Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mr Bean tuk tuks and thousands of chooks!

Last full day in Thailand and we thought we’d do a quick day trip to Ayutthaya.  Train up to Victory Monument and then a minibus (60baht each) to Ayutthaya – they go when full but we only waited about 10 minutes.


Ayutthaya used to be the capital of Siam but is now practically an outer suburb of Bangkok.  Minibus took about 50 minutes and the ‘mini-bus station’ is a plastic gazebo with a sign.  Just down the street was a nice looking restaurant/guesthouse called “Tony Place” so we got a quick coffee and checked the place out a bit.  We didn’t have much idea what to expect, but even just driving into town we could see that this place was going to need way more than just half a day.

 Tuk tuks are plentiful, but yet another design variation – these ones have a little cabin the driver sits in and a steering wheel – and a rather Mr Bean-esque nose cone.  Negotiated with a driver for 200baht/hour (had checked trip advisor for rates) and he took us on a quick spin to see a few temples.
We didn't get this groovy one but the driver was very proud of his shiny orange machine.


Most of the temples are built of little bricks (about the size of a clay paver or smaller) some obviously have been ‘rendered’ (which is now coming off) but the layout at each site is quite clear.
Ayutthaya had some flooding last week and the evidence was still ther for all to see – water laying round where it obviously should not have been, sticks & other debris banked up in path/wall corners etc and the ground quite soggy under foot.

 Wat Mahathat and Wat Rajaburana are side by side and quite similar.  Plenty of trees to grab some respite from the baking sun (it would be ferocious in March & April)


Wat Phrasisanpethi was lovely – three huge chedis in the middle with throne and ordination halls at either end.


Last stop was Wat Yai Chaimongkhon still has a working monestary as well as ruins.  It’s grounds are beautiful and it is one of the iconic Ayutthaya photo spots – 200 buddas sit along 4 sides of the huge chedi, all sashed in gold.

Then we found the  chooks .. well roosters to be accurate .... hundreds of them in all sizes from 15cm to 3m – lining a roadway near another building.  No idea why but it was the funnies thing to see.

I know three hours in a town with as much to see as Ayutthaya is almost as insulting as saying ‘go to Siem Reap for 3 hours’ but this tiny taste has put this place firmly on our ‘must return and explore more’ list.
Back to Tony’s place for a late lunch and an afternoon bus back to Bkk for some last minute shopping.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Shopping & the Queen's dresses

Day 9 & 10

Two fairly quiet days after the big long one to Hellfire Pass.  Monday we thought we’d do some shopping so we headed for the mega-mall MBK.  I remember this from when we took the girls to Bkk & Pataya years ago.  

 Across the road and all connected via the BTS (skyway train system) and a series of linked pedestrian walkways are Siam Discovery, Siam Centre and the uber posh Siam Paragon (home to Hermes, Chanel, Armani etc)  Siam Discovery was having some kind of ‘Design’ exhibition and there was an installation of Mr P .. very strange concept but the locals seem to love it judging by the number of them taking photos

Decided to try Asiatique for dinner .. for Sydney-siders it’s kind of a mix between Darling Harbour and Paddy’s Market but really nice actually.  An old warehouse district has been transformed into Bangkok’s newest night time destination.  Restaurants line the riverfront and back through 2 old re-vamped warehouses, and the others are given over to night markets.  Despite it’s obvious target market, prices were pretty good (and in some cases better than MBK)

Tuesday .. I woke feeling a big off.. nothing specific, just blergh!  Tony decided he wanted a day round the pool so after a late breakfast I decided to visit the Queen Sirikit Textiles Museum in the grounds of the Grand Palace.  I got the skytrain from our local station Ratchathewi down to Saphan Taksin (where we went last night) and took the local river boat upstream to Tha Chang.  It cost me the princely sum of 15baht (about 50c) and I watched in amazement as far toio many stupid tourists paid out 150baht for the tourist boat which covered exactly the same stops.  Bangkok has some amazing riverside architecture.


Off quickly at Tha Chang and following the crowd of Thais headed towards the palace through the inevitable gauntlet of food & souvenir stalls.  Bought a bottle of water and a mango (20baht) and watched the sky darken wondering if  was going to get wet again.
The Museum itself is fantastic!  NO photos allowed inside so you will have to take my word for it.  A stunningly beautiful collection of gowns from the Queen’s private collection (c1955-1990’s) and some fantastic stuff on the resurrection of the handcrafted Thai silk industry under the Queens patronage.  Beautifully set out, great information – a really classy museum.


