Monday, November 30, 2009

Bangkok – City, Embassies, and plenty of ground to cover

Nov 18-24 (by Swiss)

“Is there such a thing as too much island life?” The answer, in my humble opinion, is “Yes, and I think we've managed to reach our limit.” Ergo, Bangkok would be a welcome change from our tour of the islands in the south, and we were hoping to start removing ourselves a bit from the tourism centered beaches. This isn't to say that Bangkok doesn't cater plenty to tourists (Khao San Road is a prime example), but we were hoping for a more diverse and "large city" vibe – and that is what we got.

No sleep, no problem
We arrived in Bangkok from Phuket at 5:30 AM Tuesday morning, after a 12 hour semi-cramped bus ride. Neither of us got a whole lot of sleep given the sleeping arrangements on the bus (a narrow seat and blanket), but we were happy to have arrived in Bangkok safe, sound, and reasonably quick. A 45 minute rush hour cab ride (way overpriced @400 baht in hind sight, but we didn't care and had four people to split the cost) got us to the Banglamphu neighborhood, home of Khao San road and cheap guest house accommodations. Weary of the usual tourist traps, we headed north (away from Khao San), over a canal and left down Soi 1. Since all of us (Lawton, Team England, and myself) were weighed down by our backpacks, the goal was to find a reasonable room for 1 night so we could get the lay of the land and price some alternatives as needed. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon Bangkok guesthouse, which offered fairly clean double rooms with private bathroom and shower (cold only) in a charming teak house for 350 baht (just over USD 10) per room. While we explored some alternatives later in the day, we quickly came to appreciate our digs (and the nice family running it) and thus decided to spend the remainder of the stay at this location.

Our guest house in Bangkok, back down many alleys

With the room squared away, bags unloaded, and after a quick rinse in the shower it was time for the time honored tradition of finding some grub and perhaps score a map of the area. Both of these objectives were achieved on Khao San road, where food was had at a cute little breakfast place and maps were supplied by a number of hotels and travel agencies (I think we ended up with something like 5 different maps, each of which with their own advantages and disadvantages – apologies to the trees that had to take a bullet/axe for that one.)

Although we were tired, we also felt some motivation to be semi-productive – I guess it's the advantage of being on the move from 5:30 am. Sally wanted to check out the National Art gallery, so we headed there, only to find out that it was closed Mon and Tue, and instead found an overly helpful “local” who explained to us a variety of activities that can be done around the area. He then went into the license plate colors of Tuk Tuks, saying that the ones with white plates are private and thus generally cheaper than the ones with yellow plates. A white plated tuk tuk then conveniently pulled up and offered us a ride to a ferry terminal for tickets to the floating market for 10 baht. Lawton, ever the distrusting person, wouldn't have it and called a timeout to discuss the proposition. I had totally taken the bait, as did Sally, I think. Caroline, as usual, was off shopping somewhere. After Jason's reasoning, it seemed like a bad idea to take the guy up on the proposition; it just smelled a tad fishy. That turned out to be a wise decision, as we later found out it was a popular scam in the area. Oh, and the floating market apparently isn't even open on weekdays, a fact stated in at least 2-3 of our maps. Welcome to Bangkok.

We then decided to take a stroll to China town, which on our map was about 1-2 centimeters away. The problem was, we didn't really get the scaling thing down right, so what was supposed to be 20-30 minute stroll turned out to be a 45-60 minute trek in the heat of the day and got us about half way into Chinatown. This, coupled with lack of sleep, turned the group into a grumpy pile of, um, grumps, and a decision was made to forfeit spending any more time in Chinatown and instead head for the tried and true tradition of the air conditioned shopping mall. An 80 baht metered taxi ride got us there, where we cooled down and had some food. The remainder of the afternoon was spent around that part of town, which was very much developed but had a charm of its own, including an impromptu fashion show.

