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To celebrate the Monday holiday of Macha Bucha, I journeyed to Nakorn Pathom with Piyawat's family. Our first stop was a floating restaurant on the Nakorn Chaisi River in Samphran. The specialty of the house (as far as we are concerned) is the giant grilled river prawns served with a spicy green chili dip:

Next on our tour was a visit to the Don Wai Floating Market. The place was absolutely packed with shoppers, who were mostly there to take advantage of the low veggie prices and large variety of Thai snacks for sale. One of the most interesting stalls was selling many different kinds of bananas:

I knew that there were many banana varieties, but I have never seen them all together in one place: some large, some small, some all stuck together in one big clump. It's too bad I don't actually like to eat bananas.

This is a nice day-trip if you are looking to get out of the city, as it is only about 30 kilometers to the west of Bangkok. Here's how you get there


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Sunday Bike Ride to Phra Pradang

It's Sunday, so that means it's time for another long bike ride with Chris. The main point of today's ride (other than the usual exercise and exploration) was to visit the home of my friends Stephen and Jit in Phra Pradang before they head back to the US this week.

Ronald McDonald gave us a good luck wai as we started our ride at J-Avenue on Thong Lo and headed towards the Chao Phraya River. We then turned to the south and rode along the river on Thanon Rot Fai Gao (Old Train Road) to the Sanphawut Pier, and then crossed over to Phra Pradang on a ferry.

We then made our way over to the small community that Jit's family has lived in for generations, and had a very nice chat with them. On this trip to Thailand, Steve and Jit did a "Holy Tour" of India and visited where Buddha was born, where he died, and where he gave particular sermons. They then went on a Buddhist tour of Laos. And Jit even ordained as a nun for a while. So it was very interesting to hear of their adventures over the past several weeks.

After our chat, we were feeling pretty good, so we decided to take the long way home: Through Pra Pradang, down Rat Burana to Charoen Nakorn, then over the river at Sapan Taksin and then Sathorn to Rama 4 and back to the Thong Lo area. It was a total of almost exactly 50 kilometers. Whew! The good news is that I feel much better after this week's ride than last weeks, so maybe my exercise regimen is starting to pay off.

I just uploaded some pictures from the ride that I snapped with my iPhone (like this one of Steve and Jit), and here is a Google Map of our route with a few pictures I took along the way:


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Personal car, taxi, train, boat, motorcycle, train, tuk-tuk, motorcycle, boat, tuk-tuk, bus, taxi, skytrain, motorcycle.

Those are the modes of transportation (in order) that we took on a long day-trip out of Bangkok last weekend.

My friends Eric and Kevin were in town (from San Francisco and Dubai, respectively) and they wanted to get out of Bangkok and see something new. So I took them and Eric's Thai friend Yun on the famous "Train to Nowhere" that I have mentioned before (with a few pictures of my trip two years ago), and then went to see the fireflies near the Floating Night Market at Ampawa.

We started our day with a big breakfast at Bug and Bee on Silom (love those Belgian Waffles!) and then taxied over to the Thonburi train station at Wong Wian Yai. From there, the 10-baht (30 cents), one-hour train ride took us out of Bangkok to Maha Chai, in Samut Sakorn province.

We exited the train in the big Maha Chai market but were only half-way to our destination. To continue the trip, we had to cross a river on a ferry, and then catch the next train on the other side of the river for another 10-baht, one-hour ride to the end of the line at Mae Klong, in Samut Songkram province.

The best part about this train ride is that the end of the line goes through the middle of the the Mae Klong market. And I do mean the middle! The narrow pathway through the market is actually the train tracks, and so produce and fresh meat are literally inches away from the train as it slowly passes through the stands. I took a video of this amazing "only in Thailand" event and will try to post it here soon.

Unfortunately Kevin decided to head back to Bangkok at this point (I guess that was enough adventure for him) and so the three of us (Eric, Yun, and I) put him on a bus and then hailed a tuk-tuk and went for a delicious outdoors seafood lunch on the Gulf of Thailand at Don Hoi Lot.

