Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Our first stop in Bangkok

After seven weeks in Indonesia it was time for us to move onto mainland South East Asia. From Gili Air, we used our magic piece of paper to get us back to Bali, via Lombok, and stayed in Padang Bai for a couple of nights (at Beach Inn 1, which was quieter and cheaper than Marco's) before catching a bus up to Denpasar for our flight to Bangkok.

The plan was to stay in BKK for 4/5 days to run some errands. We needed visas for Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos; more malaria medication; and various essentials we hadn't been able to get hold of on our tiny island. Even though leaving the Gilis was a little traumatic, we were actually looking forward to being back in a proper city for a few days... massively shallow and probably immoral, but all I wanted was to eat Maccy D's and go to the cinema!

Our flight, via Hong Kong, was a piece of cake and we landed in BKK in the very early hours. So it was straight into a taxi from the airport to our guesthouse, Baan Hualamphong. When we arrived, dropped off by our very cheerful female driver, we were told that the room we'd booked was full so we'd be put in an aircon room for no extra charge. Fine by us! Especially considering the weather, even at 2am, felt like being in a steam room.

We paid 520THB per night (about £10.50) and got a big room with two double beds (incredibly hard mattresses), A/C, fridge, private bathroom, towels and loo roll provided. Breakfast was included too and was good, provided you like toast and fried eggs (the only option). Also, we soon discovered that the location of our guesthouse was excellent - not too close to the crazy tourist part of town but really near the Hua Lamphong Metro station, so it was a perfect base for exploring the city.

And what a city it is. One thing I was beginning to learn on our travels was that preconceptions are pretty much useless. I've never been interested in visiting Thailand, least of all Bangkok, which I was under the impression was some sort of unbearably dirty, seedy slum. As far as I was concerned we'd get in, do the necessary jobs, and get out as fast as we could. What did I know?? It's a fabulous, vibrant, thriving, modern metropolis. I fell madly in love with this place and, mainly due to my enthusiasm, we ended up staying for 10 days.

It turned out, after much internet research (with WiFi pilfered from the cafe across the road from our room), that we didn't need to organise our three visas ahead of time and would be better off just getting them all at the respective borders. So we threw ourselves into our other missions, namely: shopping and eating.

One of our first stops was to the MBK mall (one of about, oh, a MILLION!) We founds Boots - an exciting reminder of home - and bought the rest of the malaria tablets we needed to get us through Asia. We also purchased our first pot of Tiger Balm, which we soon realised is an absolute essential; great relief from mosquito bites and various other ailments - although we're still to figure out how it can cure flatulence, as it claims on the label... just rub some under your nose perhaps?? MBK was also our first encounter with the glorious phenomenon of 'Asian tat' - shops and stalls full of coloured plastic, grinning cartoon characters, cutesy animals, and unironic bling. Plus on the sixth floor, they have a great foodhall where there's a huge variety of cuisines available for bargain prices. You buy vouchers and then swap them for a meal; the best we found was the vegetarian stall where you choose three delicious dishes for 50THB (about £1).

We ate very well in Bangkok. The area called Siam is full of hip young things (BKK is so much more fashionable than I would've expected too!) and we had some good food around here (between my bouts of drooling over the shops and market stalls full of clothes I couldn't afford to buy). 

We treated ourselves one night to the Hard Rock Café, gorging ourselves on meat and various deep fried accompaniments. We also went to Som Tam Nua for the eponymous green papaya salad, plus excellent chicken wings, fried fish and sticky rice.

We took the extremely cheap and fun river taxi down to the Khaosan Road area where we bought a knock-off copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos & Northern Thailand, and stopped off for a lunch of som tam, tom yum kung (a hot and sour prawn soup), chicken noodle soup and spring rolls. Most of what we ate in BKK was supremely spicy (after all that bland Indonesian food, everything we ordered in Thailand had to be swimming in chili) and when we told the waitress we wanted our dishes 'Thai spicy' not 'tourist spicy' she agreed, but kept coming back to our table during our meal to check we were ok!

Even though I came travelling with grand ideas of eating street food everywhere we went, the multitude of stalls lining the pavements were rarely all that appetising once we'd considering how long the edibles had been sat in the open or how much diesel fume had choked them. So we didn't really delve into that culinary adventure.

We did push our boundaries with some stuff that was kind of odd though: raw prawns and sun-dried beef (both really delicious) at a place called Heap with our friend Toby. This was also when we discovered that pork fried rice in Thai is pronounced 'cow pat moo', so we'll never go hungry as we'll never forget that! We also had dinner with our friend Josie, who introduced us to pomelo, a big citrus fruit that we had as a yummy salad.

Also, bubble tea, which comes in all kinds of flavours but is basically flavoured milk with chewy balls in it and an extra wide straw so you can suck them through. I had a chocolate one. It was awesome.

The Paragon Shopping Centre is the high-end mall where all the posh designer stores are: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Mulberry, Chanel, H&M. Yep, you read that right. We were accidentally there for the grand opening of the first Bangkok H&M store and it was a frenzy! Hundreds of people queuing out of the door, mums taking photos of their kids in front of the signage. Hilarious. 

Our main reason for visiting Paragon was to go to the cinema though. We'd heard really good things about the Bangkok multiplexes, especially the big comfy seats and the glorious air conditioning. We saw Dredd on a massive digital screen with great sound, and ate our body weight in Häagen-Dazs. All for about £4.20 each. A great indulgence after a month on an Indonesian desert island in the middle of nowhere!

The weather was sweltering the whole time we were in the city so opportunities to escape inside to air conditioned comfort of shopping malls and cinemas were extremely welcome. It broke one night though, with a spectacular storm right over the top of our guesthouse, and woke us up with some of the loudest thunder and brightest lightning either of us had ever encountered. It lit the room up like it was midday and came through our eyelids to wake us up! It was still ridiculously hot and muggy the next morning though.

As well as shopping and eating, we did do some sightseeing. We had a lovely afternoon at the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre, looking round the galleries of brilliant Thai artworks and chatting to a young artist called Kan who was selling some of his drawings in the public space.

The Jim Thompson House was also really interesting. He was an American who settled in Thailand and set up a huge silk empire (before going missing in Malaysia) and you can look around his gorgeous 1950s Bangkok residence. It was a very interesting little tour and a really nice way to spend an hour or two, looking around the gardens and his collection of artifacts.

One evening we had a speedy walk through the Patpong area, constantly dodging the invitations to ping pong shows. We didn't feel the need to linger, as the 'sexpats' (dodgy old white men enjoying the company of beautiful young Thais) were quite noticeable enough without going looking for them.

We mostly got around the city using the BST (skytrain) and Metro systems. They were fast, easy and cheap... a bit like the girls in Patpong!!! Sorry. 

Ahem! The trains are pretty entertaining in themselves, with constant adverts showing on the overhead TVs and priceless people-watching opportunities. Sometimes there's more than just watching too... like with the friendly old guy who told me about his massage business, said I was very 'modern' looking and then nodded knowingly when I said I was from London, then gave me his card and kissed me on the cheek before disembarking.

All of this urban sprawl got a bit much in the end though, and Dave especially was getting antsy and keen to move on. So, knowing we'd be back to my 'new favourite city' in a couple of months, we booked ourselves onto a bus to Aranya Prathet at the Cambodian border and left for country number three.

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