Bangkok Is Turning Japanese, I Really Think So
Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
74Trip End Oct 22, 2004
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After a three hour flight through the night, we landed at 6am local time, and after waiting a while behind the queues of hippies and forty year-old divorcees at immigration control we got a taxi outside and 30 minutes later we were at the quirkily retro Atlanta Hotel. A cryptic sign above the entrance said: 'This is the place you're looking for - if you know it. If you don't, you'll never find it', and after checking in, it was straight to bed for five hours sleep
At midday we woke, and we now had the opportunity to choose a room ourselves and were given a couple of keys. One of the rooms had a shared bathroom, so for a hundred baht more (£1.30) we chose a room on the top floor with private bathroom. Without doubt, these were the most basic rooms we had stayed in so far and that's putting it kindly. The walls were painted in pale hospital-blue and were flaking around the edges, the beds were firm bordering on hard with musty-smelling pillows and the bathroom was a cockroach-breeding paradise, but a sign by reception ordered 'Complaints are not permitted - not at the prices we charge', which was fair enough. Our penthouse room on the top floor would cost £8 per night with breakfast, other rooms were as cheap as £4.
Downstairs was a different kettle of fish altogether. Built in 1952, the hotel boasted Thailand's oldest unaltered hotel foyer, full of curves (and cats) in rich but soft colours. To the left was a library and writing area and to the right was the restaurant serving (excellent) green and red curries for £1 a go. A TV was in the corner where each night at 8pm they'd show an Asian-related film of which you could choose yourself from their collection.
Outside was the pool, but no ordinary pool, it was the first hotel pool in Thailand and next to that was the first kiddies paddling pool as well. Apparently Thailand's first SCUBA divers were trained here, and a sign exclaimed 'Everything in the pool is original except the water'.
This establishment was full of quirky signs and back in reception another said 'Zero tolerance and sleaze free zone; no sex tourists, junkies, louts and other degenerates'.
Damn, I knew this place was too good to be true.
It was time to hit the bright lights of Bangkok and at the end of the road was their 4 year-old newish traffic-busting train that speeds effortlessly along above the deadlock. It's called the BTS (Bangkok Mass-Transit System) and 30p would take us to their main shopping zone.
Once off the train an elevated tunnel would take you directly into a shopping centre, with other tunnels leading off into different ones, so you wouldn't have to worry about being run over or dieing from carbon monoxide poisoning, which was very thoughtful of them
It was surprising how modern the malls were, and there were a good variety, Siam Square, MBK Centre, World Trade Centre and Gaysorn to name a few. Siam Square had Bongo's Bargain Bonanza whereas Gaysorn had Prada.
Futuristic malls mingled with little local shops, ultra-modern office blocks towered above Art Deco buildings, trendy teenagers with their ultra-white complexions (skin-whitening cream adverts are everywhere) strolled alongside middle-aged Western men and their Thai lady friends. It was a scene straight from 'Blade Runner'.
This city looked as if it were playing catch-up with Tokyo. It was Tokyo's nerdy little brother, but if it keeps eating its greens it may well grow bigger.
After buying my joint Christmas and Birthday present (a watch) we left the World Trade Centre complex at ground level to the sight of a hugemungous beer festival. There were three different areas alongside each other selling their own brand of beer, Singha, Heineken or Klosters. We decided on the local brew, Singha, and ordered a pitcher with some interesting food including Ostrich in Black Bean Sauce, which Soph would like to point out she didn't touch for moral reasons
The next morning we set off for backpacker Nirvana, the Khao San Road, famed for its cheap guesthouses, bars and clothes, with the usual mixture of genuine constantly-rucsac-wearing travellers and old fogie fake-hippies (like us). Side stalls would dreadlock your hair (gave it a miss) or add extensions (tempted). True backpackers were eating their 30p lunches of egg fried noodles but once again we spurned our good intentions and opted for a rather swisher looking establishment.
