The cab driver's refusal to take us to the Viengtai Hotel because of ongoing protests in certain places of Bangkok was more a blessing in disguise than an encumbrance. Searching for an alternate route, we arrived at Pier 3 on the Chao Phraya river. A talk with the lady at the counter got us opting for the orange boat over the blue boat, which would have a guide announcing the sites we passed. We got our tickets and boarded the boat. Making small talk with a Thai lady, we were told that getting off at Pier 13 would put us a short walk from the Viengtai Hotel. It was a cool December morning as we traveled over the waters of the Chao Phraya. The water looked suspiciously murky at the beginning, but as the boat made its way past the pier into deeper waters, it was clearer. The Chao Phraya flows through Bangkok, and the ferries and water taxis are a major mode of transport used by most daily commuters going to work or school. It is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to move around Bangkok. As we took on the view around us of tall hotel buildings on the water's edge and temples, the guide's voice seemed like a faint drone we did not care about any more. Drops of water sprinkling us as the boat chugged along were refreshing. Getting off at Pier 13, Viengtai Hotel was indeed a short walk, the many trinket stalls along the way proving irresistible for a quick buy.
Bangkok was busy already with street vendors and roadside eateries doing brisk business with tourists enjoying a late breakfast or perhaps, an early lunch like we did. Street food in Bangkok is renowned to be one of the best and cheapest in the world. A safe lunch of rice and shrimp, we were in no mood to try something daring like octopus or squid with plenty of time for that during the rest of the trip, and we made our way to meet Pam, our guide for the day.
A quick hello and introductory pleasantries later, we boarded a cab to visit the old markets in Yaowarat, the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown district. Bright colors and busy people, Chinatown is bustling with activity. These are Chinese traders who came to Bangkok when it was the capital of Siam. The land on which the Grand Palace is built once belonged to these traders. The community was moved to its current location when King Rama I moved the capital from Ayuthaya to Bangkok around 200 years ago. The Chinese community in Bangkok is as old as the city itself and constitutes 10-15% of the total population of Bangkok.
Walking along the Ratchawong Pier to Song Wat Road, we saw a scattering of ramshackle buildings where it was hard to believe people still lived. Emerging in the plastic and leather market on Yaowa Phanit Road, we shopped for all kinds of artifacts to carry back home. Moving deftly through the crowded narrow alleys and streets, taking in the smells and sights of Chinatown, we spent quite some time shopping. The Chinese sausages did not look like the regular sausages back home, but tasted delicious. A glass of grass juice that we were almost coerced to drink on Pam's insistence strangely got us rejuvenated and feeling fresh. We soaked in the quaint, yet comforting atmosphere of Chinatown. There were the gold shops and eateries. Bird's nest soup, shark fin soup, roasted chestnuts and a whole lot more we were unable to resist. Fish stomachs, fresh fruits, vegetables and spices that are exported. A bowl of ginger and tofu soup was a must try. We could hear the friendly banter of wrinkly old men and women sitting around us and enjoying their evening snacks. Women in smart dresses strutted across. We loved the Thai doughnuts, supposedly one of the main breakfast items in Thailand. The grilled prawns were soft and fresh and tasted heavenly. As the sky turned dark, the red and yellow neon lights flashed on and Chinatown turned into the colorful scene from the oriental movies. We lingered watching as the street-side eateries soon filled with tourists from the world over. Chinatown has remained a major tourist attraction for ages, and if you are ever in Bangkok, this is a place you would want to experience.
A short cab ride took us from Chinatown to Pak Khlong Talat or Flower Market, the biggest wholesale and retail fresh flower market in Bangkok. There were endless stalls selling every kind of flower you can name, and the market is open all night. These flowers are sold to hotels, restaurants, temples and even exported. We took a break from all the walking around at one of the coffee shops in the flower market, taking in the colourful sights around us. When Pam offered to take us to dinner, we unanimously declined; we were stuffed. It was quite late in the night when we went back to Pier 13 for the boat ride back to our hotel.
The Chao Phraya by night looked even more beautiful. It was Christmas Eve. The sights from the boat with everyone celebrating were enthralling. There were luxury liners in the water with parties on in full swing and people having a ball. As we headed back to the hotel, we were tired and ready to hit the bed with our first day in Bangkok well spent.