My mother has some friends who come to Bangkok on business every few months. One of them, Vito, has a driver, for whom he bought a car. Apparently, a few years ago, he struck up a friendship with a young Thai man named Boy who just happens to work as a driver here at our hotel. He decided to help Boy start his own business, and now Boy has 4 cars and still works as a driver for the hotel. But he is available anytime Vito comes into town. When my mother's friends heard we were coming here, they notified Boy to "take care of" us. So, the first day we were here, there was a message from Boy waiting for us, letting us know he was available anytime. We contacted him and made plans for him to take us to Ayuthaya for the day.
Originally, I had planned for us to take the train, and then see the sights by Tuk Tuk, but having a private car and driver at our disposal seemed like a much more pleasant option. So, at 8 AM we met Boy in the hotel lobby and he had a nice hotel car for us. As we sped out of town on the toll expressway, he explained to us that is was no problem for him to use the hotel car, and that we wouldn't have to pay. "Not to worry"...and within an hour we were in Ayuthaya, the seat of Thai royalty until the 18th century.
The entire city of Ayuthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and filled with temple ruins from the 1400's to the late 1700's. This is where the Kings of that era lived, and built temples, monasteries, and palaces. In the 1767 the Burmese came in and sacked Ayuthaya, taking the gold from the temples and chopping the heads off of most of the Buddha statues. At that point, the royal family moved down the river and established Bangkok as the new home of the King. Now, the palaces and monasteries of a bygone era are open to the public for the price of a small entrance fee, usually 20-30 Baht.
Our first stop was Phra Mongkhonbophit where we saw a very large golden sitting Buddha inside a modern Wat. This buddha was different, and not quite as large, as the one I saw last year, but still very interesting. Outside the temple doors, Boy bought each of us small metal cups filled with 1 Baht coins. There, in front of the temple, were tables filled with more cups and we were supposed to deposit a coin in each one for luck. There are also small statues of the Buddha in various positions, one for each day of the week, with cups in front of them for the coins as well. We were to put coins in front of the one who represented the day of the week on which we were born. Dutifully, we dropped our coins.
Across the street from the wat was the first set of ruins we visited, called Wat Phra Si Sanphet. David and I had been here before, but it I still found it impressive. It never fails to amaze me that the ruins are not roped off and that people are allowed to climb them at will. It is great to be able to be so close, but I worry about how tourism will affect these places in the years to come. At least there's no graffiti on them, like some ruins I've seen in Greece or Italy.
From there we stopped at an elephant kraal set up just for tourists. There, for 200 Baht you can take an elephant ride for about 20 minutes. We did not do this, but we did take the opportunity to feed a 2 ear old baby elephant some corn. As we fed the little guy and snapped a few photos, his 12 year old handler, cigarette dangling from his lips, looked on and then yelled at the little elephant for trying to steal more corn.
Wat Mahathat is the home of the famous Buddha head in a tree and was our next stop. I was disappointed to see that a low fence had been placed around the Buddha head along with a sign instructing people not to climb the tree above it. At the same time I can understand why it had to be done; people had been climbing in the tree roots above the head to have their picture taken. This head is about three feet in high and is lodged in the tree roots. Apparently, it fell to the ground many years ago and the tree grew up around it, lifting it as it grows. Along with the Buddha head, are several stone sitting and standing Buddhas and many prangs (Khmer-type temple towers) in various stages of decay.
Back in the car and off to Wat Chaiwatthanaram. This is truly an amazing place. It seems to be most like the Khmer style of architecture and is what I imagine one might see in Cambodia. The wat is an ancient Buddhist monastery built in 1630. It covers a very large area and contains a large central prang, surrounded by 4 lesser prangs and even 8 smaller ones. The entire area is surrounded by a brick wall inside which sit 120 (once gilt lacquered) buddha around the perimeter. Most are missing their heads. This place was built by a King with some real mother issues; it is said that King Prasatthong built the monastery to make merit for his mother.
By that time we were wiped out and ready to head back to Bangkok, but Boy insisted that we go see the Royal Summer Palace in the nearby town of Bang Pa In. This is one of those stops on all the package tourist routes and I wasn't really interested in seeing another palace where no one lives, but it just didn't seem right to say no. When we arrived Boy insisted on going in with us, and paying our entrance, something he did not do at the other locations. I think he felt that this was one of those "National Treasures" type of places. We entered and walked around a large park like area that included many royal buildings, all closed to the public, a lake, and shrubbery cut to look like a herd of elephants. The buildings are in many different styles, one like a chinese temple, one like 19th century France. They are sometimes used to house visiting dignitaries. Before we left, Boy wanted us to take the "jet boat ride". Why was I picturing something fast, going down rapids? It wasn't, it was just a big boat that went down the river bordering the palace grounds and around a smaller island in the center of the river. This island has no bridge going to it, yet people live on it.
