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  • Writer's pictureAnne B 10milesfrom

Big Trip 2024 Bangkok and surroundings!

Flying into Bangkok, it too was shrouded in haze, mainly due to traffic pollution. 11 million people live here, and the lack of wind at this time of year means nothing disperses the pollutants. An £8 taxi to the hotel took 40 minutes, and we had chosen to stay in an old part of town next to one of the most famous landmarks in Bangkok, Wat Arun. Our little B&B, Ob Arun, was an old wooden building run by an older couple, assisted by their son, or grandson! We never quite worked it out. It was simple, clean and comfortable. Bangkok has sights you must see, but is a busy city, and we were glad to be out of the hustle and bustle. The huge Chao Praya river runs through the city, and is like a motorway. Boats of every size whizz and chugg to and fro, and a complex system of ferries, shuttles and long tail tours and taxis compete for trade. The ferries are amazing, and being 4 minutes walk from the ferry piers, we made good use of them! Fares ranged from 10p to 60p! Not being ones to waste time, we left our bags in the room, and went straight out. A ferry across the river to the flower market, which was full of flowers of all kinds. It operates 24 hours a day, with all the new blooms arriving in the early hours. These yellow flowers are everywhere around temples and shrines, and some of the stalls had people making them into ornate garlands and decorations.

Then we used our Grab taxi app, which we love. Fares are so cheap, and slipping into an air-conditioned car is heaven in the hot sticky weather. A 20 minute ride costs about £2. We headed to the Jim Thompson House, a beautiful series of wooden buildings built by American architect and businessman Jim Thompson, who made Thailand his home when he returned after the second World War.

During the war he had been working with the Seri Thai movement against the Japanese occupation, and was in a special military unit which was the forerunner of the CIA.

After the war, he became fascinated by some traditional silk weavers, a craft that was almost dead at that time. He gradually revitalised it, and publicised the silks in America, where they were used in the musical The King and I, and the film Ben Hur, which brought them to wider attention. He is credited with the rebirth of the Thai silk industry, and his silks were further popularised when the Thai Queen used them in her clothing collection.

The museum is a collection of beautiful architecture. He designed his main house, and the other small ones are reconstructed traditional Thai buildings from across the country. All are full of his personal collection of art, ceramics and furniture.

It was absolutely fascinating, and we loved the mix of Thai and Asian styles - he insisted on indoor stair cases, bathrooms and kitchen, which were not common here at that time. This is a chinese stool, that you put hot charcoal in the bottom, and the heat came up through the holes.

The cat in chinese porcelain is a childs chamber pot!

There is of course a shop selling beautiful, but expensive silk clothing and gorgeous cushions.

Chris was very pleased that there is no spare room in my suitcase! He did manage to continue his research into SE Asian beer!

The final twist in the tale of this house, is that Jim Thompson was, like many Thai people, very superstitious. Astrology is a big tradition here. In 1959 he saw an astrologer, who predicted very bad luck when he was 61 years old. In 1967, aged 61, he was on holiday with friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. He went for a walk and disappeared. Despite a manhunt lasting weeks, and involving US, Thai and Malaysian resources, no trace was ever found!!

Lastly, we took the local's ferry back across to Wat Arun, price 10p! Wat Arun, or the Temple of the Dawn, was built in the early 1800s by King Rama II. His capital city, Ayutthaya, had just been destroyed by the Burmese, so he moved his capital here. It is a large monastery with lots of Stupa memorials, but has 2 real highlights. Firstly, the 82m high central Prang. It is so beautiful, and ornate and colourful.

But look closely. The colour is provided by thousands of pieces of broken Chinese ceramics that were used as ballast in ships, and dumped on arrival. King Rama II was obviously a pioneer of recycling,  as he ordered them to be reused!

The second is the ordination room, which has exquisite murals around the walls depicting the life of the Buddha.

But even a throne room needs hoovering!

We visited on a Sunday. The area around our hotel was full of small shops with beautiful Thai costumes outside. We found out why. Hundreds of Thai youngsters come to rent clothes, have their hair and make up done, and then head to Wat Arun for photographs. All for about £5!

An early start next day for a huge day out in every sense. It was our Christmas present from our daughter and her husband. We were collected by a very comfy car with our lovely driver, Tap, and guide, Ms. Fon, from the company Beyond Bangkok. They took us over 130km north to Kanchanaburi, the start of our day visiting the Burma Railway, or the Death railway as it came to be known. Ms Fon was an absolute font of knowledge, pointing out everything on route, including interesting buildings, local customs and daily routines, and anything quirky, like the fact that the Ronald McDonald figures in Thailand were only permitted if their hands were together in the Thai greeting / thank you pose.

Now to less frivolous things. Our first stop was the Kanchanaburi war cemetery. This is just one of many here, and was beautifully looked after.

After the Japanese overan SE Asia in WW2, they captured over 130,000 allied servicemen, and held them in Prison camps, which were eventually sited from Singapore to Burma (Myanmar). Japan wanted to conquer India but needed a way to supply its troops in Burma, avoiding the treacherous sea routes. So they decided to build a railway through Thailand to Burma. They moved over 60,000 POWs to camps at 5 mile intervals along the projected 258km line. The camps were primitive, lacking basic hygiene or any comfort. Disease was rife, and food was mainly old rice, less than 600 calories a day, whilst working 12 or more hours hard labour. Temperatures could be up to 40°C, and for 5 months of the year they had torrential rain, and slept in mud. Their treatment by the guards was barbaric, being beaten for the slightest thing, and forced to do terrible punishments. Almost 30% of the allied POWs did not survive. In addition, the Japanese 'recruited' over 160,000 Asian laborers, who were treated even worse than the Allied POWs. So much so that it is estimated that 85% of them died. From here we went to look at the 'Bridge over the River Kwai' which replaced the original timber bridge.

