We flew into Bangkok and took a taxi to the Viva Garden Hotel, situated about 15 miles out of the city. We were welcomed into the unexpectedly posh hotel and taken up to our room that had a balcony and little kitchenette which we were delighted with. We’d been advised to buy our drinking water from any 711 – to avoid getting stomach upsets. The staff were extremely courteous. The concierge, who spoke fairly good English, appeared to have many jobs, from carrying bags to booking trips and tours. He was a chubby bloke and his uniform wouldn’t have looked out of place in a good old British panto. Basic brown, trimmed with gold brocade and epaulettes and to top it all off a little pill box hat. We christened him, affectionately, Buttons. Ray made the huge mistake of tipping Buttons when he brought up our bags with the equivalent of half a weeks wage. Another currency clanger. Over the next couple of days in order to avoid his unwanted attention we sidled out the back door, crept around by the pool and waited until his back was turned to rush through the reception area to make our escape. Like a meerkat he was on full alert and became a complete and utter pain in the neck. We booked a guide to take us on a tour of the Temples and he arrived bright and early with an air conditioned taxi. The young man spoke very good English and spent the next five hours doing just that, talking non stop. On the journey to the first temple he regaled us with his own history, where he’d come from, where his family came from, they were peasant farmers and that was all hugely interesting.
The heat was oppressive. We had to pay a small entrance fee to get into the Temple of the Golden Buddha, which was impressive, standing several metres high. Our guide gave us a detailed history. I’d worn a skirt, so as not to offend by turning up in the wrong shorts or trousers but I was wearing a sleeveless top (wrong) due to the scorching temperature. The temples are equipped for every eventuality and at the entrance there were women on hand to take your money and allow you to dip into a basket of clothes they offer to unsuitably clad tourists. I was given a cotton shawl type thing to cover up my shoulders and arms. Also, we had to remove our shoes, which was fine. I wandered into the temple where a few people were on their knees praying before a flower adorned alter. My view was interrupted when this huge bloke stood in front of me. Glancing down I noted that his feet were something to behold and had to smile to myself. If anybody was offending Buddha’s eyes surely it would have been him with his mis-shapen, disgusting trotters and a beer-belly hanging out of his Hawaiian shirt, and not me with my slim shoulders and slightly flabby upper arms. Perhaps Buddha doesn’t take into account the whole person!
This country has hawkers on every corner and when we came out of the Temple a dodgy looking bloke masquerading as a photographer came up to us trying to flog a tacky badge with a picture of us in it. We hadn’t asked for it. The guide advised us to give him half of what he asks for and seemed reluctant to get involved. He did tell us later that they wouldn’t think twice about beating him up. We did as he suggested. We spent the next couple of hours in and out of temples and for the most part it was fascinating but it was just so hot. Most of the Buddha statues were covered in gold leaf. The huge Buddha was made of solid gold and had been found buried some seven hundred years ago but nobody knew where it had been made or by whom!
A few monks in orange robes were in evidence around the temples. Our guide told us that every young man, as part of their Buddhist faith, was expected to spend some time in a monastery. The length of time you spent there very much depended upon your station in life. If your parents are poor and need you to work on the land then you might only have to attend for one week. If your parents can afford it you might be sent for six months or a year. You lead a life of frugality and prayer. He said that his mother was keen for him and his two brothers to attend to ensure her passage into the afterlife. He explained. Once she dies she will have to go into somewhere like limbo and wait for the passing of one of her sons; he then guarantees her admission into the promised land or whatever their equivalent is. Like all religions it’s man made and leaning fairly heavily to the male of the species. I did light an incense burner and say a prayer for my mum and dad and Ray’s mum, which I usually do whenever I’m in a church and not because I believe in any higher deity in particular. But, you never know.
On route back to the hotel we were taken to a gold shop, stuffed full of expensive jewellery and then to a place where you could have a suit made. We didn’t particularly want to go to either but I guessed that the guide was getting a back hander to deliver unsuspecting tourists. The guy in the suit shop, doing all the talking, was an English/Asian and even if I’d wanted a suit I wouldn’t have bought it there. He was so pushy and quite rude.
Back to the hotel and we had something to eat and a very pleasant swim in the pool. Ray was keen to go the Bridge on the River Kwai the next day, but it was quite far. We looked at our various options. We could go by train or bus; unfortunately the public transport didn’t look like somewhere I wanted to be trapped in for up to three hours, along with chickens and goats, so we decided to book a guided air conditioned taxi. Buttons organised it for us and I’m sure the couple who turned up were his relatives. I think we got ripped off but the car was modern, clean and cool and that suited me fine. The previous day, although we liked our man he talked us to death.
The journey took around two and half hours and we watched the same scenery zip by. Built up areas full of buildings and cranes and the blanched, uninteresting countryside with lots of rubber and banana trees. Our guide, although very smiley and pleasant spoke very little on the journey and her husband doing the driving didn’t speak at all, which suited me fine.
