Sawadeekup! That’s hello in Thai, if the person saying it is male that is, Sawadeeka if you’re female and something else if you’re a ladyboy.
So we landed in Bangkok after a short pleasant flight from Hong Kong, I’m pleased to say that the journey was completely uneventful, no fights, no one stealing our seats and no sex pests. Emma soon clocked the free wine during the flight and took advantage of the situation as best she could. When you’re backpacking you can’t drink wine, its way too expensive so it was a bit of a luxury.
We took the MTR (metro) as far as we could into town, which turned out to be not very far at all. We were weary from carrying our big packs and the journey, so as we left the station to look for a means of onward transport we were delighted when someone offered to help. This kind Thai guy who’d got off the same train as us approached us and asked us where we needed to get to, how long we’d be staying in Bangkok, where we’d be going after Bangkok etc. We had a nice chat with him for 20 minutes or so, we told him that we had to stay in Bangkok longer than we’d have wished as we needed to get our Vietnamese visas there. He said in Thailand anything can be sped up if you’re willing to pay someone a bit more and recommended an agency that could speed up the process from 2-3 days to 1-2. He also told us how quickly onward transport from Bangkok sells out. He was from Chiang Mai, a small city in Northern Thailand where we would be heading towards after Bangkok, so we trusted his advice and agreed that we would need to get our onward transport arranged soon. So, Tom kindly marked our map with the location of the agency that could help us and that would be open still, it was gone 6pm. He walked us to a waiting tuk tuk and told the driver in Thai where we needed to go, he bartered with the driver to get the price down to 40 baht (about 80 pence), excellent, what a lovely guy we thought.
The next thing we know we’re sat in the back of the tuk tuk with our bags wedged awkwardly between us and we’re flying off through Bangkok. There really is nothing quite like the feeling of being in one of these things, each tuk tuk is painted with a custom paint job, Thai flags attached to the back and lit up like a Christmas tree. The exhaust sounds like a burbling supercar, these things are quick off the mark and weave through traffic effortlessly. You can’t help but grin and hang on as you hurtle along.
We arrive at the agency and sit down with a guy who explains the cost for the fast-service Vietnamese visas, just a few more dollars than they are anyway, excellent, so we say yes to that. Now he explains again, as Tom did, that we should book onward travel now so that we can leave Bangkok the day our visas are ready, tickets sell out fast. We’re interested so we hear him out. We explain that we’d like to visit some places on route to Chiang Mai, he says that the only thing to see in these places are temples and there plenty of them in Bangkok. Having come from China we’re a little templed-out and so accept that we should go straight to Chang Mai. He’s also trying to sell us a hill trek package for when we get to Chiang Mai that would include transport to the Thai-Laos border at Chiang Khong. I’m now well aware that immediately after having just arrived in the country, now is not the best time to be making these sorts of decisions. In the end we took him up on just the visas and bus tickets to Chiang Mai, much to his disappointment. The agency’s driver drove us to our hostel for a steep fee and we then wound down, showered and got ready to go for a walk around town.
We now start to think through what had just happened and fear the worst, we’ve left our passports with this guy, we’ve not done any research on bus ticket prices let alone things to see and do in Bangkok, have we been scammed? A quick look on the web shows we’ve paid about half as much again for the bus tickets, oh well it’s too late now, lesson learnt, don’t let someone rush you into things before you’ve done your own research! The lovely guy called Tom would have made a commission off our purchases and so wasn’t as kind as we first thought. He sits there all day long charming the gullible new arrivals. We just hope now that the agency is legit and that they’re taking care of our passports.
So we head out into Bangkok looking for the legendary Khao San road. As we wander we see a busy touristy looking street and head down it, later we realise we needed the next road on, we’re actually on Thanon Rammbuttri. Tuk Tuks and taxis line the sides of the street, mopeds are constantly on your heels trying to get past. Every person you pass is vying for your attention and wants you in their tuk tuk/shop/bar/restaurant/tailors/massage parlour. We settle into a bar selling cheap Chang beer with a Thai guy playing an acoustic guitar and singing something similar to the lyrics of the current song. Brilliant I thought, now it feels like we’re having a holiday. Chang beer turns out to be 6.2%, so after two large bottles of the stuff you know it! We get talking to a friendly Irish guy on the next table who’s also on an extended trip and he invites over a ‘German’ Greg Wallace lookalike who he’d been speaking to earlier. Nice, so we’re having a laugh, I chat with this German for a bit who’s apparently a chef at Audi, he gets to travel a lot with work though can’t really explain why he’s here. All the while he’s talking, all I can hear is Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot, when he’s impersonating a rich English oil tycoon, he really has the weirdest accent I’ve ever heard. In fact I’m unconvinced he was German at all. As the conversation goes on we find out that he’s taking full advantage of Bangkok’s enterprising and accommodating ladies whilst being away from his wife, nice guy. We end up all heading to the next road on, the Khao San road. The German recommends a place right on the corner called Gullivers, the Irish guy says that it might not be up our street due to the clientele but the German protests against this. After going in we pretty much say goodbye and walk straight back out again. It was a huge nightclub that we were far too sober to be visiting.
