Bhutan – but first, Bangkok!
We signed up for a Trekking tour in Bhutan, with a short stop in Bangkok on the way.
September 14 – 29, 2016
Dan is the more active of the two of us, of that there is no doubt. Just a quick read of some of my hiking pages and you’ll see that he is the driving force behind us getting out into nature on two feet, instead of two wheels. This time he went overboard with his planning: we were going to Bhutan for a multi-day trek through the Himalayas.
This trip was a long time in planning. A friend of Dan’s mentioned it to him one day that he was going and Dan decided that we should go too. That was ten months ago. We booked the G Adventures tour in December, booked our flight from Bangkok to Bhutan in February, and later filled in the gap with a flight from Zurich to Bangkok. Now it was finally time to go.
We planned for three days in Bangkok before heading into the remote country of Bhutan. It was a way to make the time change a little easier, as well as a good excuse to relax and explore the city since we were “in the area”. This also meant that packing would be more difficult, as we now had a hot city climate to consider as well as the cooler mountains. I love a good challenge.
Coco and Loki want to keep us from putting anything else in the suitcase
Loki keeps me from completing my packing
The flight from Zurich to Bangkok was uneventful. The seating was adequate and the movie list was extensive. But my screen would not update from the flight information window, and I could see the person in front of me had the same problem. I mentioned it to the stewardess and shortly after that there was an announcement that the entertainment system needed to be rebooted – asking everyone to be patient for twenty minutes while they did so. I eventually ended up watching a series of movies before finally drifting off to a fitful sleep.
“I’m leaving on a jet plane…”
Can I take a minute to complain about the seating arrangements on today’s planes? Yes, I love the fact that each seat now has its own individual screen and there are countless options of movies, TV shows, music and games right at my fingertips. However, when the person in front of me decides to recline his seat and that screen is now barely twelve inches from my face, I start to resent its presence completely. My only recourse is to recline my own seat, thereby passing along the inconvenience to the poor soul behind me. Ok, sorry for the rant. Hours later we landed in Bangkok and I immediately felt the oppressive heat as it leaked into the jetway.
It was a fast trip through immigration (one at a time, stand on the yellow square and take off your glasses for a photo, wait for the official to hand back the freshly stamped passport), and baggage claim was a breeze. Dan is a whiz with foreign public transportation and he took us directly to the train station and got us tickets that would take us to our hotel. The ride was a lot longer than we expected and with all of the stops and a line change, it took us about an hour before we finally found our hotel.
Our hotel in Bangkok, the Siam@Siam Design Hotel
The staff was immediately welcoming and agreed to hold our bags for us, since we arrived before our room was ready. We went back out into the heat and began a short tour of the neighborhood. It wasn’t a fancy area by any means, but it was close to an important shopping district. Based on the shear number of times that we were asked “You go shopping?” I can only assume that this was the main draw to this area. But we weren’t here to shop. We were here to see what sort of cultural things of interest Bangkok had to share with us.
My first impression of Bangkok is “chaos”. Buildings were either being built, or appeared to be in a state of disrepair where they needed to be rebuilt. Very few buildings looked to be “done”, although that didn’t mean that they were empty. And surprisingly, a number of the decent-looking buildings did appear to be empty. Of course, I’ll never know the details of what I saw and can only make my own guesses.
Building construction down the street
Canal behind our hotel
Walking along the canal
The Jim Thompson House was located within a couple of blocks from our hotel and we decided to check it out. Jim Thompson was an American who fell in love with Thailand after World War II and moved here initially to help prepare Thailand for the expected rise in tourism, but eventually his focus shifted to reviving the silk industry. His efforts were recognized by the Thai people and they converted his home into a museum.
Jim Thompson House
We eventually went back to the hotel, freshened up a bit and had lunch. During the heat of the day we enjoyed the infinity pool and then later, once the heat had reduced slightly, we explored the city at night.
The view of the pool from our room
The view from the pool to the seating area
The view from the pool
Bangkok street scene
We fell in love with mangos, mango smoothies and mango and sticky rice
Impressive stacked infrastructure (train, walkway, shopping, street level)
Full moon from the hotel’s rooftop restaurant
The public transit system in Bangkok is great. There are trains that connect all parts of the city, and they are clean and run frequently. It was fun to watch the train conductors stood sternly outside of the train when it had reached the end station, making sure that everyone stoods behind the yellow line while someone else took a quick run through the train for a quick clean up. The crowds were very well behaved and rarely stood out of line while waiting for the train to arrive, and waited patiently out of the way while the arriving passengers disembarked. Impressive indeed, and a lesson that could be learned by many cultures around the world.
Public service signs in the train station
Mural near the hotel
We had two full days in Bangkok – what to do? We had a short list of recommendations by friends and tourist guides, but which ones to pursue? We decided to start with something simple: a river boat tour of the canals. We took the train down to the river front and immediately caught the eye of one of the “Long Tail Boat Tours” salesmen. He couldn’t sell us on the two hour tour, but we did agree to the one hour tour. Much to our surprise, we were the only ones on the boat – well, other than the captain.
