Sunrise along the Seine

The most peaceful time to see any city is the hour before sunrise, when it is just beginning to wake. On my final morning in Paris, I woke up early and headed to the River Seine to catch these views of the city.

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With the help of the internet, I was able to determine not only what time the sun would rise but also from what direction. Comparing that against a map of Paris, it was not difficult to figure out that I would need to be somewhere between the Jardins du Trocadero and the Pont de Bir-Hakeim to see the sun rise somewhere behind the Eiffel Tower. It was easy enough to flag down a taxi at 5:30 on a Saturday morning and within ten minutes I was walking down the terraced Trocadero gardens towards the river.

The most beautiful colors are actually in the hour before sunrise, I find. So as the sun neared the nearly clear horizon, I started walking east along the river, down on the footpath that lines the Right Bank.

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There are numerous houseboats moored along the river, beautifully maintained and many available to hire for river cruises. In the distance you can see the bridge (Pont de Bir-Hakeim) from which I shot the previous picture.

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The tower is so large that it dominates your view. It looks different from various perspectives and I enjoyed watching how this changes as I walked along the river. Eventually as the river curved, I crossed to the other bank to keep the sun across from me.

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About a kilometer along the river, just past the Pont de l’Alma, is Promenade des Berges de la Seine, a public park and promenade that includes five interesting floating gardens, barges that have been turned into public parks similar to the High Line in New York City.

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Nearby was La Boudeuse, a 100-year old three-mast ship built originally in Hollande but now moored in the River Seine after a renovation a few years ago. This photo appeared in Instagram and has been tampered with a bit for effect.

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Looking back at the Pond des Invalides, the lowest bridge crossing the River Seine.

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Another kilometer or so and I arrived at Musée d’Orsay, the beautiful former train station that is now a fine museum. The Beaux-Arts exterior was glowing in the morning sun.

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Another half-kilometer along the river there is another turn at the Île de la Cité comes into view, sitting smartly in the middle of the river. It is one of only two remaining islands in the river and is the site of the medieval city was.

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Finally, I reached the end of my nearly five-kilometer walk along the river, crossing over to snap this picture of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This beautiful walk gave me the chance to contemplate Paris on my own, watching as it went from a sleepy sunrise to a gradually awakening city.

 

James Bond on the Khlong Saen Saeb Express

After two trips to the old city on Saturday to visit a lock store (which gave me the opportunity to see horses on the expressway while driving there), I needed to make a third and final visit on Monday, since the store was closed by the time I arrived on my second trip Saturday.  This time, facing the prospect of weekday traffic, I decided to ride the Khlong (canal) Saen Saeb express boat into the old city.

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I’ve written before about the Saen Saeb express boat in an entry about a journey on seven modes of transport in Bangkok.  It is an 18-kilometer water route that cuts east-west through the middle of the greater Bangkok area, running from the northeastern outskirts of Bangkapi all the way to the edge of Rattanakosin Island, stopping adjacent to the Golden Mount.  While the water is filthy and the boats are very crowded during rush hour, the express boats are not only an interesting way to get around, they are also a bargain with fares topping out at 20 baht, or about 65 American cents.

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While the inbound ride was packed – some 50 people sitting and another 30 or so standing – the return trip from the heart of the city at 9:00 am was almost completely empty, just me an a handful of passengers.  This gave me a chance to appreciate the breeze, which makes the canal express boats one of the coolest ways to travel.  However, with the murky water sometimes splashing over the plastic barriers, your risk of Hepatitis A infection is also higher on the boats than on any other form of transit.

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While enjoying the less crowded ride back home, I noticed the safety equipment that is lashed to the inside of the boat: flotation devices with a rather sinister man demonstrating their proper use.  His reminds me a bit of Sean Connery as James Bond.  What disturbs me, though, is not that James Bond is demonstrating the floatation devices.  What disturbs me is that the man appears to be standing in water that is only hip-deep.  If you’ve seen the water in Khlong Saen Saeb, you wouldn’t blame him! 

 

Traveling with Gary and William to Kanchanaburi

Even though Tawn and I had a chance to visit with them in Los Angeles just a few weeks ago, it was a pleasant coincidence that Gary and William had scheduled a trip to Bangkok for the end of June.  We were able to see them several times during their visit, and they invited me to travel to Kanchanaburi Province with them to visit the Tiger Temple.

