Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thailand Tour Part 2: Tourist Boats, Tuk Tuks, and Teak Palaces

Tuesday, November 24
Bangkok:  the Chao Phraya River and Dusit Park

Today was the day Rob and I had planned to visit Ayuthaya, which is about 70 kilometers north of Bangkok.  Ayuthaya was the capital city of Thailand from 1350 to 1767 A.D. when it was destroyed by invading the Burmese army.  The ruins there are now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I had been looking forward to the visit.  But the first rule of happy touring is flexibility, and we both decided that we simply were not interested in walking around the ruins in the intense heat.  So I pulled out the guide book and found a new adventure closer to home.

Shrine in Dusit Palace Park
After another wonderful breakfast buffet in the hotel, we hopped on the Skytrain to Sathon Taksin, the Central Pier, where we bought a day pass on the tourist boats that move quickly up and down the Chao Phraya River, dropping tourists off at the many piers along the way.  The colored flags on the boats let you know the route of the boats, as some of them are express boats and don't stop at every pier, but I didn't know this when we bought our tickets. I just trusted that the woman who had hurried us onto our boat understood my attempt to say "Thewet Pier" with the correct pronunciation and had pointed us in the right direction!

The Chao Phraya has been the primary thoroughfare for Bangkok for centuries.  The riverbanks were lined with everything from modern skyscrapers to little wooden shacks.  Grand old hotels displayed the elegance of an earlier time, and modern shopping malls catered to the consumerism of today's world. 

Skyscrapers and Hotels line the banks of the Chao Phraya

Tucked between the modern buildings are buildings from Bangkok's past

Old warehouses along the river

Modern apartments side by side with wooden shacks on stilts

A big shopping mall along the riverbank

Old houses along the river

The new and the old stand side by side

Skyscrapers of Bangkok
The traffic on the river was almost as busy as the traffic in Bangkok's streets.  Large barges sometimes blocked our way, and little motor boats zoomed around us as they ferried people from one side of the wide river to the other.  Many of the brightly painted boats were decorated with garlands of flowers, and the banks of the river were sometimes clogged with water plants.

Water plants clog the riverbanks in some places.

I caught a glimpse of the turrets and roofs of the Royal Palace, but it was not right on the riverbank, so it was a bit obscured by trees and other buildings.  We will be seeing it later on our tour. 

The golden spires of the Royal Palace

Buildings in front of the Royal Palace

Near the Royal Palace

In front of the Royal Palace
On the other side of the river, Wat Arun, one of the most beautiful of Bangkok's temples, was unfortunately clothed in a thick scaffolding. 

My trusty map showed me that the Thewet Pier would be just beyond the high cables of Rama VIII Bridge, and sure enough, there it was!

Just beyond the pier stood a line of tuk-tuks, the little motorized vehicles that zip tourists around the town.  We had been warned to be careful of tuk-tuk drivers who offered "tours of the city" at very low prices.  What they are really offering is a "tour" to a "gem shop" selling bits of cut glass at outrageous prices.  But our driver knew that scam and assured us that he would take us to our destination with "no stops."  We stooped under the very low roof of the cab and whizzed down a tiny street lined with nurseries containing every sort of tropical plant. 

A vendor sells tropical fruits on the Thewet Pier

Zipping down the road in a tuk-tuk

We enjoy our first tuk-tuk ride!

Thank goodness we decided the take the tuk-tuk!  On my map, the distance to Dusit Palace Park looked quite walkable, but it turned out to be several miles.  We would have been dead by the time we arrived.

The main attraction in Dust Palace Park is the gorgeous Vimanmek Teak Mansion.  It was built by King Rama V, whom you might know as Chulalongkorn, the young crown prince who was educated by Anna Leonowens of "The King and I" fame.  When studying in Europe, he acquired a taste for some of the art and architecture of the west and erected a unique new palace combining eastern and western style and furnishings.  The palace is built of golden teak wood and does not contain a single nail. 

