Dawn and I spent a night and a day in Bangkok between our return from Koh Tao and flying back home. Although we had limited time, we covered a lot of ground and got a bit of the vibe of the city.
Dawn's very first impression of Bangkok was seeing a large rat scurrying along the gutter as our bus pulled to the curb in Banglamphu, the main backpacker district. It was one of those laughable moments where stereotype meets reality and a place becomes a parody of itself. Everything you've heard about Bangkok is quite true: it's dirty, crowded, noisy, polluted, seedy, and perpetually choked with traffic. That said, there's a certain charm to the place. There's a lot of bustling energy of the same sort that powers many great cities: scores of recent arrivals clawing their way to a better life. It's an interesting mix with the usual "mai pen rai" relaxed Thai attitude.
Banglamphu, in the northern part of the old city, is home to the reknown Khao San Road and is the main backpacker hangout. Khao San Road itself became a parody of itself a long time ago, reveling in its carnival atmosphere and unabashed cheesiness, but relative peace can be found just a few streets over. Dawn and I got a fan room at the New Siam Guesthouse near the river (340B/$10).
On Saturday morning I woke early to the chirping of birds outside our open window. I sat in the window for a few minutes and watched early morning life on the narrow soi below. Shopkeepers swept the night's detrius from their stoops; a monk passed below, his safron robes billowing behind him. The rising sun looked rather like a harvest moon, filtered through the thick layer of smog over the city.
After breakfast, we caught the commuter boat at Phra Athit pier and took it down the river to the Grand Palace. The pier we disembarked at is located on the northwest corner of the mile-square walled compound. I looked along the north and west walls for the public entrance; it wasn't obvious, so we started walking along the west wall.
Very shortly we were stopped by a Thai man in a crisp white shirt with a badge of some sort pinned on it. "If you're going to the Grand Palace, it's closed. The King is there for a ceremony. It will be open at 1pm," he said in passable English.
I was doubtful. This sounded rather similar to the infamous Bangkok gem scam. I wanted to be tactful, though. "Oh, thanks for telling us. We'll go to Wat Pho instead."
"Oh no, Wat Pho is closed too. It's the same ticket. Would you like to see the lucky Buddha instead?"
Ah-hah! The infamous "lucky Buddha!" It was the gem scam. The way it goes is this: a helpful passerby tells you a certain tourist attraction is closed, usually for a Buddhist holiday. They ask if you'd like to see the lucky Buddha instead, or some other local sight unknown to most tourists. They hail a tuk-tuk for you, the driver of which is in on the scam; he'll tell you that he needs to make an intermediate stop, which is at a gem store. There, the proprieter tries to get you to buy gems "at wholesale prices." He insists you can sell them back home for much more than you're paying for them. There's often a westerner in the shop to tell you they make a killing on the gems every time they come to Thailand. It's all a setup, of course; the "gems" are next to worthless. I'm sure only a small percentage of tourists fall for it, but it's apparently brings in enough money to make the scammers nearly ubiquitous. After disentangling ourselves from the man in white, we were approached by several other earnest Thais telling us that the Grand Palace was closed. We found the entrance - on the north side - and it was very much open.
The Grand Palace is a relatively new compound, having all been built after 1782, when King Rama I moved Siam's capital from Thonburi across the river to Bangkok. It's still impressively ornate. The most notable feature is Wat Phra Kaew, the King's private temple and the only wat in Thailand that does not ordain monks.
Outside of Wat Phra Kaew, rather limited portions of the Grand Palace grounds are open to the public, including the area around the Throne Hall. This is the official seat of power of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the longest serving monarch alive today. The King is revered as a semi-divine figure in Thailand; speaking poorly of the royal family causes great offense among Thais and opens oneself to charges of lèse majesté, which the palace still prosecutes. The King is supposed to be a non-political figurehead akin to Britain's monarch, but in actuality the palace wields considerable political power. In some respects he is a stabilizing figure, yet he has given complicit approval to many anti-democratic coups throughout the years, including last year's coup that overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. You see the King's picture and the yellow royal flag everywhere in Bangkok and throughout Thailand; the royal yellow polo shirts with "Long Live The King" stitched on the back are ubiquitous among Thais.
After the Grand Palace, we headed to the nearby Wat Pho, the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok. It is famous as the home of the giant 46m-long Reclining Buddha. This is only one of the 387 Buddha images collected throughout the compound; most are displayed under glass, plus several in their own chapels.
Our final stop on the tour-du-wat was across the river at Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn. You can only go a little ways up the tall central prang, but it still affords a decent view of the spires at Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew back on the east side of the Chao Phraya river.
From Wat Arun we took the ferry back across the river and then caught the express commuter boat downstream. These boats can cram in several hundred people during rush hour and move along at a pretty good clip, stopping for less than a minute at each pier. Throngs of people clamber onto the boat's boarding area at the same time an equally big crowd is trying to disembark from the pitching, rolling craft; it's a wonder more people don't end up in the filthy river.
From one of the downstream stations we took Bangkok's new Skytrain elevated rail system through the heart of downtown to Lumphini Park, a welcome oasis of greenery among Bangkok's soot-stained skyscrapers.
We hung out in Lumphini Park for a while and then hoofed it north to Pathum Wan, Bangkok's main shopping area. One of the new malls on the site, CentralWorld, has five large wings and is seven stories tall; at 550,000 square meters retail space, it is twice the size of Mall of America and is the largest mall in southeast asia. Just next door is Siam Paragon, itself with a respective 300,000 square meters of retail, not including the attached 400-store Siam Center and Siam Discovery Center. If that's not enough shopping for you, across the street is Siam Square, several blocks worth of individual stores. The traffic in the area is suitably congested, even by Bangkok standards.
Dawn and I ate at a hibachi-style BBQ restaurant in the mall. The staff spoke no English but was very kind in demonstrating to us the proper way to cook everything. We kept screwing it up - I'm sure they thought we were a bunch of yokels. It was fun.
From the mall we walked north to the Saen Saep canal to catch a water taxi back west to Banglamphu. These boats are somewhat smaller than the express boats on the Chao Phraya, but cruise just as fast, if not faster, through the narrow confines of the canal. The stops are shorter than the river boat, and there is no boarding platform - to embark or disembark one must scramble over the gunwales, trying to avoid diving into the laps of currently seated passengers. As the boat roars off with its wake smashing into the canal walls mere feet away, the passengers raise blue tarps in the windows to avoid being splashed with too much of the toxic water.
In Banglamphu, Dawn and I walked back to the guesthouse, showered, changed into our non-rev clothes, and took the airport bus out of Bangkok to the new Suvarnabhumi Airport.
(This concludes my indulgence in Sping Break photoblogging. Back to regular aviation blogging....)