We board an orange-flagged ferry with no fixed plans. We are just heading upstream until we feel like getting off. It’s 15 baht (60 cents) per ticket regardless of your destination so this gives us the flexibility to decide while on board. And stay on board we did. The wind blew through our hair and cooled our sweaty bodies as we made our way upstream. We passed old rotting buildings and new condos. Bridges passed by overhead, some boring and others elaborate. Large fish jump alongside the boat. We reach Nonthaburi and are told the ferry terminates here. I guess this is where we are going today. People feed bread to the fish near the jetty and the fish are swarming. There are thousands of them fighting for a feed. We had seen Thai fishermen baiting hooks with bread earlier in our trip and wondered whether they caught anything that way. Now we know they probably do.
We walk up the street and notice a large market up near the ferry stop. There’s a whole block filled with lanes and alleys crammed full of stalls selling everything from vegetables and fruits to fish, meat and skinned frogs. You can buy clothes, phone covers and even pet rabbits. Voices ebb and flow across the air as my nose is assaulted by lots of smells (not all delicious). Cats hang out at the market, some with collars and others looking more like strays. The stall holders pat the cats, talk to them, laugh at them as they hide in boxes or shoo them away, depending on what the cat is doing.
There is a small museum in an old colonial style building along the river. It tells the story on Nonthaburi’s past as a major supplier of durian fruit. Personally, I can’t stand the smell of the fruits and hate the taste but it seems they are a delicacy with people speculating on next season’s first crop before they are even ripe. Naturally, we also do some wat hunting while we are here.
A short cross-river ferry takes us to another temple complex. As always it’s stunning. There are no other tourists and the locals look at us strangely as we walk around. We buy some fish food and feed the fish. Again they are swarming and well fed.
There’s a large park next to the temple with walking paths and a pagoda in the middle of a lake. There are many people walking around the paths and a group of women are preparing to do aerobics in the carpark. It looks like a fantastic place to end a busy work day in hectic Bangkok. But we can’t stay much longer because we don’t want to miss the last ferry back into the city.
So, as the sun sets on our final day in Bangkok, we stand crammed into a ferry pressed against the side rails with a fantastic view of the city and the people stepping on and off across the gap between ferry and jetty. Tomorrow we leave Bangkok for the last time. I will miss this crazy capital.
Last time we were in Bangkok, we realised there was so much more to see and do. We only had three days here and barely scratched the surface of this city’s charm. So today we hit the streets in search of more wats (temples). While many people said we would be “templed-out” after the first few days, the temples are a highlight of our days and we often find ourselves walking to just one more temple when we see the tell-tale gold rooflines or chedis poking out from between the houses. And as we walk we find hidden gems like old buildings, pretty window dressings and living canals.
We both love art, so it makes sense that we love the temples here in Thailand. They are each beautifully and uniquely decorated. The amount of work that must have gone into the construction and decoration is amazing. Actually, that’s the word that we use all the time “amazing”.
We spend the day wandering from temple to temple, stopping in between for street food on the famous Khao San Road and to buy incense sticks from the many vendors. It’s the little things that capture our attention. Like the friendly temple cats that will play with your shoes or roll on their backs begging for pats. The beautiful flowers that seem to be everywhere, whether on the ground or in vases or lilies in pots. And the creative ways money is donated at temples.
Our adventure takes us to the Giant Swing, which actually was used as a swing until 1935 when the practice was stopped due to fatalities and structural damage. The swing is enormous and there is no way you’d get me up there on it.
We ended our day with a fast boat ride up a narrow canal to the Siam Paragon shopping mall from where it was not too far to walk home. Naturally, we had to stop for treats and where better than a little cake shop with cute pink couches. The strange underwater looking photo is of us in a mirror room at the Siam Paragon.
By the time we reached home after walking more than 20km we were fairly tired but it was nothing that a good leg massage couldn’t fix.
After a couple of days feeling like we had left Thailand, it feels fantastic to be back in Bangkok where the food is delicious, the people are Thai and the tuk tuk drivers beg us to go places with them. I have never really missed any city I have visited but Bangkok is different. There’s something about it that makes me feel instantly at ease. Perhaps it’s the food. Oh how I love Bangkok’s food.
Or maybe it’s the city’s aesthetics that appeal to me. The peaceful temples and parklands that provide respite from the busy umbrella topped alleys ways and cars racing up and down the main streets.
