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This was a good day for sightseeing. We rose late, sleeping in until after 08:00. Breakfast was the Amari Watergate buffet, which was huge; more variety than the Suriwongse Hotel in Chiang Mai. Western and Asian dishes abounded, plus a vast selection of pastries and muffins. The one lack was muesli; with twice as many cereal choices they didn't have the one I wanted, so I tried an egg, crispy bacon, and grilled tomatoes on some dark bread, followed by fresh fruit and yoghurt, then a cinnamon bun and a blueberry muffin. Very filling!
After sunscreening up we left the hotel and headed for the taxis parked outside. I asked the first driver if he could take us to Wat Phra Kaew and he said "200 baht". I indicated the taxi meter and said "meter" - he shook his head in refusal. So, being prepared for this, we walked off to the next taxi in the rank. He also asked for a flat 200 baht, but when I asked for the meter he reluctantly agreed, probably helped by the fact that he'd already seen us walk away from the first taxi. As it happened, the fare on the meter turned out to be 57 baht!
Although we did well on the taxi fare, we were disappointed to find Wat Phra Kaew and the Royal Grand Palace closed all day for Songkran. Not to be dissuaded, we decided to take a walk around the area and visit some other sights.
First we headed west to the Chao Praya River and Tha Chang Pier for out first glimpse of river in Bangkok.
The pier was chaotic, with standing room only crowds of people bustling to and fro - a mixture of tourists and locals. The narrow passageway from the street to the pier was lined with food vendors and small stalls selling postcards and other touristy items. The river itself was languorous and a milky coffee brown, with surprisingly few boats on it given the usual images of Bangkok one sees. After taking a few photos, including one of the striking prang of Wat Arun across the river, we returned from the chaos of the pier back to the road.
We turned south to follow the riverbank along the side of the Grand Palace grounds, towards Wat Pho. The road doesn't follow the river closely, and there are a few buildings between them, so we had no view of the river except at one point where a car park lay between us and it. I tried to walk across it to get to the bank for a view, but was stopped by some security guards who were manning a post by the entrance to an adjoining property. I didn't see why they were guarding the car park as well, and there were other people standing around in there, but I wasn't about to argue with foreign security guys armed with weapons.
So we continued south to Tha Thien Pier near Wat Pho. As we walked, it began to rain, heavy drops falling out of a hot and humid sky. We took shelter for a few minutes under some trees, after which the rain eased up enough to allow us to continue. Tha Thien pier was nowhere near as crowded as Tha Chang, thankfully, because we planned to get a cross-river boat to visit Wat Arun - the Temple of the Dawn - on the other side. We paid the 2 baht fare and climbed aboard the boat, which soon left for the short crossing. By the time I'd changed film in my camera, we were there. The rain was still spitting fitfully, but soon stopped, having done nothing but recharge the humidity of the thick air.
Temple next to Wat Arun
At first we walked into a temple that seemed not to be part of Wat Arun, but merely adjacent. It had a real Chinese feel with lots of dragon-like dog sculptures and sculptures of old men with long beards. Although incidental to our plans it was well worth the stop.
Temple next to Wat Arun
Wat Arun itself, next door, was amazing. A tall stone prang (stepped tower) rose several storeys into the sky, surrounded by a courtyard containing only a few minor spires at the four courners. Stairs led up to a series of levels containing walkways around the prang, but unfortunately only the lowest walkway was open. We climbed the steep stone steps and did a circuit at that level, getting a bit of a view back over the river to central Bangkok. The prang itself was decorated colourfully with paint in a complex and detailed pattern, mostly white with spots of colour accentuating the intricate carvings around the entire structure.
The Wat itself was not large and the courtyard held no food vendors as we had come to expect from Chiang Mai, but the area immediately outside had several street boodle stands and fruit sellers and assorted others. We availed ourselves of the toilet facilities, and again I noticed a casual attitude to privacy therein, with the men's urinals all being in full view from the outside of the men's toilet itself.
