THE BIG MANGO: NOVEMBER 2003
THURSDAY & FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 13 & 14, 2003
Welcome to the Big Mango. Bangkok. As I sit here writing this it is 9 am in the morning, and the temperature is already approaching thirty degrees. Bangkok. Hot, crowded, exciting, frustrating and aptly named because at six foot four inches I have been banging my head on every low hung sign and short doorway in town.
I arrived Friday night after a grueling twenty-six hours of travel. I shouldn’t complain, apparently fifty years ago it used to take nine days by plane to get here. When I was a kid I was sure that by 2003 we’d have teleporters or high-speed space crafts for this sort of trip. Apparently I was wrong, and the best way to get here is the route I took.
I was pleased to see that I had been assigned seat 3-D, a very appropriate choice for a film critic, although I’m having a hard time remembering when the last 3-D movie I liked. The five hours from Toronto to Vancouver was brightened considerably by the selection of movies — one of which I hadn’t seen!!! That almost never happens when I travel, and I’m not sure how I missed Confidence when it was in the theatres. Rachel Weisz and Ed Burns play grifters who are indebted to a mob boss played by Dustin Hoffman, and while it’s not going to win any awards, it’s a pretty good airplane movie.
Vancouver to Hong Kong is a long haul. Seat 3-D reclined to an almost flat position, but I have a hard time sleeping on planes. At almost thirteen hours it is a hard flight, not helped by my choice of movie, Bad Boys 2. Unlike fine wine, this movie does not get better with age.
Hong Kong to Bangkok is only a couple of hours, and I flew on the top deck of an old 747. The last time I was in a 747 I was with my parents and there was a full bar on the upper level with a smoking lounge. The in-flight bars are gone now, and of course you can’t smoke anywhere anymore, least of all on a plane.
By the end of the twenty-six hours I had plowed through the new Patricia Cornwell book on Jack the Ripper (maybe the perfect airplane book… it is kind of compelling, but is so packed with facts and minutia that it kind of deadens the brain…), read three magazines, eaten four or five complete meals, several snacks, drank six or seven liters of water and one port. While I didn’t really sleep, I was able to get some rest so I felt pretty good when the plane touched down.
After being cooped up in a big metal tube for over a day I was ready to hit the streets immediately and see what Bangkok had to offer. It’s almost midnight, but it is thirty degrees and the air is thick with pollution and humidity. It is too hot walk – I’m told most Thais try to avoid walking in the heat when possible – and the BTS (above ground subway) is closed, so we can either take a taxi or a tuk tuk to our destination. Taxis are plentiful, but I think a tuk tuk would be more fun. They are motorized three-wheeled vehicles that can carry a couple people and are good for short rides and dodging in an out of traffic. The engines are notoriously noisy and it is a very touristy thing to do… but what the heck, I’m a tourist for the next ten days.
My first impression of Bangkok is that (at night anyway) it reminded me of the movie Blade Runner. Very new, modern looking buildings co-exist with crumbling structures which seem to have been built a century or more ago. You have to watch for the tangles of electrical wires which snake down from utility poles and the motorcycles which whiz past at alarming speeds. Ridley Scott must have used this landscape as the inspiration for the strange urban scenes of Blade Runner.
Bangkok-based Jake Needham is an ex-pat American who writes detective novels set in the city. His latest, Tea Money is particularly good, sort of like Elmore Leonard with an Asian twist. There is a passage in the book that talks about the area of town I went to on Friday night. “During daylight hours Sukhumvit Road was one of Bangkok’s principal traffic arteries, four lanes jammed with vehicles and the BTS (Bangkok Transit System) running on massive concrete pillars down the center. It slashed like a fault line across the part of the city where almost every foreigner lived. For miles it was lined with luxurious shopping malls, expensive restaurants and multi-colored hotels – most of them thronged every day with well-heeled tourists, foreign residents, and those adventurous Thais who didn’t mind so much mixing with either.
“In the hours after dark, however, a different breed took over the street. Even at its most benign, Bangkok was part Miami and part Beirut, and there was nothing benign about midnight on the fault line. In the late, late hours, Sukhumvit Road became Blade Runner country.”
Our first stop is to one of the city’s famous “entertainment districts.” People are bustling on Soi (translation: sidestreet) Cowboy, cooking food (chicken, fish, rice and bugs… yes, grasshoppers, cockroaches etc), begging for money and trying to lure you into the bars. Bars line both sides of the streets, and it is best not to make eye contact with anyone, otherwise they will follow you and try to convince you to spend money at their bar with a persistence that Hercules would admire.
The Long Gun is our first stop. Jim Morrison and the Doors are blaring, scantily-clad (but not naked) girls are dancing and the beer is cold. It feels kind of surreal to me, like I’m not really there, but actually watching a scene from a movie.
That feeling was re-enforced at our next stop in the Plaza of the Nana district. I actually felt like I was hallucinating, that the long flight and twelve-hour time difference had finally caught up with me. The scene at DC-10 was a combo of Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now as though directed by David Lynch, with a healthy dose of Striptease thrown in. If I was to cast the movie of this place the doorman would be played by Peter Dinklage, the 5,6,7,8s would play the house band and Lucy Lui would be the mama san. The girls danced to AC/DCs Highway to Hell, and for a moment I felt I might be along for the ride. We leave and finish the night at a regular bar across the hall. I meet some locals who convince me to ring the bell in the bar. I do, and then have to buy a round for the whole place. It’s a small bar and a round only cost $20 or so, so I rang the bell again and again until it was time to go…
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2003
Saturday morning came way to fast. With only a few hours of sleep it was time to drive to Kanchanaburi, a small town two hours away by car. We made it there despite my legendarily bad navigational skills. My directionally challenged method of course-plotting was further strained by a problem with the language. Some of the place names have more than thirty letters, some of which are silent and others which need to be emphasized. My favorite place was a small town with a very big name that translated into “The City of Nice People.”
The town is best known for is association with the infamous Burma-Siam railroad. During the Second World War the Japanese needed a railroad to move supplies the 225 miles from Burma to Siam. Engineers estimated the project would take 5 years, the army, however, had different ideas. Almost 60,000 Allied POWs and 300,000 Asians laborers were forced to work eighteen hour days on its construction to finish the project in a mere sixteen months. Approximately 30,000 of the POWs and 200,000 of the Asian workers lost their lives to cholera, malaria, malnutrition and maltreatment. The conditions were so appalling it is said that one man died for each tie laid.
The most famous stretch of the railroad is the bridge over the River Kwai, which runs the length of the town. David Lean’s famous 1957 movie told a cleaned-up version of the story, and while it is a great film, I don’t think the horrors of life on this chain gang could properly be captured on film, particularly when Lean made the picture, just a dozen years after the end of the war.
The town has become a resort town, although not a flashy one. In the center of town there is a large cemetery commemorating the soldiers who lost their lives building the Death Railway. Thousands of marble plaques are lined up in long even rows, manicured lawns on all sides. As I walked up and down the rows I was struck by the young age of many of the men, 23, 24 years-of-age. Most of them passed in 1944, which meant they had likely spent three or four years in the service — their whole adult lives in most cases. I was humbled to walk among them, and imagine the sacrifices they made for their countries.
