'One night in Bangkok' as the song goes. Well, actually it was two...
Bangkok: big, busy, brash and boisterous. Less polluted than many Asian cities, despite the motorised three-wheel tuk-tuks, but also a little less exotic than we were expecting. The 'haves' and the 'have nots' juxtaposed as they so often are the further you travel east: smart high-rise next to low-rise shabby chaos; pockets of sophistication side by side with basic existence. A city, inevitably of contrasts; changing its identity, losing its identity? Who knows what the future holds for Bangkok with its population of 11 million (although many of whom are now moving out to the northern provinces to avoid the increasing risk of flooding). A city where tall neon towers light up with 'Long live the King and Queen' and where shrines bedecked with yellow flowers where incense gently burns sit side by side with temples of materialism such as shopping malls and fast food chains. A city in flux as globalisation sweeps the world.
We had just one full day to see the sights but were keen not to try and cram in too much. The humid heat was intense and exhausting and, of course, you need to wear appropriately modest clothing for the temples - especially the Grand Palace, the main tourist attraction in the city. All of this is not conducive to staying cool. After a hearty breakfast at the hotel - a feast of Asian, European, Indian, Japanese and Arabian choices - we squeezed into a pink metered taxi and headed to the older part of town, stopping at a temple (Wat Trimitri) on the way where a man took our photos without us knowing and slapped them onto badges which he then tried to flog us. They made me laugh, so I persuaded The Accountant to get his wallet out. Then another taxi, hailed easily on the street, to take us to the Grand Palace where we experienced our first ripp-off by an official-looking bloke who told us it was shut until 3.30pm and 'helpfully' suggested we take a tuk-tuk (which materialised miraculously by his side) to take us to the river to do a private trip on a long boat along the river and canals. This was all good fun until we arrived down some grotty back street and were met by some mate of his who was pleased to be asking an exhorbitant price (twice what we had been advised at the hotel), for the boat ride. Much negotiation from The Accountant ensued (you can imagine...). Got the price to something more like we were expecting and off we set.
We spotted an intriguing temple (Wat Arun) looking like a tiered wedding cake on the other side of the river and asked if we could pop off to see it. We were told we had five minutes, which was just enough to go and have a closer look. Back on the boat, the heavens duly opened and inadequate umbrellas were brought over to us as we sat getting soaked. The choppy brown river was a good metre higher than normal and, as we went down one of the back canals, we could see house after waterside house sadly ruined by the recent floods: abandoned terraces, once bedecked with flowers and chairs; confused cats climbing on roofs; pumps still pumping out gallons of water. As riverside home owners across the globe know, this is always the risk with waterfront locations, especially with our increasingly unpredictable climate. You take your chances.
The river was awash with broken greenery, sometimes with a flock of birds sitting smugly amongst it as they were swept effortlessly downstream. Colourful, golden temples sprung up from time to time amongst the riverside rhododendrons and the ramshackle abodes. Friends of the longboat owner came over in another boat to sell things - unspeakable tourist trash, of course, and cold beers. I was tempted by some colourful little elephants, but we went for the beers and it was suggested we get one for the 'driver' which we duly did. There gets to a certain point where resistance is hopeless...
At the end of our hour on the river, the longboat driver manoevred us swiftly and skilfully onto a wooden quayside where, in the surrounding alleyways, the floods had barely receded. We made our way through the quayside cafes onto a street packed on both sides of a wooden walkboard with stalls offering street food in all shapes and sizes - fried fish and other unrecognisable bits; thai curries; noodles; soup; sweet delicacies, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice...the choice was endless and enticing. We stopped at one with yellow table cloths over metal tables with faded pink plastic stools serving up the most delicious beef and noodle soup for about a quid as we watched the world go by. An elderly lady with a walnut-brown wrinkled face lay next to us on a delapidated old sunbed beside the pots and pans and the washing tubs having a nap in the heat of the day. Behind her a guard in smart grey uniform stood erect and stern in front of the gates to the naval academy.
Replete, we then walked the short distance back to the Palace only to be told by a more official looking gentleman than the previous one we'd dealt with that, at 3.30pm, it was now closed for the afternoon. We'd been truly had. So, resolving to get there the next morning instead (and to be honest, I was glad as I was suffering mightily with a bad cold I'd begun as we left the UK), we headed back to the river and waited for the next river boat to take us down to the overhead metro stop that we needed to take us back to within shouting distance of the hotel. The train was modern and efficient, packed with tourists, English language teachers, locals and the occasional serene-looking monk swathed in orange cloak. It was fascinating seeing Bangkok from on high, such as the green, elegant racecourse and golfcourse, which was otherwise hidden behind high walls from street level. We got off at Siam, the happening young shopping district of central Bangkok where a live band was pumping out music at an impossible volume and there were huge shopping malls boasting Vera Wang, Gucci, and so many other designer labels. From here we grabbed a tuk-tuk and as we settled down for the white-knuckle ride, I did think that we should have checked the price first. Sure enough he wanted 400 baht for having driven like a lunatic and done a U-turn in a hugely busy four-lane highway which had G turning pale and seeing her life flash before her eyes. (To put this in context, the air-conditioned taxi which took us to the Grand Palace that morning, about five times the distance, had cost just 70 baht.) More embarrassing arguments ensued with The Accountant, so in the end the girls and I just slipped quietly into the hotel and left them to it. It was going to run and run and the pool beckoned!
I had a fancy that evening for finding somewhere local to eat. We walked the long street outside the hotel in search of something typical until we gave up and took a taxi to somewhere the taxi driver recommended offering fresh fish specialities. Ten minutes or so later we stepped out into a minor horror show of strip lighting, fake flowers, fresh fish and over-attentive staff. A pretty good meal followed, however, of freshly fried calamares, prawn cakes, spring rolls and a couple of noodle and meat dishes. Too much food, of course, but all good, if a bit pricey (despite the decor). As we left, the French couple next to us were busily disputing the bill (having ill-adviseably chosen lobster) and declaring it the most expensive meal they'd ever had in Bangkok and that they weren't going to pay...(would love to have seen the outcome of that one - probably ended up in one of the tanks with the lobsters in question...).
And so we finally made it to the Grand Palace the next day as the sun shone out of a blue sky, sweltering in head to toe trousers and shirts, but in awe of the buildings we encountered. Gleaming gold rooves, sparkling mirrored and coloured glass mosaics, exquisite wall paintings, shaded collonades, green expanses of lawn - a pristine, eye-opening spectacle of Thai history, authority and opulence. Not to be missed.
On the way back, we dropped into the flower market - a wonderfully heady mixture of flowers and vegetables, Bangkok at its teeming, honest best. Thence a quick cool off and lunch beside the pool at the hotel before taking our taxi to the modern splendour of Bangkok airport - an airy, light-filled glass and metal construction putting Heathrow and Gatwick to shame - and as the golden sun set on Bangkok our plane wings reached up into the wide blue yonder and bore us off into the night and the next destination on our Big Adventure.
Low life, High Life, River Life, Street life
Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks side by side with bright yellow flower-bedecked street shrines
Neon signs saying 'Long live the King and Queen'
A city changing its identity, or losing its identity?