Friday, 11 September 2009

Arrival in Bangkok

I feel sorry for Thailand. People complain that it’s too touristy (Europeans have invented the word ‘touristic’) and with hordes of tourists marching past like they’re off to work on a Monday morning and street after street of businesses catering especially for them, I suppose it is. But it’s a beautiful country, has a world-renowned cuisine, an exchange rate that flatters western currencies and it’s been on the traveller circuit for so long that they’d be mad not to make the most of the pounds, euros and dollars that fly over. Actually, I find the tourists more of a problem than the tourism. In Africa, the foreigners we met had just finished volunteering for three months as a midwife, or were in the middle of a post-graduate placement investigating the prevention of water-borne diseases, or in the Peace Corps, or otherwise trying to help a little piece of the world. In Thailand, they’re mainly getting wasted and living empty drink cups everywhere. Some of the ‘land of smiles’ seem a little wan, but they usually make the effort.   

It only took ten hours to fly to Bangkok from Johannesburg, but it could have been the other end of the world. It was cold when we left South Africa –socks in bed - so arriving in Bangkok airport was like walking into the tropical house at Kew Gardens in the middle of January. Standing outside Arrivals adjusting to the heat, we realised that English had become practically useless. In Africa, we’d enjoyed trying to learn the various local languages for fun, but we’d rarely had to actually use them. Even road signs appear either European or, most personally incongruous, British, announcing Kisumu as casually as Kettering. In Thailand, the first country we’ve visited that has never been colonised (Thailand gave Laos and Cambodia, originally Thai territory, to France to prevent it), the Thais are as relaxed as the English about the need to speak international languages and also tend not to bother. I’d remembered travelling around Asia as easy, but we were going to have to make considerably more effort here than we’d had to in Africa.   

Actually, our taxi driver from Bangkok airport (taxi charges to Khao San Road vary between 400 and 1,800 Baht) spoke good enough English to give us a lecture about tuk-tuk drivers that lasted all the way to our guesthouse with a passion that went beyond the average road user’s hatred for all other road users. By now, we were so used to warnings, the telling and hearing of horror stories being in the top three of traveller pastimes (with eating and internet), we just rolled our eyes. But it was one of those usually unusual warnings that manifest themselves immediately. Tuk-tuk drivers will promise to take you wherever you want to go as long as you let them take you where they want you to go first. A gem shop, a tailor, a Thai cushion maker and definitely where you want to go next. Honest. I’m sure a proportion of farangs think of it as a convenient and, compared to back home, cheap way to spend the day touring the city and doing some shopping, otherwise it’s maddening. A pair of Dutch girls we met at the entrance to Dusit zoo at closing time had been trying to get there since the morning but their tuk-tuk driver had taken them on an unwanted all-day tour of the shops that would give him commission. And when you have finally managed to agree to ‘NO STOPS!’, you have to get the pronunciation exactly right: Koh San Road is a completely different thing to Khao (cow) San Road and no one will know what you’re on about.   

As is traditional for backpackers, Cow San Road was the first place we headed. The area had spread since my last visit, but it hadn’t changed. It’s lined with bars with big open fronts with whiteboards advertising prices for buckets of Sangsom (the local whisky that is actually a rum) and coke, pancakes and fruit shakes and the time at which they’ll be showing The Beach and filled with tourists slowly dissolving in the heat. They’re separated from the street by stalls selling clothes, gadgets with flashing LEDs, fabrics and trinkets, usually selling the same items at starting prices that never vary. The sound of croaking frogs has you checking your step until female traders wearing elaborate tribal hats, Burmese refugees we were told, pop up behind you selling wooden frogs with a ridged back that, when stroked with the accompanying wooden stick, emit the convincing croak, as well as silver bracelets, necklaces and, of course, tribal hats. After that comes the cigarette accessory trader selling lighters with built in torches, or cigarette cases with built in lighters that glow with a windproof, green flame (which we got for 150 baht, down from 700). Minding your own business having a beer and suddenly you find that another hat-wearing trader waiting in the wings has plonked another hat on your head and won’t take ‘sorry’ for an answer (“'sorry’ no buy me food!”). It will drive you mad soon enough, but it’s quite good fun before that and the area offers all the services a budget traveller looks for.   

Often, Bangkok is just a place to catch a bus, train or flight straight back out. Last time, we only left Khao San Road on our sixth and final visit to kill time while we waited for our flight home. We were sick of the crowds, the Sangsom buckets and circular conversations with tuk-tuk drivers and wandered off, accidentally discovering a whole new world. With Alex, I went to the Royal Palace for the first time. Wandering through the enormous temples and gardens, he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe you never came here before”. “After Vietnam, we were all templed out,” I answered, which was true, but I couldn’t believe it either. Many of the famous sites are visible from the Chao Phraya River and, at 13 baht per trip, cheaper than a biro back home, it’s a more economical and pleasant way to cross the city than using the pollution and traffic choked Bangkok streets. Our favourite stop is just after River City going south; a little alley on the left takes you to the food stalls where the locals go for lunch and, perhaps, the best pad kra pow in Southeast Asia. All the shops in Bangkok are grouped together. There’s the gold Buddha section, the metal pipe section, the coffin section, the miscellaneous engine parts section, the Chinese herb section, the digital still and video camera section. In Chinatown, a labyrinth of alleys sell everything you can think of and a bunch else besides, with flagrant disregard for the well guarded barrier at home between wholesale and retail; plastic feet for modelling flip-flops for sale were on sale next to flip-flops. We put our map back in the bag; it was no use in Chinatown.   

Bangkok (and Thailand as a whole, according to other travellers we’ve met) has a bad reputation for scamming and even TAT agents act more like touts than you might expect of representatives of the Thailand government’s Tourism Authority. A simple thing like visiting the Royal Grand Palace became something of a mission with people on the way telling us a variety of different things about opening hours and dress codes. A Thai guy outside the Grand Palace told us that 3.30pm was a bad time to visit when an incensed tourist stormed up and told us not to listen to him – the Palace was open and they were selling tickets. But when we’d been wandering around for an hour and a half, rushing around before closing time with so much more still to see, the Thai man’s advice started to make sense. A similar thing happened as we tried to find our way to the Farang Quarter: a couple of tuk-tuk drivers we asked for directions kept saying, “Embassy? You want embassy?” “No, no,” we replied pointing in exasperation at our English-written map, “Farang Quarter!” It was only later, on closer inspection of our guide-book, that we realised that the Farang Quarter is home to many of Bangkok’s embassies, (and maybe how it got its name). Overall, 95% of apparently spurious advice turned out to be well intentioned. (The other 5% will suck you dry, of course :) )   

Ten years seems a long time but, although individual places have changed or spread out, overall I was struck not by what had changed but what hadn’t. Even the dodgy guesthouse we stayed in ten years ago is still there, and the rooms cost about the same (we didn’t realise how dodgy it was last time, Alex took one look at the sign asking guests bringing back Thai ladies to pay for their sheets, shook his head at me and walked straight out). Bangkok is still crowded, smelly and hectic and I still love it.   

Ten years ago Now 
Ex rate to £1 60 Bt 54 Bt 
Big bottle of beer (in a bar)  60 Bt 60-90 Bt 
Starting price for double room 200+ Bt 300+ Bt 
Breakfast 20-40 Bt (bacon and eggs) 20-40 Bt (fruit)

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