For the first time since we started our trip, we are now in a country that neither one of us has visited. It marks the start of a long period of time in South-east Asia, and also discovering a different culture. We have been in Thailand for 15 days now, and we are having a blast !
Bangkok is an exuberant and wild megalopolis, with both its good and bad sides. We spent 4 days trying to explore the city and trying to understand why it is such a tourist success, but we are still unsure whether we like it or not.
From the point of view of visits, our favourite temple was Wat Pho. It is mostly associated with the iconic large golden reclining Buddha, but the rest of the temple is beautiful and much more relaxing to see. Indeed, most visitors stick to the reclining Buddha in a desperate attempt to grab a good selfie with it.
On our first day, we still managed to get slightly scammed by a seemingly very nice Thai person with an impeccable english, who appeared to be selflessly trying to help us. It’s one of the common “scams” in the center of Bangkok, but we hadn’t read on the subject beforehand, so we didn’t see it coming at first. When we took the bus to get to the old town (we were staying in the Sukhumvit area, to the East), we quickly realized there was a special event going on that week-end. Several roads and parks were blocked to foreigners, many many Thai people dressed all in black were gathering there, and there were a lot of stands giving food and water for free to long queues of local people. We finally understood that they were all coming to town to pay their respects to their king who died last October. Thus, it didn’t seem to out of place when our scammer told us that all the main temples were closed that day to foreigners. He also told us that he was usually working at the Grand Palace, and was on holiday that day. Very keen on making sure that we got the best out of our time in Bangkok, he made us believe that he was negotiating a good price with a tuk-tuk driver to bring us to several open temples (very minor ones, it turned out), and also to the “Tourist Information of Thailand” (or T.I.T.) so that we could get maps and infos. We hesitated a bit, butwe figured that the price for the tuk-tuk ride was really good indeed, and that we didn’t have anything to loose ! After the 1st temple, the tuk-tuk drops us off at the T.I.T. office. This so-called “information center” turned out to be more of a travel agency, and we ended up sitting with an unpleasant man planning for us the rest of our stay in Thailand (rather forcefully and without concern for what we actually wanted to do), and vehemently trying to get us to book all of this through their agency, saying that “half of the planet is in Thailand, everything will be booked very soon”. We politely declined the offer, he took a 1/3 of the price off, we declined a second time, and he started to act really pissed (something Thai people rarely do in public). We thanked him anyway and got out of there to get back on our waiting tuk-tuk, slightly bitter now that we are realizing that this is a bit of a scam. Just so you know, Tourist Information of Thailand (T.I.T.) is a scamming travel agency, whereas Tourism Authority of Thailand (T.A.T.) is the actual official tourism organisation. Of course, we did not know that. We visited a second temple, and the tuk-tuk driver drove us to one of these famous “tailor shops” (although we said we didn’t want to). We faked interest for 5 minutes and got out under the irritated looks of the main players of this scam. Although the driver tried to convince us to go with a friend of his on a speedboat cruise on the river, we insisted on being dropped off at the place that was agreed upon at the beginning, to take the local ferry across the river. In the end, the tuk-tuk driver didn’t look happy but we only paid 100 bahts (around 2.5 €) to go around Bangkok for 2 hours and didn’t give in to any of the extras the scammers had tried to force on us. It wasn’t so bad ! 🙂
The next day, in order to breathe a bit and get out of the chaos downtown, we took the express boat on the Chao Phraya to the final stop north of the city (following Phiphi’s advice). After walking randomly around for a bit, we found a very nice local market (we were the only tourists there) where there were tons of fruits and lots of fish attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to get out of their buckets of water. There, we tried jackfruits for the first time (which are really good!) and fresh coconut. It was the first time, but it certainly won’t be the last !
On the week-end, we spent a whole morning in the famous Chatuchak market, which is comprised of nearly 8000 stalls. We found it a bit disappointing : it was probably a very interesting place 20 or 30 years ago, but today it looks a bit like a tourist trap. It’s still fun, but definitely not authentic.
Finally, we have to talk about the neighbourhood in which we were staying, Sukhumvit. By day, we are mostly struck by the many gigantic malls full of rather luxurious brands. One of them even had themes for each floor, a bit like in Las Vegas casinos (!). By night, we quickly realized that sexual tourism was heavily present around the area. We were shocked and disgusted by the amount of paunchy white men holding hands with young (sometimes very young) Thai girls.
