Thinking & Feeling

“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Horace Walpole

Tuesday, 27 April 2004

Amazing Thailand: Part 3 – The Mega-city of Bangkok

After 2 nights in Phuket we packed a small bag and headed back to Phuket airport to see Bangkok!
Our original idea had been to catch a bus to Bangkok, but after finding out that while cheap, this takes some 15 hours each way, we quickly abandoned that idea. Instead, I searched the Internet and found a new no-frills airline called Air Asia, and managed to get 2 return flights for less than the price of one on any of the other airlines I had checked out. Bargain!

It was exciting looking out of the plane window and seeing the interior of Thailand, a country which I was already feeling very fond of. We saw farm lands and rice paddies stretching way into the horizon, all very green and with no shortage of water around. On approaching Bangkok the view changed to urban sprawl, with roads and buildings emanating everywhere. The city is huge, and has an estimated population of around 8 Million at the moment. The Chao Praya River is wide and lazily winds it's way through the centre of the city and onwards to the nearby sea in the Gulf of Thailand. For some reason I was very excited to be in Bangkok - I think the city radiates energy. People in Phuket had incredulously asked us why we were bothering to go to Bangkok. I think it's similar to the Cape Town - Johannesburg debate. Some people just love a vibrant busy city. I was certainly keen to at least see it, even if we ended up not liking it much...

I had researched a lot on the internet before our trip, and had learned a few Thai phrases, and even put together a booklet of common phrases, listing words in English, phonetic Thai, and actual Thai font. So I could attempt to say a few words, and if necessary point them out to locals to get understood. The Thai language is difficult for English speaking people to master, as it is very tonal. The same word can be said 5 different ways, and have 5 distinct different meanings! So you really have to be careful. The tones are: low, middle high, rising and falling. Luckily the Internet has some good interactive sites where you can play recordings of some common words to get an idea of how it all works. The written language is just so very different to our own that without committing to learning it, I think it's impossible for us to even vaguely understand. It's largely based on squarish symbols, with various embellishments around them.

I had been expecting a language barrier from the start, but up to that point in the trip and managed to get by easily, with most people in Phuket speaking reasonable English. However this wasn't the case in Bangkok, where it is not uncommon at all for people to have little to no understanding of English at all. Luckily in my trip preparation I had a print out in Thai and English of exactly how to find our hostel accommodation, and detailed instructions for either taxi or bus routes. We opted for the bus, and soon enough Airport bus 2 arrived and we climbed aboard. We sat and watched in fascination was we headed through the city. We passed building after building, and were struck by the dichotomy between large buildings and skyscrapers and the multitude of interspersed shanty dwellings. It makes the place very colourful and real. The shanties are generally quite higgledy-piggledy, but have such character and charm.

The building architecture in SE Asia is spectacular, as a lot of attention to detail seems to be given to shape and form. Buildings are never just plain monoliths, and while they are often large spectacular, they all seem to have an overriding sense of style and elegance. Everything is finished off with nice lines, which are pleasing to the eye. A range of very varying styles are used, so it's difficult to convey, sometimes a stylised Chinese roof line will be used, sometimes a simple taper, the overall result is beautiful harmony.

Our bus deposited us on Sukumvit Road, under the Sky Train's 'Nana' Station.
We were slightly overwhelmed by the magnitude of Bangkok, but with notes in hand we walked the 2 blocks or so and found our oasis, behind a 7Eleven off Soi 11, a little place called Suk 11. Suk 11 is possibly the most charming and character place I have ever stayed in. It is styled on the old shanty buildings, which we had found so endearing on our ride through the city, and is quite vast and ambling. It's big and has grown organically to overtake most of the small crescent road it nestles in. It occupies the 3 top floors of the building lining the crescent, and the walls, which used to separated the separate apartments have been roughly knocked through to create a quaint passageway along the entire building. This style is often emulated in modern designer studio buildings, but this is the original concept! There are little hidden wonders all over and the place is decorated again organically. On venturing upstairs we found an exquisite roof garden, which looked like a 'Garden & Home', or Top Billing shoot location.

The amazing thing is that a double en-suite room, with breakfast only cost Bt600 (for both of us). That's R100!
The entire place operates on a trust basis. You get 2 bottles of drinking water per day, included in the price, plus you get coffee etc with breakfast. There is a fridge with water, soft drinks, beers etc, as well as post card racks, sarongs, shirts etc for sale. If you want any of these things you simply take them, and put money in a moneybox. It would be nice if we could instil that same sense here in SA.

