Friday, 30 March 2007
Part of the reason I chose to come to Thailand first, and spend so much time here, is because the past few years have seen me develop something of an interest in martial arts. I’m not fanatical about it, like some people are, but partaking in it has been of huge physical and mental benefit and I didn’t want to leave it behind completely on my travels. And where better to investigate it further than Southeast Asia, the place where it all started?
But really kickboxing is not a martial art, it’s a sport. And I’ve only done a year of kung fu. So basically I’m a complete novice in these things. That, and the one piece of knowledge I have about Muay Thai, Thailand’s native martial art, being that they do ‘shin conditioning’ so your shins don’t hurt when you kick, made me a little bit nervous about trying it out myself.
Firstly, a potted history of Muay Thai: Not much is known about its origins. Most of Thailand’s historical records were destroyed when the Burmese sacked Ayuthaya in the 18th century. But what is known is gleaned from provincial, or Burmese, records. The best known of the early fighters is Nai Khanom Dtom, a hardcore dude who, having been captured by the Burmese (yes them again), won his freedom by defeating 12 of their soldiers in unarmed combat. This impressed the Burmese king and he let him go.
It seems to have been a common practice to settle disputes this way. When King Sen Muang Ma died in 1411 his two sons were squabbling over the throne and after getting nowhere in battle, decided to let two of their best fighters slog it out for them in the ring. The first one to draw blood was the winner, and, after a fight that lasted some six or seven hours, the decision was made.
King Naresuan, the 16th century monarch who recently had a trilogy of Thai films made about his life, used Muay Thai as part of military training, and later, when the kingdom was at peace in the early 18th century, the sport became a national pastime. It was during this time that they started wrapping hemp rope around their hands dipped in glue to harden it. With the agreement of both the fighters, the glue was sometimes mixed with ground glass. Nice.
At the beginning of last century, Muay Thai was taught in schools – until 1921 that is, when too many serious injuries and some cases of brain damage forced its prohibition. In the 30s the sport took on the international laws of boxing and modernised dramatically. But it wasn’t until the 70s when it gained notoriety on a world stage. A host of martial arts black belts from Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong took on their Thai counterparts in a massive tournament. None of them lasted a full minute in the ring with a Thai boxer. The problem? None of them were used to being kicked in the face. Thai boxers get kicked in the face from the age of six.
I went along to have a look at a gym near Khao San Road a while ago – Sor Vorapin Gym, just off Chakaphrong Road – and you’ve seen the photos. It’s really hardcore training, and a bit different to what I’m used to. Kickboxing was continually frenetic and demanding. This seems to demand more energy in concentrated periods, and then you break, and then head back into it again. But I was reassured by watching, and by the gym’s philosophy that anyone can try Muay Thai, everyone will get something out of it. That said, it still took me awhile to get my arse down there and try it out, but when I did it was both as hard and as enjoyable as I imagined it would be.
After three months of no training whatsoever (after getting my kickboxing purple belt in December, Christmas and getting ready to leave the country kinda got in the way of training) my body wasn’t entirely happy about being thrust into the world of extreme exercise again. It was a bit of a slog, especially doing sit-ups. (At one later session two Thai girls are talking about how they have four-packs rather than six-packs and one of them points at my stomach and says, “Six-pack?” “No, no-pack,” I replied.)
My first session (and all those that have followed) starts with skipping. It takes me a while to remember how to skip. (Come to think of it, did I even know in the first place??) But then I get going in a manner that doesn’t seem too embarrassing. We then warm-up (although I’m already sweating buckets in the heat just from skipping) in the ring with lots of different exercises and stretches. It’s about half Thai people and half Westerners, all of differing levels of fitness. (I’m judging them on their bodies of course, not having seen them in action yet.)
Then we do some shadow-boxing in the mirrors. Most of the punches I know, though they show us the elbow punch which goes diagonally across and would probably hurt a bit to be on the receiving end. I did something similar in kung fu, but they want even more aggression in your training for this one. Then there`s the knee kicks (harder than they look) and the roundhouse, which is the main kick that everybody knows Muay Thai for, and why you need to `condition` your shins - they are supposed to land on the opponent`s side, winding them, or their head if you`re really good/lucky/nasty (delete as applicable).
Then we do some bagwork. This, I love. Now, I’m not really a fighter. Whenever I train with someone in front of me - even if they’re padded up and expecting to get hit or kicked – I find it hard to let go and punch or kick properly. I worry that, if I let my aggression and strength take over, I won’t be able to control my punches and kicks so well and one of us will get hurt. So when I train I like to concentrate on technique instead, at least get that right even if I’m never going to be a good fighter. Put a punch bag in front of me however and all bets are off. There’s nothing more satisfying (and therapeutic!) than kicking the shit out of an immovable leather bag that isn’t too bothered about the volley of punches and kicks it’s receiving. So I`m okay at and quite comfortable with this, and I can get some good exercise out of doing it.
we do some padwork with the Thai guys in the ring. I get an older dude called Kingsak who is brilliant fun. He keeps shouting `one beer, two beer`, depending on how strong my kicks are, and `power` when not strong enough. He`s great fun and his enthusiasm keeps me going, even though my body is not at all happy about what I`m putting it through.
Then there`s a `warm-down`, which is basically the same exercises as the warm-up, just with some sit-ups (I manage ten of the requested 50 and get serious cramp) and push-ups (not so bad at these) thrown in. Afterwards my body is exhausted, but it`s that lovely satisfying exhaustion that I have so missed from doing kickboxing.
When I go back the next day I pay for 30 sessions, in the hope that that will make me attend it regularly. What I don`t think about is how it will fit in with work and whether I`ll have time to do 30 before I leave Thailand, but I`m so hyped up by the whole idea of it at that point, it doesn`t cross my mind. And Kingsak is pleased I`ve signed up for so many. He seems to think my technique is all right.
I don’t really chat to the other people that train that much, mostly cos it’s usually different each time. But there’s one woman who goes regularly – a Canadian called Jasmine (of Asian origin) who used to compete but damaged the arch of her foot. She’s only training now because she is due to appear in some photo shoot about Muay Thai for a sports magazine. But she’s training dead gently, worried she’ll do her foot even more damage.
The second day I train is actually a little easier, although I have to do the roundhouses with my other leg as my right shin and foot are still raw from the day before. It’s weird, it doesn’t hurt your shins when you’re actually kicking, but then you look later and they’re covered in bruises and red skin. The second day I do pad work with this short bulldog of a lad – amazing body (they all have) but he only comes up to my shoulders! He’s friendly as hell as well, reminds me a little of my mate Andy. He’s a bit more aggressive than Andy though!
While I’m doing more padwork with Kingsak he talks to the tall guy that also works there. Now this guy must be the star player in the place. Unusually tall for a Thai – he’s nearly six foot I reckon – he has the look of Muhammad Ali about him. And his kicks are just amazing to watch – relentless and powerful. As I said, Kingsak spoke to him in Thai while we were training and I got the impression they were a little impressed with how quickly I’d picked up the Muay Thai technique of the roundhouse kick. Or maybe I’m just massaging my own ego!
The third time I go I train with the guy I probably fancy the most out of all of them. About my height, he has the most perfect body I’ve ever seen. And this amazing set of intertwining tattoos that cover his shoulder and arm. As is typical with the blokes I fancy he’s arrogant and aggressive (and straight as a die) and my time with him is as unpleasant as it is enjoyable. He keeps mimicking the ‘one beer, two beer’ phrase that Kingsak was using, taking the piss, and, unlike training with Kingsak, he’s immensely critical of everything I do. But I realise immediately that it’s nothing personal (except maybe the ‘one beer, two beer’ remarks), he’s just trying to fine tune my moves, and that’s exactly what he does.
The fourth and last time I go this month they’re all a bit half-arsed. Someone they used to train with is in a match on TV, which they’re all watching round the side of the gym. I do get to train with Muhammad Ali dude though. He makes me do 10 roundhouse kicks on each leg, after 10 minutes of full-pelt training with him. You have to use the strength of the full centre of your body for these kicks and it’s an absolute killer, but I manage it. After that the rest of the session feels like forever, I’m so exhausted. But I’m enjoying it though; it’s so different from kickboxing yet familiar enough for me not to feel totally out of my depth.
Tuesday, 27 March 2007
Now there’s very little notable about Samut Prakan – one of the fishing town’s two sights, the Ancient City, is a park with scaled-down models of all of Thailand’s famous monuments and sounds a bit shit. The other sight however holds a little more interest. Its name – Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm & Zoo – doesn’t really do it justice. This isn’t your average zoo with a few crocs and some other animals; this is a zoo with 60,000 crocodiles and some other animals.
Now I have mixed feelings about zoos. The idea of them excites me because it means I (and other people) get to see amazing and beautiful animals you might otherwise never clap eyes on in your lifetime. And yet when I walk around them (the same happened at both this place and Dusit Zoo in Bangkok) I get a little depressed and feel bad that I’m encouraging the captivity of these creatures that should be out and about running around.
Of course some zoos do some amazing work as well in terms of preserving species etc etc and we could argue the pros and cons of them for hours, but generally, when you walk around them, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that these animals aren’t entirely happy being caged up and stared at. At Dusit, for example, I could tell myself it was the stupidly humid weather making them lethargic, but I knew that wasn’t all of it.
