Friday, April 9, 2010

Bangkok, Thailand, Overall Score Card

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 29, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

We got up and did our toiletry and then finished stuffing the rest of our belongings into our suitcases. We didn't need to be at the airport until late afternoon, so we had the morning to kick around. Ann wanted to walk down to Sukhumvit Road and look for a couple of extra presents. We locked our most valuable things in the safe and then locked our bags.

We rode the shuttle down to the end of the block, then turned right and started looking for stuff. There were lots of t-shirt sellers. We settled on black Hard Rock Bangkok shirts. After bargaining a while, we left with three and continued our search. We crossed over the road and headed back towards the hotel. I saw a bedspread with gold elephants on black.

When we got back to the hotel, we had a drink in the lounge area and got some lunch.

I'd reserved one of the hotel's cars to take us to the airport at 2 p.m. That's the travel time they recommend, as you can never predict Bangkok's traffic flow. At about 3:15 the cab pulled up in front of the departures terminal. We found the Singapore Air check-in counters, but we were early, so we found a bench across from the counter and sat.

The counter opened at 3:45. Ann checked in and got her boarding pass, then I handed over my passport and threw my bag on the scale. The woman at the counter handed me my boarding pass but said that my bag was over-weight and that I needed to go down to the post office and buy a box to transfer some of the contents out of my bag into. It took some back and forth before I sighted the post office in the northeast corner of the building.

I hurried back to where Ann was watching my bags. We cleared some space and I assembled the box and opened my bag. I filled the box with all my clothes that needed to be laundered. I taped the box shut twelve ways from Sunday, wrote my name on the side, and went back up to the counter. She checked in both my pieces and handed me my baggage tag receipts.

Security is long and involved here. I ended up almost totally undressed by the time they were done with me. Ann found me as I was lacing up my boots and rearranging my garments. We were looking for gate D3 and the VAT counter to get the tax refund.

We found the VAT counter and I took my receipt and forms up to the window. The clerk examined my forms and smiled. He said I wasn't due a refund because I didn't check in at the VAT office in the outer section of the airport. I said that I still had a couple of hours until my plane left and wanted to know how I could get to the other office so I could get my hundred bucks. He just smiled again, saying impossible, and asked me to move aside so the next person could be served.

Travel Tip: VAT ripoff. Just be forewarned that there are at least two places where you must have your receipts stamped in order for you to be eligible to have your money refunded. Seems to me that the Thai government makes it as hard as possible so they can keep your money.

Singapore Air Flight 12 left on time and arrived in Singapore a little after 10 p.m. We had another 12-hour layover, so as soon as we disembarked we walked straight to the transit hotel to get a room for the night. We stood in line, and just before we got up to the counter, we heard them tell the person in front of us that they were full up, no more rooms available.

We spent the night roaming the shops and amusing ourselves window shopping until 1 a.m., when the shops close. A lot of the eating places stay open all night. We found a Burger King on the second floor and had a late dinner, then found seats in one of the television lounges and hunkered down to spend the night.

When the stores opened at 6 a.m., we were up and about, visiting the washroom and trying to clean up as much as possible.

The departure screens finally posted our gate number and we moved down the concourse to wait for our 9:45 flight.

From Singapore we flew to Tokyo and had a one-hour layover, then on to Los Angeles.

After touch-down Ann and I went through passport control and claimed our bags. I knew I'd be a while in customs, so we said goodbye there. Sure enough, when I got up to the man, I was sent over to the problem line. But I was lucky compared to Ann, she still had six hours of flights to get back to Minnesota.

I find flying from west to east exhausting, but all in all, it was a great trip.

I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to give "rgd-travels" the once-over.

Ronald G. Dunlap and Ann K. Marsden

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 28, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

This was our last full day in Bangkok and our last full day of this trip.

I found the buffet breakfast at the Aspen Suites to be excellent, especially once the wait staff got to know your tastes. I had the usual, eggs over easy, bacon, toast, pineapple juice, a couple of Danish, and a Diet Coke. As Ann finished her coffee, we discussed what to do, and she mentioned that she'd like to go back to Wat Po and get the full body treatment. I said that was fine, because the massage was done fully clothed.

We caught the shuttle down to Sukhumvit Road, where we hailed a cab. It took a little over 20 minutes to squirm through the morning traffic before we pulled up in front of the north entrance. You need to buy a ticket to get in even if you only want to go to the massage school.

We bought our tickets and were assigned to two masseuses whom we followed into the massage room. I was surprised at how crowded the room was. They found two empty beds and we went into the dressing rooms to change out of our pants and put on some of the loose-fitting, long-legged shorts that they provide.

They put your valuables in a flip-top compartment at the head of the bed.

I'm old, but I still go to Gold's Gym five or six times a week. My masseuse kept complaining that I wasn't flexible enough. I guess I was wearing out her hands. When she got to my back, she had to stand on me with all her weight to move things around a little. She was unhappy.

Ann finished first and started retrieving her valuables from the flip-top compartment. She didn't realize that it was only hinged, with nothing to dampen the movement. So once she let go, the lid fell shut with all the force of a gun shot. I had my eyes closed, and because the room was so quiet, it sounded like a bomb going off. Scared the crap out of everyone in the room. Score one for the uncouth Americans. I grabbed my stuff, tipped my masseuse, and got the heck out of there. Laughing once we were outside, we found the exit and made our way to the river.

We were looking for the Tha Tien dock that was close to the Royal Palace. As usual, there was a refreshment stand that caters to tourists. Purchasing some drinks, we found the ticket window, bought day passes, and took seats in the shade of the dock's awning. The next ferry was heading up-river so we got on. It's really pleasant just being on the river. Much cooler, and the breeze is so refreshing. Ann read in the booklet that Phra Athit dock gave access to the Banglumpoo section of Bangkok. This is supposed to be a sanctuary for backpackers and those traveling on a budget.

