Contrasts of Krung Thep
It’s hard not to find something to love about Bangkok. After a fantastic few days based in Silom, it was time to change hotels in preparation for a conference, and discover another side of the city that I had quickly fallen in love with. I caught the Skytrain (BTS) to Phaya Thai and transferred to the airport link to travel one stop to Ratchaprarop. The station was next to the busy Ratchaprarop Road, and coming into the heat of the day, despite my hotel being just a 7 minute walk away, I was sweating buckets by the time I reached it. Thankfully my room was already available, and I checked into the spaciousness of it. One of the fantastic things about Bangkok, is how far your money stretches, and even a four-star hotel was perfectly affordable. It was a luxury that I rarely get when I’m travelling.
There was so much to explore in this area. The vibe was quite different here, with various four and five star hotels in the neighbourhood, as well as one of Bangkok’s main conference centres and a myriad of giant malls all within easy reach. Heading south to where the skytrain (BTS) stands tall above Phloen Chit, one of the city’s main shrines, the Erawan Shrine, sits on the side of the road. It is a busy place at any time of the day, and the locals come here to pay their respects, give thanks, and have their prayers heard. To one side, some men played instruments whilst ladies in traditional clothing danced. I stayed for a while in quiet observation before moving on.
I was on a quest to explore the lesser explored parts of Bangkok. I had seen on a website some quirky things to do, and was on my way to find one of them. A couple of blocks east from the shrine and up a long road, nestled in the grounds of the Swissotel Nai Lert Park hotel, is the Goddess Tubtim shrine. Effectively a shrine full of phalluses, it is where the locals come to seek fertility. On the banks of the Khlong Saen Saep, it was a quiet and peaceful place to be, the quiet broken only when a khlong boat flew by.
The khlong boats along the canal were an experience in themselves. Unlike the river boats, these khlong boats are not a routine form of transport for tourists. They are very definitely the realm of locals, and as such the signage at the boat stops and the staff that worked on them, were not geared towards English comprehension. I boarded at Chitlom pier (several of the piers are known under different names depending on where you read it) just a street away from the phallic shrine. Initially the boatman trying to give me a ticket couldn’t understand where I wanted to go, but after a bit of repetition we got there in the end. It was a very cheap ride, and the boats were crowded. There was no hanging around at piers: getting on and off needed to be a brisk affair, and involved stepping over the lowered side of the boat without tripping over the material or the ropes.
Just a few minutes later, I was left confused when everyone got off the boat but me. The last passenger to get off was speaking in Thai to me and pointing up ahead. The boatman then did the same. It turns out that Pratanum pier is an interchange pier and there is an obligatory boat change here, so everyone had piled off simply to climb aboard the boat in front. Soon we were on our way again. The sides of the khlong boats can be lowered and raised as splash guards. The canal water was a murky brown with lots of rubbish floating in it. This was not the kind of water you wanted to be swallowing, and at the speed the boats were running at, the splash guards came to good use to stop the spray coming inside the boat.
The boats offer an interesting perspective on the real Bangkok. With mainly locals and few tourists, it was a popular transportation for commuters, and many of the buildings that lined the canal were authentically Thai and gave a glimpse of life in some of the poorer quarters, with small shacks squeezed into the gaps between high rises. Eventually, the boat came to a stop, and again everyone got off. The signage was a name that I didn’t recognise and I had no idea whether it was where I wanted to be or not, but with no other boat to board, I cut up to the road to discover that I had indeed made it to Phanfa pier.
I was not a million miles away from Kao San Road to the west, but this time I crossed the bridge over the canal and headed one block south to the Golden Mount. At just THB40, this is one of the cheaper tourist places to visit, but involves a lot of stairs that spiral up and then down the other side, so is not for those who would find this physically hard. Large centipedes wandered across the lower stairs, and there were lots of statues amongst the bushes on the way up.
It was a very overcast day, but the reward at the top was a view over the local district of Bangkok sprawling into the distance. Away from the commercial buzz of Ratchaprarop and neighbouring Ratchathewi, this area seemed calmer and less westernised. There were plenty of tourists there that day, but compared to the busyness of the Grand Palace, this place felt hidden and out of the way, which I liked immensely.
I could spot my next destination from the roof of the Golden Mount, and after descending the steps back to the main road, I cut through streets full of shops selling buddhas of varying sizes. It was astonishing how many shops there were selling so many styles and sizes, and I wondered what kind of market there was in Thailand to warrant so much choice. I had heard about, and indeed seen in a couple of locations, petitions to encourage tourists not to buy buddhas as souvenirs. It is seen as devaluing and disrespecting what is essentially a symbol of Buddhism, and I tend to agree. Whilst for many tourists, a buddha symbolises their Thai experiences in the way that the Eiffel Tower is used to sum up Paris, or Big Ben for London, I would never wear or buy a symbolic cross as I am not Christian, so nor would I buy a symbol of any other religion that I am not a follower of. However, with many people earning much needed money from these often tacky souvenirs, I guess it will always be a contentious issue.
