Honeymoon ramblings – Bangkok

Disclaimer:
I’ve been promising some people (okay, my mother) that I’ll put some details of our honeymoon here. As we were travelling I made some brief notes, and some not-so-brief notes, for two purposes. One was to provide a reminder for us (as I don’t trust my memory) and the other was to remind me what all the dozens of photos were of. As a result, these notes are long. Dip in and out or just feel free to ignore them!
 
I’m dividing it into sections. The first deals with our trip to Bangkok…
 
17-18 Sep
"King of Qatar is going" read the driver’s note. This was at least an explanation for why we’d been sitting on the runway in a transfer bus, even if (in my opinion) it wasn’t a good one. He certainly could have put on a better complimentary meal than the canteen tray that accompanied our four hour wait for the next connecting flight to Bangkok.
 
So it wasn’t an auspicious start to our honeymoon, but it wasn’t too bad. The Qatar airline flights involved seat back movies on demand, friendly service and food that wasn’t bad at all. They made up for our long change at Doha. We arrived in Bangkok after midday Thai-time and proceeded via your typically overpriced airport ‘taxi’ to the delightfully well appointed Shangri-La hotel.
 
I must backtrack slightly to describe my first impressions of the Thai driving style. At first I thought we were being driven by a maniac with the patience of a petulant 5 year old. He was tooting his horn at every car, motorbike, bicycle and pedestrian as if their presence on the road was a personal insult to him. However, after a little more observation, I determined that this horn sounding was just a friendly "I’m here, please move, there’s a chance I might have to overtake". This was more effective than the use of an indicator as bikes, cars and tuk-tuks zig zagged all over the road and would cunningly zip into any carelessly left space between you and the car ahead given half a chance.
 
Another observation we made as we drove into the city proper was the number of people wearing yellow. I wondered if they were municipal employees, but this didn’t seem to fit as some were running shops, some buying things from shops, and others not doing anything useful. On closer inspection these tops bore the royal crest. They were a mark of the Thai people’s devotion to their king, and probably worn in celebration of the 60th year of his reign. There are posters, small and huge, all over the city declaring wishes of longevity for the king in both Thai and English.
 
Anyway, to the Shangri-La. Our bags were magicked from the taxi boot to our room as we checked in without us touching them at all. The room had a balcony with a view over the Chao Phraya river and we spent the odd hour out there with gin and tonic and books. The hotel had thoughtfully left us a congratulatory wedding card too, along with a bowl of utterly alien fruit. There were some tiny sweet bananas, but everything else took a great deal of investigation: Do you eat the skin of the pink tentacled thing? Are the seeds of these large fury grape looking things edible?
 
A friend had recommended a trip to some rooftop restaurant for our first night there to give us, literally, an overview of the city. I hadn’t taken much care in writing it down, but did remember the word ‘Banyon’. I successfully found a restaurant called ‘Banyon’ in the guide book and got the hotel to sort us out a cab to get there. Hidden in this flurry of organization were a couple of critical errors.
 
The first became apparent as we embarked upon our cab journey. Bangkok has one of the worst traffic management schemes in the world, it would seem. Our journey commenced in the middle of the four hour evening "rush hour". The traffic crawled along at slower than walking pace. I was going to write "snail’s pace" but I didn’t want to exaggerate. The taxi took us a distance of about 5 km (3 miles) but took us over an hour.
 
This brings me to the second critical error, which became obvious as the cab reached its destination. The Banyan restaurant we had found in the guide book (‘Le Banyan’) turned out not to be on the top of a high rise building but rather situated in a bungalow nestled halfway down a dark side street. It didn’t even appear to be open, and the barking guard dog was not an incentive to investigate the menu.
 
We thanked our cabbie for his efforts and took the matter of dinner back into our own hands. Not far down the main road ("Sukhumvit") stood a Raddisson hotel which turned out to have a fantastic Italian restaurant. For our shame our first meal in Thailand was not Thai, but I don’t feel too guilty about it as honeymooners should be doing things in luxury.
 
We took the Sky Train back; efficient, clean and it travelled a lot faster than 5km/h.
 
