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BANGKOK THAILAND
March 1993

Most of the freeway traffic was lighter than on the previous trip (November 1992), probably because it was Saturday. The taxi driver left the freeway before the proper exit because a traffic accident had stopped all movement. We saw a lot of side streets, one so crowded with parked cars, people and other vehicles that I'm not sure how we got through without scraping something. The taxi driver seemed to know the area much better than others I've taken as he did not get lost. It was a set prepaid fee so I guess there was no benefit in adding mileage.

The next day I read in the paper that the accident involved a gasoline tanker and several other vehicles. Apparently the tanker driver panicked, disconnected the trailer from the truck and took off leaving a mess and one dead. The freeway was blocked for hours.

I spent the next two days as a tourist.

Salt farms:salt_farm
About half an hour drive west of Bangkok on the way to the floating market we stopped to look at a salt farm. Seawater is pumped into diked off fields and allowed to evaporate. Over several weeks water is added until there is a thick layer of heavy brine in the field which is allowed to dry and the remaining salt is scraped into small piles then transferred to a larger pile on the top of the dike. The salt is allowed to dry completely and is then packed in bags. All work is manual except for the initial preparation of the field and the pumping of water.

The fields are about two or maybe three hundred feet square, have a flat clay bottom and are surrounded by dikes about 3 feet high. Small ditches run along the edges of the fields which cover a large total area. Each field is initially prepared using a machine about the size of a golf cart that has two rollers instead of wheels. (It looks like Fred Flintstones’s car!) The rollers are about six feet long and between 12" and 15" round and are made by hand from a single piece of wood. They have a seat and a small motor. The one I managed to get a close look at was all home made from salvaged bits and pieces.

Windmills are used to power the pumps that move the salt water. The windmills each have six vanes made out of woven leaves that form a small sail. Each vane can be furled when the windmill is not in use. The pump is basically a series of small wooden buckets on a belt like configuration. Primitive but effective.

We left the main highway and shortly the surrounding area changed from the flat open area where the salt farms were to an area where coconut trees came right up to the road and canals started to become quite numerous. Some canals were quite large and had houses along side and were obviously used for local transport routes.

Coconut Sugar/Orchid Growing and Butterfly Farm:
The next stop consisted of the above three displays plus a large souvenir shop. The displays were all free so the shop and restaurant were obviously the moneymakers. Coconut sugar is made by cutting the flower bud of the coconut tree and placing a long cup on it to collect the juice that bleeds out. This juice is then boiled down into a sugar. The entire process is much like preparing sugar from maple trees and the resulting sugar tastes somewhat similar. The boiling process attracts a lot of wasps.

There was a large display of orchids, many with blossoms. All quite pretty and a photographers delight. The butterfly display consisted of a large netted enclosure with bushes, flowers etc. and a variety of pathways. There were many butterflies flying around, mostly large yellow and black ones. There was a display of cocoons that were formed from leaves. As a butterfly was about to leave the cocoon it was moved out of the storage area and hung from a branch or leaf so that people could get a good look at it emerging and to make photographing easier.

Floating Market
Further along the road the canals became more numerous and we stopped at an area used as a dock and boarded a river boat straight out of the James Bond movie "Man With a Golden Gun" (I think). It was about 30 feet long, quite narrow, very shallow and with a car motor in the stern mounted on a pivot with a long shaft ending in an exposed propeller. We sat on a seat that was right on the bottom of the boat with legs straight ahead, two per seat. These boats are very noisy, feel very unstable and go very fast through the canals.

houseThere are houses, storage sheds, stores etc. along the canals, all built on stilts and all accessible only by water.  We passed other boats in the canal which were smaller but all had the same "sampan" shape, some motor powered, some paddle powered.

Damnoen Saduak floating market is around 50 km south of Nakhon Pathom town. It has many locals, mostly women, in sampans loaded with fruit, vegetables etc., which they hawk through the various canals.

It appears that this market is designed primarily for tourists based on the large souvenir shop and the variousfloating_market "photo opportunities" around. You can get your picture taken with a variety of monkeys that are carried by locals or with large snakes that are touted as "Rambo".

The souvenir shop turned out to be the best I saw in Thailand (on this trip) as far as selection was concerned, however, prices were a little high even after bartering, which is a must on everything. I inquired on the price of a couple of things that appeared interesting and when I said no the price immediately tumbled and continued to decline as I walked away.

We left the floating market in our van rather than returning to the van by boat. I'm not positive but I think you leave by boat from one end of the parking lot, take a circle trip along the canals and then the bus picks you up at the other end of the lot. It may be a bit of a scam but well worth it.

Samphran Elephant Ground & Zoo:
Aside from the Zoo, which we didn’t see, this place has a regularly scheduled magic show, elephant theme show and a crocodile wrestling show. The magic show was nothing to write home about (so I won't) but the elephant show was very good.

samphran_elephant_groundThe show was divided into a number of parts, the first being an introduction and explanation of how important elephants have been to the Thai people over the years. There was a demonstration of an elephant roundup showing how they used to capture wild elephants, there was a demonstration of how they are used in logging for both hauling and carrying and a soccer game with the elephants kicking a large ball around. The final part of the show was the reenactment of how elephants were used in war. It was quite spectacular with the elephants, explosions, sword fights etc.

