Welcome to Khmerland
Bangkok...
Saturday 20th November 2004

We had fallen asleep with the curtains open last night and as the early daylight penetrated my eyelids I stirred and slowly opened my eyes to be completely captivated once again with the incredible view of the Chao Praya. This morning the city was coloured with a magical misty pink sunrise.

It was so beautiful that despite the ungodly hour I just had to get up and find my camera. Julie opened one eye, called me mad and went straight back to sleep. It was another hour before we woke up properly.

We ordered breakfast in our room; only one "light & healthy" to share.

It consisted of my new favourite breakfast, a curious yet delicious white omelette (i.e. no yolk). Also had yogurt with fresh pineapple, corn flakes and toast with a Banana & Passion fruit preserve. Whilst we had planned to share this single breakfast I ended up eating all of it. Julie just nibbled some toast. To say that she's not a good morning person is probably an understatement.

The Sheraton is very conveniently located with the Express boat pier right along side the hotel. By 9am we were showered and out, catching a boat to Tha Chang pier next to the Grand Palace. On our last visit we missed this 'number one must-see attraction' and were determined to do it first before going anywhere else. We had dressed appropriately as not to fall foul of the "respectable dress" code but despite the early hour it was already getting very warm and we wished we were in shorts and t-shirts and not covered up in long sleeves etc.

As we walked inside the Grand Palace complex we were shocked as to how busy it was. There were many tour groups following guides waving there parasols and clipboards. We had to queue for quite a while to enter which only served to heighten the anticipation. It cost us 200 Baht each and we were going to hire an audio guide for an extra 100 Baht but you had to leave your passport or credit card as a deposit and we had neither.

Eventually we stepped inside and immediately had our breath taken away.

Enormous golden temples, completely bejewelled and sparkling in the sun, I had never seen anything quite like it before and I don't think I ever will again.

The entire place dazzled.

Huge imposing statues guarded entrances, gilded winged garudas and multi-headed naga snakes protected us all from evil spirits.

It was like a magical mystical Disneyland; a Shangri-La-land!  
 

Behind one of the temples we were surprised to see a scale model of Angkor Wat but then remembered that shortly after the Grand Palace was built (1782) Thailand was busy invading northern Cambodia including the province of Siem Reap where the Angkor temples hid.

Siem Reap incidentally means 'the defeat of Thailand' after an earlier scuffle.Something tells me there's not a lot of love lost between these countries!

As recent as 2003 there were anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh protesting over remarks made over Thailand's claim over Angkor Wat. It turns out that the remarks were just a line in a soap opera script!

I guess some scars take longer to heal.

It was certainly bizarre to see the proud symbol of the mighty Khmer empire in the heart of Thailand's most visited site but at the time I suppose it was considered a valuable acquisition to the Siamese empire. At the time they were its owner in the spoils of war.

I was surprised that it was as late as 1907 when Cambodia, with the intervention of France, was given back her most treasured heirloom.

I'm sure there will be mass celebrations and symbolic tongue-pulling to commemorate the centenary in 2007.

We ambled aimlessly until we found what I was looking for; Wat Phra Kaew, the temple of the Emerald Buddha.

This is the most sacred site in Thailand.

 

The statue is only small but made from emerald and gold encrusted with precious stones it's something special.

Sitting high up on a huge golden throne it's difficult to get a good view but it didn't matter. Just being there was enough.

We took our shoes and hats off and entered the hall. We did what everyone else did, shuffled in, sat down with our feet pointing away from the Buddha, and admired the temple. The entire walls were covered with murals that depicted the Buddha's life.

We could have sat here all day because they had several fans blowing, cooling us down but the crowds were piling in, sitting down, getting up, so we felt that we should move on.

We walked around the outside of Wat Phra Kaew bare footed. The detail to the building was amazing.

The entire base of the hall had a row of golden statues standing in line as if they were holding the entire structure on their shoulders.

Julie pointed out a sign that said 'Do Not Sit On The Ledge' which made us laugh because we would have liked to have seen someone try!

Then again they probably have had people stupid enough to sit down and cried foul when they pierce their buttocks on the triple row of pointy edged spikes!

We left Wat Phra Kaew and the temples behind to enter the Grand Palace area.

HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been on the throne since 1946, which makes him the world's longest serving monarch, but he has never used the Grand Palace as his official residence. However for over 160 years prior to him successive rulers held court here.

