Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Bangkok Culture Shock, and an Island Break

We decided to treat ourselves to breakfast out on our last morning in Nepal. We had checked the day before with our favourite hangout (Friends) as to what time they opened, so turned up eagerly just after 08:00. They were not quite as open as we might have hoped, but ushered us upstairs regardless, causing panic as various members of staff roused themselves from their sofa sleeping spots. Despite this, breakfast was delicious, and we giggled to ourselves about it being a very fitting end to our Nepal visit.

Due to the tension surrounding the elections, many businesses were closed and transport embargoes remained in force. With this in mind, we left for the airport with plenty of time to spare. Somewhat unexpectedly, we located the shuttle bus with no issues. The first driver asked for 200 rupees each above what we knew was the official rate, so we skipped to the next one, who was apparently far more scrupulous. It was a cosy ride, elbow to elbow with fellow travellers, but we successfully made it to the airport with no issues and without being petrol bombed.

After the unpleasantness of the Delhi airport security checks, I was dreading this one. We had planned to try and find a way to pack our knee guards, but due to the size of the panniers there was no way this was going to happen, and once again we had to wear them. My fears proved unfounded, as the frisking I received at the entry was far more gentle, and the lady didn't even notice I was wearing them. Feeling relieved, I hopped over to the x-ray machine to pick up our luggage.

Oli however, was not so lucky. The guard frisking him did notice the knee armour, and was perplexed by it. Trying to explain safety equipment in a country where people do building work in flip-flops is no easy task, but after Oli pointing at the helmets the guard seemed to get the idea. However, he still wanted to check them, and when Oli couldn't roll up his trousers far enough said that he had to show him more, shrugging and saying it wasn't his problem if the jeans would not allow. Thankfully, Oli had a solution, and started to unbuckle his belt. The guard looked horrified, saying 'Oh no!'. Oli replied to this with 'Oh yes!' and dropped his jeans, standing there in full view of everyone in his boxers, hands on hips and grinning wildly. Finally satisfied that Oli was not a terrorist, the embarrassed guard waved him through, evidently keen to get rid of him.

The rest of the airport experience went relatively smoothly. We went through two more security checks, and although the knees were not an issue, at each point we were told to check our helmets into the hold. We flat out refused each time, saying they were too expensive and would get damaged. Again, trying to explain the safety aspect fell flat, as they did not seem to understand that if the helmets get bashed they may be useless in an accident. However, saying they were valuable did the trick, and we successfully negotiated our way through security with helmets in hand. We passed the rest of our time using up our spare rupees on cups of tea, and amused ourselves watching a stray cat wander around the departure hall. We were seriously going to miss this country.

Now, we had expected Bangkok to be a culture shock after India and Nepal, but we didn't expect it to start with the plane itself. The cheapest ticket we found was actually for a Thai Airways flight, and we were pretty excited not to be flying budget. The excitement generated by having free films, food and drinks was ridiculous. We settled down to watch Monsters University, accompanied by complimentary G&Ts. After Nepal, it felt amazingly luxurious and indulgent. As the film ended, the sky treated us to one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen. It was a wonderful welcome to South East Asia.

After India and Nepal, Bangkok airport and the city beyond it felt insanely futuristic. We made our way to our hotel first via the Airport Express line and then the Sky Train, smoothly sliding our way past seemingly infinite towering and brightly lit sky scrapers. Whilst we didn't feel the shock as keenly as with Iran to Dubai, we still stared in awe at the cityscape around us. Things we had missed but managed without in Nepal were suddenly immediately available again, which was a strangely dizzying feeling.

The ease with which we had got to our metro stop lulled us into a false sense of security. As we were not feeling tired from the journey, we foolishly decided to walk the kilometre to our hotel... in 30 degree heat and with all our luggage, which involved having to wear our motorbike jackets. Added to this we also managed to get lost, adding further distance and increasing the frustration. Eventually we arrived exhausted at our hotel, pouring sweat and near to collapse. We managed to stagger up the stairs and Oli, having carried the heaviest of the bags, threw himself down onto the floor and lay there giggling deliriously. Panicking slightly, I was glad to find ice cold drinking water in the fridge, and forced him to slowly drink a few glasses. Thankfully he steadily returned to normal, and after a rest was once again feeling okay. Never again will we put ourselves through such torture just to save a couple of quid!

