It started out like any other tourist trip to Thailand. A few days in the laid back Northern town of Chiang Mai, a week with the Russians and Germans in a Phuket resort, and was to finish with a couple of days in Bangkok to see some attractions and do a little shopping.
What could go wrong?
We started Bangkok in the most touristy way possible, a visit to the Grand Palace, and I can assure you that the description is quite apt, it is extremely grand.
We started Bangkok in the most touristy way possible, a visit to the Grand Palace, and I can assure you that the description is quite apt, it is extremely grand.Over 6 million gold-plated mosaic tiles were imported from Italy to cover many of the buildings and even though they say “all that glitters is not gold”, around the Palace it most likely is!
After being dazzled by the large, shiny objects it was on to tourist destination number two. The Reclining Buddha truly is something special to see and also something truly difficult to photograph well due to the size and location of this lazing giant.
This is where I mention the fact that I took some poetic licence with the name of this post as we actually had two nights in Bangkok, but then I would not have been able to cleverly use the “Chess” reference.
The following morning was the time to visit the enormous Chatuchak Markets. Reputed to be the largest outdoor markets in the world with over 15,000 stalls selling everything from food, to clothing, to monkeys and chickens (alive of course, cruelty is one thing but morbid is another altogether)
A useful fact about the markets, and common sense would probably suggest this anyway, but there is definitely not 15,000 stalls selling different products. In reality there are probably 100 or so which are then replicated over 100 times, so it would usually be very hot and quite boring after the first hour or two.
However today was not to be the “usual” day. We had stumbled in during a fantastic festival celebrated across Thailand called Songkran. It is the Thai New year celebration which is in April and has three main focuses.
The first is to pour water over the Buddhas head to signify cleansing as you enter the New Year. A Buddha statue is used, as pouring water over the head of the real Buddha would be disrespectful and a little creepy.
Number two seems to be the need to put coloured flour on the cheeks and foreheads of everyone you pass. It is a bit of fun until the crowds start to get a bit large.
And finally it is a chance for everyone, regardless of age, race or familiarity, to drench every other person around by any means available. As the picture above shows, local littlies were having a great old time with their water guns and didn’t discriminate when it came to finding a victim.
My favourite experience was seeing the stereotypical hunched, elderly asian lady hobble towards me. She looked up and smiled a broad, warm and friendly smile. And then she whipped out an enormous Super Soaker and drowned me with the whole tank full of water. She then marked my cheeks with red and yellow flour before wandering on to fool another Songkran noob.
As we left the market to head back to the hotel I decided to pause and take the photo above. I liked the rainbow of taxis and the crazy patterns of people and transport. What I didn’t notice while I was taking this shot was the vehicle just off camera to the left.
It had no place being where it was and really made us wonder why it was seemingly abandoned. We would find out when we turned on the news back at the hotel.
Apparently we had just missed witnessing the beginning of the 2009 Bangkok riots. Some “Red Shirt” protesters had stolen the tank and driven wildly through the city before being forced to dump the tank and run.
We decided eating at the hotel restaurant was the smart thing to do that night. The decision was easy when it was between bad food or being caught in the middle of the growing rebellion.
The following morning we woke to news that government buildings were surrounded by protesters, and several fires had been lit at major intersections throughout the city. But the reporters assured tourist areas were quite safe.
We decided to spend the day in the nearby shopping centres as it doesn’t get much more touristy than that. 10 minutes later heavily armed police were ushering us out of those “safe” shopping malls and locking the doors behind us. The intersection nearest our hotel now had a small presence of protesters and it looked like the start of another blockade.
During the previous protests a few years earlier the roads to the airport had been closed so a decision was made that we would head that way as soon as possible.
Let me tell you, the ride to the airport with pillars of black smoke rising across the city, and sporadic gunfire heard in the distance, is nowhere near as bad as 13 hours sitting in Bangkok Airport waiting for a flight.
Now that’s something that should be protested!