Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Grand Palace

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The final full day in Bangkok was reserved for the most famous attraction – the Grand Palace. A large complex full of impressive stately buildings built with a blend of traditional and European styles, it does live up to its name.

The complex features several temples, pavilions, buildings and a museum. However, when you look at the complex from a distance on the north side, you can’t miss a massive golden dome looming over the walls.

This is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha or Wat Phra Kaew. The Emerald Buddha is a seated Buddha indeed made from green jasper and cloaked in gold. It was actually taken from the Cambodians when Thailand captured Angkor Wat in 1432. However it was made long before that, supposedly having been created in India in 43 BC!
The temple has very beautiful buildings as well, with fine towering domes and spires and exquisite figures and wall decor, as well as the massive gold stupa that can be seen from outside.
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Emerald Buddha
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Though inside the palace complex, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is separated from the other palace buildings so you only enter the palace proper after leaving the temple. There are a lot of traditional Thai-style buildings, pavilions and shrines, as well as a large outdoor model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, which was occupied by Thailand for a time in the past (this sense of ownership from the Thais over such a famous historical site that is clearly another country’s shocked me a little). The palace was built in the late 18th century but there are also some European-style buildings that were constructed during the 19th century and later.

The centerpiece of the complex is the Chakri Maha Prasat, a large stately hall that combines a European facade with Thai-style roofs. Besides the fact it looks impressive (see the photo at the top of this post), it was surprising to come upon such a large European-style structure, which kind of gives off the effect of suddenly being somewhere in Europe. The open space and landscaped garden in front of it adds to the feeling. As magnificent as it is, it’s too bad tourists cannot go inside. The place is walled off and guarded by stern sentries.

As the royal family doesn’t actually live here anymore (they moved out in 1925 to another palace in Bangkok), the Grand Palace is actually a symbolic site that may sometimes receive foreign dignitaries.

This is one touristy place that is definitely worth enduring the crowds for. The palace is located near the Chao Phraya riverbank and across from Wat Pho.
After leaving the Grand Palace, I took a river-taxi, then transferred to a subway and to a mall, my one and only mall visit in Southeast Asia. Later that evening, I went to check out one of the city’s “notorious” areas which was indeed eye-opening (though not the extreme kind).
And that was it for me in Thailand and Southeast Asia as I left the next day to go back to Taiwan.

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Main hall that houses the Emerald Buddha 
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A kinnara, half-bird, half man figures who are lovers and musicians and are featured in both Buddhism and Hindu mythology. I’d seen this in Cambodia as well.
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Large model of Angkor Wat, which is in Cambodia but was occupied by Thailand in the past
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Chakri Maha Prasat
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Museums, above and below
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Exit of the palace 

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Chao Phraya River

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Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river curves along the city, bisecting the old western part Thonburi from the more populated and bustling eastern part. The Chao Phraya is more than a pretty sight as it is a marine motorway that allows travelers to get to several places like the Grand Palace and Wat Arun easily. Boat ferries run along the river regularly, plying five routes from the morning to the late evening. Several of the piers are just a short walk from subway stations. For me, it was the easiest way to get to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Khao San Road so I took the ferry every day I was there, which was a pleasant experience. You get to see fantastic views of Bangkok including modern skyscrapers and hotels and old temples and forts. Along the way, there are smaller canals that link to the river and ferries run on those as well. The river fort above is near the Phra Arthit ferry pier, which is close to Khao San Road.