It had been fairly late by the time we had installed ourselves in our surprisingly excellent hotel, so we had not had a chance to explore. Further inspection the next morning revealed that we had ended up in a very nice part of town, home to several embassies, fancy offices and grand villas. This was all for the same money that we would have paid for a private room in a nice hostel in the less than salubrious backpacker area, so suffice to say we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. We spent the day exploring the vicinity, sampling as much street food as possible. Oli did notice that most of the other Westerners we saw were eating in restaurants rather than the street stalls. We declared that they were missing out, then quickly wondered whether they would have the last laugh. However, I am now pleased to report that all has been well stomach wise, so our first theory seems to be the correct one.

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Originally our plan had been to spend only one full day in the city, before heading out to the island of Koh Samet to relax on the beach whilst waiting for the arrival of our bike. However, loving the luxury of our studio apartment hotel and not wanting to rush, we decided to spend an extra night there. We spent our extra day relaxing and doing a little planning, before heading out in the evening to visit one of Bangkok's many shopping malls.

On our way, Oli was keen to sample some more street food. He had been eyeing up the various meats on sticks every time we had walked past, and could restrain no longer. He bought a couple of portions, and proceeded to munch his way through them. Apparently they were amazing, and I genuinely thought he was about to cry with happiness. He seemed slightly in shock from how good it was for the remainder of the evening. This might be the start of a terrible addiction...

Terminal 21 was our destination, and made for a bizarre but enjoyable experience. The mall is airport themed, with different floors allocated to various countries. To enter, we walked through an airport security style metal detector, and using the escalators (signed Departures and Arrivals) worked our way up through Tokyo, London and Istanbul. Right at the top of the building is a model of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. In all honesty the main aim of our visit had been to experience the food court (Pier 21) located here, and it was well worth the trip. For a ridiculously low price we enjoyed a full meal each, including a very generous pudding of sticky rice, mango and coconut sesame sauce. Christmas is alive and well in the shopping centres here, and eating Thai food whilst festive tunes blasted out was a little surreal. Our lives seem to revolve around eating these days, but local fare really is one of the joys of travelling for us.

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The next day we were sufficiently motivated to make the journey to Koh Samet. This island lies just off the coast of Ban Phe, around a three hour drive from Bangkok. It is declared a national park, and due to its proximity to the capital is very popular with Thai tourists. Despite our visit falling on a weekend, we still managed to find a cheap hotel, and were looking forward to our beach break. Negotiating the bus journey and the short ferry ride was easy, and we arrived at our destination in good time.

Although it was clean, the hotel room we were shown to was kind of a dump, which was what we expected for the price we were paying. It smelled of damp and I was perturbed to see a small jumping spider pinging around the bed cover, as well as several mosquitoes buzzing around. We were prepared to suck it up, but Oli went to ask if it was possible to swap our ground floor room for the floor above. He was still recovering from his cold, and his nasty cough must have alarmed the owner. She quickly and kindly moved us to her other property just down the road, giving us a top floor room with free air-con for no extra charge. Where the other room had been fair for the money, the new one was amazing and pretty much brand new. We even had a balcony – a result indeed.

As it was now late afternoon, we wasted no time in heading to the sea front to check out the beach. The closest one to where we were staying was Sai Kaew, which also happens to be the busiest and most touristy beach on the island. However, despite a few disgracefully burnt Europeans and a long stretch of bars, it was still beautiful. We walked along to the adjoining (and slightly quieter) beach and found a peaceful spot on the rocks. From this vantage point we watched the sun set paint the sky and wet sand in beautiful hues. It was hard to believe that just a few months ago the island was suffering from the oil spill in the gulf of Thailand. The sea is once again safe to swim in and all beaches open, but the ecosystem may never be the same again. However, the scenery was so pretty that it was all too easy for this to slip from our minds.

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Later that evening we strolled slowly down the main road of the town, which in reality is nicely small and quiet. We sampled all the street food we could manage, ending up back on the beach munching banana and nutella rotis. We had been slightly dreading the character of the nightlife here, as whilst watching the sunset had been handed vouchers for a bar with the tag-line 'Let's get fucking wasted', which is not exactly our scene. Happily though, although a couple of bars were blasting out tunes further down the beach, on the whole the night scene was more chill out bars and fire artists than people falling out of clubs. It all seemed fairly tame, or maybe we just went to bed too early...

The next day we woke to bright sunshine, and decided to walk to one of the quieter beaches further down the island. Our aim for the day was Ao Wai, around a four kilometre walk away. This may not sound like a lot, but in the tropical heat and sun it was quite a slog. We walked for a while along the road, dodging the many amateur scooter and ATV riders wobbling along the way. Thankfully it wasn't too long before we could turn off and walk the remaining kilometres along the beaches. For a national park, the East coastline is surprisingly developed, but on the whole this is tastefully done, small guest houses and bungalows rather than large hotels. The beaches themselves were beautiful, but we pushed on, determined to reach our destination.

