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Published: February 25th 2009
the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Still as jaw-dropping as it was 15 years' ago
Remember the buzz of Asia, the bustle of activity, the panoply of trinkets and T-shirts and food for sale, the maelstrom of traffic?
Remember the way the air in southeast Asia assaults you, the humidity palpable even in this, the “cool”, season?
Remember the smells, the chillies, the frangipani, the incense?
Remember the lives lived outside, the smiles, the welcoming, the generosity?
I had to change planes in Mumbai. There the sweet smell of India, distinctive even at midnight, hit me as I emerged from the plane. A crowd of attendants was waiting at the bottom of the steps, a crowd so numerous they nearly blocked our way to the waiting coaches. In India, it takes a lot of people to do something, anything; employment for more of the billion-plus inhabitants, one could cynically add. In the airport, there were sari-uniformed staff, smart Sikh turbans, a menu mentioning “chilly”. Men and women forming separate lines at Security. Each piece of hand-luggage being separately tagged so that the tag could be stamped to show that that piece of luggage has, indeed, gone through the X-ray machine; another couple of staff on hand at the exit of the Security
Yes, this Chinese "granite giant" is supposed to imitate the great explorer...
section to check the stamps on the tags. Delightful quirks of India, evident even in only a fleeting hour on the ground. I felt energised, excited, alive… and smiled beatifically at everyone I passed, even the two oversized gentlemen with whom I was sharing a row of seats on the Bangkok flight.
It was thrilling to be Back On The Road…
I’d been to Bangkok before, on three separate occasions during a three-week period in December ’93/January ’94. But I had only snapshots in my memory, and not many of those. Thanon Khao San was still a cheap-as-chips backpacker mecca, as yet untouched by its future trendiness for the Bangkokois, and not yet made famous by the opening scenes in “The Beach”. The inhabitants of the youth hostel dorm barely paused for sleep, the large room’s white-neon strip light permanently on, or so I remember. We used to go to sleep to music from our Walkmans to blot out the noise. Patpong night market was a riot of noise and colour, urgent sellers of goods on the one side, urgent sellers of sex on the other. The neck-straining height of Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha. Vague recollections of golden
roofs with upturned Naga-shaped corners, and maybe a stupa or two… or was that in Kathmandu? This trip might trigger more memories, or simply create them afresh…
I’m conscious that, as I warned at the end of the last blog, I’m likely to be producing blogs a little more frequently this year with my return to Serious Travelling, so I’m going to try and keep the amount of text down. (Well, if I put it that way, it sounds altruistic. Actually, I’ve still got to “prep” for tomorrow, my next destination, and I don’t have vast amounts of time…) But I’ll keep up the number of photographs as some of you have kindly said you enjoy those. So, as the title suggests, this blog will simply look at “moments” of my last week in Bangkok.
Tyranny. Oppression. Strong words for a generally peaceful people. I’ve tripped over a political rally. Clearly the recent elections have not appeased everyone. Is this the opposition, or the former airport protesters complaining that things haven’t gone far enough to appease them? It seems peaceful enough, although the words coming over the megaphone sound harsh. People are standing or sitting - on deckchairs,
rugs on the ground, hunched over moped handlebars - transfixed. Bright red T-shirts, polo shirts and vest tops are on sale/being worn, each loudly proclaiming “Truth Today”. Later I find out that this is a pro-Thaksin rally, Thaksin Shinawatra being the former prime minister accused of corruption charges though better known in the UK for having recently bought Manchester City Football Club. This appears to have been only a “warm up”, to announce a “proper” rally next Tuesday. I contemplate giving the area a wide berth next week…
A city of echoes. Of Jay’s comment about monks in Tibet - “Buddha guys”. Of non-tourist-area Mumbai in some of the bland modern architecture. Of Phnom Penh in the sunset-coloured roofs of the Grand Palace. Of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown in the buzz of the stall-lined streets and the gastro-heaven of food on sale. Of Phuket in my first-purchased comestible, neatly prepared and ready-to-eat chilled fresh pineapple. Of Kuala Lumpur again in my sheer exuberance at being back in Asia…
The comforting white noise of the fan. The irregular shy caresses of the fanned air on my skin.