Here in Thailand as well, you worry about these animals in the care of a people who, I have seen again and again, have a very relaxed attitude to things. Now most of the time I find it refreshing and enjoy the idea of their laidback lifestyle, but you worry a bit when it comes to things like zoos. I mean, I saw absolutely no evidence whatsoever of low standards at Dusit; it was as good as any zoo I’ve been to before. But the croc farm gave me a few things to think about in terms of what is cruelty to animals.
Jess and I get up earlyish and get on the 511 bus to Samut Prakan. It goes all the way through central Bangkok and takes a good two hours to get to the town. It is a painful, bum-killer of a journey, relieved only by the presence of our iPods and the amazing sight of a three-headed elephant statue situated in a temple near Samut Prakan. It’s possibly the biggest statue I have ever seen in my life. It is black and freakishly large and neither Jess nor I can work out what it is made from, or how on earth they made it.
We get off in Samut Prakan, with no idea how to get to the farm. Luckily there’s no need for us to work it out as a host of sawngthaew drivers spot us and beckon us over. One says he’ll take us there and, bereft of any other ideas, we go for it. It only costs us 30 baht – no rip-off or anything!
Walking into the farm, the signage has the feel of a circus and, as we find out, unfortunately it’s not an unfair comparison.
The crocs themselves have got it good. You might argue that they’re in captivity, they’re not free; therefore they haven’t got it good. But let’s just say they’ve got it good for animals in captivity. There are literally thousands of them but the farm supplies them with ample space, both on land and in water. While they farm the animals to supply the demand for croc shoes, handbags, croc meat, etc etc, they also have a breeding programme in place so the species isn’t threatened.
Not by farming anyway. They do get threatened during the ‘croc wrestling’ show. When Jess and I enter the farm we realise we’re by the little stadium that hosts the show and one is soon to start. We buy some crisps and Coke to stave off our need for lunch and settle in, some of the few farang there. It’s a mostly Thai audience, probably cos not many visitors to Bangkok would venture out this far, unless you’re staying here (like us) for some time.
In the middle of the mini-stadium there is a concrete island, around which there is a moat of water that is full to the brim of crocodiles. They’re not massive, the largest being maybe two metres long, but you’d still be unhappy if you found one in your bed. Two Thai dudes in shiny red shorts and shiny red waistcoats emerge from a gate and walk along a walkway over the moat on to the island to the sound of some awful Thai pop. They walk around the moat, sometimes walking into the water, tapping the noses of the crocodiles to make them snap their jaws. It’s the most uncomfortable sound, just realising the power behind those jaws (up to 3,000 pounds per square inch apparently) and what they could do. But you feel sorry for the animals, being agitated like that, and it’s here I first start to feel unsure about the ethical standing of this place.
The two Thai guys drag a few crocs out by their tails onto the island, where they sit with their mouths open (why do crocs do this??) for awhile and then wander back down to the moat, only to be dragged out again. It really does seem a bit cruel, but we continue to watch, absorbed (and partly hoping one of the Thai guys will get bitten). One of the crocs gets pissed off with all this tail-pulling and nose-swatting and walks down the walkway towards the gate. Luckily the gate is securely shut but when one of the Thai guys heads down the walkway to pull the croc back, it turns and snaps at him. The Thai guy, understandably, leaves the animal to it. It sits there for awhile, defiantly making its point.
The Thai guys then do some showing off by putting their arms, and their heads, into the open jaws of the crocs. Neither of them loses anything. Instead they gain a load of cash as appreciative Thai audience members rain 20 and 100 baht notes on them. Then they both lift up a croc each and turn around to face each side of the stadium, while we all take photos. It’s very much like being at the circus, and as ethically dodgy as that, but nonetheless I can’t help but feel entertained. More entertaining though are the terrified-looking farang and Thai visitors who venture down to the island to have their photo taken next to the disinterested crocs. We don’t bother, both of us feeling we’ve bought into this ethically-unsound venture enough as it is.
Looking for somewhere to have lunch we pass a small stage where monkeys dressed in clothes are doing tricks. It’s all a bit disturbing so we walk on and pass a small area where a sleepy-looking tiger is sat chained to the floor. A sign tells us we can have our photo taken with the tiger. When this happens the people sit behind the tiger which is dragged up by its ‘carer’ into a sitting position and the photo is taken. The tiger looks very much alive and sprightly in the pic, of course, its eyes shining brightly. The reality is much different, however, and if those tigers aren’t drugged up to their eyeballs then I’m the King of Thailand.
After eating some fried rice, we head into the croc farm itself. Jess and I spend ages walking around the platforms above the big lake that seems to hold the main bulk of the farm’s crocodiles. Just when you think you’ve seen the biggest one, another, bigger one will literally rear its ugly head. We’re not sure whether we see the biggest or not – a six metre long fella who goes by the name of Yai (which means ‘big’ – the Thais don’t seem to appreciate irony in their names!). The lake is so thick with green sludge that it is impossible to tell the exact length of any of them. But the hints they give about their length by raising parts of their gnarly bodies above the green water are actually more frightening (and thrilling) than seeing all of them.
Eventually we can resist the ‘feed the crocodiles’ signs no longer and I go and purchase a couple of chicken carcasses from a bored-looking Thai lady. The carcasses smell really unpleasant, not in a gone-off way, just in an abundance of raw meat way. We throw them in and there’s a deluge of frightening snapping sounds that relieve me of the smell of raw meat and thrill me no end. The crocs are frightening-looking things and I can’t help but be impressed and fascinated by them.
We look at the ‘disabled crocs’ enclosure, which is basically crocs that have been taken away from the others and are living on their own because they have some kind of defect (a misshapen snout, no tail, etc) that would ensure a short life around other crocs. Or maybe they thought it’d be good to have a croc freak show, who knows. But that’s a little depressing as well.
More uplifting is the breeding programme enclosure where all the little baby crocs are kept. They are cute as hell and I’d almost want to take one home were it not for the fact they grow to be Very Large and are probably difficult to housetrain.
We then stand and watch a bit of the monkey show. It’s horrifying. These poor little monkeys, dressed up in children’s clothes and urged to do (mostly) demeaning tricks. The monkey doing math is quite impressive but the jumping through a burning hoop and pretending to sing into a microphone is a little too much. There’s a moment of poignancy when I see one of the monkeys come backstage (I’m stood by the side) and he sits by a pole and just looks so forlornly at the ground. It’s probably mostly my imagination, of course, but it’s at this point I decide I’ve seen enough.
Having seen about all we could of the crocs (we both love them) we go to look at the rest of the zoo. We pass the tiger area where we see some monks having their pic taken with said animal. Not very Buddhist, I think, and sneak a snap of their indiscretion.
Jess is feeling the same and its getting late in the day. Knowing we have an epic and uncomfortable two hour journey ahead of us, we decide its best to go. We decide to stop off at the three-headed elephant if we can, but when we drive past it there’s no bus stop and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get into the temple. It’s obviously not a tourist attraction. It should be though; I really can’t get across to you just how massive it was.
Saturday, 17 March 2007
I do some more research on them and agree that this would be a most entertaining and fucking ace night out. The only problem is it’s on a Friday and Fridays are now like Sundays to me in that I have a full day of work the next day. But sod it. How often are we gonna get to see an act like that play in Bangkok?
On the night in question I get home and get ready, jumping around my room in unabashed excitement – I’ve not been clubbing for TOO long. Jess and I go to Khao San first for food and to try and persuade James to come along - he’s torn between this and the birthday bash of a friend of Jeab’s.
I grab some Tom Yum soup, which takes me ages to eat – firstly cos you have to dig around amongst the chilis and lemongrass for the food (eat them and you’re in trouble), secondly because Jess tells me a story that has me in stitches for a good 15 minutes.
We were talking about pulling and getting chatted up in clubs and her story goes something like this...
So she’s in a club with some mates. It’s one of those evenings where not much is going on but dancing and drinking. Jess is there minding her own business, nursing a Coke as always, when a man comes up behind and whispers in her ear, “You’re the most beautiful woman in here.” She turns around to see if he’s worth bothering with and, lo and behold, he’s wearing a motorbike helmet. He wore it all evening apparently. Nobody saw what he actually looked like.
We meet James and Jeab at a bar called Gazeebo, where a Thai band is playing reggae and Led Zeppelin covers. It’s a nice bar – sleek décor and does shisha, so I promise myself I’ll return to try a bit of that. James decides not to come with us, opting for the Thai birthday girl instead. I understand his reasoning – I might have mentioned this before but here in Thailand it is customary for the birthday boy or girl to pay for everyone else during their celebrations. As if birthdays weren’t something to dread as it was!
I take the piss out of Jeab a bit cos when James goes to the toilet her eyes follow him unwaveringly. She’s obviously crazy about him, no matter how cool she plays it.