First thing I noticed is that there were tons of Westerners in every size and shape. There are lots of ads directed at them for home-stays, youth hostels, cheap hotels, and travel agents promising the cheapest airfares available. We walked around shooting anything that looked interesting for the next two hours. From clothing stores to a large Buddhist shrine, we just snapped away. At 3:30 we'd had our fill and returned to the dock to catch the boat down to the lower end where we could hook up with the Skytrain. At this time of day the boats were packed with commuters, so we ended up standing the whole trip.

We needed to get back to the hotel early so we could pack and relax a little before the traumatic effort of returning to our normal lives.

We had an early dinner and then I went down to the reception desk to settle the bill and reserve a car to take us to the airport tomorrow.

I'd left laundry out for this morning and it was back in time to put into my bag as I packed and repacked.

Lights out at 10:00.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bali, Cambodia, and Thailand: September 27, 2009

All material including photographs are ©2009 Ronald Dunlap / Doglight Studios

We were up early again and did our usual routine. Out front of the hotel the only taxi at the cab stand was the same guy that had driven us yesterday. As we were walking past, he came over to talk to us. He knew we were unhappy with yesterday's outing and offered to take us to Ayutthaya for half price. I said we'd do it if we could pay him at the end of the trip, if we were satisfied.

Ayutthaya was the ancient capital of Siam between 1351 to 1767. It faded into history as a result of being sacked by a Burmese army. Today, it is still one of the spiritual centers of Thailand and is popular with both tourists and the Thai people. Ayutthaya is located 40 minutes north of Bangkok, and we made good time, getting to the outskirts just before 8:30.

The city is big, and you can't hope to see it all in one day. The usual plan is to visit four temples, spending thirty minutes to a full hour on each one.

The first temple, Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, was built in 1357 and is still an active religious center. We bought our tickets (THB 50 each), and made our first encounter, the Reclining Buddha. It was early, so there weren't many visitors to disturb the beauty of the place. The Reclining Buddha was restored in 1965 and is partially covered by a large ruffled orange robe. His face looks spotted, but close up one can see that it's patches of gold leaf. The devoted buy the gold and annotate the statue with it. Maybe in a hundred years the whole face will be covered.

From there, we went to the main stupa with its many Buddhas. I climbed up and spied a garden that looked very interesting. I found my way down and walked to it -- it had residences for the priest that lived there, and was very lovely.

The building that houses the main Buddha was crowded with worshippers bringing offerings and praying. I waited at the side while Ann explored the interior. I'm a little shy that way.

Our second temple was Wat Mahathat. It's more of a ruin than any of the other sites; there isn't much activity other than tourists walking through. The Buddha's head is surrounded by tree roots; it is used in much of the advertising for Ayutthaya. Decades ago, the head had a sloppy restoration that spoiled its look, making it cartoony. Outside of that, I couldn't find much to recommend a visit here. There is one building that had what looked to be attached papyrus columns, giving it a somewhat Egyptian feel.

On the way to the third temple, we stopped at an elephant ride concession to grab a couple of shots of the elephants carrying clients out to visit the surrounding monuments.

Temple three was Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This was a combined working Buddhist temple and much older Buddhist ruins; at least that's what I think. There isn't much specific information about the temple, but its image graces the tickets of all the sites in Ayutthaya.

I walked around the working temple and found the entrance gate to the older section, where I paid my THB 50 entry fee. A local camera club was conducting classes at the front, so I moved around to the back and climbed up one of the three stupas. I got into a door-like recess and shot the stupa across the way. Someone had decorated the area with Bird of Paradise flowers. I had to watch my footing, as there was a gaping hole a couple of steps in back of me that I could have fallen into.

I shot for a while, then headed back to the taxi. On the way, I walked past a beautiful young lady who was playing a musical instrument with a sign asking for donations for education. I wasn't sure if it was for education in general or her education. I took a couple of pictures of her, but I could see that she was a uneasy, so I made my $1 donation and continued on. It took Ann another 20 minutes to finish her shooting. While I waited, I just relaxed in the taxi, which was parked in the shade of a very large tree.

The last temple, Wat Chaiwatthanaran, was built in 1630 as a memorial to King Prasat Thong's mother. Fronting the Chao Phraya River, this is one of the most popular destinations in Ayutthaya. At one point in the city's history, scavengers beheaded some of the Buddhas, carting them off for sale, and stole bricks from the temple's superstructure. In the late 1980s the government of Thailand stepped in and began restoring the place. Today, this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are helping to fund a moveable concrete barrier to protect the site against flooding when the river rises above normal levels.

This had been a much better experience than yesterday -- we hadn't been taken advantage of -- and we were feeling a bit better. On the way back to Bangkok, we asked the driver to drop us off at Jim Thompson's house, which had been converted to a museum-like experience of a traditional teak house. Jim Thompson was an American expatriate who single-handedly revived the Thai silk textile industry in the 1950s and 60s. A lot of mystery surrounds this ex-military intelligence officer who disappeared on Easter in 1967 in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. No one's sure what happened, but there are lots of theories.

We got there and found that you have to purchase a ticket for a tour of the house and then wait until your group is called. We decided to get lunch in the restaurant but missed our tour time in the process, so after lunch we went into the silk shop. I got a scarf similar to the one I had bought in Siem Reap, as it helps with cushioning the camera bag strap. Ann bought a couple of silk pieces as gifts.

It was early afternoon as we walked up to Sukhumvit Road and turned east towards our hotel. We did some shooting of the Siam Paragon shopping center and the street scenes, then hailed a taxi and went back to Patpong to get some shots of the architecture in the afternoon light.