We walked the short way back to the pier and boarded another boat for the crossing. This time our trip was interrupted by a boat towing three huge barges, each one about 30 metres long and 5 or 6 metres high. We waited midstream for it to pass before the boat captain fired up the engine and completed the trip.
Since it was around noon now and we were getting hungry (despite our huge breakfasts!), we stopped at a small noodle shop on a corner by the pier and ordered some noodle soups from a young man with impeccable English. Mine came with fish balls, chicken, and pork, and was delicious. As we paid I told our server "Arawy mâak khráp". He merely nodded and I asked if I'd said it right. He confirmed by repeating in English, "Very delicious".
Walking over the short distance to Wat pho, we spied a woman grilling something wrapped in banana leaves. Although I had no idea what it might be inside the leaves, I asked for one and paid 5 baht for it. Unwrapping the hot package carefully, I found to my delight that it was sticky rice. After letting it cool a bit, I tucked in and found it to be sweet, probably with coconut milk, and to contain banana. Michelle tried a piece and immediately decided to go back and buy one for herself. Rather than eat it straight away, she decided to let it cool as we went across the road and into Wat Pho.
The first thing we saw in Wat Pho was the temple housing the famous Reclining Buddha - all 46 metres of it. This was easily the sight of the day; 14 metres high, and that was the short dimension! And all covered in brilliant shining gold. The temple housing it was not much larger than the Buddha itself, so there wasn't much room to get back of an all-inclusive photo, not much to allow the many other visitors to pass. This wasn't helped by scaffolding all the way around the inside walls, there while restoration work was being done to the interior wall murals. But despite all this, it was simply amazing and a real highlight of the trip so far.
Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
Outside the Reclining Buddha's building, in the grounds of the wat, there was a real festival atmosphere, as visitors queued up to pay respects and give devotions by pouring scented water over a line of smaller Buddha statues, all to the non-stop voice of a monk intoning something in Thai over a PA system. Coloured flags were strung across the courtyard between the various temples and spires inside the complex, making the place if anything even more colourful.
In a couple of places old monks seated on ornate chairs gave blessings by sprinkling people with water and tying on strings around their wrists. We approached cautiously and the monks were cheerful and encouraging in giving us the same treatment, making us feel welcome. There were also numerous hot food vendors, all cooking away with grills or big pots of boiling oil - and all this on the wat grounds. It was just a good old fashioned party atmosphere and everyone was having fun.
Two monks were engaged in a lively discussion/debate with microphones, that was being broadcast across the gathered masses by another PA system. In a quieter area where a collection of chedis stood, people were building cones of damp sand and planting flowers and little flags in them - hundreds of these already stood around each chedi. It may have been a bad day to try seeing Wat Phra Kaew, but clearly during Songkran is a great time to see the holiday festivities in Wat Pho.
We left to return to our hotel, first deciding to buy more sticky rice from the lady on the street outside, but to our dismay we found she had packed up her cart and left the spot where she had been. Disappointed, we went on to The Thien Pier to grab a long-tail water taxi to take us out to Khlong Saen Saep and the pier right near our hotel. Unfortunately again, a helpful man there informed us that Saen Saep was not accessible from the river because of a gate between the river and the canal, and we would have to get a boat from a canal a few blocks away. Since we wanted to get home quickly and not walk a great distance in the heat, we negotiated a ridiculous fare of 180 baht with a tuk-tuk driver - horrendously more than the taxi fare, but bargained hard down from an initial asking of 300 baht. When I mentioned during the bargaining that a taxi cost 60 baht, he told us we were welcome to go get a taxi instead, but since we wanted the tuk-tuk experience we agreed to his price. He drove us along crowded and smoky streets to the hotel, where a security guard quickly appeared to supervise our payment of the driver and wave him on his way.
