I probably should have done some research before we departed for Japan, as I had quite a limited view of what Japan might be like!
I remember a friend going on a school trip to Japan and her Japanese roommate getting up at 5 am to study every day. In ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ when the Mark Darcy is introduced, we find out that his wife divorced him. Bridget’s Mum comments that ‘His wife was Japanese. Very cruel race.’I also remember the film ‘Lost in Translation’ with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson bonding over their mutual loneliness in an alien city.
So my expectation of Japan was that I would feel like an alien, surrounded by mean workaholics! What I actually found was quite different, and actually a lot more familiar than I expected.
Japan with the Thais
Now, it’s worth remembering that my immediate reference point is my life Thailand. I only understand around half of what’s going on almost every day. There’s a scene in ‘Lost in Translation’ where Bill Murray is filming the commercial for Suntory whiskey. The director gives a lengthy explanation in Japanese only to have the translator covert this to three words of English. This is quite an accurate representation of my day to day existence in Thailand.
And being used to that experience brings with it a relaxed, ‘go with the flow’ kind of attitude when faced with the same situation in a new country. As the first four days of our trip were on a Thai tour it was like a double whammy of cultural and linguistic oblivion.
We spent day one exploring Shirakawa-go and Takayama in the Shogawa River Valley, a mountainous region in central Japan. What captures your eye immediately are the strikingly vibrant autumn colours of the leaves on the trees. Maybe it was just the contrast with Thailand where this season does not exist, but it was incredibly captivating.
Another Thailand contrast was the cool, fresh air. I immediately felt my cheeks getting rosy and a sense of vitality returning to my body.
Nothing can happen without food!
We spent our first night in Matsumoto and after a tasty Shabu dinner, we headed to the local Irish pub. We set off as a group but a few of our Thai friends were immediately distracted by what Family Mart had to offer. There must have been something spectacular in Family Mart as an hour past before anyone turned up at the pub!
Bearing in mind that we’d all just had dinner together and had stuffed our faces with snacks all day, the amount of crappy snack food that everyone insisted on ordering was remarkable! I don’t think Thais can do anything without eating!
Now, where is that mountain?
The next few days continued in this way, getting on the bus to go who knows where, listening to tour guide speak in Thai for hours but assuming he didn’t say anything important, going to a restaurant, getting back on the bus and then going somewhere else to explore. All in all quite a simple itinerary and definitely focused on just absorbing our surroundings! Unfortunately, we spent one day looking at Mt Fuji from different angles but it was so overcast it was invisible. There were a few other things to do, buy and eat, but it probably wasn’t quite as interesting as it could have been. Fortunately, we were able to see the mountain from the Shinkansen later in the week and it was awesome!
Leaving the Thais…
On day 4 we abandoned the Thai tour and set off on our own! It was quite a weird feeling to leave the security of being in the Thai group to travel across Japan alone. A culture we still didn’t really know anything about and a language we definitely didn’t speak!
Throughout our trip, I found myself constantly comparing Japan to Thailand. Maybe I’m ignorant in assuming that Asian countries might have similarities? This week someone on Twitter got lynched for saying that they were surprised that Kuala Lumpur was different from Bangkok! However, when you’ve lived in one culture for some time it’s difficult not to make immediate comparisons when you visit another country. So I apologize in advance that I found myself surprised at how different Japan was from Thailand.
Trains, buses, and automobiles…
Our first challenge was navigating the Shinkansen which really was no issue. Very clear signs on where to go, everything in English and Japanese, clear announcements… just perfect. And even on the train, there is actually enough space for your luggage and plenty of legroom. In fact, all public transport we experienced in Japan – bus, JR train, local train, metro was amazing! A bit different from the old buses in Bangkok belching out toxic fumes and barely stopping to let people off!
And getting a taxi was also a surprisingly hassle-free experience. I had been concerned about our ability to communicate our destination effectively but thanks to the Booking.com app, we were able to show the driver our hotel address in Japanese and this was enough. The taxi drivers were all dressed in a chauffeur style uniform and lacked the inexplicable fidgeting that seems to afflict most Thai taxi drivers.
Feeling moved in Hiroshima
In Hiroshima, we visited the Peace Memorial Park, containing memorials for the atomic bomb. There were various inscriptions around the park and the language used was incredibly strong and powerful.
The most moving part of the day was at the Children’s Peace Memorial. This statue commemorates all children who died as a result of the atomic bomb, but specifically, one girl called Sadako Sasaki. She was two years old when the bomb hit and died ten years later as a result of radiation-induced leukemia. Before her death, she attempted to fold 1000 origami cranes to be granted one wish. Her wish was World Peace. She didn’t quite manage it but now children bring origami cranes as an offering to the memorial.
Whilst we were there we saw a group of school children on a day trip with their teachers. They stood together in front of the memorial and recited some sort of mantra. Each of them said their bit, with no apparent coordination from their teachers. They then all sang a beautiful song together where the lyrics are all about praying for world peace.
