A slow boat through Bangkok

Yesterday I wanted to go into the western part of the city. It’s where most of the government offices are, the King’s palace is there, and there’s also a bustling tourist district there. But it’s for the newbie tourists. It’s all western and the markets are mostly just junk and cheap crap, but it’s still an interesting area, and the one most people visit if they come to Bangkok for a week or so. There were some markets near the King’s palace that sold guitars and musical instruments for insanely cheap prices, Kun John had assured me.

The most famous street in this area is Khou San Road, which is one of the main market streets and many of the tinier allies that branch off from there are full of fascinating little stalls, as well as being full of travel agents, tattoo parlours and other stuff. It feels so much like the tourist area of any Asian nation… the only thing that really changes is the style of vehicles and the locals who serve you.

While I was there on a particular mission, I did not have success in finding the promised area, which was apparently a little out of the way and down near a canal, so not really in the centre of this tourist block that I was in. But Khou San Road is such a bastion of Bangkok tourism that they sell “I <3 Khou San" T-shirts and every store tries to incorporate the street's name into their name or logo somehow. It's sort of an iconic little part of Bangkok, so I'm glad I went. I guess how I got there is as much of a story in itself. I'm not THAT far from Khou San, but the problem is, the public transit system isn't geared to get people from my part of town to that part of town easily. None of the Sky Train lines or subway lines go anywhere near that area, so other than taxi or maybe some horrible bus, the only way to get to Khou San road from central or Eastern Bangkok is via boat. I caught the subway from Huai Kwang as usual down to Sukkumvit (aka Asok if you're on the Sky Train) and then changed to the Sky Train, and caught that into the city centre proper, Siam. There I had to change to a different Sky Train track, which was tricky, but there are plenty of line maps around if you're careful, just keep in mind, there are two levels of Sky Trains in Asok, since four tracks meet in the one spot. From Siam, I caught the other Sky Train line to Saphan Taksim. There is a more convenient way to get there. The Sukkumvit line ends at Hua Lamphong, which is also right beside the river, but when I had discussed my trip with Kun John, the landlord, he insisted that despite the extra effort of taking three trains, it was really important that I catch the boat all the way from Saphan Taksin, so that I get to see as much of Bangkok via the river as possible, as he said it would be a shame to miss this extra few km of important river frontage. So I did all of the above, navigating the rail system like a bit of a local, and only once accidentally getting on the wrong direction's train in Siam, because it was on a line I wasn't familiar with, but it's no big deal because you can always just jump off and catch the reverse train back again. The boat was a bit weirder. There are a number of types of ferry terminals along the river, and when I got off the train at Saphan Taksin and followed the many signs that pointed towards the river saying "Ferry", I walked up to the first pier and some guy said "Where you go ?" and I said "King's palace" and he gestured off to the side. I sorta misinterpreted it as a "go ahead, that's the right boat in front of you" gesture, and I got on a boat which did nothing but go from one side of the river to the other, but it only cost 7 baht both ways and it was fun and I got a number of photos while the boat was slowly filling up. Some schoolgirls were all taking photos of each other on the boat together, and they kept looking at me, and I knew they wanted to take a photo but didn't want to be rude. After watching them do various things in attempts to casually capture me, I eventually smiled at them and lifted my camera and raised my eyebrows. They all smiled and gave me victory signs and I took a photo, and afterwards a couple of them took a photo of me on their phones. A little meeting of cultures I guess. We were both amused by each other, so we took photos of each other. Thai girls and crazy foreigner. Returning to the dock, I asked someone "Public Ferry ?" They pointed to an information booth. I knew that wasn't the public ferry because it was all in English and it advertised river tours and such, and I'd been specifically told to seek out the public ferry because it was cheap. I went up to the desk anyway to ask and said "I want to go Rama 8 bridge stop" and the woman said to me "No stop Rama 8. Stop 13 is Khou San Road. Close to Rama 8. 