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Published: June 14th 2009
Thailand (May 21st - 29th 2009) Bases:
Bangkok Main sights:
Khao San Road, National Museum, Grand Palace, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Pho, Thieves Market, The Golden Mount, The Giant Swing, Democracy Monument, Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, The Bridge on the River Kwai Top 3 experiences:
1) Crossing The Bridge on the River Kwai
2) Marvelling at the Grand Palace bling
3) Shopping on Khao San Road Daily budget (travel, food and accommodation):
USD $35 = 21 pounds My rating:
Ever since booking our flights, there have been clouds over Thailand. Turn on the news and you can't help being barraged with negative images - redshirts surrounding Democracy Monument, yellowshirts closing the main airport for 8 days, even tanks on the street! Any tourist heading for Thailand does so with a certain degree of trepidation.
It comes as some surprise, then, to find that it's very much business as usual here. You can visit the Democracy Monument, the airport and a host of other political hotspots and not see a single protestor. Or for that matter, a tank.
Thai politics may be in the grip of an uneasy truce
at the moment but at least it's holding.
In fact, the only indication you get that all is not well comes from the tourism sector. It's estimated that international visitor numbers have dropped by as much as 20% because of the unrest, so there are now a lot of unfilled hotels and unhappy tuk-tuk drivers looking for your custom.
However, as a first-time visitor to these shores, it by no means feels as quiet as the numbers suggest. Bangkok is not a ghost town. Instead, it remains the most touristy city in south-east Asia with an army of Western faces on show in the many Western pubs, bars and restaurants. Every backpacker still begins or ends their journey on Khao San Road, and they're joined by many many more travellers on 2-week breaks looking for cheap suits, cheap souvenirs and cheap beer.
If this is Thailand at its lowest ebb, then quite frankly I'm glad we missed high tide. Thailand is a country run for tourism, with everything that entails. On the plus side, it has excellent infrastructure and a well-defined backpacker trail (basically Phuket to Chiang Mai). On the minus side, it stands accused of selling
out to mass tourism with its Full Moon Parties and TV bars.
Love it or loathe it, Thailand remains the epicentre of tourism in this part of the world. And it's going to take more than a few tanks to change that. The Bridge on the River Kwai:
If you've any doubts about how committed Thailand is to tourism, head over to Kanchanaburi - home to The Bridge on the River Kwai. Except that it isn't really.
Let me explain.
In WW2, Japan swept through south-east Asia and put its newfound POWs (mainly Brits, Ozzies and Dutch) to work building a railway between Thailand and Burma. The brutality of the Japanese guards, combined with the near-impossible terrain, led to the deaths of an estimated 100,000 locals and POWs during the construction of what became dubbed 'The Death Railway'. French writer Pierre Boule heard about the appalling conditions along a particular stretch of the river and wrote a novel about it, which was then turned into the legendary film starring Alec Guinness. Today, film buffs flock to Kanchanaburi to see the bridge that inspired the movie.
The only problem is that The Death Railway didn't
cross the Kwai at Kanchanaburi - it ran alongside it - so there could be no Bridge on the Rier Kwai here. The railway actually crossed the river hundreds of miles further north. That
bridge, long since gone, was the bridge written about in the novel - POW conditions at Kanchanaburi were remarkably good by comparison.
This left the Thai government in a bit of a pickle - every year, thousands of tourists come looking for a bridge that's no longer there. So what did they do? They bowed to the tourists and renamed the river beneath
the bridge at Kanchanaburi as 'the river Kwai', thus creating a brand new Bridge on the River Kwai.
Confused? Me too.
What it basically boils down to is that the authorities have stooped as low as renaming whole rivers and bridges simply to appease tourists. Now don't get me wrong, the new Bridge on the River Kwai is an impressive sight and worth a daytrip. You can still see the effects of relentless bombing runs from Allied planes back in the war. And you can take in the true story of the Death Railway at the privately-run Thailand Burma Railway
Centre in Kanchanaburi - one of the best museums in south-east Asia. But it does seem a little bit strange for one of Thailand's main tourist draws to be built on a lie.
