FROM THE VENICE OF THE EAST TO CHIANG MAI BY OVERNIGHT TRAIN
Historically Bangkok was crisscrossed by klongs (i.e. canals), and so gained the nickname “Venice of the East”. These narrow waterways were once used for transportation and for floating markets, and were an iconic symbol of the city. Most of the klongs of Bangkok have long since been filled in, but a few remain in the areas West of the Chao Phraya River. So that’s where we headed for the morning to ride a traditional long-tailed boat through the klongs of the city. For the afternoon we passed by Wat Pho, home to Bangkok’s giant Reclining Buddha, before boarding our overnight train for the Northern city Chiang Mai.
Just across the river from the tourist-filled and traffic-congested areas of central Bangkok if Thonburi, one of the city’s oldest suburbs. The klongs have never been filled in and made for an interesting morning’s touristing today. We hired a long-tailed boat (so named for their distinctive shape) and set off, expecting to be wowed by the idyllic canals of “The Venice of the East”. Like the waterways of the real Venice, however, Bangkok’s canals are not really that romantic. The water was muddy and quite pungent – not the kind of stuff you want to drink (which is why we spent the entire boat ride with our mouth firmly closed, guarding against the possibility of getting a mouthful of the rather unsavoury looking river water). Still, at times the klongs were quite picturesque and we’re really glad we ventured out to experience this unique aspect of Bangkok.
Crooked wooden houses, floating markets, old bridges, and elaborate temples crowded the water’s edge at various times. We whizzed past them all in our long-tailed boat, belching diesel fumes and smoke along the way.
Some of the old wooden houses we passed were obviously abandoned, with roofs caved in and thick greenery growing over them. The dense vegetation was jungle-like in its density, a testament to voracity of nature in this part of the world.
It was interesting to see the 2 worlds of prestige and poverty side-by-side: some of the homes we passed were enormous concrete mansions, complete with swimming pools and grand entertainment areas, whereas many were tiny wooden shacks reminiscent of an older Bangkok.
As our boat ride ended we crossed the Chao Praya River and our dour captain dropped us off at the main pier in front of the Grand Palace. Getting off the boat was quite an adventure in itself, with the waves from all the passing boat traffic causing our narrow vessel to pitch around like a cork. Neither of us fancied a swim in the river however and were very happy to make it on to dry land unscathed.
We stopped here for a quick lunch at a tiny street-side stall where you could choose between pad thai* with chicken, pork, or tofu. It was a pretty busy place and seemed to be clean, but it still made Shane a little nervous to be eating in such a basic establishment**.
*This is the easiest “go to” meal in Thailand we’ve found so far – it’s just stir fried rice noodles wok-tossed with spices, egg, a few veggies, and some kind of protein. Quick, easy, and delicious!
**Good news is we were fine! The food was delicious and no one got any tummy upsets – the key is to eat where everyone else is eating and go for the simple, cooked stuff.
After our quick lunch we walked just past the Grand Palace to Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
Wat Pho is the oldest and largest Buddhist temple in Bangkok; it is home to more than 1,000 Buddha statues, including the Reclining Buddha – which at 46m long and 15m high is the largest Buddha in Thailand.
The temple complex consisted of numerous buildings and stupas*, all beautifully decorated in the typical Thai style we have already come to expect and admire.
*A stupa is essentially a Buddhist reliquary containing the remains of revered Buddhist monks or nuns.
In one of the halls we came across rows of Buddha statues, some standing and displaying their palms in a gesture of peace, other seated posed as if meditating.
A number of large Chinese statues were also positioned around the complex, guarding the gates of the perimeter walls. Some of these even appeared to have Caucasian features! These stone statues were originally imported as ballast on ships trading with China, and it is believed the European-looking statues are modelled on Marco Polo.
Central to the temple complex was the Ordination Hall, the main hall used for performing Buddhist rituals, and the most sacred building of the complex. Inside the hall, sitting atop a large pedestal, was a gilded Buddha statue in front of which a ceremony was being performed. We didn’t want to disturb those inside and so settled for admiring the outside of the grand hall and what we could see of the inside from the doorway.
We learned as well that Wat Pho is the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. It was here that the techniques and science behind Thai massage were first codified, with plaques around the temple describing the principles. There has been a Thai massage school at the temple for centuries, and still today students attend to learn about massage and traditional Thai medicine (which seems to combine both Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine principles with Thai herbal lore).
Wat Pho really is a fascinating temple, and was well worth visiting. By the time we finished touring the temple, however, it was pretty hot and we were glad to get back to our hotel and its air conditioning!
We had pre-arranged to keep our room until 4:30pm, knowing a shower would be welcome before we set off for Hualamphong Station, Bangkok’s main train station*. From Hualamphong Station we caught an overnight train for Chiang Mai, about 750km North in the mountains of Thailand.
*There are a few ways to get to Thailand’s hilly Northern reaches from Bangkok: bus, train, or plane. The train was the best compromise between speed, cost, and convenience, and came highly recommended for getting good views of the countryside too.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect at Hualamphong Station or on board the train, but were pleasantly surprised to find the train station was clean, organised, and well stocked with eateries and places to buy drinks and snacks*. The train too was very clean, with the included dinner simple but tasty. Definitely a good start!
*Truth be told we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how tidy and well organised Bangkok is in every sense. For such a big city (population 12 million), it’s just so clean too! It’s fair to say we can’t judge the whole country by just Bangkok, but it bodes well for the rest of the country in our eyes.
The train pulled our of Bangkok around 6:30pm (a mere 20 minutes late), and we were served dinner shortly after. We chose to travel in 1st class, which means we get a bed to sleep in (rather than just a seat like in 2nd class). The carriage attendant is coming to make up our beds soon (I drew the short straw and got the top bunk), and we’re hoping we’ll get SOME sleep tonight! The train sure does rock and roll an awful lot though – not sure how easy it will be sleep with all that motion… Ah well – wish us luck and tune in tomorrow to find out how we fared on the overnight train to Chiang Mai.