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Andy’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 15 Oct 2006

Location: Bangkok, Thailand

MapKRUNGTHEP MAHA NAKORN, AMARN RATTANAKOSINDRA, MAHINDRAYUDHYA, MAHADILOKPOP, NOPARATANA RAJDDHANI MAHASATHAN, AMORN PIMAN AVATARN SATIT, SAKKATULTIYA VISHNUKARN PRASIT
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...yes you are correct in thinking this is the proper title of Bangkok (the longest city name in the world apparently). Fully translated it means “the City of Angels, the Great City, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha, the Impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the Grand Capital of the world endowed with Nine Precious Gems, the Happy City, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn”. Grafty Green means something vaguely similar.

So Krungthep Maha Nakorn….(ok fine, Bangkok is easier) is a place that confounds, and yet supports preconceptions surrounding this sprawling city.

To many an occidental mind Bangkok conjurs up images of a mazelike warren of streets and canals, quaint teak buildings and tuk tuks, floating markets brimming with fruit and vegetables, ancient temples, orange garbed buddhist monks and small, smoky shops selling snakeoils, religious relics and

Yet Bangkok is a bustling metropolis - more modern in many respects than Kuala Lumpa. Skyscrapers race to outsize each other while wide motorways skim the rooftops of apartment blocks. The new airport is a stunning hymn to the gods of polished steel, smoked glass, trendy concrete and atmospheric purple and blue lighting. The streets are thronged with busy, fast-paced thais often clad in the latest fashions of skinny keans with retro t-shirts and always accompanied by the most recent Nokia or Motorola. The city i woke up to was a dynamic, thriving and multilayered entity comfortably accomodating more traditional thai culture(s) with supposedly globalised tastes, fashions, mentalities and businesses.

Preconceptions are so often pitifully inadequate.

Like thousands of backpackers before us, and doubtless thousands to come, we stayed on the infamous (rightly or wrongly) Khao San road - the main traveler hub. Most travellers get rather snobby about the place but i found it entertaining enough for a few days even if the restaurants are bad, the majority of people are other backpackers (not quite sure what the crime is about meeting other backpackers) and the road is always insanely busy. It is essentially a bustling crossroads where most backpackers in South East Asia either begin or end their journey (both easily identifiable - the latter tanned and dreadlocked, the former fresh-faced and wide-eyed). I found it relatively harmless. All those snobpackers who have some irrational fear of fishermen pants (which i do not own) should really spend their energy and time dealing with more pressing matters - world hunger perhaps.

The road itself is a forest of multicoloured neon signs advertising plush hotels, scummy flea-pit guesthouses, massage parlours, McDonalds (!), travel agents, internet shops and one ‘Gaylord Indian restaurant’ (?). Walking down the road you are permanently hassled by tuk tuk drivers showing you pictures of naked women and making lewd gestures (”It’s ten o clock in the morning” i exclaimed to one), thai people selling lighters, hammocks or any other tourist tat you can think of and those annoying but adorable small thai women who wear (supposedly) ethnic north-thai hats and who stroke wooden frogs all day thus emitting a croaking noise which soon becomes part of the Khao San soundtrack. (Note to anyone off to thailand - do not under any circumstances show any interest in them. I made this mistake once. Immediately every single one of those women in a mile radious began slowly approaching me from all directions - croaking all the while - until i was thoroughly surrounded).

Unlike the more familiar British or European counterparts the streets play host to a wider variety of activities. Shops, restaurants, markets, even life itself spills out onto the streets. Socialising, cooking, sleeping, games and sports (badminton in particular)
are often played out in under the glare of a street lamp. Whilst gorging myself at yet another hawker stall which lay precariously on the edge of the road, i noticed a small segment of the pavement nearby where a whole family sat selling various meats and produce. The child slept soundly on a small mattress underneath the table and grandma could be found watching tv from a makeshift chair. Environmental and economic factors undoubtedly contribute to this difference.

Most of our first day was spent perusing the numerous stalls that line the street and eating 20 baht pad thai (thai style noodles at a very reasonable price, though of dubious relation to the original dish) cooked up in minutes on the side of the road. Other than that i joined in the other thai people (and the rather more culturally aware and sensitive travellers) and stood still at exactly six o clock when tinny speakers along the road, and in various public buildings and spaces around Thailand blared out the thai national anthem.

The second day we decided to venture to the sunday market so Zoe and Hannah flagged down a tuk tuk - a death tap on three wheels basically.

People had warned me of these contraptions but no one told me a bad Michael Schumacher would be in the driving seat. We sped off, weaving in and out of the ever-present congestion and smog and skimming cars, buses and cyclists often a centimetre away.
Our driver revelled in taking corners on two wheels, swerving across highways from side to side and finally stopping, raising the vehicle up onto the 2 back wheels, revving the engine and then slamming down onto the tarmac hence speeding off - directly into the path of an oncoming car. Note to others travelling to Bangkok: DO NOT SCREAM. It only encourages them.

So we screamed.

Before we reached the market we found ourselves delivered to the door of a tailors we had not asked to visit (hence the cheap price of the journey). For ten minutes i gave the impression i desired a suit; i picked out a style and fabric while the girls ooh-ed and ahhh-ed and then we hastily made our excuses “Before i commit to this suit i would like to peruse the latest fashions currently seen on the catwalks of Paris, London and Milan” i said, but this guy was a pro, “Use our internet sir!”. Damnit. So i resorted to the bank balance fallback.

