A Day in Ayutthaya and a Night in Silom

I’d booked a bike tour of Ayutthaya for Wednesday – and since I am a sad, Mary-Ann-Singleton solo traveler, it meant having to make my way to Ayutthaya on my own via the local train, rather than being picked up in a van like all the superior tourists traveling in pairs. OK, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic – but solo pick up meant paying a $50 premium and frankly, I think I can figure out how to take a train. Nevertheless, I wanted to be sure to give myself plenty of time to get to the station and purchase my ticket – so I was in a taxi to the Hua Lamphong Station by 6AM.

No snags encountered (well, other than the taxi driver dropping me at Hua Lamphong metro station rather than train station – they are close to one another, so NBD, but the intersection I had to navigate was particularly treacherous…) and I got my ticket easily enough. I even sprang for the super-luxurious, extra-fancy 2nd Class ticket, which set me back about US$2.00, rather than the US$0.75 for 3rd Class! It took me a bit to locate the appropriate carriage, but once I did, the 95-minute ride to Ayutthaya went off uneventfully. I even managed to doze for a good portion of the trip, which was nice.

Arriving at my destination and shaking off a highly persistent tuk-tuk driver offering me a tour of the area, I schlepped up the road armed with the highly-stylize map of directions provided by the Recreational Thailand Biking, the operators of today’s bike tour. Even with the assistance of Google Maps, this proved to be quite the most difficult navigation of the day. They referred to the spot I was going as their “office” – which I pictured as something along the lines of a storefront with a sign announcing “Recreational Ayutthaya Bike Tours” or something. Not so much – the office consisted of a non-descript dwelling behind a wall with no indication of what business might be conducted there. The only reason I even found it is was because one of RTB’s vehicles was parked in the field next door and the fellow behind the wheel ushered me over to the “office” – which was really just the small courtyard in front of where the bikes were kept locked up.

I should also add that the advice I was given by the company was to take the 7AM train from Bangkok – which certainly gave me plenty of time, but also meant sitting around waiting for the tour to start for over an hour in a bare courtyard. Perhaps not the most auspicious of starts, but oh well…

Anyway, 10AM finally rolled around and the other bikers and our guide showed up. We hit the road pretty quickly. After a pretty decent ride of several kilometers, we stopped at a rice paddy, where our guide Amm gave us an interesting and comprehensive overview of the role of rice in Thailand’s farming and diet.

The next stop was a local elephant camp. The tour description makes it clear that an elephant camp visit is included – and frankly, that should have been enough for me to re-think this particular tour, but I didn’t. After my wonderful visit to Elephant Nature Park, this camp was pretty grim. Most of the elephants had leg shackles and were chained to poles to keep them from roaming. At least two were chained by their necks to poles right next to them, meaning they could not roam even a few feet. I also saw a number of elephants demonstrating repetitive behaviors like rocking and head shaking associated with stress in captivity. It was difficult to witness and I really did not like being there. I simply sat out the activities there, like feeding and posing with the elephants (for a fee), and hoped the time would go quickly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely true that I was unhappy with the situation for these captive elephants – but I also recognize that this camp undoubtedly provides employment and livelihood for plenty of local residents. And Zeus knows that as a meat-eater, frequent airplane flyer and resident of the earth’s most wasteful, energy-hogging nation, I am hardly innocent. But I really could have done without visiting this particular elephant camp…

Happily, we were back on our bikes soon enough and the next stop was for lunch. A simple open-air place along the river where we served a whole passel of yummy Thai food. We’d been on our bikes for a couple of hours at that point, so the food was super satisfying. And it was another nice group of folks: a couple of gays from Seattle, a mother and her teenage son from the Netherlands and a couple from San Diego. Amm, our guide, was genial and easy-going. We all really enjoyed sharing a meal together.

Back on our bikes and we started making stops at the various temples, ruins and statues in Ayutthaya. This was the main attraction for my visit and I really enjoyed the combination of sightseeing and cycling. Amm was extraordinarily knowledgeable about each location we visited and was well-versed in Thai history, weaving the information together so that we learned about how the different places we visited fit into a historical context.