Finally, it was time to go back to Bangkok.
For more on Ayuthaya from last year's visit, see our Eastern Thailand page...
It's all about the food, isn't it?
We arrived back in Bangkok around 2 PM, starved. From the hotel, we walked to an unlikely spot for lunch.; underneath the expressway. The hotel is located about 2 blocks from a major elevated expressway and underneath are set up permanent food stalls, each covered in tile and with their own hot burners, sinks and running water. At that time of day, there were very few people around eating, and only about half the stalls were open. But the food looked good and a woman who was standing in front of one of the stalls said, "What you want? You want pork? Noodle? Curry? Omelet? I tell them for you!" I couldn't make up my mind, but my Mother said she'd have some pork and rice and the woman turned to one of the stall owners and ordered for her. I decided on the chicken curry and it appeared in a flash in a form I'd never seen, over noodles with crispy fried flat noodles on top. It was wonderful! The woman then sat down at our table and proceeded to talk to us, asking where we were from, telling us she had a friend who moved to LA and opened a restaurant and warning us against eating from the street carts, " very dirty no clean water!" Then, abruptly, she got up and walked away. I had assumed she was one of the vendors there, but she never came back. When we were finished, we paid (each seller separately, a total of 51 B for lunch for the two of us!) and walked off down the street. Later, we saw the lady again, selling shirts on the sidewalk, only 1/2 a block away and we thanked her for her help. Just another good samaritan, making sure us farangs get some tasty food.March 2, 2000 Day 4-Lost in Space...
After a rest, we decided to walk to dinner at a well known restaurant called Somboon Seafood (169/7-11 Surawong Rd., tel. 233-3104). This place had been recommended by a co-worker's sister who lives in Bangkok and it was also in our guidebook, so we decided to give it a shot and try their most famous dish, crab curry. We found it with no problem, and we pleased to see that even though the place is expensive by local standards, we were the only foreigners there. We were presented with a picture menu filled with photos of the various seafood dishes they offer, and another menu with just the prices. We chose an order of the famous crab curry, an order of the grilled garlic river prawns, steamed rice, and our usual, iced coffee. The crab arrived quickly and was served in the shell, cracked, with a thick and not to spicy curry sauce smothering it. On top was something that I at first thought to be the "crab butter", but later verified that it was egg that was probably whipped and then mixed quickly into the sauce, giving it an interesting, if not somewhat light and lumpy, texture. This was a messy dish, given that the crab was still in the shell, but it sure was tasty.
The prawns arrived, split in half lengthwise, and grilled with garlic. They were also very good, made better with a little of the crab curry sauce. At one point, there were a few pieces of crab left that we could not open, and my mother called over one of the servers at ask for something to crack it with. At first the woman looked confused, but then returned with a plate. Then, it was my Mother's turn to look confused, as she took the plate from the server and tried to use the edge of it to crack the crab! Both of us gasped and stopped her just as she was about to make contact. It was at that point we realized that the plate was to put the crab on, so they could take it back to the kitchen for us and take it out of the shell! Crisis and major cultural faux pas averted. All in all, it was a very good meal, and it turned out to be the most expensive of the trip, ringing in at 670 Baht, or about $18.
As we walked back to the hotel, I finally saw something that I had been waiting to see again since we arrived; someone selling fried bugs. Occasionally when walking down the street, or in a local outdoor market in Thailand there will be people selling fried insects of all sorts. Yes, that's right, crispy critters, creepy crawlies, things that fly and creep in the nights, all cooked up for your eating pleasure. This particular vendor we saw was pushing a cart along the sidewalk, selling large fried crickets, giant fried black beetles, and a couple of different types of small silkworms. I really wanted to try one of the silkworms, but Mom was horrified and I'll just have to settle for the photo this time.
"Ok, here's the plan for today; walk up to see the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimet, get lost trying to find the Boat Pier, take the River boat back down to the new BTS metro rail, take the metro to a great place I know to have Duck soup for lunch, get back on the train and take it over to the MBK shopping center."
Sounds ok, right? Little did we know that my sarcastic comment would ring so true.
We made one major mistake so far and that is not buying a decent street map. We've been using the maps in the back of the Lonely Planet Bangkok guidebook and a couple of horrible freebies we got at the tourist center. Big mistake! Take note; the Lonely Planet maps suck! Distances are out of proportion, places are incorrectly marked, etc.
So we began our day with a long, hot, diesel-exhaust-polluted walk up a major thoroughfare to Wat Traimet. The story behind Wat Traimet is that it contains a 15 foot tall, 5 ton, solid gold, 700 year old, sitting Buddha. Until the 1955 this Buddha was covered in plaster and nobody knew it was solid gold. During a move to a new location, the plaster cracked and they discovered the solid gold buddha inside. Apparently, in 1767, it had been covered with plaster to hide it from the Burmese who sacked and looked many of Thailand's treasures.
