My second trip to Bangkok was undertaken with some degree of trepidation.
Shortly after I booked my tickets in early March, large numbers of supporters of the ousted president Thaksin Shinawatra started to congregate around the business and government districts of Bangkok. Similar protests had occurred during my previous visit just under a year ago but I had narrowly missed the worst of them; they were reported by the international press around the time I was gratefully dropping my bags on the floor of my parents’ place in New Zealand and I was a little stunned to see TV images of the police clashing with red-shirted protesters outside what appeared to be the hotel I had stayed in less than 24 hours previously!
This time around, the volcanic eruption in Iceland closed UK and Europe airspace for six days just prior to my scheduled departure and I watched my Qantas flight cancelled … and then miraculously reinstated. Even after I reached Heathrow, my nerves didn’t settle until I had cleared passport control and boarded the flight and a little over 10 hours later I arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport, grateful to be through the first of the hurdles, but now facing the next challenge.
In the days leading up to my flight, UDD protesters had clashed with government security forces, who were attempting to disband the impromptu protester camps. I decided to register the details of my stopover with both the New Zealand embassy and the Foreign Commonwealth Office, the first time in 20 years of traveling that I’ve ever felt the need to do so. I also made sure that this time I stayed at a hotel well away from the government and business districts, where the protester presence was strongest.
This seemed to be a smart move, because while I was en-route to Bangkok, the violence culminated with a series of explosions near the red-shirts enclave in the business district.
Up to 5 M-79 grenades were apparently fired from launchers some distance from Sala Daeng station, possibly from within the Red Shirt encampment or a nearby high-rise. One person was killed and more than 80 injured, but the incident seemed to galvanize both sides into stepping back from the impending disaster a little. By the time I checked into the hotel, reports had started to appear in the worldwide press about offers and negotiations and while the situation was far from resolved, this at least seemed to offer a small vestige of sanity and hope of a peaceful resolution to the issue.
Even so, I had taken note of the increased police presence at Suvarnabhumi airport; impassively-faced blue-clad officers in berets and combat boots worn commando-style, standing their posts right across the concourse. Occasionally, a pair of patrolling army officers in camouflage kit wandered in and out of view. None seemed to be carrying small arms though, which I took to be a positive sign. But as my taxi threaded it’s way through the notorious Bangkok traffic, a convoy of pickup trucks full of protesters sporting red flags drove past at speed and in the distance, I could hear the wail of sirens. Not so positive…
As always, I spent the first evening orientating myself with the usual tasks of a budget-conscious tourist; stock a few beers and snacks from a nearby 7-11 in the mini-bar fridge, find a working ATM, locate the nearest MTR station etc. By 10pm I returned to the hotel, armed with all the necessaries and then went downstairs for one of the weirdest dining experiences I’ve ever had.
KaraJoke (some like it HOT!)
In a nearly-empty restaurant I ordered a cold Singha beer and a couple of dishes from the menu (the buffet was of course long since finished) and watched a trio of the worst Karaoke singers I’ve ever heard. Everything about them was terrible. They had no sense of rhythm. They couldn’t hold a note. They sung off-key harmonies, out of time and in different (mismatched) octaves. They were accompanied by an enthusiastic but entirely untalented pianist on that most evil of instruments, the Hammond organ. They couldn’t even read the lyrics off the screen.
It was enough to make my fillings buzz madly and the leaves of a nearby plant fall to the ground in a shower. Even the exclusively Thai staff winced as they busied themselves setting the tables for the following morning’s breakfast, before legging it as fast as they could.
It was so bad it was almost entertaining.
When the two Thai dishes that I ordered arrived, I gratefully forked a piece of steaming pork into my mouth…and for a minute or more, I genuinely thought my head would explode!
The dish was literally swimming in garlic and the infamous Thai red chillies. I confess to being a little bit of a “curry wimp” but I’ve fought my way through a phal-strength vindaloo a few times. This dish however made vindaloo seem like vanilla ice cream by comparison. Even lager couldn’t kill it!
Still, I struggled on, sweating profusely with every mouthful before eventually admitting defeat and at the earliest opportunity, I paid the bill and belchingly headed back to my room and a fitful nights’ sleep…
A tale of TWO cities
Around 4am I awoke and couldn’t get back to sleep. I propped my back against the headboard and picked up my copy of the excellent Zimbabwe memoir “The Last Resort” by Douglas Rogers and the next time I glanced at the clock it was 5:30…
Stepping out onto the balcony with a cup of instant coffee and a local-brand cigarette, I watched the sun rise over the rough rows of slightly ramshackle tenement blocks, nestled between Wisteria trees and the occasional coconut palm, with their laundry hanging over railings and their scattering of satellite dishes.
With no traffic noise and in a relatively cooler part of the day, Bangkok is quite a different place. The trees were full of birds swooping back and forth across the tenement car-parks, plucking insects from the air and occasionally crapping on a gleaming Toyota pickup. One slightly scrawny speckled bird about the size of a small dove landed on the railing just 3 feet from me, cocked it’s head sideways as it regarded me with it’s beady bird-eyes, before taking to the sky again. By 7:30am the humidity and traffic had returned and the birds had vanished.
