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A Lotus flower

On my last full day I made it to two destinations: the Jim Thompson house, and Wat Arun, a temple on the river.

The Jim Thompson house was the house of one Jim Thompson, an american who settled in Bangkok after the second world war. He apparently became interested in the history of Thai silk making, and the further production of cloth from that silk. He was apparently instrumental in re-starting production of silk, and of silk products, using craft workers in Bangkok. In the following years (basically, the 1950s) he built himself a house near the location of his workers, and lived there. The house is actually made up of several old teak-built wooden houses, brought to the site from other parts of Thailand, altered, and put together to form a new and quite large structure. It’s located not far from the overhead railway so I was able to get there easily.

I had been looking forward to the visit – the Jim Thompson house is highlighted in many guide books – but I was disappointed when I discovered that it takes the form of a guided tour of the house lasting maybe 40 minutes or so. There’s no opportunity to explore or indeed to revisit any rooms that you’ve already passed through. I suppose that’s unavoidable; there were a lot of visitors, and while the house is a good size it’s still a domestic house, so it would be impractical to have people wandering around in all directions. (At least with a guided tour all the visitors are moving in the same direction….) It’s also the case that the house is furnished and decorated, and on the walls are many apparently rare and certainly beautiful Thai objects, and again with a guided tour visitors are under the eye of a guide all the time. More disappointingly, photography of the house interior is not permitted.

So this was not the experience I’d been looking forward to. The house itself is characterful and attractive, and the objects on display are beautiful and fascinating; I would have loved to be able to explore at my leisure – but not so. In fact, on the way out I think I found the actual point of the place – a Retail Opportunity! There is a Jim Thompson Foundation shop, in which various items made from Thai silk can be purchased – at a price. For example, over-the-shoulder tote bags started at just above 4,000 Thai Baht, and went up from there. At just about 40 Baht to £1, that’s a starting price of £100. To be fair, there were cheaper items, e.g. scarves and silk squares, but it was the bags that caught my eye – they were beautiful. Anyway, here’s a link to their website to give you a feel for the full range of their goods, and the prices (in €).

During the afternoon I visited Wat Arun, a Buddhist temple on the river. It takes the form of a Stupa – a sort of tower, with various outlying sub-towers. You can climb so far up it but not all the way – which I was glad of, as the steps are steep and in places a bit dilapidated. This was interesting and dramatic, but very, very hot – this was mid afternoon, the sun was out, and there were quite large crowds. The queue on the pier for the tourist boat back was especially hot, but while it was uncomfortable there were no real problems. Once I was on the boat things improved a lot – indeed, it was on this boat ride that I took a lot of images in the previous post.

 

In the middle of the day – i.e. between the Jim Thompson House and Wat Arun – I made an impromptu visit to an arts centre in the middle of Bangkok, and in many ways that was the best part of the day. I found a photo exhibition by a member of the Thai royal family – images taken on her travels in 2018. (I have a feeling that this is an annual exhibition; after all, who in Thailand is going to say ‘No’ to a Princess?) The quality of the images was varied, but all were attractive. The internal architecture of the building was stunning – it was on about 9 floors with a huge open atrium – and it had cafes, etc, on the first couple of floors. So this was where I had my lunch that day, in lovely air-conditioned coolness! So all in all, not quite as good a day as the previous two. But I still enjoyed the river boat ride and the Arts centre, and although the visit to Wat Arun was hot, the architecture was stunning.

And that was my visit to Bangkok! I was up before 5am the following morning in order to get to the airport for a 9 o’clock flight to Dubai. Once I was there I embarked on P&O’s Oceana for a 10-night cruise around the persian Gulf, and you can find a summary post from that, and links to detailed posts, in my Cruise blog, here.

I’ve mentioned the river in a couple of other posts, but this one will major on it and provide some images.

Running broadly north to south, there are many historic or religious sites on the river, or very near to it. It seems to be the main highway for the older part of the city, and in addition to the river itself, there are a number of canals leading off it that connect into the deeper parts of the city. I gather that formerly there were more canals, and travel by boat along the river and/or the canals was the main way of getting around. In recent decades, and especially during the building frenzy of the 80s and 90s, a number of the canals were filled in and either built over or converted to roads – my previous post shows some of the results of that!