Wat Arun
The most stately sight is Wat Arun, a large domed temple prominently situated right by the riverside on the opposite side of Wat Pho (a few minutes from Tha Tien pier). I passed it by several times but unfortunately I didn’t actually visit it since I was short of time.
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Elegant historic buildings line the river, from river forts to European-styled churches to Chinese temples and pagodas.
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Side-canal

Modern skyscrapers line part of the river’s banks, reminding you that Bangkok is a modern metropolis. For some reason, the sight of tall towers lining a river reminds me of Miami.
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Besides tourism, the river is also a transportation route, as these mighty cargo barges, above and below, attest.
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Riverside exercising in the evening by Phra Arthit pier
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Hostel by Khao San Road- I’m not sure if that is just a temple facade or a real temple at the side of that building.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Chinatown and Chatuchak Market

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Bangkok has a historic Chinatown in a district called Yaowarat where Chinese immigrants have lived since the late 18th century. There’s also a “Little India” nearby. However I may have picked the wrong day to visit, since when I went on Sunday, many of the shops were closed and the neighborhood was very quiet. As with the “Chinatown” in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, the Chinese influence isn’t that physically apparent, but rather understated. There are many gold shops, that being something a lot of Chinese and Indians like, and restaurants, but a lot of the area is a bit rundown.

While we missed out on experiencing the bustling character of the area, the highlight was several unique temples. While none of them were Chinese, it was unique to see such temples within such a dense urban neighborhood.
Wat Traimit features the world’s largest seated Buddha at 5 meters. The Buddha sits in a hall on the top level of an impressive gold-topped building that also features a small museum about Yaowarat’s Chinatown and the Chinese immigration on the lower levels.
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The world’s largest seated Buddha, located on the top floor of Wat Traimit

Wat Samphanthawongsaram Worawiharn was another nice temple, despite its long unwieldy name. A “third grade royal temple” that was granted royal status in 1795, it features a main hall with several golden Buddha statues, a teak house and a few small pavilions.

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We then walked through an enclosed market lane wedged between buildings. There were many stalls and shops in the lane, though the market looked as if it was still getting ready for the night.

While doing a little bit of research online, I’d heard of a temple with crocodiles inside. After going to Wat Traimit and Wat Worawaiharn, then walking through the market, we neared the river. I feared we’d miss the crocodile temple but then I saw a temple to the side. As we walked to it, a guy saw us and said “crocodile!” so that was that. Wat Chakkawat Rachawat was a tree-lined complex with a large hall with a Buddha. It also has crocodiles – several of them, with one being very massive. You can see it below but the photo doesn’t do it any justice.
Besides the crocodiles, the temple features several distinctive domed stupas and buildings with different styles.
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We then left Yaowarat by boat on the Chrao Praya river for Khao San Road where my friend and the other people were staying.
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Chatuchak Market

Earlier that day, I had met up with my friend, one of the mainlanders I’d met back in HCMC, in Chatuchak Market. It’s a large market that sells everything from clothes to souvenirs to food and even weapons which you’ll see in the photos below.

That weapons stall was filled with knives, cutlasses, brass knuckles, ninja stars and even a taser which worked. It shows how relaxed Bangkok is that one can sell so many deadly implements in full view. The vendor allowed us to hold them and pose, as well as use the taser (though not on a person of course).

The market is big and consists of several sections that sell different things. One can easily get lost in it. Actually, I’d arrived early and at the scheduled exit, I saw my friend walking towards me with a security guard who had led him to the location. We walked around and then bumped into the other mainlanders who my friend was staying with. They had all come over together from Cambodia.
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Yes, these are all real.
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The gate to Chinatown
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Most of the neighborhood was laidback like this.
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A bank with elaborate Chinese dragons and Thai garuda (half-man, half-bird and the country’s royal emblem)
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Chinese arriving in Bangkok in the 19th century, in a photo displayed in the mini musuem inside Wat Traimit.
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Inside Wat Samphanthawongsaram Worawiharn’s main hall DSC06539
One of Wat Chakkawat’s smaller crocodiles
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Pavilion inside Wat Chakkawat’s grounds

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok photo roundup – Wat Pho, National Museum

Here’re several more photos of Wat Pho and Bangkok National Museum, and the park and street nearby.