After the show they had elephant rides available for Baht20 per person (less than a dollar). We took a ride and it feels quite precarious because you sit on a flat bench seat that is mounted on the back of the elephant so you're very far off the ground and tend to sway back and forth a lot. A person would really have to hold on tight if the elephant started to run.

We missed most of the crocodile show because of the crowds but what we saw consisted of several men in a large pit with a number of crocs, some of them pretty large and fairly active.
  
Rose Garden:
The Rose Garden and Samphran Elephant grounds are about 30km from Bangkok. The Rose Garden has a variety of tropical gardens, more tourist shops, an elephant show and a cultural show. Our tour was mainly to view the cultural show. This show had a little bit of everything including traditional dancing and music, a demonstration of Thai kick boxing, a sword fight, a traditional wedding, a Buddhist monk's ordination ceremony, and a cock fight. This was a very good show. The sword fight was very spectacular as the two fighters (one a woman) were using real swords as the sparks would fly when they hit. The Thai boxing moves very quickly and involves boxing, kicking, elbowing, head butting etc. The only thing I didn't see them use was their teeth.

I have noticed at a number of places that the Chinese and Japanese tourists never stop taking pictures and usually of themselves or their family in front of whatever is there to see. There was a young couple with an infant of less than a year old in front of us at the cultural show. The father had a video camera and spent the entire first half of the show taking a video of the kid looking around, drooling and generally doing nothing. The only part of the show that he watched was the kickboxing. Half way through the show they left because the baby was getting restless. Their video will have none of the show and if they took the rest of the trip the same way they'll probably have a dozen hours of video showing the baby and nothing of what they may have seen themselves. Pity the relatives that have to watch.

The Rose Garden also had demonstrations of how a lot of the local crafts are done including the production of silk by hand and weaving it into cloth. Another good place to visit.

The final stop on this tour as well as the tour we took the next day was to a government run souvenir shop that sold mostly jewelry. They gave a brief demonstration of cutting and shaping the gems and making gold jewelry and then moved us into the "show room". They had lots of jewelry for sale and reasonably good prices as well as other items, many similar to what we had seen at the various stores throughout the day. The major difference with this store was that all items were marked with fixed prices. It was interesting to see what some of the stuff was really worth and is probably where people should go first if they want to get bargains at the other places where bartering is the way of business.

Grand Palace:
We went on a tour to the Grand Palace. This complex consists of a number of temples, palaces and administrative buildings all within a walled compound. The wall was built in 1783 and is a total of 1,900 meters in length. The various buildings were erected by different kings.

grand_palaceThe main temple is the Chapel Royal of the Emerald Buddha. In it is a Buddha about four feet high made from a single piece of jade and sitting on a 30 foot high altar made of gold. It is the most important Buddha in Thailand with a recorded history dating back to 1464 when it was discovered so it predates that.

The other temples in this area were built at various times and their architecture and finishing each reflect different influences. There are many statues of mythical animals and demons and like the buildings they differ in style and finish. Some are gold, some stone and others finished with inlaid glass or ceramics. There are also many murals and paintings depicting the life of Buddha as well as some of the earlier Kings who were responsible for building the various temples. The artwork on most of them is outstanding.

The Grand Palace was to be closed to the public in the afternoon because the King was to come to change the clothing on the Emerald Buddha. Apparently this Buddha has a summer and a winter outfit and the king is the only person who can change it. It is a very important occasion and is marked by a national holiday.
 grand_palace
Other buildings included the hall where the coronations take place and where various Kings once lived. One palace, built by King Rama V is a combination of Victorian and Thai architecture. The building and surrounding gardens are right out of Victorian England, however the roof is of Thai design. This palace is still used for official receptions and visiting heads of state.

Following the Palace tour we went to a government run jewelry and handicraft store (a different one from the previous day) followed by a stop at a workshop that produced and sold Thai woodcarvings. The workers were making items such as small elephants, relief carving for wall mounting, teak furniture and dining room tables where the entire top of the table was a carving (to be covered by glass). Men did the carvings by hand using chisels and mallets and women did the sanding. The show room was full of tables, fold-up bars, coffee tables and other carvings, all of which looked great and although the prices seemed a little high crating and shipping costs (to anywhere in the world) were included so I would expect you could get a good discount on anything you took off the floor.
 
wood_carvingAfter returning to the hotel we decided to try out a Took Took and hailed one outside the hotel. Unfortunately the driver understood little English and I wasn't able to get him to understand where we wanted to go, however, we did agree to have him take us for a ride. It was not as exciting as I had thought primarily because when you are in the back seat you can not see straight ahead. I had watched the Took Tooks maneuvering through the traffic on several occasions and it looked like an exciting ride, however, when you are limited to seeing out the side only it limits the "feel" for what is happening. It was still quite an exhilarating ride and a quick and cheap way of traveling about Bangkok if you can find a driver you can communicate with.

River Cruise:
For dinner we went on a cruise on the Chao Phtaya River which flows through the middle of Bangkok. The river is very wide and has a lot of boat traffic going up and down as well as ferries crossing. There was everything from small pleasure craft to large barges pulled by tugs. This is quite a spectacular trip in the dark as the lights from the various buildings, temples etc. are beautiful. I have been told that the trip is not so pleasant in the daytime when you can see the river and the slums alongside it.

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