19 Sep
We slept late due in part to jet lag, in part to black out curtains and in part to a very luxurious room. We looked through the guide book to plan our day and chose to visit Wat Arun. We were keen to avoid the roads so took advantage of the hotel’s free ferry to ‘River City’ thinking we could pick up the main ferry service there. River City seems to be built for and visited by tourists. It seemed to be an air conditioned shopping mall, and we went no further than a river front restaurant for lunch. We both had a really hot Thai green curry with fresh fish. Finally we’d had some Thai food, to which the sheen of moisture on my brow attested.
 
Still in the mode of naïve tourists, we failed to find the municipal ferry pier there. Instead, we paid through the nose (comparatively; amazing how cheap one can get once accustomed to a local currency) for an otherwise thrilling private boat trip the rest of the way.
 
Wat Arun looks majestically over the river. It is the main temple (‘Wat’ means temple in Thailand and Cambodia) in the area of Bangkok called Thon Buri. This is the old capital of the city, the original Bangkok. The name "Bangkok" was moved to the east side of the river at a later date when Rama I decided to relocate the capital. The temple and surrounding buildings are being restored, and they’re in pretty good condition, all told. It’s still a site of meditation for Buddhists, of which there are many in Thailand.
 
A favourite technique for decorating temples, including Wat Arun, is to use shards of porcelain and mirror. These have an amazing effect in the sun with the buildings apearing to sparkle as you move around them. Wat Arun consists in the main of a temple and a central monument. The central monument is quite tall and with some very steep stairs which "represent the difficulties of reaching higher levels of existence" (Lonely Planet).
 
After browsing round the complex we took the ferry across the Chao Phraya and took an aimless wander through a market and down a long street lined with food and flower sellers. The profusion of fruit, cooked meats and flowers was matched with the hustle and bustle of so many people with so many stalls packed so tightly together. The stalls thinned out and we found ourselves mulling over a streetmap deciding what to do next.
 
A Thai chap approached us and asked, in reasonable English, if we needed some help. Immediately my eyes were darting around looking for the accomplice that was going to steal Julie’s bag whilst this guy distracted us. That’s what living in London does for you, I guess! I had nothing to worry about. He was very friendly and gave us advice on a few things to see (mostly temples with various images of Buddha) and said that we must come and see him the next day as he worked at the Royal Palace. This we resolved to do; Julie had been keen on seeing it anyway.
 
The chap (I have forgotten his name) hailed a tuk-tuk for us, telling us we should always make sure we pay tuk-tuk drivers the Thai price, not the tourist price. He haggled the price of a small tour down for us and left us in the hands of a very keen, very nimble, but not so very good at English, tuk-tuk driver.  We learned the term "kop-um-cap" (or, for ladies, "kop-um-ka") for thank you from this guy. This doesn’t seem to match the guide book, but it didn’t draw any strange looks as we used it for the rest of our time in Thailand.
 
Tuk-tuks are named so because of the sound their engines make. They look like motorbikes that have had a roof and half a small sofa welded on to them. Tourists (more often than not) sit on the sofa in the back and pray. Our driver zipped so close to other cars that we didn’t dare cling to the frame in case our fingers got torn off. What tuk-tuks have going for them is their manoeuvrability. They can take small, half blocked side roads; leap frog queues of cars by driving into oncoming traffic (it moves out the way); cut through car parks. In short, they get places quicker. If your destination isn’t served by the Sky Train, the Chao Phraya ferry or the metro, then these are your quickest alternatives.
 
We were taken to see the biggest buddha, the oldest buddha, the luckiest buddha… There are a lot of buddhas. Some are in temples, others are outdoors. The biggest buddha, for instance, was outdoors and required us to stand half a field away to get it all in a photo. It was at this one that our driver purchased some gold leaf and helped us stick some to our foreheads ‘for good luck’.
 
Our tour was to end, as far as we understood, in a suit factory where it was the last day of a sale. We concluded that ‘factory’ must have been a translation of whatever the Thai is for ‘tailors’, as there didn’t appear to be any sweatshops anywhere close. We didn’t know to which tailor the driver thought he was taking us, but in the last of the temples another friendly Thai guy recommended to us a shop called ‘Voglee’, so we went there. I was measured up for a couple of suits and a winter coat. It was very strange looking through those catalogues of warm Europeans in dressed for a chilly winter whilst I was dressed in t-shirt, shorts and sandals.  We left Voglee with an arrangement to come back for a fitting the next day.
 
