Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Thai-ing it up

on May 29, 2013

For this segment of my trip, I was again lucky to have some familiar company. For those of you who don’t know Ben, he’s also a dietitian who doesn’t eat like one, has a fondness for second-hand clothing and is a master of puns.

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My first two and a half hours in Thailand was spent hanging out in the baggage claim at Bangkok airport waiting for Ben’s flight to arrive. I had told mum and dad I’d call from the airport knowing I had time to kill and thinking there’d be wifi as there had been practically everywhere in Vietnam, however I was unfortunately on the wrong side of the gates to access free wifi. So I whiled away the time with my Mexican guidebook (thanks Karman!) and daydreamed about the pad thai I was going to eat as soon as I got to Khao San…

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Ben arrived for the week with a pack the size of my carry-on, bearing gifts of a multi-coloured pen and a Pez dispenser topped with Patrick the Starfish of Spongebob Squarepants fame. Not that Ben was sophisticated enough to know who Patrick was… He thought it looked like him. What do you reckon?

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We cabbed into town, thankfully with no major traffic jams and arrived to the backpacker hub of Khao San Road around 10pm, just as the night was kicking off. The street was buzzing with activity, music pumping, vendors hustling, travellers eating on the street, drinking on the street at bars advertising ‘No Check ID!’, and browsing through a myriad of clothing, bracelets, sunglasses and more. This is the first time I have ever stayed on Khao San Road itself, but I like the Phra Nakhorn area- it’s close to the river, close to attractions like the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and Wat Pho and also has heaps of good cheap food stalls. We stayed at a place called Rikka Inn, which was right in the action, but not too noisy and had a nice rooftop pool with great views to boot! I got to eat the pad thai I was dreaming of (it cost 30 baht, ~$1, and I couldn’t even finish it!) but the food coma together with the day’s travels got the better of us and we crashed in preparation for our first day in the city.

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In the morning we took to the streets. Breakfast first of course, which was fresh tropical fruit, homemade yoghurt and muesli and a fruit shake on Soi Rambuttri, a haven for food-stalls and restaurants. Next stop was the Grand Palace, whose name does not lie. It is indeed very grand. The complex has some spectacular buildings adorned in gold leaf and intricate mosaics, including Wat Prah Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha). It was built more than 200 years ago and was once the home of the King, as well as the royal court and the government. The king no longer lives there, but it is still used for important events and there are apparently still some state offices there, as only some parts of the complex are open to the public.

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After I had gotten kitted up in the appropriate clothing available for loan we wandered into the grounds. Ironincally, seeing the shorts Ben was wearing that morning I’d loaned him my fisherman pants, but I had thought my three-quarter length pants would be ok- turns out I needed a long skirt to cover up my ankles! We passed detailed friezes depicting the Ramayana in the cloisters (I’m not sure its crucial to the story, but check out the crow eating the guts of the drowning donkey in the one below! :-/ ), golden statues, pots filled with flowering water lilies and towering stupas before coming to Wat Prah Kaew, one of the main attractions here. The Emerald Buddha is actually carved from jade and I am always surprised to find it appears smaller than I expect. Despite my overenthusiastic expectations for a giant green Buddha, it is still very impressive perched up on its extravagantly decorated gold podium.

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On the way out of the complex, we had a peep in the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum which I’d never been to before as it was just opened about a year ago. It was quite interesting, showcasing a range of the fashionable queen’s outfits from over the years, and also featured displays on the making of Thai silk, weaving of traditional patterns and the queen’s SUPPORT project (Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupation and Related Techniques), which she began in the 70s to help rural craftspeople earn additional income by providing free financial assistance and expert guidance, eg. Weavers of traditional silk fabric in the northeast of Thailand. My favourite display showed how the silk is made from the breeding and feeding of the silkworms to the extraction of silk threads from their cocoons to the spinning and dyeing of the threads and finally the weaving. It was fascinating, it’s such a highly skilled and labour intense process. No wonder silk is pricey! This website http://www.designboom.com/history/silk1.html is great if anyone is interested in looking at all the steps accompanied by some fantastic pictures.