Wat Pho

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Reclining Buddha’s feet
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Street outside of Wat Pho; the houses look a little European


Bangkok National Museum

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Painting of a battle with the Burmese
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Statue of Vishnu, a Hindu god
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Ivory sculptures with Buddha engraved on them
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Diorama of a battle against, who else, the Burmese. Notice how both sides used war elephants.

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Sanam Laung park, outside of the Grand Palace
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Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel – Wat Pho and National Museum

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After arriving in Bangkok the day before and watching Muay Thai live at night, I spent my first full day visiting Wat Pho and the museum. This required taking a rivertaxi on the Chao Phraya river as there are no subway stations near Wat Pho, which is near the Grand Palace. It was a pleasant journey, taking in interesting sights like highrises, riverfront temples, fort and Wat Arun, a domed Buddhist temple, on the opposite side of the river. Wat Pho is one of the largest temples or wats in Bangkok, and it’s where the Reclining Buddha is. As the name suggests, it’s an enormous statue of the Buddha reclining on his side, housed inside a complex within the temple grounds. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the Reclining Buddha is probably as big as a small airliner, as you can see from the photos.
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Around the grounds, there’re many beautiful stupas (holy mounds inside which are Buddhist relics) which are probably the most impressive sights next to the Reclining Buddha. There are a few stupas that are exquisitely covered with colored tiles. At several gates you’ll see giant Chinese-looking stone guards.

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There is a main hall building in which the main centerpiece is a golden seated Buddha seated on a tiered platform.
The temple is also a main school of traditional Thai massage and it’s possible to get a massage there, however I didn’t get one. Wat Pho is a beautiful complex that is also good to walk around in, so don’t miss it if you visit the Grand Palace.

After Wat Pho, it was already 3 (I left late in the morning) so I didn’t have enough time to go to the Grand Palace. I went to the Bangkok National Museum instead.

It was a decent museum though a bit old and not very modern in terms of the rooms and displays. I was a bit underwhelmed. The museum seemed neglected considering how fancy or modern attractions and facilities like the Grand Palace and Wat Pho and the airport and malls were.

Starting off, I learned a great deal about Thai history from the displays that featured impressive dioramas and paintings (similar to the museums in Vietnam). Thailand originally began as a kingdom centered on the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukothai before Bangkok, built in 1785 making it a relatively young city in Asia. Wars against Burma, now Myanmar, were a constant part of Thai history, and the Burmese even conquered Thailand briefly in the 16th century.

There was a nice weapons display, with the most impressive exhibits being a mock war elephant and some menacing long bladed spears. Other display rooms included ivory, Buddhas, music instruments, and palanquins, on which the king, queen and other nobles were carried on and hoisted by servants.
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In addition to the main building and display rooms, there were a few separate attractive structures. There is a Buddhist chapel that is a vast hall overlooked by a Buddha seated on a throne. In the lawn stands a statue of Vishnu holding a bow and arrow, a red teak house and some of the fanciest garden shelters I’ve ever seen.
I probably saw about 90 percent of the museum before I had to go since it was closing time. I took a walk by the large public park nearby, Sanam Luang, which neighbors the Grand Palace and gives you a nice view of the tops of the buildings inside.
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Buddhist chapel with a seated Buddha, National Museum
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Main building of the National Museum DSC06338
Palanquin room
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Outdoor pavilion on the National Museum grounds
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Main hall in Wat Pho that houses the seated Buddha belowDSC06229 
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Entrance to Wat Pho
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Red teak house at the National Museum
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This was one of the few non-stern door guards, but a little creepy.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Bangkok travel -Muay Thai live at Lumpinee

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In my previous post, I spent a lot of time talking about how I didn’t quite like Bangkok, starting from the very first day. However, one of the highlights of Bangkok also happened on that first day as I got to see Muay Thai live at the Lumpinee Stadium.

