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We were met outside the hotel at 7 this morning, and helped up onto the back of a pickup truck. In clouds of orange dust we sped over bridges and slalomed round motorbikes until we arrived at a small dock. The boat was a traditional wooden long-tail, narrow and quite long, with an aluminium canopy overhead and a propeller at the end of a long shaft. We were the only ones in it, except for the driver at the back, and we set off down the canals. Some of these were more like tiny country lanes, overgrown and used only by locals. The water was an unhealthy beige colour, it had a variety of things floating in it and people were washing clothes, brushing their teeth, shaving, emptying buckets and cleaning food. Dense foliage overhead made it dark and tunnel-like. Our driver waved and chatted to most people, who greeted him, too. Dogs, chickens and children ran along the grassy canal banks, and sometimes small bridges crossed the water. There were many turnings off the channel we were on, some ending in murky greenery and mudslides, others leading to wider stretches of waterway and more houses. We made so many turnings along the maze of pasages that I lost track, and we finally pulled up along side a wooden house and got off the boat at the small jetty. This was one of the places that the people organising the tour would get commission from, and we dutifully tried the coconut juice and looked at all the wooden carvings (and Mikey bought me some coloured pencils because I got excited) and then got back on the boat. Now, instead of residential properties, all the jetties were stalls, and they all sold the same things - wooden carvings, spices, jars of tiger balm, fans, woven hats and lamps. We were no longer using the motor, the driver was paddling us along slowly, and he drew up along side the stalls of his friends so that we could examine the goods. Elderly ladies grabbed the boat as we passed and made us inspect everything on the stall, and we repeatedly said no. In a way, this was worse than a traditional market - normally we could just walk away, but this time we were trapped. The boat driver exchanged comments with a few stall-holders, most probably saying that we were unlikely to buy things and that we were bad customers. After a while he stopped slowing down, and we talked quietly and avoided showing too much outward interest in things.
We turned down a few more alleyways and found ourselves in the main part of the market, were goods are sold from boats. This is the famous tourist attraction, but because it was so early there were very few white faces, just Thai people bartering and trading with one another. Long wooden boats floated past piled high with fruit, vegetables or soveneirs. This part was much more relaxed and the driver had finished his hard sell and left us to take photos and browse from a distance. Occasionally a boat would nudge ours and the old lady would offer a hat or a scarf or a bit of carved wood, but it was still early days and she wasn't desparate yet. There were boats full of bananas and some with onions or combinations of fruit. I stopped a lady and asked her what the big pink red pepper-shaped fruits were and she tried to sell me a kilo of them. It tasted like an apple but I wasn't sure if I should have eaten the skin. Another woman passed me a piece of what looked like grapefruit, which I tried tentatively and found that it was actually very sweet and tasty. It was called a pomelo (otherwise known as a shaddock) and I bought a tray of pieces. From the other side of the boat came another elderly lady, frying small pancakes on a gas stove on her boat while an old man sat at the back and paddled with a long oar. She passed me a tiny circle, a coconut pancake, which was delicious, and I tried to buy one but got a little basket made of stapled banana leaves full of them. So I had to eat them all. I seem to be unable to resist buying weird-looking things in markets. I wonder where I get that from?
There was a constant hum of engines, a cling of windchimes and bells, someone beating a motorbike engine with a spanner and a few people calling to us or to others. We drifted under a bridge and then found oursleves back on the canal equivalent of the main road, plenty of small wooden speed boats and a few more longtails taking tourists out. The concrete banks were lined with wooden houses, many of them on stilts and actually standing in the water. More poeple washed (with a sheet wrapped round themselves) or cleaned here. Many of the houses had brightly coloured pot plants and flowering cacti on their jetties, the Thai equivalent of window boxes and geraniums. A lot of old people sat on the water's edge and watched the world go by. We passed a school and a police station, both with river access, and a few shops. Then the boat came to a halt at a little pier and the driver tried to sell us a packet of biscuit crumbs. We declined politely, but he threw a handful into the water and suddenly the canal came alive with a thousand shimmering carp all fighting for the food. I scattered the rest of the crumbs into the water and watched them jumps and flash their scales. The water was teeming with their round silver bodies and red and black fins, and they even disturbed the canal enough to rock the boat a little. Then the driver took us back to town and let us off. His parting words, accompanied by appropriate hand-gestures were "Bus station there. Tip-tip me", which we did.
