It was time to leave Vietnam, our first trip out of the country in 3 months. All in the name of avoiding work permits and extending our time living in beautiful Nam.
We left Hanoi straight after Naomi’s last lesson finished on Friday at 5pm. After a quick nibble on a doner kebab we piled into a taxi and jetted off to Bangkok with a small backpack each, $70 and a sponsorship letter for the return trip. By the time we’d navigated our way to our AirBnb in the Sathorn district (a very stylish red and pink themed shoe-box sized pad) it was midnight and we were exhausted. But we had a lot of exploring to pack in so the alarms were set for 8am.
While we’d had plenty of day trips in and around Hanoi, physically leaving the country felt quite alien. It was a little unnerving being in another chaotic Asian city that we didn’t know our way around, and this time we didn’t have any spare time to get our bearings. We threw ourselves in at the deep end (we’re good at that) and ploughed our way through some of the main sights Bangkok had to offer in the space of 48 hours.
It took a little time to work out how to get to the central area of Bangkok in the morning (as we narrowly avoided being scammed by a fake, but very friendly ‘police man’ into taking an overpriced tuktuk to a posh silk tailors in the hope we would have a suit made, and then continuing to persuade us to blow our whole Bangkok budget on a private boat trip), but we made it unscathed.
The traffic in Bangkok isn’t nearly as terrifying as Hanoi as it seems much less congested and most seem to travel by car rather than hurtling through the streets on mopeds. Bangkok is much better equipped in dealing with its vast population and ever increasing number of tourists passing through. The sky train and other means of public transport make getting around the city easier and the roads less crowded. However the general atmosphere feels equally as hectic and overwhelming at first glance!
We hopped on a public boat bus (is that a thing?) that transported us to the Grand Palace, our first stop of the whirlwind tour. The Grand Palace complex covers a massive area of 218,000 square meters. It’s situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and its golden spires can be seen piercing through the sky like glittering spears from quite a distance. The palace is made up of several quarters with many buildings to explore. We spent the first 15 minutes just gawping in awe.
We weren’t aware that the weekend we arrived marked the 50-day anniversary of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death (who reigned for over 70 years in Thailand) so it was a slightly strange atmosphere. The city was still in mourning, and will apparently be so for a whole year, their clothes adorned with black ribbons as a mark of respect, shrines scattered at every street corner and black cloth draped over public fences and gateways. The markets that lined the streets were brimming with black clothing, ribbons and photographs of the King in action. The Grand Palace was also heaving with not only tourists but Thai citizens coming to view their King’s remains. Tourists are not allowed to view the urn itself, which is just as well considering the queues twisted on for meters, lined with mourners dressed all in black awaiting patiently to pay their respects. Outside the Palace walls were stalls offering free food and refreshments to mourners, which was a lovely gesture. We’re talking full on delicious meals of rice, various curries, fruit, juice and more. (In all of the temples we visited we were offered free water, which was greatly appreciated and quite necessary in the heat of the sun!).
After the Grand Palace we thought anything else we saw would seem mediocre in comparison. But we weren’t disappointed by Wat Pho, just a short walk south of the Grand Palace. This Buddhist temple has an area of 80,000 square meters and is also associated with King Rama I. The temple complex houses the largest collection of Buddha imaged in Thailand, including the 46-meter long reclining Buddha, which was the highlight of Wat Pho for us. The image of the reclining Buddha represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations. The figure has a brick core, is shaped with plaster and then gilded.
After a quick stop for lunch (deliciously rich and buttery Thai green curry), the final temple on our to-do list was Wat Arun, which we had to cross the river to get to. This was the smallest of the three, but it felt quite unique compared to the others, even if initially it wasn’t quite as impressive. The pagoda is encrusted with colourful porcelain and seashells and stands around 250 ft tall. Unfortunately there was some construction work being undertaken so we couldn’t appreciate the temple in it’s full glory or clamber to the top. But it was also the cheapest of the three to enter so we were glad we made the effort to go.
If we were to visit Bangkok again, which we no doubt will, we’d like to see the temples lit up at night against the banks of the Chao Phraya River, and also make it to the floating markets which we didn’t have time to see. We had already arranged a street food tour in Yaowarat (China Town). Little did we know that China Town was going to be especially busy on Saturday night due to a remembrance ceremony, honouring the late King. A stage was set up with a full orchestral ensemble playing music the King had composed during his lifetime and the streets were all pedestrianized. This made for a slightly chaotic 3 hour guide around China Town as our group of 10 were struggling to stick together and we were often turned away from food stalls as the queues wrapped round street corners. For the price we paid for the tour we were slightly disappointed, but it was great to be mindlessly steered through the streets without having to worry about getting lost in the bustle of the crowd. The opportunity to try a range of Thai dishes is always better than having to put all your eggs in one basket when you have one night only to experience dinner in Bangkok.
With our tummies full, we jumped on the sky train to witness Soi Cowboy Red Light District, a short street filled with tacky neon lights and about 40 bars (mostly go-go bars). It was clear that the street catered mainly for expats and tourists. Some, like us, just taking in the bewildering cliché of Bangkok’s nightlife, while others were slightly more proactive in their involvement and gave in to the persistent tugs of Thai ladies. We don’t think they were wearing their little black dresses to honour the King…It was a pretty entertaining experience people watching the balding middle aged men being swarmed by multiple girls at a time but also leaves you feeling a little depressed at the same time, so we made our way back to the AirBnb after a couple of beers.
We had a slightly more leisurely Sunday morning before checking out. It was another scorcher of a day and our noses were looking pink from the day before. We decided to taxi our way to Jim Thompson’s House. Jim Thompson was a very interesting character that we knew absolutely nothing about until our tour. He was a self-made American entrepreneur and architect, and his contribution to the Thai silk industry (he established the Thai Silk Company Limited in 1948) won him the title ‘Legendary American of Thailand’. He resided in the country for 25 years where he built his home. The house consists of a complex of six traditional Thai-style houses that were purchased by Jim from several owners and brought to the present location from various parts of Thailand. Jim decorated his unique home with his collection of Southeast Asian artwork, historical Buddhist statues and Thai paintings. In 1967, Jim was holidaying with friends in Malaysia where he set off on a walk alone in the jungle. He never returned from his walk and no one knows what happened to him. Since his disappearance, the house was donated as a museum in which the guided tours we attended are available daily.
We had just enough time to take a trip to Lumpini Park (named after Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal) before heading to the airport. The park is an inner-city heaven of tranquility in the midst of the crazy traffic. The 142-acre park offers open space, lakes (including pedalos) leafy trees, playgrounds and seemed a popular spot for cycling, exercising or just resting under the shade of the trees. But our flight back to Hanoi was calling us and we were actually quite excited to get back ‘home’.
Our trip out of Vietnam made us really appreciate how much we’ve fallen in love with Hanoi and how nice it was to return to a familiar city, which we feel has much more character and charm than the slightly bewildering Bangkok. While we enjoyed our visit, we were unsure whether we could say we ‘like’ it as a city. Bangkok has lots of positives; great transport, delicious food, great nightlife (if you’re in to that), lots of English speaking locals and pretty magnificent temples. We haven’t spent long enough here to form a definitive opinion of the city, but the snippets we did see were both pleasantly surprising (the temples in particular) but also a bit disappointing (the congestion, being ripped off, and the mass of tourists walking around). Bangkok is what it is and it’s never going to be a quaint destination. We’re certainly glad we don’t live in Bangkok but we’d definitely recommend a few days visit as there’s so much see and do. We’re looking forward to our next trip here when we come to explore the rest of Thailand, and there’s already a growing list of places we plan to visit in the city.