Feeling ‘zen’ in Kyoto
A few days later in Kyoto we told our guide about our experience in Hiroshima. She was so pleased that school children were still visiting the memorial and performing this ritual.
Other than the Peace Memorial Park which was fairly busy with tourists, and also the random Ramen festival we stumbled upon, Hiroshima was a fairly quiet city. Kyoto had a lot more going for it in terms of bars, restaurants and food markets. We unwittingly booked ourselves into a hotel just down the road from Nishiki Food Market which was nice to wander through, gawping at weird looking food! We did enjoy a nice matcha ice cream crepe there and Chris helped the lady that owned that particular shop put up a new shop sign. For the first time on our trip his superior height was an advantage and not a source of head injury.
We took a one day tour of North West Kyoto, taking in a bamboo forest, Ryoan-ji rock garden, the Golden Pavillion and Nijo castle. For lunch we had Omurice. This is something I’ve been making quite a dodgy version of in Thailand after seeing a video on Instagram. We traveled by a combination of trains, buses and walking which really added to the whole experience. Our guide Yuri was around the same age as us, very chatty but very knowledgeable so for the first time we got an insight into Japanese history and culture. We probably would have got some of this information from our Thai tour guide who talked a lot but we just didn’t understand!
Trying to be ‘hipster’
We attempted to be ‘hipster’ in Kyoto and found a cool, katsu curry restaurant. It only opened for 3 hours and could only seat 10 people so we had to wait in line for 45 minutes before we could get in. The katsu curry was delicious though so worth the wait.
The final leg of our trip was a few days in Tokyo. We’d actually already been to Tokyo on the Thai tour. We spent the night in Shinjuku where Chris became the world champion of darts against a Japanese bartender. But Tokyo is huge so you can stay in different areas and feel like you are in completely different cities.
Taking in Tokyo
This time we were staying in the central and pretty upmarket area of Ginza. We made no real plans for Tokyo and instead decided to follow recommendations that we picked up along the way. Other than temples and shrines, I don’t think there are actually a lot of things to do in Tokyo. I think it’s more of a city just to ‘be’ in, walking around, taking in the atmosphere, stopping for lunch, having a coffee, people watching. So that’s pretty much what we did.
We took in the main sites – the Imperial Palace, the Asahi Tower, the Shibuya crossing and the Meiji Shrine. Here we befriended some Japanese students who wanted to practice their English by giving us a private tour. We also hung out in a cool area called Shimokitazawa which is full of vintage shops and coffee houses. Obviously, we were completely out of place but we soaked up the atmosphere anyway!
Fashion seemed to be a big thing in Japan, Tokyo especially. Everyone wore the most amazing clothes. Everyone looked like they’d stepped out of a magazine in their elegant Autumn apparel.
Order or chaos?
Since living abroad, I not only find myself comparing all countries to Thailand in general, I also seem to consider what it would be like to live in those countries. Obviously, when you’re on holiday everything probably seems rosier than it really is, but at the time I felt like I could totally see myself living in Japan!
But at the same time as thinking everything was so user-friendly, I also felt a bit bored. Getting from A to B was just too easy. In Thailand, I build in extra time because I will probably get lost. Or I wait forever to cross a road because the pedestrian crossing is only for show and I still have to just walk out into the traffic.
In Japan, the pavements were flat and even. There were no motorcycles hurtling towards me insisting I get out of their way. People were riding pushbikes on the pavement but were able to easily avoid pedestrians. At no point in my trip to Japan did I feel there was a risk of dying!
I spent the whole trip reflecting on how much I despised the chaos of Thailand but ultimately, I found myself missing it. On some level anyway.
As I sat in Siem Reap International Airport watching the various travellers preparing to depart on the next stage of their adventure, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was living life in a bit of a strange order. I don’t think I’ve regressed exactly, despite my new found interest in travel my 35-year-old body does demand a certain level of comfort that a hostel can’t provide. But I do seem to be retracing the steps that my friends took in their early 20s.
So last weekend we visited Siem Reap – the novelty of being able to hop on a flight on a Friday night to visit somewhere that previously seemed remote and exotic has certainly not worn off!
I’d pre-booked a 2-day tour -I use the word ‘tour’ is used in the loosest sense as it was essentially a driver and a car who drove between the various attractions and gave us water. That being said it did take away all the thinking about where to go, where to get tickets etc., and as it was insanely hot getting into an air-conditioned car was very welcome.
On Day 1 we headed to Tonle Sap Lake to take a boat trip and see a fishing village and floating market. I’ll admit that I hadn’t exactly researched what we were doing all that extensively, so every step of the day felt like a nice little surprise!
We were ushered onto a boat of questionable seaworthiness, piloted by a woman and toddler and a bloke with an oar; for the first leg anyway. We headed towards a cluster of boats and for a moment I thought we would be switching boats but no, we were just depositing ‘man with oar’ to a new location. We set off again and headed towards another cluster of boats. This time the woman and toddler got off and some completely new guy got on. And then we were on our way. At this stage I don’t actually think we were even on a real lake, technically it was just a flooded field.