Fashion show in a mall in Bangkok

While the taxi ride to the mall was cheap, especially split between 4 people, we felt adventurous enough to try to take the bus back to our guesthouse. A few questions about bus stations, a 15 or so minute wait, and 7 baht a person got us within a 5 minute walk of our home.

The night was spent going out on Khao San road, because it was right there and we wanted to experience it. Besides the overpriced food and drinks coupled with a heavy tourist atmosphere, it was a lot of fun and had very good energy. Jason even got to try his first "Beerlao", pictured below. I retired a tad before Lawton, who headed back sometime around 1am, I think. The girls stayed out much later and paid for it proportionally the next day.

My first BeerLao, at a bar on Khao San Rd

Wednesday – aka Visa day
The word on the street (i.e., Lawton) is that you can't get a Vietnam visa at the border, so mission #1 for BKK was to apply for our Vietnam visa. Online research revealed a price somewhere around 1000 baht and wait of 3-4 working days. After our experience at the Chinese consulate in SF a few months ago, we were determined to get to the embassy early so as to minimize the potential impact of long lines. The embassy opened at 8:30, we hoped to get there by 9-9:30, but ended up getting there at around 10 due to bus related delays and a healthy hike after getting off said bus (#47.) The application process was actually pretty quick and uneventful, other than the unexpected cost of 1850 baht for a non-expedited visa and my misunderstanding of the price for an expedited version (2000 baht), which caused us to be kicked to the back of the line after we agreed to the expedite fee and then opted out after learning it was actually 2500 baht to save 3 days we were likely to spend in BKK anyways.

We left the embassy without passports and a paper visa receipt shortly after 11am, and sought food right away. A nice little bakery with free wifi satisfied that need, and by afternoon we were heading for Lumphini park for a little R&R.

Lumphini Park in Bangkok

Relaxing and reading in the park

Some monument at the SE corner of Lumphini Park

During our visit of the park, we noticed these odd looking water-wheel-like devices floating in the ponds. Our first guess was that these things were some kind of aeration devices. Sure enough, after stumbling upon a golden statue of such a device, we learned that the King of Thailand invented and patented this device, called a Chai Pattana aerator.  Given the love the Thai's have for their King, these things were used everywhere in the park. I'd have opted for a sparger and air blower or a plain ol' fountain, but I guess I don't count – oh, and I lack that “King” title.

The King's Royal Water Aeration System (he invented it and has the patent for it!)

The afternoon was capped off by our routine sampling of local Mickey D's, where Jason had a taste of the pork samurai burger and I took on the challenge of gobbling down a double Big Mac.

So we tried McDonald's in Thailand, Swiss got a DOUBLE Big Mac!!

It was in the evening when we managed to meet up with Sally and Caroline (after a free bus ride back – I guess the money collector was on break), who had been sleeping all day. Even with a full days' worth of sleep, Caroline was still suffering from the prior night's actions, so she didn't join Sally and us for dinner at a place just down the road from Khao San road. Thanks to Sally's iPod touch, we noted that the place had free wifi and cheap beer, and the food wasn't half bad either; we were bound to return at some point. It's amazing how finding good places for free wifi has become somewhat of an obsession among us...maybe it's time for some wifi annonymous (WA?) meetings.

After dinner we returned to the guesthouse, where Lawton and Sally retired. I spent the evening talking to Sandra, an Austrian girl we had met earlier. We were later joined by Nicole and Michael, two Swiss people from Kanton St. Gallen. Most of the night was spent with me alternating between speaking German and Swiss German, realizing that rusty doesn't even get close to describing my current German language skills. Must practice more. Bedtime came sometime after 1 am.

Wifi and Blog day (and Thanksgiving?)

Depending on your definition of productive, Thursday would be a productive day. That is, we spent time catching up on emails and writing blog updates, after getting a good night's sleep. If your idea of productivity involves getting up early for sight seeing, the day was a giant fail, and you might as well skip to the next section.

