Posted by: Richard Marshall | September 7, 2010



After some long and exhausting months in HCMC I have finally made my escape. I have now been over a year in Asia and am taking a break between the completion of my first contract and the beginning of my second. I decided to spend my month off in Thailand and headed to Bangkok.

I like Bangkok. I really like being in a major city again, with an exciting buzz  in the air. Being here makes me realise just how provincial HCMC really is. I was impressed coming out of the airport by the big winding freeway which might have been in Joburg. The area I’m staying in, Silom, has a gritty urban atmosphere with wide roads, huge buildings and lots of concrete. I’m also just down the road from Bangkok’s elevated railway, the Sky Train, which is almost worth a trip to Bangkok for on its own. The hostel is very pleasant – thanks Ted – and I found myself much better able to adapt to dorm living than I imagined.

On the first day I went, as recommended, by sky train to the river, from where I took a boat towards Bangkok’s historic centre, Ko Rattanakosin. I got off the boat at the pier nearest Wat Pho, which contains the world’s largest reclining Buddha, or so I am told. The Buddha is indeed, well, large. I really liked the walls of the temple, though, which depict scenes of Thai life and mythology (the walls at Wat Pra Kaeo are similarly decorated). I generally try to avoid taking photos in religious buildings, especially when they are so tremendously elaborate as to defy the capacities of my camera, but there was one picture I couldn’t resist at Wat Pho. Amid scenes of great doings sacred and profane, monks seeking the path to Enlightenment, kings being borne in splendor through their palaces, enraged elephants being driven away by villagers, men and gods locked in battle celestial and terrestrial, the cat chasing a mouse in the corner was irresistibly charming. I also thought how much Christine would have loved this picture! (I’ll try edit it so it’s clearer when I get back to Vietnam).

Cat and Mouse

Wat Pho

After Wat Po I took a bit of a detour on a Tuk Tuk to a large temple called the Golden Mount, which offers great views of the city. I was a bit worried about the Tuk Tuk but he didn’t rip me off in the end. He did try to take me to some tailor or other but I think it was pretty clear that I wasn’t in the market for a suit. The main disadvantage was that the roof was too low so I couldn’t  see the city as easily as I would have liked. By the time I got back to the river the palace and the museum were both about to close so instead I crossed the river to see another temple, Wat Arun, which was apparently built on the site of king Tak Sin’s arrival when he established Bangkok as the new capital in the late 18th century.

Golden Mount

Wat Arun

The next day I got up earlier and headed back to Ko Rattanakosin. I made my way to the royal palace (once again suitably dressed in trousers), which was fascinating. There was obviously a lot of development there in the 19th century, so the complex is a bizarre mix of Thai and European architectural styles. The main palace, indeed, looks like a French chateau on the bottom two storeys with the roof of a Thai Wat. After that I headed down the museum which was also very interesting. The Thai’s battles with the Burmese seem almost as interminable as the Vietnamese wars with the Chinese. The museum was strongly patriotic (it mentioned a war with Vietnam in the early 19th century which the History Museum in HCMC insists the Vietnamese won while the museum here claims ended when Vietnam “sued for peace”!). All the same, the Thai’s achievements are impressive. When Bangkok was established as the capital, the country was half occupied by Burma and breaking up into rival fiefdoms. Tak Sin and his successors managed to re-establish the country, fend off the depredations of British and French colonialism and modernise the country so effectively it remains the most developed in the region by quite a way. That’s pretty good going.

Grand Palace

That afternoon I decided to visit a large park in the north of city. It was really crowded on a Sunday afternoon and basically just a lawn dotted with trees, so my binos seemed a bit superfluous, but I did see my first Thai new species, a black, cuckoo-like bird called an Asian Koel. In the evening I decided to at least take a look at Patpong, the red light district just a few blocks down from the hostel. I didn’t really go in ideal circumstances – I was tired, alone, sober and had just eaten an Isan beef salad which I thought would melt my face off. But Ted had suggested a bar where I could just sit and watch the world go by. I didn’t find the bar in the end, but landed up in an alley with people trying to sell me fake rolexes on one side and lure me into buildings emblazoned in neon with signs like “Pink Panther Go-Go bar” and “Pussy Collection” on the other. Needless to say I didn’t like it and beat a fairly hasty retreat. I was a bit annoyed with myself for not even considering going to watch a woman expel ping-pong balls from her vagina – perhaps that makes me a bit unworldly –  but really, to sit there alone and in the dark to see that kind of thing could only have been profoundly depressing.

The next day I decided to see a bit of modern Bangkok. I went to Starbucks for breakfast and then headed to a gigantic mall called Siam Square. The mall made Parksons look like a corner shop.There was an excellent bookshop where to my great satisfaction I found an accessible, single-volume history of Thailand, which hopefully will make all those wars and states and kings I’d never heard of at the museum a little less opaque. I also went to see a movie in a very comfortable cinema. The movie, “Machete”, was dire, but I did enjoy everyone solemnly standing up for the national anthem before an obscene gore-fest. While the anthem was playing there were various mawkish images of the king doing – well, I wasn’t exactly sure what. In one he was mopping sweat from his brow, demonstrating that even so august a personage as himself is as vulnerable to the humidity as more humble folk. I then went up to Bangkok’s tallest building and enjoyed a beer on the 83rd floor while the sun set over the city.

Bangkok Skyline

This evening I take the night train to Chiang Mai.


  1. It sounds like you are having a v cool time! I am with you on not going to see ping pong balls, you are right – it would be depressing!
    You have some very beautiful photos here. I wish i could have joined you for a beer on the 83rd floor!
    So do you know if i can subscribe to this blog or something, cos i only saw this when you told me to check your blog. Oh, i think i have asked this before! nevermind!
    i am looking forward to seeing you in nz so much richie-rich!! (i wish you were richie rich, then you could bring me some $$$!)

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