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We rose at 06:30 today and went down to the hotel restaurant for brekky. Today they had a spicy soup - chicken I think from sampling a bowl - and fried chicken wings as well as the usual things. Again I started with muesli and yoghurt, but also tried some fried rice and noodles too.
After eating, we packed our bags and waited for our transfer to the airport. We got a van with an English guy who had been living in Wollongong for the past year, and was having a holiday now before returning to the old dart.
As we drove to the airport, the van was splashed with several buckets of water by early-rising Songkran revellers. The noise last night had died down and there was no big celebration at midnight, at least nothing that managed to wake me from my slumber.
At Chiang Mai International Airport we checked in and waited for our flight to Bangkok. I bought a packet of Fisherman's Friends to soothe a sore throat I seem to have developed. While wandering the terminal we looked out the windows west and could see the peak of Doi Suthep mountain, and rising from a cluster of buildings just visible near the summit a shining golden spire - the chedi of Wat Doi Suthep that we had seen on our first full morning in Chiang Mai. It was glowing radiantly in the morning sun, reflecting the light goldenly down on the city below, forming a fitting farewell to our stay in this charming city we had grown to love in our too-short stay.
On the flight we read some newspapers and found out that the guy we thought was the Governor of Chiang Mai was actually the Prime Minister of Thailand! He'd come up to Chiang Mai specially to open the Songkran parade. So I managed to toss a bucket of water over the Prime Minister!
Our flight touched down in Bangkok about 11:30. We were met by a representative of World Travel Service who showed us to our transfer car. It took us on a half hour drive into the bustling heart of Bangkok, revealing a vast and sprawling city paved with multilevel freeways and tollways and bristling with a mix of modern high-rise buildings and dingy old alleys of two and three storey rundown residences. The traffic, although hectic, wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected - perhaps because half of the native population were out of town for the Songkran holiday.
We've just returned from a swim in the Amari Watergate Hotel pool. The hotel our transfer driver dropped us off at is amazing. The pool is on the 8th floor. Our room is on the 31st floor, with only executive suites and facilities on the three remaining floors above us. We think we're being treated like royalty because of Michelle's work - we received a personalised welcome message signed by the hotel manager, as well as what is obviously one of the best rooms in the hotel. I've never stayed in a place as swish as this before, and believe me, I could all too easily get used to it!
After only a brief rest when we arrived, we ventured out to the hotel's own bakery cafe in the foyer for Michelle to stoke up on some lunch. (Her meal on the flight had been disappointing and uneaten.) She had a spinach pizza and I partook of a chicken curry puff as a snack. The bakery had the most amazingly decorated selection of cakes, gateaux, and tortes imaginable, covered in graceful curlicues of shaved chocolate - it all looked delicious.
We returned to our room via the 8th floor and checked out the pool area, as well as a garden on the other side of the building that commanded a fantastic view of the bustle of Bangkok. It was oppressively hot in the sun, though.
Soon after, at about 14:10, we left to go visit the Mah Boon Krong shopping centre, which was about 2 km away. The hot, steamy air of Bangkok was a shock after the air conditioned cool of the hotel. And then there was battling traffic to cross the road. In many places the traffic is so thick and fast that pedestrians are forced to cross using footbridges. Our first crossing, however, was undertaken at street level, facilitated by traffic lights with a countdown timer on them showing you exactly how many seconds you have left before the traffic starts barrelling through the intersection again and a group of more experienced locals who we stuck to like glue.
With the hot sun already sapping our strength, we took refuge by ducking into the Central World Plaza shopping complex, which was just a canal bridge and the Bangkok Metropolitan Sewerage Authority away from our hotel (though there was no sewage smell, thankfully). We exited the other end near a roped off area that had been set up in the courtyard outside with obstacle courses and so on to resemble something like a paintball battlefield, except there were teams of teenagers wielding water guns lined up ready to duke it out in this improvised stadium and rows of seats for spectators. Clearly it was some sort of Songkran festivity.
We walked west along Thanon Rama I as far as Siam Square, where rows of alleyways and covered arcades sheltered hundreds of small shops and stalls. About half were closed (presumably for Songkran) but the rest were doing decent business. We zigzagged through the stalls until we reached Thanon Phayathai, which we crossed via a footbridge into the bustle of Mah Boon Krong Centre - seven levels of shopping madness.
Mah Boon Krong
We decided to tackle this behemoth of retail insanity from the top down. Michelle wanted to give the place a thorough going over so she could be informed about it for booking people's holidays to Bangkok. Level 7 turned out to be a cinema complex with attendant American fast food outlets, so we abandoned that quickly.
Level 6 was another world altogether. It was jam-packed in the way only an Asian shopping centre could be, with some shops lining the outside of a central area as usual, but the central floorspace, rather than being broad promenades for shoppers to stroll along, was crammed with market-style stalls all hawking their various goods, with aisles barely wide enough for two people to pass between them - and all packed tight with people browsing and shopping. If you think the shopping malls where you are crowded at Christmas time, you have no idea what this place was like.