30 baht". Well, since that was actually where I wanted to go, and 30 baht is literally only a dollar, I didn't bother seeking out the public ferry, though I felt sort of annoyed stepping onto the boat and seeing it full of no Thai people at all, and just foreigners. This wasn't really the Bangkok experience I wanted. As it turned out it was ok though because a number of us went up to the front deck to take photos and video on various classes of camera and iPhones. There was a very beautiful couple of Asian girls there two who I was positive were Korean and while I was up there taking photos and milling around among the few passengers as we all swapped sides to get photos of all the sights I tried to muster the courage to talk to them. Eventually I had my chance because we'd just left stop 9, and it was the first stop at which the numbers were not printed in English, since normally every stopped was marked with the code N5, N7, N9 etc, alternating with each side of the river, although we mostly only stopped at the odd side stops. After stop 9 they were looking in concern at their map. Having spent some time analysing the map of the river, I had a fairly good idea of where I was, and I stepped closer and said "Which stop are you looking for ? 13 ?" thinking they might be headed for Khou San as well, but they said "No, 9". I said "I'm very sorry, but I'm quite sure we just left that stop. The numbers were in Thai only, but I have been counting the stops, and I think I also heard the announcer say Stop 9. I think you will have to get off at Stop 11 and go back". They looked a little crestfallen and worried, but at that moment the Thai announcer woman came out and called out to them "Where you go ?" and they said "Stop 9" and she told them exactly what I'd told them, except in much worse English. The two girls nodded and turned back to wait for us to get to the next odd numbered stop. We did stop at stop 10, but it was on the wrong side of the river, so they were waiting for stop 11 as I suggested. I took the opportunity to ask "Are you Korean ?" since I was fairly sure they were, although they had a third friend who had walked over and she looked much more distinctly Chinese. They smiled and the tall long haired girl said "No, we are from Hong Kong" and introduced herself. Sadly I don't recall her name because it was very unusual sounding and I didn't want to ask her to repeat it or write it down, but it was a pretty Chinese sounding name. I was quite amused. I'd finally met some genuine Hong Kong princesses. It was a shame they weren't headed where I was, because I would have loved to talk to them as they seemed incredibly charming (and I believe I mentioned, very beautiful), but they got off shortly after, so our conversation was brief. But I was at least left with a smile on my face, imagining the far-off island of Hong Kong where they lived. As it turns out, Masato (Sorry Masato, I've been spelling your name wrong all this time !) has just visited Hong Kong and Macau and said Hong Kong was absolutely wonderful and to his surprise, very cheap and comparable or cheaper than Bangkok but more beautiful with lots of glamorous tall skyscrapers. And coming from a Tokyo resident, that indicates they must be very impressive, and after his comments I must admit, I have been dreaming idly of Hong Kong. I mean, it's sort of China, but it's also some magical, special little isolated island version of it. It seems very attractive, especially after Masato told me how incredibly cheap everything was there. Arriving at stop 13, the last stop on the tourist route, I got off and looked at my map and just took a guess on where I best thought the area I wanted was. I wandered through a lot of street-side markets. Most of the shops in that area just open up onto the street to promote their goods to passers by. While I was keen to get where I wanted to go, I at least stopped to enquire about prices of a few items, and yes I bought a couple of things. Not "Oh my god, I absolutely must have that at any price" type things. Just a few things I thought were bargains, and yes, I admit, they were for Suki. I got a very pretty white Thai-style skirt as I'd seen many children wearing around Bangkok, which I was told would suit ages from about 7-10. Being only 199 baht I couldn't refuse that. I stopped at a place with a lot of very pretty Hello Kitty gear and I saw a pair of stretchy denim shorts with a very pretty Hello Kitty logo emblazoned on them. While I see Hello Kitty everywhere, nice denim shorts like this were something I hadn't run across before and I was quite interested, but the woman wanted 350 bath for them. Not standing for that though, I left with them for a mere 250 baht, which while being almost $7.80, seemed very good for such a nice pair of shorts. I also picked up another small Hello Kitty bag, only because it was an insanely cheap 199 baht despite seeming to be nice quality, while almost all other styles of the same bag were twice the price or more. I found Khou San Road, and it was, as I said, vibrant and fascinating. Now, I must say, I made a lot of people smile and a large number laugh that day, because I had recently dyed my hair a second time to the point where it and my beard were now bleached blonde and I'd spiked it all up, and I was also wearing my cat ears, since I'd gotten into the habit of wearing them pretty much 24/7 just because I enjoyed the way it made people in the street smile. I heard many old ladies break out into laughter and saw many more people just get a big amused grin on their face as I walked past. The foreigners didn't give two shits of course, it was just the Thai locals, thinking "Wow, we've got an unusual one in the street today". As I passed