Rob on the palace grounds

The Octagon tower of Vimanmek Teak Palace

Vimanmek Teak Palace

A little shrine on the grounds of the Palace Park

 Before entering the grounds, we went through several layers of security.  First our bags were examined at an outer gate.  We bought out tickets and then had to stow all of our belongings (including my camera) in a locker.  Before entering the palace, we had to remove our shoes and then were patted down one more time.  We had arrived a little too early for the English language tour, so we walked through the palace alone first.  The entire house is surrounded by wide galleries, lined with windows that could be opened to the breezes in the days before air conditioning.  Each room was filled with the furniture used by the several generations of Thai royals who made this their home - floral needlepoint tapestry covered the chairs, gorgeous floral carpets of white and rose covered the floors, and the cabinets were filled with china and bric-a-brac from around the world.  Photographs of the royal family lined many of the walls.

I assured Rob that we would learn much more with the help of the English language tour, so he agreed to go through the palace again.  Oops...I had to keep from giggling as I discovered that we were not going to learn as much as we had hoped.  Our sweet little tour guide was a diminutive and sincere woman who rattled off a great deal of what I'm sure was helpful information - in an accent so thick that, even with a great deal of concentration, I caught only about 25% of it!  Rob understood even less, so I did as much translating as I could without being too obvious.  We did learn that much of the china place settings came from China and England, that there were vases from Murano, Italy... and that the royal family dined on a different color of plates for each day of the week.  (Saturday was purple.). We did observe the wooden pegs that held the teak wood in place, and we learned that the house contained 300 windows.  A canal behind the house held a row of charming wooden guest houses built on stilts for the "commoner" guests of the king. 

 We retrieved our belongings and found another tuk-tuk just outside the palace grounds to take us back to the pier where a nice couple helped us understand the flag system of the tourist boats.  Our boat came along almost immediately and we floated back to the Central Pier and returned to our hotel for lunch.  My body clock was still not quite turned around, so I took a long nap while Rob went out for another Thai massage and a visit to a nearby coffee house where he enjoyed some jazz and chatting with other tourists.

Our second tuk-tuk ride.

Monk on the pier.  We have seen several monks around the city
 The rest of the day was a nice leisurely chance to catch up on some reading and writing.  We ended the evening in the hotel lounge listening to their singer, Chai, who played the guitar and sang lots of songs from the Beatles, Paul Simon, John Denver.  I'm so glad we came to Bangkok several days before our tour starts.  We are both enjoying the leisurely pace - especially with the heat.  But we are looking forward to big adventures coming up in the next couple of days!


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thailand Tour Part 1 - Arriving in "The Big Mango" - Bangkok

November 20 - 23, 2015

My first impression of Bangkok?  It's freaking' hot here.  At home in Bakersfield, California, we are fond of saying, in defense of our summer days of 110 degrees, "but it's a dry heat.". Bangkok is not a dry heat.  It's a tropical heat, a sticky heat, a heat that drenches your clothes within minutes and leaves you hoping desperately for the next cold shower.  We had done our research.  November was supposed to be the beginning of the dry season, with cooler temperatures, but we arrived on Sunday to temperatures in the high 90's.  Our plans of poking into every corner of this huge city before beginning our official tour on Thursday were quickly replaced with thoughts of sitting in an air conditioned lounge sipping on tropical drinks and practicing our Thai language skills with the waiters.

But, hey, Rob and I had come a long way to visit this remarkable city, so the tropical drinks were put on hold and we quickly ventured out into the chaos.  Second impression of Bangkok?  It does a remarkable job of moving people around!  The city is huge and busy, and as we rode in our taxi from the airport, I wondered how we would ever master getting around the city.  But after three days here, I can say with confidence that I have mastered the main modes of transportation:  the BTS (or Skytrain), an elevated train that gets one quickly to most of the neighborhoods of the city, the tourist boats that ply the Chao Phraya, the wide river that splits the city in two, and the tuk-tuk, which takes you from the pier to your local destination.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's back up to the beginning of the trip.

