Almost a year ago, our fairytale wedding done and dusted (and I’m not just saying that – it was an amazing day in Prague), our stuff sold or given away to friends and the rest of it temporarily stored at my parents’ house, Jeff and I set off on one of the adventures of a lifetime… 56 days in South East Asia!
I can’t tell you why it’s taken quite so long to get around to writing about this; perhaps it was returning to the UK, jobless and uncertain, the long transition to what we have managed to cultivate now – a nice life in Stratford-upon-Avon, a pretty interesting job and a part-time Masters course, while Jeff makes surprisingly good money from playing the piano. I can’t promise you that my memory of events will be entirely accurate – but I did keep notes along the way.
We arrived in Bangkok on the 9th of July 2013, armed with a massive traveller backpack and a smaller bag each. It took us a couple of weeks to figure out that we didn’t really need half the outfits or books that I’d packed – seriously, a skirt, a loose pair of trousers and seven T-shirts are all you need, plus if you need more Thailand can sell you clothes for shockingly low prices.
When you arrive at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, follow the (clearly marked) way to the Airport Rail Link. The “City Line” took us to Makkasan, where we walked to Phetchaburi metro. The way was clearly signposted and gave us our first glimpse of Thailand; street vendors selling fruit and chicken skewers, motorbikes zooming by and smart-looking people in business suits purposefully overtaking wide-eyed tourists, like us, maps in hands and bags on backs. It goes without saying that it was hot, but we hadn’t expected anything less. The escalator down to the underground was sure to warn us to *always* keep hold of the handrail, and at the bottom our bags were “searched” (that is, a torch blinked at my open bag while the guard’s eye did not even bother) after we stepped through the metal detectors that lie outside every metro entrance. Signs warning commuters not to bring durian (a very smelly fruit) onto the metro caught my eye.
When you get onto the metro, you exchange your money for a small plastic token which magnetically activates the barrier. Be warned that the machines only accept 1, 5, and 10 baht coins and 10, 20, 50 ad 100 baht notes (although not all varieties of those notes). A sign on the wall will tell you how much it costs to each destination – it’s usually less than a pound to any point on the metro. There’s only one metro line, stretching from Hua Lamphong to Bang Sue (heh), with announcements apologising for this at the end of each line. The metro carriages provide a soothing blast of cool air, annoying adverts on TV screens and – crazily – full mobile phone signal.
We stayed at the Cozy Bangkok Place, a 5 minute walk from Hua Lamphong station. Head East from the station to find this hostel – there are signs on some of the walls to help you. This was my first encounter with Thai roads. The relentless swarming of cars and motorbikes can appear terrifying at first, but if you follow your Western instincts you’ll never manage to get anywhere. There are two things to remember here – one is that people actually (mostly) pay attention to traffic lights in Bangkok, so if you wait for the rush of traffic heading towards you to get a red light, you can cross in safety (more or less). The second thing to remember is that if you start crossing the road, most traffic will anticipate your position and swerve around you. In other words, if you start walking, don’t speed up or stop as this will confuse drivers and make collision more likely. After a few days you’ll start to develop the confidence to do this when necessary, but it’s pretty damn terrifying when you begin.
The Cozy Bangkok Place is down a narrow series of alleyways, and a great glimpse into everyday Bangkok life. Even in these 2″ wide streets, motorbikes zoomed down and expected us to make way, children played, washing dried and people ran their businesses with the doors open. We saw an elderly man surrounded by nuts, bolts and car pieces, chilling out and waiting for customers, as well as several places to eat. I don’t know whether I would call them restaurants – more front rooms, a few tiny plastic tables and chairs, laminated menus in Thai and a gas stove and a wok out front. The women we saw always looked as if they were making something delicious – as well as a mysterious variety of curries that had been made earlier that day, they were always cooking something. I had started to learn the Thai alphabet in order to decipher things (and it’s such a beautiful alphabet!) but felt nowhere near confident enough to try ordering in a tonal language. I felt a yearning to be part of this world, these buzzing corridors of delicious aromas and colour.
The hostel was nice – we chose one with shared showers and toilets, and splashed out on air-con (as we pretty much did for the entire time). After sleeping for a while (we hadn’t slept for around 25 hours) we awoke to a dark early evening sky and rain. Grabbing our umbrellas, we decided to explore the area. The first item on the agenda was to try street food.
