2016, a year of travel in review

Reviewing 2016 is a bitter-sweet thing. There’s much that could (and has) been said about the last twelve months, but this is a travel blog and I’ll steer clear of geopolitics. I think of travel as a positive force, promoting understanding of places and cultures, and bringing people closer together. If 2017 is anything like its predecessor, promoting understanding is going to be important.

Viva la revolución, celebrating New Year in Cuba

Seeing Cuba before the death of Fidel Castro seemed to be the reason so many European’s were visiting Cuba at the start of 2016. That fear has now come true, with the world’s most famous politician bowing out in November. Cuba was a lot of fun, its people warm and friendly, what awaits them in an uncertain future remains to be seen.

Discovering Dutch castles

The Netherlands is not short on history, and historic towns with perfectly preserved medieval centres are seemingly everywhere. Castles, though, seem in short supply. I guess that’s down to a landscape without hills to build castles upon. Look hard enough though, and you can find a few beautiful castles dotted around the countryside.

Rome, a long weekend in the Eternal City

The Eternal City has over 3,000 years of human history and, as you walk the bustling and fascinating streets, much of it is on display. Attractions like the Vatican and Colosseum are ‘must sees’, but for my money this incredible city is best discovered by just wandering its neighbourhoods and eating the food.

Châteaux of the Loire Valley, France

The towns of Orleans and Tours are reason enough to visit this fantastically beautiful region of France, but surreal, fairytale  châteaux are the main reason people make the journey here. In the early morning light, the Château de Chenonceau is unmissable, but the history and stunning views of the Château de Chinon are even more impressive.

Back on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand

Squeezing in a couple of days to explore the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok’s fascinating streets at the end of a working trip, brought me face-to-face with Khlong Toei, a food market with the power to amaze and churn your stomach simultaneously. Add a trip to Thonburi and a visit to some temples, and a weekend passes quickly.

The wonderful world of Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlands

The work of medieval Dutch artist, Hieronymus Bosch, is strange and sublime in equal measure. To mark the 500th year since his death, the small museum in his home town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch managed to bring most of his surviving works together for a blockbuster exhibition, and created a wonderful Bosch trail around the town.

Learning the méthode champenoise in Champagne

To truly understand the méthode champenoise you have to go underground into the the hundreds of kilometres of Épernay’s champagne houses. To fully understand where the fizzy stuff comes from, you have to explore the champagne routes that weave their way through the beautiful countryside between Reims and Troyes.

48 hours in Seoul, Korea

Exploring Seoul could take a lifetime. A visit to the Love Museum made me realise that understanding Korean culture could take several more. Seoul is a pulsating and friendly city that, from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, seems to hold you in its grip. Explore ancient palaces by day and modern nightlife districts by night.

Bruges, the Venice of the North

A well-preserved medieval centre, beautiful canals and magnificent churches, makes Bruges just about as picturesque as it’s possible to get in Europe. It also happens to be home to some good museums and is the epicentre of Belgian beer culture. With over two million visitors annually, try to come outside the main tourist season.

Brisbane, Australia’s new world city

Brisbane came as a complete surprise. I arrived for a conference thinking I wouldn’t like it, and left thinking I might want to live there. The picturesque river front has an urban beach and a fun atmosphere, there are bohemian areas with microbreweries and great restaurants, and weather that cultivates a vibrant outdoor culture.

Spending a night on Whitehaven Beach, Australia

Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island in the middle of the Great barrier Reef, is perhaps the most exquisite strip of white sand anywhere in the world. The near-pure silica of the sand is matched only by the brilliant aquamarine blue of the water and a beautiful location amidst 73 other islands.

Exploring Granada’s fascinating Moorish history

Spain’s Andalusia region is filled with extraordinary historic towns and villages, but few can rival the sheer majesty of Granada and the former stronghold of Moorish Spain, the Alhambra. Throw in a beautiful old town filled with maze-like streets, and a tapas culture second to none, and Granada is a place to top any bucket list.