Muay Thai or Thai kickboxing  is one of the most famous martial arts in the world. As the name says, it involves punching and kicking, but also elbows and knees, which is why muay Thai is also known as the art of eight limbs (arms, legs, elbows and knees). It can be extremely devastating, as MMA (mixed martial arts) fans would know since kickboxing is one of the more common forms used by fighters such as UFC ex-champions Anderson Silva and Shogun Rua.
I’ve watched muay Thai fights online and the name Lumpinee Stadium often featured as the “mecca” of the sport. When I got the chance to go to Bangkok, I thought I’d make it to a muay Thai fight at Lumpinee. And by coincidence, that was how I broke the ice with my taxi driver on the way to my hotel the day I arrived.

Fights at Lumpinee take place three nights a week, and luckily for me, that day, Friday was one of them. I was dead tired for some reason so I took a long nap, then headed out in the evening on the subway, which turned out to be another annoyance.

Now, Bangkok has two rapid transit train systems – one is the subway and the other is the Skytrain. While they intersect at certain points, one needs to get off and transfer. And one also needs a separate fare. In the most inefficient way to do this, there is a machine to buy the fare but it only accepts coins. If you don’t have any, you need to line up at a service counter to exchange your bills into coins. As it was Friday evening, there were a lot of people and the lineup was long.

I reached the station by Lumpinee Stadium, itself called Lumpinee, and walked to the arena. I almost missed it as I walked a bit too far, then realized it was also on the other side of the street. Alas, it wasn’t a stadium, but a mid-sized arena. When I got inside, I was quite disappointed because it seemed like a rundown gymnasium rather than a world renowned fighting arena. The “stadium” was quite small and the total capacity could not be more than a few thousand. To be honest, that would be the last time that night I’d feel disappointed as the fights turned out to be good and the atmosphere ecstatic at times.

However, you can’t visit that place again because it’s been closed. The authorities have built a new Lumpinee Stadium at another location which opened earlier this year and which presumably is far more modern.

I bought my ticket, the third-class one which was the cheapest. But as I was a foreigner, I had to pay over 900 baht or $30, which is at least 5 times more than a local. It is marked in English (the foreigner price, not the local price) and as I was directed to a booth by a staff speaking English, they definitely could tell I wasn’t Thai.

I walked in, past security and people handing out flyers. I approached the railings to look down onto the ring and there was a boxing match going on. As I had come in before the official starting time, I was confused and asked a white guy nearby. He replied “sorry, I don’t speak English” in a Russian accent, which explained why.

I walked up to the railing and I had a clear, almost unobstructed view of the ring so I continued to stand during the whole show. Because this was the cheap section, there were no individual seats, but just long flat concrete levels, which is similar to say, secondary (high) school stadiums in Trinidad. Behind me, there the section was actually half empty, but the next one was packed. As the night went on, that would be where the frenetic gambling action would go on.

Right below was a VIP section for the event organizers and officials. A set of older gentlemen and several women, all in suits and business outfits, sat in this section. Every time someone entered the section, he or she would give a bow with hands clasped together upright in the traditional Thai way (known as wai), and receive them in return. The ringside seats had a noticeable number of Westerners. I would have been tempted to be in those seats too, if the price hadn’t been so exorbitant – keep in mind, my lowly third-class ticket was already $30.

Eventually it was clear the boxing bout was just an exhibition. The first real fight soon started and there would be about 11 more for the night.

Each match was preceded by an elaborate ceremony involving the two fighters – the Wai Khru. Both fighters would get into the ring, heavily garlanded, and go to all four sides and bow, then get in the center and do a rhythmic routine involving whirling fists and swaying their bodies which ended with getting onto the knees. Whilst on one knee, the fighter would sway back and forth extending his arms and rolling his fists, while tapping the floor with his other foot extended behind him. It was an impressive sight, almost as interesting as the fights themselves.