It’s always a little strange walking around a place during the early part of commuter rush hour, especially when you are so obviously a foreigner. The strange quizzical looks you get from glum-faced commuters waiting at the bus stops all seem to ask the same question: You’re a tourist on holiday…what the f*ck are you doing up and out here at this hour? Still, every now and then you catch the eye of a street vendor or a passing pedestrian and when you smile at them and they smile back, you are reminded that some things are a little bit universal. I felt encouraged…
Bangkok is very much a drivers city and although there is a pretty good public transport infrastructure, you really do take your life in your hands, anytime you want to walk anywhere. There are few pedestrian crossings and long stretches of the arterial roads are impossible to cross due to the speed of the bumper-to-bumper traffic and a shitload of concrete crash barriers. There are walkovers about every quarter of a mile, but be prepared to climb a fair few stairs. Oh, and watch out for all the motorbikes and scooters, whose riders think nothing of mounting the pavement to get around the traffic. Only two types of pedestrian exist in Bangkok; those who look in every direction, all the time and those lying on their back with tyre marks across their chests, wondering what the hell just happened.
Surprisingly in a city as geared towards shopping as Bangkok is, there seems to be a bit of a shortfall of foreign exchange kiosks and being Saturday all the banks were closed. I had to walk a couple of miles through a heavy tropical shower, to find a wizened little bloke who could do a reasonable Quid to Baht swap. Like everywhere else, Bangkok hotels all make a killing in the FX rates they supply, so it’s worth the stroll to save a few bob. At least that’s what I told myself when the rain stopped…
By 10am, armed with my newly converted cash and still wringing the rainwater out of my shirt, I wandered around a couple of the large malls that dot this part of the city, in search of a cheap digital camera. Not a huge range of choice in this area (although you are totally spoilt for choice if you want to buy a new mobile phone – the bloody things were everywhere!) but I found a nice compact little Canon model that did what I needed it to do and was the right price and by 11:30am I was heading to my next destination.
Open up and say Ahhhhh…
Ask most people to do a simple word-association with the word: holiday is likely to give an entertaining (and possibly revealing) result. But the one word that virtually no-one would associate with: holiday is the word: dentist. Yet Bangkok has a thriving “dental tourist” trade, encouraging scores of Europeans to have expensive dental work done in Bangkok, at a fraction of what it costs in places like Europe and the US. Earlier this year, my folks came over for just under 2 weeks, for exactly this reason and they reckoned that even factoring in the cost of flights, accommodation, taxis, food etc, it was still cheaper than having the same work done back home. Plus they got a 2-week holiday.
The Bangkok International Dental Center was conveniently located about 200 yards down the road and on a whim, I decided to slide on in and see what they could do about the years of stains on my gnashers. A full consultation, examination, full clean and a significant degree of whitening set me back around 12,000 Baht (about 270 quid) – less than half the price demanded by any half-reasonable private dentist back in Blighty. The practice was immaculate, the staff all seemed to speak pretty good English and were very friendly and helpful.
My dentist was extremely professional and hygiene standards were as good if not better than any dental surgery I’ve set foot in, anywhere else. What’s more I was able to walk in without booking weeks in advance and a couple of hours later I was back on the streets, doing my parody of the Osmond smile.
After a wash and a quick snack, I decided to head over to Siam, to have a look around the night markets and duly jumped on the MTR to Asok, before switching to the Sky train out to Siam. My first inkling that this was a mistake was when I found myself herded with lots of others through steel security gates, under the gaze of two serious-looking security personnel while nearby I can hear the voice of a determined-sounding Thai gent over a fairly large tannoy. As I rounded the corner, I found myself smack in the middle of one of the major red-shirt encampments.
Still on the station stairwell, I was able to see the T-junction below pretty clearly. In all 3 directions, as far as the eye could see, were a seething mass of red-shirts that frankly made an Arsenal-at- home match look like a village tea party. Several people glanced in my direction, realised I was just another dipshit foreigner and ignored me, returning their attention to one of a number of large overhead screens, and to the speaker making an impassioned monologue.
I cautiously headed downstairs and with a show of casual nonchalance that I didn’t feel at all, strolled about 100 yards down the main road in both directions, before realising how far the encampment seemed to extend. Minutes later, as I returned to the station, the speaker completed his speech and the applause broke out. Then he began the speech again…in English.
The gist of it was that the government had refused to accept the protesters’ offer to disband the protest camps in exchange for the promise of early elections.
I managed to snatch a couple of short video clips and then got my non-red-shirt-chicken-tourist-ass back onto the Sky train. Less than 10 minutes after arriving back in Asok, the Sky train was closed.
Fortunately, I could still grab the MTR and around 9pm I was back in Huai Khwang, tucking onto a a mix of stir-fried scallops and jellyfish, on a bed of steamed rice with garlic, ginger and lime, at one of the many little food stalls that are all over the place. Two Singha beers later and all was right with the world again.