So far on this trip, I had been playing tour guide as I had been to these places a few times before. But our next stop was a new destination for me - the Anpawa Floating Market. After filling up on fish, shrimp, squid and beer, we made our way over to Anpawa on motorcycle taxis. Luckily for us, it was a holiday weekend, so there was a huge street fair in addition to the usual activities at the market. What fun!

This floating market is famous for the night-time boat rides through the canals to see the fireflies. I had heard about this for some time, but this was my first chance to see them for myself. And even though I have fond memories of chasing fireflies on hot summer nights in Florida, I have to admit it was pretty cool to see them here in Thailand. All along the canal, hundreds of fireflies would be illuminating certain bushes. And the amazing thing about it was that the fireflies would blink in rhythm, making the entire bush blink on and off in perfect time. It was as if someone had strung up and plugged in some Christmas lights.

The only problem with our trip was that we were not really sure exactly how we were going to get back to Bangkok. Around 7:30 PM, someone told us that the last bus went back at 7. Opps. But mai bpen rai we decided to live in the moment and worry about how to get home whenever we were ready to go.

And amazingly, a few hours later, it worked out fine. We just caught a tuk-tuk out to the main highway that leads to southern Thailand, and waited for about 10 minutes before waving down a bus on the way to Bangkok. Of course, when I am in a bus on a long road trip, I hate it when it stops to pick up random passengers on the side of the road. Just take me to my destination ASAP please! But this night, for once, I was glad that hitch-hiking on buses is possible in Thailand.

When I was on Ko Si Chang on Saturday, I took a few videos that I'll share here. (This is the first time I have ever uploaded anything to YouTube, so I hope it works!)

The first video was taken from the big Chinese Temple and is looking out over the Gulf of Thailand back towards the mainland. Ko Si Chang is about 10 kilometers from Thailand's biggest port at Laem Chabang. It was amazing how many huge ships were docked here.

The 47-second video below shows some of the ships, and the main town of Ko Si Chang, and finished on the boat pier where I missed my first ferry and had to buy another ticket for the second one. In the background, you can hear monks chanting from the Thai temple below the temple I was in. You can also here the constant din that all of the boat traffic is making. It's definitely not as peaceful here as when King Rama V came here for rest and relaxation!

Once on the ferry, I witnessed something I have never seen before. There were several young boys (around 10-12 years old, perhaps) playing in the water around the boat. They soon started yelling at the passengers to throw coins into the water. When the coins were thrown, the boys would dive for them. Each one of them must have made 30 baht (US$1) or so. Not bad for fun and games when you're 10.

Here's a ten second video of a couple of the boys competing for the sinking coins. The first boy gives up, but the second boy stays under a bit longer and comes up with the prize.

We got an early start today, as Piyawat had an early flight to Phuket for a business trip. I dutifully took him to the airport, and then hit the road to do some sightseeing for the day.

And let me just say this: Highway 7 that starts at the end of Rama 9 road and goes past the airport and on towards Pattaya is without a doubt the best road in Thailand. It's so nice to drive at normal "highway speeds" and not worry about noodle carts or dogs or chickens or little children to run out on front of your car. The two 30-baht (US$1) tolls I had to pay were well worth it!

My first destination was the island of Ko Si Chang, which is located off the coast of the town of Si Racha, about 100 kilometers from Bangkok. The island was the favored get-away resort of King Rama V, who ruled Thailand from 1868 to 1910. The King built a huge golden teak palace here. After the French took the island in 1893, he ordered the palace to be dismantled and moved to Bangkok, where it is now called the Vimanmek Mansion. According to various websites, it is the largest golden teak building in the world. I can't imagine how many millions of dollars it would cost to build today.

I learned all of this from museums that are setup in various 100-year-old Victorian style buildings spread around the palace grounds. I had had a great time exploring and reading about the turn of the century (1900s, that is) royal family.

I continued on my hike up and down the mountainous terrain of the island, visiting a few beaches along the way. I more or less walked continuously from reaching the island at 10 AM until I left at 5 PM. And I have to say that the island was much more beautiful and peaceful than I expected.

It was a very cloudy day, so I also was not expecting to get a sunburn on my face and neck. I stupidly forgot to wear the hat I was carrying around, and only later in the evening did I realize my mistake. I am definitely kicking myself for that!