At the side of the ring, a band played continuously that included drums and a string instrument that sounded like an erhu (Chinese violin-like instrument). During the fights, they’d speed up as if to drive the action. The effect was quite mesmerizing.
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Wai Khru pre-fight ritual all fighters did.DSC06045a

The first few fights were alright, but then the first knockout happened from a headkick from the side, and things got more exciting. The crowd started to get vocal and into it, especially when another fight proved to be particularly competitive. Whenever fighters clinched, the crowd would chant “knee” for each knee and roar continuously for each hard blow.
The fighters were mostly small and thin, though muscular. The fighters in the later bouts were stockier. Each time, the fighters made their way to the rinside with an entourage of trainers, friends and family, including father, mother, brother and girlfriend.

The undercard soon gave way to the main fights, which were actually not the very last fights. In the middle, there was a fight where the two fighters seemed a little different and when the action started, it was obvious why. It was just a comedic exhibition, meant to make people laugh.

By the time the sixth or seventh fight started, the betting soon heated up. In the next section, hands filled the air and people roared nonstop.

After the third-to-last fight, some people started clearing out, which confused me. I checked the flyer and it seemed there were still three more fights to go. Soon I realized it was because the main fights were in the middle. I was tempted to leave but I stayed till the end. The final fight appeared to be between two kids, though a guy told me they were 15 when I asked him.

I left satisfied in the end. The experience had been well worth it, despite the modest surroundings. The fighting had been great, but the cultural aspects such as the music and the prefight Wat Khru rituals were also impressive.

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Before the actual fights, with a boxing bout going on while some fight organizers and officials look on right below me.
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I really thought these combatants in the night’s final bout were kids, but a guy said they were 15.

Southeast Asia travel · Thailand travel · Travel

Thailand travel- A mixed start to Bangkok

After Vietnam and Cambodia, it was time to go to Thailand, specifically Bangkok, the world’s most visited city and famous for different ways. I’d spend my last 5 days in SE Asia there and return to Taiwan. To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations since I just never was really interested by Bangkok. Yet I ended up being disappointed.

From the start, I experienced a series of problems and I had a negative vibe about the place. Bangkok’s modernity made it seem like a shabbier Taipei or Hong Kong, and not as charming or interesting as Vietnam’s cities, which had a more traditional and bustling feel to them. There was a striking contrast with Bangkok’s gleaming modern façade, such as its grand Suvarnabhumi airport, and its on-the-ground reality. Perhaps the fact I’d already been on holiday for over 2 weeks in a region I’d come to for the first time also added to my irritation. Perhaps if I’d have gone to other places in the country besides Bangkok, I’d have had a better time too.

Interestingly, I wasn’t the only person who disliked Bangkok. Weeks earlier, when I was in Halong Bay, I met an Italian and her Indian boyfriend who were expats in Shanghai, and when she heard I was going on to Bangkok, she’d said she hated Bangkok. Of course, I know many people love Bangkok and the city does have some good aspects.

I left Siem Reap in the morning, taking a tuktuk for the half-hour drive to the airport driven by the same man who’d taken me to Angkor on my second day. At my hotel, while waiting for him, I saw a small noisy gathering down the street, a political convoy of supporters of the ruling party ready to hit the road. Election season was in full sway and the ruling party would go on to win, though not without some controversy. Another driver had come in to pick up another guest, one who I’d hired to go to Angkor on my third day. I asked him about the ruling party and he scowled, shaking his head to express his disapproval. At the same time, the manager of the hotel or villa saw me off, a nice Vietnamese lady who was kind enough to exchange my remaining Vietnamese dong for US dollars.

My driver eventually came and off we went. The Siem Reap airport was a small modern attractive airport, reflecting the tourism boomtown Siem Reap was. I don’t even think the terminal was two stories. My check-in went smoothly and before long I was on my way to Bangkok via Cambodia Air. At the airport, I saw a girl who was among the Chinese staying at my friends’ hostel (those guys were also going to Bangkok on the same day but by bus) and she had a distraught look. I went up to her and learnt she’d mistaken her flight date so she was heading back to Siem Reap from the airport. I guess you’ll see those guys again before they leave, I said. No way, I’m going to another hotel, she said. I don’t want to see those guys, it’d be too embarrassing!

