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Vena McGrath

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Bangkok Through the Eyes of an Aussie 2006
By Vena McGrath
Friday, September 22, 2006

Rated "G" by the Author.

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The first instalment from my recent month overseas - around the world in 26 days!

Sydney/Bangkok/London/Dublin/Ireland/Dublin/New York/San Francisco/Sydney

21 August 2006 to 15 September 2006 – Mileage 25,418


Sydney/Bangkok – The first leg

21/8/06 to 24/8/06

Thai Airlines – departed Sydney 4.30 pm on 21/8/06


The first step on the holiday I had waited for.  My cousin and I had decided to buy around the world tickets and fit in whatever we could to our 26 days away.  I’m not that happy about flying, especially long distances, but there isn’t an alternative unless you have a lot of time and money.


Getting out of Sydney wasn’t a great drama although security was tight and we had to queue up for quite a while to check in our luggage.  The First Class and Business Class lines had very few people checking in at those two counters, and yet here we were in a long row of travellers laden with luggage, moving a few inches every 5 minutes or so.  It was kind of exciting every time you rounded a bend in the line. 


We made our way to the Duty Free shop once we had our boarding passes, and each purchased a carton of cigarettes – around $30 cheaper than to buy them at a shop.  I didn’t realise that although we paid for the cigarettes we couldn’t collect them until we had passed through the security check at customs.  We found a money exchange counter and both exchanged $50 AU for baht – 1200 baht each. Once we had our ‘funny money’ we moved on through the next checkpoints and collected our cigarettes.  Interestingly there was a smoking area near our departure lounge and most of the time until we heard the call the board we spent in that area.


The flight was just over 9 hours and, as usual, although the plane was huge and very nice, I was cramped because of my long legs.  Fortunately I had an aisle seat in the middle section of 4 seats so I was able to move around without having to climb over sleeping bodies.  The crew were on the ball, constantly bringing around trays of water and fruit juice during the night; a bonus for people like me that can’t sleep more than catnaps on a plane. 


Once the plane reached altitude, out came the hot towels and then the first meal.  3 movies were shown and about 1.5 hours out of Bangkok, hot towels to freshen and wake up, and the second meal.  The screens now showed a map of our route, where we had departed from and where we were at, continually updating.  There were details of speed, altitude, and the time at our destination and expected arrival time.  I was really tired but sleep alluded me.


Finally the big bird hit the tarmac at Bangkok.  The airport was massive and I wondered when the plane would berth, as it seemed to be driven along the tarmac for ages.  Once the seat belt lights went off we all stood up, moved into the aisle and congested it of course, and hauled down hand luggage.  We were lucky that by the time we flew out, a week after all the problems at Heathrow, cabin luggage was allowed with the exception of any type of gels, liquids (including makeup) and probably the worst of all, no drinks allowed.


When we exited through the door of the plane into the tunnel, the intense heat and humidity hit us like a brick wall.  It was extreme after being air locked into a plane for so long.  As we moved out of the tunnel into the airport itself, the heat lessened. 


Through Customs, after lining up and being warned often to stay behind the line in front of the counter. Finally, a stamp in my passport! And then on to the bag carousel.  This was the usual nightmare with all bags that are the same colour looking identical.  I always tie coloured shoelaces or other bits of fabric to my bag so I know which is mine, but even so, it can often be hard to see the ties.  This time though I had tied them to a handle on the top of the bag and to a handle on the side, giving me a bit more of a chance to spot the bag.


We dragged our bags (I should say I did as my bag seemed to have all the weight on the wheels and was extremely hard to pull along) to the arrival area where we were supposed to be met by the transport company for our trip to the Hotel.  Confronted by rows and rows of people holding up cards with names on them, we moved past totally confused.  We had a description of the company uniform that these people would be wearing, but trying to spot them was impossible.  Moving outdoors onto the footpath, we both enjoyed our first cigarette for many hours and pondered our predicament.  It was late, we were tired, and all we wanted was to get to bed and out of the intense heat.  We didn’t stay out there long because of the heat and the people trying to get us to hitch a ride with them to the city were very annoying and persistent. 


I stayed with the bags and cuz went off to see if she could find someone from the right company.  Constant warnings are played in all airports that any luggage left unattended will be confiscated and destroyed, so at all times we had to make sure one of us stayed with our bags. Eventually she came back saying she had found someone from Tour East but we had to wait for a while as others were due to arrive that were booked for transfers.  The problem was of course the time it was taking everyone to get through the various Customs checks, find their luggage etc.  This meant that times set 3 months previous in itineraries for pick-ups no longer were the go.  All travellers were at the beck and call of the officials.  There was no quick way out or in at any airports. 