First stop was the town of Kanchanaburi itself, about two hours northwest of Bangkok.  This town, located on Maenam Kwai (“River Kwai” – pronounced “kwae”), is the site of the bridge made famous in the 1957 David Lean film, Bridge Over the River Kwai.  We made a quick stop at the very good Thai-Burma Railway Centre, the better of two museums in the city about the building of the bridge.

Next, after a delay of about 45 minutes, we jumped on a train pulled by a 40+ year old GE diesel engine for a trip across the bridge and about an hour towards the Burmese border. 

Riding in a nearly antique (but still considered standard, third-class quality by the State Railways of Thailand) car, our interest quickly faded as the passing scenery blurred into a hazy green.

William, leaning out the window, takes a few shots of the countryside.  Fear not, we were actually stopped at a small country station when he did this.  Otherwise, he would have been whacked in the back of his head by overgrown bushes alongside the tracks.

A lone motorcyclist travels a country road as we pass a pair of houses.

Young rice grows a vibrant green in rich, volcanic soil.

Can you identify these crops?  Our tour guide disappeared for most of the train ride, but I was eventually able to learn that these are cassava plants, from which tapioca starch is obtained.

After much too long on the train, we disembarked at a dusty whistle stop and boarded our van, which had been chasing after us.  About twenty minutes later we arrived at the Tiger Temple.  The temple itself started out as a forest monastery in the mid-1990s.  Over time, the monks came to care for insured birds, an injured boar, and other animals they either encountered or were given to them.  The large grounds of the monastery developed into something of a wildlife sanctuary.

In February 1999, the first tiger cub was brought to the temple.  The cub had been orphaned by poachers and then had been sold to someone who was going to have it stuffed.  The cub survived the botched procedure to euthanize it and was brought to the temple.  Over the next few years, other orphaned cubs were brought to the temple and the head monk cared for them in following the principles of compassion for all living beings.

My last visit there was five years ago and the temple has developed quite a bit.  It remains a very popular tourist destination and the visitors’ fees go to support projects to protect the tigers.  The temple has also come in for some criticism from animal rights activists, which I won’t go into here other than to say that I did not witness any signs of ill treatment of the animals.

Okay, not a tiger, but a very large fire ant.  I was impressed with the macro focus on my camera!


The tigers, much like all cats, were napping in the warm afternoon.  There were about three or four staff members and volunteers for each cat and we were instructed about how to approach the cats and then the staff would take pictures. 

There were also plenty of other animals roaming about the large temple grounds, including this very friendly deer named Ta Waan – Sweet Eyes – who knows our tour guide because he always brings a bag of dried corn with him to the temple.

After feeding her, Ta Waan became our new best friend, following us around the temple.

Many of the tiger cubs are handled by various monks.  They play with them and keep them out of trouble.  This one made a lunge for Ta Waan, who bounded away, and the monk literally had to grab the tiger by the tail to keep him from running after the deer.

Since my last visit, the temple has introduced several programs that allow more interactivity with the cats, all for an extra price.  One of the programs was being able to feed and play with the cubs.  Gary and William opted for this and ended up with some wonderful pictures and great memories.  You’ll have to stay tuned to Gary’s site for those pictures.

Another program was being able to exercise the big cats.  Visitors are escorted by staff members into the exercise enclosure (Daniel in the lion’s den?) and get to play with them much in the same way you play with your cat at home: by holding something at the end of a stick that they will want to pounce on.  The enclosure has good vantage points from which you can see the big cats enjoying themselves.

 

As for the danger level, these are definitely wild cats and I observed that a lot of work is done by staff and volunteers to ensure that visitors don’t do anything that would startle the cats or cause their natural instincts to kick in, causing harm.  I suppose that also keeping them fed (boiled chicken) and happy do a lot to minimize some of the risks.

While I was standing there filming from the wall (standing about where the man in the white shirt is taking a picture in the photo above), I suddenly sensed that there was something just over my right shoulder.  Sure enough, the tiger cub (pictured with the monk several photos above) was walking along the top of the wall and had stopped because I was in his way.

