Saturday, 7 January 2012

Mae Khlong, Markets and Mojitos

We woke up after our first night in Bangkok bright and early in anticipation of the cycling tour we had booked for that day. Initially we were to be riding around the ancient kingdom of Ayutthaya to see the ruins and temples of the region, but with the floods the area was underwater and offlimits. The tour company however offered us the alternative of a 40km bike ride through the southern farming communities and a visit to the floating market so we snapped that up instead.

Ever since the very first time my parents took me to a hotel I have adored the concept of a buffet breakfast. It delights all those little girl experiences for me, even if I am a lot more measured in how I use them these days. My breakfast of fresh fruits and yoghurt was quite spectacular though! We then waited in the lobby for the Spice Roads tour group to pick us up. They were right on time and we were soon in our van headed South through the Bangkok morning traffic. 

After about an hour we had a stop at one of the tourist traps that usually make my heart sink as you are plied with various souvenir crap that costs ten times as much as at the markets while the hard sell is put on you. But this place also doubled as an orchid farm so Bingley and I wondered in amongst the flowers and used the bathroom as suggested ignoring the vast numbers of souvenirs that would have given Australian Customs an apoplexy as various busloads of tourists pulled up. We were very grateful after 10 minutes to be collected from the clutches of a woman who was trying to give us souvenir plates with our faces printed on them while screeching out the price. 

Another half hour or so south, after driving through various salt farms, we arrived at the Damnoen Saduak floating market, which is the largest in Thailand, and as such a prime tourist destination. Again though, with the floods the numbers were well down and the market had a depressed aura over it - so different from the usual bustling. We were not harrassed at all as we walked through the same three dresses hung on various stalls and the same elephant carvings, but in amongst it all there were some interesting things - we bought mangosteens and rambutans to eat while looking at various fruits and spices, and amazing balance as little old women cooked from their long tail boats.

Many of the sellers looked bored in the heat of the morning, as if aware that we were not there to shop. Even this snake handler only chased us half heartedly to get our photo taken with his giant friend (we declined).

After traipsing through the markets for a while, and having bought all that we wanted (which was not much), we headed to a brightly coloured long tail boat for a ride through the canals on which a whole town had been built. It was strange and beautiful, amazing to look at and see. Such a simple but terrifying life as I saw toddlers playing on the steps of their houses at the water's edge. The cool air whipped off the water at us as we powered through and we just soaked it all in, tempted to drag my hand through the water until I saw snakes swimming along its surface. Then I kept them firmly in my lap.

Out for a paddle. 
 Eventually we hit the open water and our boat sped up as it crested the massive river. We were in the middle of the swollen Mae Khlong as it wended its way past temples and towns, under bridges and beside farm land. The river was fast flowing and filled with debris from the monsoons and it felt more than a little precarious to be in the middle of it at such speeds. But this, from what is seared on my memory best, is Thailand.

We eventually stopped some 30 odd kilometres North of the market at a temple called Wat Amphawan Chetiyaram. It was jarring to see gilded lamp posts and lined avenues, not unlike those of Paris in amongst the peasant life we had just sailed through. The carved temple here was simply amazing, though none of my photographs do it justice. It was so ornate, so intricate, and completely empty. Just us and our guide explaining the carvings and the scenes on the roof and shutters and walls.

Love affair with lamp posts continues
After we had our fill of the temple we were shown our companions for the rest of the day - our mountain bikes and helmets which had been furnished by the tour company. They were good strong sturdy bikes in excellent working order, but they had male seats. Male seats hurt your bum, and mine well and truly paid for it by the end of the day.

Bingley and Bike
Our first stop on our trip was the awesome Wat Bang Kung which was built during the Ayutthaya period, but would be in ruins if it were not for the giant banyan tree that took residence on its roof. This tree, through its strangulating roots has provided the support for the walls such that the temple is still standing. Even now new roots are reaching down all the time which are carefully trained by the monks so that they don't blot out the windows and doorways.

Gold leaf buddha inside the temple
After a short break at a local Catholic Convent to eat icy cold fruit and drink some more water, we headed away from the river and inland among the plantations. This was a fairly solid 15km or so of riding over mostly sealed roads so no photos as I was unable to manage steering and my giant camera at the same time. It was steamy and hot but the ride was mostly under the shade of coconut palms and pomelo trees so it was a really pleasant ride (aside from my poor bruised backside which was beginning to complain). We put up such a healthy pace that our guide took us for a few little detours, although we still arrived at our lunch spot early.