Another smoke outside while people wanting to organise a lift for us to Bangkok constantly harassed us.  We had of course been warned not to do business with anyone on the street.  Eventually we found out that the person cuz thought was the right person was the wrong person.  Our transfer was in a private car and finally we were found and dragged our bags to his car.  We both sank into the back seat, grateful to be on our way to the hotel.


The airport at Bangkok is a total mess. There appears to be no order as to how vehicles park or where they park.  They block each other in, just stopping anywhere it seems.  Our driver apparently spends a lot of time out there as he managed to edge his way out through some very tight corners.  The constant honking of horns was annoying, mixed with the noise and the heat.  Once out of the airport, the highway to the city was like any other and, because it was late at night, we moved along at a fast pace.  At last, we arrived at the hotel.  Porters were standing outside waiting for arrivals and took our luggage, while we went to check in, through a door opened by hotel staff who welcomed us with hands together and heads bowed.


We had a room on the 11th floor of the Amari Watergate Hotel and it was a nice room.  The view was less than spectacular although it did look down onto the pool if you stood with your nose pressed to the glass.  Looking out and around it appeared to be a fairly congested area, but it was at night.  The loo I found interesting as the bowl was almost filled with water.  The only time I’ve seen a loo bowl like that before was when my home developed a plumbing problem and everything filled up with water!  It was 1.30 am Bangkok time when we hit the sheets in our beds.


I awoke at daybreak and pulled the curtains apart a bit so I could see out.  Cuz was still asleep and I envied her.  Looking out and around, all I could see was a concrete jungle of buildings of all sizes and conditions.  I hadn’t been able to work out how to have the air conditioner on and the lights off when we went to bed so had to leave the light on in the hallway to the bathroom.  Bad luck for me I had the bed closest to that bit of hallway so the light was on me all night.  If I took the card out of the slot so the lights went off, the air conditioning went off as well, and it was way too stifling not to keep it on all night. 


Money belts on, our passports safely in those belts, we moved downstairs the next morning and found the breakfast area.  After breakfast that included eggs, bacon, hash browns, toast, juice and coffee we progressed outside into the heat.  The hotel was very luxurious and a haven from the heat outside.  Once we moved outside the hotel area, people wanting to drive us around the city for 20 baht once again harassed us continuously.  They don’t seem to know that ‘no thank you’ means exactly that!  They hung around the footpath at the bottom of the steps leading down from the front of the hotel and followed us along the footpath. Knowing that 20 baht was a pittance, we were very wary of these people and steered clear of them.


The area where the hotel is located is filled with market stalls.  The footpaths are only wide enough for one person to walk along, as that’s all the area that is left mostly between shop fronts and stalls.  In Australia they would never get away with stalls in the condition these were in.  Due to the weather and the constant chance of showers, they were covered roughly with plastic etc to keep the weather off them.  The whole area was just a mess of stalls and people.  I decided very early on that I wouldn’t be buying much in Bangkok as most of what I saw there I see in Australia at markets and in our large shopping complexes.   Every alleyway was filled with stalls, every inch of the footpaths both sides of the road filled with stalls.


The traffic was unbelievable, the honking of horns tiresome.  The streets were filled with a constant flow of motorbikes (with side saddles for the passengers), pushbikes, tuk tuks (motor bikes with a body built on them and seating for 2), taxis, buses (large and small), and cars.  I didn’t see an old car in Bangkok and all the taxis appeared quite new and in different colours.  After wandering around outside for about an hour, we decided to return to the hotel for some respite from the heat and to consider our options for visiting a few places in Bangkok.  Tour East, the company that arranged our transfer from the airport, had left us with brochures on tours they organised, with prices.  I rang the phone number and eventually was put onto someone who could understand English and could organise a couple of trips for us. 


The first tour was to visit 3 temples – 700 baht each for 3 hours.  It also included touring through some of the city with a guide describing what we were passing in the bus.  We were picked up from the hotel in a transit van and driven to another hotel where we joined a group of people and transferred to a coach.  The temples we visited were Wat Trimitr – Temple of the Golden Buddha.  The statue there of Buddha is solid gold and weighs 5.5 tons.  It was found during construction of the temple in a layer of stucco.  The next temple was Wat Po – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  This statue is the oldest and largest in Bangkok and the only one showing Buddha in the reclining position – it is huge.  The last temple was Wat Benchamabopit – the Marble Temple – built with white marble from Carrara.


The temples are places of extreme opulence with each statue and building encrusted with gems of all kinds.  Some of the work has been done with china plates that were sent to Thailand by China during some period of their history.  The china has been fitted onto the buildings and statues and gems adhered to the china.  One can only imagine what the value of the temples would be, and there are many temples in Thailand.


