“It's a street in a strange world
Maybe it's the Third World
Maybe it's his first time around
He doesn't speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man”
- Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”.
To visit my Bangkok photo album, please click HERE.
Friday, 25th July 2008:
When my colleagues and I voted Bangkok as our destination for the company trip this year, I did so with the knowledge that a city trip would offer little respite from pollution, traffic jams and petty crimes, unlike an island or coastal getaway. Still, it would be my first trip to Thailand (shocking revelation, I know) and I was curious about visiting another country and experiencing another culture. The fact that my old buddy Samuel is now based in Bangkok as the General Manager of International Operations of his company also helped, as I was keen to see him again.
I have always had misgivings about air travel, but the fact that we were travelling on an Airbus A320, which has relatively high fuel efficiency although nowhere near that of the A380, offered some reassurance. I sat in between my colleague Amril and a stranger who later turned out to be an awesome friend that I just haven’t had the good fortune to have met earlier. Anand works for the United Nations and was formerly with the Royal Malaysian Air Force. We talked about scouting, civilian defence, public interest work, the UNDP, Malaysian politics and strangely enough, my favourite fictional air force ace Biggles, during the 2-hour flight.
We arrived at the Suvarnabumi Airport outside of Bangkok city limits at 1455h local time. After bidding Anand goodbye, I joined my colleagues on the bus that was supposed to take us back to the hotel. It would take us an hour to arrive at the hotel, and I had planned on taking the MRT to SCAD Bangkok’s retail and adoption centre, since their animal health centre would be less accessible on a late Friday afternoon. However, the bus driver and tour assistant who were supposed to despatch us back to the hotel decided to play silly buggers with us and took us on hour-long detours to look at honey and royal jelly and all manner of things that I had no intention of buying.
Thanks to the famous Bangkok traffic snarls, we didn’t even get to check in to the hotel until almost midnight. We went to the hotel to pick up the first group from our office who had arrived earlier, repaired to a Muslim restaurant for a mediocre and deeply boring dinner and adjourned to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar after dinner. My hopes of visiting any of SCAD’s animal charity centres were dashed as it was obviously impossible to fit an animal shelter visit into my truncated holiday schedule. Oh well. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to contribute to SCAD stray dog vaccination and neutering programme when I meet with the founders/directors during the Asia For Animals Conference 2008 in Bali next month.
Saturday, 26th July 2008:
Chugged down enough milk and juice to last me until lunchtime, bade my colleagues a hasty adieu and stepped out into Soi Sukhumvit 11 almost smack into the trunk of an elephant waiting for passengers across the road from the hotel I had spent the night in. A familiar figure with a loose-limbed gait strolled past the shops, and I waved with joy when Sam came into view. It was so good to see him again after 2 long years, and we went to a cafe so he could have his morning cuppa.
After coffee, we took the Bangkok SkyTrain to the National Stadium, crossed the road, and walked down the alley to Jim Thompson House, now a museum. Sam stopped at a souvenir shop manned by a hearing impaired lady and bought several fridge magnets, while I browsed through paintings and postcards. We purchased our tickets to Jim Thompson House and waited for the tour to begin. Jim Thompson was an American military intelligence officer who decided he had enough of WW2 and ended up bringing Thai silk, then a cottage industry, to the western world. Thompson’s house was constructed out of parts of 6 antique Thai houses and is filled with antiques and exquisite works of art. Thompson disappeared without a trace on Easter Sunday 1967 in Cameron Highlands, Pahang. His body was never found. Many theories abound as to his fate. Some believe that he was too smart to have gotten himself lost, snared or killed by wild animals, and believe that he had orchestrated his own disappearance. Having always had a weakness for unsolved mysteries, I could not miss the opportunity to visit the house. We were taken through the living and dining rooms and bedrooms, as well as the maid and gardener’s quarters. The house was immaculate and would probably win awards for ecological design and architecture had it been built in this millennium. I had expected to find a sense of sorrow about the place, but surprisingly, none was present. The house gave out good vibes, and is palpably one that once housed a man of great savoir vivre.
I found that most Thais could understand spoken English reasonably well, but could not speak it well enough to make themselves easily understood. On our way back from Jim Thompson House, we saw pots of lotus and sea cabbage plants outside a shop selling paintings and sculptures.
“What’s in there?” inquired Sam, poking a lotus bud aside.
“Feet!” came the shop proprietor’s jolly reply.
