27.01.2014 - 31.01.2014 32 °C
We landed in Bangkok’s DMK airport at 3am. As with our overnight train to Pondy a few days earlier, we’d had hoped for some slight delays so that our arrival time might be a little more conducive to getting a train or bus to the city centre and finding somewhere to stay, preferably once daylight had arrived. But alas, the times that a delay would be useful, everything runs like clockwork, we took off on time, landed early, bags were efficiently on belt, no queue at passport control, nothing to delay us one bit from ending up in the airport lobby at a ridiculous hour.
So we did what plenty others seemed to be doing and made ourselves comfortable in the arrivals lounge to wait for a while, not really fancying tackling Thailand’s capital city at that time of night. We got ourselves a coffee and got chatting to a French girl, who interestingly had decided to give living in India a go (with an Indian guy she’d met just a week earlier!) - she was on a visa run, so had no particular plans for Thailand, was just there for a couple of weeks until she could go back to India... Anyway, we kept each other company and by 5.30am decided to investigate the trains. Luckily, the Thai people were helpful and friendly, helping us out when we looked lost or confused, without us having to ask. We got our train tickets and were soon on our way, a bit tired (having pretty much been awake all night, except maybe 30 minutes snooze on the flight), but quite excited.
We decided to do the typical backpacker thing and stay in the Banglamphu area, around notorious Koh San Road, the most famous and busy tourist area in Bangkok, crammed with bars, shops peddling various hippy gear, an abundance of massage parlours and numerous (con-artist) tour agents. We found a place to stay that was cheap as chips and which we really liked, even though it was like a Chinese laundry with really basic rooms and signs saying that if guests bring back a Thai girl, they would have to pay an extra 200 Baht... Welcome to Bangkok!
Our mission whilst in BK was to arrange visas for Myanmar at the Embassy. This was across town but we found the river bus an excellent way to get there. We were a little shocked to see a snaked queue out of the door when we arrived. But there was actually an orderly system (praise be for queues, never anything so ordered in India!), we picked up forms from the front and filled them in as we queued, after around 2 hours, paid 810 Baht each (around £17) and were told to come back in two days to collect our passports. Sorted. Now we had time to explore the city.
We started with a wander that passed some of the obligatory temples, though we didn’t pay to go into any as we’ll be doing that in March on our ‘holiday’ with R’s parents. We explored China Town including fascinating backstreets with all kinds of activity going on and we walked around the outside of The Royal Palace. Speaking of royals, we must mention the Thai Royal Family. Thai people love their King. His picture is everywhere. Massive gold-framed portraits line all the big streets, his image is in front of all important buildings, his face is on stickers on people’s cars, on all the banknotes of course, portraits hang in bars, cafes and restaurants, his image adorns large plinths on road intersections, he looks at you from almost every corner. We first saw at the airport train station, surrounded by candles, flowers and incense. They really do love the king, and it is a major offense to publicly criticize the royal family. It may sound strange, but it’s actually quite nice that he is so revered. Long live the King!
So after a couple of days of getting to know the streets and familiarizing ourselves with Thai food (yums) and everything else, we had a night out around Koh San Road, familiarizing ourselves with the local brews. This was all in the name of research, you must understand. Rachel’s mum and step-dad are flying out to Bangkok in March to see us and we feel obliged to take them to the best watering holes around.
Our first impressions of Bangkok were good ones. The people are friendly and smiley, the food is lip-smackingly yummy and the city itself is buzzing and lively. The only downside is probably the transport network, which is a little under developed for such a large and cosmopolitan place. The metro and sky-train networks currently cover only half the city, and typically not the half you want to go to! Also taxis and tuk-tuk drivers are elusive and when you do want one invariably refuse to go the direction you want, leaving you pretty-much dependent on walking to and from the river and using the river ferry service, even if where your journey starts and ends is not by the river. But compared to India, well, it can’t be compared really.
This brings us to a few differences we noticed, having spent so long on the Indian sub-continent, let’s do some compare and contrast:
- Peace on the streets: one of the first things we noticed when we got off the train in central BK was the peaceful streets, the incessant beeping that is ubiquitous with Indian roads, does not happen here. They also drive in lanes (!) and stick to the appropriate side of the road. It’s all rather a relief to be honest.