Another mildly amusing exchange happened in the waiting area when I went to a shop to buy a newspaper as a souvenir (it’s strange but I do like to read and compare newspapers from different places). However, not only did the store not have that day’s paper, it didn’t have the previous day’s. The newspaper on display was from 2 days ago. And I bought it, since I was so desperate for a local newspaper.

I flew Cambodia Angkor Air, as it was the cheapest available option, not that there were many from Siem Reap to Bangkok. The plane was a small, single-aisle turboprop jet and the service was decent, and the flight attendants elegantly dressed. As with the Mekong Express long-distance bus service, I had another pleasant experience on a Cambodian transit company.

After the short one-hour flight, I arrived in Bangkok’s fancy airport and took the airport train to a station. I mulled transferring to the subway to get to my hotel, but I decided to take a taxi instead. It was convenient  as there was a counter, manned by station and not taxi company people, who helped you get a taxi at a special platform where taxis lined up, as if it was the airport.

However, this is where things started to go somewhat downhill for me in Bangkok. I’d arrived before noon and unfortunately the traffic was horrible. On Googlemap, the station was very close to my hotel but it took over an hour. The traffic literally crawled at times and Bangkok’s modernity, which was in contrast to Phnom Penh and Hanoi, seemed to be a negative.

Also my driver was a gruff middle-aged guy who hardly responded when I greeted him and told him my destination. He seemed unfriendly and ignored me when I asked something about the city. Halfway though, this all changed.

I decided to ask him about Thai kickboxing or muay thai at Bangkok’s fabled Lumpini Stadium. As soon as he heard me, his whole demeanor changed and he responded enthusiastically to my questions, even calling somebody to check the times for the event.

His English wasn’t so good and there was a lot of partial and broken English phrases from him, but it was alright. At one point, he burst out giggling in fits when he mistakenly said “four hundred” instead of “forty” ($1.30) when telling me the price of a motortaxi to take me from the nearby subway station to Lumpini. Four hundred? I asked in disbelief since he’d said it was only a ten minute walk. “Sorry, sorry… forty, not four hundred, hehehe!”

The driver didn’t turn out to be so bad and that’s the kind of welcome surprise one wants when traveling. However while the driver was cool, other frustrations would loom.

I ended up falling asleep and the driver had to wake me up when he arrived at my hotel, which was actually a block of serviced apartments nestled inside an upper-middle-class neighborhood. I was really tired for some reason and slept the afternoon away, before going to said Lumpini Stadium in the evening to watch kickboxing.

Before I went to watch the muay thai, I had a really frustrating experience when my camera’s charger couldn’t go into my room’s power sockets. I went down to ask the receptionist and she just couldn’t understand my problem with the power socket. Worried that I couldn’t plug my camera and phone into anything, I went to a nearby 7-11 store to check if they sold adapters. I couldn’t see any so I asked the clerk if they sold it or if there were nearby stores. The guy and his colleague also couldn’t understand what I said, which left me annoyed. Granted there is a language barrier, but I thought English was more widely spoken, especially given Bangkok’s status as one of the world’s top tourist hotspots. I was especially disappointed at my hotel receptionist since she could speak enough English to handle my checkin, and also because my Vietnamese hotel receptionists’ English were quite decent. Eventually the power socket problem was resolved when I pushed extra hard on them with my device power plugs and they went in.

The bad noon traffic and the lack of adequate English weren’t terrible problems by themselves, but together these issues, along with others that would happen later, really aggravated me.

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On the airport bus about to reach the Angkor Air turboprop to Bangkok
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Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport

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Some funny stuff happened with the publishing date when I originally posted this so I posted it again.