From there I went to the Jeath Museum, no that’s not a typo, it is an acronym for the names of the six countries involved in the building of the railroad: Japan, England, America and Australia, Thailand and Holland. It was established by a Buddhist monk to give people a better understanding of how the prisoners were treated. None of the original huts the POWs lived in survived the war, but the long narrow bamboo hut that houses the bulk of the exhibition is an exact replica from the war. Inside you feel claustrophobic as the heat and humidity bear down on you, and can’t imagine how people were able to live under such conditions. Then you take in all the photos and paintings and realize that many of them weren’t able to live under those circumstances. I’m reminded of a quote from the movie. “I’d say the odds against a successful escape are about 100 to one,” says William Holden as Major Shears, “But may I add another word, Colonel? The odds against survival in this camp are even worse.”
On display are photographs taken by Thais and prisoners of war that depict the deplorable conditions. The Japanese did not object to photographs in the early days of the interment although later they prohibited prisoners from keeping any kind of record because if the bad reflection of themselves. The images that survived are horrific — skin disease and death; men, little more than skeletons wearing lion clothes toiling on the brutal heat. They are pictures that burn themselves into your subconscious.
The hotel was a welcome relief from the draining events of the day. The Felix River Kwai Resort overlooks the famous river and is just minutes away from the only surviving section of the original bridge.
The room is beautiful, two floors with two river facing balconies, one up and one down. Teak wood walls and floors. Two bathrooms, one with a Jacuzzi just steps away from the largest swimming pool I’ve seen. The sights of the day have weighed heavily on me, but the exhaustion of the trip has caught up to me and I embrace the comforting luxury of the hotel.
After a quick breather I take a walk over to the bridge. It is unassuming, and teaming with tourists and Thais who walk the tracks, even though there are no handrails and the wooden slats that separate you from the water look suspiciously like they need to be replaced. I didn’t come all this way to chicken out now, so I carefully balance myself and walk the original part of the bridge. Despite my nerves, I find it quite beautiful. Flood season has just passed so the river was filled to overflowing with a strong current that looks like it could easily drown anyone who had the misfortune to fall in. Beautiful but deadly. Again I think of the men who gave their lives to build the bridge. I wonder if they saw any beauty here at all…
By four o’clock the time change and constant travel had begun to catch up with me. I had been warned about “the fog,” and it seemed by the late afternoon that I was completely surrounded by it. The fog is a condition that happens when you have been traveling a great deal, zipping through time zones. It is a dreamlike state that envelopes you, making it impossible to think or even have a regular conversation. Luckily I was alone in my room. My first reaction was to sleep, but I was afraid if I slept now I would never adjust the time change. I soldiered through, and as I got a tenth wind, the mist started to lift.
Even in the midst of “the fog” I remembered not to drink the water. Before coming here I had every shot known to man, and for a while I felt invincible, like a Superman who was immune to anything the tropics could throw my way. Then I spoke with a guy in the Thai Airline lounge in Hong Kong who was on his way back to Canada. His stories of discomfort convinced me that I am a mere mortal, and have to be careful what I eat and drink.
Dinner was at a small outdoor restaurant called The Resort in town. We figured the place must be pretty good because we were the only farang (foreigners) in the joint. Delicious Thai food, with strips of fried basil and some very small chili pepper that was so hot it made my dinner companion’s tongue go completely numb. Delicious, but deadly.
It is at the hotel that I learn about the durian fruit. At the front gate is a familiar sight, a sign with a large red circle with a line through it. We’ve all seen these. No smoking… No Littering… No Dogs… No Film Critics… (I kid with you…) This one, however, has something that looks like a piece of watermelon in the banned area. I discover that it is something called a durian. Durian is a fruit: a big, green thorny fruit native considered to be the “King of the Fruit” throughout South East Asia. It has a creamy texture, and the taste of its flesh sends its eaters into ecstasies (and it has the reputation of being an aphrodisiac) But is has one drawback. It has an extremely offensive odor similar to stinky feet or Limburger cheese. Or perhaps stinky socks stuffed with Limburger cheese. In Thailand, I discover, it is illegal to bring a durian into a hotel or on public transportation due to its offensive smell.
This is hilarious to me. You can buy deadly hunting knives at the street markets but you can’t take a piece of fruit into a hotel. I make it my mission to track down a piece of durian fruit, although I’m told it is out of season.
I do the math and figure out I have only had about ten hours sleep in the last three days. I’m asleep before I hit the pillow.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2003
I wake up Sunday feeling rested and on Thai time. The return trip to Bangkok takes considerably less time on the way back. There are no “rotit mak mahs” (phonetic spelling) or very bad traffic jams. That is the first Thai I learned… I picked it up from the tuk tuk driver on Friday night, and with the state of the traffic here it seems to be a good descriptive phrase to know, right up there with “Where’s the restroom?” and “Do you know where the hospital is?”
We have breakfast at the British Club. Wow. Founded on April 23rd, 1903 as a place for ex-pat British business men to have traditional English food, play snooker and generally keep the Empire’s flame alive in Thailand. It is an elegant old complex right in the middle of town that has been in constant operation, except for the Second World War when Bangkok was occupied by the Japanese. A large wooden sign in the lobby lists all the club presidents since 1903. The years 1942 – 1946 are simply listed as “Club Inactive.”
Many famous people have passed through the club’s doors – royalty, famous writers, and dignitaries. In fact, part of the movie Comeback, starring Priscilla Presley, Michael Landon and Edward Woodward was filmed there.
After a traditional English breakfast (with scones!) in the Winston Churchill Pub I toured the grounds, saw the snooker hall, the beautiful pool and outdoor entertainment areas. It is a lovely oasis; you don’t really feel like you are in the middle of a massive city. It is quiet and pastoral. And best of all, cell phones are prohibited!
Next was a long tail boat ride up the Thai River. These boats an affordable and unique way to see a different view of the city. We began the hour journey at the Pier Takesin Bridge. It bustles with activity. People are trying to sell you knock-off Calvin Klein wallets and wooden Buddha statues; while others are fishing for their dinners and still others are trying to lure you into renting their boats. The sights, sounds and smells are quite overwhelming, but exhilarating.
We negotiate and get a long-tail boat for ourselves for 700 baht (about $20 Canadian). They are indeed long-tail boats – the boat itself is roughly thirty feet long with a pointed stern that is typically decorated with a Buddhist good luck offering of silks or flowers. It isn’t the length of the boat, however, that earns it the name long-tail. Off the back end is a ten foot pole with a rudder attached. That’s how the captains navigate the boats through the choppy river waters. To get the lay of the land I am talking about and to see some really cool long tail boat action check out the James Bond flick The Man With the Golden Gun. The water chase (or “motorboat mayhem” as it is called on the DVD) was actually shot on this very river.
It is a spectacular ride, one that every visitor to Bangkok should take. It really shows another side of the city. The Big Mango doesn’t look like Blade Runner as you glide through the canals. Many of the houses are no more than roughly constructed shacks with only three walls. They are left open on the river side for ease of fishing, shopping from the rivers merchants and to catch any breeze that might happen by on the swelteringly humid Bangkok days and nights.
It is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people who live along the river. You do see the odd television and an occasional modern looking refrigerator, but for the most part it is like looking at a living time capsule. It is a lifestyle that hasn’t changed that much for many, many years.
It gets rather hot out on the water. To quench your thirst the river merchants motor right up next to your boat. Their small crafts are laden with odds and sods – wooden fans, food items, plastic toys – but most importantly (it is to me anyway!) Singha Beer. Singha is the official beer of Thailand, and was the first beer to be brewed here. We buy three; it is bad form not to buy one for the captain and continue down to the end of the voyage at the Grand Palace Pier. From there we take another boat, this time an express water bus to bring us back to the BTS. This too is an incredible ride. We could easily have taken a regular taxi, which would have been faster, but the boat is another unique little piece of Bangkok that I wanted to experience.
