Our bus journey from Siem Reap to Bangkok was delightfully unexciting and remarkably efficient. We left on time, were given pastries for breakfast and trundled along in our very comfortable well air-conditioned bus with nicely reclining seats. The border crossing was an absolute breeze. We just gave the guy our passports and he got us our Cambodian exit stamps and then we followed him through some buildings and over a very smelly river to immigration, where we got through in minutes. The only slight issue we had was that the toilets were on the far side of immigration and we hadn’t had a chance to achieve any Thai Baht yet so were unable to pay. A very nice Thai lady gave at least 6 of us the required change for which we were extremely grateful. Back on the bus we were given a perfectly adequate lunch of egg fried rice and continued on our merry way. Once we reached the outskirts of Bangkok things slowed down a little but we still made it to the Khao San Road in about 9 hours and were happily installed in our hotel 10 minutes later. If you are getting a bus across the border, go with Giant Ibis.
Our first and lasting impression of Bangkok is that it is an expensive place to be. We are sure that if you have just stepped off the plane from Europe it may not seem that way but as we were wrapping up 5 months in Asia it felt like things cost a lot of money. Our first stumbling block was that we don’t particularly like Asian breakfasts so we can’t eat street food and always have to track somewhere down that serves egg, toast, fruit, muesli, etc. This isn’t a hard thing to do in Bangkok but it just costs a fortune, on our first morning we paid £1.50 for a cup of tea which is just crazy by Asian standards. Another thing that caught us off guard is that the booze is really expensive if you aren’t buying it in enormous quantities. A single gin and tonic set us back £4.50 and a beer was another £3.00. By contrast, we could have had a “bucket” of vodka and tonic for £4.00, except we didn’t want a bucket of vodka, shockingly. The two exceptions to this that we found are the street food, which is still super cheap and the best deal around, and the market stall clothes, which are crazy cheap.
So, on morning one, after the aforementioned cup of tea, we set off for the Grand Palace. It was 2km from our hotel and we decided to walk it as it was still cool enough. As we approached the palace complex we joined a trickle of tourists that soon grew to an all-out torrent of people. One of the tour guides was blowing through a piercing whistle. It was an ominous sign but we joined the jostling crowds as the heat kicked in. Once inside the gates we needed to conform to the very strict dress code. The guys at the gate have quite a lot of creative license with the dress code, we saw women in crop tops get waved through whilst others with half a centimetre of ankle showing were directed to the conveniently placed elephant trouser and scarf shop. We had worn shorts to get there but had brought full length trousers along with us so just pulled those on in the queue. We got our (pricey) tickets quickly and joined the rugby scrum trying to make its way into the courtyard housing Wat Phra Kaew. It is undeniably impressive with so many beautiful buildings clustered together in one area.
BUT, they have got to come up with some kind of ticketing system that limits the number of visitors at any one time. We were there on a Monday morning and it was absolutely heaving. The sheer volume of people in a restricted space, combined with the heat and the fact that you need to be covered from head to toe, makes the management of the site borderline irresponsible. The risk of passing out from heat exhaustion aside, it was really difficult to actually appreciate what you were looking at because it was impossible to stand still for more than 10 seconds before someone elbowed you out of the way. We have probably enjoyed the pictures that we took more than the actual experience.
That being said, one corner of the complex was quieter than the others and we were able to enjoy the beautiful murals along the gallery and stop and appreciate the buildings from this angle.
We eyed the crowds outside Wat Phra Keaw warily but the Emerald Buddha is housed in there and we really couldn’t miss that. So, we shuffled along, trying not to get enraged with people who have no concept of queuing or personal space, and climbed up the stairs. The Buddha is impressive enough, it looks a bit small perched way high up but it’s made of solid emerald so anything bigger than a golf ball is pretty cool. The history of the Buddha is also fascinating but the experience of seeing it is marred by crowds and a very strong smell of BO from hundreds of overdressed, uncomfortable and irritable people.
We emerged into the fresh air and made a bee-line for the exit, we’d had enough. On the way out we walked through the remainder of the royal complex but most of this isn’t accessible.
And then we were outside again, 1000 Baht lighter and not particularly happy about it. Unfortunately, in its current set up, a visit to the royal palace is a box-ticking exercise. We ticked the box and put it behind us.
Our next stop was Wat Pho, which is about a 10 minute walk away and an infinitely more pleasant experience. Despite the fact that the Wat has its own unique selling point, an enormous reclined gold Buddha, it has a fraction of the crowds and we had time and space to appreciate the beautiful buildings, the bizarre collection of statues and the Buddha itself.
After a quick lunch in a small café nearby we decided to tick off the last temple in closeproximity, Wat Arun. Wat Arun was on the other side of the Chao Phraya river so we paid our 4 Baht and were ferried across, our boat darting between the many many other craft using the river.
