For our winter vacation, we decided to escape the Korean deep freeze and go to sunny Thailand for 2 weeks of tasty food, temple spotting and beach lounging. We went for the last two weeks in January after we'd both finished our winter camps so the weather in Thailand was ideal as it was "winter" there too, though their dry, hot winters are considerably different to Korea's sub-zero Siberian snow fest.
Our flight was leaving Incheon International at 10.40am so we decided to stay in a motel near the airport overnight so we didn't have to get up at stupid o'clock to make the journey there from Gwangju in the morning. We caught the extremely comfortable airport bus to Incheon which took about 2.5 hours and then changed some money at the airport as we couldn't get enough Thai currency at our local banks. In Korea, unlike most other countries I've been too, prices at places such as foreign exchanges, convenience stores and restaurants stay the same all over the country even in train stations and airports so you can change your money at Incheon airport without getting ripped off like you would at airports in most other countries and you can buy a can of coke for the same price in a train station as you would pay anywhere else - take note of that UK! We stayed in a rather nice love motel called the Orange Motel on the airport island just a couple of subway stops from the airport. It was one the best rooms we had ever had in Korea with a nice big bed, fancy lighting and a computer with internet thrown in all for the bargain price of 55,000 won (about 30 British pounds). We turned on the big, flat screen TV to be greeted by a muscular Korean guy enthusiastically having sex with a rubber vagina! That has to be the weirdest K-porn ever, or maybe it was an advert for rubber vaginas, I'm not sure which!
Fancy neon lighting for that spaceship look in the Orange Motel.
A Greek style bas-relief sculpture on the wall of the Orange Motel's lobby - very classy!
Early the next morning, we caught the subway to the airport, bought some travel insurance and discovered that we were not going to be sitting together on the plane as the seats had already been allocated which was annoying. Luckily though, a kind guy on the plane swapped seats with us so we did get to sit together and 3.5 hours later we touched down in Hong Kong where it was a comfortable 15°C (it had been -14°C in Incheon). We were only in HK for 30 mins, just long enough for us to pass through security again and have our drinks confiscated and then realise we couldn't buy anymore as we didn't have any Hong Kong dollars. It was OK though as we were flying Thai Air and they seemed to be on a mission to ply their passengers with as much free booze as they could! The food on the planes was alright too, though no Thai food sadly.
We arrived in Bangkok around 4.45pm and then began what turned out to be a bit of an odyssey trying to get to our hostel on the other side of the city. We caught an airport bus to Khao San Road (the infamous backpacker area of Bangkok) which took forever to actually leave the airport for some unknown reason then set about trying to find a taxi to our hostel. This wasn't as easy as we'd expected as no-one seemed to have heard of the hostel and most of the taxi drivers refused to put their meters on (a common problem in Thailand it seems), asking us instead how much we would give them! We finally found someone who would put their meter on but after repeating our destination to us over and over again and driving us around in circles, he pulled over and told us that our hostel didn't exist and he wanted to take us somewhere else. Despairing, we got him to take us back to where we started in Khao San Road and had to Skype the hostel at an internet cafe to try to get some better directions. Armed with a little more info, we finally managed to get a taxi to take us to the hostel and dumped our bags a mere 4 hours after we had first arrived in Bangkok - not a good start. At least the hostel was clean and the staff were friendly, just a shame it was so hard to find and that it was on a rather dirty road with piles of rubbish in the gutters that attracted huge, fearless rats in the evenings. We had some Pad Thai and tempura prawns in the Thai equivalent of a greasy spoon cafe then crashed out for the night after dodging the rats on the walk home.
Sleeping + driving = confinement to a wheelchair - sage advice from a sticker inside a Thai bus.
Our first meal in Thailand - Pad Thai and these massive tempura prawns.
We both felt a lot more cheerful and upbeat when we got up the next day and had our free breakfast care of the hostel - toast, jam and tea, very civilised! We met a nice German couple called Anna and Chris and chatted to them for a bit then headed off to the Chatuchak Weekend Market (usually known as J.J market). This is the biggest market in Thailand with up to 200,000 daily visitors apparently and it is located in the north of the city next to a park of the same name. We walked through the park to get to the market and Rowan had a bit of an accident - he slipped off the path onto the grass only to discover that there was a muddy trench concealed there and ended up ankle deep in sucking, grey mud. I couldn't stop laughing but Rowan wasn't as amused and had to go wash it off in the public toilets! We spent the early afternoon there, browsing, shopping and had some lunch there too including a delicious dish of green coconut steamed papaya rice.