It is essentially a bus on water. It docks at the small piers along its route, much like a bus at a bus stop. Because the boat is so big a helper blows a whistle, signalling the captain of the boat when he has to speed up or slow down. It is quite a show, and these guys have it down to a science. Between them they are able to dock, load customers and be back on the water in less than a minute. The elaborate marine choreography is almost as impressive as the view from the boat.
Bangkok has some of the best hotels in the world – The Peninsula and The Oriental to name two – and both were on our route. It was as we passed them that I realized that Bangkok truly is a city of contradictions where rich and poor, new and old live side by side. It can be a confusing place but in its disorder there seems to be strange kind of order. There has to be otherwise the city couldn’t work, and it is this conundrum that makes it such a fascinating place. I have been surprised by how little culture shock I am feeling. I expected to be completely dumbfounded by this place and the language and culture, and for sure there have been a few Lost in Translation moments, but by and large I don’t feel as alienated as I thought I would. For a country that is so protective of its culture and language (Thailand is the only country that uses the Thai language) there are many more English signs than I expected. Of course, I’m seeing ads for the new Britney Spears album and The Matrix: Revolutions everywhere I turn. As I walked past the Starbucks today, which was next to the KFC, across the street from the 7-11 (there are 7000 7-11s in Thailand) I realized that globalization is almost complete, and soon New York and Bangkok and London and Paris will essentially be the same place, separated only by religion, geography or customs.
That night we had dinner at an Australian bar called Busstop. You know, I used to really like the Green Mango restaurants in Toronto. Good, cheap fast Thai food was a staple of my diet, but since I have been here I have been spoiled. Once again my dinner companion got the hot chilli that numbed his entire head. I know my turn is coming. Later we went to a bar on the fault line called The Blue Barbeque and got to know the staff, and DJ. The staff had trouble pronouncing my name, so instead they called me James Dean, I guess because of my slicked-back hair.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2003
I’m disappointed. I’ve been here for several days now and haven’t seen an elephant. Ever since I found out that elephants are the only other animal other than humans to cry when they are happy or sad I have been determined to get up close and personal with one. Nothing yet, but if there are elephants to be seen, I will find them (the durian fruit is proving to be equally elusive).
The day begins with a shopping excursion to the department store at Chit Lom near the condo I am staying in. I’m looking to pick up some gifts and further my obsession with buying new shirts. I have to admit it, I have a problem. My name is Richard and I am addicted to buying shirts. One is too many and one hundred isn’t enough. It has been four days since I have purchased one and I am fighting the urge to buy! Buy! Buy!
As it turns out I don’t have to try that hard to control myself. As soon as I walk into the shirt department and started eyeing the merchandise a helpful young man approaches me and says, “We don’t have any big sizes…” These are not the words I wanted to hear. Not only can I not find a shirt to fit me, but I think he is implying that I am fat and out of shape. Maybe that’s just me being paranoid, but all of a sudden I am regretting the cool new Snickers Crunch! bar and the Chicken Namtog flavoured potato chips (made by a Thai company called Tasto) I have eaten over the past couple of days. I move on with what’s left of my dignity.
Ironically I take solace in lunch. After walking around and window shopping I decide on a place called MK. I have been seeing them everywhere. It is a chain of restaurants that is actually quite a remarkable success story. The chain was founded by a woman who began her business by selling food on the streets of Bangkok. She gave credit to people, cooked good food and turned her small business into an empire. The idea is that you order your ingredients and cook the food yourself in a broth-filled wok that is attached to your table. I love the idea, and although I think I ordered poorly (I couldn’t really understand the menu or the cooking instructions) it was really fun. I also discovered that when you order an iced tea in Bangkok it comes with milk and l-o-a-d-s of sugar, blended with ice.
I have been hearing a Thai rock band named Paradox since I have been here. Apparently they are two young guys barely out of their teens who have created quite a splash. I like their song Sexy even though I have less than no idea what they are actually singing about. I was joking to a friend that the boppy little pop songs on the album could actually be about genocide, terrorism and George Bush for all I know, but whatever they are about they have a good beat and you can dance to it. I have tried a couple of stores and haven’t been able to find the CD; it’s very popular and is sold out everywhere. I finally buy a copy of it at one of the big department stores, along with some Thai hip hop and rock & roll by Spydamonkee and Playground respectively.
I spent the rest of the day walking around and getting my bearings. Being on my own in the city has given me more of a feel for it. I don’t have the safety net of having someone with me who lives here as a tour guide, so I have to figure it out for myself. The day goes well, I don’t get lost and I manage to make it back to the condo on time and in one piece.
For dinner we have chosen a restaurant / surf shop called Larry’s Dive in the Klongtoey district. It is run by a Canadian guy from British Columbia who has lived in Bangkok for about fifteen years. Despite their food service guarantee: “Served in thirty minutes or its cold,” the food is quite good. If there had been a problem with the meal, the menu suggests e-mailing complaints to: [email protected] It’s a pretty funny place particularly because the guy who owns it isn’t named Larry.
From there we head back to The Blue Barbeque for a nightcap. We are greeted with chants of “James Dean! James Dean!” which makes me laugh. Hollywood movie culture has permeated Thailand in a big way. Aside from the bootleg DVDs available on the streets, there are also many giant movie theatres (I hope to visit one of the major theatres later this week) and there seems to be a video store on every block. Once again I realize that movies really are a universal language when I am trying to order fish in a restaurant from a server who doesn’t speak a word of English. I try to say it in Thai (“bplah,” phonetic translation: pla) and when that doesn’t work I mime a fish, making a shadow on the wall. “Nemo!” she yelled, excited that she had figured out my bizarre clue.
One of the bartenders at The Blue Barbeque who witnessed my lame attempt to order fish, and who speaks some English decided to teach me how to speak Thai. She wrote Thai words for me in phonetic English and I then had to guess what they meant. We started with “Khop khun krap,” which I knew meant “Thank you.” Next was “Kid tung mark krap,” which I was told meant “Miss you so much.” I asked her how to ask for some food in Thai. She wrote, “Pom lor mark.” When I repeated this the waitress looked me quizzically and started to laugh. I found out later it actually means, “I am a very handsome man.” When I left I asked her how to say “Good night.” She wrote, “Khun Jiab soy mark mark krap.” Again the other girls laughed. Her name is Jiab and she had me say, “Jiab is very, very beautiful…” It was time to call it a night when I began falling for those kinds of practical jokes.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 18, 2003
It’s the beginning of my fourth full day in Bangkok and I’m feeling a little rough. I guess all the shots and vaccines in the world can’t prevent you from having a headache after a late night in a bar.
I’m getting braver with the BTS all the time. Today I was able to go further and transfer without getting confused or lost. I wanted to see the Jim Thompson house which is reputed to be one of the best museums in Bangkok.
Thompson was an American architect who came here in 1945 as the Bangkok head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a predecessor of the CIA. Like many others when the war was done he stayed in Asia. In 1948 he founded the Thai Silk Company. Through his expertise he revived the ailing silk industry and became a celebrity in Bangkok. He was known as Thailand’s most famous American, a local hero, and after his disappearance during a walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967 he became a local legend. He vanished without a trace, leaving behind many unanswered questions – did he have a heart attack, fall off a cliff or was the CIA involved? It’s all very season two of Alias.