The scenery was pretty consistent for a while and then we started to approach the village comprising houses on stilts with no land anywhere near them – this must be the floating fishing village.
It all sounds quite romantic visiting an authentic fishing village, witnessing a different way of life but I actually found it a bit weird! I’m not sure I’ve ever visited anywhere before where the sole objective was just to look at how other people live, so I felt a bit uncomfortable just gawping at people in their own homes.
We left the village and our next stop was a large raft house where we disembarked without really knowing why. We were quickly ushered towards a desk to buy another ticket for another boat plus some over-priced exercise books for us to give to the children. Everything seemed to cost 5 dollars!
Boat number 2 was more basic than boat number 1 and our lady driver paddled us through the ‘river forest’ whilst we sat cross-legged and enjoyed the tranquility. It was actually all quite nice until we got to the ‘floating market’ which essentially was 3 boats loosely lashed together, selling drinks and snacks way above the recommended retail price. One boat owner grabbed onto our boat and it was clear from her vice-like grip we were not going anywhere until we bought something. After establishing that we didn’t want any refreshments nor did our mother, father, brother or 2nd cousin once removed, we finally gave in and bought a drink and some biscuits for the driver, although I doubt she wanted them. Anyway, we obviously did enough to secure our release and on we paddled through the trees, picking up the odd discarded plastic bottle to support our driver with her sideline recycling business. Chris commented that it wasn’t too dissimilar to the ‘Swan Ride’ at Alton Towers.
We were returned to the raft house and again slightly unsure of what we were supposed to do. The rapid switching of drivers on boat number 1 meant we couldn’t recall what our driver looked like and in fact, we weren’t entirely sure he’d even hung around. Other boats were arriving so we considered just getting on one of those but before took that leap of faith our guy appeared and we got back on the original boat.
We ventured onto the actual lake, albeit only briefly, as it’s massive and there really isn’t anything to see other than a vast expanse of water. So we made our way back to the start point, retracing our steps through the village. At various points in the journey, our driver did keep leaving the steering wheel unattended to attend to something at the back of the boat but I’m sure that was nothing to worry about!
Once we had disembarked we had a brief moment of minor panic when our guide/driver seemed to have abandoned us but we soon tracked him down and started heading back to town. The weather had been absolutely stunning all morning but a storm quickly moved in and by the time we got back it was hammering it down.
This seemed as good a time as any to take our lunch break. Since living in Thailand I’m not sure I can actually just eat one dish for lunch so we ordered a selection of different things to share. To be honest the food was pretty similar to Thai food; it just seemed to have a lot more garlic. We washed it all down with the local Angkor beer and before we knew the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. A coach load of Chinese tourists pulled up so we took that as our cue to exit.
Obviously, the boat trip was the main event of the day so our afternoon itinerary was a bit lighter. We went to a Buddhist Monastery and then the Killing Fields Memorial. I believe the main points of interest regarding the Khmer Rouge atrocities are actually in Phnom Penh, but there are memorials in other locations with information boards that tell the stories of some of the people that were affected. Cambodia sees this moment in history as something that should not be forgotten and must be learned from; a point that seems to have been missed by those Cambridge University students who want to ban Remembrance Sunday in the UK.
We had an early night as we’d planned to leave at 5 am the next day to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. To be honest, we barely need an excuse for an early night but this seemed like a good one.
So Day 2 was our temples day and the spectacular Angkor Wat was our first stop. I think the main advantage of starting early is that you avoid the heat as later in the day it was pretty unbearable. On the way in I bought a book from a woman who allowed me to pay for it in Thai Baht but gave me change in US Dollars so I’m not exactly sure what the final price was. The publication date was 1999 but as Angkor Wat dates back to the 12th Century I figured it would be ok!
Hordes of people had gathered in front of the reflection ponds hoping to capture the perfect Instagram shot of the sunrise over Angkor Wat – the tour guides seemed very keen on their groups capturing this shot. I could hear one Australian guy protesting that it was ‘too cloudy’ and as we were only armed with iPhones for cameras we decided to head straight through Angkor Wat to the other side. Actually, this was unwittingly quite a good move as there were relatively few people around so Chris was able to take quite a few photos without other tourists obscuring the nice view.
I can’t really describe Angkor Wat in any way that will do it justice – you just need to see it, or maybe follow the hashtag on Instagram!
After a quick pancake, we headed to Angkor Thom, the ancient 12th Century Khmer city, within its walls containing some pretty stunning temples. The Bayon is probably the weirdest one, with face towers and maze of tunnels. Baphuon boasts literally the steepest staircase I have ever climbed up, and actually much more frighteningly climbed down. The Ta Promh is the infamous ‘Tomb Raider’ temple with trees growing through the walls and is actually barely standing. All very impressive in their own right.
A consistent theme of all the temples was the people trying to get money out of you. I haven’t experienced quite the same thing in Thailand, but in Siem Reap, there are countless men, women, and children trying to get you to part with small amounts of cash. They will either be trying to sell you some souvenirs or clothing, which seems fine on the face of it – I’m very partial to ‘tourist tat’ and always buy something. It just becomes relentless though as they try to strike a multi-buy deal with you – what do they think I’m going to do with five identical fridge magnets, especially as I already bought two earlier in the day. And saying you’ve already bought a fridge magnet does not deter them, it just shows them that you will eventually give in!