The market was a maze of little covered walkways packed with stalls selling everything from silks, cushion covers and clothes to Thai handicrafts, spices and live animals.
Young busker at the market.
Playing traditional instruments.
According to Wikipedia "Chatuchak has become a notorious hub for trafficking illegal and endangered species" which might explain why these curiosities were for sale.
After we'd had our fill browsing the hundreds of stalls at the market we took the recently constructed Bangkok skytrain (overground subway) south into the newer part of the city. The skytrain was pretty cheap and was a good, quick way to get a birds eye view of modern Bangkok in air conditioned comfort whilst escaping Bangkok's notoriously bad traffic. Then we caught the Chao Phraya river express back up to Khao San road. This was a great way to travel, cheap and cool due to the breeze and we got to see the riverside sights as we traveled.
Sign on the Bangkok skytrain reminding passengers to offer their seats to monks.
Strangely shaped boat we spotted while we were on the river express.
Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) seen from the river express boat.
Motorised long tail boat on the Chao Phraya river.
We were seduced by the idea of going on a tour out to the quieter area of Kanchanaburi province in Western Thailand so we found a company at Khao San Road to book one through. We booked a fairly expensive tour but we decided it was worth it as it packed a lot in, including visiting a floating market, the bridge over the River Kwai and the chance to go swimming in waterfalls. We found a nice bar called Sawasdee House (Sawasdee means hello in Thai) on nearby Rambuttri road which was a bit less manic than Khao San and had a dinner of cheesy wontons, pork satay and cocktails - delicious but not very Thai!
A tempting offer on a street side stall on Khao San Road. Khao San Road is well known as backpacker ground zero in Thailand and it was pretty crazy, really toursity and packed but there were lots of nice places to go drinking and eating on the quieter roads nearby.
At Sawadee House bar. They sold really nice cocktails and tasty snacks there and it was a fun place to just sit and watch the world go by though we were frequently hassled by the wooden frog women pushing touristy trinkets and scraping the backs of their wooden frogs to make that 'charming' frog like sound.
We had a very early start the next morning, getting up at 6.30am for our tour. Actually, it was a private tour, we were the only people on it. The hostel had made us ham sandwiches to take with us as we didn't have time for breakfast which was sweet of them. After some initial confusion with our driver over whether other people were joining us or not we finally got going on the long drive west in our little minivan. About an hour later we arrived at the first stop, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, which is about 100km south west of Bangkok. We were taken to the pier by our driver and put on one of the sturdy, wooden sampans ably paddled/ poled along by a silent Thai guy around the floating market. The floating market was very colourful and undoubtedly photogenic but it was really just a show for tourists rather than being a real, working market for the locals. There were far more European tourists there than there were Thais the goods for sale were mainly tourist trinkets but it was still an enjoyable spectacle. One of the most amusing things about the whole experience was the traders way of getting your business. The traders used long hooked sticks to pull in the passing boats and force the hard sell on their captive audience.
There were all kinds of things for sale at Damnoen Saduak Floating Market including fresh fruit, traditional bamboo hats, strange musical instruments with what looked like snake skin stretched over the sound boxes and handmade puppets.
Don't you just hate rush hour traffic?
The next stop was the famed bridge over the River Kwai that was apparently in a movie or something but I can't remember what the movie was called. We stopped first at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where some of the Allied POWs who died building the railway were buried. Then we went on to the bridge itself, which was not as impressive or sombre as we expected. The most bizarre moment came when, as we were walking along the bridge, a rainbow painted tourist train came cheerily chugging past us filled with waving passengers. Strange to think that so many men died building that bridge and now it's a bit of cheesy tourist trap. Still, the Thais seem to like to have a good time rather than dwelling on miserable stuff, I suppose we could learn a lot from that in the West.
Outside the war cemetery.
The surreal sight of the rainbow tourist train slowly chugging over the bridge.
The final stop on our tour was the beautiful Erawan National Park near the border with Myanmar (Burma). The main attraction at the park is the seven tiered waterfall and the top level is where the falls get their name as apparently it looks like the head of Erawan, the Hindu elephant god. Unfortunately, we were too lazy to climb right up to the seventh level, much to the consternation of our driver who reprimanded us, telling us that we were young and should have made it all the way to the top (we actually only made it to level 5 but it was a really hot day!). The waterfalls were really beautiful, they looked almost too good to be true and we were able to swim in them too which was fun, if a little scary, as they were full of large inquisitive fish that nibbled at your feet and legs to try to work out what you were.
Some interestingly shaped vines in Erawan Park.