And while all this history was fascinating, at our penultimate stop, we encountered something really incredible: PUPPIES! We were just standing around, minding our own business, when all of a sudden I felt something around my ankles – and it was the most adorable little white puppy and he was obviously in love with me! I only managed to get one or two decent selfies with my new friend. The fellow from Seattle snapped a few more – but he never sent them to me as requested. The nerve!

At this point we were given a choice of continuing on to one more location or calling it a day. The San Diego folks decided to pack it in – and I was wavering myself, as it was hot as Hades and I was filthy with sweat, dirt, sunblock and puppy drool. But since the other folks were willing to soldier on, so was I.

And I was glad I did! We had a pretty lengthy ride to get there – which was great! Part of the reason I like to take bike tours is because I miss my daily cycling at home. So it’s nice to actually put some miles on (and maybe work off some of that coconut ice cream I’ve grown so fond of…). And our last stop was, I think, the most intact and complex of the sites we visited. We headed back to our starting point – including crossing the river, bikes in tow, aboard a small river boat – and wrapped up a really fun afternoon.

And I’ll confess right now – as much as I enjoyed visiting all the different Wats, I neglected to take any notes. So while I think my photos below are pretty great, I could not tell you specifically which wat is what. Of course, my philistinism is well-known, so this should not come as any great surprise…

I was also able to hitch a ride back in the van to Bangkok. The train would’ve been fine, but I was happy for the AC, comfy seats and no wait. I was under the impression I was getting dropped at my hotel but instead was let out at the Skytrain station. I could’ve taken it a couple of stops to the subway and transferred, but instead I just did the 20-minute schlep. I was already filthy, so why not?

After a glorious and lengthy shower, I met up with Ak and we headed over to Soi 4 and the Telephone Bar, where my friend Nicolas was waiting for us. He’s Swiss and works as a flight attendant – so when he heard I was going to Bangkok, he arranged his work schedule so that he’d be on a two-night layover during my trip! This was great, especially since he’s been to Bangkok many times and knows his way around.

After dinner upstairs, we meandered up to Bas Bar for a few more cocktails. After being suitably liquored up, our next stop was DJ Station (which for reasons I cannot explain I kept mistakenly referring to as DJ Superstar… In fact, that’s the name of the place I gave to the two fellows on my tour that day. Perhaps that’s why I never got those puppy pix. But I digress…), Bangkok’s most well-known gay dance club. I’ll be frank – it’s at this point in the evening that my memory is a bit hazy (jet lag, I’m sure…) but a fine time was had by all and I even got to break it down on the dance floor a bit (though Ak was decidedly unimpressed with my rendition of The Robot. Shows what he knows…) Eventually made it back to my hotel (apparently) and the next morning, I did not wake up with a stranger lying next to me nor with any new piercings or tattoos. If that’s not a successful evening, I don’t know what is!

Thailand: My Adventure Begins!

So, the flight over – it was really long. REALLY long. 10+ hours to Narita, 4+ hour layover, then 6+ hours to Bangkok. I left my apartment in SF at 9AM Thursday and arrived at my hotel in Bangkok just before midnight on Friday. That international dateline is cray…

Now, I could find a few things to complain about (I did fly United to Tokyo, after all) – but honestly? It was fine. Nothing went horribly wrong and I made it to my destination halfway around the world just 30 minutes behind schedule. Plus the United Club in NRT is pretty great (esp when compared to the shopworn, overcrowded dump that passes for a “lounge” in SFO) and there is an excellent sushi restaurant right in the airport.