Built in 1350, Ayutthaya was at its height the capital of the Siam kingdom, with more than 400 active temples. Today, there are about a dozen left, all of them in ruins. In 1767, the city was sacked by the Burmese army, triggering the relocation of the capital 80km to the south, in Bangkok. Because we missed it so much, we rented bicycles (!) in order to visit the old town at a comfortable pace. We particularly liked the Buddha head entangled in the roots of a tree, and Wat Yai Chaimongkol, a temple located a little outside of town, resplendent by its beauty, size and overall very good condition. A special mention to the Ayothaya Riverside House, where we stayed, a very relaxing place by the river managed by a very friendly owner who even treated us to an evening of him playing the guitar and singing classics (Beatles, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, etc…)
Khao Yai National Park
To break a bit with the usual path most travellers choose when visiting Thailand, we took the train to Pak Chong and rented a 125cc motorbike for 3 days. We went straight to Khao Yai National Park, where we planted our tent. The park (the 1st one to get the National Park qualification in Thailand) is known for its double waterfall heavily featured in Danny Boyle’s “The Beach”. On the menu, waterfalls, hikes in the jungle, and a lot of wildlife watching : we saw a crocodile, a male elephant alone, a herd of female elephants with 3 cubs, macaques and gibbons a bit everywhere, hornbills, deer, a gigantic spider, weird caterpillars and a lot of colourful butterflies. Our 3 days over there were really amazing and are really a highlight of our travels.
We had read in our guidebook that all of Bangkok came to Khao Yai on the week-ends to get a bit of fresh air. This was not an exaggeration ! On Saturday evening, the campground which didn’t seem to have the concept of being full really looked like the sleeping area of a big festival. Every square inch of free space was covered by a tent, and there were so many cars that we had trouble finding a spot to park our motorbike when getting back from the day in the park. Not counting the resulting state of the toilets and showers, this was pretty fun !
Usually a 2-hour stop for travellers on their way to Chiang Mai, we decided to stop for 2 days in the town of Lopburi, which is commonly known as the “monkey city”. It’s actually quite impressive as there are monkeys absolutely everywhere, and they are quite aggressive when it comes to looking for food (Tracy got harassed by two monkeys who wouldn’t stop climbing her trousers and shaking them). The city in itself doesn’t have much to offer apart from a few temples in ruins here and there, but the countryside around it is certainly beautiful.
The next day, we rented a motorbike again to be able to go around. We ended up alone, riding on dirt roads, surrounded by sunflower fields and mountains. Amazing ! We walked around a bit, and went back on the motorbike for an hour to get to Wat Khao Wongkot, an active temple built on the side of a small mountain, accessible through small roads in the middle of the rice fields. At the heart of this temple is a wide and steep staircase that goes up the mountain side, surrounded by little “chedis” and arriving at a small cave opening. When the sun sets and just before nightfall, millions of bats emerge from that hole in a dense and continuous flow that lasts for 2 hours, We were the only ones standing there, a few meters from the cave entrance, and we remained speechless in front of such an incredible thing.
The capital of the Siam kingdom before Ayutthaya was Sukhothai. And just like Ayutthaya, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The sunset on the ruins of Wat Mahathat looks particularly beautiful. During our visit, some sort of celebrations were going on inside the historical park to commemorate the 100th day since the death of the king (the commemorations will last a year).
While in the bus to get to Sukhothai we met 2 other french couples with whom we spent the evening and a full day visiting. They in turn introduced us to another couple and we all spent a night together. Thanks to Marie and Steph, Andrea and Arthur as well as Karine and Pierre for the good moments we spent together !
The next day, following the advice of the Lonely Planet and a few other travellers’ blogs, we made a day trip by bus to Si Satchanalai, another historical park. More difficult to get to and in the middle of a lot of vegetation, it has way fewer visitors than its Sukhothai neighbour. Unfortunately, the ruins are also in a pretty bad shape and to us, it didn’t look as good as Ayutthaya or Sukhothai. The highlight of this visit was the incredible number of asian openbills (possibly several thousands) nesting in the trees in between two temples perched on a small hill. Although it is quite difficult to avoid getting a little gift from one of these birds when you pass under a tree covered by hundreds of them, the view is certainly worth it 🙂
After an 8-hour bus ride to do roughly 400km, we arrived in Chiang Rai, capital of the province of the same name, in the north of Thailand. A very modern and friendly city, we found a lovely little guesthouse (Chat Guesthouse) where we can stay for cheap in a very relaxing atmosphere. After randomly walking in town in the evening, we ended up finding the town’s flower festival, showing some very beautiful flowerbeds and enchanting lights, music concerts, and a night market full of food and hand-crafted products.
Today, we enjoyed the calm atmosphere and took the opportunity to rest a bit and write this blog post. Tomorrow, we leave for Chiang Saen, along the Mekong.