I've just been lucky enough to have my folks visit me in Thailand for the eighth time in less than twenty years. It's always a very challenging situation for me because they invariably arrive with two 'new best friends' and new best friends always want to see everything that this magnificent city has to offer. Over the years - and in the company of several husband and wife couples - we've been to the Grand Palace five times, Wat Arun on probably half a dozen occasions, and we've spent more time at the POW cemetery in Kanchanaburi than a world war two historian. We've bought T-shirts in Mahboonkrong, had trousers altered in Central Chidlom and stood in more rooms in Jim Thompson's House than probably even the silk king himself ever did. But all good things come to an end. I waved them a tearful goodbye at Suwanabhum airport on Saturday morning and hung up my tourist guide's cap for at least another year.
What these family visits give me is the opportunity to get out there and see Bangkok through a tourist's eyes. I mean instead of moping about my house in Samut Prakarn and shouting at the the garbage-men for leaving litter on the drive-way. It's nice to remind yourself what the capital has to offer for the package tourist on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation or perhaps the jet-lagged traveller on a two-night stopover. Anxious to ring the changes this year - and because Ma and Pa were staying fairly near the river - I was determined to finally get to grips with Bangkok boat travel. Not the mad boats that ply the smaller canals but the glorious vessels that chug up and down the mighty Chayo Phrya river. As both a non-swimmer and someone who listens to far too many stories of people falling into polluted Bangkok waters, I've made avoiding boat travel one of my missions in life. Perhaps it was time to conquer the fears that had built up inside me for so long. One glance at a decent Bangkok map tells you that moving four elderly people around on water is always going to be preferable to organising two metered taxis and instructing the driver to 'follow that cab - and don't you dare stop at any gemstone shops'
BTS Saphan Thaksin is definitely the place for all things nautical. Just a few short steps from the river (follow the tourist throng), you can catch all manner of cross-river ferries and tourist express boats at one convenient location. For the real skinflints you can even hop a shuttle boat to one of the lavish 5-star hotels on the other side Then you can wander around the hotel lobby to waste a bit of time and jump the shuttle boat back. But for those not comfortable with 'cheating the system', the normal Chyao Phrya express boat will take you all the way to Nonthaburi (a journey of some 45 minutes) for just 15 baht. It must be the world's greatest travel bargain. Even more so if you've ever harbored a perverse desire to see Nonthaburi.
I felt like a whole new world had opened up to me. To see Bangkok from the river is to see Bangkok at its very best. Old colonial buildings with immaculate lawns stand side-by-side with dilapidated factories and the ramshackle corrugated iron lean-tos that belong to the capital's forgotten river folk. Nothing gives you a more varied and exciting taste of Bangkok than a quick trip up river. And as you drift and bob at each of the thirty pier stops between Saphan Thaksin and Nonthaburi you see suburbs of the city you didn't realise existed. There are numerous riverside restaurants you make a mental note of sampling and old forgotten temples that even those with the severest cases of 'temple burnout' wouldn't mind exploring. Take a boat up the river - you'll be glad you did.
Hats off to Ayutthaya
We decided to spend a day in Ayutthaya and journey there by train. I quickly came to the conclusion that this old capital city is somewhere I've sadly neglected. Firstly it's just a couple of hours from Bangkok and secondly it really does have some lovely attractions and georgeous old ruins. My wife can't remember the last time she set foot in Ayutthaya. That's nothing short of criminal because it's a delightful city with so much to offer. But first a word or two about train travel.
My word, hasn't Hualampong Railway Station changed over the past few years? All I could remember from my visa run days were grubby people sifting through garbage bins and overweight women selling dubious-looking chicken-on-a-stick. Now Hualampong has embraced the KFC / Black Canyon Coffee Shop era and waiting for your train is more enjoyable for it. You don't even need to look for the information booth these days. In front of the computerized ticket office, there are smartly dressed staff armed with all manner of timetables and leaflets, who are not only a mine of information but deliver it in impeccable English. Now that's what I call progress! How far we've come from the run-down information desk with 'back in five minutes' scribbled on a piece of cardboard or a bored-looking female clerk who when quizzed about the platform number for the Chiang Mai train would often give you a choice of three.
One thing I still don't understand is the disparity between the price of a second-class ticket and a third-class ticket to Ayutthaya. Second-class tickets get you a numbered seat in the filthiest air-conditioned railway carriage imaginable featuring crud-covered windows you can barely see out of and all the mosquitoes you can swat. You do get an unappetizing complimentary meal served in a polystyrene box but it hardly justifies the cost of over 300 baht per person. Third-class travel on the other hand is a mere 20 baht per person and you get to sit in a far cleaner carriage with windows open to let in the country breezes. Not only that, but in third-class you experience by far the most enchanting aspect of train travel in Thailand, namely the sellers who walk up and down the aisle dispensing ice-cold drinks from plastic buckets and beef jerky with sticky rice. Trust me - third-class travel wins hands down.
I'm not sure who's responsible for the tourist authority in Ayutthaya but he / she deserves to be shaken warmly by the hand. One of the more disagreeable aspects of travelling by train (or bus for that matter) in Thailand is that moment when you disembark and find yourself besieged by half the local population - all wanting to take you somewhere in their preferred mode of transport, be it car, jeep, open-sided truck or go-kart - and all for a price of course. I've always found it a most distasteful activity to start negotiating schedules and itineraries the moment you step from a train. You always try to project an air of 'I'm in control so don't be quoting me over-inflated prices sunshine' - but the local knows he's got you. You're a stranger in a strange town. Exit the station alone and all you're going to be doing is negotiating mile after mile of hot dusty road flanked by tyre service bays and Suzuki dealerships. The unofficial tour guide has got you well and truly over a barrel.
In Ayutthaya, they've handled the problem very well indeed. There's a large notice-board on the station platform displaying clearly the names and photos of all licenced tour guides and drivers. The guides themselves are kept off the station giving you ample time to compose yourself and pay a quick visit to the station loo. Once refreshed you're ready to tackle the tour guides head on. We approached a young gentleman by the name of Pong and he gave us a straight deal at 200 baht an hour for three hours. He was polite and courteous and spoke excellent English. He took us to all the usual temples and ruins and a few I hadn't been to before. It really was a marvelous few hours spent in his company and not once did he attempt to steer us towards a tourist scam. After the trip, I was only too happy to sign and write a testimonial in his notebook. Well done Ayutthaya!