At the western end of Thanon Bamrung Muang is a structure known as the Giant Swing. It is essentially a large red frame that sits on a traffic island next to Wat Suthat. Just a few blocks to the west of here is the back wall of the Grand Palace. I headed north past the City Hall to the Democracy Monument, before turning back east and sitting for a while in the grounds of Wat Ratchanatda. A man who told me he was a teacher at the nearby school chatted to me briefly before I headed on back to Phanfa pier past the Mahakan Fort which didn’t appear to be open to the public. Again, I nestled amongst the locals on the khlong boat back to Pratanum pier where I re-emerged amongst the busy commercial district.
It can be quite strange the things that make you emotional. I have no idea how much the incessant heat and humidity played a part, but when I headed into the great expanse of Central World mall, I became ridiculously overjoyed to the point of near tears, when I saw some UK high street stores nestled in its white interior. It’s been 2.5 years since I last set foot on UK soil, and I didn’t realise how much I missed some of my favourite stores until I saw Marks & Spencers, Boots, Accessorize and H&M. I’m well known for hating shopping at the best of times, being the antithesis of a shopaholic, but I couldn’t help but gleefully wander around the stores that flooded me with memories of my old life in Scotland.
Central World is 7 floors of a shopper’s paradise, and armed with a store map, I started with the lower level, getting tired before I even completed that one floor. I’d discovered repeatedly, that Thailand does not know how to make good coffee, so despite not normally being a tea drinker, I enjoyed a nice pot of fruit tea at the Twinings of London tea house. After a brief respite and shower back at my hotel, I explored the busy streets at night time in search of food. At times it was hard to find authentically Thai food outwith the street stalls, as a lot of the restaurants were fusions of different styles of Asian food. It was easy to find delicious food though, and sometimes there was so much choice that it was simply overwhelming.
The following day was when the learning started with 4 days ahead of lectures. The bulk of the day was spent in the coolness of the air conditioned conference centre, which at times was so cold I ended up covered in goose bumps. I ended up taking the opportunity at break times to step outside and feel the previously suffocating heat. At the end of the first day, we were treated to a traditional Thai dance show with men and women dressed in traditional attire, and some in masks representing mythical creatures.
After the second day of lectures, many of us boarded the skytrain (BTS) to Asok before transferring to the metro line (MRT). At the Thailand cultural centre stop, we were met by a shuttle bus and driven to the cultural centre for a Thai-themed night. We were greeted at the entrance and introduced to an Asian elephant who posed with her Mahout for photographs. I’ve previously ridden an Asian elephant in both India and Sri Lanka, but I’m always in two minds about how I feel about them being used this way. In other parts of Asia they are regularly used for carrying things in a way that horses, donkeys and camels are used in other parts of the world. I have no idea how this elephant spent the rest of her day, but several of us noticed her shuffling from one foot to the other, and wondered if she was frustrated.
After an enormous buffet of traditional Thai food, we piled into the theatre to watch the show. I was mesmerised. Having been unsure what to expect, I was captivated with the wordless portrayal of Thailand’s history and traditions. The dancers and elephants even came amongst the audience on a few occasions, and there was a lot of surprised murmurings when a river appeared to flow across the stage. For me, it was simply magical.
After the third day of lectures, I discovered a large food market on the forecourt of Central World. Despite tucking into plenty of fruit, juices and savouries from street-side stalls, I had been very hesitant about eating the cooked food. The street food generally looked and smelled divine, but having previously been hospitalised for severe gastro-enteritis contracted in India, and still suffering the effects from another bout contracted in Fiji 6 months prior, I had thus far been decidedly cautious about the meat. Finally though, I felt I had to give it a go, and having found a stall where it looked to be well cooked and freshly prepared, I bought a selection of meats and kebabs and tucked in. I was thoroughly disappointed. Not only were they either cold or lukewarm, but they didn’t taste anything like they had smelled, and I was disheartened with my poor judgement.
I headed into the mall in search of something tastier and stumbled across a fashion show on the ground floor. I watched from above for a while before heading back to Twinings of London for another pot of a fruited tea blend. When I found my way to the stage, there was live music, and the crowd suddenly went wild for a group of young women that came out to sing. I had (and still have) no idea who they were, but one song in particular was obviously very popular and I was amused to see all these men in their late teens and early twenties singing along and filming them whilst yelling the lyrics at the stage. I hung around for a while, and was rewarded with a band who again, seemed to be quite famous and well known there. I later saw the lead singer in an advert on the television, and enjoyed their performances immensely. Women fawned over him when they were invited onto the stage for a competition with him, and I noticed him forcing smiles and pretending that he wasn’t wishing he was somewhere else right then. Eventually, the music finished, and all the acts came back onto the stage, including the girls from earlier, who once again were screamed at by all the young men in the vicinity. I’m guessing that I was privileged to see some Thai celebrities.
