Welcome back to our November 2009 issue of Bangkok Travelbug, the monthly newsletter of Tour Bangkok Legacies. A big welcome if you have just joined us. We wish you an informative experience. This month a visitor from London gives us his impressions of Bangkok.
Introduction to our guest writer
Willie Meyer and I were in school together in Singapore during the 1960s. We hardly met after we left school. Later I found out that he had moved to the UK. It took 35 years after we left school for us to meet again, twice, in Bangkok.
The following account is based on Willie’s second visit in mid-2009. It’s an impression through the eyes of one who has lived in London for many years and has visited several places in Europe and South-east Asia. Hope you enjoy it.
Bangkok is the world's 22nd
largest city by population with approximately 8 million residents............... and it feels like it! The energy and activity everywhere one looks is intense and while I found it rather off putting at first, it requires a mindset-shift to settle into it and appreciate it from a local standpoint.
Reconstructed in 1782 in an existing village, it was given the ceremonial name, "The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarm".
We are very lucky to have good friends in Bangkok who know the 'REAL city' and not the 'sex, drugs and rock & roll' side which is so publicised in the West. When you do get into REAL Bangkok, it becomes overwhelmingly addictive, and I couldn't wait to
see what was round the next corner.
Coming in from KL, a city where life is lead at a 'quieter pace', although the colour, smell and noise are similar, there is a distinct ratcheting up of adrenalin when stepping onto the streets of Bangkok.
It's tempting to compare it with Hanoi in terms of the sheer buzz on the streets, but it’s a rather dubious comparison because Bangkok is a modern, international city, and Hanoi feels distinctly 3rd world, and like a 'Heath Robinson' device, its ancient pedigree is there to see in the buildings, sidewalks and colonial atmosphere of the charming French Quarter.
Chao Phraya river scenes
Bangkok also has an extremely charming face, take a long ride on a river taxi up and down the wonderful Chao Phraya (240 miles from source to sea, but you don't have to do it all) which winds north/south through the heart of Bangkok.
Santa Cruz Church an old Portuguese church
The river is well used as a major transport artery, as are the network of klongs (canals) which run through Bangkok's 50 districts and commerce on the banks of both river and canals have evolved, serving local traders as the relationship has developed for centuries.
As you cruise along, it’s easy to see the historical track of development through the ages; pagodas, old wooden river settlements, Portuguese and other colonial style buildings and then the modern international skyscrapers all mixing and sharing frontage on the banks of the Chao Phraya.
Condominiums overshadowing old river houses
There is no better way to get a potted view of this city, also prices for the river taxi trips are extremely reasonable. Bangkok is literally teeming with life at every level, wherever you go at whatever time of day or night there is unceasing commercial activity from the neon lit skyscrapers to the back streets of restaurants, family shops and
Chao Phraya at sundown
Different faces of Bangkok
Of course the infamous traffic jams are a constant source of
'Essence d'Exhaust' and one has to be wary when crossing the road. Someone said that most motorists only show care for monks, the elderly and the blind.
That is being rather harsh, as in most respects the people are
extremely polite and always welcoming. If the street was this crowded and intense in London, there would be angry and short tempered people waiting to lash out at all and sundry for no good reason.
In Bangkok, it’s the opposite extreme - smiles, softness and accommodation. I'm sure that the soft surface is due to a culture which is based in a long history of Buddhist awareness and due to this, people can live at this pace without the 'jagged edges' showing and a high degree of awareness of each others’ needs and plight.
There is no social safety net, yet you don't see or hear whinging. Most folk just get on with living by selling whatever they can and that includes their bodies. The world's oldest profession is well represented here and it flaunts itself without hiding behind window shutters or curtains like in Amsterdam or tiny labels on doorbells which lead up to dingy staircases in London's seedy Soho back streets.
Here, visitors and
locals who go to the right areas will find the full range of possibilities from female to male and everything in-between..........so to speak! I was startled by the way certain areas in Bangkok celebrate sex when we visited Patpong to get an impression of what the western (especially) tourists flock to. Like sunburned red ants on a colourful and noisy mound of sugar, western tourists flood the main street down which many of the bars and strip clubs are situated.
