Travels in Thailand 2015 – Sukhumvit and the Chao Phraya
After a long car ride from the wilds of southern Thailand, the last part of which is by taxi from the outskirts of Bangkok to the heart of the city, we arrive at our hotel the Best Western on Soi 1. Our room is large with a king bed and desk. It’s decorated in what I would call modern Thai design and looks quite nice. I know this is another BW hotel and I am not plugging this company, but I really enjoyed staying at their Amaranth location, so I decided to try another. I found this hotel a few days before on Agoda for more than 50% off its usual $147 US a night price, a steal for such a terrific room. After three days living in a Thai “resort”, to sleep in a central air room with a firm but forgiving king bed, I was in total bliss. Even my Thai wife, who is normally immune to the hardships of Thai hotels, sleeps without moving the entire night, something she rarely does.
The next morning we sleep later than normal and have breakfast at the excellent buffet in the hotel dining room. We notice there are a lot southern Asians dressed in Middle-Eastern attire in the restaurant. I also notice a few guests in hospital uniforms, some of them in wheelchairs. This seems like an odd assortment of guests for what is obviously an upscale hotel. After breakfast, the wife and I decide to take a walk and discover that Bumrungrad hospital is literally adjacent to the hotel. That explains the patients at breakfast, but what about the Muslim guests? After walking a little further, we discover the embassy of Pakistan. Well, that explains the odd assortment of guests at the hotel and as everyone seems to be pretty amiable, I still say it’s a terrific place to stay.
We wander down to Sukhumvit, which is a further walk than I thought, and catch a taxi to Panthip Plaza. I want to make one more visit to this crazy palace of technology in Bangkok, as I understand it will soon be changing to something more upscale. The wife decides to go next door to do some fashion shopping. As I enter the plaza, I notice it is definitely different from my last visit two years ago. The first floor is more open and the pirate DVD kiosks are missing. I wander around buying some gifts for friends and family back home. I ask one of the vendors where the DVDs are and she says on the second floor. As I ride the escalator up, I see the giant statue of the anti-piracy cop hidden behind one of the pillars. So, nothing has really changed, only the pirated discs have moved one floor up, giving these vendors a few more minutes to evade the embarrassing international inspections. I buy a few movie discs for gifts and leave Panthip to meet my wife for lunch. After lunch, we wander back to the hotel for a nap, as we are still a little jet lagged.
Around 6 PM, I remind my wife that I promised a colleague a genuine fake Rolex watch. What better place to find one than the famous Patpong night market? (Actually, there are probably better places.) Before we go, we have dinner at the hotel restaurant, which has an excellent menu of fusion Thai entrees. After dinner, we walk to the bell stand outside. It feels weird telling the bell captain my wife and I need a taxi to Patpong, but true to his profession, he does not flinch. My wife notices this too, but she just smiles and off we go into the Bangkok night. Traffic is again light, as it has been since we arrived, so the ride is very quick. The market is crowded but not overly so. I find a watch vendor who seems happy to meet me until he sees my wife, who he immediately spots as a tough negotiator. I find a good watch, one he promises will work like a normal watch. My wife immediately starts to negotiate with him in Thai. I happily step back to watch the contest, and after a few minutes, the vendor decides he has met his match and agrees to sell the watch at half price. We continue our squalid shopping spree; me buying t-shirts for my friends they would never wear in public, my wife buying rip-off Coach purses for her American friends. Everyone knows this back home, so these gifts are more fun than real. After we return and present them to our family and friends, we’ll all have a big laugh at the “expensive” gifts we brought from Thailand.
I offer to get us a cab back to the hotel but the wife wants to take the sky train to save money. It is past 11 PM and we trudge up the steps with our bags of pirated goods to buy our tickets. During the train ride, I mention that Nana Plaza, near our sky train stop, has a huge “entertainment” area. She is intrigued and wants to go there. I am not surprised, even though she comes from a conservative Thai family, she and her friends have a strange fascination with farang go-go bars. I think I understand why. Imagine if there was an area in your city that had been declared off-limits to good and decent people; what would you do? Especially if you had a guide, someone with first-hand experience who could keep you out of trouble? Well, of course, most of us would go there the next day.
We get off at the Nana station on the south end of the station on the even-soi side of Suhkumvit. At the bottom of the station stairs, I notice the street is strangely empty, while the other side is crowded with many vendors and tourists. I take a few steps forward on the sidewalk and then turn around to see where my wife is. I suddenly see two rather tall ladyboys emerge from behind the stairs. They are walking fast towards me until they see my wife descend the stairs. They immediately retreat back into the darkness. This happens fast, but in that time, I recall some blurb from Stick’s site about the dangers on this section of the street. I grab my wife’s arm and instruct her to keep moving. We do not see anyone else and soon arrive in the safety of the bright lights of Soi 4 and Nana Plaza.
It is more crowded that I thought it would be, as it is almost midnight on a Monday night. When we reach the entrance to Nana Plaza, there is a long queue for the security screen. When we reach the guards, they briefly look in our bags before we walk through the screen. They smile and pass us through, as they do everyone else. Having worked some time in very secure facilities, it’s pretty obvious that this “screening” is just “feel good” security, completely useless to prevent a real attack.
We walk into the plaza and we check out some the bars on the first floor. The bars are crowded with lots of good-looking girls and farang men, all buzzing about laughing and having a good time. This is vastly different from what I expected, after reading the latest reports about Nana on Stick. This is even more surprising considering it’s a gloomy Monday night. We make our way up to the 2nd floor, where I am walking ahead of my small wife as kind of a body guard clearing path for celebrity. After I turn a corner, I am standing directly in front a group of ladyboy greeters, talking and looking at their phones. When they see me, they start smiling and reach out to grab me. Then my wife comes around the corner. When they see her, they stop in their tracks and go back to their phones. She grabs my hand, unaware of the danger she saved from, and we resume our tour of Nana Plaza. As we walk by the club, my wife asks if I have ever been there before. I assure her I never have, which is true, but it’s a curious question to ask. The ladyboy curse strikes again.