- Friendliness: don’t get us wrong, we met some lovely Indians, but in general their nature is more severe and less friendly than Thais. There is also the staring, especially by men, which became a bit tiresome in India. We felt a difference as soon as we boarded the (Thai-owned) Air Asia plane in Chennai, the air stewards were so smiley and welcoming (incredibly pretty too, and that was just the boys!). Related to this, we are not interesting to Thais, we can walk down the street without anyone shouting across to ask where we’re from, where we or going, or trying to stick their phone in our faces to take a photo, here, they just leave us in peace.
- Women exist: a striking difference is the visibility of women. In India they are largely hidden and the streets, stations, everywhere filled with men. In Bangkok women were everywhere, running stalls, working in shops, restaurants and bars, or simply walking on the streets, alone, without male escorts.
- T.E.S.S = Text: This is a similarity and actually seems to be something true to Asian countries in general. People do not understand the name ‘Tess’, they almost always think it is ‘Text’, even when spelt out for them. They don’t have too much trouble with Rachel, despite it not being a familiar name to them. We think they expect more syllables and wait to hear what comes next. T’s full name Teresa makes them happier, they understand that, and can say ‘Oh, like Mother Teresa!’
- Thousands of switches: a very weird thing in India was that almost every room we stayed in had at least 15 redundant switches in. Every time we got a new room we had to switch them all on and off to identify the two that actually did anything, i.e. turn on the light and the fan. We have not noticed this strange phenomenon in Thailand.
- Tell me Lies: Also true in both countries is that you can’t always believe what folks tell you, particularly touts and tuk-tuk drivers. In both countries, though more so in India, you will be ‘informed’ that a sight, hotel, restaurant or whatever, is closed, in attempt to divert you to a place they are linked to or get commission from. Tut tut.
- Drinking culture: In Thailand you can buy alcohol anywhere and even drink it walking down the street if you want to (not that we would of course, but it’s nice to know you can ;-) and yet, we saw no problems with drinking other than the odd drunken gap-year type down Kao San Road. In India there is a very strange relationship with booze. It differs place to place and in some parts there are no issues (Mumbai and Goa for example), but in other areas there are strict licensing laws that mean bars and Off-Shops are hidden away down seedy back streets. Indians also generally can’t just enjoy a leisurely beer, when you do find booze it is almost always super-strength beer or whisky-type spirits, Amusingly we only seemed to fancy a drink when we were in the places it was difficult to do so. In Varanassi we had beers lowered down to us in an opaque bag on a pulley system from an upstairs window, in Kerala, despite all the restaurants having Kingfisher (Indian lager) advertised on their umbrellas, ashtrays etc, when we ordered a beer it was served in ceramic cups and the bottles hidden away so no-one could see what you were drinking. Very strange indeed. These rules do nothing to curb drinking however, in Kerala, which has such strict rules, the drinking per capita is highest of all the Indian states, showing yet again that prohibition doesn’t work...
No doubt in time we will come to miss the chaotic, loud, vibrant craziness of India but for now, Thailand is a welcome relief. Just to end on a more positive note for India though, Thailand is not nearly as colourful!
But enough of that, back to our adventures new. After collecting our passports, complete with Myanmar visa, from the embassy, we took a bus to Kanachanaburi, home of the famous ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’. Fascinating fact about that for you, when the book was written the author had never actually visited the area, he knew the "Death Railway" ran by the river Kwae, yet the bridge does not actually cross it but its subsidiary the Mae Khlung. So after the film was made and folks started to come here expecting to see a bridge over river Kwae, the locals had a dilemma, ‘cos there wasn't one. So they renamed the Mae Khlung, but that's a bit of a cheat really! It was a nice place though, despite its grim history with the infamous ‘Death Railway’. We visited the museum on the railway which was an informative if not a fun-filled outing. We learned there is a film out this week about it – The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth - it looks worth a watch if anyone fancies the cinema this month.
Not too far from Kanchanaburi is a national park containing the Erawan falls, we went there for the day and had a great time swimming in the pools, one of which did a fine job as a natural Water Park, having a large swinging tree branch over the water and two massive rocks which you could slide down into the water, Rachel had much fun here!
From here we headed back to Bangkok, an annoying journey that took four and a half hours even though on the way there the bus had taken only two (we had been thinking that Thai transport was so much more efficient than in India, but this journey proved otherwise). This made us late for an already brief meet-up with Hannah and Julia who were on their way back to Manchester (via BK airport) at the end of a two-week Thai holiday. We did manage to reach them eventually and had a lovely catch up over a few beers before they dashed off for their flight, and we went to pack-up our stuff ready to set off for Cambodia the following morning.