Nonetheless, the river itself is still a transport artery with boats of various types running up and down it. These seems to fall into several different categories. There are some basic passenger boats, often only running in the early morning and again during the late afternoon/early evening which serve the needs of local people getting to and from work. Then there are some older, smaller boats that operate as water-borne delivery trucks. As expected, there are large, more comfortable (and more expensive) tourist boats, collecting passengers from the main access points and connecting them to the tourist sites all along the river; there are some very large boats dedicated to evening dinner cruises; and finally, a more recent development has been the appearance of smaller boats operating as shuttles for the luxury hotels and other developments along the river-side. The architecture varies as well, from beautiful and well-maintained historic or traditional sites, to run-down older spots, to modern high-rise developments; and often these are are in startlingly-close juxtaposition.

I went up and down the river on all three full days I was in Bangkok, and I enjoyed it. Lots of variety, some breeze, and constant change of scenery – wonderful. Here are some images:

Head of a Buddha – about 1500 CE

For my second full day I visited the National Museum. This is housed in another former palace not far from the river, and not far from the Grand Palace. Getting to it involved the by-now usual ride on the SkyTrain and then a boat up the river.

The museum could best be described as ‘eclectic’ – the collections of objects are very varied. Most of them are housed in old buildings of the former palace, and each collection room holds objects that are thematically linked. For example, there’s a huge building that holds the Royal Funeral Chariots and their various appurtenances – whenever a leading member of the Thai royal family dies there’s an elaborate funeral ceremony and their remains are conveyed on one of these chariots. (Which chariot is used depends on their status within the royal family.) Then there were displays of weapons and warcraft; puppets, and puppetry paraphernalia (puppet dramas were apparently a leading art form within the court); and old textiles and garments.

There’s also a new gallery showing artefacts, mainly statues and sculptures, from pre-history down to recent times. Many of these are statues of the Buddha, in the various ‘attitudes’ that are regarded as correct. The statuary all originates from sites that might be described as ‘Greater Thailand’, but also display attributes that reflect whichever culture (Thai, Khmer or Burmese) was predominant in that part of Asia at the relevant time.

I spent perhaps three hours wandering around the museum, and enjoyed it greatly. In contrast to the visit to the Grand Palace the previous day, this site was not especially crowded; in deed, at times I was alone in front of a display.

The highlight was being able to visit the Buddhaisawan chapel. Like other Thai religious sites, the decoration, ornamentation and craftsmanship on display is extraordinary. This time I was able to get a picture – photography was not prohibited.

I found this day easier than my first full day. It was no less hot, but I was better able to cope with it and keep going. It was easier to ignore my discomfort, if you like.

Bangkok – Downtown

I found Bangkok to be a city of great contrasts. On the one hand there was the Chao Phraya river and all the historic sites along it, filled with treasures of amazing artistry and beauty; and on the other, there was the downtown area, which … wasn’t.

The image above is an example of what I mean. That’s Sukhumvit Road, a busy road in the downtown area. You can see three levels of development. At the bottom is the actual road, a wide dual carriageway packed with cars, four lanes on each side. At the top level (second floor) are the platforms of the SkyTrain station, with the escalators and stairs going up to it. (This is just an ordinary station, ‘Asok’, not the main station in the city centre.) Being a railway line, that second floor level just continues on for miles, of course. Then in the middle, at first floor level, there’s more stuff. In the middle of the picture is a plaza for the SkyTrain station – the ticket booth and machines, the ticket barriers, and the bottom of the steps and escalators up to the platforms, and also (not visible in this image) the top of the access steps and escalators from street level. One the left-hand side at 1st floor level is an access walkway to the ‘Terminal 21’ shopping mall – you can see the link from that straight into the SkyTrain station in the middle distance. And finally, what this image doesn’t really show is that this 1st floor structure continues under the SkyTrain level all the way to the next station, and onwards. Between the stations it’s an elevated pedestrian walkway, with regular access stairways down to street level – there’s an image below that shows this better. All that concrete, and all in 35° heat…. not much Thai grace or beauty on display here!

