Sunday 17th December 2000 Day 5

Woke up at 2:30am, switched the air conditioning off because I'd been drenched in a cold sweat. I couldn't go back to sleep properly for the rest of the night! We woke up at 5:30am ready for our Ayutthya cruise. Yesterday I had tried to phone the company that supplied us with the booking over the Internet but their office had shut at 5pm, despite their tape message saying they were open until 8pm! Julie was already apprehensive about this trip simply because it was booked over the Internet, but having sat in the lobby from 7am onwards, I was increasingly losing faith! The concierge was excellent though, but too late to make a difference. He recognised the boat we were to travel on as being the Oriental Hotel's boat. After phoning the hotel, he told us that the cruiser left at 8am sharp. It was now 8:30am. We had missed the boat!

Looking back, if we'd only asked the concierge for his help at 7am, we would of known that the boat left at 8am, and from where it sailed. We could of walked there in 15 minutes! At this point I thought, "This is going to ruin the holiday!" I feared a, "I told you so" backlash! But Julie was wonderful. As I was moping she took control of the situation and we ended up booking the Ayutthya cruise for Monday, through the Tour East rep Tum, in room 315! We also decided to do the Hard Rock Café and the temples today. That really lifted my spirits. It is what you could call a pivotal moment!We joked about my method of complaint to this Internet agency agency in Malaysia, and decided to unleash an e-mail Blitzkreig, bombarding their Kuala Lumpar office with a barrage of electronic abuse. Banging that 'Send' button every 5 seconds until they gave in! We had visions of me asking Kelvin to take control of the keyboard whilst I have a toilet break! Anyway, this is enough on this subject!

So, we shrugged off our set back and headed off to Siam Square. We should have done this on Day One instead of struggling down Silom Road. Then again with it being Sunday it probably made a big difference to the volume of people.

Getting to Siam Square couldn't have been easier!

We just walked down the side of our hotel, to the first junction, turned left, (no need to cross any roads!) and there it was, Surasak Sky Train station. Buying a ticket, and finding our destination was also simple, and the beauty was how quiet it was. Nothing like the London underground at all. To top it all, the air conditioning inside the train was superb, almost fridge-like! It was the perfect remedy for the heat and humidity.

We arrived at Siam Square shortly after 9:30am. Within a few minutes we'd already been stopped twice by people trying to take us to the "best" shops that were obviously on their list of commission. The sad thing was that they'd resort to lying in order to get you to follow them. One claimed that the large shopping centre across the road didn't open until 11:00am so we may as well go with them!

By the time we had a pineapple juice from McDonalds and walked to the shopping centre, just for a look, surprise surprise, it was open! And it was barely 10am! We walked around the shops, which again was very pleasant because it was air conditioned and not very busy. I found a Tower Records store! From which I bought two CD's, a Traditional Thai music, and the King of Thailand plays jazz clarinet! That's one for the collection!

Next was the Hard Rock Café for our lunch, and to buy some souvenirs from the merchandising shop for my dad.

Once again the staff were overly attentive but friendly. I guess as we were the only ones there we had their undivided attention.

Luckily, a short while later, a fat American came in with his Thai bride-to-be and was showing her, and the rest of the HRC staff, photos of his house back home in Texas! And his buick, back home in Texas.

My veggie rice burger was delicious but Julie's chicken was a bit blood red, or perhaps in may have been the BBQ sauce? The outside of the building looked more impressive than the inside. All they had was a few Beatles memorabilia, such as posters, magazines, and a few gold discs presented to the sound engineer from a few of their singles! The outside had this Tuk tuk jutting out of the wall. An interesting idea.

We returned to our hotel to get changed into suitable attire for the Grand Palace! Men - no shorts, no vests, no tracksuits. Women - no short skirts, no ¾ length trousers, no show shoulder. Even 'no see through dresses' was on the list! This completely wiped out Hannah's wardrobe except for her black velvety dress. But I just couldn't picture her flouncing around the Grand Palace, singing, "Shall we dance, cha cha cha"! Despite having a name that strikingly resembles the self-proclaimed Welsh-born 'English Governess in the Court of Siam'. Better known for being the story adapted for The King and I musical. Hannah Louise Owen - Anna Leon Owens. Surprisingly similar!

We decided to go to the temples by ourselves, and I must admit to being a bit anxious about taking Hannah and Julie somewhere we were unguided. (Especially the overloaded ferry boats on the Chao Praya river.) I suppose I didn't know what to expect. I did however feel that it was going to be more of an adventure because we weren't escorted. My idea of having earned my explorer stripes by the end of the day was however shot down in flames whilst we were waiting at the ferry terminal. An old English couple were also waiting, and Julie struck up a conversation. She extracted the fact that the husband, who appeared to be a lot younger, (almost mother-son), was working in Bangkok for two weeks, and that she'd been regularly using the ferry boats on her own. So if she could do it, then it mustn't be such a challenging expedition!