Jess and I eventually leave them to it and get a cab to the club. We get a chatty cab driver who’s keen to show off his English, and vent about the unfair state of things for taxi drivers in Bangkok. He weaves a convincing tale about the corruption of police who operate around Khao San Road, and how they charge cab drivers for coming anywhere near the place to pick up tourists (hence the extortionate prices drivers will try to charge tourists). And he moans about the huge charges to rent cabs (8000 baht) in the first place. He’s from the country and spends a certain amount of time in the city each year trying to make some money to take home. But it sounds like he doesn’t make much. I’m not sure if it’s a tale he weaves especially for farang or not but it’s convincing enough for us to give him an extra 50 baht. For ages I’ve just been angered at the taxi drivers attempts to get more money out me, my thinking being it’s just cos I’m a foreigner. But if this driver’s stories are true (and they fit in with a lot of other stuff I’ve heard about how Bangkok is run) then the attempted rip-offs are more understandable. I vow not to get so mad at taxi drivers in future.
We blag our way into the club without passports (Binnie has them to get work permits for us). I don’t think they care really – we’re farang, we’ve got money. Eclectic Method have already started, playing a mash up of Beyonce and some rock tune I don’t recognise. The club is busy but not packed, just right really. We get our free drink (part of the entry fee), I buy some cigs (I’m back smoking tonight for some reason) and head to the dancefloor. I normally hang out on the edge of the dancefloor for ages before throwing myself into it, but tonight I’m immediately entranced by the music Eclectic Method are playing – seemless blends of pounding house beats, chunky hip hop and classic rock tunes from the likes of Stone Roses (mixed in perfectly with Jurassic 5) and Nirvana (whose familiar Smells Like Teen Spirit riff is played teasingly amongst a host of other tunes and immediately raises a roar).
...and the Thais and the odd farang are grooving away quite happily on the dancefloor. It doesn’t take me long to join them, the booze and adrenalin firing me up. I think this where I’m happiest – moving around on a dancefloor, every muscle and every bone responding instinctively to the throb of bass and thump of drum. My mind focuses only on the music during these moments. I could be on my own for all I care. I almost forget Jess is there.
She drags me out about two-ish. She’s got to get up, even if I haven’t (my two morning classes have cancelled, fortuitously). But even if I did have to get up, I could have gone on for a few more hours. God I miss clubbing.
Tuesday, 13 March 2007
Which explains the low-key set-up of modern Ayuthaya. After being used to the hustle and bustle and exuberant street life of Bangkok for so long, for me the peaceful surroundings of its predecessor come something as a shock. I was expecting a smaller version of Bangkok - a city still holding on to its past as the capital. But no, that past is long forgotten throughout much of the town, where the locals lead a fairly quiet life.
And yet Ayuthaya’s past is the reason most people go there. For it’s remembered in what remains of its former glory – the ruins of the various temples that dot the city’s landscape. These ruins are said to be the most photographed sights in Thailand.
And so Jess and I plan an escape from Bangers to Ayuthaya, a much-needed break from the routine on our very precious day off. We plan to head up there on Sunday night, stay over, and then spend the day there on Monday. Dylan, one of the Chinese teachers at ECC, tells us he`s arranged to go up there with a friend as well, but on Monday morning, so we agree to hook up when he arrives.
Binnie, however, foils Jess and my escape plans by giving me an evening lesson to do on Sunday. Bless her, though, when she realises she’s made us late in getting to Ayuthaya she spends the afternoon on the phone trying to book us a guest house. To no avail. They all say just turn up. I don’t think they realise how late we’re going to be though.
But anyway, once I’m done with my class, we peg it to the train station and catch the first train. The ticket is something ridiculously cheap like 20 baht and the journey takes about an hour and a half. A similar journey in the UK – London to Bournemouth, say – would cost 40 quid, maybe more. Transport is insanely cheap here.
I buy beer and ice-cream at the station and can barely contain my excitement. I’m so happy to be going on a little travelling adventure! We get on the train and sit and chat a bit before getting ousted by a grinning Thai lady waving her tickets at us. (Another difference from Britain – said lady would have been ridiculously grumpy about us ‘stealing’ her seat.) Jess and I move and sit on a bench seat (facing into the carriage in a row along with many other passengers) and listen to the Ricky Gervais podcasts she has in her iPod. We laugh inanely and get stared at for our strange behaviour.
We get off at Ayuthaya and are immediately hassled by a tuk-tuk driver who insists we can’t get over the river to the city now, it’s too late (it’s about half nine), but he can get us over and find us a guesthouse for 300 baht a night. I smell a rat, as does Jess, and we politely decline his offer of help.
I look at the map; there’s a ferry point about five minutes walk away so we go and have a look. Of course, this being a vague Lonely Planet map, the walk is a bit further than I thought. I’m immediately disappointed by how ‘normal’ the place looks. (In the sense it looks like any other Thai town.) It doesn’t feel like a former capital city at all.
When we get there we’re greeted by a sign saying the crossing closed at 8pm. The two locals sat waiting for a ferry suggest otherwise, however, and we go and sit with them. There’s an old Thai geezer there, who seems pleased to see us. He tells us the boat will be here soon, and he seems glad not to be getting it alone. (The middle-aged fat lady who’s sat there looks like she ain’t moving for no one or nothing.) Perhaps he would have had to pay extra?
His English is goodish and he regales us with memories of a trip to London he took way back in the 70s. I say regales, I mean he shouts things like, “Big Ben!” and, “Buckingham Palace!” at us, so he could have just had a flick through a guidebook for all we know. Oh but he does shout, “Soho!” at us with a sly grin on his face so maybe he has been there.
We get off the boat – a knackered old thing that stops twice on the 60 second journey over the water – after paying our five baht (five baht!) and walk to a 7 Eleven where we stop to look at the map. I want to do it in here cos the whole place is dead quiet and I don’t want us to be ‘obvious tourists a bit lost looking for somewhere to stay’ and as such ripe for mugging or manipulating. I locate Soi 1, off Naresuan Road, where there seems to be a concentration of guesthouses, and which the guide book describes as a ‘travellers’ ghetto’. It’s a bit of a trek and when we finally get there we find that all the places are full. We’re too late to do the just showing up thing. We head to another guesthouse down the road. Except it’s much more than down the road. The map in my guidebook doesn’t give any sense of just how big Ayuthaya is. There’s nothing here, but it’s still massive. This guesthouse is shut completely. No one staying there, it seems. While I’m trying not to panic, Jess calls ahead to the next one, the Wieng Fa hotel, to save us another long unnecessary walk. Amazingly they have a room. At least we hope they do. Jess’s conversation goes something like this:
“Do you speak English?” Pause.
“Have room?” Pause.
“We’ll be there soon!”
She didn’t speak English, but seemed to understand ‘Have room?’ so we head there hoping for the best.
It’s another big trek and my knee and the muscles in my left thigh start to ache (that leg has not been right since I had that massage, weirdly). Eventually we get there, though and book in. It’s half ten.
We share a double room. I’m pleased Jess isn’t bothered about such things as privacy and we can save a bit of cash between us. It’s a nice room, usual fare with a long thin bathroom that seems to have been built in as an afterthought.
We head back to Soi 1, where there seemed to be lots of food places. There are, but not now as everything begins to shut down. At one restaurant/bar type place I’m so focused on getting something to eat I don’t really notice that the man I’m speaking to is the campest since John Inman passed away. He’s also surrounded by women with surprisingly deep voices. The man tells me they’ve stopped serving but to come back and see him soon, while patting me on the hand. I smile at him and walk away, nose hunting out some sustenance.
“You didn’t know what you were walking into there, did you?” laughs Jess.
“Not at all.” I reply.
We walk into ‘Tony’s Place’ and they also tell us they’ve stopped serving. But then, joy of joys, they call us back and tell us they can do us some fried rice. When it comes it’s blissful. The best meal I’ve had in this country so far. Though this may be more to do with my hunger than the food itself.
We walk (I limp) back to the hotel and soon fall asleep after I play Jess some of the embarrassing pop rubbish that’s on my iPod. She’s totally unimpressed.
We might only have one day here but neither Jess nor I are too keen to wake up early on our precious day off. I crawl off the bed and into the shower about 10 o`clock. Dylan calls and tells us he`s here and we arrange to meet at Ayuthaya Historical Park, not realizing just how big this is. I tell him to hire a bike. After last night`s epic walking there`s no way I`m bloody using my feet today. If you`re in Ayuthaya, bikes are the way to go.
Jess and I hire ours from the hotel. I realise it`s probably a little more expensive than scouting around a bit for a cheaper hire place, but one, I can`t be arsed, and two, it`s only 60 baht a bike. The bikes are amazing, like something out of the 1950s - grubby metal frames, thin tyres and, on the front, A BASKET!! Brilliant. I throw in my bottle of water and map and off we head towards the Historical Park.
The weather is overcast but really hot and humid. Not great, but it`s such a relief to be away from the hubbub of Bangkok. We cycle down big wide roads that, even in the day, are fairly quiet of traffic. Cycling brings its own relaxation as well. I`ve not really cycled since uni and little did I realise how much I missed it until now.
We stop at Wat Phra Ram, our first ruins of the day. These beautiful temples are still striking buildings, despite being stripped of the colour and glitter that you see on the more modern ones in Bangkok. They may ostensibly just be rubble now (though they are still treated with great care and reverence as holy places by the Thais) but they are beautifully shaped rubble that gives tantalising hints of the city`s former splendour. Like Wat Phra Ram for example, it`s main `prang` towering over the trees impressively. Although the whole temple is closed to the public, just walking around the outer wall is enough to get the atmosphere of the place, to imagine the years of meaningful and solemn events that must have taken place here.