This picture, one of three that turned out very nice, wasn’t taken with any zoom lens!  I was about two feet away from his whiskers.  Beautiful animal but a bit unnerving to be caught unawares.

I’ll leave you with this video compilation, about three minutes of footage of the tigers playing in the water.

All in all, I think Gary and William had a fantastic time and I’d include a visit to the Tiger Temple on the itinerary for other guests.  It is certainly an experience you won’t have at home.

Cooking for 80 – the Results

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Whew!  The big day has come and gone: cooking for a group of up to 80 for a community event called the River Space Dinner Party and Talk.  Reservations for the event were coming in faster and earlier than ever before in their several-month history and the day before, Yvan, one of the organizers, suggested I prepare for as many as 90 diners.  Thanks to a little rain, we ended up with about 70 people, still more than any previous dinner.

Much like I imagine one feels after running a marathon, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to tackle this challenge.  Now I know I can do it.  But it was exhausting and took a lot of hard work, not to mention the support of several friends who pitched in, so I’m probably not going to volunteer to cook for such a large group again anytime in the near future!

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The preparation was spread over three days leading up to Tuesday’s dinner.  Most of the prep work involved careful planning – extrapolating my recipes into larger batches, creating shopping lists, and checking prices to ensure I would stay within my budget of 80 baht (US$ 2.63) per head.  When it came time to do most of the shopping on Tuesday morning, I had to go to three stores, managing to clean out two stores of their supplies of cilantro, radishes, and cherry tomatoes.

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Tuesday morning I also baked more than 80 buttermilk shortcakes, which would be part of the dessert.

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The grains for the mixed grain salad were cooked in batches and then sealed in bags.  Note the carefully-written labels.  Four parts (each serving about 20-24 people) with bags A, B, and C providing the different mixtures of grains.  Bag A contains brown rice, GABA rice, and Job’s tears.  Bag B contains brown rice, black beans, and small red beans.  Bag C contains pearl barley and corn.

I used large plastic storage containers to divide the ingredients by dish.  Some dishes took several containers, which completely filled our car.

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The River Space is located on the second floor of a building in a local market on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, next to the Millennium Hilton hotel.  Since the street is some distance away from the building entrance, we temporarily parked (during rush hour!) and Tawn hired a porter from the market to help us move everything into the space.  That cost 200 baht (less than $7) and was the best 200 baht I’ve ever spent.

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While I thought I had prepared a pretty simple recipe, one that required only one dish to actually be cooked on-site, there was still a lot of peeling, slicing, chopping, and dicing that needed to be done.  Thankfully, a half-dozen friends came early and rolled up their sleeves.  Little did they realize they would spend the next four hours in the kitchen!  From left to right, Bee, Ken, me, Sophie, and Linda.

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At moments like this, I imagine that a Cuisinart food processor might be a worthwhile investment!  Except they would have decimated the tomatoes.

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Very organized, I had instructions for pulling together each dish, including plating diagrams, prepared and taped to the kitchen walls.  These aren’t exactly a recipe, but helped everyone keep track of what steps we needed to complete and what the finished items were to look like.  This is for the dessert, a buttermilk shortcake topped with macerated mango and ginger whipped cream.

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We had two burners to work with, although a second-hand stove was recently acquired that has three burners, significantly expanding the capacity.  Here, I start frying batches of the green curry marinated chicken while organizer Yvan prepares his signature garlic bread recipe.

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Done with the mixed grain salad, my volunteers (now joined by Tammy and Tawn) slice mangoes for dessert while Doug, the friend who roped me into this event, supervises.

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Doug also wandered around with my camera, documenting the action.

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By 8:30 the crowd was ravenous, the best way to have them!  People started pouring into the kitchen and my friends expertly plated the meal, controlling portion size and garnishing with chopped cilantro and sliced almonds.  Unfortunately, in the chaos, nobody snapped a picture of the finished product!

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After everyone ate, the guest speaker took the microphone for about 20 minutes.  Since this is an art space, they try to have someone at each dinner who can talk about a project they have worked on, usually with some relevance to Thailand or the local scene. 

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In this case, it was Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat and German writer Tom Vater, the photographer and author, respectively, of Sacred Skin, a book about the history and contemporary practice of Sak Yant, Thailand’s spirit tattoos.

