After four days in Isaan, Bangkok slaps your face and steals any remnants of tranquility that you'd managed to find in the provinces. It's a different world, a different country, a different culture. We've fallen lucky. I've found a shiny new boutique hotel just off the Kao San Road that's batting well above it's introductory room rate. All the mod cons, three tourist stars and not one of them borrowed or faked. It's a short walk from the 'SleepWith Inn' to Wat Phra Kaeo (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang (The Grand Palace), but as it's Hannah's first visit to Bangkok, that means taking a tuk-tuk. Tuk-tuks used to be the main means of transport for those who couldn't afford taxi's, but now they're strictly for the tourist and priced accordingly.
The roads are congested, busy even for Bangkok. Within minutes the reason becomes clear. We're surrounded by thousands of protesters. 'Red Shirts', supporters of ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A man in exile, a man accused of massive corruption, of electoral fraud and of buying votes by giving away a million free cows to the farmers in the north. Tens of thousands of people form an ocean of red in Sanam Luang, a huge parade ground just to the north of the Grand Palace. Organisers use microphones to whip the crowds into a political frenzy. I have no idea what they're chanting but they seem more than enthusiastic about their cause. It's not intimidating, but it becomes quite claustrophobic as they spill out onto the streets. They stop the traffic and surround our tuk-tuk. It's good spirited, they pose for photographs and wave at Hannah who seems to take it all in her stride. There are no masks to cover their faces and the only visible weapons are banners and long strings of jasmine and orchids worn around their wrists and necks. Then without warning, everything stops, not a single person moves and a comfortable silence falls across the entire area. The sound of Thai music replaces the protesters chanting, the Thai national anthem begins to play. At 8am and 6pm every day, all outdoor spaces across the length and breadth of Thailand are filled with the sound of the national anthem. Everybody stops, everybody stands still and everybody listens. Thaksin Shinawatra might be popular here, but the King is in a whole different league.
We avoid the smiling touts who surround the main entrance from dawn till dusk. They inform unsuspecting tourists that the complex will be closed for two hours, two hours in which they'll escort them to various tourist shops, fashion boutiques and gem stores. In exchange for escorting tourists to these establishments, the tout will receive a healthy introducers fee before returning them to the always open Grand Palace. Nobody seems to stop it, many seem to fall for it and it's the one thing in Thailand that is guaranteed to test my saint-like patience. Thankfully today the touts didn't ask, probably because Tassaneeya was with us, but many other tourists seemed to be falling for their no doubt convincing charms.
Once inside the grounds of the Grand Palace, tranquility is restored. A hundred well armed Thai soldiers march past us at the double and block the entrance against the protesters. Good timing, one minute later and we too would have been denied access. Hannah and Tassaneeya are shocked, not by the demonstration or by the appearance of our well armed guards, but by the fact that they have to rent sarongs in order to cover their lower legs. As we'd left the hotel an hour earlier, the girls had laughed at me for wearing jeans on such a hot and humid day. But I'd known the 'Rules' and no matter what they're called here in Bangkok, I really don't do skirts of any description. Appropriately attired, we reach the turnstile and Hannah is shocked again, ''Foreigners 400 Baht, Thai's Free''. Discrimination she cries.
Dating back to the late eighteenth century, The Grand Palace complex with it's tall golden tower is probably Bangkok's most famous landmark. A complex of richly decorated palaces, rooms and temples that has developed and grown over the centuries. It's a rappers utopia, blingtastic in every sense. Everywhere that you look there is gold, gold and more gold. In the centre of the main temple stands the Emerald Buddha, a statue made entirely from Jade, hence the name, 'Emerald'. The Siamese once covered entirely in gold in order to make it appear worthless to invading forces. I've no idea if the Khmer or Burmese invaders ever reached this far south, but if they did, then the gold diversion had clearly worked because the Emerald Buddha is still here. Of all of the temples that I've visited here in SE Asia, this is my least favourite. It's undoubtedly beautiful but with each additional visit, I get an increasing sense of 'Disney Land'. I prefer the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya or the faded magnificence of Wat Po. But this is for Hannah and no visit to Bangkok is complete without a tour of Wat Pra Kaew and The Grand Palace.
After several hours of wandering, the girls return their temporary sarongs and we escape the tourists and pack sardine-like onto a water taxi along the Chao Phraya River. From the river, you see a side of Bangkok that's invisible from the street. The only open spaces are the perfectly manicured lawns of the luxurious hotels bordering the river; the Mandarin Oriental, the Shangri La. Between them and hidden behind high white walls, are shanty homes that cling to the banks supported by wooden stilts that sink down into the depths of the river. Rows and rows of clothes hang drying on makeshift washing lines and every ramshackle home represents a platform upon which another can be built. No planning permission, no permits, illegal living awaiting the inevitable fall of the developers axe.
We leave the still overcrowded commuter boat at Thaksin Bridge and take the BTS (Sky Train) to Nana Station. I love Thai food and will happily sit all day long at a street stall and eat until way beyond capacity. But this is a holiday and Hannah needs a reintroduction to menus and crockery. It's not the cheappest, but I take the girls to my favourite restaurant. It's unusual and the name sounds strange, but the food is quite possibly the best that I have ever tasted. 'Cabbages & Condoms' is located a few hundred metres along Sukhumvit Soi 12, but it's well worth the walk. The restaurant supports Thailand's Population and Community Development Association, a non-profit organisation founded by a former Thai Health Minister. It promotes safe and responsible sex in a fun, and I guess, practical way. All around the beautiful outdoor dining area, light shades, art work and statues are made from condoms and as the delicious meal comes to an end, instead of the usual after dinner mint, each diner receives a condom. It's difficult to explain this unusual place, you really have to go there, but for the food alone, it's well worth the journey. Hannah and Tassaneeya loved it. After the meal, production of a receipt at the adjoining clinic entitles the presenter to a free vasectomy .... an offer that I politely declined.www.justgiving.com/geoffgthomas