It was well worth it when we actually arrived. Ao Wai was wonderfully quiet and uncrowded, despite it being a Saturday. Tired from our walk, we enjoyed a spot of lunch at the one restaurant there before hitting the beach. I kept swimming in the sea to a minimum, as by my wussy standards some of the waves were quite large – I was much happier paddling and splashing in the shallows. Oli followed our swim with playing in the sand, and attempted to get into the Christmas spirit by building a sandman. The first specimen got washed away by a large wave, so he was rebuilt on safer ground.

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It was tempting to stay on the beach until sundown, but we had a long walk back and didn't fancy the unlit roads in the dark. Reluctantly, we left the beach behind and wandered homewards. The weather had cooled off considerably as evening approached, so the journey home was far less strenuous than the way out. We treated ourselves to ice lollies on our way back, but Oli was perturbed to find that he had not read the wrapper of his properly, and it actually turned out to be a disgusting frozen jelly (see below), unappealingly named Paddle Pop. After the lolly disappointment, we finished our night off with a delicious dinner in a place picked purely because it appeared to be full of locals, then popped back to Sai Kaew for another cheeky roti. 

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The next day we planned to do much the same as before, with the alteration of checking out Ao Noi Na on the North coast. The day was cloudy and we suspected a storm was likely to break, but like good English people we refused to change our plans for the weather, and set out optimistically. The rain held off for a little, but we had not even reached the beach by the time it started to fall. It came down lightly at first, quickly transforming into a deluge. We sheltered giggling under a tree for a while, before it started to leak. We ran along the road, finding a derelict beach hut and hiding under the overhang of the roof. The rain eventually died down, but we abandoned our designs of going to Ao Noi Na, and instead headed back towards home for lunch in town and a beach front chocolate cake.

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Cake demolished, the weather had cheered up considerably. We set out towards Ao Phrao, the only beach on the West side of the island. It was a fair hike, but we were looking forward to seeing it, as apparently it is the up-market part of Koh Samet, and home to some lovely bars and restaurants. In reality, we were not that impressed with it. Up-market here just translated as very expensive, and the beach itself was pretty narrow with nowhere that great to chill out. We stayed for a little while and Oli had a splash about in the sea, but we decided pretty quickly to abandon it and head back to the East side of the island.

This turned out to be a good shout. It was a long walk, so we rewarded ourselves with an afternoon beer overlooking the ocean. The part of the island we found ourselves on is very narrow, so we chilled out here for a while and resolved to catch the sunset over the West, a short walk away from where we were sat. The sky appeared to be turning stormy again, and we did fear that there would not be much to see.

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However, when we arrived at the spot we had scoped out as a good viewpoint, we saw that the sunset should be worth the diversion. We clambered a little way down the rocks and sat overlooking the sea. The sunset was incredible, with the clouds lighting up dramatically in the low light. We watched almost until the last light slipped out of the sky, using the last remnants of it to safely make our way back up the rocks. We walked home in the dark, teasing each other that something might burst out of the jungle at any time.

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We decided to try somewhere new for dinner, and picked a place at the end of the road purely on the basis that I noticed they served veggie spring rolls. It turned out it was actually run by an Englishman, who smilingly asked us if we wanted our papaya salad spicy. When we answered to the affirmative, he checked if we wanted it normal spicy, or Thai spicy. Feeling pretty hardcore from India, we asked for Thai levels with more than a little bravado. Turns out 'Thai spicy' is a whole new level of warm. It tasted amazing, but blimey was my mouth on fire! We ended up staying at the restaurant for longer than planned, chatting to each other about life over icy cold Chang beers. Although it had only been a couple of days, we had enjoyed our taste of beach life immensely, and were feeling very relaxed.

Of course we woke up to glorious sunshine today, and although we were excited to get back to Bangkok, we were also reluctant to leave our island escape behind. The journey back was as simple as our outward one and we are now back in our lovely apartment hotel, as they kindly kept most of our luggage for us whilst we were away. Sadly we are leaving tomorrow for a cheaper place, as we will most likely be staying in the city for another five nights whilst we attempt to get our bike out of the port and sort a few maintenance jobs out. We will miss our embassy district good life, but hopefully our new place will not be too bad! It is probably a good thing we are moving, as we are in danger of becoming pampered princesses if we remain here too long...

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