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These tattoos, written in ancient Khmer, are said to provide powers of protection from accidents, misfortune, and crime.  You see these tattoos peeking out from under monks’ robes, the shirt collars of young men, and even on Angelina Jolie.

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The crowd seemed very interested in what Tom and Aroon had to say and enlargements of Aroon’s photos had been placed on the wall, startling images that sparked many discussions throughout the night.

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As the talk concluded, we served our dessert, complete with a mint garnish.  Again, in the rush we managed to not get a picture of the finished product!  Next time, I need to bring my own media people, right?

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We received a lot of compliments and had no troubles convincing people to take zip-loc bags of the extra mixed grains salad home, which is perhaps the best compliment of all.  We ended up with about 70 people and a final cost of 7,400 baht.  Based on the 90 people we prepared for, this was just ever-so-slightly over budget, coming in at 82.2 baht per person, or US$2.70.

To say I was exhausted when we returned home at about 11:00 is an understatement.  I’ve rarely been so tired, ever.  Working in a space that is not well-equiped for group cooking, I gained a new appreciation for the work of caterers and restaurateurs.  Thanks again to all my friends (and my husband) for helping me pull it off!

 

Preparing to Cook for 80

This weekend I’ve been scrambling to prepare for a dinner on Tuesday night, at which I will cook for up to 80 people.  This will be the largest group I’ve ever cooked for by a factor of three, and I’m excited to take on the challenge.  Oh, and an added challenge: I’m working on a budget of 80 baht (US$2.63) per head.  How did I get roped into this?

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Two months ago, my friend Doug, an expat American to whom I was introduced by a friend from the San Francisco Int’l Asian American Film Festival, invited me to an event called the “River Space Dinner Party and Talk”.

The dinners are inspired by Jim Haynes and his famous Paris dinners which have lasted for more than 30 years. Jim’s son, Jesper, helped launch the Bangkok dinners at the River Space a few months ago.  Jim described his dinners during a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered:

Every week for the past 30 years, I’ve hosted a Sunday dinner in my home in Paris. People, including total strangers, call or e-mail to book a spot. I hold the salon in my atelier, which used to be a sculpture studio. The first 50 or 60 people who call may come, and twice that many when the weather is nice and we can overflow into the garden.

Every Sunday a different friend prepares a feast. Last week it was a philosophy student from Lisbon, and next week a dear friend from London will cook.

People from all corners of the world come to break bread together, to meet, to talk, connect and often become friends. All ages, nationalities, races, professions gather here, and since there is no organized seating, the opportunity for mingling couldn’t be better. I love the randomness.

I believe in introducing people to people.

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Here in Bangkok, the dinners are held twice a month in a second floor flat on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, immediately next to the Millenium Hilton hotel.  The space is used for various arts events and is mostly just a large, open space.

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The space is spectacularly situated, though, just above a small market and adjacent to the local ferry pier.  The reflection of the setting sun bathes the banks of the river in shades of purple and pink as residents who live on the west side of the river commute home.

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The dinners are cooked by volunteers in a kitchen that is, to be generous, under-equipped.  But there are plenty of hands willing to pitch in, which is the important thing.  As I’m preparing to cook on Tuesday, most of my thoughts are about the strategy of how I’m going to do this in the most organized manner.  What tools will I need, what equipment, what supplies?

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The meal served when I attended in April.  Potato salad, green salad, quiches (made at home by the head chef), and a wonderful strawberry triffle.  One of the things I’ve realized is that to cook effectively in this space requires a lot of advance cooking at home.

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When I say “under-equipped”, you get the idea when you watch Doug contorting himself as he tries to make garlic bread for what was about 50 people using only a tiny toaster oven.  Needless to say, I was dragooned into the kitchen, willingly, and helped prepare the garlic bread.

So that’s the challenge I’m facing.  Having given a lot of thought to the meal, I’ve adapted, updated, and revised my proposed menu several times.  Finally, Friday night I cooked a “proof of concept” meal, to make sure the recipes worked (at a small scale) and would be on-budget.

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The menu as it stands today: Mixed grains and vegetable salad with a sherry vinaigrette; stir-fried chicken marinated in green curry; and a yogurt relish with cucumbers and tomatoes.  The homemade bread and hummus will not make the cut.  Instead, the garlic bread and a green salad will be provided by another person.  And for dessert?  Saturday night I did another “proof of concept” and served homemade buttermilk shortcake with mangoes and ginger whipped cream. 

