Friday, April 3, 2009

SE Asia Trip, Part 1 - Bangkok

This is the first post in a series chronicling my trip to SE Asia last month. I flew into Thailand, then headed up to Laos for almost a month before flying out to Brunei for a couple of days and then back home. I worked all summer to afford this trip, which will probably be my only holiday for a good long while. I had a great trip, just wish it had been longer!

Bangkok is one of the easier hubs to access SE Asia, and I managed to get a pretty good deal with Royal Brunei Airlines from Auckland. I wasn't really planning on spending much time in Thailand, though as it happened I spent even less time there than I thought I would. My original plan was to just spend a night and day in Bangkok before heading to Laos, and then spending a bit more time there on the way back.

My first impression of Bangkok... I really didn't like it. But to be honest, how many cities do I really take a liking to? These last few years in quiet NZ have probably reinforced my dislike of busy, bustling cities - I'm just not used to people everywhere anymore.

Having said that, I did see some very beautiful things in Bangkok, even though I was only there for a very brief amount of time.

After battling my way through the hordes at Airport Immigration, I grabbed my bag (the last one left on the carousel) and headed to the buses. The first thing I noticed was that absolutely everybody seemed to smoke. I thought I was going to choke to death whilst waiting for the bus! I had to hide my face in my bandana the entire time - probably looked ridiculous...

The bus dropped me at Khao San Road, near to where I was staying. Yes, I know, KSR is not really my scene - it is full of drunk and stoned 18-yr old british backpackers after all. I just thought it would be the easiest place to go when coming to a country I'd never visited before.

The street was packed with stalls, shops and places to eat. Luckily the place I was staying at was located down a quiet alley, so I felt quite far away from the noise and crowds of the evening.

The next morning I walked down Khao San Road, and it was so quiet you wouldn't recognise it as the same street as the night before. I could actually see the pavement! Very few people were out and about - must be the hangover from the night before. I'd planned to walk to the Grand Palace in the morning, but I kept getting stopped by locals, telling me that it was closed and I should go to these other places. It annoyed me so much I turned round and spent my morning shopping for clothes in the markets. Eventually I went to the Grand Palace in the afternoon, and needless to say it wasn't closed, but buzzing with tourists.

Thailand still has a monarchy, unlike Laos, which is a Communist country. Here are a few photos of the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha:

The walls were covered in beautiful murals.

These guys were not nearly as good at keeping a straight face as the guards in London!

I was only allowed to take photos of the palace grounds, not inside the museums or temples. There were a couple of weapons rooms to wander around - a quite interesting one with lots of sharp pointy things, and another not-so-thrilling room full of guns. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha museum was a welcome relief from the sweltering heat outside, and housed some interesting statuary and models. I prefered it to the temple itself, which I found a bit too overwhelming. I don't find covering everything in gold gilt particularly inspiring.

After my trip to the Grand Palace I desperately needed to cool off. I headed to the river and took a local boat, which stopped close to where I was staying. The trip was a nice way to cool off and see a bit of the city without having to battle my way through the touts.

This is Wat Arun, which I would have liked to visit, but I was running a bit late.

I only really spent a day in Bangkok, and after this afternoon of sightseeing, I headed to the railway station to catch the overnight train to the Laos border. It was a sleeper train, and I had booked a lower berth in the 2nd class carriage. These carriages were basically rows of seats that converted into bunks, with an upper bunk that could be pulled down too. They were pretty cool actually, a guy came along during the evening to make up the bunks so you could go to bed and they had a mattress and sheets and pillows. Each little bunk had curtains for privacy and a light inside so I could carry on reading.

My seat in chair form...

And made up as a bunk!

I actually had a really good nights sleep on the train, and in the morning got chatting to a young couple from Bristol who were also going to Laos. The train arrived in Nong Khai a few hours later than planned, but that gave me an excuse to watch the morning scenery go by.

This railway line will soon go across the border into Laos as far as Vientiane, but the track hasn't been finished yet. This means going to the border by tuk-tuk, or walking if you really feel like it. It took a good few hours to get through immigration, but eventually I made it into Laos! Next up, the capital, Vientiane!

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