The final day of lectures came and went, and after a wander around the famous MBK centre, I decided to splash out on the rooftop restaurant at my hotel. Street food had ranged from THB10 – 50, and restaurants had varied from THB200 – 600, which usually had included a cocktail. That last night in Bangkok, I enjoyed a fantastic trio of entrees and the most delicious cocktail I’ve ever had for the staggering price of THB1000 (about NZ$40). It was al fresco dining at its expensive best, with the twinkling lights of the neighbouring skyscrapers for company. Thailand had been so cheap overall that I didn’t care about splashing out on such a luxurious venue, and I was already starting to feel sad about the prospect of leaving Bangkok behind the next day.
With my flight home not till the evening, I still had quite a bit of time to spare on the last day. I had read about a giant elephant to the south of Bangkok and was keen to go and visit. It was confusing to work out how to get there. I figured that the skytrain (BTS) had been extended recently, as two different stations were mentioned on different websites and I was unsure of which one was nearest. I enquired with the concierge at my hotel as I checked out and he mentioned a third station which left me even more confused. I asked him to write the address of my destination in Thai so that I could give it to a taxi driver, and duly headed off to the skytrain station. In the end, I followed my gut instinct (I normally have a reasonably good sense of direction) and stayed on the line till its terminus station of Bearing. Stepping out, I realised to my satisfaction that I was right.
The skytrain stands tall above Sukhumvit Road, and waiting at the bottom of the steps was a taxi. I jumped in and handed him the piece of paper with the address in Thai. It then became quite clear that it wasn’t an address at all, but some kind of description, and the driver couldn’t work out where it was directing him to. He talked out loud to himself for a while, clearly trying to solve the puzzle before he let out an exclamation and started driving. I knew he just needed to head straight down the long road until he went under the motorway, and I silently prayed that he was going to take me to the right place. Thankfully, after initially crawling through the built up traffic, the giant elephant appeared, and he pulled over to drop me off.
The Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan is a 3-headed elephant that stands 29m high as it stands on its pedestal. What makes this building even more impressive, is that the building itself is within the elephant, and frankly the internal design is so ornate and simply beautiful. THB400 pays for entry to the grounds and the elephant. The grounds themselves were peaceful with waterways, and statues, but the building itself made the entry worthwhile alone.
In the basement, which I wouldn’t have known about had it not been for some other tourists who beckoned me to follow them through the door, were lots of relics. In the ground floor of the main building, an arced staircase beckons you up to a platform below a large and ornate stained-glass window. From there a staircase leads up one of the legs of the elephant until you are literally within its body. A small window in a recess gives a view out over the nearby motorway and beyond. Up a final staircase, a chamber is reached that is painted an ethereal blue with lighting around a buddha casting magical shadows. Both inside and out, this place is just beautiful from every perceivable angle.
There was not a taxi in sight when I was ready to leave. I asked one of the workers where to catch one, and he instructed me to have a seat at the gate and told the man at the gate to try and flag one down to take me back to the station. After a few minutes he flagged down a bus, and told the driver in Thai where I wanted to go. This was my first experience of the public buses in Bangkok, and the ticket lady spoke no English. She had to show me the ticket so I knew how much to pay and then we trundled on up the road. What had taken half an hour in the traffic on the way down, took less than ten minutes on the way back, and the driver actually stopped me from getting off at the bus stop before Bearing station, and insisted on pulling over right at the bottom of the stairs up to the platform. I was exceedingly grateful and happy that I’d gotten to experience another piece of real life in Bangkok. I had read that the public bus service could be confusing, so I wouldn’t have used a bus here in any other circumstance.
Back in the world of Ratchathewi, I enjoyed the best chocolate dessert I think I’ve ever had, in a lovely cafe called After You Dessert Cafe, before watching some candy being made at a candy lab. Finally, I wandered around an art display outside of Central World before heading back to my hotel to pass a little more time with my feet dipped in the rooftop spa pool. Eventually though, it was time to make the final trip back to Suvarnabhumi International Airport for my flight home to New Zealand. I had gone to Bangkok with no expectations, and quickly realised that I would be leaving a piece of my heart behind. Despite the heat and humidity, here is a place of vibrancy and culture; of modern and traditional; of east meets west, and there’s nothing you can do but fall in love with it.