Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bangkok Diaries

Bangkok was my first holiday together with my husband even before we were married. My parents had been living there and we had gone to visit. However, while he was there, we were mostly outside of the city at Khao Yai National Park then Rayong. He didn't get to see much of the city (beside a mall or two). We had planned to go there someday but whenever the time came to plan a holiday, we looked for newer pastures.

Recently my parents returned to Bangkok for a week long holiday and just staying in the city - meeting people, getting massages, eating, and taking in the city. needless to say, we too, got tempted to do the same. I had not seen the city temples and Husband had not even seen the Grand Palace. Moreover, it is one of the few places were visas are on arrival making it convenient to take off without hassles.

So off we went. February was warmer than we had expected. If you don't have US Dollars already, get your currency exchanged for Thai Baht at your home country because there are no ATMs before you cross immigration and the exchange rates there are atrocious. Once outside, ATMs will charge 150 BHT per transaction so keep the use to a minimum. It makes sense to carry cash since street shops and some of the smaller shops will not accept cards...also some stores charge a surcharge (supposedly charged by the banks) of 2-5% on any card.

We reached early morning on a Saturday and headed to the nearest mall (MBK) for some food and retail therapy. The elevated rail is the most convenient way to travel. Tourists can get a pass for 300 BHT which gives you approximately 15 trips - you can then refill it as per your usage.
MBK is where everyone comes to shop for cheap deals on electronics, fake Rolexes, and even electronics apart from the usual apparel and accessories (BTS Siam then walk or change to National Stadium line for direct access). However, it has now become a tourist trap with hiked up prices and almost no bargaining. We found the same stuff at lower prices in other malls. The food choices are extensive here - a variety of cuisines all under one roof. We spent the whole day here getting a massage, eating, shopping, and winding up the day with a movie.

We decided to skip the Chatuchak weekend market the next day since it was too hot, and we realised that all the places previously known for cheaper deals were now more expensive than regular malls since tourists frequented them more often. Husband even insisted on going to the electronics mega mall - Pantip Plaza - and was shocked to find items at double the price with no scope of bargaining. Electronics in general we found were now more expensive in Thailand - a big change from when visitors used to take back mobile phones and big-screen TVs from here.

Instead, we slept in a bit then went to a gem store (courtesy one of the many almost-free cab rides you'll be asked for). There are numerous Chinese jewellery stores with glittering gold and diamonds on display, but they also have semi and precious stones. Silver is also popular. I had no way of knowing if the stones I bought were worth what I paid for them, but since it was a government-sanctioned store, I didn't worry about it too much.

In the evening, we went to Central World for dinner at Zense (midway BTS Siam and Chidlom). The outdoor seating provides a spectacular backdrop for a great meal. They serve fusion food like curried risotto, and tom yum pasta. The staff was friendly and we wanted to come back to the open-air bar/lounge if we had the time again (we couldn't find the time unfortunately).
We took a tuk-tuk from the station to the hotel, and it dazzled us with bright lights so late at night. Tuk-tuks don't by meter so you have to bargain with them, and most of the times you end up paying as much as or more than what a cab would cost.
Monday, we went to the Sukhumvit area (BTS Nana). This is the main business district and supposedly the posher part of town. If you stay in this area, there is always something to do even in the middle of the night. Husband wanted to get some linen shorts stitched so we went to Bangkok Fashions in Soi 11 as recommended by my parents. We liked their range of clothes and the final result was also great. They had one short ready in 2 days for trial, and the rest we picked up on Friday.

After that we went for a full-body massage at Baan Dalah Spa. It is located just you enter Soi 8, next to an Indian restaurant. Took us a while to find it as the sign was facing the other way. For just 1,000 BHT each, we got a 2-hour Thai massage with hot compress. The ambiance was serene and is one of the more respectable looking places here. What more can you ask for? Just ahead in the same lane is Via Vai - an Italian restaurant with good food and great a Tom Yum soup.

Tuesday, we had booked a tour to Kanchanaburi (famous for the Bridge on the River Kwai) and the Tiger Temple. We were to be picked up at 6:30 am and we were. The annoying part was that after the rest of the pick-ups, we were taken to their offices and re-divided into groups depending on location combinations. By the time we actually left the city, it was nearing 10am. 

We reached Kanchanaburi around noon. The JEATH War Museum is avoidable, although we did see this adorable stud there.
What was distressing was this majestic leopard tied to a post on a short leash (most likely drugged) - all to promote a zoo nearby. It didn't move much for the 2 hours we were around.
We were given some free time to explore the area on our own. Street food is highly recommended in Thailand and you'll get a choice of fresh fruits to fried meat, coconut water (always sweet and refreshing), and sweet and savoury crepes. These stalls came in very handy whenever we were on the move and didn't have time to stop for a quick snack.

The bridge at Kanchanaburi is picturesque although the crowds can get in the way of enjoying the view. It would probably not be worth the trip to just see this, unless you don't have anything better to do. We stopped here as it is on the way to the Tiger Temple.

Once we re-grouped, it took another hour to sort people in groups according to their onward journeys. We were grouped with those travelling by the train on the bridge. This wasn't part of our itinerary but we didn't have much of a choice but to follow. The train ride costs 100 BHT for the comfy seats - wooden benches in better shape than the regular ones. The journey takes about 2 hours - all to see a small portion of the original wooden bridge still in use. Given the heat and humidity, and the fact that we hadn't stopped for lunch, we were not very happy with this plan. 

