Watting it out in Bangkok

On the surface Bangkok does not offer much. There is a multitude of Wats and a fair number of museums but otherwise the standing agreement among backpackers is two or three days in Bangkok and then move on, maybe stretch it to five days. To an extent I agree, within the easily accessible parts of the city, there is little to do after the Wats have become a golden blur, each photo potentially belonging to a dozen different locations. However, Bangkok makes an excellent base of operations for visiting a number of other locations. In my case, I visited the Bridge on the River Kwai and Ayutthaya, which I talk about in two separate posts.

The Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.

Upon dumping all my belongings at the hostel, I quickly left to fit in the famous solid gold Buddha at Wat Traimit. I bought my ticket and waited patiently to take my photos after climbing to the top. This took a while because the moment certain other tourists saw the spot directly in front of the Buddha was free, they were charging in and having a full blown photo shoot. The irony that they complained the moment I put a toe in their photos after they had just set up shop in mine was not lost on me. I was strongly reminded of the Chinese tour group I had encountered when taking photos of street art in George Town. Unfortunately, this is a part of being a tourist and when I find myself feeling frustrated, I take a breath, remind myself I am British and therefore that I know how to queue.

A couple of stupas at Wat Pho.

Something I was not aware of, and which wasn’t at all clear at the ticket booth, was that a different ticket to the small museum about the Golden Buddha on the floor below was needed. Hence, I decided to give the museum a miss since I knew the basic story of how the Buddha had been “discovered” when it was dropped while being moved and the plaster covering the gold cracked and fell away. Still tired from my train journey up to Bangkok, I called it a day and returned to the hostel for an early night via Chinatown and picking up some pad thai from a street vendor on the way.

The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho.

The morning of day two in Bangkok found me visiting the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho and the Grand Palace Complex with a guy from my hostel. Wat Pho was one of my two favourite wats. Whether because the design eased up on the gold paint or because it was the first wat I saw that day is hard to say for sure. Replacing all the gold were thousands of pieces of pottery, carefully arranged in intricate patterns. I was reminded of the Little Chapel back home, even if the pottery tiles here were each made specifically for the wat rather than random pottery shards slapped on at (mostly) random. The reclining Buddha was outstandingly huge. I particularly liked its lacquer and mother of pearl feet. Another winning feature of Wat Pho was that there was a reasonably large amount of it to see, unlike some wats where one feels that they enter, take a couple of photos, and then leave.

Wat Phra Kaew in the Grand Palace complex.

Despite plenty of offers, we declined a tuk tuk for the five minute walk to the entrance of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Getting in presented more of a challenge than we expected. First the guy I was travelling had shorts which were too short. Fair enough, they only just brushed his knees. So back across the road we went to pick up a pair of the colourful trousers, ubiquitous to backpacking tourists in South East Asia. I was wearing a top which covered my shoulders and had a T-shirt collar. However, it only had very short sleeves so I had covered my arms the rest of the way with a shawl. This had never presented an issue before and neither has it since. Apparently this time it wasn’t acceptable though, even as I watched half a dozen other female tourists walk pass with their shoulders barely hidden beneath flimsy scarves. Five minutes later and some quick improvisation on my part to adapt my shawl into a pair of sleeves, we re-entered the complex, me blending into a group of Chinese tourists who never seem to get stopped. With my height, an umbrella to block the sun, and big sunglasses this was not too difficult and we quickly made it to the ticket office, both sweltering from the crush of bodies and the sun.

Some more of Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Phra Kaew was undeniably impressive with most surfaces glittering gold and it was cool to see the Emerald Buddha but the heat was almost unbearable and we found ourselves taking “shelter” in the shade as often as possible. Personally, the sheer volume of people was beginning to border on overwhelming as at five foot one (two on a good day) it was impossible to see further than the back or head in front of me and I was at risk of getting carried along by the tide. Making it through to the palace was less crowded but beyond looking at the exterior, we couldn’t see anywhere to enter so went to eat some ice cream before parting ways.

Wat Arun

I caught the orange flag boat over the river to look around Wat Arun and Santa Cruz Church. Wat Arun had also avoided the gold craze and I enjoyed craning my head back to try and see the top as it reached towrds the sky. Even including the nearby ordination hall, there was not much to see but I think it is still worth a visit as it is very different to a lot of the other wats I visited. Santa Cruz Church was closed, I presume as it was a Sunday, but the outside of the building was nice and I had a lovely little amble from Wat Arun to the church and then on to the boat station.

