From riverboats to back alleys – discovering old Bangkok

Since we had just four days in Bangkok, we decided to stay in the historic area and concentrate on seeing the temples, the old shopfronts and the river and canals. Travelling by boat in Bangkok is highly entertaining, and in some cases, the only way to arrive at a destination. The Chao Phraya river is the main waterway – wide, muddy, and churning – and the much narrower canals criss-cross the city. In both cases, you can go big or go local – the tourist boats cost anywhere from $15 to $40, and the local “taxi” service will set you back between 40 and 60 cents. The view is democratic – whichever boat you choose.

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We hopped on a canal boat today and got an up close and personal look at Bangkokian river life. Many of the riverfront homes are crumbling and derelict, but a number are obviously making an effort. We wondered what their future will be as modern Bangkok encroaches.

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We don’t know who this gentleman is, but he looks like he might be a significant Thai figure. We would not trust that rickety footbridge, prayer flags or not. Believe me, this is not water you want to fall into.

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We ventured into Chinatown yesterday, which put my rat-ometer on high alert. I have a major rodent phobia; such an advanced case that sightings can set off a traumatic event, and no, I’m not kidding. I jump at fluttering leaves. Bangkok is rat heaven, with the canals, the garbage and the outdoor food stalls. Chinatown ramps that up several notches, so it was with much trepidation that we made our way through the labyrinthine alleys. Luckily, I saw nothing more alarming than this fellow on a spit, and that was enough to kick in my gag reflex.

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So, with my appetite shot by the sight of this poor little piglet, we opted for a fantastic version of a Thai staple – banana pancakes, topped with condensed milk. Yum!

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Otherwise – Bangkok’s Chinatown was everything a self-respecting Chinatown should be: dirty, smelly, noisy, mysterious and vaguely menacing. As in all other parts of the city, motorcycles go wherever they please.

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With everything from knock-off clothes, vegetables, watches and household goods for sale, one could spent hours wandering and getting lost. I got a kick out of this stand, devoted to rubber duckies. I guess the owners could not take it any more, and posted several signs (in English only) pleading for a little peace.

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Most of the buildings in Chinatown are very old and there does not appear to be an effort to restore them. As well as feeling a bit confused about the dubious state of this building, we marvelled at the electrical set-up.

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The Thai people lost their beloved King in October – he had reigned for 70 years. A state of mourning for one year was declared and many citizens will wear black for that entire time.  His image is everywhere – on billboards, shrines and storefronts.

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In honour of the King’s passing, Thai nationals are granted free admission to all temples for the year, and during the New Year’s period, line-ups to get into the major attractions were staggering. With dozens of temples to choose from, we decided to forego the Grand Palace, and chose instead to visit Wat Pho, home of the city’s largest reclining Buddha, and largest collection of Buddhas. Who could resist? Definitely not this woman, who was delighted to discover a black Buddha and struck a pose.

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The Reclining Buddha is no less impressive, stretching out 46 metres in length and 15 metres in height. His toes are inlaid with mother of pearl.

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The Wat Pho grounds and buildings were stunning and slightly whimsical, with stone figures, topiary, colourful pagodas and small ponds. We spent a couple of hours happily wandering around.

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We also visited the Golden Buddha – the world’s largest.  It is made of pure gold, measures 12 feet in diameter and 15 feet high and is 700 years old. If this magnificent structure was in Canada, it would be roped off and alarmed; in Mexico, there would be guards with AK-47s. Here, in this gentle Buddhist land, there was but one security man checking his cell phone.

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We also checked out the Golden Mount – a temple built on a man-made mountain. There are 344 steps to get to the top, which is not nearly as daunting as it sounds, as the steps are very low, and the climb is in stages, and also mostly in the shade.

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There were bells to ring all the way up – each with a different tonal quality. There were two giant gongs to strike – a Thai woman told us to hit three times for good luck!

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360 degree views from the top – all city for as far as the eye can see.  Bangkok is notorious for terrible air quality, which we hadn’t noticed until today – the smog was really visible. We’ve spotted a number of people inhaling from small tubes, like Vicks inhalers. I suspect they do a good job of cleaning nasal passages and perhaps masking street smells.

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Arriving in Bangkok to begin our travels has been a bit intense. The heat, traffic, smog, crowds, noise and dirt of Bangkok has been challenging at times. It is a fascinating place, and we have barely scratched the surface, but after four days here, I haven’t found something to grab onto. Possibly it is because it is such a foreign culture (to me), and I have no previous frame of reference. We’re keen to see other parts of Thailand now, and tomorrow we arrive in Hua Hin, a seaside resort about three hours south of here. We’ll be there for four nights, and then have the delightful dilemma of figuring out which island we want to visit. Here, a final shot of Bangkok to leave you with; talk again soon.
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