After Jess and I have gone a bit photo crazy, I call Dylan to check up on him. We have a chat and decide to meet at Wat Mahathat instead. This is the big one, the reason most come here, and the reason why Ayuthaya`s ruins are the most photographed sight in Thailand. For in the Wat`s enclosure is a banyan tree that has a large Buddha`s head caught in amongst the roots. No one knows how it got there. Some say that when the temple was set on fire during the Burmese invasion, many statues must have fallen to the ground, and this particular piece got caught in the tree as it grew around it in the 100 years or so the temple was deserted. Others say a thief tried to steal it but it was too heavy and he left it there, the tree to growing around it afterwards.
Whatever happened, it`s a bizarre phenomenon. Just the fact that the head is up the right way and straight makes you think it was orchestrated somehow. Surely it would be a bit more wonky if the tree just grew around it? But it`s fascinating and I gawp at it for ages trying to get my head round it (as it were).
That`s when I find it. I can`t at first. After meeting Dylan and his friend Marvin, a big-eared Filipino fella who is a fellow student in Dylan`s Thai class, the four of us head into the wat and Jess wanders off on her own. I hang out with Dylan and Marvin, soaking up the weird atmosphere of the place and sweating profusely in the humidity. We head up the steep steps of one ‘portico’ and go inside. It’s as disappointing as going into the ruins of castles at home - you can only imagine how impressive the insides of these places were in their day.
We have no luck in finding the Buddha head until I call Jess to find out where she is. She’s just been to see it and points me in the right direction. We take a few photos and then head back to the bikes to move on the next wat.
I lead the way, which is probably a dangerous thing to allow on the part of my companions, what with my terrible sense of direction and the vague Lonely Planet and hotel maps I’m using (which don’t seem to agree with each other). But I manage to get us to Wat Mongkhon Bophit. I’m hungry as hell so go on the hunt for food, but all I can find at the stalls that surround the wat is tourist tat and fruit. I have a coconut juice with Dylan – he’s never tried it before and is suitably amazed.
Jess comes back from having a look in the temple. “Anything good in there?” I ask. “Only the biggest Buddha in the world,” is her reply. Which sounds quite exciting, so off Dylan and I head with Marvin. She’s right, it’s massive - one of Thailand’s largest Buddha images in fact. It’s survival, considering a history of being moved around a lot, being struck by lightning and then of course the sacking of Ayuthaya by the Burmese, is impressive. The temple was last restored in 1955, when the prime minister of Burma visited Ayuthaya and donated 200,000 baht for the ‘viharn’ (building that houses the image) to be rebuilt. The Buddha image was fully restored to its former glory in 1990 when the current queen, Queen Sirikit, donated 70,000 baht for the image to be covered in gold leaf. It looks good for it.
We re-gather and head up the road in search of the Ancient Palace. We pass some Thai soldiers on the way, hanging out by their lorry, and even Jess - who thus far has been completely unmoved by Thai men - swoons a bit.
We soon get lost. The maps just don’t make sense. Thankfully I’m not the only one confused so don’t feel too stupid. We head back the way we came and have a look at the big map on a board near Wat Mongkhon Bophit. I’m still none the wiser so walk with my bike up to the entrance of a nearby wat to ask at the desk. But before I even get a chance to speak I’m being shouted at by the lady of the desk, who is making it very clear in her rapid-fire Thai that I’m unwelcome with my bike between my legs and that I need to go away. I retreat with my tail between my legs (it was quite a telling off!), park up my bike and head back. Then I realise where we are. Beyond the wat I am stood by is the Ancient Palace. We were right by it all along!
I get the others and we head into Wat Phra Si Sanphet, another atmospheric area of broken, beautiful buildings and the odd concrete Buddha image dotted about the place, each adorned with orange ribbon. It doesn’t matter how old or knackered-looking a Buddha image is, each is treated with the same respect and reverence as the next one.
When we reach the area of the Ancient Palace, it becomes obvious why we couldn’t find the thing – it’s not there. All that’s left where the Palace once stood is an area of grass and the odd tree. A poster on a board shows what the palace once looked like – very impressive – but the building itself is long gone.
My hunger pangs are getting out of control so we cycle to Soi 1 for some lunch. Dylan and Marvin ate before they met us so they head off to have a look at another wat. I order the biggest hamburger and fries I’ve ever had in my whole life, and an insanely sour lime juice (I love sour drinks so I’m more than happy, plus it’s a bit of a novelty in this country which is so obsessed with sugar).
I eye up the chunky Thai fella who served us. They’re doing something to the bar inside so he’s whipped off most of his clothes and is carrying stuff around. Jess is unimpressed, telling me I have weird taste. I think she’s probably right.
Dylan and Marvin come back and Dylan seems to think I’m gonna get blisters from the sun cos I’ve gone red in some places and not others. I realise it’s cos I’ve not managed to reach all of my back, so laugh it off but he still worries, bless him. We decide to cycle around the city along the river, taking in the few ruins that are along the way. I’ve kind of had my fill of wats already (once you’ve seen one… etc) so it sounds good to me, doing a bit of cycling instead.
I rush on ahead. I’m not good at taking things leisurely it seems. I think I’m just enjoying being on a bike again, it’s been too long. Soon we stop at a load of food stalls by the road, just opposite a school. All the kids have finished for the day and are buying snacks and hanging out with each other as they head home. The language might be different and the food much healthier, but some things are the same the world over. Dylan buys some sour mango which comes with a salt and sugar dip. It’s a bit weird but nice. I like the sour mango a lot.
We arrive at Phom Pet Fortress which fails to live up to its name and is more like a building site now, one where the school kids hang out to smoke and snog their boy/girlfriends. I wander round on my own a bit and literally stumble on one such teenage coupling, before making a hasty retreat.
The fortress is by the river and nearby is a little boarding port which seems to have been almost totally destroyed. The Thais are still using it (of course) and Dylan tries to ask one girl what happened to it in his limited Thai. She explains excitedly but he can’t really understand her. He thinks it was struck by lightening but can’t be sure.
We cycle along a bit more before we decide it’s probably time to start making our way back to Bangers. I consult the maps and eventually work out that we haven’t covered half the distance we thought we had (Ayuthaya’s bloody huge, actually) and lead Jess back to our hotel. Weirdly I take us back to the hotel that we went to last night and was shut. I have no idea why. I really am not built for navigating! Not without a decent map anyway. But once I’ve realised I’m being dumb I manage to get us back to the guesthouse.
After retrieving our stuff I stand by the side of the road to look out for a sawngthaew to take us to the train station. None are forthcoming, but the landlady of the guesthouse saves us by offering us a lift. Little do we realise this will be in the back of her pick-up truck. I’ve seen so many Thais travelling this way I’m quite chuffed to finally be doing it myself, holding on for dear life as our host pegs it down the motorway and over the bridge.
We get to the station just in time – the train is quite soon and there’s not another for two hours. But there’s no sign of Dylan and Marvin. I call to see where they are and they’re waiting for a ferry to take them across the river. I tell him to hurry.
We wait a little and there’s still no sign of them. As I see the train pulling into the station (we have to walk across the tracks to get on it – only in Thailand!), I call him again telling him it’s here. I see them rushing into the station and heading towards the ticket booth. Amazingly there’s no one there waiting and just before the train pulls off Dylan and Marvin swing themselves onto it.
The train journey is uneventful. We sit on long wooden benches along the side of the massive carriage, sweating along with the rest of the passengers. I listen to Ricky Gervais on Jess’s iPod but there’s been a bit Gervais overkill for me recently so I give up on it. Dylan and Marvin are very touchy feely and I wonder if they’re shagging, or if it’s just Asian guys being friendly. God this place is confusing.
Jess and I finish the day on Khao San Road. I try and eat some noodle soup but I’m still full from the hamburger. I feel a bit fed up. My little adventure was way too short.
Friday, 9 March 2007
So I go out, get completely lost when the taxi driver drops me off miles away from where James is and points in a vague direction. I of course go down completely the wrong road and have to ask a Thai-Norwegian couple (she Thai, he Norwegian) where I am. Going in the opposite direction, it seems. The Thai woman thinks this is hilarious.
On my way back down the road I see a man riding an elephant, tuk-tuks swerving out of its way just in time. I wonder if there’s a business in selling tail-lights for elephants. It’s sights like this that bring me back to reality, that remind me I’m the other side of the world from home. But in a totally good way, a ‘yay I’m on a big adventure’ way.
I eventually find the pub – a Western style bar with a car hanging down from the ceiling. Yes, a real, full-size Cadillac type thing. (I have no idea what make it is really, I made the Cadillac bit up.) I meet James’s Thai girlfriend Jeab for the first time. She’s absolutely stunning, looks a bit like Nicole Scherzinger from Pussycat Dolls. Yep, that good-looking. She’s a bit hyper and chatty, which I like, and James later tells me they’ve been drinking whisky and Red Bulls before they left.
There’s two other guys there – Dan, a mate of James’s from college who’s having a long holiday before he joins the army, and his mate Sam, who James has just met as well. Sam is tall and handsome but a bit dull. I have more fun with Dan and James and the innocuous conversations and endless jibes that straight boys are so good at. We talk beer goggles (Dan had them the night before apparently), football stickers (I admit defeat on this one and James is suitably embarrassed), and 80s cartoons, where I really show my age in front of these early 20-somethings.
