Hello for the first time from South East Asia. I have escaped the intense heat and humidity outisde and dived into an air conditioned internet cafe to bring you up to date with an eventful last few days for me - a period where everything seemed to go wrong! The fun started on my final morning in Sydney, when I wandered everywhere looking for a post office that was open only to be frustrated as they're all closed on Saturday in Australia. I then got caught in an intense storm walking back to my hotel and got absolutely drenched, but I had no time to change as I had booked a taxi to the airport. My Qantas flight to Singapore left on time at 4.55pm and I was fortunate enough to get another emergency exit row so I had plenty of legroom. The flight wasn't especially relaxing though as we took off through a storm, and then off the north west coast of Australia flew right through the centre of another even more intense one. Day was turned into night outside and there was lightning everywhere. The seatbelts signs were on for almost half an hour as the plane was buffeted all over the place. It reaffirmed that I am not the most comfortable flyer.
On arrival into Singapore, 8 hours after we set off from Sydney, I then endured the most farcical wait for my bag. Only 50 or so people out of over 400 were actually stopping in Singapore. Most people were carrying on in the same plane to Frankfurt, or going on codeshare flights to other destinations. Bizarrely though the luggage had not been pre-sorted in Sydney, and so all the bags trickled out one at a time on the conveyer belt. I was convinced mine was lost but it finally came out half an hour after the first bag from my flight. I caught a taxi to my inner city hostel, which was OK except the taxi driver didn't know where he was going and ignored my directions! He ended up calling my hostel to locate it. I went straight to bed after being given a tour by the enthusiastic owner, and was up again just 7 hours later in order to get to the airport for my Jetstar flight to Bangkok. I caught the MRT train to the airport, and gained a small glimpse of Singapore in the day. I will be back at the end of February for a closer look, but on first impressions it seemed very westernised. All the signs were in English and they even had an annoying English woman voicing on the trains. There was quite a bit of litter about the streets I saw, which was unexpected as Singapore is supposed to be the cleanest city on Earth.
On arrival to the airport at 9am I noticed that my plane was delayed by one hour for some reason. I checked in and had a wander around the airport terminal. Our gate was opened at 11.30am (the time the plane was meant to depart) and we all went through security (which is done right before you get on the plane here) into the boarding room. I could see the bags being loaded onto our plane, but after this had been completed it suddenly looked like the plane had been abandoned. There was no activity round it as you would expect. We were kept waiting ages in the boarding room and people were getting restless. The staff there did not work for Jetstar but for Singapore Airport, and they did not have a clue what was going on. After an age they told us to go to the buffet restaurant upstairs and pick up a free meal, which was not a good sign. We then saw on the screen that our flight had been put back over 8.5 hours to 8.10pm. The staff told some people, including me, that there was a technical fault with the plane and they needed to get us a new one. However, at 5.50pm the plane we were meant to be on left for Perth and no maintenance team had worked on it all day! I then found out that other people had been told there was a staff issue, which is a more likely explanation. My day was wasted at the airport as we couldn't leave. I had a wander down to the modern terminal 3, but mainly spent my day sitting about an using the free internet in terminal 1. We went back into the boarding room at 7.10pm and the staff were bemused why our boarding cards had been ripped off. I then had a chat with the pilots, who were also in the waiting room, and they like me had no clue what was going on! They'd just got a phone call and were told to come into work! I couldn't believe how disorganised and badly handled the whole situation was by Jetstar. We boarded the plane at 8.30pm, but there was a new delay as two passengers whose luggage was on board had not turned up. For anti-terror reasons their bags had to be located and removed, so we were 1.5 hours sat on the plane before it finally took off at 10pm - 10.5 hours late!
On arrival into Bangkok there was more waiting around as the immigration queues were massive. Buddhist monks were permitted to skip the queues I noticed, and I later found out they have reserved seats on busses and are pretty much revered by the Thai public. I caught a taxi to my hotel and finally arrived at 12.30am, delayed slightly because the taxi driver couldn't read my map and didn't know where it was. I was determined not to get ripped off in Thailand, but in my first hour there I went and ripped myself off! Being totally new to the currency, with no light in the taxi and feeling very tired, I handed the taxi driver four 50 baht notes and a 1000 baht note instead of a 100 one. I told him to keep the change thinking I was tipping him about 40p, but later realised I had accidentally paid about 24 pound for a taxi that should have cost 6 pound! A bad mistake, but it was a fair length journey and in a western country a taxi would probably have cost more than 24 pound. My hotel was at least really nice for the money (18 pound a night) and I was welcomed by the owner who was the first person to perform a wai (bow) to me. I didn't quite know how to react to it.