We decide to call it a night and Emma explains why she was so keen to leave, the German guy had been trying to make a move on her whilst I’d gone for a piss! Nice guy. Also she’d been talking to the Irish guy and he was trying to get rid of this hanger-on all night, I felt a bit sorry for our Irish friend as he was now left him in the nightclub with him!
The following day we headed out with our map, determined to see as much as we could. Every 5 minutes someone approached offering us help, snatching our map and circling places we should visit. They all told us the Grand Palace was closed for various reasons (either the King was visiting, it wasn’t open on Wednesdays or it was being cleaned) so we should visit the smaller temples instead. Also would you believe it, today was a very special day as the government had issued free fuel and food coupons to all tuk tuk drivers that had green flags, so you could hire their services for 20 baht (40 pence) a day! Some told us that petrol prices would rise tomorrow so you could get a cheap tuk tuk for today only but only on those with white flags. We declined their interesting stories as apparently you get taken to rare stone jewellers that sell crappy glass jewellery for stupidly high prices and taken to a bad tailors too. They pressure you into buying and the tuk tuk driver makes a commission. Lesson finally learnt, every kind person that approaches you is only out to scam you at some level or another! This happens every 5 minutes if your skin is pale. You can also attract one instantly by unfolding your stupidly huge tourist map. We arrived quite naive after not having any experiences of the sort in China. We had to wise up fast! We both now sadly felt massively suspicious of every Thai person we met. We weren’t in love with Bangkok.
The next few days we visited temples, palaces, shopping centres and cruised the Chao Phraya river. We also tried to get to the red light district so we could witness what was going on there, but the city is so big and spread out that it’s quite a journey to the different places. We only made it to Patpong which is now more of a tourist spot, so we only saw a few dodgy signs and not much depravity. Apparently if you head out much further west there’s a shopping mall completely for the sex industry!
Anyway we did enjoy some things in Bangkok! At last we could finally enjoy some real Thai food and we weren’t let down. Green, Red, Massaman and Penang curries, chicken with cashew nuts and Pad Thai; the food is beautiful. It made a change to be able to order anything on the menu and know that you would enjoy it, unlike in China! We also met up with Bryan, a Californian guy we’d bumped into whilst in a night market in Beijing. We headed out West to Lumpinee stadium together pretending to be students, and blagged some ring side seats at a night of Muay Thai kickboxing for about 300 baht (£6) less each than everyone else! This was my highlight of Bangkok.
Muay Thai is a violent sport, pretty much anything goes, so you see punches, kicks to the shins/thighs/abdomen/ribs/face. There’s also a lot of kneeing to the kidneys and even the face if they get the right grip on their opponent. All of the ring side seats are occupied by ‘farang’ (the Thai term for foreigner), the locals are deliberately priced out, they sit further back in more of a sweaty cage where they yell out and bet on the fighters. A group of about 4 musicians play throughout the night making a bizarre soundtrack to each fight. I can’t describe the music, it’s just great, check this video (not mine) on YouTube to get the gist:
We saw about 11 fights of varying skill levels. All of the fighters were pretty small guys though some looked really young, possibly around 16. We saw guys being stretchered off after taking a bad kick to the knee and two knockouts all the while the music plays relentlessly. When you use the toilets you walk past the next fighters getting prepped by their team. They’re getting covered in Tiger Balm so the air is alive with the smell of it. Guys from previous fights are using the showers behind you whilst you piss. It’s really odd to be so close to them all and it certainly makes you realise that you don’t want to get into a fight with any slightly built Thai guy! The night was amazing, the rituals of each fighter before his match were great to see. Some have elaborate dances they perform whilst their opponent looks out towards the crowd, trying to avoid getting psyched out by his more dramatic opponent. Most impressive of all though is each fighter’s Mother screaming encouragement from his corner of the ring.
The whole night built up to one particular fight which featured the champion. More Thais arrived the closer we got to this fight until the atmosphere was a frenzy of shouts, spilt Chang beer and Tiger balm. The main fight was a bit of let down after all, with lots of clock watching and was eventually won by the champion on points. The fight before had been far better, both guys really wanted to win and culminated in an explosive knockout. As the night ended we walked past a stage set up so that a commentator could interview the Champion for a TV broadcast. We watched as he was handed his prize, a crappy DVD player 🙁
The following days featured more scams of varying complexity which I think we managed to avoid. We visited the Grand Palace which surprisingly wasn’t closed, the King was absent and it wasn’t being cleaned. We also visited a Museum built to recognise the Queen’s efforts in promoting the Thai silk industry and its importance for the poor of Thailand. It seemed to have been built on her request which I did find a little odd, I thought others were supposed to do that in your honour?? Anyway the air conditioning in there was amazing and the surplus of lingering staff were very helpful.
After a few more days of drifting around the city, the time had come to head back to the travel agency to collect our passports and catch our bus. We entered the building tentatively, pleased to see it still there and breathed a sigh of relief as we were handed back our passports complete with every page and a Vietnamese visa. We were driven to our bus which had loads of leg room, free food, drink and blankets. Phew we hadn’t been scammed, just charged a huge amount of money! We sat back and relaxed as we headed off for the 9 hour overnight journey to Chiang Mai, pleased to be leaving Bangkok behind.
Goodbye for now,