With Dean eventually released from Australia (see previous instalment), we settled into our Quantas 9 hour flight to Bangkok. As it was daytime we would be able to enjoy another smorgasbord of movies. We did just that, landing at 5pm, slightly bleary eyed, having taken a 5 hour leap back and feeling the 11pm Sydney time. That morning we had awoken to the news that the King of Thailand had died. We knew that was momentous for the Thai people, the longest serving monarch in their history was, we had read, deeply loved and revered. On the plane, announcements had been made, and advice from the Australian government issued. As we had travelled into the airport on the Sydney Metro a young Thai woman sat next to me had seen our travel book. She had advised that there would be significant disruption for several days, and had counselled us to sport dark clothing. We tend to be quite a colourfully clad family so, on landing, and with baggage collected, Dean nipped into the bathrooms to change out of his red jeans into something more demure. Sure enough, all around us, Thai’s had rummaged in the back of the wardrobe to find black and white. Over the next few days we would be much amused by the inappropriate nature of some of the tops; “Sexy girls & boys 2012”, Pink Floyd, Toyota Golf Challenge, “Smoke Weed and Chill”. But they were black.
The heat and humidity hit us when we took the escalator down to the Metro, leaving the cool of the air conditioned airport behind. Dean ably negotiated the ticket office and we joined a queue to board the first train. The Thai’s know how to queue; single file and strictly no line jumping. I needed to see the route which was posted above the doors for train entry, thinking I was trying to jump the queue I was chided. They may be used to some of our European neighbour’s poor understanding of the important institution of queuing. Apart from this, we felt nothing but warmth from our new hosts. They readily offer you a smile, and if you get in first, you are rewarded with the biggest of beams.
When we emerged from the last train change we got a hint of what was to come with the Death of the King. Our hostel was located near The Grand Palace, where the Kings body had been taken that day, to lay in state. Thais had congregated at The Grand Palace to pay their respects. We were met with thousands of Thai’s trying to enter the station, returning from their pilgrimage. Whilst we exited swiftly, they would be queuing for many hours. The knock on for us was the total absence of taxis or Tuk Tuk’s, and we had 3.8Km to go in sweltering heat and humidity. Seeing us looking rather dazed, a group of young lads came over to us and offered to help. They lent Dean their phone wifi access to orientate ourselves and download the address. We did find a couple of taxis and Tuk Tuks, but none would take us through the traffic towards the Grand Palace. Just as we were gearing up to attempt the walk, the young lads came over and offered to help again. They flagged a Tuk Tuk and negotiated with him for some time. Eventually he agreed to take us for 150 Bhat (£3).
We were eternally grateful to them as we made our way against the traffic, the streets at a standstill. Fred had been warned by a rather miserable Aussie in Santiago never to take a Tuk Tuk in Bangkok, too dangerous. As Fred is at an age of heightened safety awareness, and low trust in his fellow mans judgement, I was amazed that got in the Tuk Tuk. Even more he beamed and laughed as we picked up some speed, the delightful driver spotted this in his mirror and decided to liven things up a bit. We turned off the main road entering back street alleys, weaving and speeding along. Back on the main road, he decided to put on a slalom display to further spice up the ride. Fred’s growing laugher only served to squeeze more out of him. Fred announced he was having the best experience of his life ever (yes, again!). Now fully awake, we arrived at the wonderful Bangkok Bed & Bike. Renovated by an architect, it is more boutique hotel than backpacker hostel. The small room, we had to climb over our beds to get in, thankfully had air con, which we promptly switched on to sub zero mode. We made our way around the corner to get some street food and a kind New Zealander made space at his table. The delicious food was with us in an instant, and we got some rice and chicken into Fred before he crashed out perched on a stool with his head on Deans lap. We all slept well that night.
