From Siem Reap’s tiny international airport, we took the short, cheap hop to Bangkok. After a flight time of an hour and ten minutes was announced, I looked up 30 minutes in the flight to wonder what was causing some turbulence just as we landed.
I didn’t really take to Bangkok. We landed in a soup of humidity, and endured a long taxi ride into town which switched between sitting at a standstill and aggressively weaving in and out of the traffic. While we took it easy that first day, apart from indulging in a trip to the cinema at the glittering mall complex in Siam Square, the oppressive heat and on-and-off heavy rain wore me out. One of the things that strikes you immediately about Bangkok, after having spent almost a month elsewhere in Southeast Asia, is that it is easily the most modern, large, and well-developed city in ‘Indochina’. One of the important reasons for this was revealed in our trip to the Siam Museum the next day: the US used Thailand as a military base throughout the late twentieth century, which led to an influx of dollars and a deliberate strategy to build up Thailand as a counterpoint to the poverty of the other nations in the region. That first night, though, we just enjoyed our Hollywood blockbusters, jumping awkwardly to our feet along with the rest when the Royal Anthem played before the film, and being puzzled by the roadblocks and huge crowds we had to push our way through on the drive.
We were staying close to, but not on, the legendary Khao San Road, backpacker heaven in Bangkok. This reflects, I suppose, our status as slightly older travellers; we’ve not much in common any more with the American college kids trading Valiums they got in Vietnam, but we are travelling more cheaply and more extensively than the family and package tourists. Usually, this works fine, but every now and then I look around on a group tour and wonder exactly how we ended up in this company.
Bangkok is richly supplied with interesting temples or wats, and we stumbled first on Wat Pho, which contains a 160-foot long golden statue of the Reclining Budda. The scale of the Buddha is fairly majestic, but after a while even enormous and serenely smiling gold statues can lose their awe. We also visited the nearby Museum of Siam. I balked initially at an asking price of 300 baht (£6), but entering the museum, it’s immediately clear where your money has gone. The museum is modern, highly interactive and very well curated, walking you through the history of Thailand from the earliest discoveries of civilisation there, through to 20th and 21st century history and its future. It tackles the question of what it means to be “Thai”; although ethnic Tai is the largest ethnic group, there are dozens of others, including a strong Chinese and Tai Chinese presence. I didn’t know either that a side-effect of Thailand’s (“land of the free”) change of name from Siam in 1939 was to acknowledge this ethnic diversity, and create a country which didn’t so strongly imply that only those of Siamese ancestry ‘belonged’.
We also took a tour of the Royal Palace, for which an eye-watering 500 baht (£10) was charged. The Royal Palace is a staple sight of the city, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej holds godlike status for the people, but in this case the entrance fee wasn’t close to justified. While the palace complex is large and contains a number of beautiful gilded temples, buildings, and statues, the Bangkok visitor can see equally beautiful traditional structures at wats for a fraction of the price. Don’t feel afraid to skip it if you’re in the city.
We also took advantage of some of our time in Bangkok to do general life maintenance; getting a haircut, doing laundry, and just resting from the madness of travel and a huge, chaotic city. As we drove to the bus station for our journey north to Sukhothai, protests were hotting up; concrete barricades and heavily armed riot police had appeared on the streets. Trust us to escape a typhoon and end up walking right into a threatened coup.