On the ferry boat two old local ladies were so taken by Hannah's pale complexion they started stroking her arm, and making funny oriental noises!

Like "Hingwaaah"!

They were just bowled over by her. For 8 Baht each the ferry cost almost nothing! It wasn't at all overcrowded either, although it was slightly bottlenecked by the exit. In fact Hannah almost fell in between the boat and the pier because of it, as it hindered our disembarkation!

Julie and I were already safe on the Tha Tian pier but Hannah was coolly following behind. As the boat began to slowly drift further away from jetty she just unhurriedly stepped off. But it took a lunge, and a grab of her arm to stop her from falling into the murky waters! Tha Tian was an excellent local pier, and we had to walk through a covered market selling silk, freaky fish and strange fruits. It even had a wonderful smell of cooking. (Not near the fish though!) It had a certain charm. Well, of sorts!

We found Wat Pho very easily. It was right in front of us as we walked out of the market. The Grand Palace with Wat Phra Kaeow was on the right, and Wat Pho with the Reclining Buddha was on the left. They were literally next door to each other.

I wanted to see the Reclining Buddha more than anything, so we went to Wat Pho first.

It was 20 Baht each to get in, and when we walked through the turnstiles a guide approached us, and offered to give us a tour of all that Wat Pho had to offer, at a price.

I reckoned it would be a good idea to get the most out of the place. Our guide was called Surayin, which must be Thai for Ainsley Harriot!

Julie thought he must be gay. He certainly minced around in that ever so slightly camp way, just like the celebrity chef.

He had a good grasp of the English language. Apparently he was studying English and did this job to help his oral skills.

Firstly we went to see the incredible Reclining Buddha. It was HUGE!!

Surayin gave us the story but I took none of it in, I simply stared in amazement at the statue. With us being guided we didn't spend that long there.

I could of stood there for ages, mesmerised.

Along the back of the statue we put 108 coins into 108 small alms bowls.

I was doing really well until bowl 104 then I dropped two coins in at once then I had to miss the next bowl. Hopefully my good luck merit won't suffer as a consequence!

We were then shown the tree that grows from a cutting of the Bo tree that the Buddha sat under when he achieved enlightenment, or at least a distant descendant of the one from Bodhgaya.

(Wat Pho is actually called its name because of this Bo tree.)

From out of nowhere these annoying American tourists hijacked our guided tour and simply took over. Now I know why they're called yanks, because it's rhyming slang for planks, and they are as thick as one. They kept on asking these incredibly stupid questions, visibly irritating our Thai Ainsley Harriot.

The guide told us how Buddha statues have seven positions, which they associate to the days of the week. We could only remember that Hannah was born on a Friday, which is a Standing Buddha with his arms folded onto his chest. Again we donated money to our Friday Buddha for good luck!

We then saw a fertility stone of massive phallic dimensions! It had nothing to do with Buddhism but more Thai superstition. It definitely worked for Syrain's mother, as he was one of nine!

We walked past large chedi, which contained the ashes of past kings of Thailand, and we walked amongst a hundred smaller versions containing the ashes of influential or rich Thai people of the past.

He told us that his father was enshrined in a small chedi at the end of his garden!

He took us then to what he called a 'bot', effectively their place of worship or their church. As we strolled towards the church we walked through an open classroom in the hall way.

Apparently this is a very common sight in Temples as they also provide schooling for the area. I wonder who were fortunate enough to be schooled at Wat Po ?

We sat down in front of this massive structure, on top of which was a sitting Buddha.

This really felt peaceful and I would of liked to of spent longer just sitting quietly in this bot. As we got up to leave, Suryain, our guide, offered to take our photo, which was very kind. He hadn't asked the Planks. In fact I'm sure he waited until they were on their way out of the building before asking us! They did however notice our little photo shoot and came back. They walked right up to the base of the altar and stood there in this ridiculous prayer pose! Please!

Finally we were shown the School of Thai massage which looked fantastic, despite looking like a scene from a front line hospital with bodies strewn all over the floor but instead of blood and antiseptic, it was lavender oil and incense. Another reason to return here and spend more time!

Around the corner they also had tarot readers and palm readers all eager to tell you your future. But I'm sure that unless you spoke Thai you wouldn't get the full story out of them! All you would probably get is something like "You very happy, yes" That's the odd thing about the Thai people. Despite being Buddhist, they are also very influenced by Hinduism and that's coloured their view of their own religion. It's become a very superstitious hybrid.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wat Pho, and only wished that we had arrived at 6am! We could easily of spent a whole day there. Also it was worth wile having a guide, we would not of seen everything in the short amount of time we had. We must come back here!

We wanted then to go to the Grand Palace. Suryain said that we must hurry, but of course the entrance to the palace was at the opposite site of the complex. It was totally surrounded by 20ft white washed walls.

We couldn't see anything of what was inside. As we walked around the perimeter we were told by all the tuk tuk drivers that the palace was closed at half past three.

