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Thursday, 10 October 2013

Thailand and Laos 1998: Day 1

Day One, Monday 2/2/1998
There is a story of four blind men and an elephant. The first blind man feels the elephant's leg and declares that an elephant is very like a tree. The second man feels its trunk and says that an elephant is like a snake. The third one feels its tail and says that both of them are wrong, an elephant is like a brush with just a few bristles on the end. The last one feels the tusks and says that an elephant is like a spear. I feel the same way about Bangkok. It is an elephant of a city, it changes with every new mile and every new district. As we left the airport my first impression was that it was grey and dusty. It looked as if it had started to fall down before they had finished building it. Soon however vegetation appeared lending it an air of lushness, albeit overlaid with a greasy patina of pollution and in the distance, like Jurassic Park brontosaurs, the great towers of the city could be seen rising between the trees. It managed somehow to look simultaneously verdant and drab. But it was already changing again and becoming a proper city - a little more crowded, a little more polluted and with a lot more traffic, but like any other city nevertheless. The driving was as eccentric as I have come to expect in the Far East. The rules seem to be that people drive on the left unless it is more convenient to drive on the right, that they stop for red traffic lights unless it is more convenient to go and go on green unless they feel like stopping. Merging and overtaking are based on a simple 'chicken' principle and the general rule of the road is that the biggest vehicle has right of way. The city is filled with motor cycles and motor scooters, multi-coloured taxis and the ubiquitous tuk-tuks - noisy, dirty two-stroke vehicles consisting of a narrow bench on the back of a motor cycle. There is so much traffic that often it is faster to walk.
We swept round onto a wide thoroughfare past a series of temples whose red and gold roofs brightened the view considerably and past what looked like another elaborate temple with a sign outside saying, in English, Buddhist Protection Front. The name conjured up vague images of pacifist terrorism.

We had arrived early in the morning and reached our hotel, the Royal, before ten. The Royal is the oldest hotel in Bangkok and like an old woman in too much make up is less grand than it thinks it is and far less grand than it once was. The group of us who had arrived on the plane, Don and Jenny, Ian, Frances, Ellen and myself checked into the hotel and met up in the lobby to go exploring. Following Jenny's map we went down past the Grand Palace and to the river where we paid 200 baht each for a boat tour finishing up at Chinatown. The tour took us around the waterways where there is a comprehensive thriving waterside community. Set back from the water behind green lawns there were frequent glimpses of temples with orange-robed, shaven-headed monks going about their daily business. Nearer the waters edge the buildings were of wood, sometimes with corrugated metal roofs, and built on stilts around which washed the flotsam and detritus that filled the greasy green water.
Eventually the boat came out of one of the narrow side channels and rejoined the main river. A few hundred yards downstream it docked at a Chinatown pier. We disembarked and made our way down through a narrow crowded street lined on both sides with rows of stalls selling cooked food - strips of miscellaneous meet grilling over hot coals, baked fruit, bowls of thin vegetable soup, bread and cakes. The mixed odours were unusual but not unpleasant. I was still feeling the lack of hunger that several consecutive airline meals always cause in me so that I was untempted by either the sights or the smells. Our 'plan', such as it was, revolved around a walking tour of the area that we had found in one of the guide books but to make any use of it we first had to establish where we were.

At the corner of the road we guessed where we where and turned right. When the sought after temple failed to appear it became apparent that we had guessed wrong. On the other hand the street was lined with gold and jewellery shops which might correspond to one of the descriptions on the map. We crossed the street and turned into a narrow alley. This was a fascinating place. No more than a few feet wide, the buildings on either side loomed above us claustrophobically. Brightly coloured canopies stretched across between them filtering the light that did make its way to street level and painting the walls and pavements with pastel stripes. This was Trok Itsarranuphap, one of the many market lanes in Chinatown. The stalls were filled with an abundance of prepared foodstuffs. At one stall there were quivering masses of what looked like multicoloured jellies, at another plastic containers were filled with fried or baked strips of fish and squid. A row of greasy looking blackened chickens hung above another stall and yet another was selling plates of cooked vegetables, laid out in neat rows on a table.

We made our way through the crowd eventually emerging onto another street which we soon determined was where had originally intended to be. The alley market was part of the walking tour we were supposed to be doing albeit part that we shouldn't have done for another hour. We backtracked the description and soon found the Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, the temple that we had been seeking. This was approached through its own car park which was hung with dozens of red paper lanterns for the Chinese New Year. Inside the temple was crowded and busy and it took only a few moments for my eyes to be stinging and tears streaming down my face from the heavy scent of burning incense. A row of monks sat at tables selling joss sticks and papers on which were written prayers to be burnt inside the temple. I found that I couldn't spend more than a few minutes in the smoky atmosphere and went back outside to wait. Before very long the others had joined me and we considered our options over a brief lunch and a cold beer at one of the many hotels. Don and Jenny wanted to head back to the hotel and Frances said that she would go with them Ellen and I decided to walk down to the Golden Buddha which was about fifteen minutes away along Yaowarat Road, at Wat Traimat.

This is a five and a half tonne Solid Gold Buddha set in a small and plain Wat on the edge of Chinatown. The place was crowded with tourists but the Buddha itself was impressive. Outside a row of what looked like slot machines turned out to be an automated equivalent of the fortune telling apparatus that is found in all Buddhist temples. The fortunes, I noticed, were printed in English as well as Thai. Clearly the Golden Buddha is now considered more of a tourist attraction than a religious icon.
Back on the street we took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel, hanging on grimly at the apparently suicidal driving and after a shower I had a couple of hours sleep before the evening briefing.

At the evening briefing I had my first look at the rest of the group. There were sixteen in all and I spoke so few words to any of them that it was impossible to form any kind of opinion. By now I was starting to feel hungry and Wit, our local guide in Thailand, said that he had arranged dinner and a show at a local restaurant. In the restaurant we all sat at a long low table and ate the excellent meal. The show was one of the interminable cultural shows that are inflicted on tourists the world over. The girls were pretty enough - even if they did all look as if they had been cloned from the same cell - and the costumes were colourful and the music was innocuous and after ten minutes I stopped watching it and concentrated on eating. There was a brief section in the middle with a well choreographed routine of stick fighting in which the slightest misstep could have resulted in serious injury but otherwise it was the usual cultural fare which left me as cold as ever.
Back at the hotel I went straight to bed and in minutes had fallen into a blissful and dreamless sleep.