As the boat pulled away from the dock I could see why it was called a Long Tail: the propeller was at the end of a long shaft that could easily be raised or lowered, depending on the depth of water being traveled through. It also made it easier to navigate through the surprisingly dense masses of vegetation that constantly flowed down from upriver. Bizarre and unwieldy boats made their way up river, and we crossed between them and began our short journey down the wide river.
Looking up the Chao Phraya River – the greenery was flowing downstream at a fast rate
Another Long Tail boat heading upstream
The captain turned the boat into a narrow canal and we soon saw another side of Bangkok. Wooden shacks lined the muddy banks, clothes hung from grey, concrete high rise buildings and flashy temples were tucked amongst them all. To me, it was interesting how so much wealth had been poured into temples, whereas the average home looked neglected and in disrepair. The width of the canal was wide enough for two long tail boats to pass, but some areas weren’t much wider. The vegetation was lush and the occasional egret and water monitor could be seen along the banks.
(Dan) Being passed by a fast long tail
The captain motored along, not a word out of his mouth, and let us look and comment on our own. Periodically he would slow down. Sometimes it was obvious why, but many times we were left wondering about the sudden speed change. One such time the reason became apparent: a market boat floated quickly out of the shadows, making a beeline for our boat. The woman on board skilfully slid her boat next to ours and tried to tempt us with a cold beverage. I didn’t want anything, but Dan relented and bought a Coke. The woman than suggested that we buy our captain a beer. Eh, it was a hot day and he hadn’t crashed into anything yet so we agreed. I paid her and she floated back to the captain and handed him his beer before slipping back into the shadows to wait for the next tour boat.
Waterside shacks on the canal
Giving a beer to our captain
Our hour ended and the captain dropped us off at a dock somewhere near the Grand Palace. Boats jockeyed for position at the small pier, motors never ceasing as they held their place against the strong current and dodging the rafts of floating plants. Another boat tried to slip past us, but our captain had a few words for the other captain and our captain won. Our beer bribe was a success!
Our landing point was unknown to us but we figured that there was something to see nearby, if only based on the sheer number of market stalls hawking goods to the numerous tourists that were in the area. We walked by them all until we found one that sold cold water. It was hot and important to stay hydrated, after all. Across the street was “something” – we could tell because we could see nothing but a high, whitewashed wall and some pointy spires beyond it. It turned about to be Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), one of Bangkok’s most famous temples.
There were other people sightseeing as well, but it wasn’t overwhelming. We took off our shoes to enter a couple of different rooms, and spent more time wandering around the various stupas, halls and pavilions. By the time we realized that the Reclining Budda was here, and actually found the building it was housed in, we were having second thoughts on going inside. There was a queue outside as people took off their shoes and women donned a light cloth to cover their upper arms. As I stood in the relatively comfortable shade of a tree and watched the people move through the packed interior I felt like this was something we didn’t need to see. It was hot (32C, with 42C heat index) and the garish ornamentation was not to my liking. Dan suggested that we not go in and I readily agreed with him. A part of me felt guilty for coming all the way to Bangkok and then simply ignoring one of the main reasons people visit the city. Oh well – technically we weren’t here to see Bangkok. We were here to relax and adjust to the time change before we headed to Bhutan. Anything we saw before then was just icing on the cake. Or gilding on the Buddha, one might say.
We slipped out of the gates of the temple and saw that the walls of the Grand Palace were across the street. Naturally we were at the far end of the Palace grounds and had a long walk along a hot, sun-beaten sidewalk before we could even see the gates. Along the walk Dan and I agreed that the Palace was another site that we did not have to visit. Honestly, I felt guilty but I felt even more beaten down by the heat. To give you an idea of my unhappiness with the heat, my ideal temperature is closer to 20C – and today it felt at least double that with the humidity. As I sit here and reflect on our time in the city, I am certain that I would have left with a much more positive outlook if it hadn’t been for the temperature.
The Grand Palace, from afar
The idea of more temples was not attractive to us. Instead, we meandered through some side streets in the general direction of our hotel. But we were a long way from our hotel and knew that eventually we’d have to find assistance in getting the rest of the way, be it via train or tuk-tuk.
The tuk-tuk won, when one driver pulled over to ask if we wanted a ride somewhere. Dan said yes, we tried (weakly) to negotiate a better deal but did stand firm on refusing his request to stop “along the way” so he could get free fuel. The driver dropped us off at our hotel and we slipped in passed the hotel staff and went up to our room.
An accident scene we passed on the way
Traffic as viewed from our room
And finally, some residual photos from our last day in Bangkok:
Orderly line-up while waiting for the train
Market stalls everywhere
To be frank, neither Dan nor I liked Bangkok. We explored because we were there, but we did not really enjoy our time in the city. I understand that we saw only a small part of the city, but this trip wasn’t about Bangkok, it was about Bhutan. So I’ve skipped the last day’s activities (which weren’t much) and we can move on to the next adventure, shall we?