Friday, November 20

It is a long way from Bakersfield to Bangkok.  We just couldn't find the will to sit in economy seats on that fourteen hour flight to Manila, where we changed planes for the much shorter leg to Thailand, but my motivated husband did his research and found us a great price on business class seats on Philippine Airlines.

Only problem with going business class?  I am now thoroughly spoiled and never want to go travel any other way!  We arrive at LAX in the early evening on Friday but enjoyed passing the time in the International Lounge which served "everything from soup to nuts" - and sushi and Bailey's Irish Cream (along with any other libations you might desire.). The lounge had views down into the recently remodeled Tom Bradley Terminal.  I watched the tower in the middle of the terminal, which had an ever changing floor to ceiling screen showing everything from waterfalls to Busby Berkeley style dancers.

Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX
The tall tower was an ever-changing display of everything from waterfall to Busby Berkeley style dancing.

Rob enjoys the lounge at LAX

When we boarded the plane, the flight attendant immediately offered us the menu and brought us a welcome drink.  We had already eaten, but who could pass up another good dinner?  Not us!  After dinner, we stretched out in our nice lie-flat beds and actually slept for almost six hours, then had a lovely breakfast.  Yep!  I am completely ruined.

Happy Joanie enjoys her welcome drink.
We had already eaten - but who could resist this menu?

Our choice of seat arrangements on our flight.

Sunday, November, 22
We arrived in Manila, where we had a short layover, on Sunday, having completely missed Saturday by crossing the International Dateline.  After a nice stretch in the Manila airport lounge, we boarded for the three hour flight to Bangkok... with another meal, of course.  We both said we ate our way to Bangkok!

As we approached the city, I spotted the Chao Phraya  River snaking its way east of the city.  The river splits Bangkok in half, with many of the historic sights found along its banks. 

Our view of the Chao Phraya River as we approached Bangkok.
We got through customs and immigration with no problem and found the taxis lined up outside of the terminal.  It was Sunday so the traffic was fairly light, but our taxi driver said that we could expect the rest of our stay to include heavy traffic right outside our hotel.  (He was right!  When we set out the next morning before 8:00 a.m., the street was filled with cars and motorbikes.)

Our taxi was decorated with floral garlands and tiny Buddhas

Morning traffic on Sathon Street.
The motorcycles travel in big packs and weave deftly through the traffic.
The Evergreen Laurel Hotel is a lovely business hotel right in the heart of the Sathon/Silom area, the business district of Bangkok.  By the time we got to our room, we had been traveling for about 36 hours, so even with the six hours of sleep on the plane, we were completely exhausted.  I could have gone to sleep immediately but we know how important it is to keep on doing the first day in order to get our body clocks turned around, so we took a little stroll up to busy Silom Street, lined with shops and street food vendors. 

The entrance to the Evergreen Laurel Hotel.
The woman by the front door was our darling waitress several times.

Rob in the lovely lobby of the hotel.

We had a simple supper in the hotel restaurant of delicious carrot soup and a salad, then fell into bed at about 7:30 p.m.  Around 2:00 a.m., we were both wide awake for awhile, but we went back to sleep until around 6:00 a.m. on Monday and woke up feeling like new people!

Monday, November 23

The hotel's breakfast room was already filled with travelers, so we sat with a nice pair of women from Canada who were on another of Overseas Adventure Travel's Tours.  Rob and I are focusing on Thailand, but their five-week trip is taking them to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. 

After breakfast, we tried (but failed) to beat the heat by heading out early to Lumphini Park, which is Bangkok's version of Central Park.  We are not in one of the historical districts of the city, filled with temples and palaces.  Instead, our view from the hotel is of high rise office buildings and apartments.