There was more that I wanted to explore, but around 3:00 PM (after five hours of hiking the mountains) I started getting very tired and decided to head back to the mainland. I bought a 60 baht ($US 2) ticket for the ferry and asked when the ferry was leaving. I was told 4 PM. Perfect, I thought. I'll go rest my weary legs and drink a beer to ease the pain.

I was back at the pier feeling much better at 3:50, only to be told that the boat had already left. The next boat was at 5:00. Feeling energized (or is it numbed?) by the beer, I decided to visit the huge Chinese style temple on top of the mountain next to the pier. And I have to say I am glad I had the chance to go, as it was an interesting temple and had the best views of the island.

Not taking any chances, I was back at the pier at 4:40. But when I showed my ticket I was told that it was for a different boat company. Their next boat left at 6:00. But if I wanted to go now, I would have to buy another 60 baht ticket. By this time I was really ready to go, so I just smiled and shelled out another 60 baht.

And unbelievably, the boat left the pier at 4:45 -- fifteen minutes early. So, if you ever go to Ko Si Chang, make sure you buy the right ticket, and make sure you are at the pier early!

Eventually we made it back to the mainland, and I drove another 30 kilometers to Pattaya, where I ate at my all-time favorite Italian restaurant in Asia. Their specialty (or, at least the dish I always order) is Pasta Carbonara and it is absolutely heavenly. It is so rich that there's no doubt I went back to Bangkok a few kilos heavier.

I left Pattaya at 9:30 and was back at the airport to pick up Piyawat by 11:00. (Again, thanks to that awesome highway!) I was exhausted and sore and sunburned, but so very fat and happy after a great little day-trip.

Bike Tour of Bangkok

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I have been looking for a good excuse to get out of the house (and especially out of the office) lately. My friend Chris gave me the perfect opportunity today: join the Thailand Cycling Club (TCC) on a 45 kilometer (28 mile) bike tour around Bangkok.

We started early by picking up a friend's bike on Sukumvit Soi 10 around 7:30 AM. We then made it down Sukumvit to meet the TCC at National Stadium. Amazingly, by the time we all left National Stadium and headed towards Hualomphong train station, there were about 150 people in the group. It was a diverse crowd, from 10-year old kids to grandmas, hard-core cyclists in latex to businessmen in jeans and polo shirts.

bkkbikeride.jpgWhen I agreed to the trip, I didn't realize that it really was a tour. That is, we would be making a lot of stops. Our first stop was at Hualomphong for a tour of the station. Next, we headed down Rama 4 to the Snake Farm. I had always figured the Snake Farm was a tourist trap, but it was actually one of the best museum exhibits I have ever seen in Thailand. I was very impressed and learned a great deal about snakes.

The next stop was in Lumpinee Park. And then we had another one at the park at the Queen Sirikit Convention center. At each stop, someone with a megaphone would talk in Thai about who knows what, and then we would take off again.

By this point, we had gone about 20 kilometers and it had taken about 4 hours. I appreciated the slow warm-up, but I was getting a bit bored. Luckily, the pace quickened rapidly as we went down Asoke to Rama 9, past the Thailand Cultural Center, and then had a lunch break along the way somewhere. We then tackled the Ekamai-Ramindra expressway to Lad Prao, and all the way down Lad Prao to Chatuchak Park.

After few circles around Suan Rot Fai (Railroad Park) we were off again on the final stretch down the train tracks back towards Hualomphong. We said our goodbyes to those who were still with the group at National Stadium and then it was back down Sukumvit to return the bike.

Before I started, I was a bit nervous about making it the whole 45 kilometers. But by the time we were finished, my borrowed bike's odometer read 62 kilometers (38.5 miles). Although I am sure I will be quite sore tomorrow, this wasn't a bad way to spend a Sunday! Chris goes biking every Sunday morning, so perhaps this will be a great new habit to start.

Update:Chris has a great write-up and some pictures of our bike ride over on his blog.