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After the palace we ventured to the nearby Wat Pho, home of a very large and famous Buddha image known to the general population as the Reclining Buddha (but known to Ben as ‘the lying down Buddha’). It is 46m long, covered in shining gold leaf and has giant 3m high feet inlaid with intricate mother of pearl designs. The temple is always packed with tourists. One change this time we went was that instead of just leaving your shoes out the front as previously was the case (and still is at most temples/ important buildings), you got a little bag to put your shoes in and take around with you. I think this is because some people used to come out and find their nice shoes had gone walking…

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Inside, we tried along with everyone else to line up a nice shot without other people’s heads/ arms/ pointing fingers in it, though with limited success. Behind the Buddha, 108 bronze bowls line the wall, which are meant to indicate each of the auspicious characters of Buddha. My favourite part of visiting this temple is dropping coins into these bowls- it supposedly brings good fortune, but the sound of everyone doing it at once is really cool- I love it!

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Wat Pho is also home to of one of the oldest Thai massage schools. Traditional Thai massage and medicine is still taught here. For some unknown and unfounded reason, Ben is a lifetime massage hater, so we didn’t go this time. Luckily there was some sort of festivities happening in the temple grounds that day (I’m not sure if it happens on Sundays or if maybe it was a special occasion?), but there were loads of food stalls and music, so we got some pork ribs and chicken skewers to entertain us, before leaving and roaming around through several random but charming riverside alleys/lanes attempting to find the ferry terminal.

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We eventually got there and caught the ferry down river to join up with the sky train. So many modes of transport in one day! We spent the afternoon checking out the shops at Siam Centre and MBK, and finished the day with an exciting DIY Japanese BBQ (selected based on the pink-muumuu-wearing dragon out the front the restaurant, how could they not have good food?! :-p )

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On day 2, the time had come for me to finally go to the Ancient City (‘Muang Boran’), a large park outside of Bangkok in an area called Samut Prahkan. The park is filled with modern and historic Thai monuments from all over the country, some have been moved here and others have been reproduced from the originals in scaled down replicas. I have always wanted to go, but in my previous trips I’d never made it out there. It is actually quite a fair way from the city; I initially thought the taxi driver quoting us 400 baht to get there was exaggerating, but when we got a cabbie willing to take us on the meter, it was pretty much spot on after more than an hour on the road!

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Included in the ticket price, you get to borrow a bicycle to ride around the park; otherwise you can pay a small amount per hour for a golf buggy to drive around in. It was a tough decision, but we stuck with the bikes. Time went quickly cruising around. The replicas were really impressive, check out the mini replica grand palace (on the left) compared to the real one (on the right)…

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A lot of the buildings you could enter as well and they were intricately decorated or featured art or handicraft displays too, so we were frequently stopping to wander about. There was a model market village where we got proper Thai street iced coffees (amazing concoctions involving coffee powder, milk powder, sugar, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk- real high energy, high protein beverages!). There was also a ‘floating village’ which didn’t appear to be actually floating; it looked more like normal buildings on stilts in the water… It was still really pretty though. You can catch boats down the river too, but we only arrived after the last boat had left at 4pm unfortunately.

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Ben did make a little friend at the village though, so we weren’t entirely disappointed. It was quite entertaining watching them race their bikes, with the little kid constantly pedalling super-fast and Ben trying his best not to pedal at all as it made him soar ahead! Despite the language barrier, the kid seemed to have a great time (as did Ben!). When Ben tried in a mixture of English, Solomon Islands Pidgin and sign language to tell him that we were going, he adamantly signalled to continue on and we felt bad to just cycle away as he sped off in the opposite direction, so followed a bit further. He took us to what appeared to be his house, and there we managed to wave and say bye and got a wave back.