We paid our 20 B each admission and walked up the steps to see the Golden Buddha. Oooohhhh....Ahhhhhh, ok time to go. That was about it, the most fascinating thing about the statue was the fact that it's solid gold. Inside the small temple there were about a dozen Indian men who were obviously tourists, each diligently taking turns having their photo taken in front of the Buddha. However, they seemed to be more interested in my digital camera than in the Buddha.
After we left Wat Trimet, we set off in search of the closest river boat pier. I tried to follow the Lonely Planet map and thought we would run into it if we "only went down this little side street". Well, one side street turned into another and then another. The Thai people are notoriously friendly and if they see an obvious tourist standing on a street corner looking confused, someone will inevitable stop and ask "where you going?" and offer their advice. So, after getting hopelessly lost (like I so prophetically said we would earlier) we took the advice of three different people; an older woman, a traffic cop who spoke no English, and another man on the street. In the process of listening to these various good citizens we finally found a pier. Of course, it wasn't the pier we were looking for, we had walked way out of the way in the process, but it would do. My advice; get a good map and don't go by Lonely Planet maps, they suck.
Once on the river, we took the boat to the BTS (Bangkok Transit System) train station at the river pier on Surawong Rd. Inside the station, the ticket vendors don't actually sell tickets, they only give change for the ticket vending machines and dispense advice as to where to get off the train closest to your desired destination. At this point I was hot and tired and ready for lunch. My only desire was to have some great duck and won ton soup at a little shop on Convent Rd. where David and I had had many fabulous meals last year. We boarded the brand new metro train and took it straight to Convent Rd., only 4 stops away, but a distance that would have taken about 45 minutes to walk in the smoggy heat. We arrived there in about 5 minutes, refreshed from the train's frigid air conditioning. From there, off the train and down about three blocks and...where is the duck lady?? Sure, the shop is still there, but there are no hanging ducks, no noodles! Gone...sorry David, another one bites the dust! It amazes me how much has changed in a year here. Even the bookstore on Patpong where we used to buy our daily paper had turned into a nightclub.
By then, I was completely disheartened and we had a sorry little snack that just couldn't compare to my memories of the good food I had been craving. So we got back on train and off to the MBK (Mahboonkrong) Center. I always refer to this as the "Blade Runner" mall. If you've seen the movie Blade Runner then you might have an image of what I'm talking about. The mall is eight stories high filled not only with individual stores, but also mazes of vendor stalls selling everything from clothes to furniture to jewelry. It is total chaos complicated by blaring pop music, neon signs, giant video screens advertising coca cola, huge crowds of roving Thai teens and, and an incomprehensible floor plan. My mother found a good deal on some silver jewelry and we both bought "genuine imitation" Gucci sunglasses. It is complete shopping overload. For a break we went up to the 7th floor food court that has over 50 different stalls. Here, instead of paying with cash, you purchase tickets from a central kiosk and then pay at the stalls for your food with the tickets. We had some iced coffee and fried potstickers and I felt better.
After leaving the MBK Center, we walked up the stairs to the elevated train station which was right next to the National Stadium. From our high position we could see down into the grounds surrounding the stadium where it appeared a huge outdoor market was being held. Tired, but not daunted, back down the stairs we went. I'm so glad we did, because it was an interesting peek into everyday market life. There were no other tourists, no signs in English, and products and food that were obviously geared toward a local taste and need. Even the posted prices for things seemed much cheaper than in other markets we had visited. Actually, there was one sign in English, posted above a stall that sold fried insects which said, "to look no charge, photo 10 Baht" This led me to reevaluate my "no tourist" theory, but that was the only evidence I could see.
Once it got dark, we decided to go back to soi 20 for dinner. My mother wanted to try that great hot and sour soup again and I was craving some Pad Thai. I chose the food stall that looked the busiest, with most of its food on ice, and a couple of signs in English. Mom walked across the alley to get her Tom Yum soup, but the vendor would not serve her if she sat at his competitor's table. Rather than sit apart, she sat with me. The shrewd lady who ran the stall, noticed our dilemma, offered to make the soup, and when we agreed, quickly sent her assistant off with some money to procure the proper ingredients. Now that's guest first service!
As I sat waiting for my noodles on a small plastic stool, I tried to avoid having my feet run over by the large cars that continued to use the alley as a main thoroughfare during dinner time. Sitting there on the street, I could see an ornate, deity covered, multi-colored, Hindu temple to my left on Silom road. To my right was the stark contrast of a simple Islamic Mosque just finishing with the nightly prayers. And in between both religious centers were all manner of Thai food vendors each busily cooking away. It's this incredible diversity that continues to fascinate me about Bangkok and keeps me coming back for more.