Or maybe it’s the sense that anything can happen here. Like stumbling across the crazy Patpong district where a touristy night bazaar nestles in the red light district under signs screaming of strip shows, brothels and alcohol (which appears to be quite expensive). We wander the red light district politely declining the many pimps who offer us cheap sexy massage and entry to ping pong shows. Many carry photos of their girls as though they are mere chattels. And when we decline, they say, “Boys? You wan’ boys?”. I cannot help but laugh at equal opportunity in action here on Patpong’s seedy streets. For the record, we decline the offer of boys too.
Somehow being back in Bangkok feels like being home. I can’t explain why but it does.
We have a 3:45pm flight booked from Bangkok to Phuket so decide to spend the morning exploring some of the streets near our hostel in the downtown area. It’s easy to leave our bags at the hostel because checkout isn’t until midday. This means we are unencumbered by our backpacks (light though they are). We are both fast falling in love with Bangkok. I’ve never enjoyed any city this much. There’s so many smells, sights and sounds. There’s places of hustle and places of calm all mingled into one. The local Thai food served at street restaurants is flavoursome and cheap but you can also find modern cuisine from all over the world in restaurants and cafes. Late model SUVs and sedans slip easily along the roads alongside brightly painted tuk tuks. It’s East meets West in a beautiful dance.
I had spied a wat from a window at the hostel. It turned out to be a huge complex with multiple buildings, may pet cats and some huge pink (albino?) cattle. I loved the sign at the entrance to the temple that said “No pets” but inside were two big relaxed temple cats with collars on and all. Perhaps the cats didn’t read the sign. This wat was very much alive and ringing with prayer. It seemed like another place where monks were trained. Local people were in the temple praying and some went to talk one-on-one with a young orange-robed monk sitting in another building.
Nearby a Chinese Buddhist temple was being renovated while the faithful prayed on roadside shrines. I love how the two forms of Buddhism coexist so closely in the same place.
Late in the afternoon, a short (and of course delayed) flight brought us from Bangkok to Phuket. We had booked a hostel in Phuket Old Town. It was a good choice. The hostel is immaculate and our room seemed more like a luxury boutique hotel suite than a double room at a backpacker hostel. Phuket Old Town is relatively nice. It’s set up for tourism so there are more Western food options than Thai (and the Thai options that do exist are very Western-styled Thai too). I was still struggling to eat after a few bouts of food poisoning so settled for some fresh squeezed juice but did try a few bites of Paul’s tasty pancake stack with ice cream and maple syrup. We walked a good 5km around Phuket Old Town getting our bearings. It is definitely dirtier than the places we walked in Bangkok but still a pleasant enough place.
After our three days in Bangkok it’s time to go explore something new. We could probably spend a whole month just hanging out in Bangkok walking it’s many streets, catching ferries, eating food and having Thai massages. But there’s no sense getting comfortable; Thailand is a big country with lots to see. And so we pack our gear and take the ferry up the river to stop 11: Thonburi Station. The walk from the pier to the station takes about fifteen minutes but we have packed light for this trip and it is no problem. There is a market across the road from the station but it is still too early for it to be pumping. It’s smelly and there are lots of big rats around. That’s just part of being in Thailand I guess.
We had been told that the train departed at 1pm and that we needed to be at the station at least an hour beforehand to purchase tickets. However, the train actually departs Thonburi at 1:55pm and it is a quiet station where you can buy tickets quickly and easily. With about two hours to spare, we went for a walk to explore some more wats. We started by heading back to the river where neither of us know how we missed the “floating” wat when we first walked past. It was beautiful, sitting in the middle of a man-made pond of chrystal clear water. After returning to the station we walk in the opposite direction and come across another gorgeous wat that appears to be a school for young monks. Boys with shaved heads and orange robes buy soft drinks and pens from a little stand within the wat’s walls. Others sit talking with older people dressed in regular clothes.
Back at the railway station, we watch men washing a train that will depart before ours. And then it is time to board our wagon. Seating is unallocated so we chose the soft seats in the front car, rather than the wooden seats further back in the train. From here I can watch the locomotive being coupled on too.
And then we are finally underway. If it weren’t for the foreign tourists, this train would be very quiet indeed. A gaggle of girls from the UK and Australia (guessing by their accents and body language) fill most of our carriage. Half of them couldn’t even lift their heaving packs onto the racks, so full and heavy was their luggage. I know they might be traveling for a year but I simply can’t imagine carting a 70-80L backpack around with me. I have certainly learned a bit since Korea when I carried too much gear on my bike and am now down to a lightweight 30L pack that is easy to throw on the bag rack.
