fish in the Chao Phraya... This is what you see when you throw food into the Chao Phraya next to Wat Arun!
A couple of days later, I went for a tour of the floating markets at Damnoen Saduak as well as a boat trip on what are, I guess, backwaters. The market is rather nice and it is an original way to do business. You hop on a little person powered boat, and then go from stall to stall. These stalls are by the water. There are also mobile stalls, ie stalls on boats going around as well. I bought my first coconut from a woman on a little boat. Admittedly, in this day and age, most of the stuff sold in the market is for the tourists (souvenirs) that visit the market, so you wonder if they would still exist without the tourists visiting them.
Bought a coconut from this lady...
Massage… Thai massage. I love Thai massage. Had two Thai (yoga) massages before leaving Canada and they were great to the point that I'm most likely going to do a Thai Yoga Massage course in the Bahamas in the not too distant future. For those who are not familiar with Thai Massage, Thai Massage is a massage where you remain clothed and get pummelled, bent and folded oh so many ways. With Thai Yoga Massage, a lot of the ways you are folded are similar to yoga postures - hence Thai Yoga Massage.
But then, having read up about massage and "massage" places in Thailand, I'd read that any place that offers "oil massage" should be considered a place where the massages are typically more of the "sexy" kind (the term here is "massage with a happy ending"). Whereas a place where (I'm citing Lonely Planet) you have a "big farmer's girl out front massaging someone's feet" is more likely an authentic massage parlour. So, I spot a few places where there are some people getting foot massages (though I'm unable to tell if the practitioners are "big farmers girls" - but yes, they also advertised oil massages) and decide to have one. I had a wonderful foot massage. I was one of four in the massage parlour, between two elderly western women and an older German man also getting a foot massage. Ok, so I figure that this place must be fairly decent.
Next day, I figure that I should try a Thai massage while I'm in Thailand so I ask for a Thai massage at the same place I had the foot massage. So sure enough, I end up, still dressed, on a mat on the floor and the massage starts. I start by getting my feet massaged, then my calves and then my thighs. I get my legs folded this way and that and the muscles properly massaged. Accupressure points are pressed on my feet that I recognize from other massages and a relaxation course that I took when younger that included some reflexology and it is a really great massage… One of the best I've ever had! But after a while, I start noticing that her hands and feet seem occasionally to be… "slipping". Or… not too… accurate when massaging my thighs close to my groin. Ok, that's more than a little odd, but when in Rome or should I say Bangkok… Then she starts working on my arms and after about 10 minutes, stops and asks me if I'm interested in… other services.
Sigh!… So here I'd found the perfect place for the perfect massage to then discover that I was dealing with a "massage" parlour and not a massage parlour. Part of me wants to go back to that massage and masseuse because I've had several thai massages in authentic massage parlours, and she was the best by far yet a big part of me does not want to encourage what is ultimately an establishment providing prostitution.
So I caught a bad flu. Not quite as bad as when I caught H1N1, but bad enough. Because the symptoms of malaria and dengue fever at the start are similar to those of a flu and as my flu started the day before I was supposed to leave for Hanoi, I decided to postpone my trip to Hanoi as healthcare in Thailand is decent. Healthcare in Vietnam is not quite the same level. Anyhow, it ended up being a simple flu, but in a way, it was nice to be stuck in Bangkok as it was the first time in a few months where I'd spent more than 2 weeks in the same place.
I decided to book a trip up to Kanchanaburi, which is about 2 hours north west of Bangkok. I got to visit the famous bridge over the river Kwai. Now I know that it was built at the cost of many lives during war time, and though I should probably see it as such, I keep coming back to the Wayne and Schuster sketch entitled "Kwai me a River"… Anyhow, as I said, the bridge and the whole railway cost many lives and I know I should think of it in more sombre tones. Crossing the bridge itself is interesting as the bridge is thin, the river is deep and far (enough) below and if you are even slightly afraid of heights, it ends up being somewhat more exciting. I met a friendly Swiss nurse and it was a nice opportunity to practice my swiss-french accent for a few minutes.
After that, I was carted off in a separate bus with a Filipino family that was very friendly. The mother introduced herself then introduced her three kids and two nieces and struck up a conversation, twenty minutes into which, I got a firm invitation to visit the Philippines. Charming people, really! We got to ride elephants and this elephant was quite a bit bigger than the elephant in India. It was also more comfortable a ride as it wasn't uphill but in the jungle. I saw a few things that make me wonder how well the elephants are treated, but my elephant driver said the elephant was 30 years old and he took over the care of it from his father 5 years ago. I can only imagine the responsibility of taking care of an animal spread over several generations as an elephant can reach 100 years of age.
The next stop was to visit the Tiger Temple. I haven't taken the time to read up much about the Tiger temple and I wonder firstly how much of a temple it really is (seeing a monk smoke somehow puts me off) and there is a little bit of question as to why the tigers are so relaxed. But then, the actual interaction with the tigers, though fascinating, is a little similar to the dolphin swim experience I had in the Bahamas. Nice and fascinating, yet not exactly what I'm looking for and not particularly spontaneous. Now that may not be a bad thing as a spontaneous interaction with a tiger probably doesn't end well in most cases for the human, but anyhow.
So basically, they have about 16-20 tigers in the end of a ravine. They are all chained with a relatively short chain. You then get taken by the hand by a handler of the opposite sex and taken around and placed behind the tigers that you can then pet while your picture is being taken. If a tiger starts to get a little excited, that tiger is not approached until it calms down. There was a big one that paced for about 10 minutes that nobody dared go close to, but after a while, he settled and was part of the loop again. So it isn't a perfect interaction but I doubt I'll ever get closer to a tiger in my life. And I do like big cats!
This tiger does not seem to be in a good mood... :-)
So that is it. In less than two days, I leave for Hanoi (…). Loving Thailand in the meantime!