Southeast Asia travel · Travel

Brief overview of a fine first Southeast Asia trip

My recent trip to Southeast Asia took me through 3 countries- Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. It was my first trip to this region, after almost five years in Asia (Taiwan) so it was definitely overdue. I have to say it was really good and I can see why many travelers love SE Asia. I spent 3 weeks there in total, with about 10 days in Vietnam, six in Cambodia, and the remainder in Bangkok. I can say without any doubt, Vietnam was the highlight, followed by Angkor (not just Angkor Wat) in Cambodia, and then Bangkok. I didn’t enjoy the latter that much, especially considering its reputation as a traveling hotspot. I’ll leave my griping for another post. I’ll say that Vietnam is quite underrated, but seems to be up and coming.

To me, my trip was quite ambitious, but throughout my travels, I met people whose trips were much more bolder than mine. I met several young mainlanders, who were going to the same three countries I was going, and also continuing on into India or Nepal with plans to return to China via Tibet. In Vietnam I met an English lady who was in the middle of a four-month trip through Asia and Australia, with China and Japan her next two stops. She’d already gone to Myanmar (Burma), having started in Thailand, and this was her first time in Asia! There were mainlanders who I met in Cambodia who were going on to Laos, which I had thought of going, or Vietnam in the reverse direction of my trip. In Hue, I met a Spaniard who was going through Vietnam, having flown halfway across the world all the way from Spain for a 2-week holiday from work.

The itinerary

I started in Hanoi (having flown direct from Taipei), went to Ha Long Bay for an overnight boat stay, returned to Hanoi and then took the overnight train from there to Hue. I stayed two days in the former imperial capital, then took a bus to Da Nang where I took a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I spent three full days there, including a Mekong Delta day trip, then took a 6-hour bus to Phnom Penh, the capital of neighboring Cambodia. After one whole day there, I then took another 6-hour bus to Siem Reap, where I spent 3 whole days, going to Angkor each day. Finally I flew to Bangkok from Siem Reap, as I decided two long-haul buses were enough, and I spent 3 whole days there before returning to Taiwan.

The highlights

Vietnam
–The main reason I was going to SE Asia was to visit Vietnam, and the main reason I wanted to visit Vietnam was to see Ha Long Bay. While I have revised my thoughts after having actually gone to Vietnam (lots of interesting things including the cities, culture, people, scenery), Ha Long Bay was incredibly beautiful and fulfilled the expectations I had of it. The islands are spectacular, the water is scenic, and even all the boats add to the special atmosphere.
–The lively, bustling, attractive cities as a whole, especially Hanoi and HCMC. I’d heard HCMC was the more prosperous and fun city, but Hanoi turned out to be very interesting, charming, and bustling as well, so much that I think I liked Hanoi more than HCMC. Hue was quite decent if a bit laidback, and Da Nang (which I only spent a few hours) has a very nice coastline.
–The night-time atmosphere in Hanoi, including braving the crazy traffic, the sights and people around Hoan Kiem Lake, the bustling Old Quarter, and the weekend night market that ran up one whole street in the quarter. And being able to catch part of a street concert at the night market on my final night in Hanoi.
–The awesome guides I had throughout Vietnam, ranging from the hilarious Mekong Delta guide and  his coconut talk about the local place, the friendly, knowledgeable, and very English-proficient young guides (members of free student guide organizations) who took me on great day tours in Hanoi and HCMC, and the warm, humorous, and outgoing guides in Ha Long Bay and Hue.
–The war museums in both Hanoi and HCMC, where planes, tanks, and weapons from  the Vietnam War were the main attraction. The War Remnants museum in HCMC has a particularly poignant photography gallery inside.

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Ha Long Bay

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter at night.

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A lake near Hue. My bus to Da Nang stopped at a roadside restaurant and at the back was this. Beautiful scenery is common in Vietnam.

Cambodia
–Angkor, of course, which includes the great Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and several other impressive ancient temples and buildings. The whole of Angkor was great and I didn’t get tired of seeing so many temples or “templed out” as I’ve heard some visitors have.
–Royal Palace complex. It’s an impressive place with some beautiful buildings, and it’s both awesome and obscene that a poor country could have such a lavish royal palace. It’s not as big as Bangkok’s Palace complex, but it’s still worth visiting.
–I did visit the Khmer Rouge genocide sites- the “Killing Fields” and the S-21 prison, but rather than call these highlights, I’d rather say these are very meaningful sites that are also worth visiting.