We crossed the main road (carefully) and took a left. You only need to walk for a few minutes, being mindful of potholes and open sewage (which you may just miss in the dark), before you find corridors of street vendors. Some sell soups, others curries, others desserts. It can be pretty daunting to have no idea what you’re looking at, what you can order, how to order, wishing you could just say “hey, give me anything that’s tasty and not TOO weird”. The first reaction is to find the one vendor who has an English sign, or the one making eye contact and actually inviting you to look at their food. Under a blue tarpaulin cover, several dishes lay in silver bowls, each one looking delicious but with no real indication of what was in them. A smiling man encouraged us to order something, so I tentatively pointed at something that looked inoffensive – green beans and tofu. He pointed to rice, I nodded, and was asked to pay 30 baht – about 60p. Jeff and I decided to share this to test the waters. The man ushered us over to his best table – up a couple of stairs, right outside a bank. He offered us water (I was a bit afraid to drink it) and brought us our first meal.
Taking a fork (Thai people don’t use chopsticks, except for Chinese food – they actually use a fork and spoon for most things) I tucked into my first bite of street food. My mouth was instantly filled with pain and fire. F*CK! This stuff was spicy. I mean, I’ve never been the best with spicy food, but I had at least been slowly evolving from kormas to bhunas. This thing was spicier than anything I’d ever put in my mouth. Tears started to stream down my face, so I opted for the plain rice bit. Jeff, meanwhile, who is comparable to Dave Lister in the spice-loving department, wolfed it down. He did admit that it was “a bit hot”, but the crazy mo-fo didn’t even break a sweat.
Still hungry, we ventured into one of the actual restaurants along the street, where I pointed at pictures hopefully and ended up with a bowl of duck and noodle soup for around 50 baht. Still a little hungry, we popped into a 7-11. Much like Japan, Thailand has embraced the American brand of 7-11 and turned it into its own thing. There are hundreds of them in Bangkok, and they’re always deliciously air-conditioned (well, usually to the point where you need a jacket) and stocked with pork buns, chilled iced teas and cheese and ham toasties, for those days when you need a taste of home.
The next morning we ventured around the corner from our hostel, where some nice people we’d met in the lobby recommended we try the Pad Thai. Positioned on a corner, a little old woman worked from what looked like a garage, cooking on her single gas hob. A display case showed us various soups and curries, and the seating area was a single metal sheet and three small, plastic stools. We sat down, tentatively, and were greeted with an apprehensive smile. I ventured “pad thai?” The woman nodded, smiled, and started throwing ingredients together. Within ten minutes I was eating the most delicious Pad Thai I had ever had – and it cost 30 baht (yeah, 60p). While we ate, several people stopped by on their motorbikes, either delivering ingredients (I saw chicken breasts and bags of leaves, for sure) or picking up their morning meals. I especially loved the way she ladled soup into clear plastic bags and tied them at the top. This was real Bangkok – not the touristy shite we would later venture upon.
We were pretty jetlagged so we decided to be really adventurous and check out Tesco. It was a 15-minute walk consisting of pot-hole dodging, walking in front of motorbikes and checking out all the street vendors, whether they were selling tools, shoes, snacks or offering to fix your clothes (yeah, just a woman chilling outside with a sewing machine). The roads were full of slender pink or yellow taxis, cars, motorbikes and good old tuk-tuks, chugging along with their toxic fumes and roaring engines, slowing down at the sight of a white face and trying to offer a ride. The air was a cacophony of beeping horns; you tune it out after a while, but those drivers never seem to stop beeping at each other.
Tesco “Lotus”, just north-east of Hua Lamphong station, is housed in a massive, multi-storey shopping mall, full of restaurants (including a few places where you can get pizza). We wandered around, examining the spirit-house aisle, where one could find everything they needed to build and decorate their own miniature Buddhist shrine. We stocked up on bottles of water, because that’s just something you have to do in countries where you can’t drink the tap water, and headed to the MBK Centre.
