Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bangkok! Temples, Buddhas, Cabbages and Condoms....

Monday morning, the 4th of June. Our first full day of exploration and adventures in Bangkok! 

Whilst I originally wanted to wake up early and get sight seeing as early as possible, Brad decided to take it a bit easier and we ended up out of the hotel, a little later than I liked. But ah. We were on holiday. Who's going to rush us? 

Our plan that day was to hit up the Grand Palace, Wat Pho (home of the largest reclining Buddha in the world) and maybe one or two other things in that area. If you plan to hit up temples in Thailand, make sure that you're wearing something with sleeves and long pants or skirts, to be respectful, Thailand tend to be fairly strict with the dress codes. 

Since we were staying near Sukhumvit Road, we had to take the BTS skytrain from Asok to Saphan Taksin station and from there take one of the Chao Phraya Express boats.

Taking the BTS or MRT around Bangkok is an absolute blessing. Whilst the stations aren't air-conned, the trains are. They are also frequent, convenient, clean (I once had a coconut juice in a cup with a lid and straw, but they wouldn't let me into the station until I had thrown it out), and incredibly cheap. To get from one end of the line to the other is not usually more than about 45 baht, which is less than $1.50! 

Once we got to where you catch the Chao Phraya Express boats, it was a little confusing at first, as they naturally wanted to sell the tall white guy (Brad) a tourist package for unlimited boat rides all day. Which isn't quite what we wanted. So we were instead herded to a waiting area. Make sure you keep alert, as the Thai's know when a boat is coming way before we could see one, and so we jumped up into a line, for a boat that we hoped was ours. We took a boat with an orange flag (green or grey would also work) to get to Tha Chang. 

Since the boat's are a little bit infrequent, they get pretty crowded! You're all herded to the front of the boat to make sure there's room for everyone else to climb into the back, standing room only for us! You also pay for your ticket on the boat, a lady will come by with a silver tube, and it's just a flat 15 baht (50 cents) for a one way ride. 

One thing I did love about the boat ride's, was getting off at the port at Tha Chang. Hello market! You naturally had your tourist souvenir goodies right by the exit, but as you walked out, it just turned into more and more food stalls. 

The bustle, the activity, my eyes couldn't stop looking at everything! I just wanted to hang out there for the rest of the day! A mish mash of tourists and locals, all doing their own thing. From fruit juice stores, to stores doing hot noodles (with protein that I had to question the hygiene level of), to coffee and tea stores. 

I couldn't resist picking up a couple of Thai iced teas to start our afternoon with (I was on a mission to have at least one a day) and ah, how sweet and lovely it was! I found the flavour of the tea was a little bit stronger than some of the other places I had had it at. Mmhmmm. 

We eventually found the entrance to the Grand Palace, after battling through a number of people trying to offer us tours and postcards, the place is absolutely huge! Even though I have been once before, the size of the grounds and the magnificent structures still had me completely in awe! 

It's quite daunting walking in, your senses are just overwhelmed with bling, colour and…more bling. As Brad commented: I don't think there's enough gold around here. It's quite amazing to think about how much care and maintenance are put into the buildings to keep them looking so vivacious. 

We made a beeline to Wat Phra Kaew, a temple that was completed in 1784, that houses the famous and highly revered Emerald Buddha (which is actually made of jade). It was absolutely packed, getting in was quite a procedure, with everyone making like sardines to slip into the entrance. The Emerald Buddha is quite beautiful, dressed in gold garments, that change with the season. We saw him in his summer gear, looking quite floral and jovial. 

One thing I love about this area of the grounds, is that there are so many different types of buildings. Gold leaf, ceramic tiled, floral…the decorations were endless! Although I have to say that the gold chedi (Phra Si Rattana Chedi) is probably one of my favourites…it's just quite a sight to behold, especially against a blue sky! I quite enjoyed bathing in it's glow….

Why so sad buddy?!

Walking around the actual Palace grounds is quite a sight to see as well. The buildings are a mish-mash of traditional style architecture (like you see on the temples) with the colonial style buildings. All still quite golden though!

I had been told the weekend prior we left, that the Monday we chose to visit the Grand Palace grounds, was a public holiday. We later learnt at the end of the day, that it was actually the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha attaining enlightenment. It explained the locals walking around the temples, all with lotus flowers and incense sticks in hand. There also seemed to be, what I would describe as 'gold blotting' as the buddhists were taking off the gold leaf from small Buddha statues and pressing it to their foreheads and cheeks. It was all quite intriguing and I only wish I understood the rituals and traditions better! 

After spending a good couple of hours, tiring our feet out, at the Grand Palace grounds, we decided to walk to Wat Pho. Of course we naturally had to pick up a couple of snacks along the way!

We got some pretty delicious BBQ skewers from one street vendor, and from another…well, this lady's little contraption just caught my eye. Inside this large metal barrel, were heaps of little metal tubes…in which she would put soda in, freeze and hey-presto, instant icy pole! I still didn't quite get how it froze without the use of power though…

So I picked up a cola icy pole for a blistering….wait for it…3 baht. Yup. 10 Australian cents folks. Why didn't I have more?!

Snacks in hand, we lazily strolled on to Wat Pho, passing by a myriad of street side stores offering food, tourist trap style souvenirs and amulets. The amulet stores I found particularly interesting, as this was very much a local thing, and you would see some of these men with necklaces, bracelets or belts, heavily hung with all sorts of little knick knacks, usually with some depiction of Buddha. 

