Not India – Thailand
A last minute decision to head north rather than south was a wise one. The forecast for the islands is still for rain and thunderstorms. We’ve heard plenty of tales from fellow travellers who have encountered conditions nearly as bad as we did five years ago when we took that traumatic bus trip through flooded countryside north from Krabi. This year we hear that bridges have collapsed, main roads are under water and the resort guesthouses are empty. A Bulgarian couple told us that they had flown down to Krabi two weeks ago, got a few miles out of the airport before being turned back on a flooded road and flew straight back to Bangkok.
Our last minute change of plan has meant that we have avoided all that. Since we had three days to fill in Bangkok before taking the train north to Chiang Mai and since it’s been 17 years since we did the main sights it seemed like a good idea to revisit them, beginning with a trip on a packed river express boat along the bustling Chao Phraya to Chang Pier and the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.
It’s over four months since the death of the Thai King and the country is in mourning. The whole city is draped in black and white bunting. There are shrines on the streets and in the wats where the king’s photograph is surrounded by garlands of white jasmine and orchids. Police and soldiers wear black armbands and the sailors wear little black and white ribbons. The newsreaders on the tv are all dressed in black.
The Grand Palace marks the focus of the nation’s grief and here Thais of all ages, all dressed in black, form endless queues to shuffle past the urn that contains his ashes. As tourists we couldn’t help but feel that we were interlopers.
We spent the day wandering about both sights, mugged up on our temple architecture vernacular so we could tell our bots from our prangs, queued to file past the reclining Buddha, admired the cloud pruned shrubbery, smiled at the troop of junior Boy Scouts fidgeting as they sat cross legged listening to the lecture of the temple guide, declined the invitation to buy 108 coins to drop into the 108 bronze bowls, joined the crowds at the entrance of Wat Phra Kaew to gaze in at the Emerald Buddha (surprisingly small and not made of emeralds) and were appropriately dazzled by the inlaid mosaics and gleaming gold chedis. We returned by river express via Wat Arum, the Temple of Dawn.
That evening we ate green curry and duck and deep fried holy basil and drank cold Singha beer at Joke Mr Lek’s street restaurant in an alley in Banglamphu and then had a stroll along the notorious backpacker ghetto of Khaosan Road and over into Rambuttri Soi, close enough to walk from our hotel in Samsen Soi 2 and far enough away to be thankful that we are not staying there. It’s much the same as we remember it from the last time we saw it five years ago but there’s more of it: more tattoo shops, more cheap hostels, more joints selling ‘very strong’ alcohol by the bucket, more live music bars, more neon, more massage beds, more crowds, more street stalls. It’s all noise, energy and excess.
I don’t remember seeing the carts with their trays of deep fried insects and scorpions before; they seemed to be doing a better trade from the 10 bhat charge to photograph them than through sales.
A welcome sign at the entrance of a shop selling bags: No Food, No Drink, No Smoking, No Exchange, No Return, No Refund, No Photographs. Thank you.
The following morning we set off on the river express again, an efficient way of avoiding Bangkok’s traffic – when the boats don’t break down as ours did I leaving us stranded and waiting for a replacement – to Rajinee Pier and the wholesale market area and to Pak Khlong Talat, (‘market at the mouth of the canal’) the Flower Market in particular. This is where the flowers arrive by boat and truck late at night from the countryside at Nakhon Pathom and beyond, some as far away as Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, to be unpacked, sold, distributed or made into garlands. It is here that the street flowers sellers come to buy sacks of white jasmine and yellow marigold to make the phuang malai or flower garlands.
By the time we arrived, mid morning, it was relatively quiet as most of the business of the day had been completed before dawn. Nevertheless, the market was filled with the colour and scent of baskets, bowls and sacks full of cut flowers and blossom: white jasmine, orchids, chrysanthemums, marigolds, roses….. On the stalls women were stringing together blossoms with tiny needles or constructing the cone-shaped offerings known as baisri, happy for us to stand, watch and be impressed by their dexterity. We were even given the tiny bananas used in their offerings.
All this was in contrast to the crowds of Yaowarat or Chinatown, a few streets to the north, where we were happy to get lost in the bustling alleyways amongst the stalls selling what was for us a baffling array of food and drink, fish or fowl, animal or vegetable, dried, roasted, boiled, soaked and reconstituted we often couldn’t tell. Then it was back along the river for cold beer and iced coffee, a couple of hours of reading and relaxation and back to Mr Lek’s for his shrimps. It’s his seafood he’s noted for after all.
We passed following day doing nothing very much, wandering around Banglamphu and marking time until the late afternoon when we headed to Hue Lamphu station and Train No 10 to Chiang Mai.