Below are a few other spots that I just took quick snaps of.

 

On my first full day I visited the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This was the home of the Kings of Siam from the 1780s to the early 20th century. Unfortunately, the day I was there the halls of the actual palace seemed to be closed – at least, I couldn’t find any way into them. But the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and all the associated shrines, statues, etc, were open so I concentrated on them and just walked through the palace grounds later. First, though, a few words about getting to the location, and my first impressions of Bangkok.

The site is close to the Chao Phraya river, which runs along the western side of the main city. The river is very wide and busy, with boats of all descriptions running up and down it and calling at a large number of piers on both sides. There are many traditional and historic sites along the river – various temples and other sites, including the Grand Palace (which actually sits a bit away from the river, but not far). Included in the various boats was the ‘Tourist Express’ boat, and this was the one I used. But I had to get to the river first, of course, and it turns out that there’s a SkyTrain station at the main pier on the river. (In fact, of course, it’s the presence of the SkyTrain station that’s made that pier the ‘main pier’.) The SkyTrain is an elevated railway with two separate lines. It’s modern, clean, and blissfully air-conditioned. This was important as Bangkok was very hot all the time I was there – 35° every day, and no lower than 27° or 28° in the evening.

The Grand Palace is one of those places that have a dress code – basically, no shorts, no skin-tight leggings, skirts below the knee, and covered shoulders and midriff, for both genders. The way it was applied was a little strange (or even unhelpful). Continue Reading »

Bangkok – Overview

lotus_flowers

Lotus flowers

I’ve just had a short holiday in Bangkok; just four nights, which gave me three full days. This was in the context of a longer holiday which included a 10-night cruise from Dubai on P&O’s Oceana. The few days in Bangkok were before the cruise, and you can read about the cruise here, in my Cruise Blog.

As usual on my trips to Asia I flew with Emirates from Manchester, which gives me the opportunity to break up the journey with a transfer at Dubai. This does extend the overall time from about 13 hours to 17 or 18, but I think that being able to stretch my legs for up to three hours at Dubai airport does me good – I’m really not sure how well I’d do with a non-stop flight of 13 hours or so. So I was on a flight from Manchester at 1:30pm on Monday 4 February, arrived at Dubai at just after midnight local time on the 5th, boarded an onward flight to Bangkok at about 3am and arrived in Bangkok at around 1:30 pm, local time. As ever, the flights were long and boring, but thanks to the comforts of Emirates’ A380 aircraft were not too not too uncomfortable; and being able to have a break between the two flights was definitely a good idea.

I stayed at the U Sukhumvit hotel in Bangkok. This is a four star hotel in the Sukhumvit area of downtown Bangkok. I found it good in some respects but not so good in others. The good points were that it was competitively-priced, the staff were friendly and helpful and there was an excellent roof-top pool, bar & restaurant area where I took most dinners. The room was a good size, was clean, and pretty much everything worked. The bathroom especially was very good, and there was plenty of storage. However other aspects of the room were rather uncomfortable. I could never quite get it cool enough, and generally felt a little warmer than I really wanted to. Secondly, there was no chair or table, just a high work surface under one of the windows, and to sit at this there was a high stool. I just wanted a simple chair that I could sit in and plant my feet on the floor!

The hotel’s location was a bit mixed as well. It was up one of the lanes off Sukhumvit Road, and it was a 10-minute walk from the main road to the hotel. Getting down to the main road was OK, in that the hotel had a free tuk-tuk service on demand to take you there, and once arrived at the road there was a modern mall with shops of many kinds, a station on the SkyTrain elevated railway, and a number of bars and restaurants. The problem came with getting back to the hotel. It was necessary to walk from the main road, and at the end of the day that 10 minutes’ walk seemed very long and hot – especially after enjoying the truly impressive level of a/c on the SkyTrain. But at least being half-a-mile up the lane meant that the hotel was quiet – Sukhumvit Road itself was insanely busy, well into the early hours.

