First impressions of Bangkok were not favourable. It felt disappointingly familiar in its smog-filled urbanisation, gridlocked modern traffic, infinitely overlapping motorway fly-overs and high-rise buildings. Bumper to bumper for long periods, it took us a ridiculously long time to travel a ridiculously short distance. The rice field bliss of the previous evening quickly seemed a long way away.
Upon reaching the main tourist area and our base, it appeared that westerners were exhaustingly common, with music thumpingly loud and westerner-targeted. It was like our rocky truck ride to the border, down the ‘road of bones’ and its cavernous dirt track dips, had somehow spewed us into a second division Ibiza. The area felt self-conscious in its population of young, middle-class, pectoral-proud alpha males strutting about, desperately exuding worldliness, while James Blunt and Jack Johnson endlessly warbled about love from every music stall.
With a couple of days in Bangkok before heading north, I attempted to deepen my impression of the city away from its tourist centre. Buying pineapple from a street trader, I was collared by a random local man, possibly an agent. He assured me a tuk-tuk ride and tour would be well priced today because of a government policy which was much too long and detailed to follow. It was suspicious but I decided not to care and went with it. I was taken to a closed, relatively uninspiring temple, around which lay what looked like disease-ridden cats and dogs.
After that my tuk-tuk man delivered me to a tailor’s shop and all became clear. The grinning man on the street, likely an affiliate of the tailor, had vaguely mentioned a “must visit” place I hadn’t seen marked on any map and the significance of which I hadn’t understood. I recalled friends from home recounting a similar experience to me. They had been deposited at a store by their tuk-tuk man, who then left them in an unfamiliar area of Bangkok. Tuk-tuk drivers are given generous incentives by tailors and tradesmen to drop tourists at their stores, where rich westerners are not allowed to leave without either being subjected to a hounding sales pitch, or buying something.
My abruptness surprised even me. As soon as I had been almost pushed through the door of the tailor, I smiled and apologised for the confusion to the owners, quickly rearing up in anticipation of their prey. “I’m sorry, I don’t want a suit or any clothes.” And I turned on my heel, reboarding the tuk-tuk and asking the driver to return me to where he had picked me up. Alarmed and confused, he pleaded with me to go on to the next store and look around, just for fifteen minutes. He wouldn’t get his token otherwise, whatever that was. Heartlessly stubborn in the face of his appeals, I stood firm. Just take me back. In a grumpy sulk, he did. He even allowed me out without any charge, appearing to want rid of the cold, tight westerner.
Later that afternoon an officially branded taxi took me further into the commercial city-centre. The traffic was torturous and my non-English speaking driver persisted in speaking to me. I nodded and smiled a lot, frantically leafing through my small phrasebook for anything appropriate but rhetorical. ‘This is fun!’ I settled on, hoping he would understand the irony. He understood after a second repetition, and laughed heartily. I alighted just before of the central district, patience with the traffic expired.
Walking aimlessly in blistering heat, I passed a Tesco, which seemed strange, then stumbled upon Jim Thompson’s House. Jim was an American who had emigrated here several decades ago and was responsible for the evolution of Thai architecture, incorporating styles from around the world, before he mysteriously disappeared on a hiking holiday in 1967. The house was remarkably well restored and uniquely crafted in many ways, furnished with quirky, culturally far-flung decorations. I joined a small English speaking tour and developed an awkward habit of accidentally obscuring whatever item the guide was about to describe to us, requiring her to repeatedly usher me out of the way. This caused much frivolous jest.
After the tour I continued to walk and soon found myself comprehensively lost. Having decided to give up, I negotiated a fare with a motorbike taxi and embarked on an adrenalin-fuelled journey back to the Kao San area. With the rush-hour traffic densely packed as it was, nothing other than a motorbike would have sliced through as quickly. Tightly gripping the safety bars at the rear of the saddle, I hoped not to die as we sped on. The driver didn’t see the need in breaking for a junction from 60mph until about ten yards before the lights, leaving me to slide up tighter against him than ideal, however hard I tried to lock my arms on the back bars. Nevertheless, he did get me back in super quick time.
Bangkok Zoo was the venue for many family Sunday outings and apparently few westerners. I’m not sure about my political stance on zoos and don’t think I’d visited one since I was a young child. Not all the animals looked brilliantly cared for and thinking about it too much did make me feel uneasy. But still, the chimps were funny.
A wrong turn upon leaving the zoo added about forty minutes to my walk around the royal residence. On each corner, guards stood brandishing rifles and looking tough.
Streets in the district are lined with trees, bridges cross the many canals and modern high-rise buildings line the horizon. At large junctions monuments pay homage to the hugely respected royals. I had heard it said that even to step on a rolling coin bearing the head of royalty would be frowned upon.
What Came Before
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