After being totally ‘templed out’ and bored from sitting in a bus that moved so slowly in the traffic through the streets, we arrived at a gem factory outlet.  This was not on the itinerary that we knew anyhow and I was peeved that once again we had to get out of the bus.  This was a stop for refreshments but once you went inside you were kind of a captive and ushered into a theatre to view a presentation about the place.  Then it was walk through with guards everywhere watching.  I hated the atmosphere of all these uniformed people wandering around. Sure the jewellery was beautiful, but I wasn’t interested, as I had no intention of buying any.  Finding your way out of the place was difficult and at last I requested to be shown how to get out as I didn’t wish or ask to be there.  Out to the carpark, found cuz, and we eventually were put on another bus that would take us to the hotel.  Of course it was dropping a lot of people off so another hour or so before we gratefully returned to our room.


I realised the first morning, after the room had been cleaned, that the supply of coffee etc in our room was of a minimum, so we found a 711 store and I purchased bottled water and coffee mix tubes that had whitener and sugar in the one tube with the coffee.  Cuz bought her usual supply of Coke and some water;  she doesn’t drink tea or coffee.  We had a fridge in our room and in fact this was the only hotel room during our time away that actually had a bar fridge in the room.  We didn’t eat any of the local cuisine that was on offer all over the place on the streets.  Breakfast was the main meal of the day mostly with us only eating dinner out one night at a restaurant attached to the hotel.  I was feeling hungry but wasn’t game to try anything outside.  Cuz seemed to exist mostly on her Coke, never eating a full breakfast like I did each day.  I figured we paid for it so we might as well make the most of what was available.


The next morning we were downstairs at 6.45 am ready to go on the second tour, a ride down the waterways on a motorised speedboat.  1300 baht each for 4 hours. The boat looked like a gondola with a motor and a long rudder out the back.  We travelled by bus to the pier and climbed into this boat, with great difficulty I might add.  The water is very rough from the constant boats going up and down, and climbing in is a feat in itself.  The water was dirty in the main river but nothing like we found when we went up one of the canals.  The smell was awful, a smell of sewer.  Here we found how the majority of the people in Bangkok live.  Stick houses in the water, decrepit and falling down.  No doubt the sewer goes straight into the canals, as does all their rubbish.  Compared to the opulence of the temples, this was stark and total poverty. 


Scattered amongst these ‘shanties’ were a few homes that the guide proudly pointed out as belonging to more affluent dwellers of the city.  I couldn’t imagine living that way.  I shuddered every time some water splashed onto my skin.  I would definitely not recommend taking one of these rides unless you are very fit as they can be dangerous getting in and disembarking.  I managed to slip as I was trying to climb over the side onto a tyre fixed to the pier and smashed my left leg into a seat.  I didn’t dare look at what I may have done to my leg as it was letting me know in no uncertain way that I had hurt it.  There was no blood once I did look, but I believe I broke a vein.  I add here today after travelling around for 4 weeks, that my leg is still sore to touch.


Our first stop was at Wat Arun – the Temple of Dawn.  Sigh … more temples.  Back in the boat and off to the Palace.


We disembarked a short walk from the Royal Palace and included in the Palace complex is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha – Wat Phnra Keow.  The Buddha image within this temple is carved from one piece of jade and is the holiest and most revered of religious objects in Thailand today.  The Grand Palace was once the home for the Kings of Siam and is built in traditional Thai architecture mixed with European designs.  The Royal Funeral Hall and the Royal Coronation Hall are also within the complex. The present King and Queen don’t live at the Grand Palace.  Once again, sheer opulence with jewel encrusted statues and buildings.  You are not allowed enter this complex unless you are wearing covering over your legs.  So, no shorts allowed. 


The King is in his 60th year of reign and as his colour is yellow, you see many people in Bangkok with yellow shirts on.  The Queen’s colour is green.  All over the city are pictures of the Royal couple when they were young.  I didn’t see any pictures of what they look like now.  This tour also ended up at the gem factory so this time we stated at the outset that we did not want to go into the building but wanted to be returned to our hotel.  After a bit of arguing we got our way and stood in the car park of the factory until directed to a small transit bus and eventually returned to the hotel.


In Bangkok pedestrians have no right of way really, and we were warned to cross the roads in a group.  The road in front of the hotel for instance, has a barrier down the middle of it so you can’t cross the street in various places.  You have to walk further along or go across a bridge above the road.  The drivers are crazy and how they never seem to smash into one another is amazing.  We went for a ride in a tuk tuk to a night market a fair distance from the hotel, and the rides to and from cost us 150 baht each way.  The fumes you had to breathe in whilst in the tuk tuk were almost overwhelming.  However it is a fast way to get around as they can push and shove their way in between lanes of blocked traffic.  They are crazy horn honkers too.


The night market was like the ones near the hotel.  Rows and rows of tables roughly constructed, many selling the same wares.  Along one side of the market road there were mostly eating places and bars.  On the other side were the red-light district businesses.  Strange mix markets and prostitutes!  I was totally bored with the markets and found a place to sit down out of the maze of stalls.  I purchased a few items of clothing there for my granddaughter that struck my eye as being ‘different’.


