Wednesday, 26 June 2013

An Egg and a Golden Budda

The Golden Budda at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, is located in the valley of the Chao Phraya River. It is a place I had never before heard of but, after reading rave reviews in the guidebooks, we decided to make the short journey out of Bangkok. 

It is a city said to offer religious retreat and magnificent monuments which celebrate its past splendor as King U Thong’s old kingdom. And indeed it is worth the day trip.

To get there we boarded the rustic, and very rickety, train from Bangkok's Hualamphong station. Once aboard, this served as a cultural experience itself. Young people, old people, farmers, workers, children, business men, everyone crammed into the carriages not caring who were they sitting on or next to.

Despite the noise and calamity, I did a usual Bex and fell asleep in minutes. Jenna later described how people watched with intrigue as I lolled around my seat and created a wave of hilarity when finally, I dove head first into the train window. I immediately awoke with a throbbing pain in my head and embarrassment snaking up to my face as numerous little Thai faces stared back stifling their giggles. Crazy tourists.

When we arrived in Ayutthaya around 2 hours later, I was sporting an egg-sized lump in the middle of my forehead and a slight headache. 

However, we were still swarmed by a flurry of men all offering their services as our personal tuk-tuk drivers for the day. Ayutthaya was once one of the most prosperous cities in Thailand and so has numerous temples, palaces and ruins to visits. A driver can chauffeur you around your hotspots of choice and deliver you back at the train station for less than 100 baht each.

Looking back I have no recollection of our driver's real name but to us he was Enrique. His all black and extremely tight attire, combined with his sexy swagger beckoned for a more wholesome (slash sexy) name. Appearances aside, Enrique was the perfect guide. He took us to the temples he thought would interest us the most, chose a gem of a restaurant for our lunch and delivered us back to Ayutthaya's train station in time for the last train. 

We began at Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon or “The Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory”. After all the temples that followed, this one still remains my favourite. I like to think it was because of the dozens of ornate buddas that lined the temples walls, and the enchanting golden budda that lay in wait at the top of the never-ending staircase, but really it was because of the giant Mulan-styled bell I got to gong. Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon is a truly stunning and serene place to enjoy some Thai history and culture.

We then crossed the city to Wat Mahathat. These beautiful grounds are home to the ancient temple ruins but they also a harbour a hidden treasure. Embedded into the roots of a fig tree, a stone Budda's head sits peacefully at the base. This bizarre but beautiful image is certainly one to behold and enshrines the magical spirit of Thailand.

There were numerous other temples that Enrique whizzed us by, such as Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit and Wat Thammikarat, but it was a relaxing moment when we finally collapsed back into the tuk-tuk and headed back to the station. 

The May heat makes tourist touting an exhausting and sticky affair. So, while we could have spent hours more exploring the Ayutthaya’s extensive beauty, it was time for us to board that train and nestle back against the window.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Let's begin our Thai love-in ♥

The Grand Palace, Bangkok

Awakening one cold, March morning to snowflakes trickling down my window and an icy chill seeping though my door, I had a thought. A thought so clear and so profound that I rang my friend Jenna right away and told her...“I want to go to Thailand”. “OK”, she said and two months, and £400, later we were on a plane heading for the land of smiles.

When I arrived in Bangkok I wasn’t met with the white, sandy beaches and beaming sunshine I had envisioned. The capital city was stifling and crowded, overspilling with an array of colour and smell. Such an overwhelming welcome had me questioning if Thailand would be to my liking, but all it takes is a few hours of this crazed wonder before Bangkok becomes your wild playground.  

Make-shift tables perch on each street corner selling questionable meats and multi-coloured juices. Crazed drivers dart every which way across the roads leaving trails of raucous noise behind them. This was Bangkok.

Myself and Jenna were in culture shock mode. Luckily, we quickly made the acquaintance of a young man named Michael who was staying in our hostel. He versed us in the art of bartering, told us how no tuk tuk ride should cost more than 50 baht and, most importantly, showed us how to sneak into 5 star hotels. 

It was vital we found some refuge from the heat and, with no relief in sight, it seemed the only option was to put on our rich girl facades and saunter into Hotel Marino. We took the lift to the fifth floor and dove straight into the infinity pool- yass. As good a hostel as We Bangkok was, it just didn’t offer the 5 star facilities these two girls needed. Ooh such rebels we were.

After Michael left, Jenna and I had to fend for ourselves. The Grand Palace was our first calling point alone. It is a shining, gold hub of pavilions showcasing impeccable detail. Entry was 400 baht (£8) and worth visiting as an ice breaker to Thai culture. But, be warned, in many Thai attractions it is compulsory that you cover yourself from top to toe. In scorching temperatures this is not ideal.

After we had sweated off a bucket we shed the layers and walked 20 minutes to the coolest place in town; Khao San Road

Over the last 30 years, what was once a quiet, residential area has become one of the most famous streets in the city. Restaurants and bars litter the roadside and stalls offering clothes and trinkets spill out onto the narrow street. There is a great vibe in Khao San Road day or night making it a popular hang-out for tourists. 

However, it is strongly recommended that you do not stay here. Hostel prices are steep for some of the worst accommodation and it doesn’t exactly ooze safety. Staying slightly further out means you can get cheaper and cleaner accommodation but still be in tuk tuk distance to everything you need. 

Speaking of cheap, there are many tacky stereotypes that hound any Bangkok stay. A ladyboy show, a ping pong show...yes, we did both and neither were worth it. Save yourself the time, money and rosy (facial) cheeks and avoid.

There are a few unique things that you really must do though. Visiting the Banyan Tree is one of them. This top hotel is one of the tallest buildings in Thailand and offers a view that stretches right across the city. No need to sneak into this one, they allow visitors to visit their rooftop bar as long as you don’t mind surrendering your shoes at the door and donning a pair of old man mules.

A floating market is also a vital activity, even if it is just to watch how many tipsy tourists topple overboard. It does mean an early rise and wearing a somewhat sexy hat- the thai like donning tourists in random garments. However, it is worth it to sample the crazy chaos of a Bangkok market.  

Most people travelling Thailand make Bangkok their arrival point. This means that agents are scattered throughout all competing to offer the best price to get you to your next destination. Putting Michael’s pointers to good use, we bartered our way to Chiang Mai. BEX FYI (courtesy of michael): bartering is key and the only way you’re gonna get by in Thailand is to barter the hell out of everything.

Bangkok is a stifling city that often leaves you hankering for a breath but it is colourful and exotic in every way. While it may not be to everyone’s liking, and certainly isn’t the best of Thailand, it is where every Thai love-in needs to start.