one tattoo parlour, a guy yelled out "Cool hair man !" and then an hour or so later when I came back down the street again, he yelled out "Hey man, come on, give you big discount because you have cool hair !" One woman at the 7/11 bent down to see under the overhanging counter above her and points at my head with a big grin and says "What this ?" and I just struck an anime-style cat pose and went "Nyao" and she burst into laughter with the biggest smile on her face. I guess I love being the centre of attention and I certainly was in Khou San road and surrounding areas that day, and it made me smile to see everyone amused and smiling at me. Oh, out of interest, I found out the Thai word for cat is basically the same as the Vietnamese word... it's "meow" ! Hahaha ! I did find one store selling guitars, but they were very expensive, starting at 5,500 baht for the cheapest nylon string classical, but they were indeed quality, while I was just looking for a cheap piece of crap to give to Kun John since his own guitar has broken beyond repair recently, no doubt due to the heavy use by the tenants, including myself. Sadly I never found a store that sold cheap enough guitars, but I am going to go out tomorrow, armed with the name of the canal street that I am to look for, written down in Thai, which is what I suggest anyone who ever visits Thailand do, because most people speak very minimal English, and getting directions out of people in English is next to impossible, so if you are going somewhere unusual or specific that you think you might have trouble finding, get your landlord or a local person to write down the name of the place and suburb on a piece of paper in Thai, becuase if you can show it to people in Thai you are far more likely to be directed to the right place, even if you have to ask at every street corner. While I knew I could buy a train ticket at Hua Lamphong, which was reasonable walking distance from Khou San, it would likely only get me to the border or Butterworth, since I knew that the Malaysian rail network only runs to Butterworth, ie Penang. I enquired at a couple of places and most said they could only sell me a train ticket to Butterworth, since they didn't have any connections to the Malaysian train network and suggested that if I wanted to book a journey all the way to KL I would have to go by bus. I laughed and said "Not a chance. No busses". I did find one guy who could book me both tickets, but when he showed me the train schedule it blew my mind. I had forgotten how far it was from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, being a couple of thousand km by train or road. I had gotten here in three short journeys; Kuala Lumpur to Penang in Malaysia (Butterworth), then Penang to Phuket in Thailand, then Phuket to Bangkok. So I had sort of forgotten how enormously long a journey it was to travel that distance through two countries and when I realised it would involve 24 hours train to Butterworth, then hours and hours wait before another train to Kuala Lumpur for another 12 hours or so, I quickly realised I would have to leave almost immediately and spend the rest of my time in Asia sitting on trains. No. That simply would not do. "How much to fly ?" I asked. "Air Asia ?" the young girl asked. I nodded. She got on the phone, checked, and typed into a calculator 5980 baht. I frowned and said "No. Sorry that's too much" and left. But knowing that travel agents often vary in commission, especially in a tourist area like this I asked at another, beside the guitar store. The guy was very friendly, and he stopped many times to help other customers, since my enquiry was more complex than theirs. One extremely cheery and long haired and well-travelled looking French guy dropped in to give the guy his mobile number to enquire about a long overseas boat trip. I didn't pick up his accent immediately and I asked "Where are you from ?" He chuckled and said "France" and I immediately felt stupid and said "I cannot believe I couldn't pick that. I'm from Australia", and he smiled at me. As he left he said "See you later David, take care" and I was quite startled. After he left, the travel agent guy said "Ahhh, that guy, he's a nice guy. I like him". It was at that moment that I remembered that my name was on his computer screen in the booking software, and the French guy was obviously so sharp that he out of interest, read the computer just to get my name. Sneaky observant French ! LOL ! Another guy came in to give the agent some sort of invoice or something, and they sat their talking and I saw the visitor's eyes glance in my direction and I caught the only two words I knew in his conversation: "falang ba". I may only know a dozen or so words of Thai but it just so happens I knew those well enough to catch them in conversation. It means "Crazy foreigner". I smiled at him but gave no other indication that I understood what he had said. I just loved that I happened to get what they were talking about. The guy was talking about me and saying I was weird looking to the travel agent guy. I just thought it was funny. Had I been able to say anything half intelligent in Thai, I would have, but I just kept silent and smiled instead. Anyway, after he left the agent said "Air