It's a graphic illustration of just how committed Thailand is to tourism. Grand Palace:
The Grand Palace is the only must-see attraction in Bangkok. Built in 1782 when today's sprawling metropolis first became capital, it has a long and distinguished history of seducing visitors to Thailand. The king of Cambodia was so impressed with it, for example, that when he returned home he ordered his subjects to build a replica that the Cambodian royal family lives in to this day.
So what's the big deal?
Certainly not the entrance fee, which at nearly $10 is the most expensive in south-east Asia (the National Museum in Indonesia, by way of comparison, costs $0.03). And not the tourist literature you get for your money, which requires a degree in 3D map reading and a fair smattering of Thai to make heads or tails of. It doesn't even offer the thrill of nosing around once-forbidden royal palaces - the vast majority of buildings are strictly
No, what draws people to the Grand Palace is bling. Great big swathes of bling. From the 5000kg of silver in Wat Preah Keo to the gold spires to the jade of the Emerald Buddha statue, this is an ostentatious display of wealth like no other.
It's also immaculately preserved, as well it might be with entrance fees this steep. But just in case the pot should ever run dry, the Thais like to underline the esteem with which they hold their king by putting huge wads of cash in the donation boxes. All of which goes some way to explaining why the royal palace is in such pristine condition in a corner of the world where cultural heritage is so often left to rot.
The Grand Palace is truly unmissable. So grab your sunglasses, slip into the ludicrous Aladdin pantaloons they insist upon and join the tourist hordes admiring the bling. Khao San Road:
In a city where everything you can imagine is readily available - and for a fraction of Western prices - shopping binges are inevitable. Chinatown offers you a bewildering array of gadgets from laptops and nightvision goggles to
eye-watering sex toys. The malls provide Western clothes straight from Asian sweatshops. But for sheer entertainment value, you can't beat Khao San Road.
This pedestrianised street has long been a mecca for budget packpackers. In 1996, Alex Garland's The Beach slammed Khao San Road for its petty criminals and con artists. Nothing has changed. Today there are dozens of stalls openly selling fake ID badges (driving licences, university diplomas, divemaster certificates) as well as knock-off DVDs, CDs and designer t-shirts. Or you can treat yourself to a designer suit at Boss Tailors (specialising in Hugo Boss rip-offs), or Armani Tailors or A.R. Mani Tailors. The choice is endless and at 1/15th of UK prices, frankly irresistible (in case you're wondering, yes I cracked and bought one!).
And as day changes to night, so too the stalls change their spots. Didn't fancy that Tommy Hilfiger shirt at lunchtime? Then how about a smutty t-shirt at 3am?
Khao San Road is a lot of fun, chiefly because it'll do anything it can in the pursuit of tourist dollars. Much the same as Thailand itself, come to think of it. Impressions:
On the surface, Bangkok is a pleasant
enough city. It has some fairly interesting temples, some decent public spaces and plenty of aircon bars/restaurants. If you treat it as a launchpad for the rest of south-east Asia, or even just as a place to restock your wardrobe, it's perfectly ok.
But beneath the veneer, there's a seedier side to the Thai capital. Not everyone comes to buy suits. Bangkok is the centre of the global sex trade, and there are reminders everywhere. Walk through the streets of Chinatown and you'll come across a thousand little stalls whose DVD collections are split into hardcore, underage, bestiality...
And it doesn't take a genius to work out why all those tattooed 50-something beer monsters have stunning teenage Thai girlfriends. Sorry, 'girlfriends'. Massage parlours, go-go bars and even more downmarket options are everywhere. Thailand is after all the country that gave the world mail-order brides.
All a little bit creepy, to be honest, and not something that makes you want to hang around too long.
If you're planning on spending any length of time in Thailand, you're probably best moving on from its capital ASAP. By all accounts, the main towns on the backpacker trail have long since been overwhelmed by tourism. But if the train journey through southern Thailand taught me anything, it's that there are still tracts of unspoilt country even here - it just depends how badly you want to find them. Next stop: Manchester (home)
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