A lovely breakfast came with our hostel lodgings, Fred nearly feinted when he saw one of the many jars contained Oreos. Dragon Fruit, Banana, Mango, and Apple for me, all Thai grown and wonderfully sweet. The banana had a citrus hint to it, amazing. The Weekend Market, largest in the world, was our mission today. A bin bag of clothes had been emptied from our rucksacks, too warm and surplus to requirement for Thailand and India. We also needed black. Too far for a Tuk Tuk ride, we hailed a metered cab and revelled in the air con, the heat had got to us in the 5 minutes we had been standing in the street. As you would expect there were rows of stalls selling fake brands of clothing. We opted for the thinnest of cotton stalls, hippy tie dies and wild Asian prints. As we loaded up Fred found the toy section. His siblings had included £10 worth of Thai Bhat in his Birthday present. £5 of it bought a huge selection of fake Pokemon and Lego goods. For £3 each Fred and I had a Thai massage side by side. We loved it. Fred wanted to follow up with another one straight away. The girls were delightful, smitten with Fred, and he with them. I may have a Thai daughter-in-law in the future.
Ready for lunch we found a sit down stall with one table left. For £1 each we had hearty meat and fish soups, filled with al dente veg and noodles. Fred insisted on chop sticks, his ham fisted effort drew nods of appreciation from other diners; lunch was a slow affair. A few more stalls and we called it a day. Thankfully we had avoided the pet section, Fred was horrified in Cordoba to see puppies in shop windows and we wanted to avoid a repeat of the teary 3 days that followed. We also didn’t want to encourage and buy into the commerce. As we walked out of the market, looking for a cab, Fred spotted a tiny fluffy Pomeranian, unable to resist he put his hand out and stroked it and was rewarded with a rapid succession of bites. Asian pet puff balls have little in common with the ‘Wild Dogs of South America’ (see Dean’s blog).
Despite the valiant efforts of our return Taxi Driver, he couldn’t get us back to our Hostel. Key roads had been closed due to the Kings death. We offered to jump out near The Grand Palace which was only 15 minutes walk. How glad we were that we did. The large numbers of black clad Thais milling around soon gave way to the snaking line of people queuing to see the King laying in state. The sun was beating down, some had umbrellas but many didn’t. We were soon being offered food and drinks, we didn’t realise at first but they were gifts, volunteer groups of students, nurses, clubs, teachers had cooked and procured product for free distribution at The Grand Palace. At first we tried to refuse, we had eaten, were not far from home, and those queuing to see the King (only Thai nationals allowed) had more need than us. Eventually we accepted a cup of juice each and a donut which we clung onto to avoid offending others that offered their food. It was touching to see genuine affection for the King and mourning of his death. It was wonderful to see the kind, generous, and gentle response of Bangkok locals to those queuing, and non-Thai visitors. We were surrounded by a warmth we were quickly becoming familiar with.
When we got back Dean and I read and relaxed. Fred got maximum use out of the full sized snooker table. Keith, the Thai hostel Manager, played a few rounds with some gentle coaching. On his recommendation we walked to the Flower Market for dinner at a street food cart. The market was astounding. Deliveries were arriving and a roaring trade was being done. Buyers from all over the country come to this market, and presumably some from abroad. The Kings death had given the traders a quantum leap in business, they would be working 24 hours for the next few days to make the intricate floral displays we were seeing outside most properties, as well as at the pop up shrines around the city. The variety of flowers and colours was beautiful to walk through. We would have taken in more but our tummies were hungry and Sydney time kept intruding, bed was not very far off despite it only being 6pm.
A mix up over ‘spicy’ and ‘no spicy’ resulted in Fred having the spiciest of dishes, and we had already ordered chili laden food. Dean and I wolfed it down and Fred got the road cart kebabs he had been asking for, on the way home. In an attempt to readjust body clock’s we caved in and had a glass of white wine at the hostel, and gave Fred one game of pool. It was our limit and by 8pm we were in bed ready for lights out.