Jordan has a promotion to Kuala Lumpur right now, only around 4000 on some days, but I checked and they are not flying on the 19th at all". I asked "How about the 20th ? My flight from Kuala Lumpur doesn't leave until the 21st anyway, but I just wanted to spend an extra day in Malaysia if I could". He checked and said "Yes, including commission I can get you onto that flight for 4,690 baht". I whistled between my teeth and said "That's still a lot of money, but that is a pretty good price to beat Air Asia by so much" and he said "Yes, this promotion is very cheap". Picturing that 40 hour train ordeal in my mind that was going to cost me at least 2,600 baht anyway in my head for a moment, I nodded and said "Yes. That is worth the extra money to not spend two days on the train. Book me on Air Jordan please". I do only have a 20kg weight limit, and I hope that's going to be enough for me, but most of the stuff I've bought isn't hugely heavy and I think I will probably squeeze in and at worst have to pay a tiny bit extra. He told me I would have to come back in two hours to pickup the ticket. I said "Why, if it's booked online ?" He said "Because you don't have your passport number with you, it's best I print you a ticket, otherwise they won't be sure it's really you at the airport when you check in". I nodded and sighed. I had already spent all day trudging around this area and I wanted to go home, but I resigned myself to another two hours. I wandered down a cute and green little side street a few blocks from Khou San that had some nice African or Easter Island style (or I guess Thai, as it seems) carved heads in various poses. Walking up and down, I found an attractive looking restaurant/bar and sat down to have a beer and took a lot of close-up photos of a number of cats in the street, wandering around looking for food scraps dropped by vendors. I'm starting to get quite a collection of photos of cats that I've photographed in Asia, which I will link you to at some point. Watching some European guy get delivered a very attractive looking steak and chips I realised it wouldn't be a bad idea to consider eating here. Looking at the menu, I skipped over all the western items that I knew would be expensive and settled on a Thai Beef Massaman Curry for only 100 baht. It turned out to be one of the absolutely most delicious Massamans I've had in my entire life, because other than the ones I cook at home, I often find the way restaurants cook them never meets my expectations, with strange ingredients or varying flavours of curry. But this one was exactly what a Massaman was supposed to taste like in my mind. The sauce was so deliciously creamy, and only midly spicy, but still with a very strong flavour and potent scent. I ate it with relish. The European guy, who I now suspected to be French had started chatting to a British guy at another table and something they said made me want to throw in a relevant comment, which I did, and the British guy and I immediately started a very intense conversation which continued after the French guy paid and left. Eventually a waitress gestured to the guy and suggested he move to my table rather than conduct a conversation across several tables, and he did. We talked for ages about culture. Asian, British, Australian, the price of life. The shit you always end up talking about when you talk to foreigners travelling through a distant country. You discuss things like political differences, cultural nuances and things that you love or hate about life in both your own country and the country you are visiting. Even after I finished eating and we both paid up, we kept talking, long past when I was supposed to pickup my ticket. But the conversation was so gripping and intense and the many Chang that we were putting away didn't help matters, that we ended up paying up once and then deciding to keep on drinking since our conversation wasn't at an end. The next thing I knew it was almost midnight and I said I had to go. Just before I left though, something amusing happened. Earlier in the evening, I had been watching amused at a small group of Japanese people at the next table, drinking beer from a huge tall cylinder that held several litres of beer. At one point I interrupted my conversation with the British guy because I was amused by how happy the Japanese were, and in a moment when they weren't talking, I greeted them in Japanese and asked how they were and introduced myself and in basic Japanese before reverting to English to talk to them about other things. I don't really remember what I talked to them about, but it's a pretty sure thing that I showed them Suki's tattoo on my arm. Heheh, there's honestly rarely ever a day goes by in Asia when I don't find some excuse to show her name to someone. If I ever needed something to keep her on my mind every day, I sure got that. But anyway, they left early in the night, and then just as I was about to leave, they walked back down the street and laughing and smiling they all yelled out to me from the street "Hey ! David ! Sayonara ! Goodbye ! Nice to meet you !". I laughed. I guess I made an impression on them, because they not only remembered my name, they made an effort to yell out and say goodbye later in the night after