The day started with the intent of celebrating Thanksgiving, which would have been all well and good had it been the fourth rather than the third Thursday of November.  A couple of amusing replys on Jason's "Happy Thanksgiving" facebook status along the lines of "Um, that's not until next week" taught Jason (and me, I guess) a valuable lesson regarding the proper date to celebrate turkey day.  I'm Swiss, so I think I get a pass, but Jason? - Uncle Sam is shaking his head and quitely shedding a tear.  The quest for Turkey was thus quickly abandoned and postponed for the following week.

On our first night out, we got a flyer for a place that offered organic vegetarian and vegan food, which I really don't care much about, as well as free wifi and AC power outlets; which, as you know by now, we both care very much about. So with team England off to the Vietnam Embassy to re-enact our storyline from the previous day, we were on a mission to find the “Ethos” cafe after eating some street food (Pad Thai - Jason, fried rice - me, coconut fritters - me) for breakfast. Besides the usual tea and coffee, the place offered sticky rice and mango, which Jason promptly ordered and was beyond excellent. We spent a good two hours there, even though the internet kicked the bucket about 45 minutes in and the service was so-so at best. I was writing my previous blog entry (while Jason befriended a nice British couple who had some recos for Chiang Mai, our next destination.)

As I was wrapping up blog writing and Jason was wrapping up that social stuff, we both decided that internet would be nice to have at this point. So off we went to the place we had dinner the prior night for a drink and free wifi. I told you we'd be back.

Our paths would diverge for dinner, with Jason and Sally heading to a bakery while I had a craving for more street food (Pad Thai) and Archa beer. The whole dinner, including 640 ml of beer, cost me a little over 70 baht (USD 2.10), satisfying both my stomach and wallet. Night time rolled around with me reading and Jason finishing up his blog post for Phuket.

Sightseeing day
Friday marked the day for a different form of productivity: sightseeing. We wanted to ensure we had plenty of fuel (i.e., carbs), so we visited the bakery that Jason and Sally had frequented the prior night for fresh baguettes filled with ham, cheese, and other delicious (western) ingredients. Fueled-up, we started our stroll towards item 1 for the day, which was Wat Pho. On the way, an overly helpful thai guy on the street promptly informed us that the wat, of course, was “closed” – I'm sure he was ready to bring us somewhere that was “open.” Not falling for that whole spiel again, we moved on along the line of tour buses and after a 50 baht entry fee, got to see the temple including a huge reclining Buddha. Pictures from the stroll and subsequent temple visit below.

Random monuments in Bangkok

The Thai National Defence Center


Buddha and me

More around Wat Pho

More inside Wat Pho

More Buddha at Wat Pho

Templed out, we then proceeded to visit the national museum. Admission was 200 baht, which granted you access to around 30 or so different rooms covering anything from Thai history to funeral carriages. It was nice, I learned a bunch about several wars and that the King of Thailand actually studied in Switzerland, but the exhibits tended to become somewhat repetitive after a while.

This was especially true of the art section, which was very Buddha-centric and would have been fine had we not already been Buddha'd out from Wat Pho. But it was a nice way to spend the afternoon while escaping the heat outside. No pictures allowed, so documentation is scarce. I did take a picture of the ticket, which you may notice uses the Thai solar calendar to denote the current year (2552.)

No photos inside the national museum, so a picture of our ticket instead

The last item for the day was to be the national art gallery, which we had planned on visiting the first day when we got our first dose of Bangkok scams due to its closure that day. We arrived at around 3pm, and decided the 200 baht admission was not cost effective move given the closing time of 4pm. So that activity was scratched, and we instead headed to Cafe Lampu, a place down the road from our guesthouse that offered free wifi and a super chill atmosphere. Blog posts were uploaded, email was checked, and tired legs were rested.

I headed back shortly after my blog was loaded, Jason decided to stick around a while. I again had a craving for Pad Thai (notice a theme here?), so I swung by a street vendor for 20 baht pad thai and then headed back to the room.  Official dinner was had at an Indian place near Khao San road, where the food was ok, although my Dal Mahkni was oversalted.

