Day 3. I’ve been eaten alive. Well, practically. Somewhere between yesterday and this morning the back of my legs have become a smorgasbord for the local mosquito population. Can’t wait to get to the islands and scare people away with my pasty white and diseased-looking thighs!
Anyway. When booking accommodation, the two words ‘breakfast included’ are a sure-fire way to gain first choice and so we find ourselves sitting at tables next to the river at Navalai going for multiple rounds of buffet breakfast. Mind you, just the western continental stuff. It’s way too early for curry and noodles!
Today is Bangkok by day sightseeing. We take the now familiar cheap water taxi and make our way to the Grand Palace. It’s still early, but already the mostly Asian tourists are flocking through the gates. The rule with temples is that you have to dress modestly – that means no shorts or strappy tops. And no, you can’t throw a scarf over said strappy top and fool the guards, as one lady unfortunately finds out.
The Grand Palace grounds are a collection of sculptures, buildings, murals and temples – beautifully and masterfully crafted in bright colours and intricate detail. Lots and lots of gold. Every so often you see people praying and offering flowers or burning incense. A big attraction is the Emerald Buddha which is in fact quite small, far away up on a pedestal, and actually made of jade. We’ve read that it’s considered dishonouring to point your feet at a Buddha image (the feet are the lowest form of the body). I can understand that when you are seated or kneeling in front of it, but surely that is problematic when you are approaching it? I don’t know. We are just observers and certainly not worshippers here.
The various sculptures outside on the grounds lend themselves to a bit of (hopefully not too disrespectful) tomfoolery on our parts. We take photos copying their facial expressions, gestures and well … deep squats.
Next we go in search of the giant Reclining Buddha – located in the Wat Pho – an indoor 46m image lying on his side, showing off his mother-of-pearl designs on his massive soles and amusing lack of bum curve. It is truly fascinating to see, particularly the craftsmanship that has gone into it. (The designs, not the anatomy). The room is mostly quiet, barring the hushed voices of people patiently waiting their turn to take pictures at key spots and the sound of coins being dropped into metal bowls along the one wall.
And through all of it we are suffering in the heat. Sleeves – albeit short – are killing me. The only consolation is that this is the last time we have to dress like this. It’s lunchtime and we are all templed out. We decide it’s time to give this tuk-tuk thing a go and for 200B he takes these four South Africans squashed in the back on a wild and exhilarating ride back to our hood. Certainly fun and definitely worth doing!
I order my first sweet and sour chicken (from a faded picture and number on the menu, of course) and Bruce is equally delighted with his Panang curry. We head back to Khaosan Road – which looks remarkably different in the day! – to try exchange Han’s ill-fitting pants, but it is a pointless venture as the same vendor is impossible to find. I also don’t think they have much of a legit exchange policy at these sorts of establishments.
An afternoon drink in Rambuttri village is next on the cards and the shade, free wi-fi and sipping delicious coconut juice – served in an actual coconut! – is just what the doctor ordered. Back at Navalai it’s time to check out, but the hotel staff are gracious enough to let us store our backpacks and enjoy the rooftop pool for a few more hours before we actually need to leave. Best! More poolside cocktails adorned with real orchids and some fun with the GoPro in the water make for a splendid parting gift on Bangkok’s part.
200B and a taxi escorts us to Hualamphong station, where we will catch a 1st class coach to southern Chumpon to make our way to the islands. The station is an interesting place with a large central open area with a few rows of chairs and lots of floor space. Clusters of monks and elderly people populate the chairs while the floor is resting place to waiting backpackers and other commuters. It’s still a few hours before the train departs and though there is promise of a meal once the journey gets underway, we scan the area for ‘food on a stick’ – our latest Thai trend. Enter lady with small mobile stand displaying a variety of meat-looking shapes on sticks. We enquire about prices and types of meat and she lists them: pig, cow, fish … but she pauses on the last one and instead points to a printed piece of paper tacked onto her stand. It’s a cartoon picture of a crab! We’re so amused by the fact that she went to all that trouble instead of just learning the English word ‘crab’. Sadly my meatballs on a stick are unexpectedly cold and probably the most unappetising thing I eat all holiday.
Our sleeper carriage is all the way at the end of the train, but we’re delighted to discover that it’s two adjoining rooms with just a fold-away door separating us as neighbours. And very, very cosy. You could hardly swing a cat. The bottom of the bunkbeds doubles as a seat and so we sit and chat – Bruce and Han in their room and Debbie and I in ours. For some bizarre reason we are comparing medical aid kits and let’s just say that if something bad were to happen, I’m sticking with Debbie. She has surgical gloves in her bag. And other questionable things …
Our tiny rooms flow out into a narrow passage and it’s not long before the first Thai person sticks his head in the door. He offers to sell us beers. And then he winks. So we say no thanks. Our actual waiter shows up shortly after and boy, is he a character! Once we’ve established that we’d like to eat now and not only at 10pm(!!) – you had to be there to witness that conversation – he brings us menus with options A to F. Naturally, as you do, we contemplate our options out loud to each other (‘the soup on B sounds nice!’) and I point out in surprise that you can have cookies for dessert. And then he exclaims ‘cookie!’ and proceeds to write it down. No, no, no …
Despite the chaos and hilarity of that encounter, our dinner of soups and rice and curries arrives in multiple plastic-wrapped bowls on a tray and is surprisingly tasty. It is pretty much only our third or fourth Thai meal though … so what do we know?
More confusion and laughter ensues as crazy waiter man collects our plates and we learn a valuable Thai gesture – the flapping extended hand – which is a means of calling or ‘come here’. But of course I am utterly confused at first and unsure whether he wants to take my tray or have me do something with it. Language barriers hey? Never a dull moment.
Us ladies are pretty horrified that we’ve had to use the … um, standing toilet, but we knew we’d encounter it sooner or later. And it’s pretty challenging on a moving train I might add! I do have a proper chuckle when I discover a few hours later that there is a sitting/normal/western toilet just around the corner. Hooray!
A burly gentlemen pops by our cabins to transform our couch into the two bunkbeds. You’d think the train’s rhythm would lull me to sleep, but it stops at several stations throughout the night and the bed is rock hard and the pillow flat as a pancake. I’m also trying to suppress the anxiety that we might miss our 4am destination stop. But being a tourist is tiring and I thankfully squeeze in some shut-eye as we cover the kilometres taking us to island paradise.