Rowan sizing up the fish in the pool at the 4th tier of the waterfalls.
The 5th tier of the Erawan waterfalls.
Swimming in the waterfalls was amazing but seeing the large fish in the clear blue water was a bit disconcerting, especially as they were very curious about us and followed us around, nibbling at our legs.
Rowan actually swam in this pool too despite the gang of man eating fish. He got scared though as they were all following him so rather than swimming back to the rocks to get out he swung, Tarzan style, on a vine to get back to the bank from the rocky ledge in the middle of the pool.
Funny sign in Erawan National Park. Unfortunately we never saw any of these "fierce monkeys".
We had 2 hours to explore Erawan National Park then it was back in the minivan for the long journey back to Bangkok. Thais seem to be better drivers than Koreans from what I could see, doing strange things like actually checking their mirrors and using their indicators when turning rather than just putting their hazard lights on as is common here in Korea. However, we did still see some pretty weird sights out on the road including a motorbike with a sidecar that had a mini kitchen fitted in it and had someone standing up in it cooking whilst they were driving along and a guy sat on a motorbike on the back of a pick up truck not to mention the many pick up trucks we saw with whole families sat in the open flat bed at the back. By the time we got back it was nearly 8pm so we went back to Sawasdee House as it was such a nice place and filled up on tasty snacks and cocktails again, the perfect way to round off a great day!
We slept until quite late the next morning as we were exhausted after the long day we'd had on the tour. We met the nice German couple at breakfast again and found out that Chris had been quite ill for several days so was staying back at the hostel to rest so we ended up going into town with Anna. This was our last full day in Bangkok so we decided to go exploring the Grand Palace and the wats (temples). We caught a boat on the Chao Phraya River Express down to the Grand Palace and had a look round there. It was a big, impressive complex and the architecture was stunning, I've never seen so much shiny, gold detailing on statues and roofs as I saw there. There were various royal buildings contained within the complex and also the Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which contains the small and greatly revered Emerald Buddha that dates back to the 14th century. Apparently, the robes on the Buddha are changed with the seasons by The King of Thailand. The Buddha was looking very on trend in a nice little winter number when we saw him.
There was a little food market just next to Thewet pier where we caught the river express from. These unfortunate little turtles were destined for the cooking pot rather than the pet shop I think.
The dress code is very strictly enforced at the Grand Palace - women must have their shoulders covered and their legs to below the knee otherwise they might be "too sexy for Buddha". Those who did not comply with this rule were unceremoniously covered up with sarongs by the cheerful Thai staff before being allowed in.
A few of the many coloured spires inside the Grand Palace complex.
More beautiful, ornate buildings in the Grand Palace.
A small selection of the many Buddha statues we spotted in the Grand Palace buildings.
After we'd had our fill of the Grand Palace we grabbed some Pad Thai for lunch then split up as we wanted to go check out Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) but Anna had already seen it. Wat Pho is located just behind the Grand Palace and is the largest temple in Thailand. It's famous for its huge, 46 meter long reclining Buddha. The Buddha is covered in gold leaf and it's feet measure a whopping 3 meters and the soles are decorated with beautiful mother of pearl illustrations. It was so big it was barely contained in the hall that had been built around it. Both the Buddha and th surrounding palace were stunning and a little bit less crowded than the main palace.
The mighty reclining Buddha of Wat Pho.
Looking up at the Buddha's giant face.
After looking round the temples, we caught the river ferry back to our hostel, collected our bags and caught a taxi to Hualamphong train station. We had booked a 1st class cabin aboard the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai, the next destination on our Thai adventure. We were pretty excited about catching the sleeper train as, well, we're a pair of geeks basically and Rowan had never been on a sleeper train before. 1st class on Thai trains wasn't exactly classy though, the cabin was cramped, there wasn't any room for our bags, the fold out bunk beds weren't the most comfortable and you still had to pay for the disgusting meals despite it being 1st class. Still, it was more secure than 2nd class as we were the only people in our cabin, the tickets were pretty cheap and we saved on a night of accommodation.
The narrow corridor in the 1st class carriage. There was a choice of a Western style toilet or a more traditional squat down one in our carriage - guess which one we preferred!
We hung up our sting of pretty fairy lights that we had bought from JJ market to brighten up our little cabin much to the amusement of the train staff.
Posing with our insane chicken, Gregory Peck, on the bunk beds once they'd been folded out. It was cramped and noisy due to the sound of the train moving but it was fine for one night especially with the aid of a few bottles of Chang, Thailand's premier beer!
Next stop: Chiang Mai!