Thailand: Bangkok

10 days in The Big Mango

Wat Arun

On Saturday morning I lost count of how many slices of toast we ate. I had really enjoyed our stay at Hometown Hostel in Samut Songkhram: our room was tiny and cellular, but clean and comfortable and in between dozing, watching a train move through a market and eating copious amounts of street food, I had enjoyed looking through the books available for guests to browse, including The Lonely Planet guide to Bangkok. It transpired that I knew next to nothing about Thailand's capital apart from what I had gleaned from Bridget Jones's Diary II: The Edge of Reason, thus I knew nothing at all. From the book I learnt that there are some 2700 7-Eleven stores in Bangkok which is a third of the total amount in all of North America. From my time spent in Bangkok, I learnt that it is a city with attitude that it wasn't at all hard to feel at home in.

However, I'm sure we only felt so at home thanks to my school-friend and former work buddy, David, "Stales", who left the dizzy heights of Staffordshire and traded in teaching in Telford for life in South East Asia's coolest capital almost two years ago. It's quite impossible to thank David enough for letting us stay in his luxury pad (which included regular swims in the pool); for showing us around some of his favourite sights in the city; and for spoiling us rotten with trips to tasty vegetarian restaurants and incredibly cool, hidden bars. Thank you, Stales! Bangkok truly wedged itself into our hearts and we sincerely hope it's not too long before our cycle paths cross again.

From Burton to Bangkok

After all of the toast and a photo outside of the hostel, we set off towards Bangkok hoping that we would manage at least 10km before we met David who had left home at 5am to meet us and guide us into the city (we left at 7.45). We made it about 15km before I was sure I spotted a cyclist coming towards us. I started to wave maniacally and suddenly, having clearly mastered the art of the Thai U-turn, there was David, pedalling ahead of us! The feeling was similar to when we met Bear on her bike in Switzerland: brilliantly surreal! After hugs and hellos we set off at David's steady 20km pace!  (We normally average 13!)

Conversation flowed easily, and despite the early hour, the traffic did too, but for the most part it didn't bother us at all. In South-East Asia it seems the rules of the road are a lot more lax than at home, which, although initially quite terrifying, and always stupefying to watch, just makes you a part of the chaos and your place in the madness is respected by the others involved in the merry dance. Thus, we whittled down motorways and over bridges beneath which there were twelve lanes of traffic as if this were a perfectly normal Saturday morning. 

The kids in the back offered us bottles of water.

It was inexplicably brilliant having David to guide the way or else otherwise the aforementioned twelve lanes of traffic might have felt somewhat overwhelming. David's presence gave us a calm and a confidence and so we whizzed along without much concern for anything other than the whereabouts of the next 7-Eleven for a water and Calippo break. (It was the longest 13km we've cycled in Thailand! 7-Eleven are ubiquitous in the Land of Smiles and so this was definitely an exception to the rules. Admittedly, we did pass about ten in that time, but they were all on the other side of the road.)

Very soon, the buildings started to rise and I knew we must be in the 'burbs of Bangkok. We passed under the magnificent Rama VIII bridge and then seemed to leave the city behind, following smaller roads before turning left and heading through some red gates into a national park. David turned to us and smiled conspiratorially asking if we were wondering what was going on. We replied that we were intrigued! David had taken us into Bang Krachao or "the green lung", an artificial island in the heart of the city perhaps so called as it somewhere to get a bit of fresh air in the notoriously toxic city. (All the schools in Bangkok closed for the day in January due to such poor air quality. However, pollution levels in London were recently worse than those in Bangkok and it didn't make headline news...) It was brilliant to weave along the quiet, raised roads which are incredibly popular with cyclists, including David's school cycling club who often go to "the green lung" for their "Friday Rides". With trees all around us and small homes tucked in amongst them, it was quite surprising to suddenly stop and find ourselves facing the skyscrapers of downtown Bangkok just across the river. Down a wooden ramp we went and onto a bouncy pontoon where we stripped the bikes of their panniers whilst waiting for a boat to take us across the Chao Phraya River.