Back onto the river boat – it’s a really busy river and the variety of boats is amazing.  Past the very beautiful Wat Arum


Today must also have been ‘excursion day’ – all day I kept passing groups of schoolkids on excursions – this group was most impressive – staff all in their smart blue/white checked shirts and kids in their polo shirts. 


I grabbed a very late lunch in the Siam Centre and walked back to the hotel.  If you want to know how slow the traffic is – I got to the little soi where our hotel is before this black bus.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A train, a track & a hilux sandwich

After lots of planning, hours spent on Trip Advisor working out the logistics and some blind faith that Thailand Railways would indeed send our tickets (bought a month out) to our hotel in Bangkok we headed out in the predawn cool for what we knew was going to be a long day.

Haulamphong Railway station is Bangkok’s Central – but funnily enough it doesn’t compare with the Berlin Hauptbahnhof or even Sydney’s central.  Our train, the “Tourist Excursion train to Nam Tok” was scheduled for a 6.30am departure.  Our expectations of comfort etc were low, and met but hey, it’s an adventure!  It departed sort-of on time and painfully slowly crawled its way out of Bangkok’s sprawling metropolis.  Satellite dishes on rusty iron & plastic sheeting roofs are just a bit incongruous.


We had ‘booked seats’ but when we got on there were people in these seats so we just found an empty one further along the carriage and figured we’d deal with the seat issue later.  A man in a uniform saw we had tickets and walked past.  Sometime later the boss ticket man came through and started moving people all over the place.  We knew he was the boss ticket man because his uniform had more gold buttons, more ribbons etc and he was wearing a hat!  We followed his instructions when he gestured that we were in the wrong seats, and then insisted we had our right seats  when we realised our seats were facing the way the train was going and the lady occupying them suggested we take the seats opposite and therefore facing backwards.

Once the important train ticket man got seating sorted he took off his special hat and took hold of a megaphone and became the funny tour guide – shame we had absolutely no idea what he was saying but it must have been funny because he and the rest of the passengers all laughed.  Maybe it was something about the silly farang (foreigner) pair in seats 32 & 33.


First stop was the town of Nakhon Pathom for a 40 min visit to the Giant Chedi – pretty amazing from a distance but we were saving the knee so didn’t venture much past the markets where we got muffins for breakfast from a little cake shop and coffee from a street cart.

This train is notoriously slow (and late) but we arrived at Kanchanaburi pretty much on time.  The train stops for 25 minutes so you can walk across the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.  Besieged by vendors trying to sell us books, food, and tacky souvenirs we made our way to and over the bridge on foot.  Back on the train for the slow crossing.


Back on the train and through some really pretty landscape we rocked and clattered our way to Nam Tok.  This little town is the end of the line and most passengers were Thai day trippers heading for the waterfall.  It seems that 10 scheduled hours (5 there and 5 back) on the train for 2 hours at the waterfall is a strange way to spend the day but they all seemed to be enjoying the party atmosphere with lots of seat swapping, eating and laughing.


This train is 3rd class so you’re a/c is an open window.  Track side maintenance is pretty much non-existent so by the end of the trip the floor looked like it had been mulched – track side greenery was whipped off by the train and showered in through the open windows.  We put the window up except for the top 6-8” but still managed to get covered in leaves, bits of stick, and even the occasional insect.

We had arranged for a car & driver to meet us at Nam Tok to take us directly to Hellfire Pass.  We wanted to visit the Memorial Museum and walk the track.  The driver found us – not hard there were only 3 other white people on the train and with the aid of some pretty simple gestures, showed us the way to the 7/11 where we could grab something a bit more substantial to eat.  We didn’t have time or language skills (and he certainly couldn’t act as a translator) to venture to the road-side food carts.  Sandwiches, a couple of cartons of flavoured milk and a bag of what I thought was mango slices and we were off.  Turns out I had inadvertently bought a packet of pickled mango – oh well, tick that off the list of life’s experiences.