Stay tuned to heard how it all turns out!

 

Kayaking the Wailua River

The morning after Kari and Nathan’s wedding, we piled into our vehicles and drove to the east side of the island in order to kayak on the Wailua River, Kauai’s only navigable river.  I’ve never been kayaking before, although I’ve long thought it would be a fun way to explore the water.  This relatively easy half-day excursion proved to be every bit as enjoyable as I expected.

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After a brief orientation, we were transferred to the launch site by van.  We paired up and started paddling upriver, the wind to our back.  The paddling itself takes only a minor amount of coordination.  The challenge is to ensure your paddling is complementary, if not perfectly matched to, the paddling of your partner.  We headed about 45 minutes upstream, approximately two miles.  From our perspective on the river, we were in the middle of the wild.  Looking at the area on a map afterward, I realized that roads and “civilization” was actually just out of sight beyond the ridge line.

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After coming to shore in a small tributary of the larger river, we began a one-mile hike through the jungle.  Again, while it looked like we were in the middle of nowhere, of course we were actually on a well-worn path.

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Severe jungle… holy houseplants, Batman!

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At one point, the path crosses a twist in the river and we have to use a guide rope to get across the water.  The water at this point is only knee-high and not running that rapidly.  One could easily imagine a scenario, though, where the crossing could be more difficult.  On our return, my uncle was filming us and trying to encourage one of us to fake a fall into the water for dramatic purposes.

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Our group, all relatives of Kari and Nathan, posing by the river about half-way into our hike.

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Our destination, after about a 45-minute hike, was Uluwehi Falls (“Secret Falls”), a 130-foot waterfall that has a very nice pool at its base.  We sat on the rocks around the falls and ate our lunch, which we had packed in.  Various other groups came and went and there were a few dozen people at the pool most of the time we were there.  It is a bit hard to see in the picture above, but see if you can make out the small bowl of flower set next to the rocks, near the bottom of the photo about one-third of the way from the lower right corner.

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The Wailua River was/is considered a very sacred river and in this pool next to the falls there is a fresh arrangement of flowers that appears to be some sort of offering.

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After lunch our group poses at the base of the falls.  Some members of the group went in for a swim, although I didn’t.

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The wide, meandering river.  We were well ahead of the pack.  Of course this wasn’t a competition.  Right?  The trip back was more challenging because the wind blows off the coast and up the river.  When returning, we are paddling into the wind.  The guide pointed out that if we stayed to the far left (north) of the river, we were mostly sheltered from the wind and the going would be easier.

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Kayaking relatives finally make it back to the launch point.  Since my cousin Kelly and I arrived first, I pulled my camera from the dry bag and took pictures of everyone else as they arrived.  The newlyweds were the last to make it back.

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My cousin Kelly and me, first upriver and first back. The secret?  We were the only unmarried couple paddling!  Seriously, when we were going through the orientation, the guide warned us about the nickname for kayaks – “divorce boats” – because couples can get into all sorts of disagreements, usually caused by the wounded ego of the stronger paddler (usually the man) in the back.  Since Kelly and I aren’t married, there was no ego involved, nothing to prove, so we just focused on paddling.  I let her set the pace and tried to match her.  Since she’s in the Navy, I figure she should be the expert at something boat-related, right?

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Afterward, we stopped in the nearby town of Kapa’a, a neat place that I wish I would have had more time to explore, for some shave ice at Ono Shave Ice.  Shave ice – not shaved ice – is this great treat that can also involve ice cream and various toppings in addition to the ice and syrups.  We had some very good shave ice while there but I can say that it is a dessert I don’t need to have all the time.  Quite sweet.

Seven Modes of Transport Around Bangkok

Last week I took two of my visiting guests (the third is Thai and was visiting his family instead) around Bangkok to see the sights.  Instead of doing the usual things, we spent a good portion of the day exploring the city using different, and often less-touristy, modes of transportation. 

The idea occurred to me a few weeks ago.  One of the guests is an aviation enthusiast, so I extrapolated that he might also be interested in other forms of transportation.  When I’ve previously used other ways to get around the city, I find myself seeing Bangkok through an entirely different light.