Within a matter of minutes a long-tail boat had arrived and for 40 Baht (£1) we lowered our bikes and panniers into it and then spent five glorious minutes on the water, moving towards the city. It was brilliant and such a special introduction to the city.

Back on the bikes for the final push in the fast-beating heart of Bangkok. We followed David's lead, but being so wide, we did lack his weaving skills. In no time at all he pulled up outside of a fruit stall to buy bananas, mangoes and strawberries which went into a delicious smoothie when we got to David's place which was just around the corner. It was brilliant to see where David lived: a luxury apartment block with babbling fountains opposite the entrance and coy carp in pools by the doors. We went up in the cargo lift to David's apartment, gawped in amazement at it and the brilliant view from the balcony, and then swiftly went back down to floor 3, the home of the pool. We stayed there, chatting and chilling, until our fingertips went wrinkly and our tummies started talking.

That night, David took us to his favourite vegan restaurant, Broccoli Revolution. Bangkok is something of a haven for vegetarian and vegan eateries and it's not hard to see why David rarely cooks at home, especially as his job teaching at an international school allows for a healthy work/life balance. Broccoli Revolution was the kind of "hip joint" (Olly's words) that I love. I loved the high ceiling, hanging plants and the little, metal, camping cups that I kept topped up with apple-flavoured water. Although reasonably priced, the food was five-times as much as we had been paying at the small restaurants we had often eaten in on our way to Bangkok. An obvious point to make perhaps, and not intended as a negative one: this was the capital city. The prices were quite similar to those I'd pay in Shrewsbury. However, David only let us pay for pudding which was a tasty slice of lemon cake for me and David, and carrot cake for Olly. Home then for Beer Lao, which we had had to buy before 6pm as there was a 24-hour alcohol ban in the city due to the general election taking place the next day. 7-Eleven had been full of people, westerners mainly, topping up their beer supplies!

On Sunday, we woke early and headed to the BTS, or skytrain, before taking a boat up the river to visit the beautiful Wat Arun. Bells attached to the highest points of the temple tinkled in the gentle morning breeze as we walked around the ceramic structure in awe. Before we got too hot we hopped back on a boat in order to cross to the other side of the river for breakfast not far from the Grand Palace.

On the way up to the BTS

On a boat!

Breakfast stop

After breakfast we sauntered through China town, walking through the crowded market and ogling at Peking ducks, slimy seafood and bags full of fragrant tea. 

Still not sure what these are, but David has a funny story about accidentally buying some chicken feet one time...

The afternoon disappeared as we splashed around in the pool and lazed on the sun loungers. What a way to spend a Sunday! Dinner that night was in an unusual medical mall (anti-aging shop one way, DNA testing another). Khun Churn, the vegetarian restaurant that we ate in, however, was incredible and I enjoyed my red-curry, noodle soup so much that I ordered it again when we returned on our final night in Bangkok. Olly too! As we walked home through another mall, David pointed out a cheesecake shop that he rated highly. No time like the present for giving these things a go and so we returned to the apartment with a slice of cheesecake each to round off a wonderful day. Chocolate-caramel for David, raspberry for Olly and black-cherry for me.

David was back at work on Monday and so Olly and I did some exploring of our own (thus we made it as far as a Big-C and then to another vegan restaurant recommended by Stales called Veganerie).

We walked through a beautiful shopping centre to get to Big C

So much packaging!