As soon as we got off the train, we were pushed into a van again and taken to a small boat house restaurant. The buffet was basic fare, and cold. We ate because we were starving and didn't want to speculate if the dirty river water had been used in the cooking process. As soon as we were done, we were again packed into a van and taken to a waterfall nearby - Sai Yok Noi. There wasn't much water this time of the year, and given the fact that the Tiger Temple closes at 3:30pm, we needn't have stopped here. This just reinforced our natural dislike for organized tours and we were regretting not doing this trip on our own. (I had just gotten lazy and didn't plan the logistics, plus I thought since language can be a problem in these parts, a tour guide would be useful.)

We finally reached the Tiger Temple around 3 and had just about 40 minutes till the tigers would be in the public arena. When I had gone there 6 years ago, it was a serene place with barely any visitors. Now there was a very long queue. It took us 30 minutes to get into the canyon where the tigers were sprawled out in the afternoon sun. Many say that these tigers are drugged to make them docile. I didn't see any visible signs of sedatives - grogginess or disoriented behaviour. These are hand-reared creatures and used to human contact. Since they are at their laziest during the afternoon, they remain calm while visitors come to marvel at them. The monks and volunteers are around to calm a frisky tiger by playing with them on the side. Only those who have a calm disposition are brought out to meet their fans. the others remain within the confines of the monastery.

The campus houses other animals as well - such as cows, peacocks, pigs, horses, and bears.

This was our last stop and we finally reached our hotel around 8pm. It was a long and hot day after which we deserved a cold beer!

The next day we got up late and planned a day of malling. Megabangna is a newly-opened hyper-mall with over 800 shops under a single roof. Ikea was the reason we wanted to go there (BTS Udom Sok). The whole day wasn't enough to even just window-shop. There is a shuttle every hour to and from the Udom Sok BTS station. In the afternoon we were too early for it and took a cab instead of waiting for it. It costed us around 90 BHT.
By now you would've thought that we'd had enough of walking around. But we were not quite done yet. Thursday was the day for the temples and the Grand Palace.

We started relatively early in the day - around 9am. Our first stop was Wat Saket which wasn't too far from our hotel, so we just took a cab. There's no entry fee. As soon as you enter the compound, you feel the serenity. There are steps leading up to the main temple. It is a gradual incline but there a quite a few steps (300 approximately) so pace yourself. The temple houses a few Buddha idols but the main attraction is the Golden Mount or chedi/stupa on the terrace. It radiates in the sun and is a sight to behold.
Our next stop was to be Wat Pho but we couldn't find a cab outside the temple. There were many tuk-tuks offering to take visitors to their destinations for dubiously low price of 10 BHT. We knew there had to be a catch but we couldn't walk the 2 kms to the temple in the heat. We hopped on to the cab and as predicted, he said he will make one stop to a store on the pretext that as we browse, he will quickly fill gas in the vehicle. As we went in to another jewellry store, the driver sat outside eating strawberries! We got back on and were dropped at Wat Pho where we were told the fare was actually 10 BHT per person.

We were so relieved to see a vendor selling fresh coconut water. Thai coconut water is always sweet and such a great refresher in the humid weather. We also picked up some sliced mangoes.

The entry fee for the temple is 100 BHT. The 43 metre reclining Buddha is awe-inspiring. Within the complex, there are over 1,000 images of Buddha and it is worth having a look at all of them. The grounds also have stupas with intricate designs, marvelous to behold.

The Grand Palace is walking distance from the temple, although it didn't seem like it in the scorching heat. The entry fee of 500 BHT also covers the Vimanmek Mansion (located away from the Palace), and the coin museum (just outside the Palace), but we only had time for the Palace. Gates close at 4:30 pm so get there well before 2pm if you want to cover everything. No shorts or sleeveless attire allowed here - wraps are available to cover yourself up before you enter.
The architecture, materials (gold leaves, porcelain), murals (under restoration), history, and the Emerald Buddha are fascinating. An English-speaking guide available on hire at the entrance will give you the interesting tid-bits if you haven't read up on it already.

As we took a break near where the palace guards were stationed, we noticed this thirsty bird. We wished we could take a dip in the pool of water too.
Once we got out of the Palace, we needed to eat - soon. We were starving and the street food wasn't doing it for us. Now came the biggest tourist trap of all - no cab or tuk-tuk will take you anywhere unless you pay 3 times the price. If you walk for about 30 to 40 minutes away from the Palace, this will come down to double the price. We found a bus stop and someone who spoke English. There was an air-conditioned bus going our way for 20 BHT compared to the 300 BHT being asked by cabs.

Friday we took it easy. Just browsed Siam Center and Paragon - the high-end malls that are more for looking than buying, then picked up the stuff from the tailor. 

We had dinner at an old favourite of my parents - Big Mama's behind Robinson (Asok BTS). We fell in love with the pizza there.
On Saturday, we left early for the airport planning to get a final massage before boarding the flight. We had our last Thai meal at Mango tree finishing it off with mango with coconut rice. We browsed the stores, bought some booze to take home, then went for a massage before boarding.

It was a week well spent. Although, the city has changed much from what I remember of it. It is much more crowded for sure - from the airport to every attraction you visit on any day of the week. With global markets opening up, it is not necessarily the cheapest place to buy stuff - especially electronics. Although people were friendly and smiling, it didn't feel as welcoming as it used to be. Maybe my perspective changed over the years, or maybe Thailand's tourism department has done its job too well over the years. I felt the need for awareness on conservation and animal rights, and the urgent need to reduce waste and conserve energy. i hope they realise this before its too late.

1 comment:

  1. I am sure you both and us here will visit Thailand again...