Fancy Dress in Bukchon Hanok Village

A trip around Bukchon Hanok Village is a peculiar experience. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be people, mainly young women, dressed in brightly coloured traditional Korean clothing being photographed in a variety of poses, in a variety of different locations. Around every corner individuals and groups were striking poses in doorways, alleyways and in front of historic buildings.

There are around 900 traditional houses, or hanok, in this area and it attracts a large number of tourists, domestic and foreign. The influx of tourists – over 600,000 foreign tourists alone each year – has resulted in lot of restaurants,  bars, tea houses and shops dotted throughout the area. It’s also resulted in numerous signs in different languages asking people to be quiet and considerate.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

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Korean tourists flock here to have their photos taken in costumes that can be rented in numerous shops around the area. It’s a strangely Korean thing to do, with the hot spots for photography signposted around the area. I’m not sure I understand the whole fancy dress thing, but people were having a lot of fun.

As befits an area that nestles between two of Seoul’s most illustrious royal palaces, Bukchon Hanok Village has a long history that dates back more than 600 years. Its location close to the royal court meant it was originally an area for the nobility and high-ranking officials in the government. Today, it forms one of the few remaining areas of traditional wooden houses in Seoul.

There is a route that can be followed, but just wandering aimlessly around the narrow winding streets is just as satisfying. I know this because I started following the route and got hopelessly lost. Some houses are open to the public and you can get a glimpse into a traditional Korean home; some lanes lead to viewing points above the rooftops, from where you can see how they’re built around a central courtyard, the grey tiles forming a perfect pattern.

It’s a picturesque place that merges the old and the new, not always harmoniously, making it a fascinating area to wander around. The traditional building methods are perfect for coping with the extreme cold of Korean winters, and the heat of summer. They are also remarkably robust, designed to withstand earthquakes.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

The day I visited there were plenty of tourists around, and the costume shops were doing a good trade. It was a hot day though, and walking up and down the area’s hills was hard going even without traditional clothing. After a couple of hours I ended my explorations, and my time in the city, drinking a Korean IPA at a cafe on the bustling Samcheong-gil, a street lined with restaurants and bars. It seemed a fitting end to a brilliant 48 hours in Seoul.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul, Korea

Historic Seoul, Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung Palaces

Amidst Seoul’s skyscrapers, business districts, high-tech industries, fashionable shopping and pulsating nightlife areas, the city’s streets hum with modernity in a way that’s hard to find in Europe. Spend even a short time here and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a city with its gaze fixed solely on the future. Yet Seoul has a surprising number of tranquil parks, historic temples and beautiful royal palaces, reflecting its more than 600-year history as the capital of Korea.

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

The glorious, UNESCO World Heritage listed, Changdeokgung Palace, is generally considered the most important in Korea so, on my final day in the city, I set off to explore this wonderful place. Korean royal palaces are large, sprawling complexes that require time to explore. Thankfully the rain of the previous day had given way to blue skies, and I was able to walk through the expansive grounds concerned more about sunburn than getting soaked.

Constructed in the early 15th century, in line with the Korean architectural philosophy of the time, Changdeokgung was built to be in harmony with nature. It sits at the foot of Mount Baegaksan, one of the Guardian Mountains of Seoul, and the large grounds are beautifully landscaped. Walking through the main gate, which sits opposite a busy four-lane road, the tranquility of the palace is in sharp contrast to the surrounding city.

I’d expected it to be very busy – almost every historic site I’ve visited in Korea has had lots of tour groups – but, with the exception of some of the main buildings, I often found myself alone. In Seoul, that is not something you can say very often. I strolled through the complex, following the map I’d been given at the entrance, not realising that the site is home to two interconnected palaces: Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung.

I paid an additional entrance fee and set off through some woods to a pleasant lake before entering the grand square outside Changgyeonggung Palace. This area had far fewer people, and was more beautifully landscaped. A group of school children had just swept through in front of me, making lots of noise. As they left, silence descended and I had the whole place to myself. It was rather magical.

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

There is a lot of history bound up in these two palaces, home to generations of Korean royalty. As you wander through the courtyards and peer into the wooden living quarters, it’s possible to feel a sense of the lives lived inside this a city within a city. The palaces haven’t always been so peaceful, they were repeatedly damaged by invading armies and, being constructed from wood, were vulnerable to fire.