The second tactic is to offer you some advice and information about the temple you’re looking at, apparently just wanting to be friendly and share their knowledge. But you know it’s only a matter of time before they mention that they are a teacher in a school that needs donations.
I’m actually quite relaxed about this and tend to go along with it all, buying a few things, handing over a few dollars here and there which seems to work. I know it really bothers some people – that feeling that you’re being preyed on. In Thailand, I’ve found that people will try to sell you things, but normally the quality is better and if you don’t buy anything they back off. In Siem Reap there was a definite sense of desperation – they know they’re selling you poor quality goods but they hope you will take pity on them and buy anyway. I hope things in Cambodia do develop enough to legitimise these efforts; as a tourist, I’m quite happy to pay for goods and services and actually some of the ad-hoc advice we were given was pretty useful!
By mid-afternoon, we were all ‘templed out’ so we relaxed by the rooftop pool of our hotel which was awesome. There only appeared to be about 3 other people staying in our hotel so we had the place to ourselves.
That night we hopped in a tuk-tuk and headed to ‘Pub Street’ so Chris could relive his backpacker days. A few months after we first got together in 2007, Chris went on a trip to Southeast Asia and had some crazy night in a bar in Siem Reap called the ‘The Angkor What?’. This bar encouraged its patrons to write messages on the walls and ceiling, to leave behind an indelible mark of their time in Cambodia. Chris had written our names on the ceiling so was hoping to rediscover this moment of history. Clearly many people take advantage of this freedom and the walls had been painted over many times since to allow the latest crop of backpackers to make their mark.
As always going back to somewhere where you have memories of crazy, hedonistic times is never quite the same but we tucked into our bucket of gin fizz nonetheless. I’m not sure if it was a bit early in the season or those stories about young people not drinking nowadays are accurate, but ‘Pub Street’ wasn’t all that lively. We did a bit of a crawl, which included some sort of weird semi-karaoke night for the elderly, but then ultimately ended up back at ‘The Angkor What?’ for a margarita bucket nightcap.
We spent a long weekend in Kanchanaburi province recently and it was awesome! I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Thailand – even a day trip from Bangkok is possible.
I would say it’s a place that has something for everyone – history, landscape, activity, relaxation and great food!
Here’s a summary of our favourite parts of the trips
1 – Bathing & Feeding Elephants
This was our activity on the first afternoon in Kanchanaburi and it was pretty indescribable. I had not really seen many elephants first hand before, I can only remember the elephants in Parc de la Tête d’Or in Lyon which, to be honest, looked pretty miserable in their concrete enclosure. I have since learned that these elephants ended up being rescued by the Monaco Royal Family after being condemned to death for suspected tuberculosis. They didn’t have TB in the end but one of the elephants has since died of chronic kidney failure.
Anyway, our afternoon was spent at the Elephant Haven, where the owners have rescued many elephants from the trekking industry. I think there are also other similar sanctuaries across Thailand for former working elephants. Years ago elephants were widely used for logging but in 1989 this was banned so many elephants and their ‘Mahouts’ found themselves out of work. The immediate solution was for a lot of them to try their luck on the streets of Bangkok, performing tricks for money. Fortunately, those days appear to be long gone in Bangkok, although I’m sure there are still elephants working illegally somewhere in Thailand.
We only got to spend a few hours at the Elephant Haven, but we joined their mid-afternoon routine which involves covering themselves in mud, then going to the river to have all the mud washed off, then putting more mud on and then scoffing some fruit. Not a bad life all in all!
We befriended the elderly elephant who was around 62 years old and had a sunken head – this is where all the oil that’s stored in the head starts to dissipate apparently. We walked with her to the river – I like to think that I helped to guide her as she was blind in one eye and had a cataract in the other but she probably already knew the way. We also got pretty intimate with the fat elephant who had a big bulge on her right side and who just lay in the water and let us scrub all the mud off her.
After their bath, it was feeding time and we treated them to buckets of chopped watermelon.
2 – Visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai
The legitimacy of this bridge can be a bit complicated, depending on what your expectations are and mostly dependent on whether you’ve seen the film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’. Not being all that familiar with the film, I had no expectations so I was quite happy to take everything at face value. We were told that this bridge wasn’t the original and it was moved into place later. I subsequently read that this river isn’t even the actual River Kwai, it’s the Mae Klong, but due to people blurring reality and the film, it got renamed ‘Kwai Yai’, so tourists would be satisfied that a train did pass over a bridge on the river. This now explains why we were told that there were two River Kwai’s, a small one and a big one.
Anyway, the bridge is nice and you can walk across it. There are also many places to buy souvenirs around here – we came home with a fridge magnet and an elephant bag that broke before we got back to Bangkok.