Whilst trying to imagine what it must have been like as a working palace, I could only refer back the films 'King & I' and the more recent 'Anna & The King' for inspiration.

I know the truth is scarce within those Hollywood versions. It's actually quite frightening how a movie can change your perception of reality. Fiction can mistakenly become fact.

The Yul Brynner version, where King Mongkut is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, is still banned in Thailand to this day!

The palace itself is not as ornate as the temples we had just seen. Its façade was more European in style but still crowned with a traditional Thai roof.

We didn't go inside the palace, I'm not even sure if you could?

We walked around the immaculately kept grounds ending up at the small museum at the end. We found the downstairs tediously boring although the sacred pile of White Elephant bones were fascinating.

Upstairs interested us a little better, but only just! The tedium lifted when we got to see close up with three replica Emerald Buddhas modelling the previous seasons' attire; the summer season, the rainy season and the winter season.

The other bonus of the museum was that it was cool and offered us some respite from the searing sun outside.

After sitting down briefly at a café opposite the museum to re-hydrate we left the Grand Palace in search of food.

We walked up alongside Sanam Luang Park but it was slow progress because it was full, and I mean full.

Apparently it was a "Healthy Thailand" convention where they offered free blood pressure tests, free dentistry hygienist, free yoga classes.

 

There was even a mass aerobic workout class where thousands of leotarded middle aged Thai women went for the burn!

They weren't the only ones burning.

We were feeling a little pink so we stopped to re-apply the sun cream, much to the amusement of on-lookers. They were very amused by the white stuff we were rubbing into our faces!

There were also thousands of people doing origami and folding paper cranes. We read later in the Bankok Post that they were intending to drop them all on the "violence-torn" South.

From the park we made our way to Khao San Road, the infamous backpacker haunt. The street is full of cafés, guest houses, and pavement stalls selling everything that your wide eyed backpacker would ever need and even more that they don't.

Whenever I've read tales of KSR a common theme that runs through the commentary is 'You must try the banana pancakes'!

The first opportunity we had we stopped at a café and you're about to hear the mantra from me.

"You must try the banana pancakes"! It tasted great!

A wonderful sweet pancake with the mashed banana blended within the satisfying stodgy batter; perfect comfort food.

The bill only came to 200 Baht for a diet coke, a delicious banana pancake and a large Chang beer. We'll come back here!

It felt so good to sit down and relax, watch the world trundle by. Fresh faced blonde Nordic girls or dreadlocked and bearded "I'm a proper backpacker" types carrying rucksacks that would hold the kitchen sink, looking for that guest house that only charges 30 Baht a night.

We walked to the end of the road then turned down towards the Democracy Monument. Along the way there were plenty of food stall sellers with one in particular specialising in deep fried cockroaches. My gut wrenched and bowels moved!

Another eye opener was someone selling bean sprouts from out of a large plastic bucket! Hmmm as tempting as they are to some people we decided against salmonella today.

The Democracy Monument looks a very uncharacteristic structure for the Thai capital. I guess it's too modern compared to all the typically ornate temples and shrines.

It was built in the thirties, (by an Italian architect), to celebrate the 1932 revolution that ended the absolute monarchy. It seems quite odd to see such a monument in a country who loves their King so much.

From here we walked down towards the Giant Swing situated outside Wat Suthat. Stopping again to mop away the sweat and re-apply the white stuff. Once again bringing ridicule upon ourselves!

There were many local cafés down this stretch but none of which appeared at all inviting. The smell was enough to put even the toughest of westerners off their dinner.

The Giant Swing has got to be one of Bangkok's strangest of monuments. Situated outside Wat Suthat it was once used for bizarre ceremony where young men tried to swing high enough to grab a sack of gold on a pole about 25 metres in the air. It was banned in the 1930's due to the high occurrence of participants flying off to their death!

By now the sweat was dripping off us, and Julie felt quite weak and feeble. It was about 1pm and the sun was at its hottest. She had hardly eaten all day and was probably dangerously dehydrated.

We decided to walk straight back towards the Grand Palace only to end up on a street without any pavement! We had to walk in the road and dodge the oncoming traffic. Our prayers were answered before too long when a pavement appeared on the opposite side of the road. We crossed to safety.

