Off The Beaten Track in Bangkok: Part One – An afternoon Along The Chao Praya
Bangkok, Kreung Thep, the City of Angels, the Big Mango; a city as exciting, chaotic, exotic, and crowded as any that you are likely to find yourself in. For the party animals, here on two week blowouts, it’s a release from their mundane lives back in the real world. Bangkok is a renowned destination where the exotic meets the tropic. It’s a heady mix as thousands party hard every night in bars, clubs and fleshpots unmatched by few locations on the planet. The excitement of the bright lights, the action, alcohol, and amorous liaisons with the local lasses creating an intoxicating image that is hard to forget. So much so that many infected with the “buzz,” move here to immerse themselves permanently in the exotic and the tropic. Within a few months of their permanent move however most realise the “fast and hard” lifestyle is a fast and hard path to a shortened life expectancy; that their hedonistic vacationing ways were an unrealistic expectation for living here long term. With this understanding life becomes normal and, dare I say it, eventually a tad boring sometimes. Even more so if you aren’t working or don’t have your own business interest.
Normally I’m off overseas on work assignments for at least six to eight months of the year so my relatively short breaks – normally a month – back in Bangkok give me very little time for getting bored. Due to a bit of a slowdown in the worlds’ oil industry earlier this year I found myself in an unusual predicament, I was off work for five months. At first I thought it would be rather enjoyable to be able kick back and chill out for a while in the “big smoke.” After a couple of weeks of availing myself of all the pleasures Bangkok has to offer I was beginning to find the constant stress of living in a big city environment – the traffic congestion, the crowds of people and the bad air – was all becoming a bit tedious. Over the following three months I took the opportunity to make short trips to nearby interesting destinations within the region. Pattaya, Phuket, Hua Hin, Nong Khai, Singapore, and Laos were visited at regular intervals, in an effort to break up my time in Bangkok.
Travelling, particularly to locations one hasn’t visited before, is great but having said that it can also become tiresome as well. After each week of being on the road it was nice to return to the welcoming comfort of my apartment in Bangkok; there’s something to be said for the modern amenities and convenience of life in the “big smoke.” After my second trip to Laos (rather exhausting due to the fact that I covered approx. 450 km in 2 days on 110 CC motor bike) I started to realize that the main reason for being bored in Bangkok was due to the fact that I wasn’t really doing anything new. I was stuck in a routine of going to the same locations and doing the same things day in, day out. I was on a tread mill of restaurants, bars, and clubs for my night time entertainment, and alternating between shopping malls, and coffee outlets during the day. I needed to expand my horizons and realised it was time to get out and have a look around Bangkok.
As luck would have it I met up with a good friend, well versed in the sights and scenes of Bangkok, for lunch a couple of days later and plans were made for me to join Paul on his regular excursions nosing around Bangkok’s nooks and crannies. Over the coming weeks, and in between my trips away from Bangkok, we’d hook up – usually on a weekly basis – for an afternoon of photography and sightseeing around one of this metropolis’ “off the beaten track” locations. A couple of forays along the back streets, alleys, and klongs of China Town – including some fine curries at a great little Indian Restaurant – were well appreciated. And the afternoon down at Klong Toei markets was certainly entertaining – skinned frogs, live eels, turtles, and fly blown pork being some of the delicacies on offer – but the most memorable was the excursion along the Chao Praya taking in the flower market, and Wat Arun, before finally settling into a bit of late afternoon people watching (over a couple of cold ales) along Khao Sarn Road.
On the day of the aforementioned outing we met at 11 am at the Saphan Taksin BTS platform and then made our way down to Sathon Fang Pha Nathon Pier – directly below – to grab an express ferry to the stop off point for the flower market; Pak Khlong Talat Pier. I’d always enjoyed a day out along the Chao Praya and even though I’d travelled along this impressive body of water a number of times in the past, I’d never been to the flower market. I was looking forward to checking it out. As we waited in line for the next ferry to arrive Paul, with the knowledge of a time served BKK veteran, put me in the picture regarding the fare. I’d always done the 120 THB all day thing but he quickly corrected that misguided notion and said “we only needed to pay a twenty Baht fare once we we’re underway to our destination.” A few minutes later the ferry pulled up and we clambered aboard for the fifteen minute run up to pier number six.