It was quite moving to walk out onto it.

Next we caught the train along the actual track bed created by the prisoners. The moving journey took over an hour, and crossed one of the bamboo viaducts.

We stopped for lunch overlooking the river and then drove even further north to the infamous Hellfire Pass. The route for the train necessitated cutting through 25 metre high mountain rock to create a pass. This was mainly done by hand. The Japanese decided they needed the route finished sooner, and increased working hours to 18 per day, and made the men work faster, yelling 'Speedo Speedo'.

More brutal punishments, and men already weak with malnutrition, disease and exhaustion meant more people died here than anywhere else on the railway. Working at night meant oil lamps were placed in the pass, and it looked like Hell, hence the name. The museum here was set up and run by the Australians. It contains interviews with POWs and terrible photos of the appalling conditions, and the state of the men. Then you can descend into the pass and walk through it to the memorial, where a service is held every year. This was a very moving experience.

Our final stop was a place I had read about. Weary Dunlop was an Australian medic who was a POW who worked with improvised equiment and supplies to try to save lives and bring relief to the sick and dying. He returned after the war, and was befriended by a local hotelier who set up a museum in the hotel grounds. It told the story of Weary Dunlop, and had examples and photos of what he was dealing with. They even tried to make prosthetics for amputees!

In addition, there is one of the original railway engines, and these were the metal wagons that the men were transported to the camps in. 32 men in each, in temperatures up to 40°C.

Another room contained the incredible drawings of a British POW, Jack Bridger Chalker, who recorded the terrible conditions in his drawings, plus details of medical conditions and anatomical pictures, and made accurate maps, all of which were hidden from the guards.

What a dramatic, informative and deeply moving day out.

Chris' first father in law was a POW here. He would not talk about his experiences, but lost many stones in weight, and described it as hell.

The next day was devoted to Bangkok itself, and we started early, catching the ferry across to the Royal Palace, and the temple Wat Phra Kaew. The complex was started in 1782, when King Rama moved his capital across the river from Wat Arun. It is an incredible collection of buildings, covered in colourful tiles, more broken Chinese crockery, and copious amounts of gold!

The surrounding cloisters are 19,000 metres long and contain gorgeous murals depicting the Ramakien mythological stories.

Huge demons, once evil, but now the good guys since hearing the words of Buddha, stand guard at all the gates, and all their eyes look to the hall which houses the ultimate treasure, the Emerald Buddha.

The Emerald Buddha statue is just 25 inches high, is 700 years old, and is actually made from a single block of Jade. It is the most important statue in Thailand. No photos inside of course! In fact this is really the only building you can go inside! I did my best!

He has 3 sets of clothes according to the seasons... we are currently on Winter, despite the 36°C temperatures. The clothes are changed by the King.

The second part of the compound is part of the Grand Palace itself, and again, can only be admired from the outside. The main Palace building is a fusion of Thai and European architecture. Any idea what this might be?!

It is the King's platform for meeting, and getting onboard, his elephants! Every home should have one!

Several key buildings were shrouded in plastic for renovations, but at the exit, do visit Queen Sirikit's Museum of textiles, which currently has an exhibition of her gorgeous outfits. No photos allowed!!

About a kilometre away is Wat Pho.

This is an even more remarkable set of temple buildings, stupas and 364 golden Buddhas.

It's crowning glory is undoubtedly the incredible reclining Buddha with the big feet!

This figure is covered in gold leaf, and is 46 metres long, 15 metres high, and has 5 metre long feet! The soles are covered in 108 beautiful mother of pearl symbols of the Buddha's life.

There are 108 bowls along the wall, and you can purchase a dish of coins which you drop into each bowl for luck. You must not miss any, or take any coins away with you though!

A quick lunch in a nice local restaurant, and then we took the metro to Lumpini Park, a green oasis surrounded by high rise Singapore! It is famous, not for ducks, but large Monitor lizards which stroll around in quite a menacing way!

Next we caught the MRT train and a ferry to the incredible IconSiam shopping Mall. It is huge, and contains a vast system of food courts, high end market stalls, live bbqs, and even canals replicating the floating markets. It's 7 floors contain high end stores alongside high street names, and it was busy!! No sign that high street shopping is on the wane here!!

We skipped the barbecued crocodile, and caught the ferry back to our hotel, arriving as the night time illuminations started on Wat Arun. Another great day.

Our last morning in Bangkok, and we took a ferry up the river to Pinklao bridge, and then found our way through a maze of alleys to the Royal barges Museum. The tradition of Royal barge processions goes back 700 years, but was revived in 1959 by the King. The 10 biggest barges are stored here, along with displays of decorations, oars, costumes etc, and 2 interesting films. The barges are maintained by the Thai Navy, and the sailors train for a year to row them in ceremonial displays. No photos allowed, unless you ask very nicely, and then they let me take one...well 2, from the entrance!