Travelling is like a complex stew of immersion and understanding. It takes time to see all the details. You cannot hop in and out of places and proclaim you know them. However, some times there is no choice, and all you get to do is hop. So, in line with my philosophy, I will not claim to know Bangkok. But, I enjoyed getting to meet it.
Of course the story started back in England. At 4:30 AM I got to take a taxi to the coach station. Normally I would walk, but happily the British Council was re-reimbursing transport costs. My coach was due to leave at 5:05 AM, but by 5:30 AM it had not shown up, so we got, well, a little worried. With we, I mean my five fellow travellers and myself. One had to make it to Heathrow for 8:50 AM, one 9:30 AM and another was trying to catch a transatlantic flight to Chicago at 9:55 AM. Considering the coach takes at least 2.5 hours, the delay was not looking great. Fortunately I know National Express, and I know London traffic, so I had booked a very early ticket; my flight was not due to take off until 11:50 AM. Still, once it transpired the coach had simply been cancelled, and the only option was to wait until the next at 7 AM, I was in need of a plan B as well. We called a few numbers. We poked a sleepy coach driver. Nothing happened. At -2 degrees, holding a poster tube (for presentation) and a silly hat (for sun), this was not going well. Eventually it transpired the sleepy coach driver would set off for Luton Airport at 6:30am; it would take 3.5 hours to get to Heathrow, but I would probably make it if there were no traffic jams. Sadly, I do not know what happened to my fellow travellers; they were still standing in the cold when the coach finally took off.
Of course the next part of the journey was an 11 hour flight and 7 hour time-zone difference to Bangkok. Thai Airways conveniently forgot I was a vegetarian, so not much food for me, but otherwise it was a very nice change from Easyjet. I really wish airplanes came with better movies though. I had brought a good book, but I was squished in-between many sleeping people so I did not want to turn on the lights all night. Does anyone have any ideas what I could do to entertain myself next time I am on an 11 hour flight? (In the dark, without depleting the batteries in my little torch.)
So in Bangkok it was approximately 30 or 40 degrees warmer than the Cambridge coach station. It was wonderful. We arrived around 6am so on the way to the hotel I got to see the sun rise over the city. The sky was not very (or, not at all) clear though, so it was difficult to see much else. My destination, Mahidol University, has it own student-run hotel so I had no worries of selecting or locating a hostel in this vast, vast city. The staff was hyper-friendly, the rooms were massive, and the breakfast included an ‘egg-station’.
I cannot visit a place without getting to know its history. Before I leave I always do a Google search to find the nearest archaeological sites and places of interest. I settled on Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand. About 80km outside of Bangkok, or approximately 1-2 hours by car/bus. Unfortunately, the rest of my team was feeling jet-lagged, tired and dirty, and they were understandably not to be convinced to go sit in a van for 4+ hours to see some old stuff. Here I make the distinction between family and friends: my family just has to follow me; if I want to make/keep friends, it is better to avoid forcing them into a van. Instead, we decided to go clean up somewhat, and visit a floating market. Definitely a decent second choice, and one I very much enjoyed.
Thai street food as a vegetarian with a knack for acquiring food-poisoning. Here are some hints and tips:
- 1) Prepare a bi-lingual note that says ‘I am a vegetarian’ and ‘no meat, no fish’; where applicable, write it in all possible scripts as well.
- 2) Check whether the food is popular with the locals; are they queuing up or staying away?
- 3) Survey the ingredients; are they freshly prepared or do they come from a mystery box?
I would also add 4) be flexible. If you do not suffer from allergies, it may be necessary to overlook fish-sauce, or pick out a shrimp here and there. I do not feel comfortable refusing food simply because we might have different cultural values. I know not everyone feels the same though!
Most of the food in the market cost ca. 30 baht or 0.60 GBP / 0.80 EUR.
It was really nice to wander around in an area with few tourists and many locals. No one tried to scam me; not the people at the food-stalls, not the taxi-drivers, not the boat-owners. We went on a little tour with a paddly boat, which was only 20 baht (0.40 GBP / 0.50 EUR) each and very relaxing. It is amazing how in the middle of a busy market, in the middle of Bangkok, it could be so quiet. The only thing we could hear was the water, and the birds. It was fun to see how people live on the water, with their mailboxes, shops and even trash all on, attached to or connected to boats. Do they have trashbinboats in Venice as well?
Next we wanted to try the centre of Bangkok as well. I was hoping for a temple or two, but … it was Sunday, and by the time we made it there they had all shut their gates. It is ok – I already knew I would have to come back to Thailand for a longer stay some day. We wanted to go find some dinner, but somehow ended up somewhere called Khao San road. I have learnt more about it since. It was an interesting experience and certainly one worth having, but, I will warn anyone reading this now: it is definitely, certainly, in my top 3 of most touristy places ever visited. This includes the beer-stained streets of Paphos, Cyprus. There were girls wearing inappropriately short shorts. There were gap year students wearing baggy yoga trousers. There were over-priced souvenirs of no particular value; street-acts unrelated to Thai culture. And most significantly, no actual Thai people. Ridiculous place.
In our search for food, we found the ‘famous vegetarian restaurant’. Perfect. My colleagues are all amazing people, and very happy to share food. We just ordered everything that looked nice, for very little money, and then tried all of it. Because we liked the area on our first try, this is also where we returned on our last night in Bangkok. We went in search of a place called ‘Steve’s Café‘, which is renowned for… being hidden. Needless to say, it took a while to find. The search was worth it however; we wandered down many lovely quiet streets, and past a beautiful temple. Once found, the food was fantastic. We sat by the river and tried all the Thai ‘specialities’ (pad thai, sticky rice with mango). A brilliant end to our Thailand adventure.
Of course we only saw a fraction of Bangkok, but that is fine. I made many friends at Mahidol University, and once I have saved up money for another airplane ticket, or get to attend another workshop, I will be back.