Anyway, I’m staying at the Riva Surya Hotel in Bangkok. It’s quite nice – and I got a bargain! Can’t ask for more than that. Well, except for hoping I don’t run into the boorish Aussie woman again at breakfast. They have a pretty decent buffet spread, including Western-style breakfast foods like bacon, potatoes, sausage, baked beans, along with eggs prepared to order, plus yogurt, fruit, cereal, rice, noodles, salad, etc. Anyway, this dame was dissatisfied with the temperature of her sausage and potatoes. “These are cold. I’m not paying for this. They’re all cold. I’m not paying for this.” Now, mind you, she continued to eat her other selections (and the cold ones, for all I know) – and it was all I could do not to start quoting Judge Judy at her: “You ate the steak! You have to pay for it now.” Anyway, she was terrible to every one of the apologetic staff she spoke to – each time reiterating, “I’m not paying for this.” BUT YOU ATE THE BREAKFAST, LADY. Oh, also? The breakfast runs about US$10.

Decided to go for a bit of walk. It was still quite early – about 9AM – so the streets were all pretty quiet. I’m not far from Khao San Rd., so I checked it out. Let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea particularly… and I suspect that would go double in the evening. But like I always say, “à chacun son goût.”

But I did want to locate Pai Spa, a place not far from Khao San that seemed to be well-reputed (including a recommendation from my hotel). They didn’t open ‘til 10AM, but the receptionist was already there, so she signed me up for 30 minute foot reflexology and 2 hours (!) of Thai massage and told me it’d be a 15 minute wait. I strolled about a bit, then returned.

I’d never had a Thai massage, so wasn’t sure what to expect. But I explained my recent hamstring injury to my therapist, Jin, and indicated my preference for deep pressure. And let me tell you, she did not fool around. She was def of the school of thought, “no pain, no gain.” She probably spent 90 minutes just on my legs, which thanks to bike riding are always super-tense. Anyway, due to all the attention they required (from Jin’s hands, elbows and feet – which periodically elicited grunts and sharp intakes of breath – I figured either I’d be cured or crippled for life), Jin observed, “I haven’t even done your back yet. Do you want one more hour?” Well, yes, obviously! Oh, and Jin was also using heat therapy during my massage, once she discovered that my whole body is basically a clenched fist made of piano wire – she used a steam-heated ball of herbs to really go after my hamstring and parts of my back. I was also contorted repeatedly while she stretched and cracked various parts of me. And did I mention how nice she was? Thai massage – at least for me – wasn’t super-relaxing, due to the intensity of the pressure. So we chatted, during the time we spent together. She was funny and kind and asked me lots of questions about my visit and my home.

And the verdict? I am healed! Well, at least for the day – I honestly felt like a million bucks after 3 ½ hours (!) of treatment. As of this writing, my hamstring is still giving me twinges, but definitely improved.

After this, I wandered back to my hotel for a late lunch poolside – though more importantly, I saw many cats on the street on my way back!

Had a nap before my Nighttime Bike Tour with Grasshopper Adventures. And what an adventure it was! The group was semi-meh. Everyone was perfectly pleasant, but two pairs of parent friends with their two pairs of teenage boys – they were relatively well-behaved but still: teenagers! Also a friendly couple of Texans who currently work in Singapore, so they were just spending a long weekend in BKK – nice!. And our guide was super.

We started off wending our way through the alleys and side streets surrounding Khao San Rd., on our way to the river. Biked along the river walk for a bit, then hopped on a little ferry to get to the other side. Stopped at a Buddhist temple in time for evening chants, which was great. Also, a Catholic church from the Portugese days, where evening mass was being celebrated with song. Wound our way through more tiny alleys, now off from the tourist track and back across the river by bridge to the quite amazing flower market. Our guide also treated us to sticky rice and grilled pork from a couple of street vendors. Finally, we had a nice visit a Wat Pho – not only was it spectacular, but it was beautifully lit and nearly devoid of visitors.

Oh, and about the time we crossed the bridge, it started to rain – not pouring, but certainly not sprinkling. Anyway, it didn’t dampen (heh) my spirits and certainly made if feel like quite the adventure.

All in all, a pretty full day to start my time in Bangkok. I think I’m gonna like it here…

Tokyo Day 3

Arrived at Shinjuku Station before 7 this morning to board the train for the two-hour trip to Nikko. It was a lovely chilly fall day and the foliage was splendid. Not much to add to that – I’ll let the pictures tell the story.