Saturday, April 14, 2012

Chao Phraya River Exploration

Thailand was once known as the Venice of the East due to its legendary Chao Phraya River that weaves through the major cities of Thailand including Bangkok. For centuries, the Thais relied on the river and its well connected canals system for transportation, drainage, fishing and source of water. Today, the river continues to be a major transportation artery in Bangkok for a vast network of river buses, cross-river ferries and water taxis. Lured by the promise of charming scenery, Bear and I spent a whole day of our trip exploring the important sights along Chao Phraya River.

At about 9am, we began our journey at Central Pier, which is just a stone's throw away from Saphan Taksin BTS Station. 
Starting point, coloured flag at background represent the service routes available
Choa Phraya Express Boat Services, the main river transport operator offers 4 service routes for the local commuters. The boat were marked with coloured flags to represent its service routes. The fares cost around 13B - 32B per trip and were paid on board. Thankfully, I did some prior homework or else I would be confused by the sophisticated service route map. Of course, if you are worried about getting lost, you can always opt for the exclusive Tourist Boat that covers only selected stops.
Boarded the boat after 20 minutes of waiting time
Super 'Airy' boat filled with locals
One of the wonderful thing about cruising along the river is you'll get to see many marvelous sights and landmarks.
Shuttle boat of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
Beautiful Wat Arun from far
After about 15 minutes of cruising, with brief stops in between, we arrived at Tha Chang Pier. Yes, our first stop was the spectacular Grand Palace (400B / No idea why but it was Free on the day of my visit). We strode through the pier market followed by a plaza lined rows of quaint shophouses. From there, we headed straight to the Grand Palace which is right across the street.
Pier market is filled with various food stalls and assortment products
Signs of Songkran - Children playing in the fountain pond
The grand palace is a huge complex made up of numerous buildings structures and pavilions set around open lawns, gardens and courtyards. We took a good 10 minutes walk along its tall white walls before reaching its main entrance. Bear meekly suggested that the Grand Palace should changed its name to Long Palace instead. Thankfully, the interesting sighting of army troops marching by has made the walk a little more bearable.
Royal Guards stood still as Army marches by
Close up view of Royal Guards - Unique pointed cap 
It was barely 10am yet masses of people had clogged the entrance gate. We braced ourselves and joined the slow moving crowd. Meanwhile, we prayed for luck as Bear attempted to get pass the security guards with his Bermuda shorts. Unfortunately, an eagle-eye guard spotted him. So, he had to rent a long pants before rejoining the queue. Lesson learnt: The Grand Palace is serious about its dress code.
After much hassle, we finally set our foot on the palace ground. 
Closest view of highly prized Emerald Buddha I could get
The palace was packed with tour groups. Without little effort, we eavesdropped on a witty tour guide explaining thing to a group of Chinese tourists and managed to learn a couple of things.
Beautiful ancient murals depict myths and legends
Flawless even at close inspection
Gigantic structures are everywhere
A hermit's bronze image, which is believed to have healing powers 
Spotted this Buddha statue at a quiet corner
Glistening golden chedi
Last shot at Grand Palace - Blooming Lotus
It was close to mid day by the time we set off to our second stop, Wat Arun (50B). The temple was once used to enshrine the emerald Buddha before it was transferred to Bangkok in 1785. Since Wat Arun is at the opposite bank, we had to find our way to Tha Tien Pier to board the cross river ferry. Note that it is not the same Pier which we alighted earlier.
Walk along the riverside market to Tha Tien Pier
The river ferry took a mere 5 minutes and the magnificent Wat Arun is right beside the pier. The main feature of Wat Arun is its central prang (Khmer-style tower) which is coated with colourful porcelain cravings.
My favourite Laughing Buddha statue
Climbing the steep steps under the hot sun was a real pain
Catching our breathe while enjoying the terrific views from the top
A closer look at porcelain carvings on the temple wall
Buddha images were spotted inside the sunken walls at various corners
Hand carved statues stood the test of time
Bear insisted that this stone statue is Guan Gong  
Just as we were leaving the temple, we spotted some REAL money notes hanging near the gates. try The money were stapled onto the laundry line like laundry pieces, which essentially gave new meaning to the term 'Money Laundering'.
Literally Money Laundering?! 
Jokes aside, the money notes are actually devotees' offering. Noticed that the 'laundry line' extended all the way to Wat Arun? Beautiful work.
A devotee stapling the note carefully onto the 'laundry line'
Moments after we step out of Wat Arun, my stomach let out a loud growl. It was already 1pm then but we have yet to have our lunch. Nevertheless, I persevered as I knew yummy delicacies await me at our next stop. We quickened our steps to Wat Arun Pier.
Ferry seemed to be full all the time
After 2 ferry rides and some 30 minutes later, we finally arrived at our final stop for the day - Rajainee. Our original plan was to trek around Chinatown area, covering some key attractions. To ease navigation, I prepared a well marked map. However, we gradually lost our sense of direction to the immense heat. Reading map became a chore then. In the end, we trashed the map and simply leave everything to fate. 
A rather barren street
Most of the shops were closed as well
Most people prefers to tour Chinatown in the evening where cooler temperature and busy street makes the tour more pleasurable. I decided to challenge a day trip and paid for the wrong judgement. The barren street reminded me of the scene in Walking Dead. Enough said.