Later I have a conversation with Jeab about her and James. She tells me about their relationship and how they met on Khao San back in September. He went away for a bit and came back and they picked up where they left off. She says she really likes him - “He good man and very handsome.” – and is happy for it to continue until James goes back to England for the summer. She says she’s cool with it if James meets a girl “for a different future”, but if he wants to come back and start again then that’s cool as well.
I like her, she reminds me a little of my sister, and more than a little of my ex’s sister, in that she has a relaxed attitude to life but is fiery at the same time. The first time I see her temper is when we’re in a club called Spicy later (no idea where it is, you get in a cab and any cab driver in the city will know where to take you). We’re trying to buy some fags and at first the barman says 100 baht, but then he comes back and says 200 baht. Jeab kicks off, giving him shit for trying to rip us off. Brilliant. But not so brilliant when she turns it on you, I imagine.
And then later on this creepy-looking guy comes into the club and stalks (there’s no other word for it) past us. Imagine a Thai Catweazle if you will and you’d not be far off – unkempt hair, bony body. He’d never get into any Western club, that’s for sure. Anyway, later on he’s staring at her friend, quite obtrusively, and brushes past her at one point. At this, Jeab kicks off and has a go at him. It takes a young Thai lad, seemingly a companion of Catweazle, to calm the situation, which he does by bravely standing between them.
On the other hand Jeab’s amazingly friendly as well. By the time we’re in Spicy we’re with an attractive-looking Indonesian woman as well, that Jeab started speaking to in the pub, name of Natalia. James tells me Jeab’s got a bit of a bi thing going on - which he doesn’t mind, of course – and that this girl had been staring at Jeab for ages in the pub. I tell him he’s on the sofa tonight then. He tells me there’s no chance of that.
Spicy is a bit like a working men’s club, just with higher ceilings and large podiums and louder music. It seems to be strictly white boys, Thai girls and the odd gay guy here for the music. James assures me it’s good when it gets going.
We buy a bottle of whisky to share (standard way of drinking here in Thailand) and get drunk to the endless R&B and hip hop (standard soundtrack here in Thailand). Signs by Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake comes on and I get up and dance with Jeab and her mate. I then sit down and get more drunk. I chat to Natalia a bit. She says she’s on holiday and her mate went home early. It’s all very vague, and not cos she can’t speak English well – she can. I wonder what her real story is.
Madge’s Hung Up comes on and I’m drunk enough now to get up on a podium and dance. James, drunker than me, jumps straight up behind me and we do lairy jumping up and down dancing. A bunch of Thai girls sat by the podium take an interest and before long both James and I are having 10 baht coins shoved down our trousers. God knows where they end up.
The night carries on much like this until James peaks and bales with Jeab. I’m left with handsome but dull Sam who has been moaning that he doesn’t fancy Thai girls all evening (so in the wrong club) and proclaims he’s off to find a white girl. With that I’m left with another of Jeab’s mates, who I forget the name of. She points out all the random gay Thai boys in here and drags me around a bit trying to get me to pull one of them. I can barely think straight let alone talk to anyone so eventually I bail on her and head home.
I have so much whisky inside me that I sleep through most of the next day, only getting up at one o’clock or so to eat, drink water and use the toilet. A Thai whisky hangover is a killer.
Tuesday, 6 March 2007
We get two boats – one down the river, and then one across to the other side. I love getting the boat down the river. Like London, you get to see plenty of the city without having to endure any traffic or exhaust fumes. The banks of the river, called Mae Nam Chao Phraya, sum up what Bangkok is all about – prettiness, messiness, skyscrapers and restaurants.
Wat Arun is beautiful. I like it more than the Temple of the Emerald Buddha because it has more subtlety in its decoration. Where Wat Phra Kaew is garishly shiny, the structures in Wat Arun are decorated with millions of tiny pieces of coloured porcelain.
Jess and I wander in and out of the beautiful gargoyles and up and down the incredibly steep steps. Before I climb any I watch a bunch of cub scouts having running races down them. I wonder what the fuss is about until I climb them myself: the incline is a killer on the calves.
Our next stop is Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s answer to New York’s Central Park. We head to the pier and chat away to each other while we’re waiting. Jess is one of those people you can talk to about anything and have random conversations with, and somehow we get on to how paraplegics have sex. I have no idea how it came up… but if you think about it, it wouldn’t be great sex, would it??
We get off the boat at Krom Chao pier and try and walk up to Hualamphong train station (or Humpalong as Jess calls it) where we can get the subway to the park. We get a bit lost in Chinatown and end up walking down a soi notable for two things – an enormous pile of spare engine parts (I can hear the conversation between two Thais as they finished piling them up: “Tong, you seen my watch anywhere?”) and a food stall that steams to have fried duck heads on it. Jess is incredulous: “What, they even eat the beak??” Apparently so. Nothing surprises me about the eating habits of people in this city any more.
At the park are more unlikely sights. Now Lumphini Park is very similar to Central Park: the lakes and grass surrounded by trees, over which the odd skyscraper peers down at you; the endless stream of joggers (yes, even in this heat); the bodybuilder park (it’s a bit weird to see pumped up massive Thai men after getting used to their short, skinny builds); the monuments to dead people, etc etc. One notable difference is the massive monitor lizards that wander round minding their own business. Normally the sort of thing you see in a zoo, it’s quite nice to see them out and about. They pay little attention to us humans, unless they’re eating fish and about 20 humans surround them to watch, as happened when I was there. The lizard didn’t look happy, and I knew how he felt; I find it difficult to eat with people watching as well.
We chill in the park for a bit but I have to get back for stroppy Nop. Binnie shows me a great grammar exercise book which explains everything clearly then has exercises after to show you how to use the particular grammar point you want to learn. The lesson therefore goes a lot better than it did last week – there’s still a bit of, “why are we doing this?” from him but I’m a lot better prepared this time and get him learning some bloody English.
I meet Mengly for dinner that night. I tell her about Kanchanaburi, she tells me about a Thai pop star she interviewed – for four hours! Sounds like the interview was mostly about women’s place in Thai society, something Mengly has had first-hand experience of, so no wonder they talked for so long. She also tells me about a weird hospital museum where they have weird shit like the corpse of an executed and all kinds of ‘what happens to the body when…’ exhibits. Sounds amazing.
As we head into March (already??) I do lots of uninteresting stuff like give up smoking (that and Bangkok’s extremely unforgiving level of pollution have given me a cough), clean my room (actually bloody enjoyable – it’s nice to do something ‘normal’, if you see what I mean), get my haircut (I’m unable to communicate what I want this time and end up with a lot less), and read some celeb gossip mags in a bookshop.
The latter is a surprising pleasure. For a long time it hadn’t been so. Even having a flick through heat magazine brought more pain than pleasure. I’d become sick of famous people – seeing them, reading about them, talking to them, listening to their guff, writing about them. Now I’ve put some distance between myself and that world I can enjoy reading about those people I’m interested in again (and ignore those I’m not, which I couldn’t do in my job). It’s a nice feeling.
As Thai summer begins, Mengly’s time in Thailand comes to an end. As her leaving date comes closer she becomes increasingly happier. “The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is hug my printer,” she says to me at one point. The inability to get anything done here without at least some hassle has been one of her many bugbears, particularly as she’s been trying to write and file features while she’s been here.
One evening I sit and have dinner with Vanda and Mengly and I ask them about the things you discover about Bangkok living here as opposed to being a tourist. I ask to help with my own writing – for a column I’m doing for total:spec magazine – but as soon as they start I realise it’s much too big a subject to start bringing in other people’s experiences; I’m going to have to stick to my own.
Mengly and I have a farewell dinner on Saturday night. She treats me to a slap up meal at the swanky Oriental hotel in the south of the city. Swanky hotels is something I thought I’d see little of during my time here and yet this is the second one I’ve been in. It’s a beautiful hotel, with a spectacularly decadent lobby (it’s so nice to walk on carpet again – it’s been awhile!) and a number of restaurants – one on a boat which circles around the hotel. Mengly likes it because it has an eatery called the Author’s Lounge – named after the many writers that have stayed at the hotel, including Joseph Conrad and Barbara Cartland.
But we eat instead in The Riverside Terrace, where I stuff my face with tuna nicoise salad followed pork loin, washed down with a couple of mojitos. Perfect! It’s a bit sad as well though. I’m going to miss Mengly – she’s been interesting, engaging company; a very different pair of eyes through which to see Bangkok than any of my friends. Hopefully I’ve managed to provide at least a little bit of support as she’s struggled through her time here. Never have I seen someone so happy to be going home!
We go for one last shopping/bartering session at the nearby Suan Lung night market. She needs to buy presents for her family back home and I’m still on the look out for a bargain deal on some Muay Thai shorts. We both kind of succeed – she finds some CDs of a Tokyo ska band her brother will like and we manage to get a guy to lower the price of some Muay Thai shorts by throwing in a hat for Mengly as well. God she’s good.
