I thought for a bit what the headline of today should be. I had a fantastic day today with two very different guided tours. Both still fabulous, but somehow they left a slightly bitter aftertaste now that I reflect on it.
I don’t know about you, but what do you think of guided tours? Touristy? Being shoved from A to B? Impersonal?
So far I’ve only had positive experiences and even had a little glimpse into local life. You just have to be open and ask.
My first tour of the day was as touristy as it gets. The Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The one thing you have to see when you’re in Bangkok. I had booked myself a skip-the-line guided tour and was the only person on it. Despite leaving a 45 minute contingency traffic got from bad to worse and instead of half an hour early I ended up being 10 minutes late. Nevermind, I was able to get in touch with my lovely guide Meow, a graduate student of tourism, to wait for me.
9am we pretty much walked straight in, although she said there are a lot less tourists currently due to the Corona virus. Good for me, but not so good for business in Thailand.
Meow showed me the impressive mural, 500+ metres long, depicting the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana called Ramakien. It’s the battle between the King of Demons Tosakanth and King Rama, whose wife is kidnapped by the demon. Over 178 panels the story unfolds and tells of all the dangers and skirmishes on King Rama’s quest to get his wife back.
I was most impressed with the intricate details of the numerous buildings and the enormous effort that must have gone into putting everything single little piece of glass, stone etc into place.
It was great to have a guide, so I wasn’t just simply staring at everything in awe but also understood why it was there.
All the demon statues around the compound are facing the Emerald Buddha in order to protect it. They are basically wards to spot and fend off any evil.
Thanks to Meow I was also able to identify Chinese style statues and spot differences in Thai, Cambodian and Western European architecture styles. Once you know, it’s pretty obvious.
One of the Thai kings was really impressed with Cambodian architecture and because back then without cars or planes, people couldn’t easily travel to Cambodia, he built Cambodian style so that his people would be able to see its splendour.
Because kings of old used to ride an elephant to the Grand Palace we got to talk about elephants. Turned out Meow had worked at an elephant sanctuary in Phuket. She loved it and loved seeing those amazing gentle creatures just enjoying life without being forced and tortured to work for tourism. Just so that some stupid tourist can get a selfie riding an elephant 😡.
She told me that there are sanctuaries that are not real sanctuaries. They promote themselves as caring for animal welfare when they aren’t. I asked if there was a way to tell the difference between a real sanctuary and a false one but she said it’s difficult. For the ordinary tourist who doesn’t do intensive research it’s impossible to know. We both agreed that as long as there are people who want to pay money to ride an elephant, there will be no end to the elephants’ suffering. I could tell that she was as sad and angry about this as I was and we both agreed that it’s bringing tears to our eyes just thinking about it. It should simply be forbidden, period. But there is money to be made. It’s always about money… I’m so fed up with it.
I could’ve spent a few hours more just marvelling at the splendour and amazing architecture. Before Meow left me a couple of hours later to pick up her next group I asked her why all the kings are called Rama. She said their names were actually very long but it was much easier to refer to them as King Rama I, II, IV etc. She told me one or two of their proper names and it was more a short story than an actual name.
I had a coffee and an omelette at a cafe nearby then jumped onto the MRT for a few stops to get to my next tour. A good 20 minutes and a Starbucks frappuccino after getting off the train I found myself at the rather nice Suan Plern Mall, where I should find Spice Roads Cycle Tours for my four-hour cycle tour. Six Germans who were on a Southeast Asia tour joined me and quarter past one we set off with our guide Max on pretty decent Trek bikes.
From Khlong Toei we cycled through some very typical Bangkok back streets towards the pier. The Germans had only arrived the afternoon before so they were in for a bit of a culture shock, I was already used to the rundown dirty buildings and mix of smells from grilled chicken skewers to foul water.
The bikes were loaded onto a long narrow boat at the pier and getting across only took five minutes or so. At the other side Bangkachao was the complete opposite. It was a bit cooler. And green! Trees and thick foliage everywhere.
We cycled along on a small road and then turned off onto a few of the many narrow concrete paths through the jungle. There were a few houses here and there but it was quiet and peaceful. It certainly helped that it was Monday. Weekends are a lot busier.
We stopped for some Mango Sticky Rice which is probably THE one signature dish of Bangkok. Here it involved a whole Mango, the sticky rice, some nut crumbs and salty coconut milk poured over the whole thing. It was luuush and cost less than £1.
We visited a temple that no one knows how old it is and there are still some paintings on window blinds which at least give an indication. One is of the style of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha… So mid 1700s. Another one is obviously older.
We also visited the town “hall”, a large canopy near another temple and learned that the Buddhist monks have problems with managing their weight. They’re simply not moving around enough. They don’t exercise at all and sit most of the time. So finding something to do like cleaning the temple, tending to a garden etc is very important.
Max also told us about a new law in Bangkok, that if you own a plot of land you have to develop it. What that means for Bangkachao is, that many trees are being cut down to plant banana and mango trees, just to do something with the land. The owners would not choose to do this, but the new law forced their hand.
Max was obviously very upset with this. He called it a stupid law which only resulted in people being forced to cut down trees in the very last green bit of Bangkok. Bangkachao is so very important for the air quality in the city. Instead of protecting it, the new law poses a real threat. Ridiculous!
It dampened my mood a little. Such a lovely place is under threat and will change considerably within the next decade.
I think it is very important that local guides not only show the lovely sights and pretend everything is fine. It is why the tourists have come to the country or place, sure. But it is also very important that guides talk about the threats to those wonderful places. Often enough it’s the tourists themselves that are the root cause. Like the whole problem with elephants being tortured because there are still enough people who want to ride one, same with getting photos with tigers etc.
As a tourist I can’t do anything about the new law for land management. But maybe some of the participants go back home with more appreciation for places like Bangkachao and the desire to protect them. Be more aware what happens to parks, woods, meadows, lakes, nature reserves etc. where they live and do something to protect them should they come under threat.
Back at the mall after a fantastic four hour ride I grabbed yet another frappuccino at Starbucks and walked back the way I had come and a bit further through Benjakitti Park on my way to Surkhumvit.
Surkhumvit Rd. reminded me a lot of the area around Siam Center. The Sky Train high above the road, some malls/shops, restaurants and bars. Tourists and expats in equal numbers to locals.
First and unintentionally last stop was Bad Burger, which was on my list of craft beer places along with another 2-3 places just around this area.
Ordered my beef and blue cheese burger and got talked into the buy 2 get 1 free deal. The burger was lush and after 3 halves of pretty good craft beer I’d had more then enough and just got a Grab taxi home, haha. So much for my second craft beer loop.
Brilliant day off training with two great guided tours. Both well worth it and at least I’ve seen something of the city that is not the gym or my apartment.