Along with questions about how he died he also left behind a compound of six teak houses which he had moved from the Ban Khura and Ayutthaya provinces and reassembled in Bangkok. I managed to find the museum, but it was closed for a special function, so instead I hired a tuk tuk driver to cart me around for a couple of hours.
The tuk tuk thing is a bit of a scam, which I had heard about, but got sucked into anyway. I spoke with the Thai attendant and told him I wanted to see some Buddhist Temples (or wats as they are called in Thai). He said he could arrange that, but also suggested a number of other stops along the way. I wasn’t terribly interested in the Thai Promotional Center or The Thai Fashion Center, but he assured me that they were on route and were well worth a visit.
Talk about “rotit mak mah” (traffic jam), we putted along through main streets, side streets, alley ways in this noisy little tuk tuk that sounded like a cross between a lawn mower and a chainsaw. It is a cool way to see the city. With no doors or windows on the vehicle it’s up close and personal, but also smelly, dirty and very loud. It sounds as though you are rolling down a rocky hill in a large tin box. There is one cool thing about Bangkok traffic, however. Recently they have hung large digital time clocks by the lights which countdown the time until the light changes. It doesn’t help alleviate traffic but it does help pass the time as you are stranded in a “rotit mak mah.”
The first stop was the Lucky Buddha – a small temple downtown known for bestowing luck on those who visit. I stop in, removing my shoes before going inside the wat, spend a few minutes then it is off to our next stop which is the Thai Promotional Center. I have no idea what this is, but the tuk tuk driver told me I would save 30% on any purchases I made there. What I would be able to purchase he couldn’t tell me. I go inside and am immediately pounced on by several well dressed sales people who try to convince me to buy rubies and gold – all at 30% off market value. I excuse myself and quickly leave. I’ve heard about the gem swindles in Thailand. I can live with getting conned by a tuk tuk driver but parting with thousands of dollars for a worthless stone is another matter.
I’m a little disgruntled when I get back to the vehicle, but continue on to the next stop which is the Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha on Charoenkrung Road. It was a hellish ride which took a long time, but it was worth it, the Buddha is spectacular. It is 700 years old, measures twelve feet five inches and weighs approximately five tons. Did I mention it is made of solid 18-carat gold?
It has a long and strange history. The Buddha was uncovered by accident in 1955. While expanding the port of Bangkok workers for the East Asiatic Company come across what appeared to be a simple stucco Buddha. The image was kept at Wat Traimit under a make-shift shelter for twenty years until a crane dropped it while moving it to a more permanent home. The plaster cracked revealing the gold Buddha underneath. The statue had probably been encased in plaster to hide it from Burmese invaders during the Ayutthaya period. It has been on constant display ever since, and many local Chinese residents come here to worship the Golden Buddha and earn merit by rubbing gold left on the temple’s smaller Buddha images.
I’m in a better mood now, but am expecting another scam at our next stop, the Thai Fashion Center. Sure enough, it is a tailor shop, specializing in making high end shirts and suits. When I tell the guy I’m not interested in buying a suit he kicks me out of the store. He was the first really rude Thai person I have met, but I was too mellowed out after my visit with Buddha to care.
Back at the tuk tuk I cut the ride short and have him drop me off at a nearby BTS stop. I pay him 40 baht which is about $5 Canadian and swear off tuk tuks forever. One more day of bombing around Bangkok and still no elephants (or durian fruit)!
It’s been a long few days (and nights) so after a quick dinner at a downtown restaurant called The Peak I come home, write this and call it a night.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 19, 2003
Before I left Toronto my co-producer Claudio joked that I wouldn’t be able to kick back and relax on my vacation, that I just couldn’t stop working. I explained to him that I haven’t had a proper holiday for a long time and I was more than capable of putting the show out of my mind while I was in Bangkok.
I’m glad I didn’t bet with him because I would be a few bucks lighter if I had. I did a couple hours of work on the plane, but that doesn’t count as the vacation hadn’t officially begun, and on my first day here I had to return an emergency work-related e-mail. Beyond that I swore I wouldn’t work. Today I broke down, and checked my e-mail, work, personal and cell phone messages. Spent the morning returning calls – even though it was night time in Toronto – catching up on e-mails and trying to arrange a satellite interview with Billy Bob Thornton for the film Bad Santa. I would do the interview on the phone, while they shoot Billy Bob in New York. The time difference would be a drag for me, as it would be one am in Bangkok on Friday night… Anyway, I’m just glad I didn’t bet with Claudio.
I left the house at noon, and walked around the corner to an unusual Buddhist shrine I saw from the street last night. It is located on a little wedge of green between the river and the Hilton Hotel. In the daylight I could see hundreds of phallic statues grouped around a large ficus tree and spirit house. I discover that it is the Goddess Tuptin Shrine built by a monk called Nai Lert for the spirit who was believed to live in the large Sai (ficus) tree.
As with all shrines, people offer gifts to curry favour with the spirits. The basic gifts were all here: fragrant wreaths of “snow” – white jasmine flowers, incense sticks and pink and white lotus buds – and offerings of food. Less conventional are the phalluses that decorate the area. They are all different sizes, they are stylized and realistic and there are hundreds of them. The reason why this has become a shrine to the phallus is a bit of a mystery, but because of the sheer number of the statues the shrine has automatically been concluded to be dedicated to fertility.
It’s quite a sight, and I fill up the memory stick on my digital camera taking pictures of it.
I’m going to take the BTS to the National Stadium stop, a tricky little manoeuvre which requires transfers from one train line to another. The area around the National Stadium is a good shopping district, and is also home to the Jim Thompson House Museum. I went there yesterday but it was closed for a special event.
I take my time getting there. I’m having a bad Thai day. For some reason today everything seems a little harder than it should be. The BTS was really crowded, it is scorchingly hot and I got turned around and wandered aimlessly for a while. To combat the lost feeling I having I went to MacDonald’s for a blast of western food. Even though I am halfway across the world the Big Mac tastes exactly like it does at the McDs just around the corner from my house on Bloor Street. One thing, however, strikes me as different. As I sit eating my burger, a giant cockroach runs past. When I say giant I mean GIANT. To paraphrase Woody Allen, this cockroach was the size of a Buick, and just about as fast. No one is screaming or freaking out that a huge prehistoric looking dino-bug is crawling around them while they try to eat, but several girls next to me were clearly uncomfortable with it. One of them told a staff member, who then approached the evil looking creature, but instead of killing it, she put on a plastic glove, picked it up and deposited it outside. As a Buddhist she isn’t permitted to kill the bug. This was the cockroach’s lucky day.
From Mickey D’s I try and find my way to the Jim Thompson House. It is hard to find, and even though I was there yesterday, I get slightly lost. On my travels I pass by dozens of street merchants. Most just have their wares on small tables or blankets, and are selling everything from home cooked food to lighters. And socks. Almost every one of them is selling socks, which I find strange because hardly anyone here wears shoes. Everyone wears sandals, and thankfully no one is committing my most hated fashion faux paus – the toxic sandal with socks combination – so who exactly is buying the socks, and why are there so many for sale?
These peddlers exist in the shadow of the National Stadium, the new BTS and a giant shopping mall, another example of how old and new ways of life are co-existing here. Bangkok feels to me like a city that is on the verge of major advancement. A financial crash in 1997 left the city crippled – there are almost three hundred and fifty abandoned office towers here. The skyline is dotted with half built buildings, some are crumbling, others are now being finished, some six years after being deserted.
