A pleasant overnight train from NongKhai deposited me in Bangkok mid-morning. I was just in-time for the announcement of the twice daily moment of silence and stillness in honour of the king. People I had met along the way had not spoke highly of Bankok, but some shuffling of meetings actually meant I had to spend a couple of days here – much of it on skype or working.
And it was worth it. Khao San must be the most stereotypical backpacker destination on the planet, filled with cheap hostels, hawkers selling sunglasses, beer shirts, and everything else that can be cheaply, shoddily produced or reproduced. My room was still quite cheap, and pleasant with room enough for exercise in the mornings without having to do push-ups in the hostel hallway. And, fresh fruit salad, yoghurt and a scatter of muesli was available on the street – I ended up eating this for 2/3 of my meals!
My first afternoon was spent wandering the city, getting used to the local bus sytem, visiting an interesting American entrepreneur’s stunning collection of traditional Thai houses and art, and searching for distant and now-closed vegetarian restaurants from my guidebook. While I didn’t find the vego restaurant, I did find a beautiful ‘health’ park filled with exercise equipment, a few tai chi classes, and some impressively flexible older men (60 years old, perhaps?) playing ‘hacky sack’ but with a bamboo ball [sorry, I don’t know what that game is called].
The park was also host to several hundred Thai women in leotards doing aerobics amongst the trees and lakes. I didn’t stare, just sort of stumbled through the middle of it. Unfortunately, I did myself a dis-service by then going a few blocks out of my way to stare take a skin-crawling walk down one of the famed streets full of strip bars and fat, old, seedy white men. I could barely bring myself to lift my gaze from the ground – what was I thinking coming here?
Throughout my visit I saw so many white guys with Thai girls, presumably just for the week. The conversation between some young, handsome, well-educated German guys about their relationships with their temporarily-employed ‘girlfriends’ were a bit sickening. I don’t really know everything that goes on, and how it works, but assumed the worst in most of the cases I saw. Which is perhaps not fair…
The following day I set myself a schedule of seeing most the best of the wats and palaces in town. Early morning at the Palace was relatively expensive, but quite phenomenal. Thailand is officially Buddhist, and has a monarch, so when the royals want to honour Buddha and have a nice palace there is no holding back. I actually cannot muster the words to decsribe the amount of gold, jewels, stupas, endless murals adorning the kilometres of interior walls the literally thousands of half-size, full-size and individually-unique buddhas. It was too much really. At some temples I feel reverence, in this case I just felt overwhelmed, and if a pilgrim would be seeking some quiet corner. Which is also great, because there is an abundance of quiet, yet incredible beautiful corners.
The overwhelming nature of this place extended to the size of the big golden buddha, the immaculate palace gardens, the intricate design and finishing of every roof or every building, and the descriptions of the yearly cycle of ceremonies and adjustment of the buddhas clothing to match the seasons. The icing on the cake was the museum, tucked away in one corner. I am not sure how many visitors make it through here – I was feeling exhausted myself from just an hour of sensory overload – but it was worth it. The museum was commissioned by one of the princesses who noticed quite a lot of nice stuff being thrown out during some renovations. And what stuff crystal buddhas, wood artefacts, golden thrones – honestly the museum would probably take pride of place in any other city or temple.
Another stunning Wat and river-boat ride later and I was in the north of the city again. I enjoyed watching a fish feeding frenzy, a short detour through some local markets, a great vegetarian, organic breakfast then haircut from a slightly nervous but ultimately competent hairdresser. Then on to the bus, then train for the long haul to Singapore.
More Bangkok photos are here.