The three hour train journey takes us past urban housing, mansion estates, rural farm land and wats. Kanchanaburi is only about 125km from Bangkok so we’re not really fully into the country because there are many towns along the way. But we still get a glimpse of rural Thailand with its rice paddies and banana plantations.
We make two mistakes when we arrive in Kanchanaburi. Firstly, we don’t take any of the taxis from the station and then don’t know how to identify them out here. Taxis here are not cars but mini trucks and motorbikes. Secondly, we thought our hotel was only about 5km from the city centre (or at least, that’s what Booking.com told us) but it ends up being over 25km away in the village of Lat Ya. We end up paying two motorbike taxis 150baht each to get us there. They refuse to negotiate and it’s not until we arrive that I know why. 25km is a long way to ride a scooter with two big western guys with backpacks as passengers.
We feel like we are in the middle of nowhere. But at the same time, I have learned that when your travels take you somewhere you don’t expect, they might just be taking you where you need to be. We are a little disappointed to be all the way out here with no idea how to get around and no transport. And then we walk down the road to a little restaurant that is marked on Google Maps. The menu is only in Thai and no one speaks English but there are pictures and we have a translation app. Before long we are tucking into an amazing meal of chicken, snow peas and fried rice. This has to be the yummiest meal we’ve eaten here so far. It’s a pity that I stop at another shop on the way back to our hotel and buy some milk that will cause me some intense discomfort later in the night.
It’s taken us a couple of days but we are finally checking out Bangkok from the river. We are heading further afield to check out the Dusit area and decide it’s too far from our hostel to walk. The river is brown, wide and relatively fast flowing for it’s width. The ferry drivers have to work hard to hold their boats in place so passengers can jump on and off. And often the jumping is literal because there is no gangplank. The ferry is tied to the pier with a slack rope and held so that it stays pressed against the pier. Often the boat slips back, leaving passengers to jump a short distance if they don’t want to swim. We worked out the flag system and caught the cheap orange flag boat. The flags indicate which piers the ferries will stop at. There is a special blue flag boat for tourists but it cost 40 baht while the local boats (which stop in the same places) cost only 15 baht. The green flag boat is the express boat and doesn’t stop everywhere.
The river is a bustling place. Boatmen whistle to drivers to communicate directions at stops. Brightly coloured longboats race around with oversized engines at the ends of their rudders. Small yellow fishing boats head out to sea. Wooden pole houses look like they are about to fall into the river only to be replaced by new concrete barriers and new concrete houses. It’s a bright, colourful and alive.
There aren’t many people left on the ferry when we hop off at the Dusit flower market. The market is a bit dirty and feels dodgy so we leave to go to a wat we spied. The wat is beautiful. The exterior is white with a red roof and gold trim while the interior is purple. There is some water for sale here so we make a donation to get some.
The temples here in Thailand are stunning. Later in the afternoon we walk through an area on the other side of the river near ferry stops 17 and 18. A small Chinese Buddhist temple stands on the side of the road. It’s simple colourings are a stark contrast with the elaborate wats. But it too is a peaceful place and the lady praying welcomes us to enter. There is also a wat nearby with yellow walls and red trim. It is totally different to the other wats we’ve seen with white or gold windows. The red windows are amazing against the yellow walls in the setting sun.
But before we get to the afternoon, there is a lot to explore in the Dusit area. After hopping off the ferry we walk towards Dusit Park. Along the way, we see a sign that says “Police Museum”. Paul suggests we head in there to see what it is. It turns out to be quite a little find. The first building is part of a palace that King Rama VI built for his son. The building was designed by an Italian architect and was decorated in Prussian style after King Rama VI’s son was educated in Russia and married a Russian lady. The museum is free and a guide who speaks quite good English shows us around. First we watch a video, which is both interesting and gives us a chance to rest our feet after a long walk up the road. We learn a lot about the royals and their way of life through the mansion. It’s not as grand as the massive white palace across the road but still beautiful.