their bar-hopping adventures. Oh and when you look at the photo of them with their huge tower of beer, I bet you can easily tell why I wanted to take that photo. Because the girl in the white Thai blouse was absolutely bloody heart-achingly cute of course ! Kawaii Bishojo ! I checked, but as expected, the travel agent was closed, but I didn't care. I knew he was getting the ticket info via email and I had a receipt in my pocket that I knew would have the guy's phone number on it, so I would just ring him and ask him to email it to me. I found a motorbike guy and asked him to take me to Hua Lamphong station since it was late, and I didn't feel like trying to navigate the streets, especially since my Galaxy Tab's 3G credit had run out and I could only get medium-detail maps, making navigating tiny back streets more difficult. I was unhappy at paying 100 baht to get to Hua Lamphong, but not anywhere near as unhappy as I was when I got there only to find the train station closed. I had once asked Stefan "The trains here run late, right ?" and he'd said "Yes of course". Uhhh... no. Every train stops at midnight. I was there at half past midnight and the station was full of people sleeping, waiting for the first 5am train in the morning. Wondering why there was literally almost hundreds of people sleeping at the train station, I later learned that it is because the first train of the morning is free, and that's why many poorer people just sleep overnight at the station to catch the free train in the morning. Wondering what to do, I looked around. A taxi driver approached me, but I was fearful. Taxis were mostly expensive and I was a LONG way from home in Bangkok terms, so I was reluctant to even talk to him, thinking that surely there must be some way home. But when I told him I wanted to go back to Huai Kwang in Rachada area, he said "No problem. Only 200 baht". This seemed like an absolute bargain compared to the 100 baht I'd just been charged to go less than 1km on a motorbike, so I said "Really ? 200 baht to Huai Kwang ? Sure ?" and he said "Yes 200 baht". As it turns out, the city is surprisingly quiet at night. I later learned it's because Bangkok is not a 24 hour city like you might expect. All entertainment venues close at a mandated 2am, and trains stop at midnight in order to help the taxi business get extra fares and also to discourage people from late night activities. I know... hard to imagine in a city of pleasure like Bangkok that they would stop the trains at midnight and shut down all bars at 2am, but that is in fact what happens. So the trip home, via some of the non-toll freeways high above the city was quick and I was home in almost no time. Only Kun John was outside, and he said "How was your trip ?" I said "The river was more beautiful than I expected, and Khou San was very interesting, but I never found the markets that you said sell guitars unfortunately, so all I got was a few things for my daughter and a plane ticket to Malaysia". "Ahhh. I didn't give you good enough directions then" he said. "I will write it for you if you want to go again, and then someone can show you or you can take a taxi". It seems I'd missed all my alcoholic, crazy or sex-addicted neighbours by not long. Perhaps they all retired to bed early because they missed my company hahah. I talked to Kun John for 30 or 40 minutes and while we chatted, a loud "SNAP!" sound could be heard from the kitchen. John sat up suddenly and said "I've got him ! The rat !". Because there'd been a rat in the kitchen lately and most of us had seen it at some point, so John had set a trap, and successfully caught the rat, only quite a small little thing with some meat in a large wire cage. I'll add the photo to the end of this article because we were so proud at having finally caught this furry little menace, which John then released over the edge of the balcony. I headed to bed myself and spent a little while chatting and processing photos before slipping off to sleep beside my laptop. I tend to keep all my most valuable things on the bed beside me at night because I just feel safer knowing that when I wake up, I can see that everything important is where it should be. Hopefully I never roll over and break my laptop or tablet or something hehe, but I don't move around in my sleep that much, having shared a double bed for so many years and always having a particular "side" I sleep on. So anyway, below you will find a large range of photos of the day's excursion into Khou San Road area via the lovely Chao Phraya River through the western part of Bangkok City. If you are in the city, I recommend you do take the ferry up the river at least once because it is a beautiful mode of transport, and Bangkok's riverside has some very nice architecture and sights worth seeing for the lowly price of only 30 baht. Oh, and don't forget the rat trap photo at the end though I will have to upload it later. Hahaha. Furry little bastard. Shame I didn't catch him. After all, I'm the lodge's resident cat, aren't I ? [pe2-gallery album="aHR0cDovL3BpY2FzYXdlYi5nb29nbGUuY29tL2RhdGEvZmVlZC9iYXNlL3VzZXIvcGF3emxpb24vYWxidW1pZC81NzIwODQ2MDMyMDg4NjA4MDk3P2FsdD1yc3MmYW1wO2hsPWVuX1VTJmtpbmQ9cGhvdG8="]

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