The day she leaves I have to work in the morning. As summer has started, so have the summer classes, and each weekday morning, apart from my day off, I have three hour classes. The first one goes all right. I have a group of girls, aged between 16 and 19, who are all keen to learn and happy to get involved. Getting them to speak is a chore, as it is with any student here – it’s the one thing they’re a bit embarrassed about doing because they find the pronunciation so difficult, but I eventually get them relaxed with each other and speaking a little bit.
I have lunch with Mengly, as well as Sai, Aor and Aom. Mine and Mengly’s favourite – pork steak on the soi. Sai seems particularly sad to see Mengly going. They all think she’s great, and she seems quite unaware of the impact she’s had on them. Back at Mengly’s room Ting joins us and we see that most of her stuff is packed away. She gives us various bits she can’t fit in her bags. Sai gives me her number, says I can come over whenever. I’m quite touched.
I have to go because I need to write my piece for total:spec. I leave Mengly as I found her in Thailand – stressing about yet another problem, this time her losing money on the deposit of her room because she’s leaving early. As I leave she’s worked it out so she loses the littlest amount possible, but she still doesn’t look happy. I can’t imagine the relief she’ll feel to get back to LA.
Once I’ve filed my piece I head back to my room, wondering what on earth I’m going to do with the evening. I see Ting on the way; he’s off to play basketball with his very large mate Po. He invites me but I decline. I’ve not played basketball since I was at school and even then I never got my head round the rules (or how to bounce the ball without embarrassing myself). We arrange for me to come over later.
When I get there later they have a meal of leftovers and random food from the cupboard. I love meals like that. Just bits and bobs that you’ve not got round to eating yet, all thrown together to make a satisfying feast.
We watch Resident Evil 2. It’s very dumb but reasonably entertaining. I’m just in love with Milla Jovovich, basically. Then I head home, bracing myself for a full week of Working In The Morning.
Monday, 5 March 2007
I chose to do this for two reasons. Firstly, financial – it will help fund my trip during a year I won’t be earning any money. Secondly, for the experience - I’ve never taught before, I’ve never worked in a foreign country before, and it will be a great opportunity to get to know the Thai people more closely than just buying stuff from them.
Seven weeks in I can safely say I have a better picture of life in Thailand than your average tourist gets from a couple of weeks, or even a month, here. In speaking to the teachers who’ve worked here for some time, in teaching and talking to Thai people and interacting with them as they go about their daily lives, and in talking to Thai people I’ve made friends with, I’ve discovered a country where Western culture is wrestling in a friendly bout with Thai culture (itself an amalgamation of many southeast Asian cultures) and neither is particularly losing.
The casual visitor to Bangkok and the beach resorts in the south of the country will get a sense of this. While Bangkok itself is initially an overwhelming assault on the senses (not least your noise, the smell of the city is indescribable), there is plenty here to make you feel you’re not in a completely alien world. In-between all the stalls selling strange-looking food that take up many a pavement, and the impressive temples in the wats (enclosed holy areas where the recognisable Buddhist monks often reside), there are little touchstones of Western culture to keep the homesickness at bay.
Trusty old Boots is everywhere, for example. The high street chemist is probably more ubiquitous in Bangkok than it is in any other city in the world - yes, even London . And the drink of choice is, of course, Coca Cola, with Pepsi and Fanta also making their presence known. McDonalds is as popular here as it is the world over, with a nod to Thai culture with its rice bun (a strange taste experience but not as disgusting as you might imagine) and Ronald McDonald stood outside the restaurant greeting customers with the Thai wai (a commonly seen greeting where a Thai of inferior social status presses their hands together in prayer position and bows their head).
Not all high profile Western companies have been as successful infiltrating the Thai market, however. Rumours abound about Carlsberg’s brief attempt to establish itself here. Hearsay suggests that the Thais reputation for ripping off Westerners applies to big business as well as tourists buying overpriced souvenirs, and that the beer company suffered at the hands of it. How true this is is unclear, but it’s very believable to a Westerner who lives here and battles the rip-off culture every day.
As a Western tourist you will undoubtedly be ripped off numerous times during your trip here. Spend any time at the markets of Bangkok and you only need to keep walking away from a stall to hear how much the prices drop in order to keep your custom. Most tourists don’t do this, forgoing the bargaining and accepting the first price. And as one Irish traveller said to me, “Even when you’re being ripped off it’s still really cheap.” This is what the Thais know and bank on as well. But when you’re a Westerner living and working here, trying to live off Thai money only, you become very sensitive to the rip-off culture and it becomes something of a battle.
One example – myself and a friend visited Sanam Luang park, near Bangkok ’s famous Grand Palace , and found ourselves amid a flock of pigeons. My friend wanted to take some photos and so we stood there for a minute when a man came up and thrust some corn into our hands to feed the birds. I refused, mostly because I’m not fond of pigeons and didn’t really want to pay to feed them. The man insisted, implying heavily that we didn’t have to pay. Stupidly, we took the corn and fed the pigeons. Ten minutes later he’s hassling us again, with a much more unpleasant demeanour, for 150 baht for the corn. Now, this is not much money – just over two pounds – but I knew it was extortionate and we were being brazenly ripped off. But we paid him, if only because he was being unpleasant, and distinctly more so as we resisted paying. That’ll teach me to hang out in the touristy areas wearing shorts and t-shirt and a lack of tan. The final kick in the teeth was when a boy came up to us 20 minutes later and offered us some bags of corn to feed the pigeons – for ten baht.
So Western culture comes up against plenty of resistance (some healthy, some not so) as it slowly infiltrates Thai culture. While Western music and television ideas make their mark (the radio is full of Thai artists singing MOR tunes that wouldn’t sound out of place on Dido or Westlife albums, and the Pop Idol and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire formats are huge hits on TV here), the nation’s youth still have one eye very much on old traditional values as well.
Dotted around Bangkok are countless shrines where people of all ages make offerings in the hope that Buddha will look benevolently on them and bring them good luck. Whole shops and stalls are dedicated to selling food, flowers, incense sticks and all the other paraphernalia involved in Buddhist worship; it’s big business. Most people will wai when they walk or even drive past a shrine - that’s right, they’ll let go of the steering wheel.
Coming from a society where religion is of decreasing importance with each new generation, the devotion to worship here, especially when it’s people of my age, is quite surprising. Having dinner with some Thai friends one evening, one incident during the meal hit home just how seriously they take their spirituality.
In Thai culture the head is the most sacred part of the body and the feet the least – tourists will come across this when they visit temples where they are told not to sit with their feet facing the Buddha as this is deeply disrespectful. My friends and I were eating at a restaurant on the roof of a hotel which was on many different levels, with stairs taking you up and down to each level. All of a sudden one of my Thai friends became obviously uncomfortable and slightly distressed. We were sat on a lower level and there was a table above us to the right where a man was sat with his feet resting on some railings facing us. My friend was wearing a Buddha necklace around her neck and so, unwittingly, the man had his feet pointing directly at them. The problem was quickly resolved, with another friend going and having a word with the man, who returned his feet to under the table. But what a strange, unlikely problem to occur.
Despite the strong presence of Western culture, then, it has done little to damage the stronger tenets of Thai culture. But the increasing presence of Westerners themselves is causing some problems. Those southern islands and areas that were devastated by the tsunami in 2004 were declared public parks by the local government, who said that hotels and restaurants were to be kept to a minimum in this area that was likely to face such danger again.
Head to Tonsai, the big resort on the island Ko Phi Phi, and you’ll see that this has not happened. The place has sprung up much as it was before - with restaurants, bars and hotels aplenty - and continues to do so. One teacher I work with has visited Tonsai a number of times in the past seven months and has seen a marked difference each time. Big business, it seems, holds no truck with the idea of possible danger.
And so I continue to watch this curious relationship between Thai and Western with interest, never quite sure whose side I’m on, but enjoying the fact I can get a culture hit on a daily basis, while treating myself to the occasional home comfort.
Thursday, 1 March 2007
I do the rest of my lessons and then I’m home free. I’m so excited about leaving Bangkok and going off to do something. It feels like I got a taste of travelling then had to stop almost as soon as I’d started.
I call Mengly to see how long she’ll be and she immediately says, ‘Didn’t you get my message?’ Turns out she’s heading home even earlier than she thought – a grad school she’s applied to attend wants to interview her in LA and she needs to go back, which means she needs to work on her Thai music story and get some interviews done before she goes. It’s a shame but I’m quite pleased really – I really did want to do this trip on my own.
I see Jess having a fag outside the building and tell her what’s happened. She tells me she could tell I wanted to go alone. She seems to read me a lot better than Mengly, which is both nice and disconcerting at the same time! She introduces me to Jeff, a white-haired bloke who looks like he’s in his 50s. He works upstairs at another English school and Jess sees him outside all the time when they smoke. This, I reason to myself, is why it’s good to smoke – you get to meet interesting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. I met half my mates at college because we were all outside smoking. Some of them have become lifelong friends. Thank God for fags! Jeff’s a nice bloke – tells me where to get a bus route map so I can attempt to conquer the bus routes of Bangkok and use the annoying taxi drivers less.
