For the first time since I arrived more than five months ago, I crossed the Chao Praya river (not counting the trips to Wat Arun which is just on the opposite bank) and entered Thonburi, the “other side” of Bangkok. How to describe it? In many ways, it is analogous to the relationship between Manhattan and the boroughs. They’re both part of New York, but some people would be inclined to think of Manhattan as the “real” New York while the boroughs are just where the extra New Yorkers live.
Part of this perception of Thonburi is that there is really no good transit linking the sides, yet. Only congested bridges and, if you can get to the waterfront, ferries. Because of that, people on the Bangkok side of the river don’t have much reason to cross to the Thonburi side. Plus, most of the “to do” things are on the Bangkok side of the river.
Some of this will likely change in the next year as when the SkyTrain was built, the elevated tracks were built across the Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge – named for the neighborhood, not the Prime Minister) and for several kilometers on the Thonburi side. Stations were not built and the rails were not laid, but the rest of the infrastructure has been in place for six years. Finally, late last year the Bangkok governor secured financing to complete that extension and it looks like five or six new stations will be open by the end of 2006. As we drove past the tracks, work on the stations is already underway, so the estimate seems reasonable.
So my trip across the bridge was a chance to see how the real locals live. One of the first things I noticed was that there were many more people out celebrating Songkran along the roadside, but that it was being done in a much more festive and much less violent spirit than on the Bangkok side.
What I mean by that is, what I saw over in Bangkok was people by the roadside who seemed to be trying to soak people who weren’t wet and maybe didn’t want to be wet. On the Thonburi side, there were many, many more people of all ages who had set up shop by the side of the road, partying, splashing water on others – and when nobody came by for a while, on themselves.
There were many more pickup trucks loaded with revelers on the Thonburi side, too. And at each of the roadside encampments they would slow down and water would be splashed back and forth, then everyone would cheer and wave at each other, flashing the peace sign, and the truck would continue down the road.
To give you some idea of what we saw, here’s a 50-second video clip:
The real purpose of heading to Thonburi had nothing to do with hunting out the differences in Songkran festivities. Instead, Tawn had arranged for us to spend a night at the Marriott Spa and Resort which is just on the south side of the city on the bank of the Chao Phraya river. The hotels, even the really high-end ones, provide special promotional rates to locals especially on weekends, over holidays, and during the off season. A night at the Marriott, which is one of their nicest resorts and would normally cost about US$ 200, was only $84 for the two of us including breakfast and 20% off dinner at any of the hotel’s restaurants.
The hotel is very nice, indeed. It features three main buildings wrapped around a khlong (canal) and a central pool area. There are palm trees and lush foliage and lots of riverfront footage. Two restaurants overlook the river as does one bar and the central pool area. The interiors of the buildings are done in a modern Thai style with lots of antiques and silk upholstery. Our river-view room overlooked the pool.
We checked in mid-afternoon and enjoyed a stroll around the gardens. The sky was overcast and threatening rain and as the storm front approached the winds picked up, breaking the heat, so we sat at the Riverside Terrace and had pre-dinner drinks. Pink Europeans and bronzed Japanese booked on the sunset dinner cruise crowded beneath the covered walkway waiting to dart through the raindrops and down the pier to the good ship Manora Song.
After changing for dinner we proceeded downstairs to Trader Vic’s – the local branch of the tiki tiki dinner chain that originated in Oakland, California in 1932. We had reservations for an outdoor table. Even though the rain had stopped and the table was under the terrace, the wind was still very strong so we changed to an inside table right next to the window. The restaurant was not yet busy but filled considerably as our dinner went on.
Trader Vic is known for, among other things, creating the Mai Tai cocktail. It popularized Polynesian food or, more accurately, the Americanized version of Polynesian and South Pacific food. Taking it for what it is – namely, not authentic – the food is still really good and is very fun. I started with a chevice-style fresh salmon salad, Tawn with a crab soup. Then for a main course, Tawn had a fried duck and I had a jerk chicken. All were tasty and a slightly sweet Riesling complimented the spicy richness of both the duck and chicken.
Dessert included a show-stopper: Crêpes Suzette prepared en flambe table side. The accompanying Grand Marnier soufflé had no flash in the pan but was very tasty nonetheless.
Dinner was relaxed, the pace leisurely as the attentive staff allowed us to have a long dinner spent mostly reminiscing about the trips we’ve taken and the memorable meals we’ve eaten along the way. After dinner we took a stroll along the riverfront, digesting and seeing just a big of the Thai cultural show that is provided to diners in the family restaurant.
Sunday morning was a lazy one for us; we barely made it down to the breakfast buffet before its 10:30 closing. The selection was wide and the quality good, especially the fresh fruit. The restaurant was crowded and full of family and families, all having a good time. The coffee was strong and we both had a second cup to fuel our final day of the long weekend.
After stopping for an hour long foot massage at the oddly western shopping arcade in the front of the hotel (with McDonald’s, KFC and the Pizza Company just in case any of the guests felt homesick) and then packed out bags and checked out.
From the riverfront of the hotel, we could see an unusual looking temple further down the river. It looked more like a series of open pavilions. Curious, as we left the hotel we continued down the left bank making a pair of u-turns after overshooting the rather obscure entrance to the temple. The entrance was just an ornate gate set against an ordinary residential neighborhood. A small one-lane driveway snaked through the shops and houses until it spilled into a larger courtyard surrounded by temple buildings.
Everywhere around the temple there were elementary age novice monks. Tawn explained that this was the equivalent of a summer camp, Songkran marking the beginning of Thailand schools’ summer vacation. Sunday was visiting day and parents were seeing their children, mothers resisting the urge to hug their sons in respect of the Buddhist provisions not allowing monks and women to touch.
Unlike most temples, the main building was a nondescript three-story concrete block with offices and rooms inside and a steep staircase climbing up the side. On the tiled rooftop were four different pavilions, the ones we had seen from the hotel. Each contained various Buddha statues all overlooking a wide bend in the Chao Phraya.
A dozen novices were on the rooftop mostly staying in the shade, playing, running, practicing kickboxing moves on each other and behaving in a generally non-monastic manner.
Even with the breeze, the tile floor of the roof was incredibly hot and I descended, sweaty, ready to get back into the shade. In a tent by the main building the signs of completed daily chores were stacked neatly: upturned aluminum dishes and saffron wrapped alms bowls had been washed and were drying in the afternoon heat. A middle-age monk carted large bags of donated rice across the courtyard, each step a meditation.
We returned to the comfort of the air conditioned car and headed back on the road, crossing over Saphan Taksin and once again into the city. Traffic was getting heavier, the millions of people who had left the city for the weekend slowly and reluctantly returning.
The long Songkran weekend came to a cool end, temperatures dropping Sunday evening into the balmy and comfortable mid 80s. Having done all our housecleaning before heading to the hotel, we had an evening free and so spent it watching Failure to Launch, which was a bit better than I had feared.