Saturday, 7 January 2012

Temples, Tuktuks and the Hard Sell

After the massive day of cycling and swimming and eating we unsurprisingly slept in quite late the next morning, surfacing after the buffet breakfast had closed (oh no!) and being hungry and excited for adventure. We ate a very poor and very expensive lunch at Romsai which took forever to be served and formulated a plan for the day. All of the various websites we perused on our phones said that we should go see the Grand Palace while we were in Bangkok so we decided to take a taxi there so we couldn't get lost (being as we had no idea how to get there). We even asked the concierge to order us the taxi and give directions so that we didn't have to. 

Our taxi was very cool in that our driver had collected currency from over 40 countries which were stapled to his roof, and we had cricked necks from looking up and pointing out various notes including quite a few obsolete ones (Lira, Francs etc). Less cool was that instead of taking us to the palace, he took us to the river so that we could catch a river boat to the palace. I had read of te water taxis and that this was a cheaper option, but the place we had been taken to was a private long boat and the driver asked straight up for 100 US dollars for the trip. Um no. So we walked until we found the public ferries which cost less than $3 for both of us. 

Waiting for the ferry was quite surreal as we watched the water lap over the banks of the Chao Phraya and into the streets. From the pontoon to the ferry the volume and the speed of the flood waters was quite evident and sobering. When Brisbane was flooded early last year, all water traffic was pulled out of the river quick smart due to the risk of hidden debris, but in Bangkok it was business as usual. 

Flood waters against the pontoon

Going under

After about 20 minutes of cruising mesmerised as we realised just how screwed this city was if the water rose any further, we noticed most of the other tourists packing up their bags and getting ready to jump off, which lead us to assume we must have been close to the Grand Palace. Getting off the boat was precarious and involved being in mid-shin depth flood water as we strode towards dry land, my brand new Repettos held aloft while Bingley gave me wtf faces for having worn them in the first place (he had a point).

The street we eventually found ourselves on was a hive of activity. Merchants and monks and tourists swarming everywhere while store keepers lugged sandbags to put in front of their stores while others erected bricks and mortar to keep out the water. We looked in desperation for somewhere to buy suncream while hiding in the shade of buildings before buying the tiniest tube you've ever seen for $8AUD from a 7-11. We then set off for the Palace again. Which was a great idea except having not done any research whatsoever and it being impossible to get our bearings meant we had no idea.

Diverting the water with sandbags
 Eventually, after stopping in this beautiful green park, we worked out what we figured had to be the palace. And were denied entry because my skirt wasn't long enough and Bingley was wearing long shorts. This didn't perturb us too much as we figured there'd be somewhere close by where we could buy a sarong to meet the dress code. However the information man also informed us that the palace was nearly due to close to visitors for the day. So we stood around awkwardly and wondered what to do next.

Grand Palace - I hear it's amazing to visit

I was slightly annoyed at Bingley as Thailand had been his job to organise, and thus far that had meant no organisation at all. But then I remembered that the point of this part of the trip was just to go with the flow and enjoy it so when another "information guide" came up to us and volunteered to find us a tuk tuk to go see other temples for a "good price" we figured we'd just go with it. Clearly there was going to be some sort of catch, and as long as it didn't involve being forced to see a Ping Pong show we may as well go along with it.

And so we jumped into our too good to be true tuktuk which was driven by a nice driver at a less deathly pace and finally took us to see the temple of the standing Buddha at Wat Intharawihan. It was stinking hot and people were lying around in the shade everywhere as we approached the giant Buddha statue.

Jade Buddha

Pretty toes
 It was too hot to explore the temple much, so we jumped back in with our tuktuk driver who was to take us to a new temple, and of course, give us the "catch" to get there. As explained by a reclining Thai man who was half asleep in his tuktuk next to us, the day that we were there was a day that the government had been stimulating industry by giving retailers coupons to buy petrol. Any time a tuktuk driver bought tourists to one of the stores and they looked around for long enough then the driver would get a coupon (which we figured was worth around $10 each, which is significant). This didn't sound like a terrible trade off, and being as we had wanted to look at jewellery anyway we weren't that fussed when our first detour was a jewellery store.

Our chauffeur with the pandas

The hard sell started the minute we walked into the door of the jewellery store with one of the attendants practically forcing rings on my fingers as I wandered around then leading me back over to Bingley to tell him what a lucky man he was and shouldn't he buy his lovely wife a ring? They exclaimed over my beautiful white skin (which was at the time quite horrendously sunburned) and over my delicate hands (as you can see with the heat they were swollen like sausages). I laughed out loud once but they were still absolutely determined for the sale, not helped by Bingley who kept asking me which one I wanted. Sensing blood they didn't let go of my hand until the ring pictured was mine. We figured our tuk tuk driver had well and truly earned his coupon.

Next temple was Wat Benchamabophit or the Marble Temple which was quite beautiful. The interior of the main temple was lush and beautiful, while the main court yard had many statues of Buddha in different stances - seated, standing, lying or walking. We learned a little of the various mudras or attitudes of Buddha's hands and wanted a replica of the one warning brothers not to fight. The gardens were also lovely as we wandered around. 

Hands in bhumisparsha and avakasha - witness and leisure

Buddha fasting

Afternoon sun on the gilded roof

Some tourist in the way
 We jumped back in the tuktuk and were convinced into another "coupon" this time getting Bingley measured up for a suit. The price was right and we figured that even if it was dodgy he could still wear the pants somewhere. I also got fitted for some work shirts. The material was decent quality as ascertained by me and the sellers were not particularly harrassing. As it was late in the day I figured they'd already had a steady stream of tourists in all day so they were less interested in us. One tried to convince me to buy some lovely silk dresses, but having nowhere in particular to wear any it seemed a little pointless. After this though we just wanted to go home. By now though, our driver was putting on the hard sell and practically begging us to just go look in some more stores, but after a half hearted wander around yet another jewellery store, this time ridiculously overpriced and full of tack we refused and asked him to take us home, which much to his disappointment he finally did.

That evening, we decided to go in search of more night markets and headed for the famous Central World Mall. It was everything it's supposed to be - huge, empty and soulless. We were bored in minutes. It's essentially a large Westfield Shopping Centre with more luxury brands. Exactly like walking around a mall at home, which we could do, at home. So after grabbing something to eat in the foodcourt (sadly missing Zense which is apparently very nice) we were pretty much ready to leave the frigid airconditioning and bizarrely expensive and empty shops aside from several young Thai women leading around much older Australian and European men. It felt ick.

Outside however was much more our scene. Night markets were being set up along the main stretch of street and the music, noise, bustle and lights made for such a better experience. Bingley was tired and grumpy though so we ended up catching a taxi home and ordering room service for dessert. It was a bit of an odd day, and while the spontaneous path was fun, I do recommend that if you actually want to go see some of the sights of Bangkok that you actually have an idea where they are!

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