After disembarking it was a short walk along Thanon Alsadang to begin our tour of Bangkok’s fresh flower sales HQ. The area encompassing the flower market is a jumble of old warehouses and small sois, running off Thanon Aldasang, and across to Thanon Ban Mo and two blocks back from the river. As with a lot of Thailand’s relaxed approach to free enterprise there were many hawkers’ stands lining the sidewalks. The established shop houses along the streets also aggressively promoted their wares by having their own stands protruding well out onto the sidewalks as well. It was a riot of colours as we negotiated our way through the obstacle course of flower stands while stopping at regular intervals to focus our cameras and get some memorable images of the locals at work around us.
Even though there was plenty of shade about the day, without a breath of wind, was still rather stifling. It was one of those February days which, as you stand about with rivulets of sweat running down your back, announces that the cool season is well and truly over. To get some temporary relief we ducked into one of the many 7/11’s that abound in the area and then, with cold drinks in hand, made our way into one of the backstreet warehouses to get some further respite from the mid day heat. Even though the market is predominantly about flowers there are also pockets of wholesale vegetable vendors scattered throughout as well. Tucked away in the warehouses, and along the back alleys, were stacks of garlic, ginger and chilies waiting to be shipped off.
A tour through a large market such as this is not just about what’s on display, it’s also very much about the locals working there. Every now and again we’d stop and chat with a vendor and, if they were happy enough to, we’d get a couple of shots of them at work. Paul, being a bit of a veteran of excursions into areas off the beaten track in Bangkok, happily lead the way down narrow lanes and through old wooden warehouses as we absorbed what was very much a part of the old Bangkok; a way of life that harks back to riverside warehouses, of merchants and family businesses.
“The last time I was in here the place was teeming with cats,” said Paul, as we entered another marvelously old wooden structure.
There were groups of locals positioned around the open floor space with their piles of produce stacked around them. Some went busily about their routines while others were stretched out, in a state of somnolence, in the mid afternoon heat. And, sure enough, scattered amongst their human owners were groups of felines; no doubt there to deal with the large number of rats that would also call the warehouse their home. After bit more time spent banging off shots of the human and feline inhabitants, it was time to push on. Our plan for the rest of the afternoon was to take a sedate stroll along the riverside and eventually work our way down to Khao Sarn Road for a couple of sundowners. As we made our way along Thanon Maha Rat – the road which skirts the Eastern side of the Chao Praya – the sweat was still rolling off us as the sun burned downed from directly overhead. Paul’s local knowledge, once again, proved to be a godsend as we turned into a small soi that lead straight back down to the river. At the dead end, and looking directly out over the Chao Praya, was a great little river side café. We made our way inside for a cooling respite and ordered our favoured caffeine hits. As we sat there enjoying the tempering effects of the air-conditioning the large window next to our table allowed an uninterrupted view of life on the Chao Praya beyond.
“Have you been to Wat Arun yet?” said Paul, as we continued enjoying the cooling ambience of the café.
“No I haven’t,” I said.
“Do you feel like ducking across the river for a look? The ferry pier is only about five hundred meters further on up the road in the direction we’re going. The ferry goes directly across to Wat Arun on the other side.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said as we asked for our bills.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the café we were detouring off Thanon Maha Rat again and down the small soi that leads to the Wat Arun ferry pier. Trinket sellers lined the sides of the soi and there was plenty advertising for tourists to partake of a massage given by masseuses trained at Wat Pho; Bangkok’s famed massage training centre located just up the road.
As we approached the booth to buy our tickets for the trip across the river, a friendly older Thai gentleman waved us over to his juice stand to try one of his exotic blends. It was a concoction of fruit and herbs which gave us an energy boost in the heavily, humid afternoon. The price of the ferry ride was an incredible three baht; possibly the lowest payable fare I’ve encountered in my time in Thailand. A few minutes later we were standing on the opposite side of the river and looking up at the impressive stone structure that is Wat Arun. I’d been past it numerous times and had always reminded myself that it was something I should make an effort to have a look at; particularly in light of the fact that I’d been told it was a four hundred years old structure.
The grounds surrounding the temple were also something to be appreciated. On either side of the paved walkway, to the ticketing booth, were manicured lawns and stands of large shade providing tress. The contrast when compared with the temple of Emerald Buddha couldn’t have been starker; there was much more of a peaceful mood about the place and that fact that the site looked relatively uncrowded made it more so. We paid our sixty THB entry fee and entered the temples’ outer courtyard area through a small doorway. I don’t know if we’d arrived at a quieter time in the afternoon but, as we began inspecting an impressive line-up of Buddha statues along the outer courtyard wall, we had the place to ourselves. It was quite remarkable when compared to the teeming crowds encountered at the Chao Prayas’ other famous temple site, just a couple of kilometers further up the river.