Santa Cruz Church

From there I made way to the Golden Mount, pausing at a few wats I passed on the way. This was my second favourite wat. Not for its towering gold stupa but for the wonderful views of Bangkok that it offered in all directions. After descending the awkwardly shallow stairs, I realised I couldn’t stand the thought of another wat so walked past Democracy Monument and explored Khao San Road, collecting some mango sticky rice for a very belated lunch. Dinner was with another guest from the hostel and then bed.

The view from a bridge I crossed on my walk from Wat Arun to Santa Cruz Church.

I spent the next day and a half visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass, detailed here. Upon my return I had hoped to visit the Medical Museum however it was closed on Tuesdays and I ended up not going at all. Instead, I spent the afternoon getting a Thai massage (very relaxing) and a henna tattoo (a bit of fun).

The view from the Golden Mount.

Wednesday’s visit to Ayutthaya is also described in a separate post, here, but suffice to say it was a good visit even if it left me so exhausted by the time I got back to Bangkok that I slept half the next day away. To account for this, I only visited one place, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Entrance to here was included in my ticket to the Grand Palace from a few days before so it made sense to visit. The museum isn’t huge, with one section detailing the long and peaceful relationship between Thailand and the US, showcasing some of the gifts exchanged between the two countries over the years. The second section appealed to my inner seamstress and was a variety of restored pieces from Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe, the majority from her visits to the US and Europe in the 1960s.

Khao San Road.

My final day in Bangkok was spent taking a breather and resting up for my 0100 night bus to Siem Reap where I then transferred down to Phnom Pehn.

Escaping Bangkok

Escaping Bangkok for the day, I headed up to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand. I caught the 0820 train up from Hua Lamphong Station, arriving just before 1000. Picking up the requisite tourist map, I hopped across the river on the small shuttle boat and rented a bicycle for the day. I could have rented a motorbike for around an extra 50 to 100 baht but decided I rather liked being attached to all my limbs. That said I probably wan’t much safer on the bicycle, the chain of which slipped every time I started from stationary and whose back brake was questionable to say the least.

The back entrance to Wat Ratchaburana.

Describing how I cycled from one picturesque red brick ruin to another incredibly similar looking ruin is rather boring so I will instead sum up a few key points of my visit.

  • Plan for the early afternoon rain shower by eating lunch as you wait for the downpour to subside. I didn’t and found myself trying to outrun the storm as I sought shelter.
  • The six temple ticket was not worth the cost as I only used it at two of the temples I visited, otherwise it was a separate entrance fee.
  • Wat Phra Si Sanphet had a back entrance with no ticket booth. As some temples were free, I didn’t realise there was a ticket booth at the front until after the fact.
  • The Ayutthaya floating market is actually a tourist attraction with a 200 baht entrance fee and an elephant riding camp right next to it. In my opinion it is not worth the visit even if it is rather scenic since the touristy wares can be found at any normal market without having to pay an entrance fee.
  • Just cycling around the the more minor roads is rather enjoyable so take the time to enjoy oneself.
  • Finally, even the tourist police, can’t read the tourist map with ease, I had three trying to help me orientate myself after getting somewhat turned around.

And now for some more pretty photos:

Wat Phra Mahathat with Wat Ratchaburana sticking up in the background.
Wat Phu Khao Thong and also the moment I realised I was about to be rained on.
Wat Si Sanphet
I’m really not sure which wat this photo belongs to. I think I just snapped the photo as I cycled past.
Wat Ratchaburana again. It was the only wat people could climb up and look inside.
The three stupas at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Bangkok to Ayutthaya trains: 20 baht each way, 40 baht total.

Bicycle rental: I cannot remember exactly but think it was 120 or 150 baht for the day with a 1000 baht (or passport) deposit

Shuttle boat across river: 5 baht

Temple entrance: Typically between 20 and 50 baht each but some are free.

The Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass

My day and a half trip to the Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai started off less than smoothly. I had hoped to get the boat across the river and then walk the remainder of the way to Thonburi Station. However, I was informed that there was a fifteen minute wait for the boat and Maps.me reneged on its previous prediction of a ten minute walk from the pier, instead opting for a twenty minute slog. Reluctant to push my timings, I opted to grab a taxi. This would take four minutes according to Maps.me, which steadfastly ignores the existence of traffic, or twenty minutes according to the official advice online. With just under forty minutes until the train left, this seemed a perfectly viable option.

View from the train as we left Bangkok.

