Our first flight since leaving, and it was a good one. We flew Thai Airway out of Kathmandu and I an heartily recommend them. Good food, great in flight entertainment and even a little flower, neatly tied, for the girls. I got off the plane in good spirits and was met on the jetway by something I had almost forgotten about - humidity. It hit me in the face like a warm, soggy blanket and I suddenly realised how the dry the first month of my journey had been. Kathmandu always threatened to be a bit muggy but any moisture had fled by the time the sun had gotten it's act together, whilst the rest of the countries I'd just travelled through now seemed positively arid by comparison.
But the humidity was a less pressing concern now that I'd entered the airport proper. Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport is cavernous, and seems more like a great, glassy exhibition hall than an airport. It was also pretty deserted, and as I drifted along on a seemingly endless line of moving walkways, past rows of empty, double stacked gates, it all felt a bit eerie - kind of like being in an office after everyone's left.
Customs and immigration was a breeze, after that irrational moment of panic where I confirmed to myself I was indeed NOT a drug smuggler, and we joined an orderly queue fora taxi to take us to our hotel. The queue was smartly and professionally managed, with a nice young Thai lady matching you with a cab and making sure the taxi drivers knew where to take you. Our driver seemed a to pronounce the name of hotel a little strangely, but he kept repeating it to himself like a kind of mantra so I chalked it up to my considerable linguistic ignorance and leapt in.
As we moved through the heaving traffic and neon streets of Bangkok's business district, I wondered what our driver kept looking at. After peering out of the window a few times I realised that he was in possession of quite a violent muscular tic, one that would cause his head to snap quickly around towards two or three times a minute. After drawing my seatbelt a little tighter and making sure my head was firmly in contact with the headrest, I focused on trying to work out where we were. Almost as soon as I recognised a street name, I realised we were heading in the wrong direction but the language barrier was too high and I resigned myself to whatever grim fate awaited me when we finally reached our destination, wherever that might be.
As it happened, the driver just dropped us right in the heart of the tourist district of Bangkok, which meant naught but a 10 minute walk, backpacks and all, to our hotel. When we arrived, all of the past hour's complications washed away. The hotel was lovely, and we were told when we checked in that we'd been upgraded to a better room, one that turned out to be large, clean and modern. I had a shower, sank into the most comfortable bed so far and don't remember falling to sleep.
Our first day was a sightseeing extravaganza. First of all, we wandered down the legendary Kho San Road, and stopped for a drink to let the rain subsided. My first drink in Thailand, a pineapple juice, and it was served to me by, of all people, a ladyboy. So far, so Bangkok. Despite rumbling grey clouds, we moved on and visited one of the the most important shrines in Bangkok, Wat Po. It was a strange, cluttered amalgamation of temples and shrines, covered in glittering, glassy mosaic tiles, the ostentatious use of colour and decoration in sharp contrast with the muted and austere reverence of Tibetan Buddhism.
Wat Po is also home to the world's largest Reclining Buddha, a giant, golden statue that captures one of the Buddha's quintessential poses. It is massive and certainly impressive, and I especially liked his subtle grin, that when combined with the half closed eyes, certainly does radiate the kind of serenity you feel when you lay down by a stream (the story that accompanies the pose).
As we left, we were stopped by a rotund and affable gentleman manning the gates to the Wat who smiled and asked us where we were going to next. We were actually heading to Bangkok's other major tourist destination, the Grand Palace, which he kindly marked on our map for us (despite it being clearly labelled and pictured on the map already) and rattled off some of the other places we should visit, how much we should pay to enter and how much a tuk-tuk should cost to take us there. In fact, he says, I actually have a friend who drives a tuk-tuk and he'll take you on a tour at a discount - as he's a friend - How lucky you are Johnny Foreigner, to bump into a helpful man like me! He signals his friend, who looked suspiciously non-plussed, but who wanders over anyways - presumably because he's caught a whiff of fleeced tourist. Actually no, says I, we'd prefer to just walk and we really want to see the Grand Palace today. Aha, says he, it's closed for lunch at the moment so better to go with this gu... My friend. At this point, having been told that Thailand's equivalent of the Tower of London was 'closed for lunch' at 3PM, I grabbed Kate's arm and walked away.
The Grand Palace, which wasn't on lunch break, is actually both a collection of temples and the Thai Royal Family's official home. The temples are all sharp spires and gleaming mosaics, but there's even more pageantry and mythical flair here. Snarling demons, prancing statues of Hanuman, the Monkey God, and ancient protectors line the aisle ways between the shrines in a way that's both playful and slightly intimidating. We stop in to see the Emerald Buddha, in actuality a tiny jade figurine made to replace the original one that was supposedly carved from a single, giant emerald. It was only barely visible, but that didn't stop hundreds of worshipers gathering before it and offering prayers.
The next day we travelled by tuk-tuk to Bangkok's railway station and bought our tickets for a sleeper train going south, much to the disappointment of the driver who was keen for us to buy them from his 'friend' who just so happened to run a travel agency. We'd hope to go north to Chang Mai, but the mumbled glugging of the BBC's Thai correspondent, standing in three feet of flood water, had put paid to that idea. We walked back from the station via Chinatown, which was pretty much like the rest of the city save for a Chinese gate in the middle of a roundabout. More interesting was a strangely out of place, yet beautiful, building whose facade seemed to mix colonial style with traditional Thai architecture.
We passed, on our walk, a pier from which you could catch a boat that would have taken us to the famous floating markets, but the rapidly rising water had closed off that avenue of pleasure. Instead, we sat and watched hundreds of ugly, brown fish writhing by the pier as they waited to be fed.
Nearby was a choice example of the Thai approach to flood protection, shown above. I'm not sure what those sandbags are meant to do in the event of the river bursting it's banks and reaching that substation...
Our final stop of note is at the flower market. It's an incredible display, and something Kate enjoyed immensely; me, I was too busy trying to get us as far away from that substation as possible, although some of the colours on show were far too pretty to miss.
We headed back, and after a delicious meal in a very funky little place, there was just enough time to dip our feet in the pool before bed.
Our final day in the city resulted in yet more walking, this time approaching the river from the other direction and finding a pleasant little park. The water is definitely rising, and I get the distinct impression that we're leaving Bangkok at the right time.
Not everybody is worried about the flooding, and this dog has at use found a use for all the sandbags lying around. In all seriousness, despite all the news reports indicating that Bangkok is in for a Rough few weeks, there's a kind of relaxed resignation in the faces of the people here, which is comforting to us, if not to them.
We spend the rest of the afternoon, which was exceedingly wet, sat under shelter by the poolside, playing cards. Kate didn't fare too well, as evidenced by this picture, but I'm sure she'll have her revenge soon enough.
A mad dash through the torrential rain, a soaking tuk-tuk ride that I could have sworn was heading away from the station, and a quick pre-boarding donut before we're finally on board yet another sleeper train. This one is very modern and we're right on the top bunks, but, as Kate is so gracefully demonstrating, they're comfy and clean.
Tomorrow we'll be in Surat Thani, on our way to Khao Sok National Park.