In the last six years the city has gotten itself back on track. There is construction everywhere and Bangkok has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Things are changing rapidly. A few years ago cell phones were only for the rich. In a country where a decent meal for one can be purchased for 20 baht, they cost 42,000 baht and weren’t that common. Now they only cost 3,000 and are everywhere. Nose jobs too are apparently very popular, and only cost a paltry $200 USD.
The BTS which connects the city with above ground trains has also changed the complexion of the city. Areas that were difficult to get to before are now becoming popular, and conversely, parts of town that aren’t near a BTS stop are suffering. The train, (coupled with a new air conditioned subway that is due to open in April), is going not only cut down on traffic and pollution, but open up the city for business and construction. The times they are ‘a changin’ in Bangkok.
I find the Jim Thompson Museum tucked away at the end of a crowded and noisy soi (sidestreet). My guidebook says it is one of the most well run museums in Thailand and I have to agree. Unlike the chaos which seems to accompany almost anything you try and do here, the Thompson Museum is relaxed and organized. For 100 baht (about $3 Canadian) you are given a ticket, a time and a letter. The time on the ticket is your start time, the letter is your group identification. At precisely the time on my chit a young women gathers me and my group and the tour begins.
The houses are beautiful. In the mid-fifties Jim Thompson (for more on him see yesterday’s diary) bought, restored and moved six ancient Thai houses and reconfigured them into one stunning complex, surrounded by a wild garden. Each room yields a treasure trove of antiquities, including eleventh century Buddha statues, blue and white Japanese dishware and some of the region’s oldest surviving paintings.
The tour guide supplied an encyclopaedia’s worth of information about the house and some interesting trivia about Thompson. For instance, traditional religious rituals were observed during the construction of the house, so much so that Thompson waited until a lucky date chosen by an astrologer to move in.
After the official tour I spent time walking through the grounds and having another look at many of the treasures. I spent most of the day there, much longer than I had planned, but it is so beautiful and peaceful that it was the prefect remedy to the Bangkok blues I had been feeling earlier in the day.
In the parking lot of the museum I also learned of another Bangkok custom. In order to maximize space in parking areas, cars are double parked, with the drivers of the outside cars leaving their vehicles in neutral. That way when drivers of the pinned in cars need to leave all they have to do is push the double parked cars out of the way.
The skies had darkened while I was at the museum, and I feared a rain storm. Rainy season is over, but I am told that one of the legendary Bangkok downpours could happen at any time. Not feeling like getting soaked and having to wade through two feet of water I headed to the Grand EGV at the Discovery Center on Rama 1 Road.
I had heard about the opulent movie theatres here and wanted to check them out. Their slogan at the Grand EGV is “We’ll treat you like a star,” and I have to say it’s kind of true. It is expensive by Thai standards, but is pretty cool. A Gold Class ticket will cost about 500 baht (about $16 Canadian), and entitles you to choose your seat, use the Gold Class lounge and sit in a special VIP theatre. The theatre is quite large with rows of large, red leather overstuffed seats that resemble a cross between a Lazy Boy and an airplane seat. The seats recline to an almost flat position, and should you feel a little chilly there is also a blanket and a pillow. There are conveniently placed tables for your snacks, and when you order a drink, it comes in a glass not a plastic container. If you need anything you just alert the hostess or host who seated you and they will take your order.
That was the good part. The bad part was that I the only movie playing there that I hadn’t already seen was House of the Dead, a z-grade zombie flick based on a video game and shot in Vancouver. I like horror movies, but this is so bad I almost have to wonder if it wasn’t meant to be a spoof of brainless teen slasher / zombie b-movies. There is a great deal of gory stuff, zombies and humans get their heads blown off, legs are ripped from their sockets and at least one hottie gets thrown-up on. It’s pretty graphic, which apparently is OK with the Thai censors who let the scenes of carnage through with no cuts, but crudely blurred out the breasts of two of the lead actresses – but only when they were on land, when they were swimming underwater the breasts were unblurred and unfettered.
Even though the movie was a horrible waste of time, the experience was great. Like North America there were lots of trailers, and several annoying ads, but unlike our movie going experience, Thais are expected to stand and “pay respect to The King,” while the national anthem plays. Just like North America, though, nobody stays for the credits.
Tonight we a trip planned to Pat Pong, a notorious area of town named after its one time owner, Chinese millionaire Khum Patpongpanit. It is probably the most famous red-light district in the world, stemming from its origins in the 1960s when dozens of Go-Go bars sprung up here to entertain airline crews and GIs on leave from the Vietnam War.
To brace ourselves for the gaudy go-go bars of “the Pong” we first check out an Irish pub called O’Reilly’s. A good mix of farang and Thais are eating and drinking when we get there, and I am delighted to discover that it is happy hour. A bucket of frosty Carlsberg hits the table, and we note that the labels come equipped with a temperature gauge that tells you how cold the beer is. On the back of the bottle there is a box with the word “cold” written in it. When the bottles are frosty cold the letters are bold, and become fainter as the beer warms up. Isn’t modern beer technology wonderful?
We are also there to see a Thai Beatles cover band that we have heard are really good, but after waiting for some time we are told that they are stick in traffic and won’t be arriving anytime soon. We leave and head for Pat Pong.
It is only a five minute walk from O’Reilly’s but the streets are so crowded with tourists and merchants trying to sell bootleg DVDs and CDs that the walk takes about twenty minutes. I’m told that is pretty good time for this neighbourhood. I’m also told to put my wallet in my front pocket and pay attention to it as there are pickpockets around. During the day the streets here are empty, it is an area that only really comes alive at night when the prostitutes and vendors take over. Street vendors set up tables on every square inch of the streets, and moving down the street to the bars is akin to running a gauntlet with sellers yelling and grabbing, trying to get your attention.
We choose a place called Goldfingers, a charming little place whose logo is a fist with the middle finger raised defiantly. As soon as I sit down the bartender offers me a drink and a twenty-five dinar bill inscribed with a picture of Saddam Husien. I have never seen one before so I pay him 200 baht (about $3 Canadian) for it. The music is loud, the dancing girls expressionless, and frankly I find the whole scene kind of sad. It’s not decadent so much as sleazy, and I began to find the forced conviviality of the staff kind of annoying.
I get separated from my friend, who I think has left without me. No problem. The seediness of the place is depressing to me and I leave a full beer on the bar and decide to shop in the street market. This is where I learn to bargain. Like so many North Americans I usually just look at the price tag, and decide to buy or not. I would never think to ask for a discount. Here you are expected to bargain, and no price is set in stone. When a watch seller asks 2500 baht, you can always get a better price, and several times as I walked away from a booth I would hear, “Alright 1000… 750… 500… 300… OK! OK! 200!” As the night wore on the sellers were almost giving their goods away. I ended up buying a really ugly tie for 60 baht, a small travel bag for 100 baht, a decorated gift box for 200 baht (bargained down from 550) and a bootleg of the Kill Bill DVD for 100 baht. I was curious about the DVDs. Apparently the police are cracking down on the bootleggers, but you would never know it from my trip down Pat Pong. Kill Bill hasn’t come out here yet, and the number one movie in North America that day, Elf, was also on sale.
I made my way back to O’Reilly’s bartering with street vendors and pushing my way through the drunken crowds. The Beatle cover-band had finally shown up and were near the end of their last set when I got there. They are four Thai men who are closer in age to the Paul and Ringo of today, but dressed in the white shirt, black tie style of the Beatles’ early Cavern period. The instruments are authentic, right down to “Paul’s” Rickenbacker bass. This was a real example of east meets west; of western pop culture insinuating its way into the fabric of Thai life. I didn’t get a chance to speak with the band, but from what I could make out from their between song patter they didn’t speak English very well, but when they sang it was without a trace of an accent and with perfect pronunciation. I can only imagine the slavish devotion these guys have given the Beatles records they apparently love so much.