The palaces burned to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592, but were rebuilt faithful to the original in 1609. Which was just in time for them to burn to the ground again in 1623. Changdeokgung remained a royal palace and seat of government well into the 19th century; while Changgyeonggung was home to the Emperor Yunghui, Korea’s last emperor. Deposed by the Japanese invasion and occupation of 1910, he lived here until his death in 1926.

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changgyeonggung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

Changdeokgung Palace, Seoul, Korea

As well as the royal palaces, there is Huwon or the “Secret Garden”, which can be visited only as part of a tour. The tour takes 90 minutes and I simply didn’t have time to do that and visit Bukchon Hanok Village before heading to the airport. I skipped the tour and wandered back through Changdeokgung on my way back into the city.

Fish Tales at Noryangjin fish market

Seoul’s largest and oldest seafood market, Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market, is an extraordinary place. Amongst its avenues and stalls it’s possible to find a barely imaginable range of seafood: giant crabs are dwarfed by enormous squid, huge mounds of prawns sit alongside sea cucumbers. Rays, lobster, giant mussels, clams, snails, scallops, sea urchins and an array of fish varieties beyond my knowledge, spread out as far as the eye can see.

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

The market opened in 1927 and moved to its current location at Noryangjin in 1971. Earlier this year a brand new version of the market was opened next door to the old market amidst controversy and protests, and not just because it cost $455 million to build. Six months after the new building opened, hundreds of the original stall holders are still holding out in the old building amongst accusations of harassment.

Sadly, the writing is on the wall. The remaining stall holders are under pressure to move, and the restaurants that once cooked fish fresh from the market for visitors have all gone. The old building has far more character, the new facilities are better appointed and more hygienic, with rents to match. A redevelopment of the old market is planned, which will forever change the culture of the area.

Until the inevitable steam roller of modernity extinguishes the history of the old market, the main problem for tourists is knowing which Noryangjin to visit, and whether it’s worth going to both.

I arrived at the old market first and, after spending an entertaining hour or so wandering around the stalls, decided I’d probably seen enough fish for one day. Defying the reality of modern life, I skipped the new building. Stall holders in the old building were very friendly and, when asked, were more than happy for me to take photos. Several proudly posed with their fishy friends. It was a fun atmosphere.

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

In a city that is moving at a breakneck pace towards the future, it seems a shame that one of the connections to its past will be lost. It also means the end of a truly working class area of the city, the future of which is likely to be expensive apartments, boutique shops and over-priced coffee houses. Maybe, like in the Steve Earle song, Down Here Below, the stench of fish will remain:

“I saw Joe Mitchell’s ghost on a downtown ‘A’ train
He just rides on forever now that the Fulton fish market’s shut down
He said ‘they ain’t never gonna get that smell out of the water
I don’t give a damn how much of that new money they burn’.”

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Noryangjin Fish Market, Seoul, Korea

Sexing it up at Seoul’s Love Museum

Korea is a fairly conservative country, definitely not a society that is particularly open about sex or sexuality. That seems a little strange given the amount of sexualised advertising you find across Seoul – not to mention K-Pop starlets – but it might explain the strange phenomenon that is the Love Museum. It’s such an odd experience, I’m not even sure where to start, except to say that I went with an open mind and left very confused.

If you’re easily offended, probably best to turn over now…

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The museum describes itself as “a sex themed interactive attraction, that offers visitors to explore the subject of sex in a light and enjoyable manner”. Advising would-be visitors that while they can take photos and touch the ‘exhibits’, having actual sex inside the museum is not permitted. That warning doesn’t stop a lot of simulated sex from happening, but I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere.

The museum has several theme areas, including Fun and Sexy, Femme Fatale, Erotic Garden, Dream House and Sexy in Life. It’s a bit like being inside an erotic Roy Lichtenstein painting that found its way into a ‘Hill’s Angels’ sketch on the Benny Hill Show, while taking experimental drugs. It really is that weird.

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Weird, definitely, but visitors to the Trickeye Love Museum have a lot of fun. There seems to be something liberating about being given ‘permission’ to loosen inhibitions and make a lot of smutty jokes. People are more than willing to throw themselves into the 3D scenes that create optical illusions, and which are perfect for selfies and sharing on social media.