The view from our hotel room.  We are fascinated by the odd tower on the right. 
It looks unfinished, but the open, uneven spaces are deliberate.
But even here, it was obvious that we had entered a new and unfamiliar culture:  little temples on the wall of a gas station, street food vendors and Thai massage parlors lining the streets. 

Little temples like this are found all over the city.
This one was by the wall of a gas station.

That famous Thai institution - an Irish pub!

Images of the king of Thailand is a frequent sight.

Street food is found EVERYWHERE.

The BTS, or Skytrain, is a great way to get around the city.

Our first sighting of a Thai elephant - guarding the steps to the BTS station.

Rob walks down busy Silom Street

Once again, we walked down Silom Street under the shadow of the BTS, or Skytrain - the elevated train that offers quick transportation around the city.  At the end of the road was Lumphini Park, a lovely green space with bicycle paths and lakes.  We caught sight of a couple of the big monitor lizards searching for bugs in the grass.  I had my eye out for new birds to show my birder brother, but all I found were familiar pigeons, sparrows, and mynah birds, along with some egrets and a crow-like bird. 
The Silom entrance to Lumphini Park

City skyscrapers behind a lake of Lumphini Park

Monitor lizard

Boat house in Lumphini Park

We spotted this couple practicing their ballroom dance in the park.

The engraving says, "Learn from those who live it!". Good philosophy.

By 10 a.m., we were soaking wet, in spite of the shade, and made our way back to the Evergreen for a shower and a little rest.  After a short nap, we discovered that the hotel offered a spectacular lunch buffet, so we were quite happy to remain in the air-conditioning a bit longer! 

Rob at the fabulous lunch buffet.

Sushi and sashimi at the buffet

The fresh seafood was grilled to order.

After lunch, we  found the hotel pool.

Joan enjoys the swinging chair by the pool.

As it was still much too hot to go exploring, we decided on a different type of cultural adventure - a genuine Thai massage at a local massage parlor, the Oasis.  We were escorted upstairs and each shown into a small dark room with no furnishing other than a cloth covered mattress on the floor and some hangers on a hook on the wall.  My attendant, a young man who spoke no English, handed me a couple of items and disappeared.  I examined the items and discovered that they were some baggy cloth pants and a hospital-gown-like top, so I changed into them, and soon the masseur returned.  I laid down on the mat, and enjoyed an hour of being turned into a human pretzel!  It felt (mostly) wonderful - I only squealed in pain once or twice. 

Amazingly, the massage really helped my jet lag, and we felt ambitious enough to give the Skytrain a try.  The closest station, Chong Nonsi, was only a few blocks down the street from our hotel.  We walked up the long staircase to the elevated walkways that crisps-cross the busy boulevards, then down a long hall, filled with Thai commuters heading home from work.  We changed some paper baht, the Thai money, into coins for the ticket machines and went through the turnstiles to the train.  Another adventure!  The train was completely packed, and the only way to get on was to just take a deep breath and plunge into the crowd. 

Motorcycle packs under the Skytrain

Happily, we had only two stops to go to the Central Pier, where we found the free shuttle boat to Asiatique, a huge shopping complex built in the old warehouses of the East Asia Trading Company.  As we floated down the river, we passed a series of brightly decorated and lighted boats celebrating the beginning of Loy Krathong, one of the most popular festivals of Thailand.  (More about that in an upcoming post!)

 Asiatique reminded me of the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, with shop after shop filled with colorful offerings of every type. 

Asiatique, on the banks of the Chao Phraya River

Stalls of Asiatique

Stalls of Asiatiques

Colorful soaps

Bangkok used to be called "The Venice of the East" -
And just as in Venice, we saw colorful locks symbolizing undying the devotion of young lovers.

"Let's Shopping!"

The lights of the city sparkled on the river as we floated back to the Central Pier, and the BTS ride home was much easier, as the evening commute was over.  Our jet lag was kicking in again, so after a small supper of soup and salad, we went to bed and fell immediately to sleep. 
The lights of Bangkok