A few cheap CDs and a wild tuk-tuk ride later we found ourselves on a 10p river taxi heading south along the Chao Phraya, and 30 minutes later we'd reached Central Pier where we could join up with the BTS again.
Back at the hotel that evening, someone had chosen the oldest video in the collection, 'Chang', a 1923 silent movie from the makers of 'Metropolis' about a Thai tribal village and their elephant. A classic in it's time but had a lost a certain je ne sais quoi over the last 80 years. There was still a good crowd to watch it, so we hung around and had another piggy bank busting curry and rice
Our morning would be spent trying to find the Vietnam Airline offices to book some internal flights, once again rejecting our backpacking intentions of the cheaper, longer adventure of the train (at this rate we'll be seeing you in a couple of months). After an hours hunt, we found the office and reserved seats on three flights.
It was then back on the BTS down to the river, then a twenty minute trip up to The Grand Palace, our one and only temple-fix for Thailand. We still hadn't learnt holy etiquette, and with Soph's bare sun burnt shoulders, my bare carpet-burnt knees (sorry, crass, but I couldn't resist it) and our exposed toes we didn't stand a chance with the temple-bouncer. Our names weren't down and we certainly weren't coming in. The clothes for rent queue was longer than a poke-Catherine-Zeta-Jones-in-the-eye queue, so we delayed our fix for 24 hours.
Waiting for the river taxi back at the pier we were rudely awakened by the loudest, New Yorkiest of New York accents possible.
"Does anyone here speak English??"
Everyone buried their heads in whatever they could get their hands on or started speaking pigeon-French. When I say everyone, that's everyone except Soph.
"We can" she proudly chirped, almost boasting.
They came bounding towards us as if we were their saviours, with fold-out maps dragging behind them the size of a small Pacific island.
He was the standard Jewish New Yorker, the brash, less perverted, younger brother of Woody Allen. His wife was sleight and very Mia Farrow, and looked as though she wouldn't say boo to a duck, let alone a goose.
"We're trying to get to Salem Road, d'ya know where we get off?"
I waited for sub-titles to appear beneath his face but they never materialised, so in my two days of map-reading I figured he meant Silom Road, the business district of Bangkok, and after scanning over my Vatican-sized map I gave them my considered opinion:
"We've only been here a couple of days but . . ."
And before I could finish he had interrupted:
"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King."
It was clear he was going to be full of clever little sayings. I continued:
". . . you probably need The Oriental Pier."
"We'll stick with you then!" he said before casting an eye over Soph from top-to-toe.
"Very chic, veeeeeery chic."
Soph was dressed all in white today, and Woody obviously approved.
Suddenly the boat appeared, and it was the usual scrum where thirty people try to disembark and thirty people try to embark all at the same time. It was chaos, but somehow our Big Apples stayed close to their new found branches, er, us that is.
"I'm a teacher" he said, tapping his head, as if he was bragging about the size of his brain, before we twigged on and read the front of his baseball cap. It said 'Cornell', apparently a university in New York.
They had been married five years and he took great pleasure in informing us that 'he had children with another woman', at which point his wife gave us a, what seemed to be, well used oh-for-goodness-sake look.
Then it was guess the age time, and after a few safe forty-something guesses, he proudly beamed: "We're both sixty-two."
There was an awkward silence as they waited for the standard reply of 'oooh, you don't look it', and even though they did look (at least) sixty-two, we obliged.
"Oooh, you don't look it."
They were suitably pleased.
Each stop went by, and each time he'd ask how many more stops to go. Counting backwards is obviously not a subject taught at Cornell University. And as the minutes passed he quipped:
"We'll be relatives by the time we get there."
Typical New Yoik humour and how we chortled.
They has been to the Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, where the Vietcong used to hide, before springing out and shouting "surprise" to any passing US soldiers, before garroting them with some rusty barbed-wire. They were always playing lethal practical jokes on unsuspecting Yanks. He took great pleasure in informing us that he had crawled on hands and knees to the second level of tunnels, while his wife had only ventured to the first level.