On our way to the Bridge we stopped off at the famous Floating Markets, well advertised and somewhere ‘you should go.’ We were dropped at the busy market area and our guide bustled us through several stalls to the riverside where our boat was waiting. We were shown to a canoe type boat and the man rowing paddled us away through the floating stalls, which are set up so that you can approach them quite easily. The goods were mostly over priced bric-a-brac that you could live without. The stall owners, many of them elderly women who didn’t look short of a few quid, with nice hair styles, good clothes and faces made up, sat with a big hook and if they saw a boat passing with likely customers (mugs) they hooked you in. When you said you didn’t want anything they were visibly annoyed. Other boats had 6-8 people in and were powered with huge outboard engines; Ray pointed out that they were actually car engines, so the whole place was noisy and a bit smelly with petrol fumes belching out. I bought a few items, cheap souvenirs and again knew that I’d been ripped off.
When we got off the boat our guide was no where to be seen and I was desperate for the toilet. We wandered around the land market and finally discovered a woman with a table on which sat a bucket for money and a few toilet rolls. She took our money and pointed to a makeshift building with a basin and tap outside. Inside the cubical there was a fairly high step with what looked like a huge basin with foot holders either side, in which to place ones feet, and a bucket of water in the corner with a big ladle, and not a toilet roll in sight. What the heck! There was nothing for it… I stepped up and carefully turned around and tried to crouch down without wetting everything in the process. Task completed I hopped down without breaking anything and proceeded to slop water into the bowl from said bucket. I left and washed my hands in the little sink outside then shook them out to dry. Ray had taken one look in his cubicle and decided he could hang on. The woman sitting at the table who’d happily taken my money smiled as I passed by and had there not been a language barrier I might have asked about the loo paper, or lack of, and the need for a sign indicating that people of a certain age may find the terrain a tad difficult.
Our guide found us and she’d bought more bottled water which we appreciated and also some sweet pastries which were actually very good. We proceeded with our journey and our next short stop was a memorial ground dedicated to the British soldiers who’d died during World War II, many on the building of the Burma to Thailand railway. All of the memorial grounds are extremely well kept.
Bridge on the River Kwai:
It was Sunday and the place was packed with a mix of nationalities. There appeared to be lots of young Thai people out enjoying their week end; they were loud and laughing while on the bridge. Ray thought they didn’t seem very respectful of the place and what it represented. Perhaps not, but then again they probably hadn’t bothered to look into the history. The bridge has probably got a few of the original beams on it but it has been re-built to look more or less how it was and again it’s a real money spinner.
We had our meal on the floating restaurant overlooking the river and it was fab. From the waitresses dressed in their beautiful traditional outfits to the sumptuous buffet. There really was something for everyone. The place was busy but very well catered and we enjoyed our lunch and pleased that we could at last get a taste of Thailand from the aromatic rice to the spicy meats and sweet sweet deserts. By the time we got back to the car we were about done in and I slept most of the way home (so did our guide).
That evening Ray said he was going to walk across the road to the 711 to get some water and a few odds and ends and I fell asleep. When he came back it was dark and it seemed he’d been gone a long time. He said it was like venturing out into the black hole of Calcutta, the whole place was teeming with people on every mode of transport imaginable and the shops were flogging everything and anything on the hot, dirty, noisy street. Our hotel was totally at odds with its surroundings. I can only imagine the land they built on was much cheaper than closer to the capital. To get to the other side of the street there was an overhead bridge, which formed part of the railway station, situated fairly close by and that proved to be the only safe method of getting across the road.
On our second afternoon we’d come back to the hotel and were just sitting on the balcony when there was an almighty bang; it sounded like a bomb had gone off. Given the area I wouldn’t have been surprised. The electricity in the region had given up the ghost and we were left in the dark that evening. The staff were fantastic and couldn’t do enough for us. The meals in the restaurant were complimentary as were the drinks. They did have a generator and managed to get things into action on the ground floor but our rooms didn’t have any power and the only thing we were bothered about was the air con. We went to bed about 11.00 pm and noticed that poor old Buttons was running in circles trying to please everyone. We were in bed, sweating cobs, and around 2.00 am there was a knock at the door… Ray got up and answered it in his pants and there stood Buttons with a big fan! Now that’s what you call service – but being English I’m afraid that his attention to detail had only managed to really get on my nerves.
Next day when we checked out the staff couldn’t have been more apologetic and refunded us one night’s stay for all the inconvenience, which we hadn’t expected. Taking a good look around as we left the hotel I wasn’t in the least bit surprised that the electricity went bang… looking at the mish mash of wiring threading it’s way in and out of crumbling buildings and the thick bundles of cables strung between telegraph poles, not ten feet above your head, would have been enough to send any self respecting electrician into melt down. Dangerous wasn’t the word.
Our brief encounter with Thailand probably didn’t do it justice for us, probably because by that time we were a little travel weary and just wanted to get home.
The flight home passed without incidence. We were on one of the double decker sky buses. Arriving back to the gloom of a cold November morning at Heathrow Airport was quite welcoming. We hired a car to drive back to Cornwall and arrived in Newlyn late that afternoon. Our little house was still standing and all I wanted to do was get into my own bed and sleep, which I did.
To say we’d had a wonderful journey doesn’t come close but the best thing of all was getting to see Charlotte for an extended period and take time to get to know her lovely boyfriend, Brian. We’ve spent the winter harking back to our adventures and we’ve enjoyed that too. I’m almost certain that we shall be heading down under again in the not too distant future.