Anyhow, yesterday was my first day in Bangkok and I'm glad to say that since I've arrived nothing else has gone wrong! I went for a walk around yesterday morning and bumped into a South Korean girl near the Khao San Road who asked me for directions to the Grand Palace. That was where I was heading, so we ended up going together and I spent the day with her. She spoke good English and was very friendly, and at the end of the day she said I should be a tour guide! The Grand Palace and the adjoining Temple of the Emerald Buddha is Bangkok's premier attraction, and it was busy with tourists. They would only allow people in who had full length trousers on, so I had to queue ages with pretty much everybody else to rent some. It was worth the wait though as the temple was absolutely fantastic. It was hard to capture in a photo as everything was very condensed and you were right underneath all the amazing architecture and intricate carvings. There was gold everywhere, amazing drawings and lots of oriental statues. The palace next door was also a spectacular building and I had a thoroughly enjoyable two hours exploring the whole site. We were delayed in leaving because the streets had to be sealed off for the departure of some of the Royal Family. Armed guards were everywhere, mainly shouting at people to put their cameras away, but there wasn't much to photo as a bland procession of Lexus and Mercedes cars with blacked out windows came past. Pictures of the Thai Royal Family are absolutely everywhere in Bangkok, even in people's houses. They are very highly regarded.
After visiting the Grand Palace we then walked round to Wat Po, another Buddhist temple that is home to the world's largest reclining Buddha. It didn't disappoint - the laying down gold Buddha was absolutely huge and the rest of the temple was again spectacular and intricately carved. Even at this early stage of temple visiting though I did start to feel that they were all looking the same! We passed countless more walking round. Still, after lunch we headed via the bland city hall to another temple - the Golden Mount. This one was a bit different in that it was constructed on a small hill, and therefore offered views over the old part of Bangkok. It was also free to enter and a lot of locals were there paying their respects. Its easy to forget that it isn't just the monks here who are Buddhist.
Lastly we had a wander down into Chinatown, which like a lot of Bangkok was very scruffy and smelled a bit. For all its many sights and monuments, Bangkok is not a very likeable city. The streets are congested, the air is very polluted and the whole place is very dirty. The locals at least seem quite friendly and I haven't had as much tourist harrassment as I expected. One woman thrust some birdseed into my hand, and a series of tuk-tuk (rickshaw) drivers have touted for business, but I had far worse in places like Cusco.
We caught the packed river boat back up to the hotel, which was quite an experience. There was so many people on board I don't know how it stayed afloat. You simply jump on and off as it stops briefly at each dock. Its a very cheap (like everything in Thailand) and handy form of transport, and it was refreshing to see how little fuss everybody made of getting on and off the boat without crazy health and safety measures in place. Its also nice to be back somewhere where you can cross the road in seconds. Here, crossing the road usually involves walking out in front of oncoming cars and making them stop, which is a refreshing change from Sydney where you spend half your day at pedestrian crossings.
Today I moved hotels and checked into the one where my tour starts later today. I then went for a wander around the parts of Bangkok I had not seen. I first headed to the north part of the city and past some royal palaces, but annoying they were all either closed because it was too early in the day, or closed to the public full stop. I made my way to Bangkok's main centre, which was awash with modern shopping malls and elevated roadways. It was very different to the old part but still not very nice. All the city's lavish Christmas decorations were still in place though, and all the shops and restaurants were still playing western Christmas music, despite the fact Christianity is not the main religion here. Christmas seems to be more prominent in early January Thailand than it is in mid December Australia! Adjacent to the main shopping centre is the Bayoke Hotel, and I took a lift to the top to enjoy the views from the tallest observation deck in Thailand. From up high you could get a sense of the vast scale of the city, which is home to 6 million people. You could also see the thin layer of pollution hovering over, and see the bad traffic congestion on the highways!
After lunch I wandered down through Bangkok's most popular park, which was nothing special, and then had a nose at the over 18's only street in Patpong - Bangkok's red light district. In the day all the clubs and bars there had shutters up and there was no sign of Gary Glitter. Unlike in Amsterdam I don't think the girls here display themselves in windows, and it seems the industry is largely fronted by massage girls. Everybody knows many massagers are also prostitutes, and they don't even try to hide it with the type of adverts they place in newspapers and hand out in the streets! If I was into this kind of thing though I don't think Bangkok would be my first choice to go - you never know if you're getting a girl or a ladyboy! Someone in Australia warned me how convincing the ladyboys could be - apparently some of them are boys who were fed hormone pills as children which made them emerge from puberty looking like women. A terrible trade.
After being held up again by a road sealed off for the Royal Family, I caught the skytrain and a public canal boat back to my hotel and am currently waiting to meet my new group later tonight. From the names list it seems it will largely be a female group, but the one person I've met so far is a young lad from Wakefield. Tomorrow we depart for Cambodia and Asia's most famous temple Angkor Wat. I shall update from there.