But we knew better than to trust those blighters!

It took us 10 minutes to march around to the visitor's entrance, only to find that the bastards were telling the truth for once! Never mind. I knew that there was a good view of the temple from Sanam Luang park, literally across the road. So we crossed over. That's when we were accosted!

Three shady ladies, smiling assassins, forced themselves on us, thrusting bags of seeds into our hands, telling us to open them and feed the pigeons. We weren't opening the bags, so they opened them for us. They even poured them onto the floor for us. How kind. The ones we held in our hands they nudged discreetly, making them fall onto the floor. All the time they were smiling, joking, repeatedly saying "For good luck, For good luck!" They were very slick and professionally sly!

I turned and walked away when an opportunity allowed me. I turned back to see Julie and Hannah being prodded by one of them. I didn't realise what they were doing until one came scuttling after me, counting all the empty polythene bags, 7, 8, 9, TEN!! And they were just what I had apparently fed to the birds!? She then demanded a 150 Baht from me!

They were also making similar demands from Julie. They were tugging at our clothes, pressing our pockets. I eventually gave them all the change I had in my pocket, which was only 20 Baht. "No, no, paper money, paper money" they asked. Their smiles had quickly disappeared, and replaced by scowls. They were getting more and more agitated. At this point I weighted up my options. Either I could start screaming back at them, look them in the eye, and strike the fear of God into them! Or alternatively I could appeal to their better nature and plead with them. I chose the latter option, as I didn't want to cause a scene! Who knows it could have been me who ended up in a Bangkok prison cell!!

I told them that I had no money left, that I had given it all to Buddha at Wat Pho. (Which was almost true.) I even put my hands together, and my best begging face. Apologising to them seemed the best idea but I'd be buggered if I were to give them a Baht more than I already had. The one in the middle seemed to accept my plea, despite pulling a hurt face to counter my sorry face. The other two were real hags and looked as if they were ready to flatten me. They huddled together and counted what little change I had given them, which was our cue to leave. We didn't stop to turn and look back, and luckily they had given up their protest, and moved on to the next unsuspecting tourist. It was an extremely unpleasant experience.

Hassle from tuk tuk drivers, or shopping touts can irritate if you let them, but on the whole they're not on a scam, out to swindle you. This motley crew however were something else. They should be on Thailand's Most Wanted list! I guess when you suffer poverty then you'd be driven to do almost anything for ten dollars. What they saw when we crossed the road wasn't Hannah's fair complexion but money. But it was their dishonesty that disappointed me. Anyway, that's enough of my social commentary.

Sanam Luang was a peaceful respite after that ordeal, and with the temperature reaching 93°F, the shade of some trees was welcomed.

We sat down for a while, and watched children flying their kites. I decided to walk to the furthest end to take a photo of the kites and temples. Julie and Hannah stayed in the shade.

It felt wonderful walking amongst the families in the park, and it was made even more special by being the only westerners there. All the Bangkok-ians must take their kids here on a Sunday! It wasn't at all busy though. Our calm was restored.

It was time to head back to our hotel, which again was very easy with the Express Boat and Sky Train. We had time to go swimming at the hotel's 6th floor outdoor swimming pool. Or at least Hannah and Julie went for a dip as I sat on a lounger and wrote in my journal.

Whilst they shivered in the pool I felt quite comfortable in the cool of the evening. It was 6pm and dark by now. We had supper in the room, and I sat down to watch Manchester United lose at Old Trafford for the first time in nearly three years! Beaten 1-0 by Liverpool, of all teams! Hannah and Julie were asleep before the game ended. That's when I made the mistake of phoning home to speak to my dad about the game. Having not spoken for 90 minutes my throat was dry. When I tried to have a conversation with my father I had an almighty coughing fit! I'd woken Julie up with my spluttering and I had to pass her the phone to allow me time to regain my composure. For the rest of the conversation I could hardly speak. Talking in a whisper in case I triggered another deep-throated convulsion. I was on the edge of another attack so I had to hand over the mobile once again. Julie had to say goodbye on my behalf as I disappeared into another cloud of spit and phlegm. A few minutes later, once I'd recovered, I had to phone home again to let them know that I hadn't dropped dead earlier! I could hear the concern in my mother's voice!

It was 10pm before we switched the TV off and went to sleep. We were kept awake though by the room next door. They were having an argument in Hindi or Urdu or one of the other numerous Indian languages. Julie was convinced that she heard someone slap the other and it did quieten down after that. It sounded just like a scene from a Bollywood soap opera. I was half expecting them to burst into song and dance, banging a tambourine.

Despite the obvious downs of today, the football, the fit, and the flipping fly-by-night tour company, today has been my favourite so far! Exploring Bangkok on our own was exciting. It felt as if we caught a better glimpse of the city. Even missing the Grand Palace wasn't such a tragedy, and anyway, … it is an excuse to come back!!!

Day 6>>

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