We had an adrenaline surge of a tuk-tuk ride through rush hour traffic to get back to the hotel, with the driver cheekily apologising to the police that seemed to be manning junctions. Once back at the hotel, we decided to have another go at finding this rooftop restaurant. I made a more concerted effort to check through my phone for the email Matt had sent me with the name of the restaurant. It turned out to be named ‘Vertigo’ in a hotel called ‘Banyon Tree’, and was only about 2km from the Shangri-La. We took the Sky Train; far easier than taxi.
 
The restaurant was stunning, sitting on top of the 62nd floor. It was quite a humid evening, but a breeze on the rooftop made it easily bearable. We were given a table on a raised area with an unobstructed, panoramic view. The menu was excellent; we ordered à la carte. During the course of the meal a storm started brewing in a tiny portion of the sky, but soon started to head our way.
 
At that point I received a text message from my mother asking if we were okay. Why wouldn’t I be, I thought. Puzzled, I responded to say that we were watching a storm head our way whilst eating at a rooftop restaurant, but otherwise we were fine. I asked why she was worried. The return text message was when we learned that at some point during our dinner there had been a military coup in Bangkok.
 
We’d finished our main course as the winds picked up and at the first spots of rain we moved inside to the floor below and shared a delicious freshly baked cheese cake for desert. As coups go, this one was rather relaxing.
 
We had a drink in a bar a little further down the building and used the hotel wi-fi to check out the news on my phone. The BBC told us that tanks had rolled in to surround government house and the offices had been occupied. Thai television was showing songs that were supposed to evoke memories of previous successful revolutions and coups. (We saw some of this later: The songs were accompanied by subtitles and a Disney style ball bouncing atop the words to allow you to sing along.)
 
We took a cab back that night, too late for the Sky Train and unwilling to try out public transport during a coup anyway.
 
20 Sep
The Royal Palace turned out to be closed due to the coup, but we decided to try and see if Jim Thompson’s house was open.
 
Jim Thompson was (or is?) an American who had a large part in re-establishing Bangkok’s tradition of silk weaving. This had declined during World War II. He restored a series of houses to traditional Thai-style and lived there for twenty years from 1946. He disappeared whilst walking in Pahang, Malaysia in 1967, and is assumed dead. (A fairly safe assumption as he’d be 100 years old by now anyway.) His home has become a museum both for its traditional architecture due to the large number and importance of the pieces of art he had collected there. The gardens, too, were very impressive: Not large, but well kept and packed full of all sorts of native plants and fish.
 
We attempted to get back to Voglee for my fitting, via another tuk-tuk. Unfortunately the tailors was based close to all the government buildings. Twice we got as far as road blocks policed by armed soldiers. We saw an armoured vehicle (not quite a tank) and attempted to get a few pictures as the tuk-tuk swung round with the rest of the thwarted traffic. This was the only sign of the coup we saw. Nobody we spoke to seemed too worried about it. News reports indicated that most people, even in the prime minister’s supposed support base in the countryside, supported the coup. Of course these reports were in a Thai newspaper, so who knows what influence the army had over that report.
 
We decided that a good thing to do in case of a coup is find some gin and tonic and sit on your balcony to enjoy the sunset with a good book. I summoned the tailors to the hotel, and they came with a half completed suit to complete the fitting. That’s good service in my book.
 
In the evening, still not yet keen to venture into town, we ate Thai seafood at one of the Shangri-La’s four or five restaurants. We enjoyed watching some Thai dancers and eating good food. One of our waitresses tried out her English on us by engaging us in conversation about our trip and was very excited to hear we were just married. She went away and prepared a special plate of fruit for us, carved into flower shapes. Very sweet.
 
It was a pleasant last evening in Bangkok, but we looked forward to coming back again on the last day of the honeymoon once the political situation had calmed down a bit.
 
 
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