The modes of transport used could be varied and there were at least three – bus, taxi, and motorcycle taxi – that we did not try.  In the future, I will have to refine this itinerary, but here are the notes from this time.

Seven Modes

Mode 1: MRT Subway from Sukhumvit Station to Hualamphong Station

Walking from their hotel to the nearby Asoke-Sukhumvit intersection, my guests and I descended into Bangkok’s five-year old subway for a ten-minute ride to the Hualamphong train station.  The subway is clean and modern and the insides of the trains as well as the platform areas are surprisingly free of advertising.  A short walk through an underground passage took us to the front entrance of the Hualamphong Railway Station.  Trip price, approximately 20 baht each.

 

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Mode 2: State Railways of Thailand from Hualamphong Station to Lat Krabang Station

Our timing was perfect as there was just enough time to buy our 8-baht tickets and get to the platform before the four-car diesel locomotive pulled out of this 1930’s-era station and began the thirty-minute ride to the eastern suburbs of the city.  We could have disembarked at an earlier station and shaved some time off our route, but these open-window, unairconditioned carriages (which are older than me) and their passengers provide interesting people watching.  My entry about the steam engines the State Railways pulls out for special occasions.

 

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Mode 3: Airport City Line from Lat Krabang Station to Makkasan Station

Also operated by the State Railways, this elevated electric train runs along the same right-of-way as the diesel train, so we retraced our steps.  The City Line and the Airport Express share the same track and we disembarked at the brand-new “in-city terminal” where one day passengers will be able to check in for flights, deposit their baggage, and take the 15-minute express train to Suvarnabhumi Airport.  15 baht each but will increase after January 1 to a distance-based pricing scheme.  Link to my review of the Airport Express.

 

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A dog taking a nap outside the Petchaburi MRT Station, near the Asoke Pier.

Mode 4: San Saeb Canal Boat from Asoke Pier to Golden Mount

A short walk from Makkasan Station is the San Saeb Canal, a major east-west aquatic artery in this “Venice of the East” and the only one that has regular boat service.  The water is murky and the boat engines are very loud, but it is an adventure and provides a view of yet another, much poorer, facet of life in the Big Mango.  The end of the line is at the foot of the Golden Mount, the only hill in the city.  11 baht each.

Some pictures from the canal boat:

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Craig and Matt and a few dozen other passengers enjoy their ride on the murky waters of the San Saeb Canal.

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The boats whiz under various bridges, some so low that the canopied top of the boat must be lowered.

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Which explains why the conductors/deck hands wear helmets and are very alert of their surroundings.

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Not my guests.

Mode 5: Tuk-tuk from Golden Mount to Tammasat University

We negotiated with a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a riverside restaurant located just outside the gates of Tammasat University.  Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled auto-rickshaws that serve as transportation in many parts of town, so named because of the sound of their engines.  These are actually pretty dangerous and for the price you pay, a taxi offers greater comfort (air conditioning!) and safety (seatbelts!).  We could have taken the tuk-tuk all the way to the Grand Palace but I was hungry so lunch first.  60 baht total, so 20 baht each.

 

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Previous guests (not Craig and Matt) after disembarking from the Chao Phraya River Taxi.

Mode 6: Chao Praya River Taxi from Tha Tian Pier to Sathorn Pier

After lunch we were too late to see the Grand Palace (it closes at 3:30 – don’t believe anyone who tells you it is closed before that time) so we walked to Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  I’ll write about that in another entry but once we were finished, a bit after rush hour, we caught a river taxi service from the Thai Tian Pier right near the temple back to Sathorn Pier underneath the Taksin Bridge.  Also 11 baht each.

 

Skytrain Departure

Mode 7: BTS Skytrain from Taksin Station to Asoke Station

We concluded our journey by walking to the nearby BTS Skytrain station.  The 10-year old BTS Skytrain is convenient and overcrowded.  Thankfully, new four-car trains are entering the system soon and additional cars have been ordered for the three-car trains.  From what I’ve read, BTS is also the hold-up in the efforts to create a common ticketing platform (a la Hong Kong’s Octopus card) between the three electric rail systems.  Nonetheless, for about 30 baht we made our way back to the Asoke-Sukhumvit junction.