I walk down the road to the Southern Bus Terminal, which, handily, is just 10 minutes away from where I work. Still, walking with my backpack in the mid-afternoon heat is not a good idea, and when I finally arrive (the 10 minutes feel like hours) I’m dripping with sweat. At the bus terminal I can’t find the ticket window for Kanchanaburi – every other city or town in Bangkok seems catered for – and in typical male fashion I refuse to ask someone where to buy a ticket. It must be here somewhere. I eventually find it, buy a ticket (99 baht) and go hunting for where the bus might be. Can’t find it, have to go back and ask. Dammit!
While I’m waiting an oldish Thai woman asks me if I’m going to Kanchanaburi. I tell her yes. She tells me she lives there. I ask her if it’s nice. She says yes. Now I feel like I have to make the effort to converse with her when she started the bloody conversation. I don’t bother. I get the feeling this is her limit of English, and she seems to have lost interest in the conversation anyway. I go and buy some water.
There’s ten minutes before the bus is due to leave but I decide to get on it anyway. I rushed on by the female conductor as the driver prepares to pull out. Yes, that’s right folks – some Thai public transport leaving EARLY. Amazing. It’s more of a coach than a bus and is full of Thai people. I stick out like a sore thumb with my backpack and shorts and t-shirt and everyone stares at me as I get on. I gawp back at the two Thai soldiers on there – to me they’re the ones sticking out. They’re probably grateful I got on.
The journey is hot, uneventful. I listen to my iPod and watch Thailand go by outside. As soon as I get off the bus at Kanchanaburi I’m approached by a bloke asking where I’m going. Here we go, I think, and do my usual disarmer: ‘I don’t know.’ I sit down on a bench to look at my guide and work out where I actually want to stay tonight. I’ve got a few places in my mind but I need to make a decision.
The man follows me. He’s tall for a Thai, skinny, with a pony tail. He reminds me a bit of what Darius looked like when he was first on Pop Idol doing that Britney song. He sees my Lonely Planet guide and goes, “I know that book!” and gets out some leaflets for a couple of places that are mentioned in the book. I read about a couple; the Jolly Frog sounds all right, bit of a backpacker favourite. I ask him how much to take me there. He says 40 baht. All I’m thinking is, what’s the catch? I agree for him to take me. I’m expecting a tuk-tuk. I get a rickshaw, and a bloody uncomfortable one at that.
We travel through Kanchanaburi – a decidedly average town, with its wide roads and endless Thai shop awnings punctuated by the odd Coca Cola sign – and I’m on high alert for being ripped off by this fella. But he seems quite harmless. The man whistles a lot, and then starts singing at one point - he has a surprisingly good voice. He points out various things I might want to go and have a look at – a Chinese cemetery, which looks much more colourful than our own dour efforts, and a busy-looking market. Then he mentions a place that’s cheaper than Jolly Frog that he can take me too and I brace myself for the sales pitch. I tell him Jolly Frog is fine and he leaves it at that. I’m almost stunned.
We get to Jolly Frog and he refuses to take my money from me until I’ve checked whether there’s a room or not. I go and do so and there is. I pay him his 40 baht and off he goes. No attempt to rip me off, nothing. What a nice bloke. I hope that he gets some kind of commission from the guesthouses for bringing guests or something. There has to be more for him in it than 40 baht and a captive audience for his singing.
Jolly Frog is pretty cool. I walk through a relaxed-looking restaurant, past the inevitable travel agent desk and onto a lawn with palm trees and deck chairs. Around the lawn are the rooms, in two stories, and at the bottom of the lawn you look out onto the river Kwai. It’s beautiful – the other side of the river being mostly untouched by tourism.
After settling into my room – nice (it has a SPRING bed!!!OMG!11!!!) but no pressure in the shower – I grab a beer from the restaurant and sit and watch the sun go down. Well, sit and watch it disappear behind a big cloud anyway.
There’s some fat German tourists sat on the deckchairs on the lawn, but mostly it’s so quiet, it’s amazing. After the constant noise of Bangkok, the peacefulness of Kanchanaburi, and sitting here looking out over the river as the sun fades away, is a real pleasure. The only disturbance is the odd karaoke barge that sails up and down the river as its occupants sing really badly in Thai. This is very amusing.
I go and get some food and as I start to eat they put on Superman Returns. I’ve seen it before but I figure it’s worth watching again. I enjoyed it the first time and the action set pieces are worth repeat viewing. But after that I head to bed, figuring I want to get up early and make the most of my day here.
I get up earlyish and walk the 10 minute walk to the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre. I figure it’s best to go here first so I know the story and have some background for when I visit both great uncle Ron’s grave and the bridge over the River Kwai.
I spend nearly three hours in the place. It’s a fascinating story and really well-presented in what is obviously quite a new museum. They’ve collected some impressive artifacts – like pans and items of clothing that the soldiers scratched or drew darkly humorous doodles on of what was happening to them. The story itself is well-documented; you don’t need me to go over it here. But to summarise briefly for those who aren’t aware of it: during the Second World War, when the Germans were stomping around Europe going, ‘Mine, mine, mine,’ like those seagulls in Finding Nemo, the Japanese were doing much the same in southeast Asia. Having occupied Thailand and Burma, they were trying to get their mitts on the south-western parts of China, but we’re finding it difficult to get supplies and weaponry there to combat the supplies and weaponry the Allied forces were giving the Chinese. The easiest route was by boat in the straits between Singapore and Indonesia, but the Allies would just pick them off there, so they decided to build a railway across the Thailand-Burma border.
But there was a reason why there wasn’t such a line in existence already – the mountainous terrain in that part of the world made it almost impossible for one to be built. But the Japs thought they’d have a go anyway and got their best engineers on the case. With designs in place and potential problems solved, they went ahead with it, using their prisoners of war as man power to build the bloody thing.
The PoWs were promised much nicer conditions than the ones they had been used to and so went along happily to help build this railway. What they found when they go there was a living hell. They worked all the hours of daylight there were, they slept on the most basic of beds with mosquitoes attacking from above and bed bugs attacking from below, they were given little food, and what was given was far from fresh, and as for medical supplies, there were very little. With men succumbing to the heat, exhaustion and many a tropical disease, the death toll is of no surprise. What is shocking is the inhumanity of the Japanese army officers, whose only concern was to get the railway built as quickly as possible.
The events surrounding the building of the railway were used in a novel by Pierre Boulle, which was then made into a film – 1957’s The Bridge over the River Kwai starring Alec Guiness, and so they gained more notoriety than many of the other horrors you could read about the Second World War. But although it’s a well-told story, it does nothing to lessen its impact, at least not for me.
Absorbing this and knowing that a relative of mine went through this experience – one that eventually killed him – makes it all the more heart-breaking somehow. Okay, I never met him and he’s not a blood relative (he married my paternal grandfather’s sister), but having that connection takes away the mind’s ability to go, okay that happened 70 years ago and is nothing to do with me. When we’re told about the more shocking parts of history we can usually distance ourselves from it because of the time elapsed. ‘So Henry VIII had two of his wives BEHEADED? Wow, that’s a crazy story. Let’s turn it into a nursery rhyme!’ And so on. But having this family connection makes the experiences of these soldiers all the more real for me, and it’s heart-breaking.
Ronald Toyer was married to my Dad’s Auntie Win, with whom he had a daughter, Pat, one of the few members of that branch of the family that my Dad is still in touch with. He joined the army in 1939 as the war was first kicking off and after his training was posted first in India and then Singapore. It was here he was captured by the Japanese army, after which he was eventually put to work on the Thailand-Burma Railway.
Inside the museum there is a staircase, the walls of which are adorned with the coats of arms of many of the world’s regiments whose soldiers worked on the railway. My great uncle Ron’s is there – the 148th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, of the Hertfordshire & Bedfordshire Yeomanry. You’re not supposed to take any photos inside the museum but I snatch one of this.
I then go downstairs to the reception and ask them to pull up his details. They have details – age, regiment, what they died of, where they died, etc - of every soldier that was discovered buried along the Thailand-Burma Railway and then re-buried in one of the two PoW cemeteries in Kanchanaburi. While the Thai receptionist goes and gets the details of my great uncle, I wander around the gift shop. Such merchandising – keyrings, notebooks, etc - seems a little inappropriate in connection with such a tragic part of history. I wonder if they’ll have similar items at a similar museum at the location of the World Trade Centre in New York in 50 years time.
The girl comes over and gives me an A4 sheet. It has his rank, name, nationality, unit, and the date of his death – 19th August, 1943. It tells me he died in Tha Sao Hospital and was first buried in Tha Sao No 2 (St. Luke’s) Cemetery, grave no. 131. It tells me he died of dysentery (if you don’t know what it is, you don’t want to), debility (loss of strength), and malnutrition.
He was 27.
His age is a bit of a shock to me. I figured he must have been young, but to see it in print makes quite an impact. I’m TWO YEARS older than him when he died. He had so much ahead of him - a wife and baby daughter back home, pretty much his whole adult life to look forward to. All taken away from him an entity more concerned with oppressing as many people as possible than helping them prosper in any way. It sickens me.