We pushed a plant aside and found that the pots were, indeed, teeming with fish!
The Chinese may struggle with their enunciations of the ‘r’ and ‘sh’ sounds, but the Thais do not so much struggle as leave them out completely or substitute them with other consonants.
We made a pit stop at Sam’s apartment so that the maintenance people could come in to fix his lighting and cable TV. Then it was time for lunch, and we went downstairs to hitch a ride from the ‘biker-taxis’ – motorcyclists that provide transport service. We paid the bikers 30 baht to take us to Sala Daeng for street food. The ride was exhilaratingly fast, and when my bare knees grazed a car first and a bus tyre second, I was convinced I was going to fall off to my death. I reached Sala Daeng in one piece, and we had spicy and tangy chicken feet noodles at a street corner and washed it down with cold, milky tea.
It was time to take a boat to the Grand Palace after lunch. We boarded a ferry boat that would take us down the Chao Phraya River. We stood on the left to make way for the monks, for whom the right side of the boats were reserved. The rivers in Thailand were quite murky and polluted, but for some of the people, it was their source of water supply. I could not see why we could not similarly rely on river transport in Malaysia. Our rivers are equally polluted but once efforts have been undertaken to clean up and widen our rivers, commuter boats could help ease traffic congestion in the city and reduce reliance on road transport. Shipping and rail, after all, are the most fuel efficient modes of transport. Ships and railways carry 75% of world cargo, but emit only an estimated 3% of greenhouse gases.
We arrived at our destination and weaved through the stalls at the marketplace to get to the Grand Palace. There, we were loaned sarongs and trousers to wear over our shorts, as legs must be covered before visitors could enter the Palace grounds. Sam and I took pictures outside the Palace premises but decided that the entrance ticket at 300 baht was prohibitive. We could have gotten massages for that price. We duly returned the borrowed garments, slipped on our shades and trekked 15 minutes in the heat and heavy traffic to Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha, for a sorely needed massage.
Wat Pho is famous for its traditional Thai massage school, and we waited outside one of the temple with what seemed like 200 other visitors after taking our number for a massage. The sun must have awakened a latent part of Sam’s memory, because he suddenly recalled that the Wat Pho Traditional Thai Massage School proper was located down the road from the temple. And so we trekked out in the heat again to the school, which we located with the help of the friendly locals. Sam paid for my massage as a treat, for which I am very grateful. The masseurs made us put on long pants and put their hands in prayer before massaging us. I wouldn’t take any chances either if I were a masseur. I might fracture someone’s ribs. My masseur folded and contorted my limbs in all sorts of impossible positions and held down my pressure points with such force that I thought she would cut off my circulation and make my legs drop off. Then she inserted her thumbs into my ears, held them down for a minute and then released her thumbs so suddenly that I could feel my eardrums pop. Our hour-long massage session cost only 360 baht, which is a reasonable price for getting rid of months’ worth of muscular tension.
We walked back to the jetty in search of coconut ice cream, which we couldn’t find, although there was no lack of ice cream vendors on our way to Wat Pho. We had a coconut, some sausages, an orange drink and a bag of churros with vanilla icing sugar. Sam and I took the boat back to the jetty and made our way back to the SkyTrain station. Sam disembarked at Ratchadamri after we had made plans for dinner, while I was to switch trains and disembark at Nana station. I love the Bangkok SkyTrain, as the system is highly user-friendly and the little TV screens broadcasting creative and engaging commercials in Thai made the journey anything but dull. After a few trips on the SkyTrain, I could extol all the advantages of using Bergamot hair treatment, Axe deodorant, Coke Zero, Dutch Milk, Fit telco service provider and Maxmo paper towels, and hum a few Thai jingles as a bonus.
I got down at my station and took what I thought was a shortcut to the hotel. While walking along Soi Sukhumvit 8, I saw a man leading a young bull elephant on a leash. The elephant carried a pannier filled with packets of sweet potatoes. For 20 baht, we could buy the elephant some food and take photos with him. I was thrilled and saw nothing objectionable about how this man was trying to make a living for himself or his pet. The elephant was not subjected to any form of cruelty or made to perform unnatural tricks. I bought him some sweet potato and he took them from me with much relish and without fear. I wonder what will happen to the elephant once he outgrows his cuddly stage. Would they put him to work with the logging companies? In the meantime, he doesn’t lead such a bad life at all.