After a few more minutes spent nosing around the outer courtyard, and banging off shots, it was time to move into the inner courtyard and go for a hike up the stone structure that is the central feature of Wat Arun. No doubt this was the main attraction and the numbers of people climbing up and down the structures’ stairways proved this to be the case. From a distance the structure gives the impression of being rough hewn but a closer inspection reveals the intricate stonework covering each tier on the four steeply angled sides that rise up to a pointed dome at the top. Running up the center, of each of the four steeply angled sides, are stairways accessing the viewing platforms, at two levels. The first level is approximately fifteen meters above the ground and the second is ten meters above the first. Both levels run the full 360 degrees around the structure and provide some nice panoramic views up and down the Chao Praya. After some time spent looking at the stonemasonry at ground level it was time to make the ascent up the structure. Getting up to the first level was a relatively simple climb but the second was a bit more of a challenge. The angle was quite acute and the number people gripping on to the handrail, as if their lives depended on it, were a testament to the severity of the incline. Being a person of ocean going experience, and used to steeply angled stairways on vessels, I did my best to show a couple of ladies the safest way of coming down; as shown in the following photo but with hands on both handrails as well. Much to my amusement they disregarded my advice and gingerly climbed down, with death grips on the handrails, while facing outwards.
After getting plenty of shots of the views North and South along the river we made our way to the exit and then dropped into a nice little outdoor café, tucked in under the shade of the trees, to one side of the approach lawns into the temple. As the sun began to dip towards the hazy horizon we enjoyed our favoured caffeine hits again before the start of the final leg of our excursion; the two kilometer clip that would take us along the river, past Sanamluang Park and finally culminating at Khao Sarn road. It had been quite an enjoyable little journey so far and even though I was feeling a bit zapped from the heat the thought of a couple of cold San Miguel’s, at the end of our next jaunt, was motivation enough to be up and moving again. The three baht ferry had us back on the opposite side and in no time at all we were cheerfully meandering north once again along Thanon Maha Rat. We had roughly about eight hundred meters to cover before veering away from the river and working our way along the Eastern side of Sanamluang Park. The sidewalk along Thanon Maha Rat was highly entertaining with all kinds of trinkets and souvenirs being displayed by a plethora of hawkers along its five meter width. One fellow, in the photo following, had an open topped tuk-tuk crammed with an assortment of knick knacks and Buddhist memorabilia for sale.
As we continued up Thanon Maha Rat, and right into Thanon Na Phra Lan, Paul was still getting some nice shots of the local flora and fauna. I was reduced to using a point and shoot as the battery in my SLR had petered out just after leaving Wat Arun. Which was a shame because at the intersection of Thanon Na Phra Lan, Thanon Rachadamnoen Nai and Thanon Sanam Chai was one of the most bizarre statues I’ve ever seen in my life (a case of TIT); three upright pink elephants formed a truly memorable sight on a traffic island at the conjunction of the three roads.
After a bit more time spent admiring the pink elephants we continued on along a wide footpath which runs parallel to Thanon Rachadamnoen Nai and abuts Sanamluang Park. For anyone that’s living in Bangkok, and you haven’t yet been to Sanamluang Park, if you’re looking for a wide open space somewhere in this teeming metropolis which is almost devoid of people, go to Sanamluang. As the following photo shows, it’s one of the only footpaths I’ve ever seen in Bangkok which has been almost completely free of human activity. What a pleasure it was to walk for a considerable distance without having to dodge people – and hawker’s carts – and not trip up on the uneven surface beneath ones feet.
We eventually arrived at what must be one of the most hazardous road crossings in Bangkok – and doubly so late on a Friday afternoon – the dual, four lane expressway of Thanon Rachadamnoen Klang. You can wait for an eternity for the pedestrian crossing lights to change in your favour or take your life in your own hands, as we did, and make a mad sprint across the fifty meter stretch of motorized blitzkrieg. With everything intact, and still in place, we wandered on around to Khao Sarn Central for a well earned rest and a couple of cold refreshments.