TGIS and a very large Market
We awoke early (~8 am) on Saturday, where we had big plans to get train tickets squared away and then visit the Chatuchak market. For train tickets, we chose to ride a cab to the train station and promptly booked our 2nd class sleeper tickets on the Tuesday 19:35 A/C train from BKK to Chiang Mai. Being government run, the folks at the station were very helpful without being pushy and offered tips and advice as we were trying to make up our mind on the best option for travel. Around 800 baht was on the high side of the price spectrum, but you get a bed of sorts to sleep in during the 12 hour journey and traffic should not be an issue. We'll let you know how the train ride itself works out :)

Next up was a ride to the market on the subway, which is literally at its infancy. There is currently only one line (excluding the 4 semi-related skytrain lines), although it looks like they are working on expanding the subway portion over the next couple of years. As for the subway itself, it was very nice, modern, air conditioned, and efficient. We emerged from the subway stop near the Chatuchak market 30 minutes later.

So here's the gig with Chatuchat market: It's huge. It's the largest market in Thailand, and may even be the largest market in SE asia. Shoppers can get anything from clothes to furniture to live animals. We spent around 2.5 hours covering a good chunk of the market, although I didn't really buy anything (after all, that would involve spending money.) After eating lunch at a Japanese/Korean place that offered an interesting dining environment given their fans continuously blasting water mist (for cooling) in our general direction, Jason decided to head back to section 25 to purchase a “sweat rag”, somewhat of a necessity if you've ever spent extended periods of time outdoors in this part of the world.

While Caroline went on her usual shopping spree, Sally demonstrated her tough as nails negotiating skills by talking vendor down to 500 baht for a purse she “fancied” from an original asking price of 2000 baht. The highlight of the market was the live animals section (especially the cute puppies), although the distinct lack of any adult dogs did make you wonder what happens to the pups after they pass their cute puppy stage in life....

As always in Bangkok...

The endless stalls of Chatuchak Market

You can find literally everything at this place!

For dinner, we decided that we wanted to check out a little place just down the road from us that we had walked-by the previous day. Joe, who seemed to be running (literally) the place, quickly invited us in and served us with beer and peanuts. As he was frantically moving from table to table, he threw us a pad and paper and told us to write down our order. Below is a pic of Caroline playing waitress:

They like to just give you a notepad to order off of

Unfortunately, the place was packed which resulted in quite a wait for our food to come out. Only later did we learn that the restaurant was actually listed in the Lonely planet yellow bible, explaining all the whities hanging around everywhere. The food was very good, but not good enough to justify the 1 hour wait for din din.

The last activity for the day would be to explore the Patpong neighborhood, namely for a performance that Bangkok is, um, somewhat famous for. For the sake of keeping this PG, I'll leave it to the reader's imagination as to what I mean by that; I'll just say it's their take on a sport usually played with a small white ball and wooden paddles. 

The night concluded with Jason and I getting in a verbal fight, so I left sometime around midnight hopping on a Tuk Tuk and running into team Austria back at the guesthouse, while Jason and the girls stayed out around the Patpong area. It would be the next day when we learned that Caroline managed to lose her camera (this would the 3rd camera that fell victim to Caroline-zilla) at a bar where the bartender later professed his love via txt message – a txt she was somewhat forced to return with a question along the lines of “Do you happen to have my camera?”

Good news is that she recovered it two days later, although Mr. Bartender did insist on joining the girls (well, Caroline specifically) for a Thai boxing match after personally delivering her the camera in our part of the city.

Sunday bloody Sunday
Ok, I admit it, Sunday was a waste of a day for me. I was hungover and did not feel well. My achievement for most of the day was walking 200 ft down the road to score a breakfast pad thai and coffee for 32 baht, and a quick email check later in the day.

Jason had a more productive day, although some (including myself) would argue watching the new “Twilight” movie is somewhat equivalent to sleeping the day away. The only other honorable mention was me randomly running into my Malaysian diving buddy, Katerina, who I had last seen well over a month ago on Tioman Island. Small world, I guess.