A young monk at Wat Pho asking if he could take my
A cool, air-conditioned room. The fragrant aromas of the steaming herbs. The quite babbly chatter of the masseuses at work in the physically-demanding exercise of Thai massage. The “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy”, the mobile phone ring-tone of one of my co-customers.
A couple of Thai girls sitting at the bottom of the second flight of steps up the praang (stupa) of Wat Arun, giggling and clapping each successful descend-or. And it’s well-deserved: the top flight of steps is a touch sporting in the verticality of its descent.
A one-woman floating market stopping by my longtail boat to give me a fresh floral necklace… and to see what she can sell to me. I settle on a coconut which she deftly slices open with a machete, and presents to me with a straw. It is a ripe one, and the taste of the milk is sweet and cool. At her unsubtle suggestion, I buy the helmsman a beer which, I am impressed to see, he puts aside for consumption after I have disembarked.
A group of mainly naked small boys excitedly jumping into the khlong (canal) as I pass by. One of them stops on
the bank and theatrically blows me a kiss… several times in case I missed it the first time.
A brief trip to the smarter side of town (I dress up specially) to follow up a gastronomic recommendation and to find a rooftop sunset beer. The dessert at The Peninsula is, sadly, off the menu, but I settle on an alternative - sweet sticky rice with fresh mango - which, if modest in size, makes up for that in taste. I decide that this might be one of the few places where you do not eat sticky rice with your fingers. The beer indeed has a view - from the 64th floor of State Tower - but the sun is swallowed up by the pollution long before it is officially supposed to set. Still, the views of dusk and Bangkok-at-night are worth the visit, even if it has been an expensive afternoon out. The beer alone cost more than I am paying per night at my modest but perfectly comfortable guesthouse in Banglamphu. I don’t have a second, and scuttle back to “my” side of town for a more modestly-priced bite to eat (the meal, with a small beer and
Staying near here I felt was a little ironic given the anti-democratic allegations being levied at the government by the "Truth Today" protesters
a water, comes to one quarter of the cost of the “sunset beer”); and surroundings where I instantly feel more at home.
Getting my Thai confused with my Lao - not that my mastery of either is above the ultra-basic. Even if I get the syllables right, Thai is a tonal language, so goodness knows what I’m actually saying. Maybe that’s why my attempts generate either amusement or blank stares. I persist, regardless.
The behemoth of outdoor markets, Chatuchak weekend market. I take a deep breath and dive in… Hours later - surely it isn’t only minutes? - I emerge, briefly, and spot a Westerner carrying a plastic bag of recent purchases. I just stop myself from going up to congratulate her on actually having managed to buy something. Not that there’s a shortage of “stuff”, far from it; the problem is how on earth you decide what to buy, let alone work out what price is appropriate. The patient shopper would try a couple of different stalls to see which vendor was prepared to give the better deal, but here I don’t think I would be able to find the first stall again. Finding my way to
The sun disappears into pollution ahead of its official setting
the right corner of the market for the Metro station when I want to leave is more luck than judgment… so I reward myself with a half-coconut filled with coconut ice-cream. After all, I have just accidentally found the source of a second gastronomic recommendation, and feel disproportionately pleased with myself for doing so.
Zebra crossings. The definition of optimism over my experience of Bangkok drivers. I decide to use them as simply a guideline for indicating where on the street it might be least difficult to cross, the point from which I can see most clearly which bus, coach, car, taxi, tuktuk, motorbike, other nameless motorised transport is about to squash me. I also follow The Book’s advice: cross with a Bangkokois between you and the aforementioned motorised vehicles. At least I’d get squished second.
