Friday, December 3, 2010

Like many of us, big cities aren't at their best early in the morning.  At least that's what I decided after rolling into Thailand's capital, Bangkok on an overnight bus at 6am in the morning.  Barely awake, I found myself wandering through the streets around Khao San Road, the city's infamous tourist haunt.  Rats were rummaging through the garbage bags strewn along the side of the street while men without gloves or shoes hurled them into the bowels of garbage trucks.   Drunken tourists were stumbling back to ramshackle guesthouses after another hard night of clubbing.  Ladyboys and prostitutes were sipping on buckets out the front of bars that never close.  To top it all off the smell of sewerage I've come to associate with Thailand was stronger than ever. 

A few hours later however, I was wandering around the city's stunning Royal Palace and temple complex, marvelling at the impeccable detail of the buildings.  The palace was constructed in the 1700's during the reign of King Rama 1.  The Thai people obviously take great pride in this national monument because the sprawling complex is spotless and the golden spires of the temples sparkle in the midday sun.  Many of the buildings in the sprawling complex are covered in millions of tiny mosaic tiles, none of which were out of place (restoration jobs here are not for the impatient).  For buddhists, it's a place of worship.  They come to see the "Emerald Buddha" (made of green jade rather than emerald), which sits astride a gold podium within a peaceful temple in the grounds.  The Grand Palace succeeded in impressing me far more than any European building I have ever seen and I walked away thinking Bangkok and I may have got off on the wrong foot. 

Just when I thought the city was redeeming itself I made the mistake that I'm certain almost 90 per cent of visitors to Bangkok make (I have no evidence of this but it's reassuring to believe I'm one of many gullible tourists) ... I agreed to a tuk-tuk ride.  I wanted to see the "Temple of the Golden Mount", which provides a great view over the city, the nearby standing buddha and drop into the government tourist authority.  A very helpful palace "volunteer" helped seal the deal and I was off on three wheels.  I did eventually get to these places (although I seriously doubt the tourist agency I was taken to was government operated) but was also forced to peruse jewellery I neither wanted nor could afford and feign interest in suits at two tailors, all so the driver could collect free gasoline cards.  I'd been had, not for the first time in Thailand and probably not for the last.  I've learnt a lot since I've been in Thailand but I still can't seem to tell when to trust somebody and when I'm being ripped off.

Back on Khao San Road by night and the neon lights were on, the tourists were out in force, as were the touts and hawkers, the music was pumping and the energy was high.  Only a few streets away, one of the main boulevards was lined with millions of fairy lights and I could wander along in peace, without being hassled by anyone. 

I left Bangkok the next day for town of Kanchanaburi, on the River Kwai.  But I'll be back there in a few days because the city still has some work to do to win me over!

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