One of the delights of being in a hostel is the people you meet. At Bangkok Bed & Bike it was a succession of young American women in their early 20s. They were clever, adventurous, curious, educated, and fun. Not a bad combination. What I found admirable was they were all travelling solo, a couple of them on open ended trips. We inevitably talked about the upcoming election, we were glad that our politics were aligned. Let’s hope their like prevail in a few weeks time.
After another great breakfast we left for a ferry trip that would take us to China Town. We weren’t having much luck with Tuk Tuk drivers, this time he got hopelessly lost and ended up dropping us 10 minutes walk away having given up. We were asked to leave the Tuk Tuk, but not to pay. We didn’t mind, Fred had got his Tuk Tuk ride in and we had got the exercise we badly needed. We found a route that took us through the fish market, the smell of shrimp knocking us off our feet, and transporting us 5 years back to Tao O where we had stayed for a break on Lantau Island
A complex game of draughts crossed with chess required my engagement with him for a good hour before I capitulated, defeated more by the rules than my opponent. When we did leave, it was to find a restaurant near Democracy Square, there were 2 so if one was closed we could try the other. We love the feel of Bangkok, every street you take has a friendly hustle and bustle. No one bothers you, but everyone makes you feel that they are there to help you. Another lovely combination. Of course in the midst of the karmic charm we had to have a small intrusion, in the form of the legacy left by American GIs on R&R from Vietnam. As we looked for barber shop signs, our intended destination was opposite one, I spotted large plate glass windows on the first floor of a complex. Three mannequins were placed in the window. Then the mannequins moved. Elegantly dressed women, in long slit evening gowns, with demure hair, pressed themselves against the glass waving at the cars passing below. At the ground floor door, two men stood, neon pink love hearts above their heads. Dinner was another interesting chat, and we definitely covered a lot of stuff not on the curriculum, that arguably should be. Fred, already a feminist, came to his own conclusions about the merits of visiting Ping Pong bars and other seedier ‘entertainment’ establishments.
We didn’t find the place we were looking for, but much to Fred’s delight the fusion restaurant we ended up at served a mean spaghetti Bolognese with chicken. I had my first Thai green curry, I’d singularly failed to accurately order anything like it until now. Bleary eyed, having made it to 8:30 pm we left the restaurant. We convinced Dean, against his better judgement, to take a Tuk Tuk. The first driver we walked away from based on price. The second, after reading the map and address in his headlights, taking a worryingly long time to see it, accepted. Dean beat him down from 150 Baht to a more realistic 50 Baht. He immediately took the wrong exit and we ground to a halt on the main boulevard through the city to the Parliament, via Democracy Square. Sat in traffic, that was not going to move for an awfully long time, he beat his hands against his head cursing himself and his stupidity. I felt dreadful for him, and we did our best to comfort him and let him know we didn’t mind. Fred was of course delighted, no early night, and extended time in a Tuk Tuk. After several minutes of being stationery we noticed that there was no traffic on the other side. The route to the Palace and Parliament was lined by police and empty of traffic. Around us hundreds of motorcyclists, mostly young people decked out in black, and with handwritten signs sellotaped to the front of their bikes, turned off their engines. We were in for the long haul. It transpired that the Crown Prince, entire Royal Family, Prime Minister, and government were due to make their way to the Grand Palace. The route had been cleared for them and all other traffic stopped. We had a prime position on the outside lane of the 3 lane highway, it gave us an uninterrupted view of the other side where they would pass. It took a bit of persuading, but eventually Dean embraced the momentous occasion. Camera in hand he was the first to leave our Tuk Tuk and was soon talking to some locals. Not au fait with the protocols, I got a few pictures before one of the many police and soldiers around us gently told me to put it away. We waited nearly an hour, passing the time with those around us, before I saw people on the other side sitting, being told to stand up. Another few minutes and the cavalcade arrived, fronted by police motorcycles . It must have been a mile long with more than a hundred cars. The Crown Prince came first in a large cream vintage Rolls Royce, the King’s widow, the current Queen, brought up the rear. After the procession had passed people on scooters squeezed passed, many offering us water and food concerned that we had been caught out unexpectedly. Our driver got us some extra water and biscuits too. Nearly 2 hours after we had finished dinner, 15 minutes’ walk away, we arrived home. We paid our driver 200 Baht for his lost time and trouble, 50 Baht more than his opening price, and 150 Baht more than the agreed price. We decided he probably had more use of our £4 more than us, if nothing else to get a pair of much needed glasses. Having had an unexpectedly late night, for us, we turned in straight away feeling very lucky to have been part of a historic weekend.
