Today has been a long day after a short night. Just as soon as I’d posted yesterday’s blog post, I was on the tube to Heathrow with Brett. It was surprisingly uncrowded (I think the schools are on half-term holidays this week, so fewer parents are in work!) and the airport queues were relatively short. For some reason, even though we had checked-in online, we had to go to a check-in desk at the airport to get our boarding pass – which rather defeats the purpose of online check-in! Still it wasn’t troublesome; we’d arrived with more time to spare than I’d anticipated, so we had a quick dinner at Strada, by which time they were advertising our gate. We went along like good little sheep and, after a while in the corral, they let us on to the plane.
In good pro-traveller style, as soon as we boarded I set my clocks six hours forward to Bangkok time to start getting adjusted. Luckily I have been sleeping erratically lately, so the consequent 9am (Bangkok/3am London) wake-up alarm wasn’t too bad. The hard part was surviving on in-flight snacks for the eight hours between meal services. The fact that they served fruit, yoghurt and an omelette for lunch didn’t help the body clock either! Watching Life of Pi for the first time and Casino Royale (for the third) helped get me through it all though.
We arrived on time but after a really long walk from the gate, we had to wait in a really long queue for the immigration staff to process us. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the free airport Wi-Fi hadn’t been crawling along at a snail’s space… Eventually we were let through and the first thing we saw on formally entering Thailand was a counter selling Toblerone, Lindt chocolate and Kit-Kats. Welcome to the exotic orient!
Well, at least it wasn’t a McDonalds.
Bangkok has metered taxis at the airport, so the ride into town was predictably priced. Amazingly the toll booths on the highway were quite happy to take the 100 Baht notes that I still had from my trip here in the mid-nineties! The temperature is quite warm and the air very humid. The city has changed noticeably since I was here eighteen years ago; there are quite a few more high-rise glass towers. The frantic, second-world low-rise city is still there below them though.
After spotting the global confectionary brands at the airport, it wasn’t so surprising to see Wayne Rooney’s image covering one of the skyscrapers.
Our hotel is a little bit north of the Grand Palace and the (in)famous Khao San Road. After a brief settling in and unpacking, we headed off to explore. The plan being to walk down to the Grand Palace and back, grabbing some food from a vendor on the way. The hotel didn’t have a good map of the area to give us and I didn’t have a local SIM card to get internet on my phone. We also didn’t realise that the hotel has doors at opposite ends of the building that let out on to two different streets. Consequently we turned the wrong way on leaving and spent half an hour walking in the wrong direction trying to relate what we passed to the snapshot of the Google Map I had taken before leaving. Oh, what fun we had.
After a return to the hotel, realising our mistake and picking up a Thai SIM for my phone, we headed out again on the same mission and were far more successful, having set off in the right direction this time…
I’d spoken to a friend of mine who was here recently during his gap year trip and he’d advised me to avoid Khao San Road but, since I have a morbid curiosity about these things and because it was on our way anyway, we checked it out as we passed. Sure enough it was the worst of tourism on display.
Well, okay, maybe not the absolute worst, but certainly not an edifying cultural experience.
The streets away from Khao San are mostly populated with local Thais and lined with pop-up markets and food stalls. On the block around the turning to Khao San that changed; the bulk of the population were lounging western teens and twenty-somethings. The street was lined with clothes and souvenir shops, bar/restaurants and massage lounges. The only Thais in evidence were hawking tourist tat and tailored suits. One guy was very insistent that I come buy a suit from his shop and when I told him a second time that I didn’t want a suit, he demanded to know why not! We passed a couple of stalls selling deep-fried insects and grubs. The price displayed was the price to photograph them…! One stall was offering fake ID, which Brett said he would have been interested in – if only they could do a good job of making him look 28 again!
Apart from those already mentioned, the only global brand we’d noticed so far was the 7-11 chain of mini-marts. On, or adjacent to, Khao San Road we found a Starbucks, a McDonalds, a Burger King, a KFC and a branch of Boots the Chemist!
But, having had a walk through the place, we moved on and back into the relative(!) calm of Bangkok at night. On a corner we stopped for some street food and had some tasty hot and sour meat and veg for 40 Baht (£1) each. We carried on until we got to the Sanam Luang, a big open space just north of the Grand Palace, from where we could see the flood-lit buildings. We stopped for a beer and a bit more food (less good here; the food was only barely warm, but the chili was hot enough that my mouth felt like it had been scalded, but it was even cheaper at 25 Baht each!) There’s a night market here selling a mix of touristy stuff and second hand goods.
We browsed a bit but weren’t planning to buy anything so, having walked the distance to our destination for tomorrow, we grabbed a cab back to the hotel and turned in for the evening.