3 – Walking through Hellfire Pass
Learning about the history of the Burma railway was fascinating and moving. Although there were many British Prisoners of War involved in the accelerated construction during the later stages of the Second World War, I’m afraid to say I didn’t know that much about it.
Hellfire Pass is the largest rock cutting on the railway line and it took six weeks to construct. The name ‘Hellfire’ originated because the workforce of POWs and forced labourers had to work 18 hour days and at night the scene of emaciated men through torchlight was said to resemble hell.
The Japanese wanted to accelerate the completion of the Burma railway so just threw more people at it and made them work for longer, without adequate food and medicine. Many POWs died from disease, beating, falling from a height or just plain exhaustion. Other than the unbelievable cruelty of the situation and the complete disregard for human life, the thing that struck me was just how un-Japanese it seemed. In manufacturing and logistics, you’re taught many Japanese principles and methodology that ultimately all try to drive efficiency by removing waste from the process. It seems they took the opposite approach for the railway.
4 – Visiting the War Cemetary
Our first stop on the tour was the War Cemetery which is the main POW cemetery for those held captive by the Japanese and put to work building the Burma railway. There are nearly 7000 POW’s buried there, mostly British, Austrailian and Dutch, and the cemetery is immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It really struck me that there are all these graves of British soldiers so far away from home, that their families will never get to visit.
5 – Kayaking on the River Kwai
I’m not sure how much difference our uncoordinated paddling made to the motion of our two-man kayak as the current seemed strong enough to guide us down the river. We passed under the Bridge, waving at the tourists. After we disembarked (if that’s the correct term for a kayak), we had a look around a nice Chinese temple.
6 – Bathing in Hot Springs
Our second day was definitely the relaxing day of the trip. We’d started with the kayaking, then had coffee, then had lunch and our next activity was to bathe in some hot springs. The best way to access the hot springs was to take a longboat up and across the river so we were back on the water again.
No swimsuits were required at the hot springs as we were provided with appropriate garments. Chris got to wear shorts but I was pretty much wrapped in a sheet. Anyway, it covered our modesty!
There were various different pools to wallow in, with water at various different temperatures, and containing various different ingredients to tackle different ailments. One pool had those fish that eat the dead skin off your feet – I seemed to remember this being a short-lived fad in the UK a few years ago until people realized that it was pretty unhygienic.
7 – Staying at a Floating Hotel
Tourism in Kanchanaburi really centres around the river so you couldn’t get closer than actually staying on a floating raft house. We stayed at Sai Yok View Raft for one night which really was a completely idyllic setting. As the hotel really is a big raft on the river (it can and did move location previously), the rooms aren’t exactly the peak of luxury, but the overall ambiance more than makes up for it.
8 – Climbing to the top of Erawan Falls
This was the activity on our final day in Kanchanburi. We knew we had to ‘hike’ to the top of the waterfalls but I’d assumed this was an exaggeration and we’d just be strolling along a gentle and well-maintained path. Actually, it was a pretty arduous climb. After maybe the fourth level the path disappears and you actually have to scramble over rocks and tree roots, with the occasional rickety set of wooden steps to scale.
We decided to head straight for the seventh level in an attempt to get this pool all to ourselves, even if only for a few minutes. We were not disappointed! We reached the top waterfall, weary and incredibly sweaty. At this point, a pool of clear blue water was very welcome, and we paddled in, trying to avoid the fish who wanted to eat our feet.
We had another swim, down at the fourth level where there are two big slippery rocks that form water slides. I’m not sure if this is entirely natural or there’s been some human intervention to make this but it’s pretty cool.
It seems most people cannot be bothered to go beyond the second level so it’s considerably more crowded further down. I definitely recommend heading to the top to avoid the masses.
9 – Getting a Thai Massage Next to the River
You cannot come to Thailand and not have a Thai massage! Well, you can if you prefer not to experience excruciating pain! I think a Thai massage is one of those things that you need to have more of in order to build up some sort of resistance.
Some bits are pleasant, but it’s almost as though you have to suffer the painful parts to earn these. I treated it like a personal battle, not wanting to show any signs of pain, even when I thought my leg might be able to break!
Being next to the river was a lovely setting but it did involve had to constantly fight off biting insects who saw me as a very easy target.
10 -Taking a Train on the Death Railway
This is essentially just getting a train, albeit a very old train!
We had first class seats which basically entitled us to water, cola and Oreos – very authentic Thai cuisine. The train journey mostly passes through fields and probably satisfies the expectations of tourists who have been picturing this version of Thailand in their minds, instead of a 7-11 on every corner.
It gets vaguely more exciting towards the end when you pass through the cuttings in the rocks and over the rickety wooden bridge and around the curve. Our guide had a carefully choreographed routine for switching sides of the train to get the best photos, with which we obviously complied.
Our trip was all made possible by Joe at Thailand Attraction Tour who pulled the whole trip together and entertained us throughout the three days.
There’s been a bit of a gap since my last blog and this one because I am no longer a lady of leisure. Although I was managing to fill my days doing almost nothing, it couldn’t go on.