After O’Reilly’s I was on my way home. It’s about two am, and there are hundreds of people on the street and the usual hellish Bangkok traffic so I decide to walk part of the way back to the condo even though I’m not exactly sure where I am. I got here on the BTS, and while it is closed now, one of the great things about having an above ground train system is that you can follow the tracks and retrace your steps. I also have a secret weapon, a homing device that should lead me right to the front door of the condo – the address of the place written in Thai.
I wait till I get to an area where the traffic has thinned and grab a cab. I show him the note and he takes me to a street corner that I don’t recognize. He doesn’t speak English, and I can’t get him to understand that this isn’t where I need to be. No matter, the cab only costs a couple of bucks, so I pay him and flag another. I show the second guy the note. He nods and takes me on a ten minute drive depositing me on a side street I have never seen before. Turns out my secret weapon, my address note is worth about as much as the Saddam Hussien dinar I bought earlier I the night… that is to say, nothing.
By this point it is getting quite late, and the city is pretty much pitch-black. Electricity is very expensive here so buildings do not leave their lights on at night as they do in North America. I am in the dark, both literally and figuratively. I can’t see any of the landmarks that I am so familiar with in the daylight hours, and I try and use my cell phone to phone a friend who lives here, but it has gone dead.
I am stranded and while I’m not getting panicked, Bangkok is a pretty safe city, I am getting very frustrated that I can’t find my way home, and that I can’t seem to make anyone understand where I need to go. I walk in the dark for about an hour. The streets are in pretty bad repair, so I was trying to keep an eye out for something – anything – that I recognized AND keep one eye on the sidewalk so I didn’t fall. Infuriating. It didn’t improve my mood at all when I fell into a pothole and banged up my leg.
Eventually I limp home, accidentally stumbling across the right side street. I must have looked frightful to the man at the front gate as I hobbled past with my torn pants and a sour expression on my face. Luckily he recognized me and let me in, giving me the customary salute. The guards at the gate of the condo are all ex-military and are very formal, saluting and clicking their heels every time a resident passes.
It’s well after three am when I push the key into the front door lock. It’s been a weird exasperating night and all I want to do is take a shower and go to sleep…
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 20, 2003
I get a slow start to the day. My knee hurts, my cell phone is dead and my secret homing device, my address note written in Thai, is useless. My mission today is simple: First, get someone I can trust to write the address in Thai. Second, juice up the cell phone. Third, get a get revenge on all taxi drivers in Bangkok. OK, I know it wasn’t the cab driver’s fault that I didn’t know where I was going and my written instructions were wrong, but dammit, I’m still not happy about being stranded in the middle of a giant darkened city where I don’t know my way around. Of course the only person I have to blame is myself, and I will come around to that way of thinking eventually, but right now I’m unhappy and my leg is throbbing.
My girlfriend calls from Toronto to tell me the self scooping kitty litter box is broken. Great. Thanks for the call. Now I can look forward to coming home to great big mounds of cat poo. The day is not improving.
It is ungodly hot so I decide to stay close to home and do my errands in the shopping plaza next door. It is huge and looms large in the neighbourhood and I have been using it as a landmark. Last night, however, it was completely dark, like it had an invisible cloak slung over it and completely useless to me as a marker.
On the way out I have the concierge of the building write detailed location information in Thai for me. I will not get stranded again.
I don’t do any real sightseeing today, just poking around in the shops and picking up some souvenirs. When I get back to the condo I decide to have a look at the Kill Bill DVD I bought last night. It is pretty good quality – although the picture is grainy and the sound occasionally goes slightly out of sync – and has “Property of Miramax” stamped onto the letterbox portion of the picture. It comes with a variety of subtitle options – Thai, Malay, English, and Chinese – and scene selection. I hadn’t expected so many special features from a bootleg. This clearly has been copied from an industry screener – the “Property of Miramax” scroll which runs the entire length of the film is a dead give-a-way – but I have to wonder how it ended up over here. I haven’t watched the entire film, but the scenes that I have watched seem to be somehow unfinished, as though this is a work print of the movie. In some scenes there is no music, and there are sync problems, which there simply wouldn’t be if this was a straight copy of the finished film.
Much has been made in recent months about bootlegging, and the origins of the copies. In the last year the major studios have instituted a policy of doing security at their press screenings, and while I can see their point I don’t think it is the film critics that are clandestinely pirating the movies. Clearly, as my Kill Bill DVD demonstrates the copies are being made long before critics or the public get a chance to see the films. It smells suspiciously like an inside job to me. Perhaps the industry should take a harder look at themselves and stop searching my bags every time I go to a screening.
As I soak up some air conditioning I take some time to reflect on the trip so far. Despite the familiarity of many things – the small Nissan trucks that seem to be everywhere, the English billboards that dominate the skyline, the Mrs. Fields’ Cookie booth in the grocery store next door, Bangkok is an exotic, strange place. I like the fact that Thais like to share everything. Beer is typically served in large quart bottles meant to be split among a group of people. Ditto with the food; splitting platters of food is the common practice.
The traditional greeting, the wai – which consists of the palms being pressed together and lifted towards the chin – is much more complicated than I originally thought. It is loaded with complexities of class, gender and age. According to my guide book each of these factors determines at which height the hands must be held at. Certain people you do not greet with the wai, children and street vendors for example. I have chosen to simply mirror whatever greeting I receive, and so far have not run into too many problems.
The national anthem is played not only before all performances in theatres and at the movies but also twice a day through the radio and in public parks. At 8 am and 6 pm it is polite to stop and stand still for the duration of the song. To not do so is seen as disrespectful to the King and the country. By the way, Thais will not stand for any criticism or defamation of their royal family. Disrespecting the King can lead to jail time.
There is a lot to absorb here.
We had dinner at a place in Nana called Woodstock. It is in The Plaza, a dodgy looking three story complex of girly bars. As we walk up the stairs to the bar we are accosted by women who are looking for our business. Inside Woodstock is an oasis of normalcy. There is a pool table, a large wooden bar, a good sound system that pumps out American tunes from the 60s and fully clothed waitresses. In the corner a large screen television is tuned to a soccer game. We have a quick bite – enchiladas and burgers – before worming our way back to the condo through the busy streets. There is always lots of activity, especially after night fall, but tomorrow we have a trip planned to Pattaya, the infamous destination of US marines on R&R during the Vietnam War, so despite the temptations the dark has to offer, I opt for an early night.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2003
The Pattaya trip has been delayed until tonight so I have some unexpected time to continue roaming around Bangkok and checking out the sights. There is a high tech looking food court in the shopping mall next to the condo I have been wanting to check out, so I began my day there.
From the outside it looks like an upscale food court that you could see in any mall. Two things set it apart – the spectacular view of Bangkok from the wrap-around windows and a unique bar code system of payment. When you enter they give you a card with a bar code on it, every time you order something they swipe your card which registers your barcode number at the cash register. When you are done they pull up your account and you pay one cashier instead of paying each vendor individually. I tried to explore the whole place and ended up with a bizarre variety of lunch foods – dim sum, a pizza slice, a small noodle soup and a Caesar salad.