Men and women pose between pairs of enormous breasts, lean through a window to cup the breast of an undressing woman, sit on the lap of an aroused Superman, become part of an erotic painting, and simulate sex in the kitchen. I’m not sure anyone is learning much about sex, but they are certainly expressing something about human sexuality. The message seems to be that people enjoy light-hearted titillation.

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The museum is found amongst a crush of streets in the youthful Seogyo-dong neighbourhood, close to Hongik University. It’s an area worth exploring, full of fabulous traditional Korean restaurants with low prices, trendy craft beer bars and lots of shopping opportunities. At night this becomes prime clubbing territory and on a Sunday morning there were a few bleary-eyed casualties from the previous night.

The streets were crowded the day I was there, despite the fact that it was raining heavily, and the lively atmosphere of the streets was replicated in the Love Museum. If you want to participate in one of Seoul’s odder experiences, this is the place to come. As the museum itself says, “There is no reason to be shy here!”

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

Trickeye Love Museum, Seoul, Korea

The Kimchi Express, 48 hours in Seoul

It was the traditional breakfast of thick rice soup with dried shrimp, roasted seaweed, pickled garlic, raw onion and beef with sliced raw chilli peppers, that was the first clue that I was somewhere that most definitely was no longer Kansas. This assault on my tastebuds so early in the morning was proof that, after 11 unpleasant hours in the air, I was finally in Seoul.

It’s barely possible to scratch the surface of Seoul in 48 hours. Especially when it’s pouring down with rain for the first 24 hours and jet lag is doing peculiar things to your sense of reality. This city of over ten million people is packed with fascinating areas to explore, and I’ve wanted to visit ever since my first trip to Korea last year. I was on my way to Australia so breaking the journey, even for 48 hours, seemed like a good idea.

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

There was a time when tourism largely ignored Seoul, the northerly capital of the southern, democratic half of the Korean Peninsular. That’s changing rapidly as rumours of the delights of the city leak out to the wider world. Last year over 16 million foreign tourists visited. That number seems likely to keep rising as Korean culture grows in popularity and travellers relate their tales of this fun, cultured and friendly city.

I arrived at Incheon International Airport in the middle of the afternoon. It’s an efficient airport and I was quickly on a train towards Seoul Station, the main railway hub in the city. A confusing transit to another line involved a long underground walk but I eventually got a metro train to my final destination, Jongno-ju, a youthful and vibrant area that mixes culture and nightlife in equal measures.

I was staying amongst a maze of small streets that are home to lots of restaurants, bars and Love Hotels. Although it sounds a bit dubious, it’s perfectly normal to stay in Love Hotels. Mine was brilliant. Hotel The Designers has individually themed suites, taking inspiration from anything from the night sky to children’s stories. I ended up staying in the Alice in Wonderland suite and, with the jet lag, I felt like I’d slipped down the rabbit hole.

I’d have happily collapsed onto the bed and slept for a few hours but, with only two days at my disposal, I decided to hit the streets and explore my new neighbourhood. Besides, it was Saturday night, the Mad Hatter was giving me a hard stare, and Alice was nowhere to be seen. It turned out Alice was in the shower, but I only discovered that the following morning.

On the streets, night had fallen and the world seemed to be bathed in neon light. Everywhere was busy with people enjoying a Saturday night out, and everything was a disconcerting mix of the ultra-modern and traditional. As I wandered around in a bit of a daze, I bumped into two university students who wanted to practice their English. We had a drink and they gave me some good suggestions for things to do and places not to miss.

Korean’s enjoy a night out, especially one involving a lot of alcohol, and the Jongno-ju district is a hotspot of nightlife. The whole place is crammed with bars that are open late and buzz with humanity having fun. I found my way to a brewpub – a bit of a craze in Seoul – where I sampled Korean sausages washed down with craft beer. Delicious. Refreshed, I headed back out onto the streets to take the pulse of downtown Seoul.