After a brief rest we headed out again to check Pratunam Market, right next door to our hotel. It was a rabbit warren maze of tiny stalls extending out to the adjoining streets, but most were closed. What was open were mostly the ones facing the exterior streets, and these were old, rundown, and full of tacky touristy stuff, so we quickly abandoned this and decided to check out the Central World Plaza shopping centre just across the road, which Michelle wanted to look at for her work. On the way there she bought two caps embroidered with "Thailand" for her young nephews from a street stall.
Game players, Pratunam Market
Central World Plaza was another 7-storey behemoth of a building, but very different from Mah Boon Krong. This one was more like a Western shopping mall, with mostly shops with decent interior floor space, interspersed with only a few small trolley stalls in the fairly wide pedestrian avenues between the shops. About half the shops were closed (Songkran again, presumably). We wandered the levels fairly quickly and found level 6 to have a lot of food places including a coupon section like at Mah Boon Krong.
Salted fish, street stall
We returned to level 2 to buy some leather bracelets Michelle liked, then looked again at level 6 as a possible dinner spot. We weren't swayed in that direction but Michelle was interested in some dried fruit chips at a stall there. A friendly woman with no English at all helped us out, with a halting conversation in Thai with considerable help from my phrasebook. Michelle wanted to know what a particular bag of chips contained and I opened my phrasebook to the fruit section and let the woman scan the list of translations in Thai script - to no avail. Then I tried a different tack and asked if all the chips were fruit. She replied by indicating all of the top shelf was, but only the rightmost three on the next shelf. Puzzled for a second, I tried asking if the remainder were vegetables, and she enthusiastically indicated yes. Another list scan turned up that the chips in question were made of taro. The woman then opened a pack and let us try one each - they were a little salty. Michelle then decided against the taro chips and bought a pack of mango chips instead!
We left the mall and crossed the main road back to where our hotel was, but decided to spend a bit more time before dinner by checking out Pratunam Centre, across the other road from Pratunam Market. This involved walking past a group of teenage boys who earlier had been polite and poured water on our hands after asking our permission, but by now had drunk a fair bit more alcohol and smeared a water-talcum powder mixture on our faces and splashed us all over with significant quantities of water, without letting us refuse.
Rathchaprarop Road; Pratunam Market is on both sides of this road
So doused, we crossed the pedestrian overpass to the Pratunam Centre and found it to be a bit like Mah Boom Krong, with tiny shop stalls laid out with a maze of narrow walkways between them, more upmarket than an outdoor market, but much less so than the Central World Plaza. With most of it closed, we only briefly checked one floor before heading back across the bridge to our side of the road.
Facing another run-in with the drunken Songkran revellers, we took a detour through the claustrophobic interior sois of Pratunam Market, cutting across their corner and emerging unscathed right near our hotel.
We had showers to refresh ourselves and wash off the sweat, grime, and plastered talcum powder of the day. Then we rested briefly before descending to the bar and grill on the lower lobby floor for our complimentary drinks that came with our room. A waiter informed us the list of drinks available for the complimentary tickets was rather limited, so we went straight up to the Promenade dining room on level 4 for dinner. Michelle was expecting a buffet, but it was an á la carte menu. She selected a ratatouille on potato bread with fried camembert, while I chose tempura. It was all really good, including the bread rolls and slices of various breads that came with it. Michelle had a margarita with dinner while I had a (non-alcoholic) mango tango fruit blend.
After dinner we descended to the bakery on the lobby level for coffee and cake. I chose a Spanish vanilla cake that had an astoundingly large amount of chocolate on it for an allegedly vanilla cake. It also had shaved coconut in it and was served with raspberry sauce. Delicious. We sat outside in the humid tropical night air for a while, listening to the roar of the tuk-tuks driving past our hotel and enjoying the urban ambience of Bangkok. While sitting there we even saw an elephant walking along the road! The first elephant we've seen in Thailand and of all places it was walking along a congested main road in the middle of Bangkok!
I think some mosquitoes bit me while we were outside, so we moved in after a while to finish our dessert. After that, we retired back to our room for the night, exhausted from a busy day.
View from our hotel window at Amari Watergate
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