Fuelled up and ready to go I set out for the first grand ad venture of the day. I have heard about the Grand Palace, and caught a glimpse of it from a cab last week, but it is really far from where I am staying and so far I haven’t had the courage to try and navigate my way over there. I had a Buddhist tell me the other day that I have long ears – just like Lord Buddha – so I will have a long and happy life. I am trusting her instinct on this, and assuming that everything will go well on my journey to the Palace. I start the trip on the BTS, transferring once and ending up at the National Stadium. From there I have to get the number 47 bus which should take me right to the Palace.
It sounds really easy, but there are 93,000 busses in Bangkok, some of them make regular stops, others are express busses. Express busses take longer runs and don’t stop at every bus stop. If you’re not careful you could easily find yourself on the outskirts of town, lost and traumatized. The other thing to note is that while there is ridiculous traffic everywhere in Bangkok, the bus drivers seem to have been trained at some Nascar racing school and drive as though they are being chased by a herd of wild elephants.
I get on the first bus with a 47 on the side and ask if it goes to the Grand Palace. The fare collector has no idea what I am talking about, so I give her some money – about ten cents – and sit back for the ride. The buses are large, with wooden floors and no air conditioning. Apparently there are busses with air con, but they are more expensive and they haven’t caught on with the hoi polloi. Traffic, or the rotit mak mah is extreme, but the driver seems to be able to keep the pedal to the metal and keep us careening forward. We cross several bridges, turn down dozens of side streets and motor on for about twenty-five minutes. I’m getting concerned (and a little sea sick) so I get off when I see some royal looking golden buildings in the distance. I figure I can walk there and get my sea legs.
The buildings that I thought were the Grand Palace aren’t even remotely royal. My fear has become reality. I am lost in some weird neighbourhood in Bangkok. It’s hot, so I decide to sit and try to figure out what to do. I buy a bottle of water from a street vendor. She didn’t have any ice and it was so hot the water was almost boiling in the bottle. I wish I had a tea bag. In the distance I see another number 47 bus weaving down the crowded street. I flag down the bus, and the guy barely even slows down. I am determined to get out of here so I run and jump from the sidewalk and make it on the back platform of the bus. Someone pulls me in and I get a seat. I feel like James Bond. The fare collector this time assures me I am almost at the Grand Palace, and I pay her ten cents.
As we pull up in front of the palace I see why it is called “grand.” It is a complex of dozens of buildings, mostly gilded with jade and gold. Intimidating armed guards with sub machine guns are everywhere. As I walk toward the entrance, which is jammed with people coming in and out, an attractive woman approaches me with her hand outstretched.
“I’m from the Grand Palace, and I wanted to let you know that we are closed today,” she said in perfect English.
“Really,” I said, “then why are all those people going in and out of the gates.”
“They’re Buddhists,” she said, “only Buddhists are being allowed in today. It is a holy day. Perhaps I could arrange a tuk tuk tour for you instead.”
This clearly is a scam to sell tuk tuk rides. Just then I see a bus of German and English tourists pull up and enter the gates.
“Are they Buddhists?” I ask.
“They must be,” she replied, and realizing she was caught kind of scurried away.
The palace is spectacular. Established in 1782 it houses not only the royal residence and throne halls, but also a number of government offices as well as the renowned Temple of the Emerald Buddha. It covers an area of 218,000 square meters and is surrounded by four walls, 1900 meters in length.
The center piece of the whole complex is The Emerald Buddha. Enshrined on a golden traditional Thai-style throne made of gilded carved wood, known as a Busabok, in the ordination hall of the royal monastery, the sacred image is clad with one of three seasonal costumes (summer, rainy season and winter). The costumes are changed three times a year in a ceremony presided over by His Majesty the King. The Emerald Buddha is in fact carved from a block of green jade and was first discovered in 1434.
Now I have to get back. I figure if I just go in reverse, that is, take the number 47 bus on the other side of the street, I’ll be fine. I wait, and wait for about an hour until the right bus comes along. Same deal, no air con, wooden floors and a driver who seems to be on a race against time. The traffic is thick and so is the air. You can actually see the smog hanging in the air today. It looks like a low hanging blue cloud that envelopes the street. I develop a sore throat from the pollution on the ride back to National Stadium.
Once safely in an area I am familiar with I was able to find my way home, stopping first for some delicious noodles at a street vendor. The whole meal, with noodles, chicken and a drink cost me about one dollar Canadian.
That night we went to an English pub to meet some ex-pats who have lived in Asia for decades. Each of them told me a similar story. They had all come to Asia to work for a year or so on contracts and never left. One man, originally from Toronto, had just moved to Bangkok after almost twenty-five years in Hong Kong. He was asking me about Yorkville, and if there were still coffee houses there. The hippies moved out decades ago I told him, and the only coffee houses there anymore are Starbucks. We stayed at the pub until eight o’clock, just long enough for the traffic to die down. It never goes away, but it will be lighter now.
The designated driver got the car and off we went to Pattaya. Well, off we went around the corner. It took us almost an hour to round the corner to get on the highway. I’m told the traffic here is really unpredictable, and part of life in Bangkok is planning your day around how long it will take you to get places. Apparently everyone is always really late or really early for everything. No one is ever on time. I can understand why. We were stopped at one red light which didn’t change for twelve minutes. Then when it did, it only went green for about two minutes. In the two minutes we managed to move forward about two feet.
Once we got on the highway the driving was easy breezy, and in two hours we were in Pattaya. After checking into the Hard Rock Hotel we took a walk downtown. Did I mention that Pattaya was a favourite spot for American GIs to go and blow off steam during the Vietnam War? It is a still a pretty wild place, with hundreds of open-air go-go bars lining every street in the downtown core. It is pretty intense. There are hundreds of bar girls who approach you as you walk down the street, grabbing you and trying to get your attention, and they will follow you for blocks if they think you are interested.
Occasionally you see a go go bar that is indoors. If what I am seeing outside is any indication I can’t even imagine what happens behind closed doors.
We finally find a place that looks reasonable and order two beers. Almost immediately a street vendor approaches me and tries to sell me a cage of small live birds. No thanks. By the time we were ready to order another round people had tried to sell us jewellery, ornate traditional Thai hats, postcards and a Lemur (small monkey-like animal). The Lemur was cute, and I believe, endangered, but there was no sale.
We stay until the end of the night, and make our way back to the hotel. I’m staying in the Beatles Room, and have large portraits of John Lennon and Paul McCartney hanging over the bed. It’s been a long day – the kind of day that would kill an ordinary man – so I crash out under the likeness of Lennon and dream of Lemurs.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 22, 2003
Saturday is spa day! For the next eight hours or so I plan to lounge by the Hard Rock Hotel pool in a rented cabana, sipping refreshing fruit cocktails and soaking up the sun. It’s really hot, so I’m staying in the shade, but I’m sure I’m getting a suntan through the thatched roof of my cabana.
The pool is massive, with a man-made sandy beach all around it. On the other side of the pool is today’s “entertainment,” a lounge band from Malaysia. They drone on for an hour or so, massacring everything from Sultans of Swing to Something Stupid. Their show coincides with the beginning of the final World Cup soccer game. From the bar inside you can hear cheering and shouting for the game, which at some points thankfully drowned out the band. At the end of their set the singer thanked us for listening (like we had a choice) and mentioned that “we’ll be in the lounge tonight…” I know I WON’T be in the lounge tonight.
My idea of hell used to be an endless loop of Britney Spears singing a duet with Barry Manilow. Now I know who the back-up band would be.
