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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Ancient ruins and Bangkok madness


On the way to Ayutthaya
The bus took around two hours from Bangkok and before we knew it we were in the bustling city of Ayutthaya; certainly not as big as other Thai cities, but still crowded with people by our standards. It was just after midday and it was hot and humid (as usual!). The usual task awaited us ... the hunt for a place to sleep. Whilst Denisse and Alex waited with the back packs, I went and did my thing.  It felt particularly hot as I trudged through the streets checking various places out.  Ironically, and almost an hour later, we ended up finding a place to stay very close to where we had started. I was knackered!  We dumped our stuff, and spent the afternoon walking around, 'checking things out' and eating. It's Alex's national past time and, as I was learning (when she likes the food!) Denisse's too!

Checkin' out the temples.
People are indeed drawn to Ayutthaya by the prospect of ruined temples.  I had been here years prior and, once again, it did not disappoint.  The Ayuthaya Historical Park is separated by two distinct geographical districts; ruins 'on the island' and those 'off the island', which are across the river and can be accessed by boat.  We chose to do the former, which is best done by bike or motorbike. We got up nice and early(ish) the next day, hired some bikes, and we were off! We cycled in, out, amidst and around the various ancient ruins, temples and wats. I always find this both exciting and intriguing, as I ponder upon what life was once like for these people. I often jokingly say that I was a social anthropologist in a past life, as I am fascinated by the hows, whats and whys of all people from all countries and from all eras.

Ayuttahaya.
Once we were templed out, we made our way, some four kilometres away from the city centre, to the Royal Elephant Kraal and Village. It was lovely to cycle out into the countryside, which always offers a different perspective of how people live. A kraal is effectively an enclosure. The place we went to was not at all touristy, and we had been told to go there by a foreigner who had been working and living in Ayutthaya. This kraal is effectively a home stay where people can come out and stay, and help with elephant conservation. I had never seen so many elephants in one place at one time. I liked that it was a very open place where the elephants could roam freely.  In fact, upon arrival we were effectively told that it was give way to elephants at all times. The little elephants were particularly cute, but then little things usually are!

At the elephant Kraal, Ayutthaya.
We did not want to get back into town too late as we had none of the lights or protective clothing that would be compulsory back at home. The roads weren't exactly specimens of fine workmanship either. Yep, getting back in daylight was our best bet. As we were nearing the city centre, Denisse went around a corner and also went the proverbial 'arse over'. Nothing major, just a few scrapes, and she managed to laugh about it! She was proving to be quite the backpacker! Initiation complete!

Fried insects anyone?
Meanwhile back at the ranch (aka having returned bikes and back in the in the centre) it was time to go and get something to eat ( I would argue that with Alex, it almost always is!), so we made our way to the local night market. Filled with bumper to bumper food stalls, we tried a bit of this and a bit of that. Thought we'd pass on the fried insects, however! Thai food rarely disappoints.
 

Bangkok madness.
Bangkok ... you either love it or you hate it! There seems to be no in between, and Alex and I love it! We were about to show Denisse why! After a couple of days we made our way back to ... the madness! Approaching the nation's capital is sensory overload; loud, buzzing, busy, manic, crazy and full on.  The same adjectives have been used to describe me! It's not hard to see why I wouldn't love it!  We made our way to the New Siam 2 Guesthouse, where we would spend our last few nights. Near the infamous Khao San Road but not on it, we were close enough to the action, yet far enough away for some tranquility (the swimming pool in the hotel was a great catch too). We proceeded to show Denisse as much of Bangkok as we possibly could.


The reclining Buddha.
Amongst our first stops were the Grand Palace (and Wat Phra Kaew) and Wat Pho. We had to walk along the Chao Phraya River, which runs through Bangkok,  to get there. We walked there from where we were staying, to give Denisse not only a glimpse at the enormity of the city but also the diversity. The Grand Palace has been the official residence of Thai royalty since 1782, and walking around the expansive grounds is always breathtaking, on so many levels. Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is a temple within the palace grounds (and which houses the Emerald Buddha) and is considered the spiritual core of Thai buddhism.  Buddha aside, the temple is architecturally fantastic. There were so many other temples on the palace  grounds and despite the multitude of times I have been here, the workmanship and beauty remains impressive.  I could see that Denisse was in awe too. Next was Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, with its remarkable reclining Buddha (15 metres high and 43 metres long) and its sprawling stupa-studded grounds. The workmanship of the temples, structures and statues, again, was amazing.