It's amazing that the money and all the goods are just left there, and yet everyone seems to abide by the system and respects it. We found lots of situations like that, where a street vendor will go off for lunch and leave his stall unattended, or at night just cover it with a cloth, and I think it's attributable to the Buddhist culture, and karma. There doesn't seem to be any theft. Well actually apparently there is some in the tourist markets and there are pickpockets operating there. But in our experience Thailand is very big on scams and cons, and price inflating, but not on theft. So a street vendor will attempt to get you to pay an inflated price, but at the end of the day you hand your own money over willingly, they would not steal it from you, and I think there's a marked difference, and the result is that you feel much much safer there, and not physically threatened.

Many people there are after a quick buck, but they'll get it by gaining commission from somebody by convincing you to use a service, or by getting you to sponsor the 'restoration of a temple'. Or negotiating a service with you, and then selling you to someone else at a cheaper cost - this seems to happen a lot with the taxis. I think they have worked out that if they can speak a bit of English, they can get by quite easily just be being shrewd and a bit deceptive. The rule of thumb is don't trust anyone who is overtly friendly with no due cause, or without being asked is suddenly wanting to be really helpful, or tries to tell you the temple you want to see is closed, and they know a better one which is open today only!

Shortly after arriving we decided to sample some street vendor fare. We were off the main roads, and chose the closest one that smelled nice (which was how we ended up selecting nearly all our food). However there was no menu or price in English. We attempted to speak to the lady manning the cart. She clearly had no clue what we were saying. Out came my little book - which still wasn't helping. At this point Richard still wanted to CHOOSE what he wanted to eat. We had to change tactics, as now suddenly here we were in Bangkok, and feeling slightly out of our depth. We crossed the street, where a young smartly dressed girl was ordering food. On enquiry we found that she speaks a few English words, so we asked her to order the same as what she was having for us. This was done. We got our plate of Thai noodles (pad Thai) and pork and perched at the table - which they place literally right on the side of the road. We avoided the water, which the local were scooping out of a bucket and drinking, didn't look very clean at all! The food was delicious, but the car fumes not so much!

I must say I was under the impression that Bangkok would be:
1) Huge beyond belief - it is, but it's easy to get around, so that's not a big problem.
2) Stinky - some people claim there's a stench all over Bangkok, yes there's some drain smell in places, and yes there are lots of intermingled food and garbage smells, but mostly nothing you haven't smelled before though.
3) That the food would make us sick - we were not sick even once, and we ate or drank pretty much anything.
4) The Asian Toilets with hand showers would be a problem, and that there's no toilet paper. I only had to use Asian toilets 2-3 times (thank-you yoga for giving me strong thighs!). But I've had to use them 2-3 times in SA too. Plus there was toilet paper everywhere, and where there wasn't you could buy it outside.
5) Hotter than we could bear. Yes it's HOT. It was 35-43 degrees everyday. But hey we have had temps in the 40s here, and there's far more air-conditioning there. 7Eeleven was one of my favourite shops!
6) That the Traffic jams are endless and continual - I didn't see very much traffic at all. But maybe that's because we were there over the weekend.
7) That we'd see elephants walking in the streets - didn't see one in Bangkok, only Phuket
8) That the pavements are notoriously uneven and walking on them is a nightmare - didn't seem any worse than the pavements back home.
9) That you can't touch tap water anywhere, ever - you can get cheap bottled water for less than R1 and were eventually brushing our teeth using tap water anyway
10) Dirty and polluted - yes in places, but no more so than any other city, and in fact cleaner than some I have seen
11) That no one speaks English - partially true, but if in doubt go into a shop and someone will understand you, and they have 'tourist police' now as well who can help.

So while it does have some aspects of all of those, nothing was that bad, and we found we managed just fine. Perhaps is just the Americans who are xenophobic and can't handle anything slightly different and/or that we have such a diverse and extreme upbringing here in Sa that we can easily adapt to anything, and nothing is THAT different to what we have seen before? I don't know, but while we found it all exciting and stimulating, it was by no means overwhelming or too intimidating.

So we were in Bangkok on Friday night, and the first thing on our list (well the first thing on Richard's list) was to see a Girly-show, aka Sex show, and the place to do that is Patpong Street. So we headed for the Sky train station, quickly figured out where to go and headed off. The Sky train is great. Fast, clean and quite cheap. I am sure Bangkok was far more daunting to traverse before this was built.

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