One night in Bangkok and we're ready to leave. As we checked out, our need to get out of the city was confirmed. There are certain things one must accept when staying in a hotel and there are others that are pretty standard expectations. Drinks from the bar will be expensive but the coffee in your room is free are pretty standard across the globe.
Everyone in Thailand drinks bottled water. It is the cheapest drink in the fridges of every shop and even the country's big beer producers have their own brands of water. No matter where you stay, be it a "home-stay", a guest house, hostel or hotel, you are always given a bottle of water with your room, usually one per person. The China Town hotel is expensive and I was quietly pleased to find that there was not one, but two bottles of water each in the mini-fridge. Whilst packing up this morning, I swiped the two sachets of instant coffee and two unopened bottles of water. You never know where you're going to end up and it's just one of those 'handy to have' things - along with the tin cup I carry with me, an acquisition after a moment of realisation through observation on our last trip through Thailand.
There are traits I know, having travelled together before, that I have inherited from Sarah. The ability to open my bag and in the blink of an eye have exploded the contents (generally my clothes or other possessions) around a room has to be one of the most impressive. This morning Sarah can find none of her clothes. I point out that she didn't pack anything anyway and we are both laughing out loud. Even so, when we are all finally packed both our bags are now bursting. Sarah is making use of her 'gin space' and carrying the slowly disappearing bottle from London.
At the cash desk we hand back the key. The hotel holds a 1000BHT deposit (about £20) against the key and late last night, after dinner, in a moment of total cannot-be-bothered laziness I put two tins of tonic water against the room for an eye-watering 114BHT for the two. In any of the convenience stores around the hotel they would have been 15BHT, but I knew what they cost when I carried them upstairs and so I cant complain much beyond the extortion. But then there was more. We were being charged for the water from the hotel fridge AND for the sachets of instant coffee provided with the room! This is a first for me in any country. We of course did the standard British thing and said nothing, paid and left.
Having left plenty of time to get our train to Ayutthaya we decided we'd walk along to Hua Lamphong and buy our tickets before breakfast. It's a short walk to the station. Straight up, left, over the river and we're there. Sarah has no idea where we are or how we got there. Thankfully I didn't inherit her sense of direction or as bad a short term memory. The station is unchanged. Thailand has a sense of being stuck in the fifties and nothing epitomises this more than the train network, which I love without question. Changes are creeping in, modernisation is occurring and Thailand as I first encountered it is slowly vanishing. This is noticeable in just over a year. The pace of change is slow but persistent. The only change I can see in the station is the loss of clicking and rolling departure boards and the arrival of new, super bright LED displays.
The station is a surreal place once a day. The Thai love their King and at midday, every day, the national anthem is played across the station PA system and everyone must stand. The only people exempt are the monks, who sit in their various shades of orange in a special seating area.
We step up to the ticket desk and struggle with our pronunciation and as usual are met with reasonable English and a smile. There was a misunderstanding with the tickets and we were short changed. In real terms it cost us 90BHT to get to Ayutthaya - it should have been 30... Not the end of the world. It's a two hour train journey North of Bangkok. We had planned on getting a train over an hour away but turns out there was another one running earlier - time for a very quick breakfast and I knew where we had to go.
Last time we found ourselves sat opposite this station we walked into a small cafe owned and run by the 'Happy Buddhist' - a young guy who seemed determined to succeed by sheer will power alone. He and his wife were running this small cafe. I wanted to see how they were getting on. The short answer is less Happy Buddhist and more successful small business owner. No longer waiting tables topless in 3/4 length trousers, now in jeans and a polo short with staff that are wearing a uniform. It's really great to see that he's made it work. We have a rapid coffee and breakfast and make our way back to Platform 8.
Thai railways have 3 classes of travel - you only really encounter First Class on sleeper services. Small shared cabins. Second class has comfier seats and Third Class has wooden or something that barely conceals the fact that most of the seat is wood. This entire train is a Third Class service, hence the cheap ticket price. We board, find seat and wait. And wait... and wait. There's that specific Thai concept of time. A sense that something should be happening but because we know it'll happen eventually, no one is too stressed that it isn't right on time.
I sit and take photos of a Thai guy taking photos, through the window of the train - how's that for mediated and suggested views of the world? Eventually there's a shunt backwards as the engine joins the train. A moment of anticipation as everyone (to be fair the majority of the carriage is tourist) thinks we might be off but again, we sit and wait...
We pull out just before 10 and the changes that are occurring across Bangkok as we ride out - some of my best photos from the last trip to Thailand were of people living along the railway tracks. Now, other than right outside of Hua Lamphong the trackside has been cleared, a new sky train is being built and great gated estates have been built in a nod to a southern French style in gaudy colours that look out of place. These estates are given names like "Nice" and "Monte Carlo". These estates are complete with gold painted statues built into their high walls. That old Thailand is slowly disappearing.