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

Nightlife in Jongno, Seoul, Korea

The pace of life here is ferocious and, as I wandered aimlessly amidst the partying chaos, the night was flying past. I popped into another craft beer pub and, while sipping a Korean porter, realised it was 2am. The jet lag suddenly kicked in. I managed a small snack from a street stall near the hotel before happily slipping into unconciousness in Wonderland.

A farewell to the streets of Bangkok

I’ve visited Bangkok a few times over the years, mainly for work but always trying to shoehorn in a day or two of free time to explore this fascinating and ever-changing city. The life and vibrancy of Bangkok’s streets is almost hypnotic. Wherever you go, wherever you look, there is always something happening, always people and food and colour and noise and weirdness (see below).

Restaurant in Khao San area of Bangkok, Thailand

Restaurant in Khao San area of Bangkok, Thailand

This time I only had two days, which was always going to be too little. I squeezed in as much as I could in heat of 36ºC, but on my final afternoon I took it easy and set off for a leisurely stroll around where I was staying, close to the Rama VIII Bridge and a short walk to the Khao San area.

Khao San is known as the fleapit backpacker ghetto portrayed in the film, The Beach. It still has elements of that world, but the majority of the area has been ‘gentrified’ and now blends (not always seamlessly) everyday Thai life with some upscale traveller facilities. You can still get drunk and have an ill-advised tattoo on the Khao San Road, but you can also stay in a boutique hotel with a rooftop pool.

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

Street market, Bangkok, Thailand

Street market, Bangkok, Thailand

Street market, Bangkok, Thailand

Street market, Bangkok, Thailand

Street market, Bangkok, Thailand

Street market, Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

Away from the seedy Khao San Road, the back streets and alleyways of this area are full of Thai homes and businesses, but also numerous good restaurants, cafes and bars. It’s easy to see why travellers, whether backpackers or suitcase pullers, flock to the area.

Bangkok’s the most visited city on the planet, but it’s impossible to put your finger on the thing that makes it so attractive to people. The friendliness of its people (and for a big city, people are remarkably friendly), the food, the culture, the history, the life lived large on the streets…all are remarkable, all are reasons to visit and revisit.

Why not get a tattoo in Bangkok? Seriously? Thailand

Why not get a tattoo in Bangkok? Seriously? Thailand

Smoking kills, Bangkok, Thailand

Smoking kills, Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street scene, Bangkok, Thailand

Street scene, Bangkok, Thailand

Street scene, Bangkok, Thailand

Street scene, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Not that anyone should underplay the negatives. Thailand might be the Land of Smiles, but there are plenty of things to make you frown. Air pollution you can cut with a knife (it’s not Beijing, but it’s pretty awful); road traffic that could infuriate the Buddha himself; tuk-tuk drivers who could drive you to kill (a tuk-tuk driver); litter everywhere … not forgetting the fact that the country is run by a military dictatorship.

My first visit was in 1994. At that time I’d been living in a remote part of Nepal for several months, Bangkok almost knocked me off my feet. The variety of food, the noise, the life, the fact that there was 24/7 electricity and water. It was mesmerising. That introduction is probably the reason I have a strong affinity for the city. Despite the negatives, it’s still one of the world’s great cities…

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Suits you Sir! Bangkok, Thailand

Suits you Sir! Bangkok, Thailand

Street market, Bangkok, Thailand

Street market, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Temple City

Buddhism seems like such a peaceful ‘religion’*. Yet, like all institutions with vested interests, it has the capacity for violent factionalism, meddling in politics and generating vast amounts of money that might better be spent on helping the needy and marginalised. So it is in Thailand. As a tourist you wouldn’t notice, but a dispute rages within Thai Buddhism.

Monks at prayer, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Monks at prayer, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mai Amataros Phrasomdet Bangkhunphrom, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mai Amataros Phrasomdet Bangkhunphrom, Bangkok, Thailand

Monk statue, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Monk statue, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

At the heart of this struggle, an insurgent Buddhist sect is taking on a conservative establishment strongly aligned with both the monarchy and military junta that runs the country. The dispute centres around the appointment of a new spiritual leader for Thai Buddhism, the Supreme Patriarch. Thais haven’t had a spiritual leader since 2013 and, as the dispute gets more political, the position continues to remain empty.