My hunt for a Book-recommended place to eat takes me down a soi (alley) towards the khlong. For some now-inexplicable reason, I’ve interpreted The Book’s map to mean the eatery is khlong-side. This would give me a lovely view of the Golden Mount and Wat Saket as I dine on my best-in-Bangkok pad thai. (Not sure which city I thought I was
in when I leapt to that European-sounding conclusion…) Anyway, I’m still deep in my misapprehension, and I stop to ask a group of young men whether the restaurant is open yet. They are sitting round a table outside, and, half of them shirtless, enjoying a relaxed dinner and whisky. I am invited to join them. I try to decline, but the guy at the head of the table, Boy, leaps up to offer his seat to me. I sit and am immediately presented with a (fortunately well-watered-down) whisky. I eye the ice cubes: they look mass-produced, so they’re probably kosher. I sip gently. One of the other guys gives me some prawns from their communal platter, delicious-looking large ones which have to be peeled. The chilli dip is passed to me, but, with urgent gesticulations, they warn me as to its heat. I dip my prawn in gingerly and take a bite. When my head doesn’t blow off, I nod enthusiastically, to their vast amusement. Conversation is a touch challenging thanks to my nearly-non-existent Thai and Boy’s fairly limited English, but the old stalwart, football, comes to the rescue. He supports Liverpool, and I dredge my memory. “Steven Gerrard?” “Yes!
Yes!”. I point to Boy’s son, and say “Steven Gerrard?” Boy laughs delightedly. “Peter Couch?” “Yes! Yes!”, hands pointing skywards. We laugh at the idea of someone that tall. I don’t want to outstay my welcome, and we seem to have exhausted conversational topics, so I walk back up to the main road where I eventually find my roadside eatery and a delicious, if view-less, plate of freshly-cooked pad thai.
Peaceful, timeless places, wats, even with the ever-permanent hum of traffic in the background. For me, the Buddha’s face is the epitome of serenity, that quiet hint of a smile, of contentment, of inner happiness… the smile of Enlightenment perhaps. The delicate smell of incense and the fragrance from the flower-offerings seduce me. There’s the occasional “ting” of wind chimes or murmur of prayers. Buddhism’s “DIY” approach appeals to me: there are few formal “services”, devotees simply come when they want, offer what they want, stay as long as they want. Meanwhile, I wander slowly round the wat, picking up often-incongruous details in the murals - a bored expression on a would-be student, an unpainted/incomplete face, a lively couple of rabbits, a man escaping a crocodile, an oversized crab
with two elephants in its claws - or sit at the back and absorb the atmosphere. The extraordinary magnificence of Wat Phra Kaew, the temple of the Emerald Buddha, brings home to me once again the immeasurable artistry (not to mention money) that has gone into creating buildings everywhere in the name of one religion or another. The ornate décor of this temple complex - with its gold and inlay and more gold - verges on going one step too far towards tastelessness, but stops, in my view, just short. The two-kilometres of murals around the courtyard, which illustrate the entire story of the Ramakian (the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana), are mind-blowing, not simply for their extent and fine detail, but also for the way that everyday things are shown in the background - a hunting scene, for example - and the way that movement is shown - the path of the arrow toward the orc-lookalike in battle, of the thunderbolt towards the already-falling tree.
I’m sorry to pack up and leave my kooky little back-street guesthouse, with its request that guests pay for any “souvenirs” that they take from the room (a clever way of trying
mural detail at Wat Suthat
Not quite sure the sense of proportion is correct here...
to induce an advance guilt-trip in the freebie-minded backpacker), and its instructions for how to avoid “sewer smell in room”. For logistical reasons, tonight will be spent in a hotel of a diametrically different persuasion, with air-conditioning, bright white sheets, complimentary toiletries, mini-bar and room service, but I know where I’m most at home.
…and I wasn’t going to write much. Oh well. My apologies - and thanks - to anyone that’s got this far. More soon…
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