Our last morning in Bangkok was spent getting Fred a haircut, culling more from our wardrobes ready for disposal, and packing up. At the salon Fred’s appearance caused a sensation, and he was surrounded by the salon ladies taking pictures and recording his hair cut. He left with a shaved head, save his long top in a ponytail. Another quick street stall lunch and we were ready to leave. The £20 taxi ride, air conditioned, door to door, bags loaded and unloaded was worth every penny. The sheer size of Bangkok meant it took an hour to clear the city, even on the traffic free highway. Old town gave way to modern apartment blocks, colourful and thoughtfully designed. Further out houses on stilts straddled the waterways, intermingling with the pallet making district that serviced the industrial section. Slowly paddy fields appeared, locals up to their knees in the silty water. Ayutthaya was upon us suddenly, announcing its presence with a Khmer temple at a crossroads. Dean had taken care of our booking, 2 nights for my Birthday, and kept it a surprise. We pulled off the road and a wall of tiny red bricks looked inauspicious, but the subtle signage and security guard hinted that he hadn’t booked it on hostelworld.com. Vast, distressed, teak doors were opened for us and we stepped into an art gallery, masquerading as a lobby. We were led through narrow outdoor corridors and up a set of stairs to our room. When the door opened the sight was breath taking. Glass fronted, our room looked directly across the river to the white moss covered 15th Century temple Wat Phutthai Sawan, in front cows grazed on the lush monsoon grass, and the red tiled and gilt edged 19th Century temple next to it completed the palette. Light and airy, a vast round bath sat in the middle of the room, and a divinely comfortable super king sized bed invited a snooze. Instead I burst into tears. Mr Repper had done very well indeed. Eyes dried and left alone, we went out onto our private balcony and drank in the views. The monks were in prayer and it took us a few minutes to realise that the wild dogs of Ayutthaya were joining in. The river, 80 meters across, was swollen with the rains. Barges passed, laying low in the water, loaded with cargo. Deck hands waved back as we snapped them, and their colourful washing lines, strung outside the cabins.
The heat was sultry and sweaty, nevertheless we resisted the urge to retreat to the cool of our air con room. Thankfully a stylish plunge pool, nestled in a courtyard, gave us some relief as we cooled off before finding an early dinner. We failed to find our first choice and settled for a riverside place that was deserted. The family were delightful when we arrived and Fred thought we should support their enterprise. The host was clearly a Lady Boy, and she soon happily shared this with us. She suggested that Fred was so beautiful that he should become a Lady Boy too. A thick accent and the bewildering conversation left Fred with a confused look. When it was slowly explained, with some subtle adjustments, he sported an emoji face of epic proportions. Beautiful food, great service, and lots of fun made for a great evening. Fred joined the extended family for some Mozzie swatting, taking over the electric ping pong bat sized contraption. Its light attracted swarms, and we heard the gratifying crackle of their electrocution. Fred was enthralled, Santa might just get a rather peculiar Christmas list this year.