Unfortunately, the end of my first week of work was marred by a stomach bug/disagreement with something I ate episode that took hold on Thursday night. Really not wanting to take a sick day in my first week I somehow dragged myself through Friday, knowing that if I could get away with spending most of the day sitting down I’d be ok. I approached getting to work in stages, never thinking beyond the stage I was on; walking to the end of the road, getting on a motorbike taxi, getting on BTS (Skytrain). By the time I got to the MRT (underground), it was easier to keep going than turn back.
Bangkok really is the worst place to feel a bit queasy. Aside from the aroma of street vendors triple frying live chickens at all hours of the day and night, there is also the Bangkok smell. I remember someone saying to me before we came here ‘oh yes Bangkok, it just has that smell…’ and not really knowing what they meant. But there is a distinctive odour that I’ve only ever picked up in Bangkok and seems to be consistent no matter which district I find myself in. The only way I can describe it is ‘raw sewage with a kick’. I think it comes from the fact that all food waste gets secreted in every drain which, when mixed with whatever was in the drain in the first place, creates this fragrant concoction. Anyway, at 06:30 on a Friday morning when you’re thinking ‘I feel a bit sick’, Bangkok is there to make sure you feel sick.
The second thing that makes getting ill here so much worst is the inability to rehydrate effectively. A stomach bug is going to dehydrate you anywhere but coupled with the additional sweating that you inevitably experience, it’s like a double whammy. I had already gone through a similar experience during our first visit to Bangkok when I came down with the infamous ‘tequila poisoning’. Whilst a 3-day hangover sounds like hilarious self-inflicted misfortune, what I experienced was an initial hangover that developed into major dehydration that I struggled to deal with. I’m slightly wiser to this now but it’s one to watch.
What could have possibly caused it? On reflection, I guess I did have a bit of a different week, and I also gave my digestive system more of a workout than usual.
Bright and early on Monday, I did something that I was yet to do since arriving in Thailand, I left Bangkok. This was surprisingly easy to do traffic-wise as at that time in the morning people are heading in not out. And when I say people, I mean every man and his dog!
The day mainly consisted of touring warehouses & transport offices, meeting colleagues and generally trying to get my head around what it is I’m here to do. I’m still quite awkward with my greetings with Thai people. Basically, it’s not customary in Thailand to shake hands when you meet people although a lot of Thai’s have adapted to this more western method. The ‘wai’ is the normal Thai greeting which entails bringing your palms together in a prayer-like fashion and slightly bowing your head. The issue I have is that I never seem to have my hands free to bring them together, I’m always clasping a notebook, phone, water bottle etc. so I just end up flailing. I’m told just making an attempt is polite enough, but I feel my colleagues will probably expect to see some progress as the weeks go on.
For lunch, the team at one of the sites took me to a local restaurant. As Chris mentioned in his guest blog, lunch is a big deal in Thailand and I doubt I will ever find anyone quickly eating a sandwich at their desk, even if we’re in a total crisis in the warehouse. We sat outside but in a covered area which is not something the high humidity had yet permitted in Bangkok. We were less than 100km away from central Bangkok, but it felt worlds apart. One of my colleagues was even wearing a hoodie!
We ate in a traditional Thai style, like Spanish Tapas where you order a load of different dishes to share and take small amounts onto your plate and little soup bowl. The dishes all just turn up at random times, so you always want to leave room for what might be coming next! My colleagues were under strict instructions not to order anything boring and to branch out a bit. I guess that’s probably the reason I found myself eating a piece of deep-fried frog. This is somewhat ironic as on a nightly basis I spend time trying to save frogs from being eaten by Charles and Siale. That exercise hasn’t been going that well, to be honest, the other night I caught Siale munching on something that turned out to be the arm of a frog – I’m not sure where the rest of it was! And then on another night, Charles did get hold of one in his mouth which once released just lay there on the grass, legs splayed and motionless. I scooped it up and carefully placed it in the open trunk of a tree in the hope that frogs are creatures that use the tactic of playing dead when threatened to deter predators.
The deep-fried frog at lunch was a bit of a waste of time but everything else was delicious – various soups, meats, and vegetables in tasty, spicy sauces. Yummy!
Later that evening, Chris and I headed out for an Indian curry. I’d been told by my Dad’s friend Mike that I will eat the best curry I’ve ever tasted in Bangkok and this didn’t disappoint. We stayed local and went to a restaurant called ‘’Spicy by Nature. I’d been reluctant to visit this restaurant which will come as a shock to people who know I’m normally a spicy food fan. Since arriving in Thailand, I’d been finding that most dishes are spicy to an extent. If the menu does state that the dish is spicy or contains chilli, then it will probably blow your head off! Using this same logic, I’d concluded that a restaurant that proclaims itself to be ‘spicy by nature’ would have the same effect. Having subsequently learned that it was an Indian restaurant I’d decided we would be safe. Anyway, it was all delicious, the normal level of tasty spiciness and weirdly not greasy as a lot of Indian dishes can be.