Getting a phone in Thailand:
MBK is a massive mall, full of cheap clothes and souvenirs, as well as some pretty cool stuff in the food court (although you have to buy a card, load it with credit, and then spend it on food). An entire floor devoted to electronics will lead you to mobile phones. If you’re travelling in Thailand for a long time, I recommend getting a Thai SIM card – their text and call charges are very cheap within Thailand, so if you’re planning on contacting hostels and other meet-ups it’s worth it. I bought a very basic phone for 600 baht (maybe £16) and a SIM card loaded with 200 baht of credit, which lasted forever. Topping up your phone is easily done at any 7-11 – you tell them how much you want to put on it, dial your number into a keypad, and hand over the cash. This is pretty easy to mime with a note of money and your phone, while telling them the name of the network you’ve been put on.
Getting around Bangkok:
As well as the metro system, Bangkok has a “Sky Train”. This is a monorail with two main lines. Similar to the metro system, you buy your tickets in advance, telling the machine where you’re going (there is a English option) and inserting the right amount of change. The Sky Train is relatively expensive, with some tickets extending to over 60 baht. While a relatively efficient way of getting from certain locations to others, the Sky Train gets very crowded and was my least favourite method of transportation in Bangkok.
The metro is pretty good, but look at a map and you’ll see that it barely gets you anywhere – not even to the tourist hot-spots such as the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. There are taxis and tuk-tuks all over the city, with a key difference. Tuk-tuks “seem” cheaper, perhaps because you’re on a shelf attached to a motorbike, but they will quote you very high prices compared to what you could pay. A tuk-tuk, for example, might quote you 200 baht for a 20-minute journey, while one of the pink, orange or yellow taxis that you see everywhere will maybe cost you around 60 baht for the same journey – just make sure you ask for the meter to be turned on when you get in. The other plus is that these taxis are air-conditioned.
For those on a real budget, Bangkok also has a bus system. You can pick up a bus map from some 7-11s, but be warned – those things are bloody complicated. If you can work it out, you’ll be rewarded with some wonderfully cheap journeys (8 baht for the most basic buses), although Bangkok traffic can mean that it’ll take you forever to get from A to B.
Finally, there’s actually an extensive river transport system. Boats travel up the Chao Phraya, Bangkok’s main river, stopping off at a number of spots on either side. Make sure you check that your boat stops at the right location, as there are a few options (e.g. “express” boats only stop at very select spots). These boats are around 10-20 baht for a ride. The canal system has a further transport system, where you basically jump onto a boat that barely slows down, climb over the side and hold on for dear life. This is the most interesting option, for sure, but there are a lot of occasions when you can just walk (if you don’t mind the heat and traffic-dodging)!
After a nap, we decided to check out the notorious Khao San road that evening. We took the 20-minute walk down to one of the boat stops, River City (near a very expensive mall and hotel), and grabbed the night boat up to stop N12. This cost 20baht each (40p) – and what a ride! We zoomed up the river and were rewarded with Bangkok’s main temples, lit up in a golden glow – the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Wat Pho, all so beautiful and mysterious. From the boat stop, it’s a short walk over a bridge to Khao San road – you will see signs that you can follow.
Khao San really wasn’t as crazy as I’d expected. There are a lot of shops, a lot of street vendors, crazily cheap Pad Thai (15 baht), live music, touristy stalls selling roasted insects but demanding a fee for photos, tough old women shoving carts of lettuce through the crowds, overpriced beers with ice, drunk tourists, and bars bragging “We Do Not Check ID” – next to a stand where you can buy fake ID (or university degrees). Despite all that, we were never hounded or harassed, unlike so many touristy streets. I bought a beautiful pair of flowy trousers for 200 baht (I was probably ripped off) and we walked over to a vegetarian restaurant that a friend had recommended.
I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but it’s behind the Burger King – that was enough for me to find it! It was a little more “expensive” than the usual, but I had a delicious hot soup, dragon fruit smoothie, rice and a ginger vegetable dish for £5. This place also runs vegetarian cooking classes! We wandered around for a little after that, spent a little too much on cocktails and heard a few dodgy guys advertising ping-pong shows (which we did NOT go to – most of the women are trafficked from Burma or some such and do not really want to be firing darts from their vaginas, shockingly). Our tuk-tuk took us back to the hostel for 100 baht, which wasn’t the cheapest, but it’s quite an experience to sit above a spluttering engine, whizzing around corners with the wind in your hair and Bangkok pollution in your nose.
The next day we headed to Ayutthaya, the ruins of what was once the world’s largest city… read about it here