Back down at ground level, we wandered around the Silom area of Bangkok, the area contains the financial hub and many of the international embassies. It also contains the sleazy Patpong night market, which from what we could tell was the centre for table tennis...
The familiar signs of McDonalds, Starbucks and Boots and a whole host more line the busy streets, they rub shoulders with huge air conditioned malls and run down independent shops alike. Most of the shops are full of people and there seems to be few signs of the retail slump in much of the West. We wove between the workers leaving for the evening, most were carrying small plastic bags with satay or fishcakes or spicy sausages on skewers, their drinks funnily are also in bags rather than cups and a straw sticks out the top to make drinking a little easier.
Our immediate realisation that Thai people aren't particularly interested in making eye contact or smiling as we or they move out of the way for the other. There's an almost formal feel to moving around and politeness is imperative when called upon. We could be suffering from a culture shock coming from the full on staring and interest shown by both the Indian and Sri Lankan folk.
There's an abundance of taxis, buses and tuktuks that are gleaming and pimped out with chrome and bright leatherette seats, but we've become firm believers that to see the local area, we have to walk around and take time to look rather than scoot past at speed.
Priority number one was to find somewhere to eat. Thai food is both of our favourite cuisine and we were all but foaming at the mouths walking past the food stalls earlier. We scouted out a tiny 5 tabled restaurant on the main road and earmarked it for later.
Jan wasn't impressed with the restaurant or the Pad Thai she ordered, it was over cooked and lacked any discernible flavour. My country curry was super-spicy and delicious. Our first authentic Thai meal turned out to be one of mixed fortunes. All was not lost though, we were still wanting to have a few celebration drinks for passing the PADI exams, a blues and jazz bar was serving cocktails while a quartet played some chilled out jazz in the background. It was a perfect choice to celebrate and relax in our new cultural environment. En route back to the hotel we passed yet more food stalls selling everything that is meaty or beaky. Despite our full bellies, we still complained that we didn't have enough cash on us to buy anything.
It was apparent the next day that Jan had eaten something bad, she was in a real state. Our second day in Thailand found us restricted to our room and Jan on medication to relieve the symptoms. Fortunately, after 24 hours she was showing signs of recovery.
We took our passports to the Vietnamese embassy to apply for visas. Once approved, we can move around Southeast Asia pretty easily.The embassy was about 5 kilometres from our hotel and the walk took us through Lumphini park, a green and tranquil area in the heart of Bangkok.This like most of everywhere else we'd seen so far was pristinely clean. The tarmac was newly lain, the lush graminear perfectly mown. There was a sweet smell of frangipani throughout the park and the tall coconut palms swayed in the gentle breeze. The picturesque lake held huge catfish and as people threw in bread or rice, hundreds of long rubbery looking whiskers broke the surface next to hungry mouths. The muddy water quickly becoming still again once all the morsels had been consumed. The fish also shared the lake with a variety of storks and herons as well as huge water monitors that could only be spotted when it was on the move.
The park is most certainly for the people, a no smoking and drinking policy operates throughout the park and police roam the grounds frequently to ensure the bans are enforced. The park has an outdoor gym and it was packed with local guys (all of whom were huge) that looked like they made their living from fighting. The elderly came to the park to do tai chi and families came for a picnic, friends for a kick about. Like us, there were people using the park as a pleasant short cut or to serve as a break from work.
The Chao Phraya river cuts its way through Bangkok, catching a ferry is the cheapest and most fun way to get from where we were to the main tourist sights in town. The ferry journey is pretty scenic, there are many temples and churches along the banks. The impressive hotels and blocks of condominiums made a striking skyline and in a city of tall buildings, the tallest seemed to be those along the river.
With the murky water and the abundance of tourists eagerly flocking to see the sights, it was difficult not to draw comparisons to London and the Thames. But of course this wasn't our city and these sights were still unknown to our eyes. Like the London underground, every inch on the ferry was occupied, the boat conductors were commanding people into every corner and every cranny. We all moved along inside begrudgingly. There were a few people on the perimeters that were willing to hold on to the rope where there was no stable wall or rail, the rest of us were happier being sardines in the middle, cramped but safe.
From the quayside, the walk took us past a variety of cheap and cheerful cafes, bars and restaurants. Each was full with young backpackers eating a bowl of noodles or a plate of satay.
The first temple was Wat Bowornnwet, we went in, we hadn't intended to see this one but we had been walking for a while and it was a relief to see something other than retail outlets. The temple was beautiful, the gold statue of Buddha was far larger than any we had seen up to this point and its magnitude put beaming smiles on our faces. The Buddhists seemed genuinely happy to see us in there and were quick to welcome us and point us in the right direction. The complex was large and because of the numerous buildings within, a series of alleyways created a simple maze that led to wondrous thing after wondrous thing.
It turned out that this temple was just round the corner from Khao San road, this surprised us as the area we had come through was really quite peaceful and so in direct contradiction to everything we knew. We could not come to Bangkok and not see this famous street, so we went. It wasn't as bad as we imagined, sure, it was built up and there are a lot of bars and the stalls all sell tacky rubbish that seem to be bought by lots of people judging by the smiles on the stall owners' faces. But to be honest, it could have been Magaluf, Ayia Napa or dare I say it, Playa De Las Americas. It was a tourist trap, no more, no less, the people eating, drinking or shopping were happy and good luck to them. They'll have their view of Thailand when they get back and we'll have ours. Neither one is right or wrong.
