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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21 thoughts on “From riverboats to back alleys – discovering old Bangkok

  1. Patricia Brown January 5, 2017 / 6:26 am

    If ur going to be south of Bangkok, u should go to Krabi. From there u can take a bus or boat to Koh Lanta, A beautiful island. Gorgeous beaches! I spent 10 days there, & loved it.
    Safe travels!!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind January 5, 2017 / 4:52 pm

      I’ve heard a lot about Koh Lanta. We want to do some snorkelling and just enjoy some beach time for a few days.

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  2. choose2be January 5, 2017 / 7:35 am

    I’ve just read this with my boys. Elohw is now saying je want to go to Thailand. I was on Ko Phagnan for 3 months and loved it. Enjoy! Keep the article coming. Love xx

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    • leavingourselvesbehind January 5, 2017 / 4:53 pm

      Task Vero – I will check out Ko Phangan as well. We just want to avoid the heavy party places!

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  3. Danny B January 5, 2017 / 9:14 am

    Very interesting place with lots of character!
    Excellent pictures folks;
    Especially the last instalment with the beautiful woman,
    sitting on a bench in front of an awesome graffiti piece!

    Liked by 1 person

    • leavingourselvesbehind January 5, 2017 / 4:54 pm

      thanks Dano! It is so interesting here – very unlike any other place I’ve ever been. No idea who that woman is.

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  4. Elisabeth Charlotte Dieryckx January 5, 2017 / 12:16 pm

    Hello, happy travellers! Thank you for this interesting second posting, I enjoy them so much, and look forward to each one! However, do I detect a small “change in mood or enthusiasm” in the words of your descriptions? perhaps as you said, Bangkok was just too much of a sudden culture shock to begin your Eastern World experience…..Now, the reclining Buddha with the mother of pearl toenails…..you called the statue a HER……I suppose the local population will not be in agreement with this description of their beloved Buddha, any of them, as such……It’s always a HE, as far as I know. Could I be wrong? Have continued safe travellings and stay in good health!
    hugs, from Lis on Gabriola. P.S. Your photos are stunningly beautiful, thank you for posting these delights to feast our eyes on ! you miss nothing from here, we still have ICE on the ground and on our cars…..freezing cold it is.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind January 6, 2017 / 4:43 am

      Hi Lis – you are very astute – yes a small change in enthusiasm! I think the heat was getting to me, and that, combined with the poverty and the smells was a lot to take in at once. Often the best view is from the rear view mirror – a reflection after the fact improves the perspective.
      And as for the Buddha – yes, quite right – always a He, I believe – that was a slip of the typing finger!
      I’m sending a little warm weather your way.

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  5. Linda & Gary January 5, 2017 / 12:45 pm

    Hello pals. We are enjoying the posts immensely. Such great descriptions. The motorbike traffic is good training for what lies ahead…sidewalks and all. Got a giggle out of your “rat-o- meter ” comment. Make sure you have it turned on in Vietnam! Guaranteed to actually see! One of your friends suggested Krabi and Koh Lanta, our Irish friends have just spent a month there and loved it. They are real beach people though so not sure your interest lies in that for long periods of time. Keep the stories and pics coming, livin’ and lovin’it. Hugs.

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    • Ted Bowles January 5, 2017 / 3:03 pm

      Hi Guys, I could relate to your comments about not wanting to fall in the water. I took one of the crazy V8 powered boats to the “Floating Gardens” and didn’t mind getting wet with the spray, that was until we went through a narrow area with shacks on the banks and saw the local inhabitants squatting by the water relieving themselves. Needless to say I’d lost my appetite by the time we reached the “Gardens” and I spent the return journey with my shirt over my head to keep off the spray.

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      • leavingourselvesbehind January 6, 2017 / 4:54 am

        Oh gross. We had a canvas canopy that could be pulled up every time another boat approached, to avoid getting the spray in our faces. I’m a big fan of hand sanitizer, and I’m trying to avoid touching my face and eyes. Not keen to get sick, if I can help it.

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    • Cherryl Reed January 5, 2017 / 5:55 pm

      Its so much fun to be travelling with you as your world changes before you every day. I get to experience that from the safe warm space of my home, although I did go to yoga and deal with all those muscles I haven’t yet trained. Looking forward to our next stop!!!

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      • leavingourselvesbehind January 6, 2017 / 4:58 am

        Thanks Cherryl – I have to say this trip is one of the most challenging in terms of culture shock. I have always understood that I am one of the lucky ones, but this is a very potent reminder. We’re really beginning to see the class and economic divide – I know it will only become more pronounced as we travel through Laos and Cambodia.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind January 6, 2017 / 4:48 am

      Thanks Linda and Gary. Yes, this is growing up time for me – time to go toe to toe with whatever comes our way, rats included. And as for the beach time – we’re still muddling through that one. Apparently there has been a lot of bad weather in the south over the past week or two, and the snorkelling is not good. We’re more interested in the north, so will get a bit more of a definitive answer and go from there.

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  6. dickma2 January 7, 2017 / 7:54 am

    Great blog as usual Ginny and Stephen, but I had to sign up again because I wasn’t getting your emails. Of course the message came back that I was already subscribed. Hopefully, it will work this time. Love your pictures and delightful comments.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind January 7, 2017 / 4:37 pm

      Got it! I hope this isn’t a buggy system and that other people are having difficulties with it. Good to hear from you – I hope you have another wonderful winter in La Cruz.

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  7. Cindy Burr January 7, 2017 / 9:06 am

    Loving reading about your adventures, and it’s bringing back fond memories of Thailand. Have fun, be safe and stay healthy!!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind January 7, 2017 / 4:41 pm

      Thanks Cindy – we are really starting to get into the culture now. We’re meeting friends today who have been coming to Thailand for years, so we have lots of questions for them.

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  8. Shelley and Tom January 7, 2017 / 12:44 pm

    The photos are wonderful – you have a great eye (eyes?) for the street scenes, unusual signs, grafitti. Too bad the air pollution is awful, also our experience. Another island is Koh Samui but with the inevitable beach/drinking crowd on the north and east sides, fewer on the south and west coasts where there are some charming little places and lots of impressive windsurfing spots. Thais are lovely, peaceful and helpful, but if they feel disrespected or offended they may continue to be polite on the surface, containing their resentment until the pressure becomes too much and their anger boils over. To be avoided!

    Do be careful about street food unless it’s cooked before your eyes. Smoothies, watered down fruit juices can potentially put you out for a couple of days (my experience in Luang Phrabang!)
    Happy trails – we’re looking forward to the next installment!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind January 7, 2017 / 4:47 pm

      Hi Shelley and Tom – good to hear from you. Sadly, it looks as though, for now, we will miss the south. There has been tremendous rain and flooding down there – very unusual weather – and some of the roads and train tracks have been affected. No idea yet for how long. Planes aren’t even going to some parts, as there is limited road access.

      I have read about the Thai culture and bit, and yes also read about the importance of “face”. So far, so good – we are making them laugh with our jagged attempts at saying thank you, and unfortunately, our charmingly inept tourist persona is no act. As for the aggressive touts, we just smile and move on.

      Street food – yes, I remember your cautionary tale about pineapple juice. We have walked past several stalls with mystery food sitting in turgid pools – whoa – just felt the stomach clench looking at it. You’re right – good rule of thumb – clean, busy stall , with people waiting to buy and food being prepared in front of us – that saved us in Mexico as well.

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