On Tuesday, I woke up to a message from David saying that his colleague and friend, Andy, would love for me and Olly to give a presentation to his Y9 French class about our trip. In French! After breakfast I did some speech preparation and then we set off to Patana. We followed David's instructions to the letter, including "make a U-turn at the bottom of the BTS steps and then jump on a motorbike". Jump on a motorbike?! It didn't take long to track down two guys in orange vests and then we sped off in the direction of the school. Initially I wasn't sure of the motorbike etiquette and so I clung to my driver around his middle. Olly was holding some handles towards the back of the bike and upon reflection this seemed more appropriate in a country where it is impolite to show the soles of your feet and touch people on the head. In no time at all (really, it was so speedy) the motorbikes cut their engines and deposited us outside of the impressive entrance to the Patana campus. I was buzzing from the ride, Olly less so!

Bangkok Patana

David gave us a whistle stop tour of the incredible school and then before we knew it Y9 were piling in to Andy's room, and he had invited the other class along too! The carefully prepared script was soon relegated to "occasional prompt" as I flailed my arms around and tried to make myself understood to 33 thirteen year olds. Olly, in control of the photos and videos, did very well at answering a few questions in French ("j'aime les montagnes"), and I'm sure the highlight for all involved was my answer to the question about the animals we've seen: "une phoque", I cried, flapping my imaginary fins: a seal. It brought back memories of the time I tried to phonetically spell out the word "semaine" and then when I tried to illustrate the verb "faire" using an ant who was supposed to be chewing a piece of grass, but rather looked like he was smoking it... These lessons are rarely forgotten...

We had lunch with David in the canteen (and we did go up for seconds!) before heading home. Having used a motorbike to get to school we had to use one to leave it too! Woohoo! After dinner that night, we went out for a couple of drinks. We went to two of the coolest bars I've ever been to! One was a hidden speakeasy called "Find the Locker Room" which serves the most incredible cocktails. Usually, I have to admit, I find cocktails quite overrated and underwhelming. David said all that would change, and it did. Though quite how I'm going to get my futuristic Pina Colada fix complete with mango sorbet here on in, I don't know. The first bar we went to, The Iron Fairies, was dark with small gargoyles hunched over half-burned candles and ladders leading to hidden rooms. It was amazing.

My super cool cocktail!

The next day Olly and I left Bangkok and took a bus to Cambodia for four nights in Siem Reap. The blog post can be found here.

We returned to Bangkok on Sunday evening and had arranged to meet up with world cycle-tourists, Linda and Tim who had realised that our paths had crossed in The Big Mango. It was so good to meet Linda and Tim (@dreiarmumig @sightsfromtim and their blog: here) and share stories over a couple of Chang beers whilst being offered barbecued scorpions and crudely embossed friendship bracelets. Upon reflection, maybe we all should have got one for the LOLs. We talked about our journeys to date, the influence of social media, budgeting and travellers tummy. The words "loose stools" were definitely used by someone... (Linda!) We've met a fair few folk heading south and we felt a bit bummed out (!) not to be adventuring with Linda and Tim. Safe travels, guys! We look forward to hearing about the availability of Snickers bars on the rest of your trip and hope to hear about tandem adventures in Australia.

With Tim and Linda

Tuk-tuk ride home from Khao San Road

We made it back to David's and went straight to bed. Monday was a trip-min day which included booking our train tickets to northern Thailand in order to speed up our arrival to Laos. It's always a shame not to cycle, but April is the hot season in both countries and with May comes the rain. In China, though, in May it is still Spring, just. The third-class tickets for the sleeper train were incredibly cheap (about £5 each) and we would soon discover perhaps why... I waited in for a replacement mosquito net to be delivered, which continues to be a palaver, and did some route planning. Laos is going to be hilly!

We returned to Khun Churn for dinner that night, having loved it so much previously. We talked of future plans and adventures with David with whom this was our final night. Thanks to David's unyielding enthusiasm we had plunged headfirst into, not only our time in Bangkok, but into all of South-East Asia too. We hope one day to be able to return even a half of his kindness.

Due to our night train we had one more day in Bangkok and that meant only two things: mango sticky rice and a haircut! We both do miss those curls...

Video: Into Bangkok