We checked out of the hotel, found the bus station and climbed on the bus which, once again, set off the moment we were aboard. I ate my pomelo with a pointy stick and watched the countryside go past. There were shops selling ornate gates, some selling jewelled pagodas, others with a selection of intricate spirit houses, and one or two DVD rental shops. The bus seats were a little hard, the road was bumpy and I was tired, so I was grumpy. At the bus station we took a taxi to the hotel and I had a nap and a very hot shower (last night's bathroom had a hose attached to a cold tap). I felt better after that.
By the afternoon we were ready to face the world again, so we took our third trip to the Vietnamese embassy, picked up our passports with pretty visa stickers in them and then went round the corner to book a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Our origninal plan was to travel into Cambodia and Vietnam and back overland but we didn't have enough time for that. After popping into a Swiss travel agent and being told that we'd probably be better off at one of the other places down the road, we managed to get a flight, with Lufthansa of all people, on Sunday. On the street people were setting up food stalls. There were hundreds of barbecued things on sticks - sausages, lumps of meat, bananas, and people were frying and boiling and stirring all sorts of things. I saw a huge dimpled frying pan with holes for forty or more quails eggs - these miniature delicacies were sold in little banana-leaf boats, and I watched a lady walk past with two enormous baskets one a pole,swung over her shoulder.The baskets contained large ceramic statues of dogs. Fruit stalls with slices of melon, mango and papaya on ice, men mending watches, stalls of inflatable pillows. Then it was time for Mikey to try on his suits (which fit perfectly), order some more shirts, pay to have the whole lot shipped home and go out to the shopping mall for a big pizza and doughnuts. I'd been dreaming about pizza for weeks, so we decided to give in and go for it. It wasn't bad, but not like the Bear Flat ones in Bath. On our way out of the shopping centre I saw a load of small garden sheds in a corner, and deduced that they were private karaoke cubicles. I tried to talk Mikey in to trying it out, but all the songs were in Thai. I thought that if I could overcome my fear of mouse-deeer (I saw one on the beach in Taman Negara and thought it was rather cute) I might be able to cure myself of karaokephobia, but no such luck.
Our next plan was to see the market in Chinatown, followed by a quick trip down Patpong road to see what all the fuss was about. We waited at the side of the road and a taxi came along immediately. The driver refused to take us to Chinatown, saying the market was closed at night, but offered to take us to Patpong instead, so rather than arguing we just went along with it. He also refused to use the meter and demanded more than we expected to pay, but the whole ride cost just over two pounds so it's wasn't terrible. Mikey was a bit annoyed though.
Patpong Road is the notorious red light district of Bangkok, and it was very diasppointing. There was a small night market going on, plenty of lovely barbecue smells, Mikey and I were invited into a couple of sex clubs, but appart from the large neon signs advertising 'Wet Boys' and 'New Boys' there was nothing particularly noteworthy. We decided to walk back to the hotel, which took an hour. We managed to avoid a strange man with a tube of paper up his nose who kept saying hello to us and braved the thick fog of traffic fumes and hooting cars. We went past more gorgeous barbecue smells and things cooking on street stalls. Near the hotel, in one of the backstreets, was a small food stall with a table on which lay three small dogs. It was almost as if we were supposed to choose the one we wanted cooked - the first one, a little black poodle-type thing, started yapping at us, and I earmarked him for attention later. It was late when we finally made it to the hotel. A quick check of email and then sleep.
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