Wherever there is water lying in the gutters or on paths and in alleys, you get the impression by the smell that it is live sewer. My impressions of Bangkok aren’t good ones nor memorable for any reasons except those I list now:


Never-ending traffic jams and noise

No old cars on the roads

No large trucks in the city

More motorbikes than I have ever seen in my lifetime

Hundreds of taxis and tuk tuk transport

Taxis all mostly green and yellow or blue and red – Corollas

No flies or mozzies in spite of what I consider as being the filth of the city

The streets are a market place all day and half the night

The respect of the staff when you eat out or enter and leave the hotel is exemplary

The extreme heat and humidity was oppressive


I had a beer and lemonade the night we were leaving the hotel while we waited for our transfer vehicle.  It cost me 294 baht – approximately $8US.  The US$ when converted to baht yielded 38.  The AU$ yielded approximately 24 or 25 baht.  A hamburger delivered to your hotel room cost 303 baht with fries and salad. 


The transfer driver was supposed to show us where to go to check in our luggage once we arrived at the airport, but he dumped us out of his car in the middle of the road and drove off.  He didn’t even take his voucher so maybe he won’t be paid either.  We went inside the airport and didn’t have a clue where to go.  On searching the boards with flight details and check-in gate numbers, we couldn’t find our flight listed.  There are no seats either inside the airport or outside so we spent 1.5 hours standing, waiting for our flight details to appear on the board.  Our flight was due to leave at 1.10 am and we were dropped off at 10.30 pm.  We were not happy travellers at all.


Before I left Australia when I did a bit of research on Bangkok, I read about a 500 baht departure tax.  I was sure that we wouldn’t have to pay this, as all our taxes were supposedly included in the cost of our tickets.  However, when we arrived at the airport, after checking in our luggage and getting our boarding passes, we were told in a tone that gave us no room to argue at Customs, that we would not be allowed leave without paying the 500 baht in cash.  So, off we went to exchange a traveller’s cheque, as I didn’t have any baht left. I exchanged the rest of the cheque for sterling for London.  We were rushing because we were now running out of time.  After paying over our 500 baht our passports were stamped, and the next check was with uniformed police who frisked us and scanned us before we could pass.


On reaching the departure lounge, after a long walk, we found a room full of people and joined another line.  This time we were frisked again and scanned and our bags were emptied out and searched.  I had a small box of matches in my bag as you can’t carry lighters, and they were confiscated.  We found seats and waited for the go ahead to board.  The plane was again huge, and I made a promise to myself once I was seated, that I would never fly international again unless I could afford to fly business class.  I had a window seat this time and knew that for 12 hours I would be confined to quarters, something I wasn’t too pleased about.  I knew cuz would go to sleep and so would the other person no doubt, which left me with a problem re getting out of the seat to move around and visit the lavatory, as they are so quaintly called.


As the plane cruised across the tarmac in readiness for takeoff, the hostesses walked around with cans of spray to fumigate the plane interior and us.  Just goes to show what happens when you go to Bangkok and what is assumed you may have brought on board on your shoes or your clothing and bags.  I felt a bit like an animal being sprayed for lice or fly.


Once in the air the menus came around, but no hot towels!  Considering the fact that they sprayed us, one would have assumed hot towels would be offered for cleaning our hands and faces with.  We were given a drink each.  We had a choice of a chicken meal or a fish meal so cuz and I both opted for chicken.  By the time they got to us there was no chicken left.  I accepted the fish as it had veges with it and at least I could eat them.  Cuz put on a tantrum and slammed her tray back up probably scaring the heck out of the person sitting in that seat.  She ended up being offered a cheese platter, which she grudgingly accepted.  I was totally embarrassed by her actions and slunk down in my chair. The fish was gross and I didn’t eat it.

Most people went to sleep, but I sat there and split my time between watching the lights below (we flew low during the night) and cat napping when I could.  I didn’t watch the movies, as my headset was a problem.  After persevering with it for a while I gave up.  On arrival at London airport, we were told we had to circle the airport for about 40 minutes due to traffic.  The place was shrouded in fog and I wasn’t too happy circling around up there in the fog, especially when I could see other planes out the window doing the same.  Once again I was eternally grateful when we landed.  The flight services from Bangkok to London, with Thai Airlines, were much different than the flight to Bangkok from Sydney.  A marked difference.  We landed at Heathrow at 7.15 am on Thursday 24 August 2006, after leaving Bangkok at 1.10 am the same day.  The flight was just over 11 hours.

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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 9/26/2006
Have fun on your trip and stay safe; you are one lucky lady! Oh, to have a vacation myself; I need one!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in America, Karen Lynn in Texas. :D

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