These frictions aside, the many Buddhist temples that are scattered around the Thai capital provide a peaceful alternative to life on Bangkok’s hectic streets. A little like being in Rome, it’s practically impossible to walk far without bumping into a temple or monastery, the radiant colours of the buildings sparkling under the intense sun. It’s not unusual to see orange robed monks on the streets.

There are over four hundred wats, or temples, in Bangkok, but you can add to that number many more shrines that are everywhere around the city. Some of the wats are massive complexes, frequently swamped by tourists, others are small and far from the tourist trail.

Finding myself in the Phra Nakhon District of central Bangkok it was hard to miss Wat Bowonniwet Vihara Rajavaravihara. This is a major Buddhist temple with plenty of royal connections and a steady stream of worshipers coming and going. Numerous princes have studied at this temple, including King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX as the current Thai monarch is known.

Wat Mai Amataros Phrasomdet Bangkhunphrom, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mai Amataros Phrasomdet Bangkhunphrom, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Making floral offerings, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Making floral offerings, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Initiates, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Initiates, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Monk, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Monk, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Given the reverence that the majority of Thais have for their king, it’s no surprise that this is a popular temple. The most striking feature from outside the temple is the large golden chedi or stupa that majestically rises into the sky; inside, the ornate decoration of the temple is equally impressive. In one temple monks were praying in front of a large Buddha statue.

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Not that visiting a Buddhist temple is all spirituality, it’s also fraught with danger. As with many places of worship, you’re required to remove your shoes when entering certain parts of the temple complex. When I got to the main stupa I had to remove my flip flops before ascending some steps into a courtyard.

The floor of the courtyard had been exposed to an intense sun for several hours, and the bare stone floor felt hot enough to fry an egg on. I swear I got third-degree burns on the soles of my feet. At least the sight of me running from one patch of shade to another gave a couple of Thai families some amusement.

Making floral offerings, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Making floral offerings, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple paintings, Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Bowonniwet Vihara, Bangkok, Thailand

For safety reasons, I stuck to shaded areas after this painful experience, and visited several buildings where there were glorious paintings on the walls. These are common in Buddhist temples everywhere in the world, and depict instructional scenes from the Buddha’s life, as well as scenes of Thai daily life. They are very colourful and rather beautiful.

* I'm no expert, but arch-atheist Richard Dawkins makes the case in The 
God Delusion that, rather than a religion, Buddhism is more like an 
ethical or philosophical system.

The floating restaurants of Talin Chan

Bangkok is famous for its floating markets. Read any guidebook and they’ll tell you that a visit to one is a quintessential Bangkok experience not to be missed. That alone guarantees that when you visit you’ll be sharing the experience with plenty of other tourists. I read a few travel articles and the big question seemed to be which market, of the many possibles, should I visit?

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Logistics helped solve this question. Many of the more interesting sounding floating markets were quite a long way outside of Bangkok, and with limited time I needed somewhere accessible. Talin Chan market is handily located in Thonburi, an ancient district criss-crossed by canals that can be visited as part of a boat trip around the area, and is only a few kilometres from the centre of Bangkok.

It’s more fun to reach Talin Chan by boat, but it can also be reached by road. The food market here isn’t the typical fresh produce market that you get elsewhere; instead Talin Chan specialises in floating kitchens, where you can have food cooked to order by a chef bobbing around in a wooden canoe. There are pontoons with tables and chairs where you can relax while eating noodles or rice with fish, crab, prawns or pork.

It’s a small market – don’t expect to be wandering around for hours – but less touristy than I’d expected. Mostly there seemed to be more Thais than non-Thais and, because it was the weekend, everyone seemed to be having family lunches. The boat I’d arrived on parked up and I had an hour to explore, eat and drink. An hour was easily enough time.

I strolled amongst the boats, amazed yet again by the sheer variety of foodstuffs on offer in Thailand, checking out which of the floating kitchens looked good for lunch. Top tip, they all look good and do similar meals. I passed a young boy drumming up a frenzy of fish as he tossed stale bread into the water. I couldn’t help but wonder if these same fish would be grilled and served up one day soon.