Over the last few decades, the Gulf of Thailand just south of Bangkok has been eating up land at a rapid rate. The people of a small village on the coast, Ban Khun Samut Chin, have had to move their homes further inland several times to escape the encroaching water. The village temple, Wat Khun Samut, is still in operation in its original location, although water sometimes laps against its walls during high tide. The monks also had to raise the floor of the temple about a meter to keep it dry at all times.

Some point to global warming as the cause of the "rising ocean", but part of the problem is that people have cut down all of the mangrove forests that kept the soil in place. And add that to the common problem of eroding land at the mouth of a big river (like in New Orleans) and you have an ocean shoreline that is steadily moving closer and closer to Bangkok.

Back in September, Piyawat and I decided to see this for ourselves, so we headed over to Samut Prakan, Bangkok's provincial neighbor to the south, to visit the temple in the middle of the ocean. Our tour guide for the day was Richard Barrow, the webmaster of an incredible set of websites called Paknam Web. I have been reading his blog and visiting his sites (like the excellent Learning Thai Language site) for a long time, so it was great to finally meet him in person.

In any case, at the time, I never got around to writing about our little trip, so I will let Richard's description and photos fill in the blanks. If you want to read more, you can see many of his blog posts about the village and the temple, with some very interesting photos of the temple.

Shortly after dinner last night, Francois and I were preparing to board the Skytrain at Siam when Todd called and talked us into meeting him and Hoang out at Silom for a drink. It was Macha Bucha Day, a Buddhist holiday, so our drinks ended up being fruit shakes, but it was still fun to sit outside and enjoy a much quieter Silom scene than usual.

Francois and Hoang both go back home to the US at the end of the week, and so we were talking about what tourist sites they should see before they go. Someone mentioned the Floating Market. I don't care too much for the main touristy one at Damnoen Saduak, so I recommended going to Taling Chan

Now, I haven't actually been there myself, but I have heard about it before, so we headed there this morning. Piyawat was kind enough to drive, and Francois joined us. Then we rented a regular taxi for 100 baht (US$2.80) per hour to follow us and to carry Todd, Hoang, and another friend named Kevin.

It turned out to be a great day. The market at Taling Chan is not very big, but there is a great selection of food, fruit, and plants for sale. There is a floating restaurant on the canal where the six of us ate a delicious and amazingly cheap lunch -- 600 baht (US$17) -- which included a huge fish, lots of big prawns, and various other Thai food goodies.

We then rented a long tail boat for a personalized tour of the Thonburi canals. It was a one hour trip that set us back 800 baht (US$22.50) and was well worth the money. No matter how many times I take boat rides along the canals, it's still fascinating to see how people live there -- watching some fishing for dinner, or passing by rows and rows of orchids being farmed, or admiring the gymnastic skills of young boys doing flips off their porches into the water, or old ladies going house to house selling ice cream from their boat.

After the boat ride and wandering through the market tasting various fruits and snacks (and having one amazingly refreshing apricot/strawberry/black currant shake) we loaded up again and hit the road, going farther west to the province of Nakorn Pathom and the famous Buddha Monthon.

The Buddha Monthon is a huge 1,000 acre park with a 15 meter-tall Buddha statue at its center. The park is well landscaped with man-made ponds and fountains and is quite beautiful. It was built to commemorate the 2,500 year anniversary of the start of Buddhism. (This year is the year 2550, so that means that the park was started in 1957). Even though we were quite far outside of downtown Bangkok by this time, the park was still full of picnicing Thai people, most of whom were now sleeping on grass mats under the trees.

The highlight of the park, though (other than the huge walking Buddha image) was the large wiharn building. In it, there were hundreds of bright colored paintings showing stories from Buddha's life, as well as the usual folk scenes and even some modern scenes of Thailand and its people. There are also 1418 big marble stones that have the words of the Pali Canon (the Buddhist holy scriptures) carved into them in gold letters.

So all in all it was a great day trip for the six of us. I highly recommend visiting the Taling Chan floating market and the boat rides through the canals. And if you're a fan of Buddhist art, then the trip to Buddha Monthon is well worth your time as well. And as always, pics to come soon!

Here are some pictures of yesterday's trip down the Mae Klong Railway to the amazing railway-track market in Samut Songkram. (Click on any picture for a bigger version.)