When we finally reached the market it reminded me of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, though slighlty less charming. It was a maze of narrow, claustrophobic covered alleyways brimming with hundreds of cramped stalls selling everything you could desire: rich silks and cottons; badly made bags, shoes, watches, belts and jeans (fake and authentic); row upon row of silver and gold jewellery; piles of gem stones; faux antiques ranging from mass produced buddhist heads to small clay tablets, and real antiques such as ornate porcelain figurines, cracked vases and weather-beaten wooden statues. Moving along the length of the market it was possible to buy brightly coloured chinese lanterns; dark wooden beds, wardrobes and tables; bed linens, lamps, even intricate wooden and gold leaf doors. Hours later i happened upon piles of dusty ochre, brown and red spices; dried fish pungent in the confined hot spaces; salted meats, herbs, crab sticks, shrimps, lobsters, prawns and even starfish. The juice makers, fruit vendors and small scale bakers provided much needed sustinence to continue the endless march. But i loved it. The sights, the smells, the sounds and the atmosphere were all rich and diverse - just as a market should be.

That night we went to a bar - not just any bar. The Esso garage around the corner. Every evening when the station closes down the forecourt is laid out with chairs, tables and (worryingly) candles while a bar is set up serving drinks and music is piped through some portable speakers. This set-up epitomises an essential fact of Bangkok - space can be found anywhere, it just takes some entrepeneurial spirit. So restaurants perch on the side of roads, clothes stalls line the pavements and bars spring up outside 7/11’s (local convenience stores). This entrepeneurial spirit is intimately linked to the variety of capitalism practiced in Thailand. Capitalism is filtered through the local or national culture in which it is introduced, both adopting and adapting traditions, practices and beliefs whilst at the same time influencing economics, society and politics in a relationship of mutual constitution. Capitalism in Thailand is different to capitalism in China which is different to capitalism in England or the United States and so on and so forth. Here it seems everyone is a shopkeeper, restaurant owner or provider of essential services. I have no doubt this is changing but for now Thailand seems to be a ‘nation of shopkeepers’ as Britain was once described by Napoleon. I found it all very interesting in a way that Australia was demonstrably not.

Most of my first trip to Bangkok consisted of wandering aimlessly along the Khao San, shopping in MBK (a giant Bluewater-esque establishment) and eating. Ruth had told me she would coming out to join me soon so i didn’t not want to engage in any sightseeing only to duplicate it and thus waste money. So i relaxed and enjoyed the city without really seeing anything of it - for now.

On my second trip to Bangkok (after travelling to Cambodia for a visa run - which will be covered in a seperate post) i met up again with Mark and Jon from Malaysia and a guy who, like me, has starred in his own movie. It’s called “The Most Unromantic Man in the World”. Watch it!

It was Mark’s last night and we wanted to cut up the dancefloor, so a very kind tuk tuk driver took us all to a place called Patpong, supposedly an area full of bars and clubs (little did we know). With my wits slightly dulled by some small shandy’s we were herded into a dark, rather foreboding club. Along the back wall were rows of young thai women of dubious repute. My brain,
slow in appreciating what my senses should have told me immediately was jolted into gear by Mark -”whorehouse” he whispered.
We left immediately. Honestly we did.

Preconceptions then occassionally contain elements of truth. We had discovered the seedy, sexually debauched underbelly of Bangkok.

And so it continued -

The next night we were approached by tuk tuk drivers making a sucking noises with their lips - the sound of a ping pong show. “But i don’t like sports” i may have cried naively. Half hour later we were ushered through the doors of an inauspicious club tucked quietly away down a backstreet (”this doesn’t look like a sports stadium” i think i squeeked). After having my camera removed we stepped through the doors into a dark room with a stage upon which a man and women were having rampant sex in a variety of positions bound to arouse only acute backache. The most interesting sports show i had ever seen!

Afterwards we were treated to a variety of acts of extreme sexual imagination. Who on earth thought to put razor blades up their vagina? I’m quite sure it could not originate in Britain - not from a Maude or Mavis or Beryl! Row after row was pulled from her nether-reaches and then in an act that made my stomach turn she began to slice a piece of paper cleanly and quickly into strips.

Wonderful.

Next, in an act that, if it were more popular, would require more creativity from anti-smoking campaigners, a woman lit a cigarette and proceeded to inhale it deeply - thick streams of smoke bellowing from her privates.

Stupendous!

Woman after woman took to the stage to demonstrate their talents - whistleblowing, dropping ping pong balls into glasses and even a peverse form of rythmic gymnastics; pulling out some brightly coloured ribbon from her privates, the woman danced around provocatively flinging it this way and that in wide arcs and circles while half of its length was still ‘attached’ as it were.

Delightful. Amazing!

But nothing could prepare me for the next event and the stunning feats of markmanship that would make any Red Army sniper proud. Balloons, held high by grinning spectators were shot out of existence with a pop and wild applause by a highly experienced woman (this one called Ethel i think), a peashooter and at least ten years of pelvic floor exercises. Moving targets proved no less of a challenge. Balloons were launched into the air never to return to solid ground in a bizarre twist on clay pigeon shooting.

Rows of young backpackers, businessmen and even an old guy and his wife (what a spiffingly delightful and romantic idea for a date!) lapped it up. Demeaning? Perhaps. And yet was my discomfort due to more prudish cultural attitudes to sexuality and nudity? Should i pity the women? Are they a product of low self-esteem, economic or social disempowerment, or some sort of chilhood trauma? Or did they pity me?! Are they the ones in a position of power (after all i paid a handsome sum for the show!)? A debate for another time.

So my time in Bangkok was relatively, okay almost wholeheartedly uncultural. But that was to change when i finally arrived back here - to be covered in another post - and was remedied by my later trips to Ayutthaya and Sukhothai.