March 3, 2000 Day 5-A chance meeting and a chance you take....
This morning I checked my e mail and got a pleasant surprise. I had a message from Rich and Kelly Willis from www.2goglobal.com who are currently traveling around the world. We've corresponded a few times via e mail and I've been following their site as they travel. It just happens that they are here in Bangkok and are staying at the posh Peninsula hotel for 3 nights before heading off to India and Nepal. Just back from Cambodia and Vietnam, they needed a bit of well deserved luxury. So, they saw my posting that I was here and wanted to meet. I called them and we agreed to meet them at their hotel around noon.
Since we had some time to spare this morning, we decided to walk around and came across the Bangrak market. This is a hidden local's market, located near the Shangri La hotel. the entrance is in the middle of a block, between and inside the buildings, barely visible from the main street, Charoen Krung. Inside, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, clothing, everyday products, nothing for the tourist, but fascinating nonetheless.
From there we took the Peninsula's private boat across the river. The Chao Praya Express Ferry runs up and down one side of the river, but to get across to the other side, it is necessary to take another boat across, usually paying 1 or 2 baht. If you happen to need to go across near the Peninsula or Oriental Hotels however, you can take one of the beautiful wooden boats they provide for their guests for free.
David and I have been big fans of the Peninsula Hotel group ever since we had New Year's Day in the lobby of the Peninsula Hong Kong and spent 3 days in China at the Peninsula Beijing Palace Hotel. This brand new hotel is no exception to the rule. It is downright luxurious. Kelly invited us up to see the room and it was beautiful with a fantastic view of the river from the 21st floor. Next time we will have to find the money to stay there.
Rich was busy with a computer problem and had a Dell technician there in the room working on their laptop, so Kelly came to lunch with us. We went back across the river to Prachak (1415 Charoen Krung), a restaurant recommended by Fodor's guidebook. This place was ok, but not as fabulous as the review. On the other hand, we had a great time talking to Kelly. She and Rich have been able to go so many of the places David and I missed, it was really interesting to hear about some of them firsthand.
All I wanted before we left was another massage. We had checked a couple of places near our hotel, but they all seemed overpriced so we headed back to Wat Po to the massage school. This time it was much later in the day and hot and crowded. Mom opted for a 40 minute foot massage (200 Baht) and I signed up for an hour long massage. Unfortunately, the woman who was my masseur was not that great. She just was not paying attention, more interested in talking to her friends than in what she was doing to me (ouch!). I guess that's just the chance you take. I'm just glad it only cost me $5 instead of the $70 it would have at home.
For dinner my mother wanted to go someplace different and was set on a street vendor I had so glowingly described from last year. I, on the other hand, did not want to take the chance that she would no longer be there like so many of the other places we had tried to find again. And I especially didn't want to sit in a taxi for 45 minutes in rush hour to discover this. However, we wouldn't even have a chance to try, as we could not find a taxi that was willing to take us across town. We wound up having dinner at Thangying (10 Soi Pramuan, off Silom rd, ph. 236-4361) which is owned by a Thai movie star. We were a bit unprepared and underdressed for this elegant restaurant filled with well dressed Thais, Maitre'd in tux, white tablecloths and gold plated flatware. The food was very good and the service was excellent. Dinner for two cost us a grand total of US$15.87.
March 4, 2000 Day 6
Our last morning was filled with a quick trip back to Chinatown for some last minute shopping. Right before we left, we met up with my mother's friend Rob in the hotel lobby, who had arrived with Vito the night before. We had just enough time for a soda before it was time to head for the airport. The trip back was fairly uneventful and easy. The flight from Taipei to L.A. was 2 hours shorter due to the jet stream pushing us along and we each had a row of 3 seats to ourselves since the flight was not full. One warning though, we arrived at Taipei airport around 9 PM and it was extremely cold inside and there were no shops open in the international terminal. We couldn't even buy a cup of coffee. If we had had Taiwanese currency we could have used the solitary vending machine but instead we had no choice but to wait in a freezing cold, airplane hanger-like room for two hours until the plane departed.
Back home after the trip, I experienced the worst jet lag of my life. Going east is definitely more difficult than going west. On top of that I probably caught a horrible cold while on the plane ride back and was sick for almost 3 weeks afterward. That said, however, I wouldn't change a thing. We had a great time and even though it was a long way to go for such a short trip, it was worth it!
Bangkok Journal Part 1
Bangkok Photos Part 1
Bangkok Journal Part 2
Bangkok Photos Part 2
home page/table of contents/budget/FAQ/links/packlists/ technical stuff/recipes /reader's comments/tips
last updated on April 5, 2002