USSR 1991

USSR 1991

USSR 1991

 

On the way to the hotel last night, I arranged a four-hour “whirlwind” overview tour of Bangkok for 10:30am to 2:30pm today, ready to depart for the airport at 3:00pm to catch our 6:00pm flight to Moscow.  I’m really glad I did that as everyone has had a great day exploring Bangkok today, which was something of a relief considering how hastily I organised everything.

I woke up this morning at 5:30am after having only got into bed last night at midnight; I suppose I was still functioning on Sydney time – and pumped a little with adrenaline.  The “American breakfast” was certainly American, even down to the mini-pancakes with maple syrup.

After breakfast I wanted to go on an orientation walk in the area around the hotel.  The word got around, so several other members of the study tour group joined me, not that I minded in the least as they lacked the confidence to go out alone.  The hotel is certainly not located in a touristy or especially noteworthy part of the city, but much of the appeal of the walk was simply that – it was a walk through a fairly typical, ‘ordinary’ neighbourhood of Bangkok.

I had noticed on a map that there was a railway line just a short distance from the hotel, so I headed there first hoping to see some nice shanty housing as I knew from past experience that they are generally found along Bangkok’s surface railway lines.  I wasn’t disappointed.  A fine line of shanties had been built over a swamp beside the railway.  So we ventured away from the railway line over the frail, sagging boardwalks above the water to enter the shanty areas.  It’s fair to say that the local population was quite surprised to see four foreigners strolling past their homes, but they were all smiles and very welcoming.

All the sights and (nice) smells that are associated with authentic Thai life were there – the small spirit houses in the tiny wooden stilt-houses, no front walls, food cooking in large woks, chooks and ducks wandering everywhere, and so on.  Needless to say, I took lots of (hopefully good) useful photos.

From the railway line I saw the roofline of a Buddhist temple, so we headed back along the railway line in search of it.  When we reached the temple, named the Wat Buranasiri Mattayaram, we saw that it was actually a large complex that included a monastery and school (which was closed, being Sunday).  The monks’ saffron robes were hanging out drying in the yard, and some of the monks were collecting buckets of water from the canal which ran along beside the temple.  In the stillness away from the noisy, bustling roads, it was a truly enchanting scene. 

We walked through the temple grounds and over to the school, where a group of boys was playing marbles ignored us and kept on playing in a very focussed manner using the pads of their longest fingers to shoot the marbles.  The temple building itself was quite magnificent, but it was the serenity of the atmosphere, with the monks going about their daily chores that made the experience genuinely delightful.

We headed back to the hotel on Bunsiri Road , and the contrast in noise and exhaust fumes was excruciating.  It was during that walk I remembered how Bangkok is a city where it it is impossible not to be able to hail a taxi.  I’m sure that at least a hundred taxis and tuk-tuks stopped beside us to offer a lift or a “tour”.  One tuk-tuk driver stopped six times to try and talk us into taking a ride, but I refused politely with a smile each time.  It seemed to pay off in its own way when we got back to the hotel at 10:00am and found he was parked nearby.  He came up to me as I walked in, gave me an enthusiastic “thumbs up” sign and told me he thought I was good because I smiled a lot.  Either he was making a p[ass at me (which I very much doubt) or it provided evidence of the old story that it pays never to get angry in Thailand.

The tour I put together last night departed at 10:30am.  All the members of the group decided to come, and at 300 baht ($15) it was a real bargain.  We began by going down to the Chao Phraya River and hiring a long-tailed water taxi for a trip along the river and through the canals of Thonburi.  The floating market was almost non-existent because of the late hour, but there were many other things to see – dozens of elaborate temples, sawmills and other factories (including a workshop making ornate coffins), shops, houses with ladies washing and children swimming in front, and so on.  The day’s rain started while we were going along the canals, but it was not torrential, and as the boat was covered, it didn’t really matter.

We re-entered the Chao Phraya near Wat Arun and disembarked before visiting the Marble Temple.  I hadn’t been there before, and it was certainly worth seeing, even though the monks were all down at the opposite end of the grounds, as is apparently customary in temples supported by the king, and unlike local temples such as the one we had stumbled upon during our earlier walk.  The temple was built from marble imported from Italy, and is about 70 or so years old.  Its interior was very elaborate and it housed a huge, gold Buddha image.  It was interesting to note that there were almost no Thai devotees there, though.

From the temple we went to two shops.  The first was a Thai handicrafts workshop where magnificent carved furniture was being crafted.  The second was a gem workshop where the prices for beautifully styled government-guaranteed jewellery was quite cheap.

Our drive out to Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport was quite fast as Sunday’s traffic is much lighter than weekdays – which is just as well as we arrived at 4:00pm to find our Aeroflot flight had been rescheduled to depart at 5:00pm instead of 6:00pm.  Moreover, it had also been rescheduled to stop for re-fuelling in Dubai rather than Bombay.  Still, we made the flight with time to spare as departure wound up being delayed until 5:30pm.

Our flight was on an Ilyushin Il-62, registration CCCP-86564, flight number SU556.  The Il-62 is a classic long-range airliner with four engines at the rear that was originally designed to handle trans-Atlantic flights from Moscow to Havana, Cuba.  The flight was perhaps the smoothest I have ever experienced – even when I placed my hand against the sidewall of the cabin, I couldn’t feel any vibration whatsoever.  The aerodynamic engineering must be phenomenal.  The flight may have been smooth, but it was also smoky.  I was seated immediately in front of the first row of smokers, and they lit up while we were still on the ground before take-off!  I overcame the problem to some extent by turning on the air jet, which was very strong but also very cold.  There were only a few blankets on the plane and I was lucky to get the last one – it was draped over my legs and even with a pullover on, I was fairly cold.  Dinner was plain but very welcome as I had missed lunch.

My final thought as I drifted into slumber is that I’m looking forward to stretching my legs in Dubai as the plane’s seats are THIN.


Day 2

Bangkok, Thailand

Sunday

29 September 1991