At the north end of level 6 was a vast food court, containing countless restaurants, fast food outlets, and an amazing eating area surrounded by booths each cooking only 6 or 7 different Thai/Asian dishes. They were all affiliated and payment for each was by coupons purchased at a central cashier. We used this system to get some lunch for me - sliced barbecued pork on rice with a sweetish sauce that came with a weak brothy soup, and also a couple of freshly squeezed fruit juices to keep our hydration up. Michelle had watermelon and I had guava. Nice.
Food done, we continued our great quest after spending 1 baht each to use the well-maintained toilet facilities. So well maintained that I noticed (only after using a urinal) that there was a woman standing inside the men's, by the sinks assisting men with the taps and hand dryers, in full view of the urinals!
Next came level 5. This was fairly boring and the least populated of the levels, being a spaciously laid out series of modern furniture shops, with no market stalls in the wide avenues between them and virtually no shoppers compared to the other levels.
Level 4 was more like level 6, this time with groups of gold and jewellery shops, then shoe shops, then mobile phone shops, and so on, all clustered together by speciality, with only the odd interloper selling something different. One cool sight was a group of saffron-robed monks browsing the electronic shops and apparently looking for good deals on mobile phones. The market stall section here was even larger than on level 6, filled with tiny stalls selling clothes, leather goods, and so on. We bought some decorated chopsticks for both our brothers, bargaining the price down from 100 baht each to 150 baht for two. Then I found a shop selling lengths of silk and after a spirited bargaining session secured a 5 yard length of batik-dyed deep bottle green silk for my mother for 1,500 baht. The woman who sold it to us actually asked if it was a gift for my mother, and when we said it was she praised me for being such a good son, but still laughed when I tried to use this to suggest a lower price again!
Feeling quite pleased with this acquisition, we travelled levels 3, 2, and 1, which were more of the shoulder-to-shoulder density shops and market stalls. We passed floors of dried fruits and meats, wooden crafts, a series of print shops with large format poster printers and T-shirt printing machines, and a couple of Thai glamour photography studios.
By now it was past 18:00 and we decided to have dinner back up on level 6 and spend our remaining coupons (the other option was a refund). The first thing I got as we claimed a table was a bamboo steamer basket of pork buns from a wandering yum-cha vendor who was part of the coupon system. After Michelle lucked out at the vegetarian booth when they were out of tom yum, I picked a couple of things at random for her, then went to get myself some pad thai. When I returned to our table, Michelle was simply staring at her dinner after having eaten one mouthful and determining that it was so hot that she needed a cold fruit drink to continue eating it. So she went off and got us some more juice, mango for me and a mixed fruit smoothy for herself with some yoghurt in it to help cool the chili in her meal. Examining it carefully, I concluded it looked like a jungle curry, the hottest of Thai curries, made without the soothing mildness of coconut milk.
After eating, we headed back down to street level and out into the steamy Bangkok evening. Even with the sun down, the air was of a sauna-like intensity. We crossed the huge intersection by using a handy four-way pedestrian overbridge and found ourselves in the Siam Discovery Centre - yet another, smaller, shopping centre. This one was much more Western in character, with no market stalls and rows of high fashion clothing shops. It was also almost deserted compared to the ant-hive of Mah Boon Krong. We wended our way out to the street and found from a sign outside that this building also housed of all things an Outback Steakhouse(!).
Now we walked back to our hotel, north along Thanon Phayathai, and then turning west on to Thanon Petchaburi, where our hotel lay. The walk was hot, but pleasant under the night sky, and we passed a lot of interesting sights (and smells) as we saw Bangkok from this street level. Tuk-tuk drivers kept pulling up to us asking if we wanted their taxi service, but we simply waved them away.
At one point we passed some street vendors cooking noodles and serving them to customers who sat at small wooden tables and chairs on the footpath by the busy road. Next to this was a young man selling fresh fruit, cut and ready to eat, so we bought a green mango for later in the evening. Proudly, I managed to ask for, successfully receive, and pay for the mango entirely in Thai, without one word of English uttered by either me or the guy selling them.
Me: Khãw nèung má-mûang khráp.He seemed suitably impressed with my efforts and gave us a friendly wave as we left.
Me: Kìi bàht khráp.
Guy: Sìp bàht khráp.
Me: Kháwp khun khráp.
We returned to the hotel around 20:15, to find the laundry we'd left to be done cleaned and pressed and waiting in our closet, and a set of plates on our table containing: smoked salmon and prosciutto canapés, fresh fruit - a mango, orange, pear, two bananas, two mangosteens - and chocolate truffles and marzipan fruit! We were flabbergasted, to say the least!
Leaving this bounty for later, we changed for the pool and went down for a soak in the hot tub (which were segregated with one each for men and women) and then a swim in the beautiful pool under the lights. It was wonderful to soak away the fatigue of the day in the warm night air.
After about an hour we returned to our room, showered, and turned in for the night, after demolishing the canapés, a mangosteen, and the sweets. The rest of the fruit we'll save for tomorrow!
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