After enjoying some R & R on the beach in southern Thailand, we steeled ourselves for the busyness and craziness that is Bangkok. I’ve been there three times and Paul has lost count (he thinks nine). I’ve always thought of the city as rather Bladerunner-ish, especially when it’s raining. But it was March and although it wasn’t the rainy season, it was sweltering with temperatures in the mid-30s and humidity at about 90 per cent.
Bus and train to Bangkok
Paul is not a good flyer and prefers to avoid it as much as possible — surprising, considering how much travelling he’s done. So after all the short hop flights in Indonesia, he insisted we take a bus or train to Bangkok from Krabi. There was no way I wanted to spend 10 to 12 hours on a bus, so we agreed on a train. I wanted to take a day train; Paul said the overnight one would be “fun” and novel for Elina and would save us a night’s accommodation and the day wouldn’t be wasted with getting from A to B.
I’ve been on some pretty crappy overnight trains, including one in Vietnam where the berths were wooden and the fans weren’t working and I couldn’t sleep because it was so hot and you couldn’t open the windows. Then there was a “memorable” 36-hour train ride from Beijing to Chongqing when there was still smoking allowed on the trains and the aircon was icy cold … But I was in my twenties and could deal with it better than I can now. Needless to say I was rather hesitant about taking an overnight train.
The nearest train station to Ao Nang is at Surat Thani, which is about three-hour’s drive, on the other side of the Thai peninsula. First we took a 30-minute minibus to Krabi town but we ended up at the “bus station” (a tin shed with a dirt floor) to catch the bus to Surat Thani. When we showed the ticket lady our booking receipt, she said the agent in Ao Nang who we booked our tickets with hadn’t booked a seat for Elina, and the bus was full. Um, whaaat?
We were pretty upset, as you can imagine, and even told her we’d let Elina sit in our laps even though we did pay for three seats. Missing our train to Bangkok just wasn’t an option. After some phone calls, the ticket lady said everything was fine and we could all get on the bus, which was one of those big tour buses.
We were told to get on last because everyone else was going to Ko Pha Ngan (the ferry leaves from Surat Thani). When we boarded, we were directed to the compartment near the toilet at the front of the bus, and below all the seats above. There were two proper bus seats and one fold out sundeck chair. There was also a square hole at the bottom of the bus through which we could see the road.
We realised that this is probably where the drivers sleep when they take turns driving on a long route. We didn’t mind it as the aircon was good and we could stretch our legs. But then a movie started to play on the screen in front of us — it was an undercover, gun-toting, wise-cracking bad movie starring Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. Our luck had run out.
Two hours later we stopped suddenly on the roadside and were told to hurry up and get off the bus. We got outside and there was a minibus waiting, the driver ushering us to get in and then loading our packs in the back. He dropped us off about 30 minutes later at Surat Thani train station. We had lunch at a restaurant across the road and killed a couple of hours there (free WiFi was available at just about every restaurant we went to in southern Thailand) before we headed to the train station across the road.
I was in the lower bunk, Elina was in the top, Paul had a lower bunk across the aisle. Elina was a bit worried she might roll out, so we put her backpack there so she could tell if she was going towards the edge. This is a second class carriage. In first class, you to get your own room but there are only two bunks in a private compartment, so that wouldn’t fit all three of us.
Despite my reluctance and bad memories of overnight trains, this one wasn’t so bad. I try to avoid toilets on trains in general, but this one was OK. I’ve been in a lot worse. I also slept OK; it wasn’t too cold, as you can close the curtains and that provides a buffer from the aircon above. The sheets were clean and everyone on the carriage was quiet and cocooned in their berths.
We arrived at Bangkok’s main train station at about 6am. After being allowed early check in at our guesthouse, we had a bit of a rest then headed out.
Grand Palace and temples
The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam since 1782. It is a sprawling walled complex, covering 218,000 square metres. The entrance fee is 500Baht ($22) per person. Children under 12 are free. It’s a lot of walking and it takes the whole morning or afternoon to visit. Our feet and legs were achey afterwards.
Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” would be a great theme song for the Thai Grand Palace and its temples. There is a lot of gold and glitz here as you’ll see.
These stone lions (shishi or lion dogs) are carved with a ball that rolls around in their mouth but can’t be removed — no matter how hard Elina tried.
The Chakri Maha Prasat Hall was the royal residence for King Rama V and was built in 1877. It was designed by a British architect and the lower part is a European-style building while the top is classic Thai style.
Khao San Road area
We went to the Khao San Road area for old time’s sake. It was disappointing. It was really quite grubby and smelly but is still the main backpacker hangout in Bangkok. The area is definitely past it’s use-by date — there are much nicer places to stay in Bangkok now.
We stayed in a family-run guesthouse near Siam Square, the shopping and entertainment area with really big malls, some of them with high-end fashion stores, some with market stalls. Paul tried to get his iPod fixed in the MBK Centre, which has an entire floor devoted to electronics, but it was unfixable, so he bought an iPod Touch after two days of haggling.
There are walkways that connects people to the very large shopping malls on each corner of the Siam Square intersection. Bangkok has two metro lines (left and right), which meet at Siam Square. There are two tracks for each line above, one going in either direction. You can see one of the metro trains on the left in the above photo.
Jim Thompson’s house
Even though I had visited Bangkok three times, this was the first time I’d been to Jim Thompson’s house (Paul had visited here in 1984). Thompson was an American who moved to Bangkok after World War II and became a silk entrepreneur, selling silk to the fashion houses of Paris, London and Milan. He disappeared in 1967 during a walk in the highlands of Malaysia. There are theories he may have been murdered as he used to work for the CIA.
Thompson was an avid Asian art collector and a tour of his home showed off his collection. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any photos of the home’s interior during the tour. The surrounding gardens were beautifully maintained. His silk business continues and the onsite store has wonderful silk clothing and accessories — too expensive for our budget, sadly.
Our guesthouse wasn’t far from a canal, so we walked on a bridge over the canal then along it to get to Jim Thompson’s house. We also took one of the canal boats to get to the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the centre of Bangkok. Because of these boats, you had to be careful when one went past as you could get a bit wet.
Wat Pho: Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Built in 1848 the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is 46m long and is the largest Buddha in Thailand. The temple is located not far from the Chao Phraya.
Just inside this temple we found two women having a nap in the afternoon heat. One had a sleeping dog beside her, the other a sleeping cat underneath her chair.
Wat Arun: Temple of Dawn
We visited the Temple of Dawn, built in the 17th century and also located beside the Chao Phraya River. “The 79 meter high tower is decorated with ceramic tiles and fragments of multicoloured porcelain which had previously been used as ballast by boats coming to Bangkok from China. The porcelain mosaic fills every conceivable nook, cranny, and wall, creating a brilliantly imaginative and visually stunning monument.” From the Wat Arun website.
Pak Khlong: Bangkok flower market
One afternoon we were on our way to eat Indian for lunch but were misdirected and ended up a the Flower Market. There is a strong smell of jasmine flowers as you walk down the street.
There is so much to see in Bangkok, but four days was enough in a big city of 8 million. Getting around in a car or tuktuk is definitely harder because of the traffic and you could get stuck during peak hours. The trains were convenient. Previous visits saw us using the budget-friendly motorcycle taxis, but travelling with a child meant that wasn’t an option because of the clear lack of adherence to road rules in Asia. Despite all the tourists, the Thai people are as friendly as ever.