There are no flowers left in the gift shop for me to take to the cemetery (I assume they were all taken by the coachload of Dutch people that followed me into the museum; I see a lot of Dutch tourists during the day as there were thousands of Dutch PoWs who were put to work and died on the Railway as well) so I ask for directions to the nearest florist. I’m told there’s one about 10 minutes walk away so I head off. After the cool interior of the museum, walking outside is like stepping into an oven. I head down the street I was directed to, in search of the florist. It takes me ages to find it and when I do I’m almost dizzy with the heat. The florist lives up to cliché by being a very effeminate chubby Thai man with a limp wrist and everything. Brilliant. He can’t speak a word of English so we do a lot of pointing and, of course, I end up with a much bigger bunch of flowers than I anticipated – some nice white lilacs and some other flowers I couldn’t tell you the name of. But it’s only 150 baht, a bargain, and I figure great uncle Ron doesn’t get many flowers.
When I get back to the cemetery I head to a shop to buy a coke and recuperate. The shop-owner says I can sit down outside in the shade for a bit if I like. I must look a right state – a sweaty foreigner who can’t take the heat. I sit there and drink a can of Coke and stare at my flowers. I never buy flowers and I’m quite pleased with my unintentional selection.
When I’ve finished my Coke I feel better, and head to the cemetery across the road. Just looking over the low wall you can see it’s really well-kept. Walking through the marble entrance you feel the gravity and depth of thought that has gone into making and keeping this place a fitting memory of the tragic deaths it commemorates. On the wall is a heartfelt message saying that this land is a gift from the Thai people to those who died in their country.
The cemetery is huge, but I find great uncle Ron’s plot and grave quickly. I had directions from Dad and it’s also detailed clearly on the A4 sheet I was given at the museum. I put my flowers down and say, hello, nice place you got here. I feel the need to be a bit flippant as it feels silly being all serious when I didn’t know the fella.
His gravestone gives his number and rank – 903805 Lance Bombardier Ronald Toyer – his regiment, and when he died – August 19th, 1939. But what touches me is the quotation underneath: “A beautiful memory will never fade, of one we loved dearly but could not save.” Other gravestones have similar tributes (some none at all), but none are quite as heartfelt as that. He must have been a well-loved bloke.
Back home life went on, of course. After the war my great aunt Win (who I met one afternoon when I was a young boy and she an old lady – I remember her as being very warm and welcoming) would go on to marry Ron’s brother Harold and have two more daughters – Janice and Shirley. I don’t know the story behind that one, but I figure it probably wasn’t that unusual back then, when communities were much smaller and more tight-knit.
I wander around the cemetery. There are few people around; those that are, like me, armed with flowers. A huge cross dominates the centre of the cemetery, while on the west side there is a memorial to those whose bodies were not found, and to the left of that a memorial to those who were cremated. I watch the Thai gardeners carefully tend to the plants that sit next to the gravestones. It’s quite admirable that the Thais still take so much care to keep the memory of what happened alive. Occasionally as I walk I see a gravestone with no name – an unlucky soldier who couldn’t be identified. The quotation at the bottom of each one simply says, ‘Known unto God.”
I start to walk out of the cemetery and wander what I’m going to do with myself now. Then I remember: the bridge over the river Kwai! Not sure how I could forget that. My guidebook says the quickest way to get there is on a sawngthaew which will take you on the 10 minute journey down the road. I wait by the main road but none come so I just jump on the first bus that comes along. A woman shouts at me, where am I going? I shout back, “Death Railway Bridge,” about three times (the bus is very loud). Again, I’m the only Westerner on there and I get stared at unashamedly. We drive past a sign that says ‘The Bridge Over The River Kwae’ and the bus doesn’t stop, so I press the buzzer. THE WHOLE BUS turns around and looks at me, which is quite disconcerting. I pay the woman my 10 baht and get off as quickly as possible.
I walk down a path that runs alongside the railway. The line itself seems tiny – not worth the effort and lives that were put into making it. I walk along the station platform, which is full of stalls selling tourist tat and food and drink. Again, it seems a little inappropriate, but who am I to argue with capitalism? The bridge itself is impressive. A vast metal structure that looks slightly foreboding and totally unbreakable (it took four or five attempts by the Allies to bomb the thing).
It’s still in use – I have to wait for a train to come over it before I can walk along it. What happens if you’re in the middle and a train comes along? Well, there are platforms on the side of the bridge which you can stand on out of harm’s way. Plus the trains go about 1 mile an hour over it so you could probably out-run one with ease!
There are Dutch tourists all over it, all middle-aged. They’re fucking rude. There’s a metal platform along the middle of the bridge with two thinner wooden platforms along each side. Walking down I had to give away to these fat ignorant fuckers each time and endure a little vertigo as I balanced precariously on the wooden planks next to a big ol’ drop down to the river below. The sensible thing would have been for each of us to put one foot on the wooden bit and the other on the metal bit, but oh no.
Apart from that it’s a beautiful place to be. You get an amazing view of the river on each platform, the sun is beating down and it’s very peaceful, despite all the tourists. I walk over the bridge and on the other side there is an unopened market. In an open area next to it stands an elephant, chained to the ground and not looking happy about it. It sways from side to side, looking a bit depressed. A Dutch woman goes near it, but not too near, to have her photo taken. I will the elephant to kick her. (Sometimes I worry about the bouts of misanthropy that flare up in me.) It doesn’t.
I go back over the bridge and grab some noodle soup to eat. It’s my favourite dish, I’ve decided, mostly cos it’s probably the healthiest thing you can eat here and it tastes damn good. I’m not really hungry – the heat does funny things to my appetite – but it’s something to do.
When I’m done I head down the road a bit to the WWII Art Gallery & War Museum. I’m a bit museumed out but my guidebook describes it as ‘quirky’, ‘garish’, and a ‘monument to kitsch’, which sounds entertaining. It is, to say the least, bizarre. It looks like it was designed by Liberace, but built by men who had more of a multi-storey car park in mind.
The exhibits, meanwhile, look like they were out in there by removal men who were just told to put stuff wherever they could. There’s a loose war theme to it all – but things like the life-size dummies acting out the building of the railway, and models of famous names in war – Hitler, de Gaulle, etc - have unintentional and inappropriate comedic value. It’s the strangest thing I’ve seen since I’ve been here but I would recommend it, just as a surreal experience. One thing that particularly made me chuckle was a random board of buffalo skulls, beneath which it said ‘Please Conserve Thai Buffaloes By Not Killing Them’. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be ironic or not.
I decide to walk back to the guest house. This is a bad idea – it takes ages. The vague maps in the Lonely Planet guide give no sense of distance at all. But it does give me the opportunity to check out the bars flagged up in the guidebook, and see that they’re all a bit shit and touristy. I’ll know not to bother with them later.
At the guesthouse I have a beer and a cigarette on the lawn by the river, and stare at the palm tree above me as the sky darkens.
I go to the restaurant and there’s only one free table. I sit at it. There’s some lame sex comedy on the TV – American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile. It’s absolutely bloody awful apart from maybe the bits with Eugene Levy. The man is just effortlessly funny, no matter how shit the script.
A man sits down next to me at the table. I recognise him from last night – he was sat in the same chair at the same table with another, older man. I suddenly realize they’re locals and I’ve nicked their table. I say this to the man and he laughs and says not to worry, it’s a free country, he and his mate just normally sit there. I order a seafood pizza. I’m not really hungry but, again, it’s something to do.
The other, older, man comes over. He’s not so happy about me usurping their table. I ask him if he wants me to move across to the other side. He says he’ll be back later so it’s okay. I really have treaded on local territory! Later on after I’ve eaten the older guy comes over and sits down opposite me, grumpily saying, “So I’ve been relegated to this side of the table have I?” I find this quite amusing but I don’t laugh; I think I’ve offended him enough.
He’s a short, skinny guy in his 50s, maybe even 60s. It’s hard to tell his age as he has tanned, weathered skin. The other guy goes off to see his girlfriend and I’m left with the old geezer. He starts chatting away to me and I find myself in the equivalent of being sat in the pub with the old guy telling war stories. Called Keith, he tells me about his time as a waiter working on merchant navy ships. This mostly seemed to involve shagging the passengers and getting fired for it. I’ve never met anyone who’s been fired so much.
Then he tells me about the various shootings that have occurred in Kanchanaburi over the past decade – most famously the drive-by shooting of an Australian woman here last year. Her name was Pamela Fitzpatrick, she was only 26 – traveling Thailand with her sister on a working holiday. Keith says she probably just got in the way of a local issue, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has a few more tales involving guns and basically makes the seemingly sleepy town a hell of a dangerous place to be.
He’s been here 15 or so years, and has only been home to Lancashire once in that time. He had his home flushed out by a flood in the late 90s. It’s a great story which involves him being woken up by the bed moving strangely to see the ceiling much closer than he expected.
Eventually he heads off, leaving me with a possibly more realistic picture (depending on how much exaggeration he put in) of life Kanchanaburi than the one I got from spending just one day here.
I wake up late. There really is nothing else to do in this town apart from what I did yesterday. All the other exciting stuff in the area – Erawan National Park, Wat Tham Mangkon Thong with its floating nun – involves a bit of a trip, which I don’t have time for in just one morning - I have to get back to Bangkok before five for a lesson.
I get a motorbike back to the bus station. I sit in what can only be described as a cage that is attached to the side of the bike, and you sit facing the driver. It’s very weird.
I get on the bus back to Bangkok and life goes back to normal - or what is normal for me at the moment, anyway - my brief adventure over.