Tuesday was a public holiday and since I had presented such a negative view of Chris’ patience for sightseeing he was determined to prove me wrong. We visited Wat Arun, The Temple of Dawn and I made my second visit to the Reclining Buddha which I was happy to do as it’s awesome. It was all going brilliantly, Chris was enjoying looking at the temples and statues, particularly Wat Arun which is quite breath-taking. We’d been on a rickety ferry across the river, had bought some cute ‘hear/see/speak no evil’ elephants and had picked up some mango sticky rice to keep us going.
It then suddenly went downhill very quickly when we stumbled across a section of Wat Pho that had things to read and the first stages of the meltdown started to show. We made a swift exit and went in search of some lunch. As the meltdown had begun, just finding food was not going to cut it, we needed beer too. We arrived at a covered market area by the river and were immediately accosted by a woman waving a menu. ‘Food AND Beer’ we explained. ‘Awwwww Food AND Beer’ she responded and took Chris by the arm to lead us through the maze of vendors. If she kept saying ‘Food and Beer’ we were happy to follow.
She delivered us to a table and we were then left to fend for ourselves. We ordered a couple of Leo’s (Thai local beer) and perused the menu. There were pictures and the type of meat was specified in English which is generally enough for me to decide. I chose a seafood soup and rice. The man who took the order said ‘Spicy?’ and having decided I was over my short-term fear of spicy food I nodded. I had also had an epiphany on how to eat Thai food. I’d realised that my usual approach of going hell for leather spooning the food into my mouth was only going to leave me gasping and sweating. If I took smaller mouthfuls and ate a bit slower then it was all good. This tactic served me well and I survived the soup.
During the rest of the week I had a lunch of green curry from one of the local vendors around the back of Chris’ office, we then prioritised beer over food after work at a pop up Leo event in the street and ended up munching on a plate of random grilled meats from one of the vendors there. I’m not sure the footfall at this event was sufficient to keep that food turning all that quickly which might have been my downfall. Finally, on Thursday I ended up having a very late lunch of stir-fried cashew nuts and then after that, I was unable to eat anything until Saturday morning. I guess at least a regular stomach upset will help keep the weight off as I eat my way around Thailand!
When we were planning our move to Bangkok, I opted to delay starting work for 1 month, with aim of getting our affairs in order. We didn’t really know how well the dogs would settle and we obviously needed to arrange for someone to look after them whilst we were at work. I also just quite fancied some time off!
Now that all the mandatory tasks had been completed, life in Bangkok was starting to feel a bit easy. Other than “Emma’s Missions” which were tasks that Chris would set me each day such as finding him a barber or buying ponchos for the rain, I didn’t really have a lot to do. I’d also managed to stay out of trouble for a few days, I could more than competently hail and survive a motorbike taxi ride, go to the supermarket and get around by various means of public transport without incident. With still more than a week to go before I started work, I was going to have to go looking for trouble.
One aspect of Bangkok life that hadn’t really entered our thoughts was the access to numerous tourist attractions. Other than the copious shopping malls, which some may class as attractions, I genuinely hadn’t researched the specifics of where to visit in Bangkok. We are hopeful that many of our friends and family will come to visit at some point during our two-year stay, and I think there will be a reasonable expectation that we might have some sort of local insight into where to go.
Knowing that once I did start my job my excess time and energy would be depleted, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to get on the tourist trail. I was also quite familiar with the limitations of Chris’ tolerance for sightseeing, having witnessed complete breakdowns in the British Museum, the American History Museum and, most recently in Niagara Falls after we spent a solid day and a half looking at those waterfalls from every available angle. The only remedy in these scenarios is to immediately take him to an establishment that serves alcohol. As just living and working in Bangkok is draining enough, I predict that we’ll be skipping the museums and going directly to the pub.
According to the internet, the top 3 attractions in Bangkok are The Grand Palace (and the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (including the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn). Now, there are some highly recommended tours of these places which I imagine making the whole experience a delight. But I was a local now and an unemployed local at that. I couldn’t really swan off on some expensive guided tour whilst Chris was out earning the pennies!
I opted to take the BTS to Saphan Taskin where I hoped I would find Chao Phraya Tourist Boat. I’d already dodged my initial opportunity to get on a river taxi a few days earlier but surely a tourist boat would be a more sensible first foray into navigating the Bangkok waterways?
The boat was excellent, 180 baht for a full day hop on hop off. I think a river taxi is probably significantly cheaper and quicker, but at least on the tourist boat you’re not packed in like sardines (or hanging off the side), and you get to listen to soothing music and helpful commentary. As we pulled away from Sathorn Pier, the sun was shining, the brown water of the Chao Phraya glistening and, other than the fact that I had sat in an unidentified pool of liquid on the boat and now had a temporarily wet bottom, I was feeling great!
On most of my previous tourism jaunts, I’ve been with other people who are much more interested in and capable of taking photos. Chris “selfie stick arm” Clowes is a master of the group selfie and even my Dad has become adept at snapping with his iPhone 6, claiming that he should have charged for taking photos at my cousin Holly’s wedding! But I was alone, so I was going to have to give it a go myself. I attempted my first selfie on the boat with some success, mainly because I didn’t drop the phone in the river, however, I must remember to jut my jaw out a bit more next time to avoid double chins!
