City of Angels and Its Playground: Bangkok and Koh Samet

OK, so it is a little backwards…we actually went to the playground first.  After crossing the sleepy little border overlooking the sea between Cambodia and Thailand, we rode the bus from the border to Rayong.  The next morning, we hopped into a songtheaw and headed to the pier, intent on getting our toes into a little Thai island sand.  Koh Samet is considered the weekend playground of Bangkok.  Friday evenings it bursts into life and remains crowded until Sunday afternoon, when the tide of people heads back to the city.  So when you arrive on a Monday morning around 10, you get to see the quieter life of the island.

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From all I had heard, there was a 200 baht charge to enter the beach area of the island, as it is nominally a national park.  However, I had heard rumors that one can breeze past the gate if one is not carrying any backpacks or luggage.  With that in mind, we took a room in a little guesthouse high on the village hill, overlooking the bay.  We got a beautiful view and a taste of the island resident life…and the rumors were true.  Over the course of the next four days, we went in and out of the park at least 15 times, and they never stopped us for the fee!

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That Tuesday and Wednesday, we were able to rent a motorbike from the proprietress of the guesthouse and zip around to all the different beaches on the small island.  From packed party beaches to isolated coves to rocky inlets teeming with life to golden-sanded sunset watching spots, we saw it all.  By the second day, Sangbyeong was also brave enough to snorkel out to some of the shallow corals to see the colorful fish darting below the waves.

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On our first night, we also struck gold.  A tiny, unassuming little restaurant caught my eye with the magic words…coconut cream curry.  Banana Bar does not exactly believe in service with a smile…mostly because the adolescent daughter of the owner is doing the serving…but they do believe in dishing up some truly fantastic curry to explorers hungry from a day of sand, surf, and sun.

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On Friday morning, we bid our farewell to our little slice of luxury and caught a bus straight into the first 24 hours of the military coup in Bangkok.  It was declared at 4:30 on Thursday, just in time to welcome us.  Quite honestly, there was never a moment we felt threatened or somehow in an uncomfortable situation.  We arrived around lunchtime at Victory Monument and walked the short distance to my friend Konstantina’s office.  Konstantina was our last CouchSurfer in Seoul…less than two weeks before our trip, she stayed with us and I took her to a couple swing bars in Seoul.  She had promised to return the favor with some lindy hop in Bangkok.

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She kept our bags at her office while we spent Friday afternoon exploring.  We wandered through the streets for a while, stumbling upon the shopping center that happens to be the most Instagrammed place in the world on the way.  We went to Hua Lampang Train Station to buy our tickets for Sunday, then followed our noses until we came to the Golden Mount, a tall temple complex overlooking the city.  After a tiny squall of wind and rain, we were lucky to see a rainbow glowing over the city…sort of hoped it was an omen of a peaceful resolution to the current political situation.

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That evening, we had planned to go check out the salsa scene in Bangkok that I have heard so much about, but it was not to be…the 10pm curfew and the 9pm cutoff time for the public transportation had led to the cancellation of all the dancing venues for Friday night.  We ate dinner at a local restaurant and chatted with Konstantina over beers in her favorite local bar…a metal bar, of all things!

The next morning, we set out to the one tourist destination in the city I was absolutely intent on seeing, Wat Pho.  We took Konstantina’s advice and road in a water taxi to the pier next to the temple complex.  We entered, but ignored the flow of people, deciding to see the most spectacular and famous part last.  Freed from the stream of tourist traffic, we walked the quiet back courtyards on our own, peeking into windows.  There was a pavilion with stunning wall paintings and many galleries full of Buddhas and signboards explaining each detail of the entire wat.  Turns out it is considered to be the oldest public university in Thailand, as it was a center of teaching and learning since its earliest construction.

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Finally, we went into the hall for the reclining Buddha, famous for its immense size.  Oft photographed, that does nothing to diminish the smallness you feel when standing dwarfed by a 46 meter Buddha statue glowing with gold.  Gazing up, you are constantly hearing a sweet plink-plunk sound that floats over the Buddha like the sound of metal raindrops.  This comes from the row of pots along the back wall…20 baht can be changed for tiny coins that you offer…one in each pot…thus creating the cheerful plonking music of the temple.

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Back outside, we walked in the direction of the Grand Palace…but one look at the price sent us back out into the market to entertain ourselves.  We took the bus and then the sky train to another weekend market, where we bought a few supplies and marveled at the variety of people who turned out to do their shopping…and we also ran into a small protest marching down the street as we headed back to Konstantina’s neighborhood.  That night, we did manage to fulfill the promise of lindy hop in Bangkok.  The swing dancers just decided to meet earlier to avoid the curfew…as it was the Frankie Manning 100 Celebration, we could not just cancel!
Sunday morning, with limited time before our train, Konstantina took us to the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center a few train stations from her abode.  It was the perfect, relaxed end to our time in Bangkok, walking through exhibits on architecture and paintings from Thai artists…and a circular ping pong table to play on!

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A couple hours later, we boarded the Bangkok to Butterworth Express…our time in Thailand finally at an end.  Time for our adventure in Malaysia to begin!

 

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