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

I had a walk around and discovered a land-based market behind the floating market. There wasn’t much to see – more food stalls – so headed back in search of lunch. A tasty pad thai washed down with a beer and (to my shame) two portions of mango sticky rice later, and it was time to clamber back on the boat and head off into Thonburi’s canals again.

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Talin Chan Floating Market, Bangkok, Thailand

The khlongs of Thonburi, Bangkok’s canals

It was Salvatore Besso, in the early 20th century, who wrote of Bangkok as the “Venice of the Far East, the capital still wrapped in mystery, in spite of the thousand efforts of modernism amidst its maze of canals”. The city’s large network of canals presumably reminded the Italian of home, and his remark has gone on to become one of the enduring cliches of the Thai capital.

Today, many of Bangkok’s canals have been abandoned, built over and filled in, but there remains a significant network of waterways that are still used for transport and commerce. As Bangkok’s roads have become ever more crowded, canals have become vital transport routes for desperate commuters. A journey along them is a little like stepping back in time, even if the boats all have engines these days.

The Chao Phraya River, Bangkok, Thailand

The Chao Phraya River, Bangkok, Thailand

The Chao Phraya River, Bangkok, Thailand

The Chao Phraya River, Bangkok, Thailand

My boat for the tour of canals, Bangkok, Thailand

My boat for the tour of canals, Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

I went to the Tha Chang river taxi terminal, one of many places where it’s possible to hire a Longtail boat, the ones that have an extended propellor sticking out of the back. I asked around and found a boat operator who said he’d be sailing in 20 minutes, once a couple of other people had arrived. An hour later I was still waiting. Eventually they decided to set off with me as the only passenger.

It turned out that I wasn’t alone on the boat, the captain’s wife and young child would be my companions for the journey. Despite the challenges of communication, we had a lot of sign language conversations and, after buying drinks for everyone from a man in a canoe, we were firm friends.

Temples on the canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Temples on the canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Children swimming in the canals of the Thonburi district of Bangkok, Thailand

Children swimming in the canals of the Thonburi district of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Children swimming in the canals of the Thonburi district of Bangkok, Thailand

Children swimming in the canals of the Thonburi district of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

At first I was a little disappointed that the boat wasn’t one of the iconic Longtail boats that seem to gracefully skim over the water at high speed. Our boat travelled far more sedately, and I could stand at the front and back of it for panoramic views along the canals. It allowed me to get a better sense of the route and the communities that lined the canals.

It’s been some time since I visited Venice, and I remember there being strong odours in parts of the city, but by comparison Bangkok’s canals are a clear and present danger to human health. Very few Bangkok homes are connected to the sewage system, and around 60 percent of human ‘waste’ is untreated when it flows into the city’s waterways. Add myriad other forms of pollution and you begin to wonder if the water is toxic…

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

I was mentally checking off all the vaccinations I’ve had to protect me from a range of tropical illnesses, and I reckoned my chances of surviving a fall in the water to be only 50/50. All the more surprising then that young children were swimming in the water. It was 36ºC and humid so it was understandable, but you couldn’t pay me to take a swim in these waters.

As we made our way along the ‘canal tour’ route through the ancient Thonburi district on the western side of the city, we passed numerous buildings on stilts. Many were in a state of decay, others were clearly homes of wealthier residents, well maintained and sometimes with gardens. We passed ornate and brightly decorated temples, fishermen floating in inner tubes, and people in canoes going about their daily business.

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Temples on the canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Temples on the canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

While the canals might be a relic of the past, they could play an enhanced role in the city’s future – and not just because of the congestion on the roads. Bangkok is slowly sinking – something it shares with Venice at least – at a time when global warming is raising sea levels. Travel by boat may well become the only viable option in some parts of the city.

It was a fascinating trip. We stopped at Taling Chan Floating Market, which although busy with both foreign and domestic tourists, was a lot of fun. The canoes are more like floating kitchens than shops, with charcoal grills inside the boats, which are moored next to floating platforms that double as seated dinning areas. But more of that next time…

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand

Canals in the Thonburi area of Bangkok, Thailand