On our way to the Grand Palace, we came across Wat Mahathat, as we stood outside, deciding whether we had enough time to go in, an elderly, jovial Thai gentleman offered his opinion on whether we should pay a visit. He seemed to think we should and we had no reason to question him. Again, the temple was so impressive, the Buddha statue inside, enormous. In this temple there were many people, some were praying, however many were sitting around eating or with headphones on and some were watching a personal tv. If you want to watch tv in peace, why not try a church? It's makes so much sense.
On our way out, we happened upon the elderly gent again, who gave us directions for the palace and Wat Pho, he also complimented us on our English, which was very endearing.
The Grand Palace is indeed a very grand palace. It was built in 1782 and is made up of several absolutely stunning temples. The main attraction is a chapel that houses the Emerald Buddha. The Buddha's cloak is changed three times a year to correspond to the seasons, a ritual performed by the King and bestows good luck on the nation. To single out this one building is unfair, every inch of the palace grounds is jaw-droppingly spectacular. The colours are so rich, the constructions themselves are impeccably designed and give pure pleasure to those who see them. We could have stayed there for hours, but they close at 4pm and it was already 4:15, time to move on.
Wat Pho, the home of the Reclining Buddha. This is one of the world's largest reclining Buddhas and is 15 m high and 43 m long. Very little can prepare you for seeing this huge statue for the first time, as we entered the long room, we stood at the buddha's head. As we got in front of the statue and the huge peaceful face gazed out to the horizon, a couple of metres above us, a feeling of utter relaxation washed over us. Most of the people visiting the temple at that time were not Buddhist, but everyone seemed to first fall silent, then stare with a kind of 'goo-goo' expression of peace as they came into view the deity's face. The souls of Buddha's feet have been intricately inlaid with mother of pearl, the pictures depict the 108 auspicious characteristics of Buddha and as the sun shines upon them they shimmer blue and pink.
Incidentally, the day before we went, US president Obama visited the site apparently he was sad he missed us.
The grounds around the reclining Buddha were also a joy and privilege to see. The numerous temples and statues emanate peace and joy, I don't know if its the colours, the shapes or both, but there is definitely something about these places that we like.
The food situation has greatly improved, aided by Jan reintroducing fish back into her diet occasionally. The street food has still been avoided as much of it is grilled mystery meat, although we saw one sign that made us laugh "BBQ beef, pork or chicken. 10bht. Jesus loves you!" What a wonderful advert for Christianity. Everything smells so wonderful when its being cooked but I just can't pluck up enough courage to try it yet (it often reminds me of the hotdog seller outside Angel tube station, 'nuff said).
We had a great day out in Ayatthaya, an ancient temple site. It was a mixture of ruins and mostly complete structures dating back to the 14th century. The city lies on an island at a junction where three rivers meet and was once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam. It was all but destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century.
We spent hours walking around the main temple complexes, even the most damaged and time-ravaged structures had their own unique beauty but the prangs and lop-sided chedis were incredible and every angle provided us with amazing photo opportunities.
The sites were busy with tourists but we found that on the whole, if we slowed right down, the hordes rushed by us and we often had the immediate area to ourselves.
There were a couple of star attractions, the prang in Wat Ratchubarana which is visible from almost everywhere in the area, is a bullet shaped tower adorned with intricate stone carvings. The tower is still under renovation and as such there was some scaffolding on one side of it but it didn't detract from its magnificence. In 1958 a significant find of golden statues was uncovered within the walls of the tower but many were soon after stolen by looters. Inside the tower there is a staircase that leads to two lower rooms, the stairs were maybe 10 cms deep and each step was about a 40 cms down. As I slowly descended the steps, the handrail came away from the wall, that made it interesting but at about a quarter of the way down the lights no longer worked, I decided it may not be the most sensible thing to persevere onwards. I found out that if I had gone all the way down, there were two unrestored rooms that had wall paintings in them. It would have been nice to have seen them, shame we are such a cowards.
Another couple of outstanding sights were in the Wat Phra Mahathat complex. This huge site has so many structures in varying states of repair/disrepair, there a numerous stone prangs that lean, seemingly in defiance of gravity and crumbling walls of once great halls. Within this complex, there is also a tree whose roots have grown around a statue of a Buddha, the entire body of the statue has long been crushed to dust and all that remains is the Buddha's head which sits framed in the wooden tangle.
The trains to and from Bangkok were pretty basic and both journeys were subject to long delays, but like everything else, they were clean and organised, no pushing or shoving to get on or off.
Back in Bangkok and the nightly rain has begun, the streets are noticeably quieter during a downpour (it does come down pretty heavily) but as soon as it relents, people appear from every direction and the throng continues. Market stalls, lottery ticket sellers, beggars, taxi and tuktuk drivers, office workers and tourists all re-engage in the ballet that makes up Bangkok street life. The actions are matched by the accompanying sounds, the traffic builds, the trains rattle over head, the clang of metal on metal from the food stalls as stir fries are whisked round a wok. It's all music to our ears and nourishment for our souls.
We do love it here but we're keen to move on, to see somewhere more provincial perhaps. Chiang Mai is our next stop, from there we hope to do some trekking and maybe have an elephant encounter.