Wat Pho, Bangkok.
A trip to Bangkok just would not be complete without a trip to some of the many malls, and especially MBK Centre, with eight levels and more than 2000 shops. It has been reported that daily visitor numbers exceed 100,000 and are mostly a mix of young Thais and foreigners.  The mind boggles and the head goggles at this array of ... everything!  It's a shopper's paradise, quite literally. Whilst I have often expressed my lack of interest in shopping, I love this place for the variety of different things you can find.  This time, however, I had noticed that it had become both more commercial and more expensive ... in line with the rest of the world! This was without a doubt ultra-sensory overload for Denisse. We also visited Panthip Plaza, which rightly known as the mother of all IT stores.  Whilst this is 'only' five floors, it is a techno-haven, with everything from mobile phones (real and fake alike), to cameras and fake software. A tech-head's dream come true!  It all looked the same to me, but that's probably what a guy would say about a fashion mall. Speaking of which, we also managed to get to the Platinum Fashion Mall. Now this place has 'only' seven floors, but approximately1300 shops, and as the name fashion suggests, they are predominantly clothes, shoes and accessories. We visited this on the day before leaving, and by this stage we were ALL over shopping!

Shop till you drop - Chatachuk Weekend market.
One of my favourite places to visit in Bangkok is the Chatachuk weekend market, which is the largest weekend market in the world.  It's so huge that it seems like a suburb! It has everything from second hand clothes and antiques to pets and homewares.  You name it this market has it! If you want a bargain, and some good finds, be prepared to trawl through the sois, or small lanes, with a vengeance. The jury is not out but estimates for the number of stalls range from 8,000 to 15,000. Consider that more than 200,000 (yes, you read correctly) come to rumage through this monster on a typical weekend ! But it's not just about the shopping ... it's about the fantastic iced-coffees, the food and the people watching. It's a Bangkok must-see and do! And yes, we all picked up lots of things that we needed .. well ... wanted!  Need versus want, now that is the question.

Bangkok, as seen from the top of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel.
Shopping is not the only thing we did in Bangkok, but we gave it a mighty fine crack! One night after, well, shopping(!!) we visited the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, home to Thailand's tallest tower, at 1076 feet tall with 85 floors. It was a rather bizarre experience actually.  We unknowingly got there just as it was closing, but strangely enough were allowed to wander around (nobody told us not to) free of charge. The 360 degree views were amazing, and we had hit the jackpot in as far as having a totally clear view. The Bangkok skyline is nearly always filled with smog and/ or haze. We even got to go to the open-air revolving deck on the 83rd floor.  Now this was WOW factor!

With Pong and Link at the Hilton, Bangkok.
We also managed to catch up with our very dear and special Thai friends, Pong and her husband Link,  and this time we got to meet their little girl Grace, or Nudeng as she is affectionately known amongst family and friends. We met Pong whilst she was studying in Australia many years ago and Alex and I went to her wedding in Bangkok a few years prior.  It was great to see them once again, and this time with an addition! Pong and Link treated the three of us to a beautiful dinner at the Hilton, where we spent several hours eating, reminiscing and playing with Nudeng.  One of the greatest joys of travelling for me is always catching up with old friends!  We would only catch up with them all once, but it was a quality night.  Thank you Pong and Link for your friendship and for a most wonderful night.

Ready to check out the town!
Despite the fact that tuk-tuks are now no longer as popular in Bangkok (due to the smog factor and the fact that taxis are often cheaper on longer rides) no trip to Bangkok would be complete without one! One day we decided to take a tuk-tuk to a few places at a 'discounted rate' (aka including visiting a gem store). We have done this before; for only a few baht, you get to see a number of sights, but you must visit a gem shop or tailor (and look like you are interested in buying something even if you are not).  The driver then receives a petrol coupon from the 'participating store'. I would call it a 'good for you, good for me scenario. We got to see some great temples and some great sights that we perhaps would not otherwise normally get to see. And yes we went to a massive gem megastore called the Gems Gallery. For the record, it's not a scam but geez the sales staff try hard to sell you stuff!  Alex and I had been there on a previous trip and knew what to expect. The three of us strolled around the complex, first being shown how the jewellery was made and then through the most humongous of show rooms, which had everything from simple silver rings to multi-gem encrusted bangles and necklaces, with a price tag that seemed like a country, rather than a piece of jewellery, was on sale! Interesting all the same!

View of Bangkok from the top of Golden Mount.
Yay, gem gallery aside, we could now go on and do the other sights as promised!  Well, maybe not! The driver suddenly started to insist that we also go and visit a tailor. We all said no thanks, but he was rather insistent. Alex was firm but the tuk-tuk driver was firmer. I could see that he wasn't going down without a fight. What to do?  We had Denisse with us! Lucky man! I quietly fumed inside as he drove us to the tailor; all the way over I was thinking about what I WOULD have done and said had it been just Alex and I!  We were all dropped off at a rather flashy looking tailor shop (we had also been here on another trip), and promptly shown a range of magazines with a range of clothes. Apart from being ridiculously over-priced and aimed at the 'dumb tourist', they were all so formal. Yuk!  This bohemian chic doesn't even do smart casual!  So, I continued to look, playing the game, and fuming inside!  Our ten minutes in-store felt like an eternity and I couldn't help but think ... who gets sucked into buying this over-priced stuff!