I returned to the hotel, showered, tidied my things and went back downstairs to take the SkyTrain to the Ratchadamri platform to wait for Sam so we could go to Sala Daeng for dinner. We went to a sidewalk restaurant for a sukiyaki dinner. We had papaya pok-pok for starters and Chang beer to slake our thirst with. The waiters asked if I enjoyed the food. “Aloi, kaaa! (Very tasty)” Sam taught me to say in response.
Sam wanted to go to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar after dinner, as I had informed him of some beanbag chairs and couches I saw there. We took a tuk-tuk to the night bazaar and tried out the beanbag chairs. We were distracted by a teenage boy selling magic tricks and I was curious enough to be conned into buying trick matchboxes for Sam and I. I tried to locate a shop selling paintings in which I saw a pygmy marmoset the night before, but could no longer find the shop in the maze of shops. I am glad I had taken a photo of the marmoset the night before, otherwise Sam would have thought that I was pulling a fast one on him with my marmoset story.
After Suan Lum, we took a tuk-tuk to the Sofitel Hotel as Sam wanted me to see for myself his favourite watering hole. V9 on the 16th Floor of the Sofitel Hotel is a lovely little jazz bar with a great aerial view of the city. We had Long Island iced teas and snacks as we listened to the in-house deejay and jazz musician.
It wasn’t good to stay put and get comfortable in any one place for too long, so off we went again in search of more adventure in the streets of Patpong. We had more drinks at Twilo’s in Patpong (Long Island for Sam, vodka and Red Bull and Tequila Sunrise for me) while watching the people and listening to the live band. Halfway through my second drink, I received a text message from Li Li informing me that I was one of the recipients for the Malaysian Nature Society Selangor Branch Awards at the Annual General Meeting today. The news came as a complete surprise and I felt deeply honoured, and I told Sam the good news. I did a spontaneous Napoleon Dynamite-type dance out of sheer joy. A few drinks later, Sam and I finally lurched home via tuk-tuk in a haze of mega mega white thing and lager lager lager lager.
Sunday, 27th July 2008:
Sunday morning saw me demolishing a huge breakfast with neither fuzzy tongue nor brain. The drinks couldn't have been very strong after all. Pih. I've been ripped off. Sauntered over to the Nana SkyTrain station and hopped on the train to Mo Chit so I could do some last minute shopping at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. I couldn't get enough of the commercials on the Skytrain,. I was learning more about Baby Mild powder, Sprite Zero, Kirin Lite and upcoming Thai movies than I needed to know.
The walkways leading from Mo Chit station to Chatuchak were congested with petty traders selling crafts and snacks. I entered the market via Gateway 16 and weaved my way through the stalls and shops. I could not speak the language yet, but my Oriental features must have confused the locals into thinking I was one of them, and they would render monologues in Thai in my general direction. “Chan put Thai my-die! (I can’t speak Thai)” I would interject, alarmed, and point to myself and qualify: “I’m from Malaysia”.
Shopping has always been an extremely stressful and burdensome affair to me, and the heat, noise and crowds at Chatuchak did not make the experience any more pleasant for me. Still, I could seek cool relief in 10-baht popsicles and roasted coconuts when bargaining in a combination of Thai and pidgin English got to be too much hard work for me. I left the market after two hours, having spent pretty much all my Thai currency on elephant-patterned sarongs, boxers and other technicolour gifts.Back to the hotel to shower and change into a clean football jersey. I had the concierge look after my backpack while I snoozed in the hotel lobby. Sam was busy as his maid's mother had come over to cook for him, the lucky man.
For lunch, I walked out into Soi Sukhumvit 8 where the street vendors were busy serving spicy cucumbers, sliced fruit, fried pastries and noodles to the taxi-bikers and shopkeepers. I had sweet potato balls and sliced cantaloupe. Back to the hotel lobby to finish reading my book. Our airport coach arrived at 1400 hours to take us to Suvarnabumi. It rained heavily shortly after our arrival at the airport, sending the heat and dust of Bangkok down into its waterways.
I called Sam at the airport to say goodbye. And as I boarded the plane, I looked back too on Bangkok, with all its contrasts and unique beauty. Kapunkha for the memories, Bangkok, and this won't be the last I'll see of you.
“And at this moment, we are forgetting
What we caused, what it takes,
The one perfect world, when we look the other way”
- Indigo Girls, “Perfect World”