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Here I am at the start of the journey at Wong Wien Yai station in Thonburi. Note the light blue shirts being worn in the background. They are commemorating the Queen's Birthday today.

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This river at Mahachai is very close to the Gulf of Thailand, and so there were many fishing boats like this one. I was also trying to take a picture of the birds who were standing on floating plants in the middle of the river.

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A look at the chaos of getting on and off the ferry across the river. And yes, you are allowed to bring your motorcycle on the ferry as well.

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The end of the line at Ban Laem station. The train shown here is waiting to take me to Mae Klong, Samut Songkram province.

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The first stop after Ban Laem station is at this temple, with a huge statute of the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin pouring water out of her vase. Her two acolytes, Long Nu and Shan Tsai, stand in front of her.

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When the train is not using them, the tracks become a foot path between the produce and seafood stalls. Be sure to wash those veggies when you get them home!

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Amazingly enough, these are the tracks that the Mae Klong train uses. When it's time to leave the station, the vendors hold back the overhead tarps to make room for the passing train.

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One of the tiny stations along the way is nothing more than a rain shelter. A dirt road leads from the tracks to the village.

Mae Klong Railway

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"I recommend taking the secret train to no where," my friend Kary confided to me yesterday over lunch on Silom. I guarantee you will be the only farang around. It's a great day trip to get out of the city."

I had heard of the secret train to no where, a.k.a. the Mae Klong Railway, before, but I had never had a chance to ride it. So today, to celebrate Thai Mother's Day, I journeyed from Bangkok to Mae Klong on this historic route.

The secret line starts at a tiny station near the Wong Wien Yai traffic circle in Thonburi, across the river from Bangkok. There are no signs in English, so to find the station one must walk south from the traffic circle and peek down narrow alleyways until the tracks are visable. The open-air train leaves more or less every hour and one hour and 10 baht later, riders will find themselves at the other end of the line in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon province.

But the end of the line is not actually the end. Two hundred meters from the Mahachai train station is a river, which can be crossed on a ferry for 2 baht. On the other side of the river, 500 meters from the pier is another tiny train station, called Ban Laem. The trains leave Ban Laem four times a day and take riders an additional hour through the countryside to Mae Klong, Samut Songkram province. The cost for this trip is 10 baht as well.

To be honest, there's not a whole lot to see on these trips. But feeling the cool breeze blow in through the open train windows as we pass grey-water klong (canals), rice farms, salt marshes, palm tree jungles, tiny villages, and very active temples is worth the trip alone. Many people along the way use these trains to commute to the huge produce and seafood markets at each end, so it was fun just to sit back and watch them interact with each other.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the entire trip is at the very end. The tracks run make a tight squeeze through the middle of a market. The squeeze is so tight, in fact, that as the train approaches, the vendors have to pull back the tarps over their produce so the train can pass. Once the train is in the station, everything goes back to normal and the train tracks are nothing more than a narrow path between stalls.

So that was the gist of my day today -- always on the move as I made my way 70 kilometers west of Bangkok and back. From the start of the journey at Wong Wien Yai train station, my expenses for the all-day trip looked something like:

Train to Mahachai: 10 baht (25 cents)
Ferry across river: 2 baht (5 cents)
Mototaxi to train station: 10 baht (25 cents)
Noodle Soup and Pepsi: 28 baht (75 cents)
Train to Mae Klong: 10 baht (25 cents)

And then basically the same thing back, without the mototaxi, now that I knew where I was going.

Train to Baan Laem: 10 baht (25 cents)
Ferry across the River: 2 baht (5 cents)
Train to Wong Wien Yai: 10 baht (25 cents)

So that's a full-day trip to see "real-life" Thailand outside of Bangkok, for a total of 82 baht, or US$2.10. Now that is a great deal.

I have to admit though, I blew the idea of a cheap get-away out of the water when I had dinner in Mahachai before heading back to Bangkok. Kary also recommended an excellent air-con seafood restaurant at the ferry terminal. My amazingly delicious but relatively-speaking expensive black pepper shrimp set me back a whole 255 baht! (Almost US $7!)

So we'll call it a full-day trip with a great dinner for 10 bucks. Anyone want to join me next time?

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