Wat Arun is pretty small in comparison to the others we had seen that day, but the single tower is just as impressive. You can’t get all the way to the top anymore but you can climb, and we mean climb, the steep steps up to the middle levels to get closer to the beautiful carvings and statues which adorn the tower.
Feeling the effects of our day in the heat we made in the direction of the hostel. En route we passed through the amulet market.
That evening we thought it was time to sample some of Bangkok’s famous nightlife and we set off for nearby Rambuttri Road. It was still pretty early so most places were just setting up but it looked as though the whole place was dominated by tailors, massage parlours and restaurants. We had a peak in some of the restaurants but decided to do the thing right and indulge in some street food. We walked the length of Rambuttri Road, surveying the trays of cooked bugs from a safe distance. Once we reached Khao San Road everything shifted up a level; more food, more bars, more people offering massages and tat. We sized up a few of the pad thai stalls before ordering and settling ourselves on the curb to eat it.
It was fantastic, really fresh and tasty and far better than what we had sampled in the restaurants so far. It was also a bargain at just over £1 a serving. Hunger satisfied, we looked for a good spot to slake our thirst and do a spot of people watching. We settled at a bar, ordered our extortionate drinks and watched the world go by; you get all sorts on the Khao San Road.
Ladies came from table to table selling bracelets which they made to order with whatever phrase you want. There were the usual “I love Bangkok” and “Peace” ones but these were interspersed with slightly less savoury options, our favourite being “I love arse salad”, we nearly bought a job lot to give as Christmas presents. We moved back to the northern end of Rambuttri Road to a little bar that we had spotted on the way past, it was essentially just a dresser and a fridge on the side of the road, and it had spectacularly cheap booze.
We could have stayed there for hours but decided to be smart and head back to the hotel after one drink.
Our second day dawned overcast and muggy. After breakfast we set off for Jim Thompson’s House. Our route there was really lovely. As we made our way to the canal we passed hundreds of street stalls, mostly selling breakfast. There were generally 5 or 6 stalls clustered together and what struck us was how very clean everything was, not just the surfaces and utensils but all of the rubbish was tidied away in to bags and the areas were being religiously washed down.
We made our way to the canal and walked along the edge to reach the pier.
There were one or two small hotels and a place that looked like it was going to be turned in to a restaurant but for the most part it felt like a truly local area.
The boat was an experience in itself, they drive so fast down the narrow canals and its quite exciting rounding a blind corner to encounter another boat coming the other way going just as fast. This time was just a short journey and we disembarked two stops later and walked along the canals a bit further to reach the Jim Thompson house.
Jim Thompson was an American Businessman turned silk magnate who disappeared mysteriously in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia in 1967. He had made Bangkok his permanent home and created a beautiful calm haven in the middle of the city and filled it with plants and beautiful artwork . You are only allowed to take pictures of the gardens and the exterior so you will have to take our word for it that the inside is beautiful and very interesting.
There is a mandatory 35 minute tour through the house itself which we thoroughly enjoyed. Notable is the diverse collection of Buddhas which Thompson compiled. From here we walked to MBK, one of Bangkok’s famous mega malls. It’s enormous and you certainly could buy anything you wanted there. We didn’t actually want to do any shopping but we wanted to see it for ourselves and sample the delights of the vast food court, which in reality were only so-so. We had a true experience of Bangkok traffic in the back of a taxi trying to get back to our hotel. It was perfectly comfortable but took half an hour to go 5km, we tried to go by foot or boat from then on.
On our final day in Bangkok we hopped on a ferry for a longer stint down the river to the flower market. The ferry is obviously a very popular mode of transport and we were all crammed aboard for what was a noisy and sweaty journey. It was a far quicker way of getting around the city but perhaps not that enjoyable.
Our plan was simply to have a wander around some of the markets, starting with Bangkok’s famous flower markets.
From here James led us through a rabbit warren of markets that seemed to go on and on and on and on.
The sheer scale was impressive but we eventually wearied of plastic crap and ghastly fabric and tried to find our way back out to daylight. We made our way to the Temple of the Golden Buddha and gazed in awe at the sheer size of the solid gold Buddha.
The statue weighs five and a half tonnes and it was only discovered to be solid gold in 1955; it had been hidden in plaster until that time. It’s worth a pretty penny and is currently valued at about £28.5 million. We managed to avoid the markets as we strolled back through China Town to the ferry terminal.
We wiled away our last evening, heading to the airport at 11pm for our flight back to the UK. We were very ready to be home; family, dogs, decent cups of tea, roast dinner, fish and chips and feeling the cold for the first time in months were on the horizon. We couldn’t wait.