16th FEBRUARY 2020
With my departure date put back until the nineteenth, I decide to pass my days by visiting a couple of Bangkok’s famous temples. On the first day I walk to Wat Arun on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya river, reckoning that being out in this heat is really the only way I’ll get used to it. It’s bloody roasting in direct sunlight though, so I spend most of my time trying to walk in the shade created by trees or buildings. An hour later I arrive to find that Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn) is quite a spectacle, and well worth my effort. The main spire is a whopping eighty metres high, with two storeys of steep stairs to the top that are off limits to the public. Despite it’s huge size, the entire temple is decorated in minute detail, with hundreds of little mirrored shapes on nearly every surface. What sounds like clanking bells or windchimes act as a hypnotic soundtrack to my time there.
When it’s time to head back I really don’t fancy retracing my steps for another 5km, so I find a ferry that will take me back across the river instead. The two minute ride costs 4 Baht (ten pence). I wish I’d known about the cheap ferries this morning. After getting back I notice that there’s some live Muay Thai boxing about two minutes walk down the street I’m staying on. And it’s free ! I pop in to the venue to find that it starts at 7.00pm, which gives me enough time for some food before it begins. I stop at a cafe called ‘Street Food’ and have chicken noodles for 75 Baht and a bottle of Singha Beer that costs 150 Baht. This is the first time in my life that a beer has cost double my meal.
By 7.00pm the crowd has swelled at the Muay Thai place and I have to stand in one of the corners between the seating to get a view. It’s a very professional set up with a suited announcer and multiple camera operators. We’re also live on Thai TV tonight. I stay for the first three fights, watching as a vicious barrage of knees and elbows fly into heads and bodies. The first two bouts are decided on points, but the third sees a Cambodian guy with a mohawk smash his elbow into an Argentinean guys cheek, knocking him clean out. Because we’re on TV I can see the knockout being replayed again and again on a big screen. It’s brutal. The poor guy has to be helped from the ring by medics. Back at the hostel it occurs to me that I’ve had a day of contrasts – from the peacefulness and contemplation of a temple to the speed and ferocity of Muay Thai. It’s been quite a mix.
The next morning I’m downstairs at the hostel for another of their big breakfasts. I have the ‘Casa Picasso’ option of omelette, fried potato cubes, slices of tomato, toast and feta cheese. As a weird addition, this meal always contains a few sprigs of steamed broccoli too. Then, horror of horrors, when I’m back upstairs my early morning poo comes out runny. You have got to be joking ! I’m sincerely hoping this is just my system rebelling a little at the change of diet, climate and time zones, although this does seem a strange reaction if that is the case. Why would your body make you deal with the runs when it’s trying to cope with everything else at the same time ?
Today I walk to Wat Pho, which is on my side of the river, beside the Grand Palace and a distance of only 2km. I plod along quite slowly mind you, mindful of my guts now as well, on top of everything else. I pay my 200 Baht entry fee and start walking round a large complex full of temples, spires, sculptures and tourists. However, the real drawcard at Wat Pho is the Reclining Buddha, which has an entire temple to itself because it’s so blooming huge.
As with all temples, you have to remove your shoes before you can enter, but the sheer amount of tourists who want to see the Buddha means there would be hundreds of shoes left at the door. To get round this, everyone puts their shoes in a provided plastic bag and walks round with them. This temple basically has a procession in one door, before you walk past the front of the towering Buddha, round it’s massive feet and finally along the back and out another door. Once I get to see the enormous statue it is a genuine ‘Wow !’ moment. At forty-six metres long and fifteen metres high, the golden Buddha stares impassively ahead while reclining on his right shoulder. With so many visitors I have to wait my turn to take photos, and it’s impossible to get a picture that doesn’t contain other tourists. Normally this would be annoying, but on this occasion it actually gives a sense of scale to the colossal Buddha.
In the evening I go to meet another Couchsurfing host, Nuch, who invites me over to have food with her and her friends. Their place is about 5km away, over the river once again, so I register with the Grab Bike app and am taken there on the back of a motorbike. We sit and eat at a makeshift table in her friend’s Hair Salon, while the occasional customer pops in for a haircut. It’s a tasty shared spread of mixed noodles, salads and a big, fried river fish, all washed down with a beer. I find out that Nuch is originally from Chang Mai in Northern Thailand and has been living in Bangkok and working in one of the hospitals here for seven years. She’s been a Couchsurfing host for ages, but prefers to meet cyclists – she once hosted a Korean lady who was cycling through Thailand and became inspired by her travels. Once the Hair Salon closes the hairdresser joins us at the table, expertly picking flesh from the river fish and making me look like a novice. It’s another good evening and interesting to spend it with locals, rather than fellow travellers.
On the day before departure I have my usual big breakfast, then head upstairs for a poo, slightly worried about what might follow. I’m more than a little relieved to find that things are becoming far more solid in the poo department. I’m definitely feeling like I’m ready to hit the road tomorrow.
That evening I’m able to take advantage of an uncanny coincidence. When I moved to Australia in the late 1990’s, my first flatmate was a guy from country Western Australia called Scotty. Remarkably, he is now visiting Bangkok at the same time as me. It would be amiss of us not to meet up. I get another Grab Bike ride to a Movenpick Wellness Resort where he is celebrating a friend’s birthday. When I arrive I find five half-pissed Aussies in shorts and t-shirts, the only customers in a gleaming, posh bar. The conversation flows, despite not having seen him since 2007, although this might be due to all the beer and tequila sunrises they’ve been downing. I have a couple of slow beers and one cocktail, but don’t accept the offer to continue drinking in their rooms once the bar has closed. I know if I go down that road, there’s no way I’ll be fit to start cycling tomorrow. We say our Goodbyes, with solemn promises not to leave it thirteen years between catch ups next time.
On my Grab Bike back to the hostel, the driver asks about my time in Thailand. Like most locals, he’s surprised and impressed by my upcoming cycle. Little does he know that I’m still trying to get my own head round the fact I’m leaving tomorrow.