So, Thailand, eh! When we sat in an ice cream parlour in Ho Chi Minh City and frantically worked out our South East Asia schedule on a paper napkin, we weren’t sure if we’d have time to make it here before heading home. But here we are!
Due to the shortage of time (yes, five months is not enough!), we’ve rushed around a bit since getting here, spending a quick day in Bangkok before taking the night train to Chiang Mai and another night train back again. As well as seeing the sights, we’ve been able to meet up again with the lovely Mr Michael Carroll and catch up over Pad Thai, desserts and Geocaches.
Bangkok is a whirlwind of a modern city, especially compared to elsewhere we’ve been in Asia. Its skyline of glowing skyscrapers and light railway in the form of the ‘Skytrain’ firmly marks the city as the most modern-feeling place we’ve been since Beijing. It’s interesting to see how the traditions of old nestle with the structures of new, with the spires of gleaming golden wats jostling for space alongside the reflective glass of the latest new towering office block. It does seem to just about work, with the old and the new coexisting together. Fantastically, even the Skytrain has spaces marked ‘Please offer this seat to monks’, alongside the more recognisable icons for the elderly and pregnant.
Alongside the glass and air-conditioned elevated trains, the other thing that really comes across is just quite how wealthy Bangkok is – or at least the parts we visited. Elsewhere in South East Asia, we were impressed by the golden decoration of the Wats, but here it is truly dazzling, huge sculptures shimmering with fresh gold leaf and gold paint that make you realise how central to society religion is here when compared to the quiet decay facing some buildings of worship back home. We visited the Grand Palace, an absolute spectacle of towers and ornate buildings, even with its own large model of Angkor Wat. We also popped in to see South East Asia’s largest reclining Buddha, an enormous golden sculpture that’s so big you can’t fit it in one photo when inside its pillared building. Laura tells me she and Patrick did somehow nearly miss it last time – I can only assume it has since grown in size due to all the layers of gold paint!
Bangkok is also home to the hellhole of Khao San Road, a tourist Mecca where the only religion seems to be drinking western beer and watching premier league sports in the western bars (and sadly not even Wild West ones at that, which would at least be entertaining). There were even hoards of topless guys lazing around in the sunshine – we kept wanting to remind them there’s no
beach here! Fortunately, we just passed through to find some Geocaches, and were able to retreat to our fantastic and cheap hostel in the more authentic Wong Wian Yai area. It’s strange to think that only a couple of months ago, much of the city was underwater from the flooding – there’s very little evidence of this around, save some piles of sandbags surrounded by offerings apparently as a sort of shrine.
Mike took us to see one of his favourite spots in the city, the refreshingly calm Lumpini Park. Although there was a disappointing lack of ice cream sellers, it has two gorgeous lakes in the middle, and amid the joggers and pedalos, the park is home to a collection of monitor lizards. I’m glad we’d been warned in advance, because they look scarily like crocodiles, and are absolutely huge, some of them 1.5m in length – and roaming free! We’re assured that they don’t eat humans, but I wouldn’t have liked to be around after it got cool enough for them to leave the confines of the lake.
In contrast to Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a different beast entirely – perhaps a colourful butterfly to the capital’s ferocious reptile. The old city is surrounded by a crumbling former wall and a fountain-filled moat, and the streets are alive with markets and colourful wats instead of noisy traffic.
A walk through town brought us to more wats than I thought was possible (I’m going to refrain from the inevitable jokes about power, Killer Wats, etc). One of them
was hosting a temporary exhibit – a sacred Buddha Tooth Relic. There are quite a few Buddhas, and they had quite a few teeth, so we’ve seen a couple of these over the course of our travels – but this was certainly the most highly venerated, with the wat set up to receive crowds of visitors and a hall of monks sitting by the relic itself. The security was also surprisingly high – armed guards outside and various police and army trucks around. It was then that we realised we’d got there just as a VIP and her entourage were being shown around. Like politicians in the west do with babies, she dashed in for a quick photo call with the relic, and then headed out on parade around the grounds. We watched from a distance while her armed guards eyed us suspiciously – we still have no idea who she was.
Every time Chiang Mai has come up while we’ve been planning our trip, Laura has danced round and round chanting the magical words ‘Night Market! Night Market!’, and so predictably we spent our first evening engaging in the dark arts of shopping and haggling on a ‘walking street’, which turned out to be some 5km of stalls, with the courtyard of almost every wat along the way converted into a food court. Unfortunately Laura’s trendsetting style came back to bite her, as they didn’t quite have the range she remembers from last time – but needless to say, we didn’t leave empty handed!
Chiang Mai is the place to do a cookery course in Thailand, and after our successes in India and Cambodia, and our love of the local food, we had to go for it. We had a very successful (and filling) day differentiating our Drunken Noodles from our Pad Thais and Jungle Curries from Massamuns, and they even taught us how to flash the hot oil on fire for show – although I’m not quite sure it will work indoors! Look out for Laura and Simon’s culinary treats on our return.
We were hoping to go elephant trekking on our final day, but somewhat short on time, we were unable to find somewhere recognised as caring properly for their animals that fitted with our schedule – and so we turned to culture instead. Doi Suthep is a fabulous (golden, glittering, ornate, etc) wat up on the hilltop overlooking the city, affording wonderful views and perhaps more memorably for us, the image of an elderly monk dressed in orange sitting on a bench chatting away on his mobile phone. After a lovely morning up there, we popped into the City Museum for a taste of the history of the town – and that’s where it got a little more odd.
Although it was fairly modern and expensive in appearance, the museum’s exhibits were showing their age – and you were left wondering whether it had properly come together when it was first created, or if it had been a bit of a rush job and then everyone had headed off to the next project. Almost every exhibit had multilingual audio commentary at the touch of a button – not on headsets, but played booming from loudspeakers in the ceiling. The problem was that this commentary was way too long – perhaps five minutes for each piece, and read by an American narrator who clearly only had the text in front of him for the first time at the moment it was being recorded. As you went round and more audio started up, it overlapped with what was still playing from the previous exhibit, until there were lots of clones of the same bored man droning on over each other. I think at one point we could hear four different explanations at once. And then something really funny happened – he turned from anonymous narrator into a human. In one of the tracks, you heard him slow down and pause as he approached a difficult piece of pronunciation. In another, he coughed and cleared his throat. In a third, he actually stopped, and said “Oh, sorry. I thought that was the end. Shall I carry reading on from here?”, before continuing. We looked for him between the cracks in the ceiling but assured ourselves he was actually just on tape and they’d never bothered or realised it needed editing. From
that moment on, we could see through the polish to the poorly presented museum underneath.
We sat down to watch a subtitled film, only for the video compression to be far too high to be able to make out the words on the screen, a mangle of digital blocks where the letters should have been. We played guess-the illegible-words for a while. The final straw that sent us into a giggling mess was an interactive computer exhibition on the King. It was simple and childish really, but it’s amazing what a typo can do to your sense of reason when already on the edge. One clicked on each event in the King’s life, and then clicked a button to return to the prior page. Except instead of ‘prev’, the typo said “perv”, and the way it was positioned, it seemed like we were being forced to accept this label in judgement on the facts about the monarchy presented on the screen. We burst out laughing. In a country where the King is very highly revered, was our sense of humour an act of treason? Giggling, we didn’t wait to find out and left swiftly – but it was certainly the most entertainment we’ve had in a museum for a while!