Wat Pho is famous for it's reclining Buddha, the largest in the world, which is 15 metres high and 43 metres long! You kind of just walk in and go "Oh. Hi there Buddha!". This guy's seriously got the right idea though, who wouldn't want to just lounge around on their side all day? 

Even his feet are 3 metres wide and inlaid with mother of pearl. I was quite fascinated with his toes, I loved the beautiful curls! 

Whilst most people tend to just run in to see the Buddha and then head out, if you've got the time, I would suggest wandering the grounds. Wat Pho does have some beautiful little chedi's and…well, a whole lotta Buddha as well. It's a bit less crowded than the Grand Palace, and a little bit more serene because of that. 

Still no shortage of bling here, but I did love how much more shiny blue was incorporated into a lot of the buildings!

Our last stop for the day, was the Wat Arun, or the Temple of Dawn. We took a ferry to cross the river (which I think cost 6 baht). 

What a tough guy. Warrior pose, rose around your belly...y'know...

I think this was personally my favourite temple of the day. I loved that it hadn't been restored and gold leafed all over the place, and that it retained a lot of it's age and character. For being nearly 400 years old, it's tiles and several million pieces of porcelain, decorating the exterior, have kept some colour and shape marvellously. 

Visitors are allowed to climb up Wat Arun, but do it with care! Those steps are crazy steep! It was quite the workout climbing up and down, but the view was quite lovely and I mean, how often can you say you've climbed one of the oldest surviving Wats in Bangkok? 

After our long afternoon, we went to take the boat back to Saphan Station…but at 4pm…good luck getting on to the regular Express boat! Two passed by and both times, they were so full, we weren't let on! So we ended up jumping on the next available 'Tourist' boat, who give you a little commentary on the buildings you're passing by, and is much more spacious and comfortable, with plenty more seats. At 40 baht per person, it really ain't so bad. 

So we headed back to our hotel, reconnected ourselves with the world briefly, freshened up and headed out for a massage at the Health Land in Asoke, about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. There are always heaps of options for massages in Thailand, especially Bangkok, with Sukhumvit lined with little shops, with prices in the windows. However, Health Land, for around 50 baht more than most other places, are always consistent, big, clean and comfortable. They also have heaps of outlets (especially in Bangkok), so you're bound to find one close to you. 

After the long day of walking, the one hour foot reflexology we had was absolutely heaven! I'm pretty sure I fell asleep, only to be woken by what sounded like someone snoring on my left….although when I looked over there was no chair there….hmmm…

To finish our night, we got our slight immature teenager brains on and headed to Cabbages and Condoms for dinner. No it's not a strip club where the ladies' come out with cabbage leaves covering their titties (although that would be kinda hilarious). It's actually a restaurant, which is part of the Population & Community Development Association (PDA). The belief is basically that, family planning and sex education should be…as easy as buying your vegetables! So part of the restaurant's mission is to promote better understanding and acceptance of family planning and to also generate income to support the many different projects the PDA undertakes. This includes AIDS awareness, education in rural areas of Thailand and many other missions. 

So hey, even if it does seem a bit gimmicky, at least it's up for a good reason. 

The restaurant is quite large, with an indoor and outdoor area, but it feels friendly and fun, even if it is a bit quiet. The decor is certainly not lacking in uh…condoms, with some mannequins even dressed completely with them! Quite a bit of pointing and giggling was to be had.

It was quite hard not to over order while travelling around together, so I always tried to limit it to three dishes, based off my formula of 'one dish per person in the group plus one'….which was still too much quite a lot of the time! 

We started with the Mieng Khum, an appetiser of lemon, dried shrimp, peanut, ginger deep-fried coconut, chilli, shallots and sauce, wrapped in betel leaves. I generally found the whole lot a bit dry (maybe I didn't put enough sauce on…), and not quite as punchy in flavour as I would have liked. I was hoping for a bit more of a chilli kick, although the deep-fried coconut did have a lovely sweetness to it. 

Next up was the Hor Moke Talay (I think), steamed seafood with coconut cream and vegetables in a banana leaf cup. This dish was fairly tasty, with a lovely warmth. There was definitely a little bit more chilli in this, which woke you up a bit!

I was most excited to have this dish, the yum pla duke foo, a spicy and sour deep-fried fluffy catfish salad served with mango sauce. I fell in love with this dish the last time I was in Thailand and was excited to see if this lived up to expectations. Unfortunately, I found that the catfish just tasted a bit burnt in general and the sweet, tangy sauce was not enough to alleviate this. It didn't taste as fresh and light as I had previously had had. 

So our experience at Cabbages and Condoms wasn't amazing foodwise, but we figure with a menu that big, maybe we're just choosing the wrong things. The flavours have been slightly westernised, but I did appreciate that they did have a lot of dishes that you typically wouldn't get in Thai places overseas (like the yum pla duke foo). It is pretty reasonably priced though, a wee bit more expensive than you might find at more local places, but not somewhere that would really hurt the wallet at all. I probably wouldn't suggest to go out of your way to visit, but if you've got a spare lunch or dinner, you're not too far, you'd like to support a good cause and have some immature giggles while you're at it, then why not? 

We were given condoms instead of after dinner mints with the bill as well! More giggles ensued. 

And with that, day 1 was complete. I think we just head back to the room after this to drink beer from 7/11 and pass out. Can you imagine that this was only day 1 of 31?!

55/5 Sukhumvit 21 Rd. (Asoke)
Khlongtoeinuea, Wattana

10 Sukhumvit Soi 12, Bangkok