I have heard a lot about Thai massage and wanted to get one, but most of the places in Bangkok looked like brothels disguised as massage parlours so I took a pass. Here at the Hard Rock I felt comfortable, and it is my spa day…
The massage is unbelievable. It took about an hour and cost the equivalent of $20 Canadian, but is worth so much more. I haven’t been pulled and stretched like that every before. The woman giving me the massage looked like she only weighed ninety pounds, but she had hands like vice grips, and at one point was crawling around on my back like a spider. After we were done I tingled for the next couple of hours. I haven’t felt this relaxed since 1982.
The idyllic spa day in Pattaya came to an end when the sun went down at six pm. Hopped in the car and drove back to Bangkok. I have to pack as I am off to Hong Kong in the morning. Somehow I seem to have more room in my bags for the trip home than I did when I arrived. Don’t know how this is possible, when I have been buying things left and right. Dirty clothes, I guess, don’t take up as much room as clean ones…
For my last night in Bangkok we have decided to go to a place called Admakers. It’s not far from the condo, has live music and is open late for food. The place is packed when we get there, filled with Thais drinking and eating, waiting for the headlining band to begin. It has been so hot that mostly I have been drinking juices and beer, but tonight I felt like a gin and tonic. When I ordered it the waitress asked if I would like a bottle. In Thailand it is customary to buy an entire bottle, and if you don’t finish it, they will put your name on it and keep it until the next time you come in. The people next to us were working on a sixty ounce bottle of Johnny Walker, and putting quite a dent in it. My friend is a regular at the bar, so when I declined to buy an entire bottle of gin he and the server decided that it would be OK to give me the bottle of another regular and they would settle up later. Apparently I’ll be drinking some stranger’s gin.
The band were taking the stage just as a group of English soccer fans came in. England won the World Cup earlier, and they were out celebrating. In tribute the all-Thai band played We Are the Champions by Queen, although they pronounced “champions” like the French word for mushrooms. No matter, the Brits were happy to be the “mushrooms” of the world.
Later the band played a note for note cover of Bohemian Rhapsody and a long passage from The Wall. If you had closed your eyes you would have sworn (except for the occasional lapses in lyrical accuracy) that it was 1978 again, and you were at an all-star classic rock concert.
The band were still head banging when I left, off to bed to get some rest before an early morning flight to Hong Kong.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2003
It’s too early to be awake, and the car I hired to take me to the airport is late. Quite late. Repeated phone calls to the Airport Associate car agency don’t seem to be helping, so I have to resign myself to the idea that the car will arrive when the car arrives, and if I miss my plane, I’ll just have to get another one later in the day. I sit outside the condo waiting and I can hear lizards crowing and birds sounding-off. Bangkok is almost relaxing at this time of morning before the hustle and bustle of the day starts.
When the car arrives the driver assures me we will make it to the airport on time. Much like the bus drivers I had earlier in the week, this guy was apparently looking to set a new land speed record for driving in the city, and we seemed to get to the airport in mere minutes.
I’m kind of back on schedule, which is good, because Bangkok airport is chaos. So much for the relaxing sounds of lizards and birds. Now I am surrounded by confusion, crowds and crazed travellers. There are line-ups everywhere, none of which seem to go where I need to be. I spot an executive class wicket with no line-up, and give them my ticket. Soon everything is good. Someone comes and grabs my bags while another helps me find my way through customs and to the Thai Airways Royal Orchid Lounge. I’m going to make my flight, and I have time to chow down. I grab some tea and a weird assortment of dim sum and sandwiches and wait.
The flight is packed, but whizzes by and soon we are in the Hong Kong International Airport. It is a massive place, probably the biggest airport I have ever been in – you have to take a train from customs to the baggage carousel – but also one of the best designed. It’s very modern and quite beautiful, despite the large photos of martial arts legend Jackie Chan that seem to be everywhere.
I take the high speed train to Kowloon, it takes about half and hour and costs a fraction of what a cab would cost. From there I transferred to a free shuttle bus that dropped me off in front of my hotel, The Sheridan in Kowloon.
I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels, but I have never seen a bathroom like this one before. All the fixtures (except the toilet, thankfully) were made of see through glass. The sink was transparent, so was the counter and the tub. Very cool. The room also had speakers wired throughout the place so you can listen to music or the television no matter what room you are in. I need that at home. This hotel room is way nicer than my house in Toronto.
I loved Hong Kong. It felt like New York to me, only amped up about twenty times. I didn’t do anything special, just walked around and took some photos of the hundreds of signs that hang over every street, overlapping one another. It looks like a giant movie set.
Buying some postcards almost ended up being a traumatic experience. I turned down a small alley toward a vendor selling souvenirs. As we did our business I notice more stores further down the alley. When I get down there I see even more stores up ahead. I explore and poke around. Do you remember the giant maze in the movie The Shining? That’s kind of what this strange underground mall was like. Hundreds of tiny little stores and booths situated in this mind bending maze that went on forever. I got lost for quite a while, and just when it seemed like I was never going to see daylight again I exited into a smelly lane lined with garbage cans and populated by mangy looking cats who were feeding on the trash. I ran the gauntlet toward the street, avoiding the swipes and hisses of the street cats.
I haven’t been feeling well for a day or so, ever since my bus ride in Bangkok where I breathed in enough toxic pollution to make Keith Richard feel queasy. I head back to the hotel and transparent fixtures to get ready for dinner. I’m just grabbing a quick bite from the buffet in the hotel restaurant. I’m not even particularly hungry, but I should eat something. Here’s where Hong Kong and Bangkok differ. In Bangkok I could grab a bite to eat for next to nothing, in Hong Kong my buffet and a green tea cost almost $70. It was good, but after spending so much time, and so little money in Bangkok it was kind of a shocker.
After dinner I bought some cold medication from the pharmacy across the street, loaded up on codeine and watched some TV.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2003
That’s it. The trip is over. All I have to do now is get home. Getting from the hotel to the airport is easy, it was just everything else that seemed really hard. I knew there was going to be big trouble in little China when I tried to check my bags through to Toronto, only to be told that I only had a ticket as far as Vancouver. Don’t get me wrong, Vancouver is beautiful, but I didn’t want to get stranded there.
To buy a ticket from the west coast to Toronto was going to cost about $2000, which was more than I wanted to pay. After several phone calls to the airline it is discovered that it was them who made the mistake. I’m told not to worry about it.
“Great,” I said, “let’s check my bags through to Toronto.”
“Well, we can’t actually do that for you,” I’m told. “We’re not sure when you’ll be leaving Vancouver.”
At this point I realize that I should be worrying about the latter half of my travel plans, but the plane is about to take off. I get onboard for a thirteen hour flight, not sure if I will be stranded in Vancouver or on my way home on the other end.
I decide to enjoy the flight as much as possible, after all there is nothing I can do now but wait. After some artery-clogging pasta I sleep for a time, watch several movies, have snacks, read and try not to think about the frustration that lies ahead.
We land in Vancouver. I speak to the inappropriately named courtesy desk people. They refer me to another desk about twenty-two miles away. Remember what I said about the Hong Kong airport – how well run and well designed it is? Well, the opposite is true of Vancouver. It is a rat’s nest of corridors and ill conceived design. I find the desk, and after a really annoying conversation with the attendant I manage to get a ticket for the flight I was supposed to have been on all along.
On the final leg of the journey I let my mind drift back over the past ten days. Asia was everything I hoped it would be – chaotic, exotic and stimulating – and several things I didn’t expect it to be – highly Westernized, hotter than blazes and strangely serene. I learned a lot and took hundreds of photos, but now it is time to return to real – or maybe that should be reel – life.