A very sombre Bangkok

An understated welcome from Thailand

A swift three hour coach ride from Siem Reap took me to the chaotic border town of Poi Pet. It’s a hectic town but I wasn’t there for long – after clearing customs it was only a short walk across the border to Thailand customs. After some lunch at the train station (only plain rice and monkey nuts unfortunately) I boarded a 7hr train to Bangkok for the astonishing price of £1, making it the cheapest ticket on my journey so far.

Boarding the train to Bangkok at Aranyaprathet station…

The train is decent – very basic, unsurprisingly, with no AC but with windows that extend all the way open. Oddly as soon as I entered the country I began suffering with an allergy similar to hay fever. My constant sneezing irked many of the other passengers around me.

…and unsuccessfully trying to take an afternoon nap onboard

A city in mourning

The revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej had passed away two days before I arrived in Thailand and it was very obvious on the faces of the Thai people that they were deeply upset. This was especially true when arriving in Bangkok. When attempting to negotiate a price with a tuk-tuk driver from the station to my hostel, he just gave an exasperated look and drove off.

Street art in the city centre depicting a younger King Bhumibol Adulyadej

At 4AM that night I headed to Bangkok airport to greet my parents at the arrivals lounge, standing for 3 hours with a candle to greet my mother happy birthday – but only to wait outside the wrong door and for them to walk straight past me! By the time I did eventually meet and catch up with them, I had completely expended all my energy. All the cycling and trekking through the Angkor temples had exhausted me. For the next few days I eased off on the travelling, which in Bangkok is easier said than done.

I had never been to Bangkok before, and I realised early on that I wasn’t going to get an ‘authentic’ experience following the recent events. That didn’t bother me though, rather it was a chance to learn more about the Thai monarchy. It was unusual to see everyone wearing black and white (even the manikins in the shopping malls), and even the newspapers and television programmes were all in monochrome. Many large offices, temples and shops had large portraits of the King overlaid with garlands in the street. The smiley Thai characters that I’d heard so much about were understandably nowhere to be found.

Queuing up outside the Grand Palace

The Grand Palace was closed to visitors except to sign condolences, though I wasn’t allowed in due to wearing shorts. I was also wearing my navy blue shirt – which was slightly stupid and disrespectful in hindsight – and one passer-by made clear his annoyance to me. It was a really great scene outside the Palace though. Hundreds of volunteers distributing free snacks, water, tissues amongst other things to those paying their respects. They were even giving free haircuts. 

A haircut from hell

No, I didn’t get my haircut by a volunteer in a park. But I’m absolutely sure it would have been markedly better than the atrocity I experienced the following day!

I hadn’t cut my hair in over 3 months and my parents weren’t best pleased with the state of me when we met. To be fair, it needed a tidy up, but the tragic mistake was being impatient with a salon and instead heading to the local barbers. I should have realised to abandon the effort when the barber could only speak two words : “Number 4!”.

There was no sight of a number 4. What started a haircut ended a very long and rowdy committee meeting as the barber would hopelessly rip chunks of hair out, cutting completely to the scalp. Within 10 minutes I had completely lost my temper for the first time on my trip. The hairdressers from next door heard the argument and joined in to try and salvage the situation to no avail. The barber was quite content to leave the job half done, which infuriated me more despite showing him every conceivable photo of what I was after. It ended with me having to hold his hand to cut my hair.

After about an hour I graced the streets with the hairstyle of a certain North Korean dictator. What a disaster.

Out and about

When I did finally get over my hideous hairstyle, I ventured off to experience the frenetic buzz of Bangkok. Most public places are crowded and the pace is electric. I especially enjoyed wandering through the ethnic suburbs, like Indian, Arabian and Chinese areas. It’s fascinating how multicultural Bangkok really is.

The chaotic Chinatown

Khao San road in particular is energetic with street food stalls and massage salons everywhere, but with the King’s death I didn’t spot any of the neon lights or signs of the infamous red light behaviour (though I can’t compare considering it was my first time in Bangkok).

Buddhist temples can be seen dotted around the city. Wat Arun and Wat Pho were two highlights, the latter featuring a huge reclining Buddha. In all honesty I’d seen some breathtaking temples in Angkor so the ones in Bangkok were a little underwhelming, but the scale and architecture of the Thai counterparts are still mighty impressive.

At Wat Arun, one of many Buddhist temples in Bangkok

Bangkok is a shoppers paradise. One of the largest malls, Terminal 21, styled like an airport with each floor representing a different city. Seam Discovery is another mall full of character featuring some quirky stores. The nearby MBK Center is a mid-range department store much more cheaper, with a huge electronics section selling largely counterfeit goods. To my surprise, many Western superstores like Tesco and IKEA also feature stores around Bangkok. Whether upmarket or cheap and cheerful, there’s plenty of choice here.  I didn’t have any appetite for shopping but lingering around the malls proved a welcome retreat from the outdoor heat.

Seam Discovery shopping mall

The shopping malls are also a retreat from the utterly congested roads. Taxi rides are markedly more expensive than anywhere else in SE Asia and are forever stuck in endless queues of traffic (this may have been exacerbated by the road closures around the Grand Palace, but from talking to locals it seems to be the norm). There was one ride which took an hour to do two kilometres. To make matters worse, Uber – which had served me well up until Bangkok, was largely dysfunctional as the drivers had difficulty finding places to stop due to endless traffic jams (the maps are also outdated – I had to direct one of the drivers via Google Maps!). While the sky-train and subway system work efficiently, they don’t extend enough across the city to completely avoid road based transport.

It was immediately apparent that I’d arrived at a very difficult time for the Thai people, and so I left the city disregarding some of the negative encounters with some of the people. Overall, like Hanoi, I think Bangkok is one of those “Love/Hate” kind of cities. I found it quite tiresome to get around but it’s one of those cities that requires some effort to appreciate while sidelining some of its flaws. With the occasional biting of the lip and plenty of deep breathing, Bangkok slowly but surely grew on me.


Next: Chiang Mai

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