After our travels in Indonesia it felt odd travelling northwards to Bangkok, but we were very excited at the prospect of another visit from family, with Sam’s sisters, Tina and Sandra joining us for two weeks in Bangkok and Krabi.
To say that we had two contrasting weeks would be something of an understatement. Tina and Sandra arrived on Saturday afternoon and we agreed it was best to let them adjust to the heat and humidity for the remainder of the day before hitting the tourist trail with a vengeance.
We decided to jump straight in at the deep end and head for the City’s legendary Chatuchak Market on Sunday. In what was to become a metaphor for the fortnight we enjoyed a relaxing ferry across the River Chao Phraya followed by a bustling trip on Bangkok’s excellent Skytrain service to get to the Market. Calling Chatuchak a “market” does it something of a dis-service. It’s one of the worlds largest markets covering nearly 30 acres hosting 15,000 stalls that attract 200,000 visitors each day. It’s like visiting a village that lies dormant during weekdays, only to spring into life on Saturday and Sunday.
It’s a fun and vibrant place to visit whether you are searching for unique fashion designs, sampling tasty street food and drinks, enjoying a much needed foot massage or simply people watching. Given the size of Chatuchak it will cater for whatever you are looking for. However if you are clothes shopping be warned – in temperatures climbing uncomfortably above 30 degrees there is a tendency to sweat profusely. Not surprisingly this makes trying on clothes very tricky and many stalls display the sign “no trying clothes on” – so its a question of making your best guess!
Sam and I visited Chatuchak ten years ago when it seemed a bit more ramshackle and we had the unfortunate experience of stumbling into a section where there was cock-fighting going on. A horrible sight but happily no repeat this time. In fact it felt like a very safe place to be – enhanced by the reassuring site of the Market Police….
Another thing that has changed since our last visit is the speed of Bangkok Tuk-Tuks which like the City itself seem to have been turbo-charged. Instead of taking the same route home from the market we decided to jump into a couple of Tuk-Tuks for what tuned out to be a high speed race / chase through the city. Thoroughly scary and entertaining!
The “planes, trains, automobiles” theme to our week continued the next day when we headed north out of the city to one of Thailand’s most celebrated ancient sites – Ayutthaya. We decided to catch the train for the ninety minute journey starting out from Bangkok’s lovely Hua Lamphong Railway Station
Ayutthaya dates back to the 1300’s and is a fascinating collection of ancient ruins dotted around the town. I had been reliably informed that the sites were in walking distance from the railway station, so when I manfully strode out into the blistering heat of Ayutthaya I imperiously waved away enthusiastic Tuk-Tuk drivers, indicating that we were British, we had a map, and we would find the sites on our own steam – thank you very much. You could see the collective reaction of the drivers on their faces: “…Really?”
Thankfully after we had walked about ten yards and were starting to wilt a persistent driver gave me the charitable chance to re-think my strategy and we gratefully bundled into a Tuk-Tuk, having completely lost face.
We’ve really been spoilt visiting ancient UNESCO Heritage sites and the trip to Ayutthaya was another that did not disappoint, with fabulous statues of Bhudda, Stupas galore, and temples spread throughout the town. There was one site we were incredibly excited to see though: the remarkable image of Bhudda embedded in a tree. It exceeded our expectations.
Kanchanaburi and the Bridge over the River Kwai*
With all the riches that day trips in and around Bangkok brings its hard to pick a favourite, but the day we spent in Kanchanaburi visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai sites was very special indeed. Our first stop was the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery which is a beautifully maintained and moving memorial to the Allied soldiers who lost their lives in inhumane and brutal conditions. Over 7000 servicemen and women are commemorated at the Cemetery. Visiting just a few days after Remembrance Sunday it was a sad and humbling experience to quietly walk among the headstones and reflect on sacrifice and the lives stolen away.
At a local Museum we learnt more about the horrendous conditions in which prisoners were kept. Over 15,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 civilians died of died of sickness, mistreatment, malnutrition and exhaustion as as result of the building the “Death Railway”.
We travelled by boat up to the infamous bridge itself. As with many of these sites (the Killing Fields and 9-11 spring to mind) there is part of you excited about seeing and photographing such a famous landmark, but another voice reminds you that this is the place where people lost their lives. It’s a delicate balance between the demands of tourism and showing respect.
Train services continue to run over the bridge and several miles up the line so we took the opportunity see the railway and countryside, including the remarkable viaduct that snakes its way along part of the line.
Jumping on an old-fashioned train and rolling along the tracks is one of the best ways to view S/E Asia, but this trip and route had an extra resonance.
Our day was made even more memorable by having the most wonderful guide called Vanda who as well as being incredibly informative, was the funniest and most sociable guide possible. Before we set off Vanda disappeared into the bathroom for a very long time. She then reappeared bouncing into our van apologising for the delay explaining that she had needed the toilet very badly but everything was okay and we would be pleased to know that she had washed her hands thoroughly! A case of a bit too much information first thing in the morning, but delivered with such frank glee that we couldn’t help but laugh. Vanda made sure we had perfect seats on the train and became our unofficial photographer. We think she is the best guide in Thailand!
* A little known and rather inconvenient fact is that the Bridge does go not over the River Kwai – this was an error by Pierre Boulle the author of the book. The Bridge actually crosses the Mae Klong River but there are proposals to rename it Kwai!
As luck would have it good friends of Tina’s – Veronica and Ray – were also in Bangkok and we enjoyed a great night out with them and over a meal and a few beers learnt more about their journey through S/E Asia. Veronica gives us lovely feedback on the blog so it was extra special to meet up.
