I've heard plenty of stories about Khao San Road, the beating heart of the Bangkok backpacker district. It's the place to which all flophouse streets around the world are compared and has a reputation for being cheap, seedy and dirty. Not so. Maybe it used to be like this 10 years ago but it's far more glamorous than I imagined, sporting the full set of western fast food chains, flashpacker hostels and boutique hotels. What hasn't changed is the fact that it's the centre of Bangkok as far as tourists are concerned. Streets are buzzing with vendors selling everything from T-shirts to fake IDs, spring rolls to university degrees; music pumps from every building - Jack Johnson, Manu Chao, dubstep (I know nothing about the latter - I think someone had to explain it to me); and diners drink large bottles of Chang on cheap garden furniture.
You get the occasional reminder that you're in a seedy party of town. A random Thai guy would lean into my ear to say "Pinnnnnnnng ponnnnnnnnng???". No, I don't want to see a "ping pong" show... I'd rather watch a woman pull a string of razor blades out of her mimsy before having full sex on stage with a random man. Oh wait, that's exactly what it is...
I met up with Laura, a friend from back home with whom I'd be travelling around Thailand, and we explored the Grand Palace and some nearby temples.
|Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho|
The Thais love their royal family, or I should say that their love is legally enforced - insulting a royal is a criminal offence in Thailand and if you're in a public place at 8am or 6pm you must stand for the national anthem. Pictures of the royal family are everywhere here, adorning restaurants, train stations, hotels and plastered on huge ornaments beside main roads, looking like the last few displays in Blackpool illuminations. The trouble is (and I can type this now that I'm safely in Malaysia) that the king looks a total nerd. The Thais don't really do propaganda pics like, say, how the Russians do them with Putin. There are no pictures of the king riding a horse topless or displaying his manliness at a firing range. We just see a selection of him perusing surveyors plans or touring a building site with a ridiculous hardhat. I'd naturally blurt out "Look at that picture of the King! It's hilarious...", but then have to break off to see who overheard, "... and I, erm, really like a guy who can make me laugh".
The next day we took a trip north to Ayutthaya, the old capital of a Siamese kingdom. Through its extensive trade links in the 16th century Ayutthaya became one of the wealthiest cities in the region, but today all that remains of the old town are the ruins left behind by the Burmese after sacking the city in the 1700s. We took the express "A/C train" from Bangkok, as opposed to the slower local service and immediately regretted it. It seemed that the difference in price had been invested in providing travel at absolute zero. Families were huddled together for warmth and each trip to the loo was preceded by "I'm just going outside and may be some time", but it was definitely worth the trip. We wandered through the huge site, getting lost amongst the ruins (I thought that Rough Guide maps were rubbish, but the Lonely Planet ones are even worse).