Along here we passed many shops that sold large Buddha statues, and I mean huge statues, ones that would only be seen in temples. They certainly weren't destined for the tourist market! I just couldn't imagine someone passing, doing a spot of window shopping and walking off with an 8ft statue of Buddha in a standing pose on their shoulders.

By the time we finally made it back to the Express River Boat Julie was melting before my very eyes and was not feeling at all well. When we got onto the boat we were really glad of the cool breeze as we chugged our way down river. It was now about 2pm so we returned to our hotel for a lunch and a siesta.

As we walked into the hotel we noticed that all the cars were being checked thoroughly. A mirror scoured beneath the cars for parts that weren't automotive and the boot was opened, I suppose in case someone was hiding in there? On the way up to our room we shared the lift with a woman bursting with pride. She couldn't help herself to start up a conversation to tell us that her daughter was playing for the USA soccer team in the FIFA World Cup held in Thailand. How sweet but thanks a bunch for the heightened security!

For lunch we had a foccacia sandwich each in the room and my God, they were amazingly delicious. Top marks! Worth the price of admission alone! We decided to walk around the River City shopping centre. It's actually connected to the Sheraton across a walkway. We were on our way when Julie decided to do one of her favourite pastimes of window shop jewellers.

The owner saw Julie showing an interest and was out in a flash drawing us inside. He was exceptionally persuasive yet pleasant. I hate persuasive people, they really get my back up. I just don't trust them. If a sales assistant comes to me and asks "Can I help you?" it takes all my will power not to bark back "Back off, leave me alone." But this guy was good.

Before we could say "We were only looking" he had us sitting down and had slipped a diamond ring onto Julie's finger. She didn't protest though, and in fact extended her finger to meet the ring half way! There was no denying that it was a stunning piece of jewellery; a 0.5 carat, princess cut apparently. We asked for a price, and he skirted the issue repeatedly saying "Not expensive; not expensive." It felt like he was trying to hypnotise us with his "cheap as chips" mantra. He finally punched furiously on his calculator and delivered his price but at $1780 it was a little bit out of our budget, so we made our excuses.

We walked all four levels of the River City but found it very disappointing. All the shops were identical. Antique and repro Buddha statues and treasures. The first shop was cool and interesting but after walking past the 47th identical shop it had become tedious. There was one though that stood out. It proudly displayed in its window several lingas; it was strange to see a 6ft wooden penis for sale. It reminded us of our last visit to Chiang Rai when our guide explained why they have these phallic objects outside their houses.

Our plan tonight was to meet a good friend of mine that I had made over the internet after writing up the travelogue to our previous visit to Thailand. At the time he worked as the Director of Sales for the hotel we stayed at, the Crowne Plaza Holiday Inn on Silom Road. He was very interested to read first hand experiences of our stay at his hotel. We've kept in touch since and have already met whilst he was in Dublin for business some six months ago.

When we returned to our room Andrew had left a message on our room's telephone. I called him back and we arranged to meet this evening at 7:30pm. He mentioned that we'd go to a restaurant and then perhaps to the highest open air bar in Bangkok! This severely concerned Julie as she was only just getting accustomed to braving the 22nd floor at our hotel.

An hour siesta was all we managed before we had to get dressed up tidy for our evening out. We waited in the lobby until Andrew pulled up, after having his car frisked! It was really great to meet him again.

We drove out of town to a local restaurant called Je Ngor Kitchen. It was really busy and it had a great Thai/Chinese menu. It was really interesting to eat with confidence in a place that wasn't at all set up to cater for tourists; (Although it did have English translations on the menu.)

Andrew is also a vegetarian so we ordered stir fried vegetables with mushrooms, glass noodles salad, and egg fried rice to share, and the carnivorous Julie had a Chicken dish doused with chilli and garlic.

We also experienced a new vegetable called 'Morning Glory'.

I decided not to explain to Andrew that in the UK having a 'morning glory' would mean waking up with an erection! Although I found out later that of course he already knew that.

We had brought Andrew's five year old son, Max, a Welsh football shirt. He's a big Liverpool football supporter but I just couldn't bring myself top buy anything associated with Liverpool FC. I also refrained from buying a Manchester United FC shirt as it wouldn't have been funny. So I decided to go international and bought the Welsh shirt as a compromise!