We woke on my Birthday to a beautiful hazy sunshine, just enough to turn the river into a fast flowing gossamer of glistening diamonds. As Fred slept on, Dean and I went down to enjoy the early morning, note for Fred stuck to the television. The breakfast terrace, overhanging the river, gives the most beautiful view of the temples, on the opposite bank. Morning prayers were underway and the wild dogs joined in again with their own chorus. Vast barges passed us, chugging their cargo down to Bangkok. Like the mad dogs, it was only us English who resisted the air conditioned glass fronted restaurant, we wanted to soak up the smells and sounds around us. We were rewarded with fine beads of sweat even at 8am, it was going to be a hot one. The breakfast menu was a stylish mix of Thai and English classics. We opted for the Full English and Eggs Benedict but with a Thai atmosphere around us.
We had planned to do a bicycle ride around Ayutthaya but by 10am we knew the heat and humidity would beat us, though we were sat on the cooling river with a large fan beside us, we were wilting. Instead we opted for a swimming, home schooling, and travel planning day. Storms are currently battering Asia as 2 typhoons converge. October is the shoulder season, monsoons ending and the North of Thailand where we’re heading next should be rain free. However, the current forecasts are showing sustained heavy rains and thunder storms for the next 10 days. Looking forward to November, when we should be travelling to the southern Islands, the weather continues to look poor. We decided we would have a creative re-think with no options ruled out. As Fred worked through his assignment of researching population sizes of major cities we’ve visited, and organising them into a bar chart, Dean and I got out our travel books and laptop to come up with a new plan. As the day continued to warm up and the humidity increased we began to envy the Facebook postings from home about fires lit to take the chill off a cold autumn. After much research, and the offer of a 2 week stay in the cool Himalayas from an English friend, we decided to stick to our original plan for now. We will head up to Chiang Mai by train, 14 hours of air conditioning, and have 4 nights in L.onely Planet’s star pick, still only £40 a night. If we can bear the heat and humidity we can move on to Pai and stop at a fishing lake, with swimming and waterfalls. We’ll see how we go….
Birthday dinner was down the road, after a hair raising walk without pavements, to a restaurant with a deck suspended over the river. Packed out, even at 6pm, we were the only westerners there. The extended monsoon and storms has swollen the river and the banks have burst long ago. In the garden of the restaurant the pagoda was submerged, and bizarrely a flock of 30 life sized plastic sheep just about kept their heads above water. Fred, hankering for chicken nuggets and chips (he has done exceptionally well eating all sorts of weird and wonderful concoctions that we had no idea were coming), seized on a picture. Our food was the best we had so far, which is saying something, but Fred’s was a portion of deep fried chicken knuckles and feet. Holding back tears of disappointment he munched through the chips and we ordered a sirloin steak. The bill still only came to £30. With full tummies we braved the walk back, opting for a cooling swim before bed. A group of Aussies in their 30s had arrived and were in the plunge pool. They were making full use of the bar, empty cocktail glasses sat beside them, discarded wine bottles, and plastic bags of Singa cans indicated that at 8pm they were in for a longer night than us, and sorer heads in the morning. Sure enough, the next day, one by one they emerged bleary eyed, sunglasses firmly in place, with a forced animation of those living with the shame of the night before. Sat in a prime spot I naughtily enjoyed their awkwardness, grappling with the remembrance of boundaries breached between them. I’d loved my Perrier water the night before, but I loved it even more now.
Our stay at the wonderful Sala Ayutthaya was at an end. We had another long leisurely breakfast whilst Fred slept on again, then packed up our bags. Dean took a Tuk Tuk to the train station to sort our Chiang Mai tickets, and pharmacy to get more mozzie spray and ointment (we’d been less diligent than we should have been the night before). A hostel next to the train station before our departure the next day, for £13, would feel a bit of a come down after my luxurious Birthday treat but the Sala was happy for us to spend the day by the pool after we had checked out. We’d by now decided that street dogs had it sussed, no point killing ourselves in the heat and humidity, so we’ve leaned into the climate and the slow pace of life. As Dean and I both agree, we’ve had the best view of the most beautiful temples from our balcony, and just how many temples do you need to see.