The railway has its own police force and trains are staffed by a mix of railway police and the army. You can spot the army men as they wear impossibly tight trousers that make the smallest bum look amazing. I stand in the carriage end with my camera as we do the initial crawl out of the city, looking for new stories to tell when one such well dressed man in uniform approaches me from behind (ahem!) and asks me for my ticket. I gesture that it's down in the carriage and follow him back to my seat. He walks down the train punching tickets and clicking the punch as he walks between passengers. There's a rhythm between his steps and the click, a beat in his head that he is trying to get out but it is persistent and unrecognisable. Throughout the journey he walks through the train on several occasions after new passengers board and even when I am dozing, I can hear him coming due to the heavy clicking of his ticket punch.
It was a grey walk through Bangkok this morning and unusually cold for this time of year and so I find myself pulling my fleece off of my bag and then my hat and then, comfortable and warm, I start to drift off on the train upright. I sleep more than I expected, and wake as we are pulling towards our destination. Sleep is great and I have the amazing (or very annoying) ability to find it in almost any position. if I'm struggling, a choice of a few favourite audio books will carry me off in minutes, meaning I never really hear more than a handful of passages, the rest slowly drip-filtering into my sub-conscience, maybe influencing a dream, but not much else.
We exit the station and I realise that I'm hungry - really hungry - not that I want to eat a lot - but that I really need to eat something. In true family style, we also have no idea where we're really going, not even though about where we're staying and so it's over the The Seven Seas - a pub-cafe with free WiFi to solve these problems.
We sit down. What to order... SING-HA of course! And a coffee and a side of food. We find a nice guest house (400BHT for the night compared to 1350BHT for The China Town-rip-off-b*&%$@£^s) that promises comfort, twin beds and possibly a view. We wander round the corner after we finish up.
Twin beds seems to be an issue. It's an option that we can select on most of the websites or apps we use to find our accommodation and in truth, I have no issue (I can hear Nathan cringing from here) with sharing a bed with Sarah - I'm gay, she's my mum and the biggest issue usually is who steals the duvet first, but if we can we will. We are shown to a room with a double bed - we pause and then try and explain with a mix of sign and gesticulation the idea of a twin room before a light bulb clicks on and the woman who has shown us up the steepest, most polished, take-your-shoes-off-at-the-bottom stair case in the world gets it. She shouts down to her colleague below us in the entrance hall who picks up a different key and heaves it up to her. She didn't catch it - that would have been brill!
Second room is spot on. We drop our bags and pause. There is the temptation of a snooze-ette but no - ruined city to see, a nice enough day and so we figure out roughly where we're going and set off. We come to a main road - a very main road - and decide that maybe hiring one of the many bicycles that we passed on our way this far was a better idea. 50BHT for the whole day. Bargain. We're off again on the most ancient, basic and poorly maintained specimens of bikes you have ever seen and if I put any more than the slightest pressure on the pedals, the chain slips. This is speed and hill climbing limiting. We do however make it to the 'historical park' which contains the main ruins of Ayutthaya without incident.
The ruins are impressive. Great towers scattered around the park, the remnants of smashed Buddhas gently re-assembled but most being little more than legs and torso. Occasionally there's one complete statue or a carving too high up and isolated to damage. The long rows of broken Buddhas are pretty forlorn.
This is a place I have wanted to come to since my first trip to Thailand. Our itinerary just wasn't taking us this way. There's a famous head of Buddha that has been picked up by the roots of a Bodhi tree so that it now sits entwined amongst them. For those who don' know, this is the same type of tree under which Buddha found enlightenment, so naturally people here really love this.
We spend a few hours riding around the park and the ruins, paying the 'tourist' fee to see the two biggest selection of ruins. The one closest to the main entrance to the park is mostly fenced off, the second is a lot more open and you are able to scramble up ancient stairs to platforms on the central monument. I follow this cute wild dog up the steps to a small room towards the top. It looked as if you could once go higher but not any more. I wander round the levels trying to spot Sarah only to find she's coming up the same way I had come, having spotted the same dog. Sarah is slightly freaked out by the steepness of the steps and the fact they change to some porous and volcanic looking rock for a middle section. The view is awesome and worth the climb up - but for Sarah the climb down is a challenge. These steps are wide and I advocate going down facing forward so as to see where you're placing your feet, she on the other hand opts to face to the steps and bum to the sky and moves slowly back the way we had come like an awkward hermit crab. She is relieved when she gets to the bottom and mentions a change of underwear was nearly needed!
As the dusk draws in we decide its probably not the best idea to ride back along the road in the dark, without lights, or helmets or generally functioning bicycles. We pedal off, my bike clunking more and more and after getting slightly lost, arrive outside the Tesco Lotus. Neither of us are really hungry, but liquid refreshments are a must. We return the bikes and as I get off and start the short walk to our guest house, I realise how sore I am after the day's activities. Soon we are sat comfortably on the balcony, looking out over the river as the sky turns red, pink and then fades to black. There's something of the Buoy Guesthouse to this one.