Sunday, 6 September 2009

Bangkok, Ayuttuyah and Floating Markets

I guess you could have called this radio silence. All the usual excuses apply, but in fact I feel I have just been a bit lazy about writing. Ooops. In this time about a month has got away from me, the good news though is that we have been somewhat sedentary in this time and have based ourselves out of Bangkok, City of (Fallen) Angels. I have been to Bangkok a few times before and each time I return I fall in love with it a bit more. We set up base in Lumpini, near the Muay Thai Boxing stadium and just around he corner from the shop sign that proclaims “LUCK.” I have not yet managed to establish whether or not this refers to the Good or Bad variety, or whether or not it relates the type that is about to run out. The infamous Malaysia Hotel is around the corner, rumoured to be a veritable den of inequity and just down the road is the ironically named Family Guest House. I say ironically because it oozes sleaze, of the camp and cross dressing variety. And that is fine in its own way, consenting adults etc, though the cap does not fit the name in this instance.

On the plus side we have the Ibis Hotel one hundred metres away, clean, modern and with an all you can eat buffet lunch for 200 Baht per head (about GBP 4.00 for a personal best of three side plates of starters, three full plates of mains and one large bowl of desert and fruit). The term Buffet really means “Challenge” where we come from and typically leaves me feeling full for the rest of the day. I am pretty sure they are going to bar us soon. A ten minute walk up the road finds you in the massive Suan Luam Night Bazaar and across the road is the Metro Station. A little further down the road is the BTS (the Sky Train) and bus routes abound. Nipun mastered the buses quickly and whereas the size of Bangkok used to seem intimidating it is all beginning to make a lot more sense now. One of the things I love about Bangkok is that you can travel by Bus, Boat, Metro, Sky Train. And most of the time it works. The traffic can be a problem, but then there are air conditioned trains that are comfortable and not usually overcrowded. It is unusual not to be able to get a seat, certainly where the metro is concerned. Finally we have Lumpini Park just up the road. The park is huge and is landscaped with lakes and gardens. It is a tranquil retreat right in the middle of town. Silom to one side, Central to the top and then this oasis of water and green grass. People run in the park, do aerobics and there is a weight lifting gym, out in the open air. In the mornings and evenings it is packed with joggers who pause to do sit ups, chins and dips at various intervals. Of course you have those people like myself who have just come to watch the day fade into evening and sit on the benches. Young couples smooch on the grass and families take picnics down to the lake side. It has a sense of community and has become one of my favourite places in Bangkok. Once you are exhausted by watching weight lifters and joggers you can take an exit from the park that leads you more or less directly onto Silom Road where the Pat Pong Night market is and, should you be tempted, restaurants, pubs, clubs, shows and go go bars. It is all there. And then one metro stop later we are back at home.

Our time in the last month has not been exclusively dedicated to Bangkok. In the interim we have also travelled to Ayutthaya (The former capital of Thailand), Damnoen Saduak (to see the very commercial floating markets) and Ko Chang for an island break from our break. To get to Ayuttayah we caught a train from Hua Lampong. The train was a local train, populated exclusively by Thai’s and crammed. Vendors selling beer, cokes and food negotiated the aisles hawking their goods from coach to coach. The journey itself was about two hours long and cost about 15 Baht. In other words a two hour journey cost us about 25 pence. And it was no worse than British Rail, in fact the trains actually left on time and you could beer to boot. The train on the way back was delayed by about half an hour, but you could still by beer so it wins on that account! More seriously though it is quite enjoyable travelling on the local buses and trains and gives us a far better feel for the country than a plush AC minivan full of backpackers.

On arrival in Ayuttayah we are alarmed to find that our guest house was fully booked and that the other ones in the area seemed to be flee ridden, windowless rooms. After some investigation by Nipun we managed to find a place above a photography studio which worked well as I had left my camera battery charger in BKK and they were more than happy to help out. The town of Ayuttayah was in actuality quite grim I felt. The old ruins were spectacular but the town itself felt too hot, too dusty and too dirty. There is a fantastic night market that sells mostly food and this I liked. That is, I liked it until I went down the pier below it at 6 AM the next morning to take photos of the river and smelt the place by day. It reeked of sulphurous urine and faeces and the air seemed sticky with filth. I got the pictures I wanted and fled for the shower. But the food was good and later that night we took the camera out with a single flash to shoot some locals and my appetite got the better of me. Before I knew we were tucking into fried rice, thick with chilli and goodness. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Sometimes. Of course the star attraction of Ayuttayah are ancient the temple complexes which are scattered around the town. You can’t pop down to a 7/11 without practically tripping over an old, crumbling temple. And they are beautiful. I did some night shots at a few of them, (thinking I would have to bribe the night watchman with my favourite Thai term - dee sam ram koon, dee sam rap pomme (“Good for you, good for me”)) but this was not the case as the temples remain open until about 9pm. And then we were back to Bangkok again, sweltering in 35 degree heat and crammed into the local train drinking Leo beer and watching Thailand fly past the window.

Our next little excursion was the town of Damnoen Saduak, home to Thailand’s most famous (and thereby commercial) floating market. Rather than jump on the tourist bandwagon and take a day trip we went to the Eastern Bus Terminal and caught the local service out of town so that we could stay a couple of nights and see the markets properly. The trip took about two hours and my first impressions of place were pretty bad. I thought the place was full of yokels and raving crack pots. As we walked along the canal an old lady on a boat harangued us for not buying her fruit; happily we could walk faster than she could row but she put in a good effort. A few steps later a young man, possibly not quite right mentally, shouted his helloes to us far too loudly from far too close and then paces later a septuagenarian tried to grope my wife. All this in ten minutes. I remonstrated with the dirty old man who then started pointing his figure threateningly at me and yapping like a rabid chi Wawa. Around about then I wondered what the local police force would have to say about pushing the aged into a deep canal with a foot to his rear. Happily as went further down the canals things improved. An eloquent and wonderfully amiable Thai lady invited us to sit with her on her verandah and for the next hour regaled us with tales about the town and how it had changed over the last decade. It was difficult to leave her. Although she had limited schooling her English was superb and she also knew Italian and some Dutch. As for the floating markets, they were horribly commercial and populated by more foreigners than locals. It was still fun to see but I wish we had made the time to go to Amphawa nearby which is more authentic though only open on official market days.

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