Despite my best efforts to say where I wanted to go, including vigorous pointing at my map and the Roman script of the station written down, I think the taxi driver closed his ears the moment I uttered the words train station. Ah, train station! Naturally this foreigner, this white girl, could only want Hua Lamphong Station. Why should I listen to her anymore? Or look at the map she is showing me? Why let her speak and explain where she wants to go? I will say chuu chuu to her and wave with my arms until she gives up and gets in the car. Perhaps not the politest picture to paint but if a city has more than one station, it makes sense to clarify which one is required and I fail to see how two stations on opposite sides of the city centre not to mention a river could be confused on a map.

Interior of the train.

Fortunately my lack of faith in the taxi driver meant that the moment I watched us drive straight pass the correct turning on my map, I knew we were headed for the wrong station. It took less than a minute for him to pull over and understand that I wanted Thonburi Station with me showing him exactly the same props as the first time. Imagine if he had just listened initially? Missing that crucial turning meant a long detour before we could join the major road that passes Democracy Monument and crosses over the river, all of which was spent stuck in traffic.

One of the many “stations” on our journey.

Creeping closer to the station with nose to tail traffic wreaked havoc on my nerves as I painstakingly watched the seconds tick by but thankfully we made it with two minutes to spare. Fortunately, Thai railway stations are a laid back affair and there were only a dozen or so metres between the ticket booth and train so I had plenty of time to buy my ticket to Nam Tok and board. Naturally the train did not leave for another ten minutes, but this was not a concern as I was onboard so, short of a breakdown, I would be making it to Hellfire Pass and the Bridge on the River Kwai eventually.

Crossing the Bridge on the River Kwai by train.

Riding the train to the end of the line was a relaxed affair as I alternated between reading and watching Thailand fly by outside the window. To visit both Hellfire Pass and the bridge within my rather constrained time limit I rode the train all the way to the end of the line in Nam Tok and visited the pass before catching a later train to return to Kanchanaburi and visit the bridge. This route meant I also rode the train across the perilous Wampo Viaduct. Watching everyone lean out of doors and windows with nothing to stop them toppling out as we crossed the sheer drop, I could not help but imagine the fit English health and safety would throw.

Travelling along the death railway. I think this section was the Wampo Viaduct.

Arriving just over half an hour late in Nam Tok gave me about two and a half hours to visit Hellfire Pass before the train left. I was initially confused as the websites I had read implied that the Pass would be right there when I disembarked however it was in fact necessary to get a taxi to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. This created another point of consternation upon my return to the station as it turned out the taxi driver who had said 300 baht for both ways, supported by his refusal to let me pay at the museum, actually meant 300 baht each way, a classic trick to pull and one I should not have fallen for but by that point it was rather too late to do otherwise without causing a scene.

Another shot looking down the outside of the train.

The Museum itself was under renovation but there were still boards to read about the plight of the 60,000 prisoners of war and 250,000 Asian labourers who were forced to work on the Burma – Thailand railway by the Japanese during the second world war. It was incredibly sobering to read about the forced marches, brutal treatment and horrendous hours worked all while the workers neared starvation and had little to no medical treatment.

Standing in Hellfire Pass, I imagined it lit with torches at night during the speedo period; listened to the hammers clanging onto the tap drills, forcing them into the rock, focusing on this rhythmic racket instead of the sounds of the guards administering a beating; smelt the caustic scent left by dynamite and exploding rock, tried to ignore the stench of festering wounds; felt the weariness and hopelessness seep into my bones, pain and gnawing hunger radiating throughout; and finally rolled the sour taste of bile and dehydration around my mouth.

Memorial plaque for prisoners of war in Hellfire Pass.

My imagination will never encompass the true suffering endured but it is enough that I will not forget the 12,399 POW and 70,000 to 90,000 civilians whose lives were lost to build the railway. I finished paying my respects to the fallen in the pass and solemnly made my way back to the train station in Nam Tok. With the misleading nature of the taxi driver and a slight cloud over my head from visiting the pass, I ended up giving the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall a miss, instead reading my book until the train back to the Bridge on the River Kwai arrived.

Hellfire Pass

The bridge was a somewhat less sombre stop, mainly due to the sheer number of tourists wandering back and forth across it and posing sitting on the tracks. I was almost surprised not to see a collection of pre-wedding photo parties claiming some of the lookout points. Nonetheless, it was an impressive feat to look at especially considering the limited materials and tools available during its building. I will confess that I remain unclear on just how much of the original bridge remains and how much has been replaced due to damage from bombs and time but to span the river was an undeniable feat of engineering.