The second half of the police museum is a new modern building that houses an actual museum about the police. The reason the two buildings are used together as a police museum is because King Rama IX is a great patron of the police and brought modern thinking to the police service’s management of traffic in Thailand. He donated a fleet of motorcycles and encouarged police to be trained to deliver babies, including issuing baby delivery kits to the police. The police section of the museum included some short films about police work and training, a display about the history of policing in Thailand, including weapons and uniforms, and some mock crime scenes. Having studied criminology at university, I found the exhibition interesting. As someone who believes in social justice, I thought some of the quotes should probably be hung in the staff entrance to every police station in the world, particularly those about the police role being to keep the community safe not being merely to arrest people. But I digress. There were no foreign signatures in the guest book that I signed … all the names and comments were in Thai but I would definitely recommend these two museums to anyone visiting Bangkok. They are literally across the road from the grand palace near Dusit Zoo.
Speaking of Dusit Zoo. We went there too. Don’t listen to the touts outside the zoo – it is not closed and you do not need a guide. Just walk in and enjoy the animals. The first area we came to was the koala sanctuary so naturally I had to be ironic and take photos of my home country’s national icon. The zoo was quite large and was centred around a large lake where some huge catfish (amongst other fish) lived alongside water dragons and turtles. For about 10 baht you can buy a loaf of bread to feed the fish. The fish are pretty aggressive with each other when they are fighting for the food. As far as zoos go, this one is pretty nice to walk around. The animals don’t have a huge amount of space but what space they have is clean and animal-appropriate. The bears have a jungle space with a fish pond, the giraffes live in a sandy-grassy area with food branches hanging from tall poles to mimic trees, the monkeys have plenty of height and play equipment to swing from. It’s certainly not the horrible cruel cages I saw in the small zoo I visited in Korea. We ended up spending about two hours there just walking around looking at everything.
We were going to catch a tuk tuk back to the river but ended up walking there and then across the bridge to the other side where we saw the Chinese Buddhist temple and the wat with the red windows. Here we walked along local streets where houses are built on stilts in the water. The thing that has struck me most about Thailand is the greenery. Everywhere we looked there were flowers and plants growing in pots. It certainly takes the edge off the fact that we were in a big city. We ended up walking another 20km today around Bangkok. It’s our final day before we head up to Kanchanaburi. I think we covered the city pretty well.
Bangkok seems to be a city in the process of massive change. On the one hand there are cute little Buddhist shrines everywhere you look, whether it be inside motorbike repair shops, hung in trees or standing in front of buildings. There are dilapidated buildings rotting into the river and tiny laneways where people sell food from karts. There is even a market along the river in Chinatown that is constructed each night and then pulled down during the day. There are even men and women walking their wares on carts and trolleys through the street to sell at market. But if you walk beyond the main tourist areas and into the city centre, there is another equally vibrant side to Bangkok and it is very modern. Modern cars certainly outnumber the old wrecks and we even saw a couple of Lotus cars near Paragon, both parked and being driven.
Speaking of the Paragon Siam, the shopping centres here are massive and glitzy. There are even doormen in uniform to welcome you into the complex. There are massive movie cinemas with different levels of cinema experience available from deluxe seating starting at $5 on a Wednesday through to daybeds and 3D cinema screens starting at about $15 on a Wednesday and increasing in price on other days of the week. The shops here carry normal brands like at home and are not much cheaper.
We explored a few parks here today. They are beautiful and peaceful. It’s difficult to believe that just having a few trees and some grass can change a block of land into a haven when a city of 8 million people is bustling around it. We spent some time sitting under trees in a park and walking through others as short cuts on our way home.
Religion is everywhere here as it is in so many places. Buddhism and Hinduism dominate. This brings an interesting sensory contrast to the Islam-dominated experiences I had in Indonesia. In Indonesia it was my ears that were constantly reminded of the locals’ faith. Here it is my nose when I smell the burning of incense sticks. Like the many stunning mosques I saw in Indonesia, the temples and shrines here are beautiful too. At a time when many Americans and Australians criticise the existence of religion as evil, I personally find it fantastic to see so many people peacefully filling their lives with faith and being unabashed about it. Besides, I like the pretty temples and art works that come with many of the world’s religions.
Naturally, we also enjoyed some of the culinary delights on offer here in Bangkok. We ate bananas barbecued in their jackets, shared a chocolate brownie, dined on noodles with vegetables and chicken for lunch and dinner at street restaurants, indulged in chocolate fondue at Haagen-Dasz and sampled a crispy pancake for dessert after walking more than 20km (11 miles) again today. I don’t know what the highlight of the day was … it could have been the sights or the chocolate fondue or the 60 minute leg massage we relaxed to. Nope – no highlight … just a brilliant day.