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When the park closed at 5, we were well and truly spent from riding around in the sun but decided to try our hand at public transporting it back. First step was to cross the main road, and wait on the opposite side for a ‘minibus’ (aka a ute with seats and tin roof in the back) which cost 8 baht (about 25c) each to get to the ‘bus station’ (a shelter on the side of a another main road). The next vehicle was an actual bus (with windows and even air-conditioning!) and cost about 20 baht each (65c) to get to the Bearing BTS (skytrain) station. We then caught the skytrain in to Siam Square and from there had to cab, but it is usually a more affordable 60-70 baht fare!

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Since it was peak hour, we thought we’d kill some time wandering around again, and stumbled into heaven- a Magnum café with an amazing in store adventure called ‘Make My Magnum’… It was a truly wondrous place. Before you go in, you fill out a little form with a checklist- you got a fresh vanilla ice-cream on a stick, chose whether you wanted it dipped in white, milk or dark chocolate, chose 3 ‘toppings’ for it (such as crumbed brownie, crumbed red velvet cake, dried blueberries, choc chips, crushed peanuts or pistachios, marshmallows, mint crisp amongst others) and then chose if you wanted it drizzled in white, milk or dark chocolate.

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You took your form in to the man behind the counter and the results were incredible… I still wish I was eating that ice-cream. I dream about it sometimes… I have never seen these cafes before, but I hope that by the time I get back to Melbourne, they have made it there!

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Once we had sufficiently recovered from that life-changing experience, peak hour was dissipating and it was time to get a cab. On the way, Ben was looking out the window like always (he’s like a small child in a moving vehicle- eyes glued on the passing scenery), but the hipster radar was on tonight, because he managed to spot a bicycle café not far from our hotel (FYI hipsters living in or visiting Bangkok- it was on Maha Chai St). We also saw quite a few busy looking local restaurants along the same stretch. So that became our plan for the rest of the evening- to venture out of the Khao San/Rambuttri backpacker bubble to the locals’ Bangkok beyond.

We got dinner at a restaurant dedicated to pad thai which had umpteen varieties of the dish. We went for the special, as we had seen most people eating it on our way in (and the menu was all in Thai so the particulars of each one were lost on us… at least they had pictures!). The special came with the noodles all somehow wrapped in egg, and it was amazing accompanied by iced coconut water. The staff must have been excited to have some non-Thai people in there because they gave us a souvenir sticker on our way out!

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We then went to check out the bicycle café, which was a pretty groovy little joint (I think it was called ‘Bike Café’) and we had a couple of beers there, moving outside for the most part so that Ben could gaze longingly at the staff’s snazzy bikes out front. We also got to sit down wind from a pad thai street vendor about 2 metres away. Breathing in the delicious aromas the entire time almost made me eat another plate of it even though I was full!  We finished the evening back on Khao San getting Ben his first bucket – the traditional mix of Sangsom (Thai whiskey), red bull and coke. This was accompanied by loud dancey pop music (so as to drown out the loud music of neighbouring bars) and some Thai street performers carving it up breakdancing (every now and then having to split the crowd as a tuk-tuk or taxi tried to drive through).

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The following day, we headed down to Koh Chang, an island to the south of Bangkok. It was supposed to be a 5-6 hour bus/ferry combo from Bangkok, but as is the norm, it took much, much longer! We were in a minibus which drove all around Bangkok filling up to capacity- a crammed 12 people and everyone’s luggage on the remaining 2 seats since there was no boot due to the extra row of seating. I was super uncomfortable for the first part, overheating sitting against the sunny window and squashed with the dude in front of me’s reclined seat about an inch from my face. I was not a happy camper. When we first came to a rest stop, Ben chivalrously took the corner seat, and managed to sit the seat in front back up before the guy got back which made a world of difference. We later had another rest stop + fuel stop which must have taken more than an hour as we and half of Bangkok were sitting in a kilometre long queue for petrol. On the opposite side of the road to the direction in which we were meant to be heading mind you!