It was a little restaurant, built out over the banks of the Mae Khlong and no sooner had we pulled in and clambered off our bikes when it started to pour down with rain. We sat in our chairs by the side of the river and watched the water pour down as teh fragrance from the kitchens washed over us. Our guide asked us if there were any restrictions on food, and we said we wanted authentic thai food as long as it had no prawns/crabs for Bingley. And what followed was some of the best stuff we had in Thailand. Frangrant, sweet, sour, salty and so very very good. We ate until we could barely move, then relaxed as the rain cleared and we could watch the world go by.

Mae Khlong

Restaurant over the water
After lunch I surrendered my camera and we began riding the 20 odd kilometres back to the floating market. It was a lot harder than the morning ride, probably because the rain was lifting straight up off the ground so that the air misted in front of our eyes. The bike seat was also starting to cause me serious grief such that I tried riding for quite a while without sitting, which meant my quads were getting a tremendous workout in the heat. But it was still enjoyable and hte scenery was beautiful.

Being as it was only Bingley and I and we're relatively fit, we arrived back at the markets about an hour earlier than usual for the tour and were given the option of wandering around some more if we liked but after a good 2+ hours riding in the sun and humidity we were both buggered and looking forward to getting home and jumping in the pool as we downed as much water as we could to avoid dehydration. Pink cheeked, hair a mess, I wish I had asked them to take a photo of the two of us and our bikes, as it had been an excellent tour and one I'd recommend anyone that feels like doing something a bit more active and seeing a new perspective.

The trip home took a long time, over 2 hours so we were grateful we'd left a bit earlier. Many of the roads and overpasses were filled with people who had parked on higher ground to avoid the floods, thus blocking all major highways. We just settled back and dozed in the hot afternoon and gave thanks for airconditioning, cold water and iron clad bladders.

Jumping in the pool when we got back to the hotel was icy pleasure. I did laps for a little while as Bingley laid out on his cabana and we thought about how good life was. Determined today to get the best seats for sunset, we dolled up and headed upstairs right on 5 o'clock and ordered whatever fancy cocktails took our fancy.

Mojito in a drunk glass

Vertigo Sunset - sublime
We settled in on the purple couches that overlook the city and the sunset and began chowing through the free canapes as we decided on drinks. They were tasty, sweet and fresh and as we leaned back and watched the sun disappear in pink magnificence and the lights come on we felt exceedingly pleased with ourselves. 

We had not been planning to eat at any of the restaurants in the hotel, as with their Western prices and unimaginative menus it seemed a bit of a waste, but we were tired, and quite probably drunk and so resolved to at least eat at the Thai restaurant in the hotel named Saffron. A decision made easier when the clouds suddenly burst above us and we were ushered downstairs clutching our drinks (wet stairs in Louboutins while clutching a martini glass while inebriated - I deserve an award).

The restaurant was luxuriously decorated and we chose our own version of a banquet (as the suggested banquet cost more than the individual dishes combined - something I was quite confused about). We also continued to make our way through the cocktail menu so we were very merry as we gazed out the window through the sploshing rain to the streets of Bangkok some 50 floors below. It was quite surreal contrasting the night before as we had walked through the streets, glowing with heat and humidity in our smallest clothing to sitting in air conditioned luxury with sparkling china and crystal.

The food was tasty and well presented though not remarkable. We both got a kick out of the rice menu which comes around on a cart and allows everything from signature saffron to fragment jasmine and various other that I don't remember types of rice. We ate valiantly but had no chance of finishing off everything, especially if we wanted dessert (which we did). I had a ginger creme brulée and Bingley two bowls of ice cream that were both refreshing and tasty though I laughed when mine came out. It was gigantic, to the point where I had no chance of finishing it, tasty as it was. The thing could have seriously served 4 people.

Contemplating my massive brulée, not pictured
After dinner Bingley and I headed back to our room and collapsed in bed. It had been a fun, active, food and drink filled fiesta of a day and we were exhausted.

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