Golden Mount, Bangkok.
Finally, we were driven to our final destination, The Golden Mount and Wat Saket.  What a hidden gem, no pun intended! Set amongst various Buddhist structures, statues and gnarled trees, we had to walk some 300 steps along serpentine pathways to get to the top where we were afforded a breathtaking view of Bangkok.  I could not believe that we'd never been here before! We eventually made our way back down to our tuk-tuk driver who was no longer there! I was fuming; every ounce of my southern Italian blood was boiling. We had been 'wronged', but we had chosen to take the cheap ride! Everything comes at a cost! We would eventually see that tuk-tuk driver again, in the same area that we had originally decided to go around with him.  Let's just say that I told him exactly what I thought of him, and leave it at that! I had to also remember that I had a very different life to this man. As Alex always likes to say, desperate people do desperate things! You are right Alex.

Foot massage in Bangkok ... pure bliss!
Over the course of our time in Bangkok, we also took Denisse on the ferries on the Chao Phraya
River as well as the sky trains, trying to show her this city from all angles. We weaved in and out of Banglamphu and Khao San Road, buying bits and bobs as well as trying a range of street food along the way. As usual, we found our favourites and tended to go back. One street stall near our hotel and the most amazing green curry, which I managed to chow down on a number of occasions. We all had our favourite dishes. We also managed to fit in a few massages, including both full body and only feet. They were truly blissful and Thais have perfected this art. There is a relatively new 'kid on the block' in the way of fish pedicures, whereby you sit down with your feet in a tank of water and tiny fish nibble at the dead skin. Gross!  That idea repulses me!  I'll take skanky feet thanks! Needless to say none of us gave it a crack.

Skytrain, Bangkok.
We had seen and done so much over the last two weeks, and felt that we'd given Denisse a good taster not only of backpacker life but of quite a few places in Thailand as well. As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end!  We'd seen temples, and wats, gone on sky trains and tuk-tuks, visited the famous amulet market, gone shopping in malls as well as massive markets, eaten everywhere from streets to fine-dining hotels, seen elephants, gone to islands of both the touristy and deserted kinds and even had our teeth cleaned (way cheaper than in Australia). It had been a full-on two weeks but we had so much fun!


Finally, a picture of the photographer!
We spent our last night packing (cramming) our bags full of all that we had bought.  It was actually a team-effort, where we systematically filled every square inch of all three back packs and all three day packs. We did manage to fit it all in. By the time we were done, Denisse's back pack looked way bigger (even more so now!) than her. We only managed an hour's sleep as we had an early flight the next day.

An hour is simply not enough sleep. We all felt worse for it, but we just had not been able to keep our eyes open for a second longer. We were ready in no time and out on the street looking for a taxi.  It was early but we managed to flag one down. Then we just went through the paces; check-in, coffee (that has become a ritual as we wait to fly!), boarding, take-off and in my case sleep!  As usual, I slept almost the entire way home. Dad's taxi service was waiting as usual. Brrrrr, it was freezing in Melbourne, and it felt that much colder as we had come from a place that was so hot. Dad dropped us off, and we promptly went to bed as Alex and I both had to work the next day! Well worth it after so much fun!


Ombi

Fun in Bangkok.















Books read: The Autobiography, Bear Grylls Mud Sweat and Tears by Bear Grylls

"Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."  – Oscar Wilde

Next: 
 Denisse's last weeks in Australia, including a weekend getaway to Sydney.

Alex on the Golden Mount.


The Grand Palace.

Family mug shot, Grand Palace, Bangkok.

Grand Palace, Bangkok.


Inside the elephant kraal, Ayutthaya.

Just outside the elephant kraal.


With Pong amd little Nudeng.

Nudeng with mummy and daddy, Link.


Mini infront of Mini Plaza, MBK, Bangkok.




Strike a pose!




Golden Mount, Bangkok.


Tallest building in Bangkok.


Iced-coffee at Chatachuk.




Khao San nightlife!

On the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok.



Love those lil kitsch buddhas!


Offerings ... Wat Pho.


Old fortress near Khao San Road.



Ayutthaya.
Operation 'AO' (arse-over).


Mahout, or elephant trainer, at the elephant kraal.

Inside the kraal.



What's with this kid's t-shirt?!


Yummy coconut ice-cream, Ayutthaya.













                    
Alex and Deni, Ayutthaya.


Ayutthaya ruins.


Love this!
Cycling through the ruins.

In comparison ... we are small.

Amazing shot ... Buddha was there first!

Ayutthaya.


Back packer chicks!



Fruit seller, Ayutthaya.

Enjoying a cold drink.

Fresh fruit.

The most amazing iced-coffee, Ayutthaya.


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