After we returned from Egypt last year, we couldn’t wait to book our next adventure! Southeast Asia had been calling me for some time and when I realized that Explore Travel and Cruises out of London, the agency that booked our splendid cruise up the Nile on the Dahabiya Dream also had trips to Vietnam and Cambodia, I did not hesitate to contact Linda and plan this trip.
We did discuss various ways to get there. Most Americans seem to travel to Asia by flying west through Los Angeles or Honolulu and then on to Hong Kong or Singapore. I checked it out and it seemed really expensive! It turned out that it was far cheaper to fly through London and then direct to Bangkok. And now that we have time on our hands, our new standard operating procedure is fly direct whenever possible but to allow wiggle room for potential weather delays when a connection is inevitable. I mean, I guess you can fly direct to Bangkok from New York. But getting in and out of New York adds so much extra time to what would be an excruciatingly long trip, that we quickly abandoned that idea. Instead we took the barely six-hour flight to London from Boston and spent two days in what has become one of our favorite cities before a relatively easy eleven-hour flight to Bangkok.
The original plan was to go directly on to Hanoi, but I asked Linda if we could please add on a few days in Thailand. It seemed crazy to pass up the opportunity! And so, right after my 70th birthday celebration we headed off on a three-week adventure. Since we were traveling during the coronavirus panic our flight from London to Bangkok was not full. And even though neither of us slept much, it was not painful. It was also 45 minutes early! We expected immigration to be tough like it was in Johannesburg, Casablanca and Cairo. It was not. We breezed through. There were no lines anywhere! And even though our luggage was not the first to come through, we had still cleared customs before the arrival of our guide, Mr. Oddy, and within moments we were headed into Bangkok.
Since it was too early to check in to our hotel, we instead began the day with some full throttle site-seeing! The temple of the Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, was the first stop. We climbed the steps, removed our shoes and were dazzled by the sight of this gigantic 700-year-old Buddha made of solid eighteen carat gold. Two hundred years ago, it had been covered in plaster and glass to hide its true value, but in moving it in 1955, the plaster cracked open and the gold was revealed! It was truly breathtaking, as was the setting on the edge of Bangkok’s Chinatown. We were already appropriately dazzled!
As Mr. Oddy puzzled about how to feed us since we had not had breakfast, but it was too early for lunch, we happened to pass what seemed to be a gigantic temple. Another one! There are so many!! Ray asked if we could go in, but it was not on our itinerary, so Mr. Oddy hesitated. We said we’d pay for the tickets. What a good idea!! This was Wat Pho, the temple of the gigantic reclining buddha.
We learned more about Buddhism, the influence of Hinduism in Thailand and even saw a statue of the amazing Marco Polo. The grounds of this temple, or Wat, were beautiful and we wandered through endless pretty courtyards. By then it was 10:00 am and Mr. Oddy decided we should have lunch. He took us to a local place, which was cute, and we were entertained by the antics of the owners’ little boy, who was about two. The food was a little bland, surprisingly, but I think they were being (overly) cautious with us. Next we hurtled through the gigantic flower market where you could buy a huge bouquet of orchids for about $3.00. Then we passed through the fish market to the water ferry which took us to our final temple, Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. It was also magnificent, but we were hot and tired by this time and asked to be taken to our hotel, even if it was a little early to check in. We thought it was a cool idea that we were going to the hotel by boat (our luggage had been transported already) but we managed to get the one boat whose owner refused to put up the awning and Ray and I both thought we would die of sunstroke! Fortunately, we arrived at our hotel, Riva Surya, What an oasis it was!!
Here in Bangkok we quickly slipped back into our old travel pattern of resting in the afternoon and going out again in the evening. In Bangkok, where the afternoon temperatures hit the mid-nineties, with humidity to match, it was essential. The hotel pool, with its adjacent bar, overlooks the Chao Phraya River and it was such a tranquil spot to sip a gin and tonic and gaze dreamily at the passing boats. When evening came, we darted across the broad avenue (practicing the technique advocated by Mr. Oddy and in anticipation of the real event we would confront in Hanoi) in front of our hotel and found a lively side street filled with restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops. It was so diverse, animated and friendly. We stopped for a beer and watched the fun! But we were pretty tired, so we headed back to the hotel and the outdoor restaurant where we had a very acceptable meal and then collapsed!
Day 2: Out of Bangkok
It was barely dawn as we headed west out of Bangkok to catch a glimpse of life outside the big city. The rising sun was the color of a blood orange, enhanced, no doubt, by the considerable pollution and the rising heat. Our destination was the Maeklong fish market and something about a train. We were not quite sure what this was all about, but of course were going along with the plan. We were curious about Mr. Oddy’s insistence that we arrive on time. For what? I didn’t think we were taking a train. I mean, it was not on the itinerary. He also insisted he take our photo in front of the sign for the train station. Why? The fish stalls were far more interesting. Well, it turned out that we needed to view this old train as it cranked through the fish market almost grazing the stalls as it chugged through. We were perplexed, but it was definitely a thing. Hundreds of Asian tourists were there to take in the sight, iPhones at the ready. We saw the train pull up, silhouetted by the sun behind it. Passengers in the train were taking photos of the market. Tourists at the market were taking photos of the train. We were taking photos of the tourists. It was awesome!!