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The famous Angkor Wat.

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Ta Keo, one of the more striking temple sites in Angkor.

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The Palace complex in Phnom Penh, seen from the riverbank.

Thailand
–Watching muay thai kickboxing live at Lumpinee “Stadium”. The action in the ring and the animated atmosphere in the stands, especially the bettors, were quite good.
–The Palace complex. It’s a large complex with some very attractive buildings including temples, a giant golden stupa (bell-shaped Buddhist tower), and a huge European-style mansion with a Thai/Khmer-style roof.

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Muay Thai at Bangkok’s Lumpinee Stadium.

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Wat Arun, on the opposite side of the river from the Palace.

There were lowlights as well, but those will be for another day, haha. For now, I just want to look back at my first SE Asia jaunt and say it went quite well.

Travel

Back from Southeast Asia

I just returned from my trip to Southeast Asia, which included Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. It was my first-ever visit to Southeast Asia and I’ve come back a bit tired, darker, and hopefully a little wiser. I don’t hesitate to state that Vietnam was the best out of all three countries, while Bangkok was kind of disappointing. There were good experiences and bad experiences, a few new friends and acquaintances made, and a ton of photos taken. I’ve had my eye on visiting Vietnam for a while, especially Halong Bay, but hadn’t had the time or the nerve till now. As I have a lot of free time now, having left my job in June, I decided to combine Vietnam with two other countries.

My Vietnam trip started at Hanoi, which I flew to from Taipei, then an overnight boat stay at Halong Bay, continued to Hue (by train), then concluded at Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which I flew to from Da Nang. From HCMC, I took a 6-hour bus to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, then took another 6-hour bus to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. Finally I flew from Siem Reap to Bangkok for a 5-day visit, and I flew back to Taipei.

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I’ll have more posts about this trip of course, but first let me list a few brief observations here.
1) SE Asia is popular with a lot of travelers and it’s very understandable. The places, cultures, and foods are interesting, it’s reasonably safe, travel infrastructure and services are plentiful, and of course, quite cheap. I should have come to this region much earlier, but worries about safety and inconvenience prevented me. It’s ironic that the first time I came here would be on a 3-week, 3-country jaunt.

2) On the other hand, there were some really negative aspects. It’s not like I hadn’t heard of these before, but it’s still sad to see lots of kids hawking goods such as at Angkor, or even worse begging while carrying babies (likely siblings), crazy traffic, and taxi drivers trying to rip you off. And also it’s not surprising that some places would not be as clean as say, Toronto or Hong Kong, but it is disgusting to be eating at a roadside eatery and seeing rats a few feet away. Frankly, almost any problem that people have with China, I’d say you can find worse in SE Asia. However, I have to say I didn’t have much stomach troubles, and toilets in Vietnam were particularly clean, even cleaner than many places in mainland China or even Taiwan. In fact, I fared much better than my trips to Xian or Beijing last year when I had stomach problems almost every day.

3) I admire mainland Chinese for many things, but I didn’t expect solo or group travel in foreign lands to be one of them. I met many young Chinese during my travels, even befriending a group of them, who were all traveling around the region just like me, but with more ambitious and adventurous itineraries such as going on to Laos, Nepal, or India. Also, a good many of them were roughing it, taking 10-hour bus trips and going from place to place.

4) Thailand is a big name in tourism and it might be No. 1 in SE Asia; and it has a lot of good attributes such as nice beaches, decent cultural and rural sights, and of course, the sex industry. But frankly its “Land of Smiles” slogan is bullshit. People are generally polite, even helpful, but there’s a sense of arrogance and disdain which I picked up that seem similar to Taiwan in a way.