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So eventually we made it to the ferry as the sun was setting (we had left at midday), were told the minibus would drop us at our hotels on the other side but that it would cost us extra! We were staying at Bailan Bay, right to the south of the island so had to pay 200B each, about a third of the price of our bus/ferry ticket… After a smooth ferry ride in the dark then careening around the windy and steep island roads to drop off all but one of the other passengers, we finally got to Bailan Bay Resort, just before the kitchen was about to close. We quickly ordered some red and green curry and after we were shown to our bungalow called it a night.

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Our first day we thought we’d check if we could walk around the headland at low tide to find Lonely Beach, as the area in front of our bungalows was really rocky. It was one of those times where the place you are looking at seems much closer than it really is, so after bumbling along over the rocks for ages in our thongs and not getting to the corner, we thought maybe we should try to cut back up to the road. The vegetation seemed pretty thick and there was no track, but we saw some bungalows nearby, so stealthily climbed the fence and then walked up from the beach and out to the main road pretending we lived there. No questions asked, so all good!

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We spent most of the day aimlessly wandering around the Lonely Beach shops  (had a giggle at the ‘soup of the day’ sign at Margaritaville…) and then lazed at the beach once we finally found it (it was a fair bit further north, so good thing we didn’t continue trying to walk there as it would’ve been rocks, rocks, rocks and by that time the tide probably would have come in!).  Much of our time on the island was spent vegetating, talking about how all the dogs we saw looked like a generic ‘dog’ (like not a specific breed, but something a child would draw if you told them to draw a dog) or trying out the various restaurants (where my favourite menu items were ‘noodle noodle topping the sea’ and ‘curiously pork ribs tom yum’), so I’ll do the highlights to spare you the ins and outs of ‘dog’…

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We spent a day out on a dive boat with BB Divers (friendly staff and great service, I’d recommend them) and did 3 dives. The first site was a wreck, the HTMS Chang 712- an ex American warship from 1942 which was deliberately sunk in November, 2012 to create an artificial reef. It was a really nice dive, reasonable vis and there were loads of fish living there.

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Our second dive was a reef dive at a site called Hin Luk Bak where we saw some beautiful corals and tropical fish. And my favourite thing to play with under water- the pretty little Christmas tree worms! If you create movement in the water near them, they all pop back into their little holes, and I like to watch them slowly re-emerging when they think the coast is clear! Again I’ll have to rely on google images to show you what they look like as we were too deep to take the camera down…

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Our last dive was another reef dive at a site called Hin Rap. When we arrived at the site one of the instructors Pierre looked off the edge of the boat and joked, ‘Sorry guys, its too clear. We’re going to have to move. We can give your money back, don’t worry…’ The visibility was about 12-15 metres. It was beautiful, you could see the reef from the surface. I saw some cool stuff this time, a Kuhl’s stingray with blue spots, a moray eel, the enormous Indian cushion sea stars and a big tiger cowrie. It was a lovely dive to finish on.

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For a couple of the other days on the island, we rented a motorbike. Koh Chang is actually bigger than we thought it would be and we wanted to explore a bit more of it. It was only 150B ($5) to rent one for 24 hours, and 80B for 2 old whiskey bottles filled with gasoline by the road side. So with Ben committing as driver (I was not testing out my non-existent motorcycling skills on these roads!) we went for it.  The roads were a little terrifying at times, but no-one really drives faster than 40km/hr which is definitely a good thing with all the steep slopes and hairpin bends that the island features. And Ben was a born biker bandit, so we were all good (I may or may not have been told to write that…)

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One day we decided to visit the Klong Plu waterfalls. We were charged 200B each to go and see it and thought ‘This had better be the most incredible waterfall…’ On the 700m walk to the falls, we decided it was worth the money. The track was dotted with several information boards, entitled ‘Stream of Life’ which had us in fits of laughter. We learned that ‘Stone is a mixture of many minerals. It can sometimes be seen obviously. The stone is an important part of the crust with a density where the human being can live.’ The next best lesson was that ‘From the forest that absorbs large amount of water, which flows together to become a stream. Several strams have become a river to benefits lives of the people around Ko Chang for drink and for utility.’ Good on you streams, coming together for the good of humankind!