So I got to the hotel in the late afternoon on arrival day. After showering and changing, I explored the area, which basically meant going down to the main road, wandering around the mall, checking out the SkyTrain station, and then wandering back to the hotel. I’d had a small meal before I did any exploring, and later had an even smaller meal during the evening. But I wasn’t late to bed that day, after spending so many previous hours travelling.

My holiday ended on Wednesday. I was at the airport by 11 o’clock, in the air before 2 o’clock, and getting through UK Border and baggage reclaim between 4:30 and 5pm UK time. I got my car back at 5 o’clock and after successfully negotiating the M25, M40, A43 and the M1, I reached home shortly before 9pm – can’t complain about that. Then there began the post holiday round of unpacking, washing & ironing, of course.

So what did I think of the holiday? After all, this was my fourth visit to Crete in successive years – am I all ‘Crete-d out’? Well, there were times when I was beginning to think so. However, my overall conclusion is that I enjoyed it and I had a good time.

I came to like Heraklion a lot. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was surprised that the town didn’t make more of its port; well, I think I’ve got over that feeling. What I came to realise is that Heraklion isn’t primarily a tourist town, or a resort – it’s the capital of Crete and most of the restaurants and bars are catering primarily for a Greek population. In fact, given that it’s a good-sized city it’s an urban, educated and professional population at that. The number of tourists in Heraklion itself is quite small, I think, and is dwarfed by the local population. Once I’d realised this, I came to enjoy it. Most of the people I was seeing were therefore local people getting on with their lives.

In contrast, Agios Nikolaos was completely touristy. That was probably the most unsatisfying day of the holiday – I got hot and tired and didn’t really discover anything new. And I found the restaurant I visited for lunch less welcoming than the non-tourist restaurants in Heraklion. Little things – in Heraklion, no sooner had you taken your seat in a restaurant or bar but a glass of water would be placed in front of you, together with a small bowl of nibbles, all free of charge, whereas at the restaurant at Ag Nik I had to ask for water, and when it came it was in a bottle that I had to pay for.

Chania, too, shared some of the touristy aspects. The harbour front is undeniably beautiful and I always enjoy walking along it, but it’s also the case that the greeters at the restaurants are undeniably pushy, and again you can get charged for things that you’ve come to take for granted in other places. (Of course, I do recognise that you also get that amazing view.) I enjoyed visiting some lest touristy places, so here’s an honourable mention of the Galileo Cafe, which is on the harbour front, and the Melodica bar on Sifaka, away from the harbour altogether. And I enjoyed really exploring parts of Chania that I’d not been to in previous years – the Splantzia area, for example.

So overall it was a good holiday. But next year I don’t think I will be returning. There will hopefully be other family events happening, on dates that aren’t yet known, so I won’t be making any plans for the late spring or summer.

Crete 2018 – Chania

Chania Harbour from Kastelli (iPhone)

I finished my holiday with a couple of full days in Chania. I had been wondering what I would do with myself – was I mistaken to have gone back there for a fourth time in as many visits? – but the answer was ‘no’. It’s as beautiful as ever, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I do enjoy just walking around.

Of course I refreshed my memories of the places I already – the lanes around the harbour, the walk out to the lighthouse, and the climb up to Kastelli overlooking the harbour, and I enjoyed seeing them all once again. But I also managed to find one or two places that I hadn’t visited before, the Archeological Museum of Chania, and also the Splantzia area.

The museum was OK. To be truthful, there’s no way it could match the the glories of the Archeological Museum in Heraklion. Chania doesn’t have a Knossos on its doorstep, and while there has been a settlement in the Chania area for a very long time, it seems as if it was always a minor place in the high Minoan period (proto- and neo-Palatial periods) – it only came into some prominence in the later post-palatial or Mycenaean period. And of course, the fact that Chania was then built on top of Kydonia doesn’t help archaeologists – in a place like Chania you can only dig when a site is available, which isn’t often. But there were some lovely Roman mosaics in the museum; indeed, I would say that it’s stronger for remains from the Classical and Roman periods than the Minoan.