I guess there are all the arguments about exploitation and what the industry supports in terms of illegal activity, child abuse, spread of STD's and such like. But in this part of Bangkok it’s there, part of all the other trading that happens on the street. One doesn't HAVE to look in that direction if it hurts, but coming from London, it’s hard not to compare the upfront-ness of Patpong with the dodgy, dimly lit streets of Soho.
I'm not in any way endorsing this side of commerce, but in
Patpong, you can't miss its presence.
Food, food, food
Unlike the sex industry which is confined to certain districts, the food industry is universally represented in every street and area in this city. You can eat all day and night and get high quality meals for not much expense at all. The food is colourful, the tastes fresh and varied. The lure of fresh cooking fills the air to such an extent that the tummy juices are tempted and tantalised at every corner.
We often ate on the side of the street at night, under hurricane lamps and had an extended 3 hour dinner, with lots of excellent local Chang
lager to wash it down for the unbelievable sum of £3 - £4 a head. We also ate at restaurants and on the river, sea food is a Thai favourite and crab, prawn, squid and fish are fresh and delicious.
Street side dining
Siri, an old school friend took us to the most amazing restaurant in a little village on the delta, close to the mouth of the Chao Phraya. It was primarily a wonderful reunion as none of us had met Siri since 1968, but also a great lunch! The fish are even fresher here as they are landed just round the corner. We ate a mouthwatering meal and were so full that we could hardly walk out.
Seafood spread hosted by Siri (centre)
Local knowledge counts for everything - no one
would know of this superb eatery unless you had expert guidance. In many eastern cities where everyone cooks the best dishes, there are food gurus who will nosey out the best of the best. If you are lucky enough to know someone with food savvy, you will never forget the 'taste paradise' that Bangkok is.
As I walked down the pavements, I eyed the food stalls, the Thai sweets and cakes and the fresh fruit - all the colours, and the faces of the vendors and the shopkeepers. 95% of them smiling and the body language was inclusive and positive.
Life in Bangkok
The people living on and beside the sidewalk were
like a little roadside community. Without gardens, play areas, any visible heavy police presence, community support, and all the things that we have grown used to seeing in the West. Still there was no yobbery, no drunken youths, no friction or any sign of malice. Many races live cheek by jowl with the Thais.
There is a large Muslim community living in a rundown area by a klong in a very harmonious way. They have their mosques and have settled in Bangkok for hundreds of years. There are other communities of Indians, Japanese, European travellers/expats and most of the South East Asian races who have made Bangkok their home.
Recently there has been much press coverage of the 'riots' between the supporters of opposing political views and we've heard about the violence in southern provinces bordering Malaysia. None of these events seems to have altered the mood on the streets here. I found calm, welcoming folk in Bangkok.
Life goes on
The thuggish, threatening negative vibe surrounding the youth of London seemed a million miles away, very thankfully. Considering the hardships and hurdles the average Thai teenager has to overcome, one would expect them to be the aggressive ones, but not so.
The politically correct
social scientists and administrators in the West who make much of the slogan "poverty causes crime" should come here (and to other poorer Asian cities) to revisit their superficial theories instead of sitting in their blinkered local government throne rooms, throwing (OUR) good money after bad on supporting lost causes.....and dodgy bankers!
Our friends in Bangkok
We loved Bangkok more than we ever have before, mainly due to our friends who showed us the side of the city that doesn't revolve around shopping malls, traffic jams and air conditioned restaurants - a BIG thank you to Eric, Siri, Rex, Aroontip and to Jeff and Jumm.
(l to r) Jeff, Rex, Eric, Jumm, me and my wife Chris, Aroontip
For those of you who are visiting this wonderful city, before you do, have a close
look at Eric's great website: Tour Bangkok Legacies.
Note of thanks
Thank you very much Willie for sharing your memories and good times with us.
I’ll be back to tell you about my day trip to Nonthaburi. See you then.
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