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The waterfall itself was pretty nice. The water was clear and cool, which was great as the beaches on Ko Chang have that irritatingly warm and not at all refreshing water. We ventured up to the top pool which Ben jumped right into and as I was getting in the park ranger guy came and told us we weren’t allowed to. A sign wouldn’t go astray since there seemed to be no issue putting them everywhere else in the area… again, when we were leaving we were told off as we tried to take the ‘nature trail’ because apparently it closed at 4pm! Coulda maybe put that on the sign that was already there pointing to the trail… but nahhh, that would be too easy… what would the park ranger do at 4pm?!

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So we walked out on the trail we came in on, and laughed a second time at the information boards.  As we exited the park, we felt like a snack, something along the lines of some spring rolls perhaps. Just before getting back to the bike, we were accosted by a crazy little lady yelling about chicken (‘Chicken! CHICKEN! You want chicken?’) and pointing at her two remaining roast chickens. I think she wanted to get rid of them cos it was the end of the day… anyway, we thought she was a character so went to her shop. Unfortunately she didn’t have any spring rolls, and we weren’t hungry enough for a whole chicken, so shared a pad thai. Even though we missed out on spring rolls, we did get to see the lady frantically shouting ‘CHICKEN!!’ at all the passers-by so were satisfied with our venue choice as it came with free entertainment.

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In the evening we went to watch the sunset on the coast and on the way back after a seafood dinner, stopped at a night market where you could buy many amazing patterned leggings, a range of rip-off sunnies, lots of street food and an assortment of firearms and swords.

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Our second day on the bike, and our last day on the island, we drove up to the main beach White Sands, chilled by the water and had a little dip in the warm bath temperature sea. In the evening we had a long awaited seafood BBQ on the beach (Lonely Beach didn’t have them because the tide came up too far at night), so we indulged in a butterfish and some squid as well as a meat skewer each- awesome. The rest of the evening we bar hopped along the beach a little, from a rooftop, a beachfront bars on the sand, to a little platform under a tree lit with jellyfish! We were lucky to catch a fire show at one as well- it was a pretty good show, all choreographed to music. I get mesmerised by fire twirling, never get sick of it!

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The next day, our journey back to Bangkok was much better than the journey down. The dude sitting next to us on the bus must’ve had a rough ride down to Ko Chang too, because he came prepared with several cans of beer in his bag and steadily worked his way through them! He must’ve been pretty desperate… warm beer is no treat! This time we were going to the airport as my flight was at 6am, so we had just booked an airport hotel to reduce travel time and maximise sleep time. Our minibus had a whole row less of seats and also had a boot which meant a whole lot more room for humans, hooray! Despite the queue for the morning ferry, it seemed a much quicker run, even with a bit of a downpour and a few accidents along the roads. We still had to wait in the line at the fuel stop but it was not nearly as long as last time (they really should look at having more than one petrol station on that route…)

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the airport and got a cab to our hotel, had an expensive but tasty meal in the hotel restaurant for our last supper and since we were in the middle of an industrial sort of area which didn’t appear to have much nightlife, we watched a movie- ‘Seven Psychopaths’ (good film!) Then, it was time to grab a quick bit of shut eye before my 4am adventure to the airport for my flight to LA. And it was certainly an adventure (as some of you probably already know!)… but I think I will save that part for next time!

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2 responses to “Thai-ing it up

  1. Ange says:

    You should quit being a dietitian and be a travel blog writer…hilarious! 🙂

  2. karman says:

    reading this entry definitely makes me miss bangkok..aah esp that pad thai on khao san rd. Make my magnum sounds heavenly..i sure hope they will open one soon down in Aus! glad ur making use of the mexican guide book 😉 xo

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