Before walking the half hour to Kanchanaburi and my hostel, I tucked in to a particularly good plate of chicken and cashew nut stir fry at a small restaurant just off the main square. I chose it for the presence of locals (or patrons at all really) as all the other restaurants appeared to be deserted with the exception of the more expensive “floating” one on the river.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Knowing that to see both bridge and pass I would have to miss the last train to Bangkok, I had booked a hostel for the night next to to train station so I could catch the early morning train back. This resulted in an enjoyable evening where I finally got round to trying some durian, an experience I have know intention of repeating. While all bar one other in our group seemed to be able to tolerated the repulsive smelling fruit, I barely resisted the urge to throw the vile textured stuff straight back up, much to the amusement of the others. At least it can now be ticked of my somewhat cynical list of how to be a tourist backpacker in South East Asia.

The next day dawned bright and early and I and two other girls had the pleasure of a relatively on time train journey back to Bangkok. Sadly the Medical Museum, which I had intended to visit of the way back to my hostel, was closed on Tuesdays so I never did get a chance to visit it.

The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Taxi to Thonburi Station from near Khao San Road: 200 baht

All trains: 100 baht each, 300 baht total.

Taxi to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and back: 600 baht – a mistake on my part and should have been negotiated down.

Hostel in Kanchanaburi: 220 baht

George Town to Bangkok by Sleeper Train

A hold over from my childhood and being island bound by fog or mechanical failure is that whenever I am changing locations, I obsessively leave as much time as possible between legs of my journey. Second leg an evening flight? No problem. I’ll get an early morning flight, barely restraining myself from catching the red eye, for the first leg.

Travelling in South East Asia it takes a certain level of self control not to take this to a whole new level with the constant delays and borderline horror stories passed by word of mouth down the traveller grapevine. There is always a friend of a friend of a guy someone met who got stranded next to a rice paddy somewhere.

The ferry from George Town to Butterworth.

Hence, I set out for Bangkok early on the day of my departure. I arrived at the ferry terminal from George Town to Butterworth around 0930 (apparently free in the George Town to Butterworth direction). By the time the “regular” ferry arrived in Butterworth it was 1030 and the “hourly” KTM Komuter train up to Padang Besar would not be leaving for another two hours. Finally boarding the train, I flopped into a seat and devoured my book until we eventually pulled into Pedang Besar station some time around two.

Navigating the border crossing was confusing, purely from the point of view that I and the small pack of other foreign travellers had no clue where we were going. Did we walk across the land border and find a different train station on the other side? Or were we somehow supposed to navigated the unmanned Malaysian and Thai border boxes on the floor below the canteen?

Seats on the sleeper train.

Eventually, we scraped together a vaguely straight answer that we were to wait until the boxes opened and then pass through the Malaysian and Thai boxes at the opposite ends of the ground floor. Next came another wait for the sleeper train that would carry us to all the way to Bangkok (naturally it was delayed by just under an hour). I passed the time playing card games with a lovely Swedish chap.

A few more games and dinner on the train passed the few hours before we turned in for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. Just as we were leaving for the somewhat rickety dinner cart, the steward came through and converted each booth into a set of bunk beds, complete with pillow and blanket. While not huge, the top bunk was fine for my vertically challenged nature and I managed not to fall out despite only two straps to prevent me from doing so.

Upper bunk on the sleeper train to Bangkok. Not the anti fall out of bed strap.

The next morning, the beds were converted back to seats and I tucked into my somewhat squashed roll that had travelled from a 7-Eleven in George Town with me the day before. Only about an hour and a bit late we were making good time into Bangkok when disaster struck. Driving through a cross between building site and railway siding the train suddenly shuddered to a halted to the accompaniment of much shouting and gesturing from some workers.

View from the window as we waited to start off again.

No information provided, we waited on the outskirts of Bangkok unsure if we were going to have to walk the remainder of the way. Eventually the passengers in the last coach relocated to ours, before theirs was disconected and we rolled back into motion. We finally made it to our Hua Lamphong Station only three hours late, so all in all, very good time was made.

On the orange flag boat to Khao San Road.

A twenty minute walk to boat stop N3 and we got the boat up to near Khao San Road (N13) and out respective hostels.

Ferry from George Town to Butterworth: free

Train Butterworth to Pedang Besar: RM11.40

Train Pedang Besar to Bangkok: 870 Baht for a top bunk plus a online booking fee of around 30 baht

Boat (orange flag fixed fare): 15 Baht