I had dinner at a cool street vendor place down the street from Joe's spot, which offered delicious food at a fast pace and very cheap price (seafood and rice for 50 baht – under USD 2.) Lawton and Co stuck with popcorn at the movie for dinner.

Final day in BKK
Given our departure on the night train Tuesday, Monday would officially mark our last full day in Bangkok. That day was kicked off by visiting the Vietnamese embassy to pick up our passports, which we managed to do just in time before it closed for the morning at 11:30 am. Unfortunately we also learned that they only offered a 1 month visa, which means we'll have to file an extension in Vietnam. Thus far, the Vietnamese embassy/visa process has been the most unfriendly compared to other SE asia nations, although Indonesia is up there, too. We were happy to at least have the visa squared away, though.

Next up was a stop at 7-Eleven for Jason to break a 1000 baht bill (not that easy, and ATMs spit those things out left and right), while I performed my traditional Monday morning NFL score check. How about them Saints?

With another visa filling an entire page on our US passports, we figured it might be worth swinging by the US embassy to get some more pages added. Since the embassy was closed over lunch, we had lunch at a little street restaurant, where we again got to write down our order on paper and the English language came at a premium. My dish was pretty good, Lawton ended up with noodles in a bland puddle of gravy that was so-so at best. Can't win them all.

The visit to the US embassy, after it re-opened at 1pm, re-introduced us to writing dates in the mm-dd-yyyy format (as opposed to dd-mm-yyyy), and also provided plenty of entertainment watching old fat guys with young Thai women registering for marriage and/or birth certificates. Comes across kinda sad, really, but who are we to judge? Adding new pages was completely free and took us about an hour door to door.

We then hopped on the #47 bus, a reliable choice in the past, only to get dropped off on some street in BKK without a map or sense as to where we were. Jason located a sign for the “Golden Mountain”, which coupled with the way the sun was setting (west, right?) gave us a general idea where we had to head. 5 minutes later we ran into a Policeman who possessed better English language skills than any other Thai person we had met thus far, and happily directed us back to our digs. Why the bus decided to stop there as opposed to the place it usually stops remains a mystery to this day.

The remainder of the afternoon was uneventful, although we once again managed to randomly run into Katerina, dinner was had on the street (excellent curry and Tom Yam soup) after a roti place we wanted to check out was closed. As mentioned briefly above, the girls had attended Thai boxing after recovering Caroline's camera. Plans to meet up later fell through.

See you next Tuesday
So down to the last day in BKK. Lawton and I split up for breakfast, me heading to my favorite Pad Thai/coffee place down the street (which happened to be near an unsecured wifi network), while Jason went to cafe Lumpu for rice soup. We managed to re-unite late in the morning, checked out of Bangkok guesthouse, and were off to find a book exchange so I could exchange two of my books. None of the places were to my liking, so it resulted in the proverbial fail.

Speaking of fail, we then decided to check out Chitlada park, which the machine gun toting guard at the “park” politely informed us was actually the royal palace (where the King and Queen reside) and somewhat off limits to mortals like us. Again, if only I had that “King” title. A consult with map #2 revealed that it indeed was the palace and not a park as denoted on map #1. So we re-adjusted our route to find the “Golden Mountain”, once again without success, and called it a day instead. Plenty of exercise, though - Bangkok is massive.

We walked all the way to this park, only to find that it's the King's Palace, and we weren't invited in :(

The last couple of hours were spent at cafe Lampu checking email, downloading world maps (for travel planning on the train), and playing with a super adorable puppy residing at the cafe. We swung by the roti place we tried to visit the prior day for a later afternoon snack/lunch, and finally returned to the Bangkok guesthouse to pick up our bags. Then it was on to the train station via cab, where we boarded the train and are currently enjoying our ride next to a squabbling Austrian couple that I don't think realizes that I understand every single word of their bickering (I'm trying very hard not to chuckle, and Jason just texted me with a request for an update on the fight - time to go.)

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Post a Comment