Ayutthaya’s Tuk Tuk’s are famous for looking like Darth Vader’s helmets and Fred was desperate to ride in one. The hotel ordered us one when it came time to leave and the driver gave us another fabulous ride past the ruins that litter the town. Huge ancient trees, with vine like trunks, formed an avenue. One was bandaged, we later found out that it is the oldest in the town, and the trunks are soft requiring support and regular care. We turned down an alley and arrived at a stunning old teak house. Bed bound grandma overlooked the lobby, walking frame to hand, with a two large bamboo branches across her bedroom to signal a boundary for guests. She cheerfully waved when we came in, and cackled at Fred who bowed to her with his hands together. The homestay was a delight. Small water features decorated the garden that led to the river front bar and restaurant. Upstairs, shoes left at the bottom, we found the entire house was carved hardwood heaven. The landing was open, exposed on both sides of the house, no glass just open shutters. Teak recliners were arranged in a row, visitors able to enjoy the view and the breeze that travelled through the house. Hidden in the carved panelling were the doors to the bedrooms which you had to step into, the doors were a foot off the floor. We loved it. Down the lane we got some dinner and settled in for another early night before our morning train to Chiang Mai.
Less diligent than we should have been, and sleeping naked without sheets, we collected a few mozzie bites in the night. We’ve become pretty immune to them, and they are nothing compared to the effects of Ontario mozzies. With a large bin bag of clothes, coats and shoes to get rid of I set off early to find somewhere. Although only 7am the street outside our homestay was full of local traders and shoppers. As in Rio, they were sat on the floor with a few paltry second hand items for sale. I quickly found a home for my bag and was much thanked. In need of supplies for our journey I found a fruit seller, vibrant pink dragon fruit, tiny ripe bananas, and a bag of apples was £1. The green wilko shopper that our friend Dr Chris had given me was pulled out and the lady erupted with laughter. Others gathered around, chuckling and applauding my bag. I’m presuming they thought I was shopping like a local, whatever it was we all enjoyed the moment. Before leaving we had a lovely breakfast on the terrace overlooking the river, again kindness and warmth from the family.
Thankfully the train station was a 5 minute walk, by 9am we were again sweating buckets. Charming colonial architecture with Thai styling, we sat by a huge fan and waited for the ‘express’ to arrive. A small dog sat on the sill of window number 4, panting in the heat. Other stray dogs wandered around the platform, drinking from the water feature. As we waited, surrounded by black clad Thais, a pair of very smartly dressed elderly ladies approached us. In their funeral best, pearls set off by their well tailored dresses, they asked if they could have a picture with Fred. They were on their way to Bangkok to say goodbye to ‘our King’. Fred, getting used to this, happily obliged. We were then all pulled in for a ‘selfie’. They were delightful, and the whole thing was again very charmingly incongruous.
Only 10 minutes late, the train is notorious for delays, we boarded and found our seats. Wonderfully cool, we were relieved that we were not going to be sweating our way to the North. Watching the scenery, reading, blogging, and the odd snooze meant the journey passed quickly. Fred found friends in a Thai family with 3 children. The baby, about a year old, had an unrelenting bottom of the tummy chuckle when tickled. Fred joined in to the baby’s delight. It was infections and the whole carriage was charmed by the little one. With Fred’s surplus toys gifted to his new friends, Fred got off at Chiang Mai with a lighter bag, and I with a new Facebook friend.
We had flown into Bangkok on one its most historic days, witnessed the Thai people expressing their love and mourning for their King, and experienced the kindness of strangers on countless occasions. Women cooked on every corner producing fresh tastes and scintillating flavours. The charm of the Bangkok people shone through even in a city familiar with foreigners, which is quite a testament to their nature. We had also glimpsed the underbelly, created by Western men. Yes the heat and humidity had hit us, but with beautiful sights that we could sit and pant at, we weren’t going to complain for long. We got off our train at Chiang Mai confident that we would make even more friends on this trip to Thailand, and we very much doubted we would have to go looking for it.
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx