I’m feeling really excited about returning to vibrant Bangkok. I’m rapidly brought back down to earth by the queues at airport immigration. They make Miami airport look like a stroll in the park. It’s a new airport building and the wooden booths have been replaced by metal desks, but the systems don’t seem to have improved at all. Neither does the attitude of the airport officials until I ask the luggage belt supervisor what his name is and then he suddenly becomes highly solicitous.
There are so many placard waving meet and greeters that it takes me another 30 minutes to find the lady waiting for me. My name is thoughtfully obscured by a stack of suitcases on a trolley. Waiting gives me time to observe the great, the good and the decidedly different. One long haired bearded guy has just sashayed past in a tigerskin top, a red velvet skirt and pirate boots.
Thailand is relatively wealthy compared to other countries in South East Asia, but ten percent of the population still live below the poverty line.
You're spoilt for choice here:
Bangkok is basically a Mega Wat Experience. Wat is the Thai word for temple and there are plenty of them, mainly, but not all, Buddhist. Marvelling at the glitzy and the assorted Buddhas has to be the number one Must Do. You'll either find them gaudily Disneylandesque or exquisite. Either way, they're fascinating.
The Number One Must See (if you’re up to braving the crowds) is the most opulent sight of them all, the Grand Palace (the King’s home) and its sacred Wat Phra Kaew Temple, which contains the tiny Emerald Buddha. The Grand Palace is a huge rectangle of assorted buildings on the banks of the river. It was the official residence of the Kings of Siam, their court, and royal government from 1782 until 1925. Today, the king lives in the Dusit Palace and the Grand Palace is regarded as a working museum
Taking up roughly a quarter of the Grand Palace compound, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is an astonishing complex of highly decorated buildings, surrounded with deities and shrines. This is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, built specially to the king's specification (1783) for his use, and to house the diminutive Gautama Buddha. The Buddha is just over two feet high and made of jasper, not emerald, and not jade, as some sources suggest (not that I can tell the difference). And it's too small to see clearly anyway with all the crowds surging around. The image is considered the sacred palladium (object of great antiquity on which the safety of a city or nation is said to depend) of Thailand.
South and close by, also on the river, is Wat Pho Temple, with its enormous reclining Buddha, famous for its training in Thai style massage, where if you are lucky, someone walks on your back. It's also known also as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (for obvious reasons). The royal Temple complex houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand, and the reclining Buddha is 46 metres long. The temple's one of the oldest in Bangkok (late seventeenth century) and its official name is Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram Rajwaramahawiha.
Wat Suthat Thepwararam is yet another Royal temple. This one dates from 1847 or 1848 and contains a gold Buddha image, the Phra Sri Sakyamuni, which was moved from Sukhothai. At the lower terrace of the base, there are 28 Chinese pagodas, representing each of the Buddhas born on this earth.
The most atmospheric city life seems to take place on the waters of the Chao Phraya River, where long tailed boats and water taxis ply constantly up and down (these are quite useful to avoid the congested roads and tuk tuks). The view is dominated by Wat Arun, of the Thonburi capital, on the opposite shore. You can't miss it, with its steep steps and Khmer-style spire.
Or take a trip out to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – more long tailed boats, chock full of all manner of vegetables, and vendors in their conical straw hats. (A Thai tourist destination that was in decline and has now been revived.)
Further away still , The Golden Buddha, officially titled Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, is a gold statue, with a weight of 5.5 tons, located in the temple of Wat Trait.
Once watted out, there are plenty of day tours. Ayutthaya, River Kwai, the rainforest.
It's impossible to resist shopping in Bangkok. There are decent tailors (!), trinkets and crafts galore and fake designer good on every corner. Though the ultimate shopping experience is Patpong Market, (where I stocked up on 'Armani' jeans). You can buy just about anything here in the huge halls. There are rows and rows of pet stalls. At least, I think the animals are for pets. If it's the same as China, you either keep them or eat them. You can even choose a fake ID out of a plastic basket.
The Patpong area takes on a different face at night. It is also the heart of Bangkok's sex industry.
Bangkok has an incredible array of hotels. with amazing service. The Banyan Tree (there are several) is great. I've flown in from Brunei this time. Fifty minutes in the taxi from the airport - that’s not bad for Bangkok - and I'm there. The skyline has changed since 2005. There are many more tower blocks and very little Thai script. Nearly all the signage is in English now. My Banyan Tree is in an upmarket hotel area, adjacent to an equally upmarket shopping area. And things are definitely looking up. I’ve been upgraded to a suite. So I have a little palace on one of the top floors. There’s three separate rooms and a huge tub. It’s a shame I don’t have time to indulge. I’m off shopping, trying to match the bamboo design steel cutlery I bought in Kho Samui in 2003. Some items have gone AWOL over the years.
I have researched on the internet and found a stall that stocks Thai cutlery. It's in a department store in a plaza. The shop is a maze of Thai artefacts and doesn't look that different to some of the temples. But Im overjoyed to track down almost identical items to mine. The shopkeeper tells me that my exact design isn’t made any more. ‘Same, same’. I’m pleased to find a decent match and tired, so I don’t bargain and he’s pleased too. There’s massage shop in the plaza, so I head there next. When in Rome.
I’ve taken a taxi to the plaza,as the concierge has ensured a fixed price for me. It’s double the meter rate, but still cheaper than the price a taxi will try and extort from me if I’m left on my own. Or it will be. So, rejuvenated after my pummelling, I decide to walk back to the hotel and plot a scenic route on Google, across Lumpini Park. It seems, additionally, to cut off a corner.
The park is chock full of joggers and after navigating them I find myself back in the road where the hotel is located. I can see it on the other side. Except that there is no way of crossing the dual carriageway, which is barricaded in the middle, not to mention packed with vehicles. I ask directions from a kindly Thai jogger who sends me to a zebra crossing up at the next junction. It adds half a mile to the journey. So much for Google.
Dinner in the hotel. Amazing red duck curry and chillie vodka cocktails in the rooftop bar. I shall definitely have to come back.
Next stop Bangladesh.
I've flown in from Argentina, via Los Angeles, on my round the world anti clockwise trip. Next, an overland trip through Thailand to Laos, starting again in Bangkok's Khaosan Road, (read more about Bangkok here). Another massage on a mattress on the floor that makes me feel as if I've done ten rounds and a facial that involves half a greengrocer's shop on my skin.
First a day trip to Ayutthaya, a city about 80 kilometres north of Bangkok, once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam, The kingdom was a major power in south eastern Asia, the precursor to modern day Thailand, emerging during the decline of the Khmer Empire and lasting from 1351 (it seems probable that the Khmers were in the area much earlier) to 1767. It eventually succumbed to another neighbour, Burma, after repeated attacks.
The ruins of the old city (razed to the ground by the Burmese) now form the Ayutthaya Historical Park, an archaeological site that contains a veritable panorama of crumbling Royal Palaces, Buddhist temples, towering stupas (known as chedis in Thailand), monasteries and statues. Wat Phra Si Sanphet ("Temple of the Holy, Splendid Omniscient"), features most often in promotion. It was the holiest, grandest and most beautiful temple.
Kings' Summer Palaces always seem to have glorious settings. The Thai royal family are no exception. A few miles down the River Chao Phraya from Ayutthaya is the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace. The first palace here was built by King Prasart Thong as a summer retreat in the 17th century, towards the end of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. However, the Palace fell into decline, along with the kingdom. It was restored by King Rama IV (also known as Mongkut - the one from The King and I) and then Rama V in the nineteenth century.
The Tourist Office explain that it is divided into two zones: the inner zone for royal family to use as a resting place, the other outer zone is for 'normal people and tourist'. I'm not sure if I qualify as normal, but I'm definitely not royal so I'm wandering round the immaculately landscaped park with its many walkways and lakes. There are numerous sumptuous dwellings, temples, shrines, monuments and topiary galore.
According to my guides the key sights are: the Wehart Chamrunt (Heavenly Light), a Chinese-style palace and throne room; the Warophat Phiman (Excellent and Shining Heavenly Abode), a royal residence; Ho Withun Thasana (Sages' Lookout), a striped lookout tower; and the Aisawan Thiphya-Art (Divine Seat of Personal Freedom), a pavilion constructed in the middle of a lake, King Mongkut's copy of theArporn Phimok Prasart royal pavilion in Bangkok (see above), and Wat Niwet Thammaprawat, the royal palace temple.
Now I've joined a small group tour. We're heading to northern Thailand and Laos on an overnight train. Chiang Mai is the second city of Thailand in the mountainous north. Founded in 1296, it was once capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom. It's also known as the ‘Rose of the North’. There's a scenic, winding drive up a mountain to Doi Suthep, one of the country's most stunning temple complexes. It involves a 300-step serpent-guarded stairway, leading up to the temples but the climb is rewarding. The chanting of the Buddhist monks is relaxing and hypnotic - I could sit listening all day - and there are sweeping views of the city. A cycle tour of the flatter, old city is also worth the effort; it is crammed with hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples.
In the evening, the enormous, colourful Night Bazaar (this area is where most of the Thai crafts are actually made) and kao soy; yellow wheat noodles in a curry broth, traditionally served with chicken or beef. with a cultural show, of course
Chiang Rai, is the northern most town in Thailand, the gateway to the mighty Mekong River, which forms the border with Laos. The must see here is Wat Phra Kaew, a royal temple that once housed the (Jasper) Emerald Buddha (the original now has its own temple in Bangkok) and today, displays a replica. Nearby, the Navel City Pillar is a monument made of more than 100 Khmer-style pillars.
Lunch is at a roadside eatery in Chiang Rai that takes its mission to promote birth control very seriously. The Cabbages and Condoms Inn and Restaurant claims to be in The Rubber Triangle. It's a nice play on words. The Golden Triangle is the name given to this area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. It was perhaps better known as one of the largest opium-producing areas in the world.
There are condom flowers in the gift shop. And the menu is not for the faint hearted. It even features condom salad. I'm relieved to see it's only food shaped to look like condoms. It's all good fun, though their mission is a serious one. And the food tastes fine.
Just outside Chiang Rai, the ornate Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, which turns out to be an wedding cake style art installation. To the tranquil town of Chiang Khong, from where we take a boat along the Mekong to Laos.
After Laos I return again to Thailand via Hanoi, for a beach sojourn in Krabi. This is a southerly province of Thailand famous for breath-taking beaches and amazing vistas: hundreds of picturesque karst islands, with coral reefs, dotted through the Malacca Strait.
I'm headed to “Town”, which is Ao Nang, a continually expanding seaside strip of guesthouses, hotels, bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. It is an especially sad time. A huge tsunami has hit the month before. I've been lucky. would have been on the beach at the time if I hadn't re-organised my trip. I considered cancelling, but the spa I had chosen tells me they need the business. There are few other tourists and no-one else staying at my lodging. Its a beautiful place with bowls of floating petals just for me and Thai massages on tap. I'm treated like royalty.
I walk round Town, spending a little money and hearing people's stories. Those I speak to tell of their panicking as they ran for high ground, their relief to be safe and their sadness at the deaths of so many. The most poignant sight, the posters and photographs tied to the railings, listing all those still missing.
And I take a couple of quiet boat trips - again the locals are desperate for custom. The Phi Phi Islands, to the south of the bay, where I first ventured from Phuket have been especially badly hit. The pretty bays and limestone scenery are ravaged, piles of excavated timber on the sand, sunken boats in the water.
The must do trip from Ao Nang is The Four Island Longtail Boat Tour. This area has, thankfully, been less affected by the catastrophe. First stop is the renowned Phra Nang Cave Beach at Railay. This gorgeous spot is only accessible by boat and the towering limestone cliffs are beloved of rock climbers. The sea is a translucent jade and at the end of the sand, the Princess Cave, where fishermen make offerings in the form of incense and flowers to ensure safe voyages. There are a heap of phallus shaped objects along one wall.
Poda Island has more white beaches and turquoise water. The huge karst pillar, just off the beach, features on most Thai promotional videos. Chicken Island is possibly even more familiar, with its neck like protuberance. We circumnavigate twice to make sure we appreciate it.
The final stop is at Koh Tub, connected to Chicken and Mor Islands by a spectacular sandbar.
I've had a good, if subdued finale, to my round the world tour. It's time, once again, to go home. The staff at the spa line up to say good bye and wave me off.
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