We come to the end of the bars on the second floor and my wife is officially bored. We make our way through the throngs of punters and freelancers in the plaza and then to Sukhumvit Road. I am thinking we have to use the sky train walkover again, which is probably not a wise thing to do. My wife spots a small but dangerous looking street crosswalk, where throngs of people are crossing against the light while cars dash in between them. I am not sure which is the safer option. We decide to cross the road and dash across just as the lights turn and the cars explode into the intersection. We still have a ten-minute walk to the hotel. Parts of Soi 1 are very dark and quiet which has my wife clutching my arm the entire time. We reach the hotel entrance unharmed but tired after a long night of shopping and sightseeing in Bangkok’s go-go bar entertainment centers for foreign men.
We have a wonderful sleep that night in our nice hotel room. I am glad, as it will be the last time I will sleep in a nice bed for the rest of the trip. The next morning, we arrange to meet my wife’s niece for dinner at Khao San Road. This is her request, which seems odd, but maybe this is a Thai college girl’s equivalent of “slumming” for a little excitement. Although I have heard about Khao San Road many times before, I have never actually been there which may sound odd as I have been to so many different places in Bangkok, and yet I have not been to the most famous farang hangout in Bangkok. The reason is mostly I have never had a reason to visit, as I am usually visiting family and friends. Even on my occasional day visits to farang venues, it never occurred to me to visit Khao San before. As a new venue in Bangkok that I have never visited, I am looking forward to it.
We leisurely pack our stuff and head downstairs for the buffet breakfast. Although it’s only 400 baht for both of us, it’s pretty decent. Besides the buffet, it also has a grill cook to make you eggs or waffles. I go through my usual buffet routine: order the eggs, put the bread in the toaster, return to get the eggs and bacon, and then grab coffee with my free hand. However, when I go for my toast it’s not there. I look around and I see a south Asian guy with a big plate of toast. This guy has picked up everyone’s toast and is sitting down to eat. I see a few incredulous faces around the buffet, but of course, it’s me who taps the gentleman on the shoulder and say, “I think you have my toast”. I expect some push-back, but instead he gives me a big smile and says, “Here, take”. I find my wheat toast and see others queue up to get theirs. I am still a little miffed when I sit down, but the wife gives me one of her cute smirks and I melt back into a good mood. You never know what to expect in Thailand, but no matter what, always keep it light.
We have until late afternoon until we meet her niece, so we check our bags at the bell stand and wander the Sukhumvit area shopping at various small shops. We have a late lunch at a small restaurant and then a leisurely walk back to the hotel. Along the way, her niece calls and says we should meet her at Phra Arthit Pier instead. I am disappointed but of course, this change in plans produces no reaction in my wife. I decide to follow her lead even though I was really looking forward to visiting Khao San Road. We take a taxi to a condo owned by my wife’s friend, drop our bags off, and make our way to the pier.
When we get there, my wife tells me that years ago she had been on this pier many times. It was after she graduated from college and used the ferry to commute to work. We walk along the shops and one of the vendors whoops and gives my wife a big hug. My wife tells me they used to talk while she waited for the ferry and they became friends. We get another phone call and now her niece says she will meet us at the restaurant down the river. We board the next boat along with a mix of tourists and commuters. We head south on the great Chao Praya River underneath a cloudy sky that threatens to rain at any moment. It is still warm but there is a cool breeze blowing while we watch the churning river and the changing river shore. My wife puts her shoulder into my chest and holds my hand. It’s one of those moments when you think to yourself, where else would I rather be.
After 40 minutes or so of this bucolic ferry ride, we arrive at the Asiatique Riverfront. It’s a touristy-looking plaza of large restaurants and shops. It seems the threat of rain has kept many people away as it is mostly empty except for a few customers. We look for a place to eat and find a large, upscale restaurant with a name we cannot resist: Happy Fish. It’s an indoors / outdoors place and we decide to sit outside just under the canopy along the river walk. As soon as we sit down, the waiter instructs us to go inside as he says the rain will start soon. I am not happy that we have been herded away from the cool breeze, but I am soon grateful when a few minutes later, the heavens open up with a huge thunderstorm. We sit and watch this spectacle through the window while we eat our fish dinner. After the storm is over, we pay our bill and then wander the river walk taking pictures against the setting sun. Shocker alert: the niece calls and says she can’t make it. I think my wife knew that was coming which is why we ate without her. Soon our boat arrives and after a little more shore watching, we both fall sleep. By the time we awake, we are at the Phra Arthit pier. With good food and drink in my stomach along with a short nap, I am feeling more relaxed than I have in a long time. I still have no idea what Khao San Road is like, but I can’t imagine it would have been better than this. Again, an unexpected change has turned out to be for the best.
It’s a good thing I am so rested and relaxed, as the next morning we will start our journey to Pattaya Beach. My wife’s best friend G. will lead this leg of our trip. As some of you may remember, I really like G a lot and she has always been very generous towards us, but to call G spontaneous is like calling the Pacific Ocean a frog pond. In the past, her constant changes have lead me to start pulling out what is left of my hair. However, this time I am resolved to stay cool and to let happen whatever happens, no matter how many beers I have to drink to calm my nerves. As it turns out, G’s antics will be the least of my worries, as the ladyboy curse will rear its ugly head again for one final and spectacular showing.
Next: Travels in Thailand 2015 – Pattaya Beach and the Rest of the World.