The food was excellent, and at only 1000 Baht for the three of us, plus two beers and a bottle of water it was very reasonable.

We returned back into town, down Silom Road, and turned into the State Towers for a drink at the highest open air bar in Bangkok. Andrew use to work here for one of the main occupiers of the towers, Meridian Suites. The State Tower is currently the 95th tallest building in the world at 247m!! It's not the tallest buidling in Bangkok however because the Baiyoke Tower II stands a further 57m high.

Julie was given the option to stay in the car but she bit the bullet showing yet again tremendous determination not to miss out. We stepped into the elevator and whoosh, up it flew with the G force of Apollo 13. Our ears popped with the pressure change then within no time we emerged out onto the 64th floor. The first thing Julie did was a quick reconnaissance to find the fire escapes and the staircase out of there! It would have taken her a month to walk all the way back down!

As we walked through into the bar the charming female bouncers apologetically denied me entry to the coolest bar in Thailand because I contravened their dress code! They could see my toes and that was not good enough!

I may have been wearing sandals but my toes were pretty covered, although you could just still see them if you looked hard enough. Andrew then offered a solution and fortunately they accepted.

We went to the gentlemen's toilet and he took his socks off, and I put them on! Do you know, putting someone else's sweaty socks on is such a peculiar feeling! Anyway, we returned to the checkpoint and were given the all clear to enter. I was seriously contravening the fashion law of "socks with sandals" and Andrew was stepping out in his leather brogues flashing the flesh of his ankles, but we were deemed acceptable. No hairy toes showing!

We walked up a floor, and stepped outside. Whoa! What a sensation to be standing outside, in the open air, 65 floors up!

I didn't know what to expect but my reaction was almost childlike amazement. I couldn't believe it! (The photo above was taken from a Thai Air in-flight magazine.)

magazine article

Julie was absolutely petrified, but she managed to put one step in front of another and walk down a flight of stairs towards the bar. She did find it difficult to speak coherently and was convinced the building was slanting to the right but she did it!

I would never have believed that she had the guts to do this but she did it! She said it was sheer bloody mindedness that got her there.

We parked her in a safe location, plenty distance away from the clear toughened glass balcony so that Andrew and I could walk up to the edge, around the bar, and take a few photos.

Bangkok at night was lit up all around us. It was an unforgettable sight. During a clear day Andrew told me that you could see as far as the Gulf of Thailand.

We didn't stay long outside as it would have been cruel to Julie. We put her out of her misery and returned inside for a drink at the bar where even the chairs felt super tall!

We perched ourselves on the teetering bar stools whilst Andrew entertained us with some incredible card tricks.

His passion is magic and he certainly has a talent for the slight of hand. Some of the tricks were quite unbelievable. The two of clubs, held securely in my custody, suddenly changed into the eight of hearts. How the hell did that happen?

The best, and most visual was that he bent a card in half, placed it in the middle of the pack. You could see where the card was positioned, and before our very eyes, he flicked the pack, and in the blink of an eye, the bent card moved to the top. It was so visual and real that it could only be described as magic!

His final trick wasn't a card trick but with elastic bands; just normal rubber bands from behind the bar, not patented magic ones. We inspected them, he then held one in each hand from thumb to index finger, rubbed them gently together, and they passed through each other. They were now interlocked. One band chained into the other. I couldn't believe my eyes! He told us that as a child his father always entertained him with magic tricks, and how he now continues that tradition by mesmerising his own son Max. I'm sure if the tourist industry fell flat on its face he'd have a decent career as a magician!

We left the dizzy heights and returned down to the ground floor, much to Julie's relief. Andrew drove us back to the hotel. It was so great to meet up again. Don't when we'll get the next opportunity but we will.

We sat in the bar for a while listening to Grace and the band. They were even better tonight! They sang a Norah Jones song, and a Joss Stone song to perfection. The poster in the lobby advertised them as Grace and her dynamic rhythms but I don't think that's what the band was called.

We spent most of our time sending text messages from our mobile phones. (We had difficulty in phoning directly home but for some reason we could send text messages?)

We just had to tell the world that Julie, yes that's Julie who hates going in a lift up to the 2nd floor, has stood outside on the 65th floor!!

lobby poster
 
Sunday 21st Nov 04 >>
©Copyright Colin Owen 2005 Contact me at c.a.owen@bangor.ac.uk