The drive from Nam Tok to Hellfire Pass is about half an hour.  The Memorial Museum is quite small but is the starting point of a 90min walk along the actual rail bed.  We got the audio guide, the walkie-talkie (to call for help etc) water and applied bug spray as instructed and set off – not quite sure what to expect and wondering if Tony’s knee would in fact hold up given the warnings about the need to be in good physical shape due to the steepness of the path.

 The audio guide is excellent and despite some really heavy rain our driver met us at the Hintock cutting end in a little under 90 mins.  Pictures probably give some idea of what our diggers endured but I cannot imagine what they went through, especially in the monsoon season where it apparently rained for 140 days straight.

This says it all....

We had wanted to visit the Weary Dunlop Memorial Park, but the original owner of the resort where it is situated  (and designer/builder/funder) has sold and the new owners only allow resident guests – damn shame because he could make some money by charging an entry fee to non-guests.

Back to Kanchanaburi, paid the driver and grabbed a coffee before hopping on the 5.20 bus back to Bangkok. 
We both dozed a bit but I woke bolt upright & wide awake at some very hard breaking, a skid and then a loud bang.  Yep, the bus and a Toyota rukus-like-thing had turned a Toyota hilux into a sandwich.  We sit on the bus for about 20 minutes, the next scheduled bus pulls in to the space between our bus and the other accident vehicles, everyone off our bus and onto the other one… ooops not enough room – OK wait for the next one (20 minutes) – rain starts – 10 remaining passengers get back onto our original bus, it pours, the bus leaks, we move seats.  Next bus goes through standing room only.  Our driver gets back on and moves our bus 100m up the road where we wait again.  Next bus (the last for the day) stops and we get on, and get a seat.  Sunday night traffic in torrential rain into Bangkok is snails-paced.  Finally about 9am we stop at the southern bus station.  Get a taxi back to the hotel and peel off the wet clothes before heading out to see if we can find dinner at 10pm in the pouring rain.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Just exploring this fabulous city

Day 5

Decided to explore over the other side of the river and check out the Fair Trade Handcrafts shop while we were there. 

 Got a tuk tuk to the iron Bridge and wandrered along the riverfront.  Lots of old timber (?teak) shophouses – some in good condition and used as galleries, shops etc and other is a pretty sad state of repair.  Loved the place making colourful elephants – very cool.


Next stop was Wat Kate – not as its name might suggest but a temple dedicated to the dog.  Hundreds of little doggie statues and many many very friendly and well-fed dogs lived there.  Stunning timber buildings too.


The Fair Trade shop was amazing and I managed to get little pieces (purses, etc) made by women from 7 different hilltribes – will make great teaching resources for senior textiles.  And it I’d had a lazy $450 I’d have bought this… stunning isn’t it!

Next stop was the Chiang Mai museum – sadly they were renovating the entire second floor but to compensate, entry was free.  And it was a no-camera zone so … no pics.

The whole time we’ve been here, Tony has been on the lookout for Chiang Mai sausage and we finally came across it in a little place near the Three Kings Monument.  Very good indeed.


Wandered a bit then back to the hotel for a nap – we’re still finding t he heat/humidity knocking us a bit.. or is it the beers at lunch time?

 Off to the night market again, ominous looking sky which foolishly we chose to ignore and didn’t take the umbrellas.  It poured, and kept pouring all night.



Day 6

I had considered checking out a couple of the handcraft villages out of town but realised none of them were fabric orientated so we decided to check out the Airport Plaza Shopping Centre – the only really big mall type centre in Chiang Mai.  Grabbed a tuk tuk and headed over there about 9am, only to discover it doesn’t open till 11am – oh well, Starbucks & the newspaper filled in the gap (and they still make pretty ordinary coffee!)

 The airport Plaza is huge, and has a sensational Hilltribes handcraft section- spent a lovely 90 minutes browsing & chatting to some of the stall holders about the fabric - heaven – bought a couple of lovely tops too! 
I had a bit more of a wander round town this afternoon & came across a Wat undergoing renovations - gotta love bamboo scaffolding!

Next time any of my students complain about wearing their school unifoirm properly, I'm going to show them this photo - just love the boys in their pink pants!

Last visit to the night markets, a couple of purchases but a lovely hour spent chilling in the Colour Bar listening to live music over an iced coffee.  Bangkok tomorrow.