Following this breath-taking experience was the main attraction—the Amphawa floating market. We boarded a small river boat and cruised along the shaded canals to Samut Songkhram. This time the boat was covered and the scenery splendid. Brilliant tropical vegetation was interspersed with deep brown teak wooden houses. Orchids and bougainvillea spilled over verandas.
Then we arrived at the market. Once again, we didn’t know what to expect, but what a sight! Boats selling everything imaginable from ice cream to noodles drifted lazily past each other. Tourists on the banks purchased their treats and found a spot at one of the big shaded food court style areas studded with picnic tables. I finally agreed to let Ray buy some fried bananas from one of the boats, but I was admittedly nervous about such a potentially unhealthy choice. I have a self-proclaimed delicate digestive system. But I succumbed to the ambiance and accompanied by yet another beer (I had already surpassed my annual quota) we munched away merrily. I did not get sick. We took some photos. Correction, we took a lot of photos. We bought some souvenirs from the stalls along the banks. Then we found Mr. Oddy and our driver and drove slowly back to Bangkok.
That evening, emboldened by my fried banana experience, I agreed to try some street food. I had previously read a lot about eating street food, and one blogger had encouraged me to give it a go, even though others sternly warned against it. Ray, of course, was determined to do it. So we found a little place where the business was brisk. (You never want to buy anything that looks like it might have been sitting there a while) and where they were clearly cooking it to order. Again, don’t purchase anything that is already cooked! They were just making Pad Thai—with shrimp, pork, or tofu and fried spring rolls. We sat at a little table under the neon lights and dove in. I don’t know if it was the best food I’ve ever eaten, but it was tasty, and cool and fun. Oh, and cheap! Once again, I did not get sick. Upon returning to our lovely hotel, we celebrated our adventure with a glass of wine as we watched the sadly empty tourist dinner boats cruise up and down the river. Chinese tourists are typically the most numerous in
Bangkok but the corona virus had cordoned them off. The tourist boats were empty, but the bands played on.
Day 3 The Grand Palace
I probably should have been more diligent about preparing us for this trip. But so much had been going on in our lives, and I trusted our travel agent, so we were woefully ignorant about Thai art, religion and history. Luckily, we had our new Buddhist, impassioned environmentalist guide to school us! Every day we were drilled on Ramas (kings) 1 through 9 and on some differences between Buddhism and Hinduism. Unfortunately, our aging brains and the sheer volume of information caused us to forget much of the data. Fortunately, there is Google. Still, even if our newly acquired knowledge is a little fuzzy, we were certainly gaining a new appreciation for this part of the world and can relate to so much more than we ever could before!
Well the palace was stupendously spectacular. There was a lot of gold. There were monks scurrying hither and yon. Once again, we took many photos and proclaimed our wonder at such beauty. We took many water breaks. We were profoundly dazzled. After two or three hours of this it was time for lunch. Did we want an international buffet or a local place? Quelle question!! So Mr. Oddy scuttled us through an enormous antique market until we landed at a plastic-covered table overlooking the river. The cleanliness of the place was a little suspect. The people were delightfully friendly. The food was exquisite! Tom Yum soup with prawns!! The best meal thus far with just the right amount of sweet, sour and hot! Oh, and we have developed a new appreciation of limes and those little red chili peppers. And, I did not get sick.
By now it was mighty hot! We spent the steamiest part of the afternoon at the hotel, but once the sun began to sink, we hit the streets again. We consumed a somewhat forgettable meal at a café on the bustling nearby tourist street but then boldly struck out on our own to attempt some night photography at the Grand Palace. This required walking about 3 miles and practicing our fledgling street-crossing skills under the darkening skies. But it was a gorgeous night. Cyclists and joggers were out in abundance taking advantage of the cooler temps. We would indeed be sad to leave Thailand, but Bangkok was a perfect spot to be introduced to Asia. Asia light, as our friend Al would call it. We were ready to plunge into Asia “profonde”. Hanoi here we come.
Thailand: Some things to know if you go
- The Thai currency is the baht. There are approximately 30 baht to the dollar. Guides said you can use dollars. This was ONLY true in Cambodia. ATM machines are around but they are not all alike
- Americans do not need a visa to visit Thailand.
- Hotels and restaurants may think you do not like spicy food–we had to insist.
- I have a fairly delicate digestive system so I travel with Pepto Bismol. I didn’t need it in Thailand
- I had been warned to eat only cooked food, but I did eat fruit at our hotel with no problems. The trick is if it is cut, it needs to be cold and freshly prepared. If unsure, stick with bananas. They are delicious!
- Our hotel was super clean, and hand sanitizers were everywhere. Our guide knew where the good toilets were, but it is still a good idea to travel with toilet paper. I also travel with baby wipes and hand wipes. I was happy to have them. We also had Clorox counter wipes, but did not really need them.
- You need to dress appropriately when going to temples (no shorts, no bare shoulders) but it is really hot most of the year so there was a delicate balance. Ray wore mostly light hiking pants and wickable shirts. I wore light dresses and capris.
- Crossing the road can be an adventure. We tried to cross with others whenever possible!