The Grand Palace and the Reclining Bhudda
No trip to Bangkok would be complete without a visit to these two amazing sites (three if you include the short hop across the River to Wat Arun). Both always attract big crowds but the masses thin out remarkable quickly when you get inside given the sheer size of the sites.
And what a greeting you get, glorious almost garish colours bask in the sunlight depicting tales of ancient creatures, monsters and demons, alongside beautiful temples and golden images of Bhudda.
The detail is astonishing and the almost overwhelming assault on your sense leaves you wondering where to look next. It’s a spectacle that you can never tire of and when you have had your fill at the Palace, the Reclining Bhudda awaits.
Space is at more of a premium when you get to the Reclining Bhudda (in Wat Pho) and it can feel a bit more like a scrum than the Palace. It doesn’t really breed an atmosphere for reflection or spirituality – it’s more a case of sharpening elbows and getting stuck in, and just when you think you’ve made it to the ideal vantage point, the ultimate challenge totters into your viewfinder: a selfie-obsessed Chinese tourist. Why anyone thinks a picture of the world’s most beautiful Bhudda will be enhanced with an incongruous Churchill V sign and vacant smile in the foreground of the shot is beyond me – forget Bhudda it’s all about worshipping the 21st Century social media god: Insta.
Hypocritical grumbles about fellow tourists aside, if you are patient gaps open up and you can stand in awe at this incredible sight, okay…it helps to be 6 ft+ ….and what you cant see in the two photos of the Reclining Bhudda are the hordes of 5ft something Chinese tourists buzzing about below me. A quick detour across the river to the striking Wat Arun completed the day and our sightseeing – we were well and truly pooped.
Tina and Sandra’s trip really was a game of two halves, with the hyper-activity of our Bangkok days replaced with a much more sedate pace in Krabi where we arrived at a picture perfect resort on Tubkaak beach. Having visited Ko Phang Nga and Koh Samui earlier in our trip it was really interesting to compare west vs east coasts. Our conclusion was that beaches around Krabi win it by a short head on account of the huge limestone castes that sit brooding in the sea to create a dramatic backdrop against a clean, warm sea that laps on to beautiful sandy beaches. Heaven.
Hong Islands Hopping
One of the attractions in the area is to hire a long tail boat and view the uninhabited Hong Islands close up. Setting off early we met our skipper for the day who was the living definition of the phrase “salty sea dog”. A lovely friendly fella who looked after us.
We headed out to the islands cutting through turquoise waters that revealed huge pink jellyfish that mercifully don’t venture into shallow waters. Our first stop was a hidden lagoon where after negotiating a narrow entrance it opens up into a bay with waters that invite you to jump in – which we did with no hesitation.
Then we navigated our way to a lovely stretch of beach on another island which is part of a National Park. Your boatman drops you off and for a small fee you can stay on the beach for two hours before you get collected. It did feel and look a little bit like “The Beach” albeit without Leonardo Di Caprio and Tilda Swinton, but with a supporting cast of dozens of extras – you can’t expect to have these spots to yourself. The waters were full of fish making it ideal for snorkelling.
After our allotted time we rejoined our boat and made for another unspoilt beach where if you time it right you can see the see separate at low tide – how very biblical! Sadly we didn’t catch low tide and missed out out on the chance to impersonate Moses. However the beach did have one of the ultimate Insta-magnets: a swing upon which we witnessed some remarkable posing and pouting. Of course we yielded to temptation and went for a nice family shot before we headed home through darkening skies and threatening cloud.
Busy Doing Nothing
It’s quite hard to summon up the creative juices to describe the several hours we spent crashed out on big bean bags that begged you to firmly plant your backside into them and move no further, occasionally beckoning drinks from the bar-staff.
But to be fair we weren’t totally idle as there were complementary Paddle-Boards and Kayaks to try out. The calm sea conditions were perfect to try these out, especially as Sam and I had practised Paddle -Boarding on Hove Lagoon and Kayaking on the River Adur in anticipation of exactly this opportunity. The Paddle-Boarding was great fun although as anyone who has tried it will know, it’s not as easy as it looks. Sam & I definitely benefited from our sessions earlier in the year, and after a bit of coaxing and a lot of wobbling both Sandra and Tina managed to assume the perpendicular…before heading for the horizontal! Fair play for having a go though.
Energised by a hitherto unknown passion for water sports Sandra decided to have a crack at kayaking next. As I nervously sat waiting in the kayak Sandra braced herself by sitting on its the edge promptly catapulting me out into the sea swiftly followed by the kayak itself. After this rather undignified start we managed to re-board successfully and paddled off without further incident. Sandra assures us that her maiden voyage wont be her last: something the Harbour Master in Christchurch should probably be made aware of.
Pampering Krabi Elephants
Just an hours drive from our beachside reverie was an elephant sanctuary and the chance to share with Tina and Sandra the wonder of getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures. During the hours we were with them we made them food, fed them tons of bananas, helped give them an exfoliating mud bath and then scrubbed them clean in a lake. It was an elephantine pampering session. But after a tough life of logging if anyone deserves to be spoilt it is these wonderful animals.
By chance the morning we went to the see the elephants the heavens had opened but by the time we were heading back the clouds had cleared and we could hear the siren call of the beach bean bags summoning us back to that gorgeous strip of sandy shore and stunning views of the Andaman Sea.
Before we knew it our wonderful fortnight was over and Sandra and Tine were heading home, while we set ourselves for Borneo. Travelling for so long we have really missed family and friends (and Ruby!), so it’s been great having our journey punctuated by visits from home, and less than a month after waving Tina and Sandra goodbye, we shall be arriving in Perth to stay with my sister Sue and her family for Christmas.
Next up: Wild Borneo!