Back in November I decided I needed to go somewhere far far away, and booked my first ever solo holiday and first ever trip outside of Europe to Sri Lanka, Singapore and Thailand.
Here is instalment four of my holiday mementos: 4 days in Bangkok. Read about my Sri Lanka travels here.
It’s blazing hot in Bangkok, so the first thing I do after checking into my Airbnb is to sit down in a cafe (Slow Restaurant), order the obligatory baby coconut with its head lopped off, and sip the water inside while planning my day 1 itinerary: first stop is the Grand Palace and Wat Phrakaew.
I set off out of the back streets of Samsen. It’s not glitzy; it’s perhaps just slightly less poor than Colombo’s Pettah; and the little streets are rammed with people, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, street food vendors… Most people are in Western dress, and already I’ve spotted some hostels and European backpackers. I’m not being stared at – so far so good.
Crossing the river, there’s a man atop the bridge selling odds and ends of bread. I’m puzzled until I see that there’s a group of carp hovering at the surface below, mouths flapping above the water in the hope of catching some food. I’m amazed they’re intelligent enough to clock that this place is a source of sustenance. I’m amazed that someone can make a living (or not?) out of such a niche offering.
On my way I come across what looks like another amazing temple complex, and since I’m new to the city and there are people gathered outside as though something’s happening, I decide on a quick detour. There’s some kind of ceremony going on inside (not sure what), with orange toga-ed monks cross-legged on benches on one side and women praying on chairs on the other. The temple guards see me hovering and kindly direct me to a better viewpoint. One of the monks spies me taking photos and starts chatting to me in English, asking where I’m from. Eventually he hands me a pinbadge with his face on. I don’t feel I can refuse it, but don’t know what use it’s meant for either.
Passing the National Museum, I’m near enough to the Grand Palace to see its spires in the distance when I’m waylaid by a tuk-tuk driver. He asks me where I’m going and kindly informs me that the Grand Palace is closed on Wednesdays! I’m disappointed, but decide to go along anyway to see the outside of the buildings at least, and refuse his offer of a ride to a better tourist attraction. Turns out it’s not closed. I’d been warned to beware of scams, but didn’t think I’d be exposed to one on my first day.
Stepping into Wat Phrakaew is like entering a fantasy novel: it’s a huge complex of temples and pavilions and statues, all intricate tiling and bright gold and colour. There are a few different styles used, none of them like anything you see in the West:
1. Gold, mirror tiles & spiky gables
2. Corn cob towers
3. Beautiful brightly-coloured tiles
4. Spiky + tiley
Imagine seeing variants of all the above all around you – out of this world!!
The tourist route takes you through to the Grand Palace which, to my eyes, is fairly Western-looking until you get to the roof. The royals don’t live here any more, but it was built in the late 1700s and once housed the royal family, various government departments and the mint.
Then I wandered to Wat Pho next door. This temple feels less well-kept than the above, and leans more towards the tiley style, with a giant gold reclining Buddha, famous among Buddhists the world over, housed within one of the buildings.
These pagodas are everywhere, all with incredible tiling used to create 3D flowers and other embellishments, on white/blue/yellow/orange/green backgrounds.
Typical of the temples are cloisters lined with Buddha statues. These have the same long earlobes and curly cropped hair as the giant reclining Buddha. The red cloister roof with geometrical gold stencilling is also quite typical.
It’s so hot I have to take a tuk-tuk back home. They are larger and less tatty than their Sri Lankan counterparts, but with no improvement on the driving style …
I wander round the back streets looking for dinner (eventually I ate at Canal View Restaurant) and it strikes me how relentlessly commercial this place is. There are dozens of restaurants, massage parlours, cafes and street food vendors spilling out onto the streets, their representatives approaching you to offer their wares. Lots of people sell food from handcarts they wheel back home at the end of the day: near the tourist destinations these are loaded up with water, Coke and Fanta bottles on ice; in the Samsen alleyways they have smouldering coal grills next to stacks of kebabs, or woks full of rice/noodles/curry. If it’s not meat, it’s fruit or even raw fish and little crabs sitting out in the open air. Some vendors even set out plastic tables and chairs. I’m personally wary of the meat, but they seem to do a roaring trade with the local people. The Khao San Road is even more intense, with tourist tat stalls added to the mix, and yet more vendors selling blackened scorpions skewered like lollipops. Even on the main roads, clothes stalls take up most of the pavement, their canopies providing welcome shelter when it rains. It feels like anyone who wants can scrape a living from small trade, and is not bureaucratically prevented from doing so.
To be continued!