I enjoyed exploring the area around Splantzia square. I’d seen (from a distance) one obvious sign of its existence on each of my previous visits, the minaret of Agios Nikolaus church, but had never been able to get up close. This time I did. But what’s a minaret doing on a church? Well, the answer is that after the conquest of Crete by the Ottoman Turks in the 17th century, most churches were converted into mosques, and gained a minaret; then when Crete became fully independent in the early part of the 20th century, the mosques were converted back to churches and the minarets demolished – except (in Crete) in the case of this one. The church was originally part of a Dominican monastery, and there are some ruins in the area around the existing church that I assume data back to the monastic period. Since the Dominicans were a western (Catholic) order, I believe that the monastery would date from the Venetian period.

I also did a sunset cruise. I’d done one of these on my first visit, on the good ship ‘Irene’ and I was disappointed to see her moored up in a far corner of the harbour looking rather sorry for herself – lots of rust streaks and generally not in a good-looking condition. But I found that the sunset cruises were being run this year in a smaller but still traditional boat, and on my final evening in Chania I went on one. It was pretty much the mix as before – a short boat trip out to an island a couple of miles off Chania harbour; sit there in the gentle swell for 40 minutes or so while some people went for a swim; then enjoy some refreshments of fruit and raki; and then as the sun dropped below the island, the run back to the harbour. It was advertised as being from 7:30 to 8:30, but in the event it was more like 7:45 to almost 9pm.

And after that I spent the rest of the evening – until quite late, actually – in the Melodica cafe-bar on Sifaka just outside the Byzantine walls. I’d visited it last year on a hot afternoon, and did the same this year, but this was the first time I’d visited during an evening, and I certainly had a relaxing time. Excellent Cretan wine, and a bit of conversation – recommended. It’s definitely not a tourist place – I was the only non-Greek person there – but welcoming and peaceful.

Chania Harbour from the breakwater

Sunday was the day I transferred from Heraklion to Chania. This was to be by bus, and I already know it would be a long journey – anything up to three hours. Check-in time at my hotel in Chania was two o’clock and I wanted to be there no later than that. There was also the fact that I couldn’t really get any lunch until after I’d checked in, which was another argument for getting to Chania as close to check-in time as possible. So I walked down to the bus station (getting rather hot in the process) and arrived there at just after ten o’clock.

The buses run every hour on the half-hour, and I was able to get a ticket for the next bus, at 10:30. I’m never sure if they check how many tickets they’ve sold, but probably they do – the buses are generally full, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen people refused boarding at the starting point. Anyway, this bus was certainly full on leaving Heraklion but it slowly lost passengers as we went westwards. The main exodus was at Rethymno, which is about two-thirds of the way to Chania. But progress was fairly leisurely, with frequent stops and some departures from the main road – for example, the bus went into the centre of both Rethymno and Souda, from each of which it then had to get back onto the main road. All in all it was almost three hours three hours after leaving Heraklion that the bus rolled into the familiar surroundings of Chania bus station. The ticket cost just €15.something, which was a bit more than I remembered.

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The Venetian Loggia, Heraklion

On Saturday I spent a final day in Heraklion. I went out early in the morning (well, ok, “early-ish”) to re-take some shots of places that I’d taken a couple of days earlier and wanted to repeat, and that hour or so went well. I still hadn’t visited the Archeological Museum so that was on my list of things to do, as was just exploring the city – and putting together in my head the various places I’d strolled through so that I had a better map of it.

First target was the Venetian Loggia, and I think I got better shots of it today. I also learned its secret – it’s not, in fact, Venetian at all; it’s a (very) faithful reconstruction of the original Loggia. Apparently, the original (which was first built in the early 17th century) was damaged a number times over the following centuries, by earthquake, fire and battle. The Ottomans re-purposed it, of course, but with Cretan independence in 1898 proposals began to be made to restore it. However, nothing came to fruition – indeed, exactly the opposite, as the first floor was demolished around the time of the first world war, and then the remaining ground floor was similarly demolished. Nonetheless it was “restored” following the second world war, though I’m not clear on how much was restoration and how much was reconstruction. Nevertheless it’s a beautiful building and worth photographic attention. If I’d been keener I’d have gone out even earlier, but I’m on holiday after all.

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