After several rows of empty street, we found ourselves at the entrance of a Chinese temple tucked away in a quiet alley. Thankfully, there was a temple keeper around so we proceed to pray for better luck in touring Chinatown.
Praying for better luck and safety
After walking around aimlessly for another 30 minutes, we were thrilled to see crowd at Yaowarat Road. Turns out that most of the mercantile activities centered mainly in Yaowarat Road, which is notorious for its confusing maze of busy back alleys.Visitors can find various shops selling a wide range of products from gold,  textiles, garments, souvenirs, antiques to even electric goods. 
Never been so happy to see crowds
Countless of stalls were in operation during the day too!
Shop specialises in religion offering
Our original plan for lunch was the legendary 'Coolie Noodles' as recommended by several travel guides. While passing an assuming noodle stall, we could not resist the rich aroma of broth that was lingering in the air. Needless to say, the Coolie Noodle plan was set aside. No doubt we were famished then but the noodle (Kway Teow or flat white noodles) soup we had were so flavourful that we ordered another serving! According to the rather chatty old lady who served us (presumably the owner), the stall has been around for more than half a century.
Simple Noodle soup with great taste stood the test of time
Unassuming stall front served great tasting noodles for half a century
After the noodle episode, we continued our walk and was greeted by some familiar sights.
Gasp! Rice Dumpling
Thank goodness that drinks stall were everywhere
A trip to Chinatown would never be completed without filling our shopping bag with local snacks for the folks back home. Aside these, I consider the lemongrass tea leaves and Tom Yum soup dried herbs sachets great buys as well.
Roasted meat outside a dried food and snacks shop is rather odd though  
Following the strenuous shopping session, we stumbled upon a street of seafood restaurants. We became hungry immediately at the sight of succulent seafood spread. So, we decided to tweak our plans further and have an early dinner. Using his ultra sharp animal instinct, Bear selected T&K restaurant which had the most patrons at the point of time. 
The popular restauarant
Turned out that he made an excellent selection. This air-conditioned restaurant without fancy decor offers an extensive seafood menu at great value. For just 300B (approximately S$12), you can have a generous serving of claypot shark fin soup that is sufficient for 2 small eaters. In Singapore, a portion like this would probably cost easily above $30. With such an attractive pricing, it is no wonder to us that the shark fin soup is popular choice among its patrons. I wasn't a fan of shark fin soup due to ethical dilemma. So, I ordered the fish maw soup instead and was pleased with the quality.
Fish maw soup for me
Shark Fin soup for the bear
Following our dinner, we headed to Siam Paragon Mall for a final round of shopping before heading back to hotel. Well, Siam Paragon is a must stop for most Singaporean female tourist as the branded lingerie are priced about 40% cheaper than Singapore.

Along the way, we were strucked by the sight of party crowd gathered at Silom BTS station. Both Bear and I agreed that it was the highlight of the day.
Crazy water war everywhere  
We also agreed that the best water weapon goes to....
Unfair advantage - Fire Engine 

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