I snapped various buildings, bridges and some sort of long cargo barge. We went past an attractive Chinese Pagoda and the commentary did explain something about this, but I was too busy randomly snapping. We approached Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) which was impressive just from the boat. There was an option to disembark here but I stayed on the boat as I was headed for the Grand Palace. If you’re interested in my appalling photography you can check out more photos by clicking this link https://photos.app.goo.gl/329Bb0gnMUiO3Uyw1.
I got off the boat at Maharaj Pier and followed the masses towards the Grand Palace. As I was walking, I got a call from Rena who uttered the four words that I really did not need to hear when I was deep within a throng of eager tourists – ‘no water, no lights’. Oh no. We hadn’t had an electricity bill yet so surely, we weren’t being cut off for not paying? Maybe it was one of Bangkok’s infamous power cuts? Anyway, after a few frantic phone calls and texts, we established that it was a planned outage until 15:00. Rena was instructed to keep the dogs cool by whatever means necessary and I continued towards the Grand Palace, becoming ever more disconcerted by the sheer number of people that seemed to be heading in the same direction.
The Grand Palace is billed as a must-see attraction in Bangkok if you see nothing else then see this. It was the official Royal residence of King Rama I to King Rama V and is a complex of temples, thrown halls and other impressively ornate buildings. It is also without a shadow of a doubt the busiest place I have ever been in my life. There are signs everywhere saying you should be quiet and respectful but all you can hear is tour guides speaking in various languages.
After you pay your 500-baht entrance fee, you get in the Foreigner line and then enter what I think is the main court. There appeared to be three different recommended routes around the complex; fast medium and long stay, but I never saw another sign after the entrance so who knows which route I took. You get a free guide with your ticket, so I picked up my English version and started trying to get my bearings. This proved challenging when nearly every building or statue was partially obscured by the raised umbrella/flag of a tour guide or by some nitwit with a selfie stick. I tried my best to take in the surroundings and recognise the significance of what I was looking at, but I was not loving life at this point.
I removed my shoes, stowed them in the designated area and got in line to enter the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. This is the most sacred object in the Kingdom of Thailand, nobody other than the King can go near it which he does to change its costume at the beginning of each season. It’s smaller than I thought it would be, but I hadn’t read in advance that it was only 66cm tall, so it probably doesn’t come as a shock to most people. The space you can walk in is tiny so once I’m admired the Emerald Buddha and the impressive interior of the building, I had to struggle to extricate myself.
One of my favourite parts of the Grand Palace was the gallery in the surrounding buildings. There are murals painted which depict the story of the Ramakien, which is all to do with the battle between Tosakanth, the king of demons and King Rama, the human king. It might have been because not many other people seemed to be that bothered by these murals, so it was a rare area of tranquility, but I found them fascinating.
There was undeniably a lot more to see at the Grand Palace, but I’d had enough of the crowds after a few hours so made my excuses and left. My next port of call was Wat Pho, which houses the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This is just a short walk from the Grand Palace and en route I passed the hundreds of tour buses that had clearly ferried the hoards of tourists who had hindered my day so far.
After the ordeal that was The Grand Palace, Wat Pho was an absolute dream. Firstly, the entrance fee was 100 baht, secondly, you got a free bottle of water that you could then refill at the water stations dotted about, and thirdly there wasn’t a trillion-people gurning into their phones, blocking my view of sacred artifacts.
The Reclining Buddha itself is probably one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. It is enormous, but it’s pose, and expression makes it enchantingly life-like. You can wander around both sides and you’re even allowed to take photos which you can’t do in other temples. After you’ve seen the impressive Buddha, you then get to wander through the rest of the complex. Clearly, once people have seen the Reclining Buddha they don’t bother with this, but this was genuinely the most relaxing part. There were rock gardens with weird figurines of four-legged creatures and contorting hermits, there were Chinese stone dolls and there were a lot of buddhas! There’s even a school and the children were out doing some sort of dance – probably not traditional in the slightest but adorable all the same. You could even get a Thai massage!
Feeling more satisfied that I had experienced and absorbed some Thai history, and feeling nicely rehydrated from all the free water, I took the nearest exit and headed towards the main road. I chatted with a tuk-tuk driver who was trying to deter me from getting back on the boat as he reckoned his tuk-tuk would be quicker. As all I could see on the road was stationary traffic, I declined his kind offer, but he was helpful enough to give me directions back to the boat.
I was also now starving at this point and feeling slightly delirious so stopped for some coconut chicken soup and rice, and an iced coffee (I am a partial convert). The coffee cost pretty much the same as the food but it did the job, I was refuelled and re-cooled and ready for my return boat trip. As I got to the pier, the boat was there, heading in the right direction and I got straight on. It did occur to me that there was probably an ounce of truth in what ‘Mr Tuk-Tuk’ was saying as if you timed it badly you could be waiting a long time for the boat. But it seemed to work for me and I was home within the hour.