Then it was on to what they would be doing on New Years Eve, a subject which we wish hadn't arisen.
"We'll go to bed, maybe sleep a little, then at midnight we'll maybe play a little!" he said with a nudge-nudge wink-wink.
His wife blushed. It was 'maybe a little' too much information.
Finally we were reprieved as the Oriental Pier loomed into sight, and I told them where to get off (nicely).
A couple of stops later and we were back on the BTS, next stop Sala Daeng, nearest station for 'Vertigo', an open-air restaurant on top of the 62 floor Banyan Tree hotel where we planned to book a table for dinner one evening.
Sala Daeng also happened to be handiest for Patphong, Bangkok's red-light district, which we'd have to visit for educational reasons.
A lift shot us up 59 ear-popping floors, and the final three floors would have to be tackled by foot. At the top about thirty staff were preparing for the evening but we were allowed to have a nose. It wasn't called Vertigo for nothing, it's the highest open-air restaurant in south-east Asia, and it seemed to be swaying, but that was probably us.
They were fully booked for the rest of the year, but once again we snuk in and reserved a table for the 1st January.
A fifteen minute walk later and we were in LadyboyLand, but it wasn't open. Hundreds of stalls were being constructed the length and breadth of Patphong's two main drags ready for the onslaught of pervy saddos and curious tourists (I handily fell into both camps) and ladies of the night rested horizontally in their beds in readiness for a long night, well, horizontally in their beds.
So, after shooting back to base for a nap and then some dinner, it was back out into a red-tinged night of debauchery. After a 15 minute ride on the BTS we were back at a much-transformed Patphong. The streets and pavements were a fake goods wonderland and it would have been rude to leave empty-handed, the lure of cheap tat proving too tempting, I mean, why pay 40-50 quid for a real Chelsea shirt when you can get one for three? And then it was dodgy DVD time and Russell Crowe's latest jumped out at us, pretty much how the man himself would have. 'Master and Commander' hadn't been released, yet there it was, and ours for £2.
Shopping done, and there were some bars to be visited as we had developed a strong thirst. Under strict orders, the rest of the night is censored, and my beans have been banned from spilling. All I can reveal is that one night in Bangkok and the world's not just your oyster, it's a whole fruits des mer platter with a cherry on top.
The morning of the thirtieth would be spent admiring the interior of a taxi, as we forgot our Lonely Planet guide book rule that to get to the Grand Palace, it's better to go by BTS and river taxi. We took a chance and we paid the price. An hour in a taxi to go three miles was made worse by our driver, not just any old lady driver but Mad Marge. Constantly she would flash her brown teeth at us in an attempt to smile, before making a grab for our map in a vain attempt to find a shortcut, but each time she tried we ended up doubling back on ourselves, making the situation worse. It's just fortunate that taxis are dirt cheap and our hour ride cost us £2 whereas in London it would have cost £22.
We arrived at the Grand Palace and made a beeline for the snazzy minidisc audio headphones on hire, and the next two hours were spent snapping away at temples to our heart's content, stopping now and again to synchronise our running commentaries. This place certainly is the shiniest, spankiest set of holy houses in Asia, if not the world, it was just a shame a couple of atheists like ourselves couldn't really appreciate it to its fullest.
Back at the ranch that evening the feature presentation was 'The Spy Who Loved Me', so a full house watched it while tucking into their green and red curries.
Later in the room and we gave the 'Master and Commander' DVD an airing on the laptop. From the off it was clear it had been taped on a digital camcorder from the front row of a cinema, as Crowe's voice in the early stages was drowned out by popcorn-choking enhanced coughing, and it didn't help that the film's main storyline entailed a naughty French ship that keeps on hiding in the darkness and the fog, ready to pop out and start shooting cannon balls at Crowe's ship, so it made viewing very tricky indeed. Still, it was just about watchable.
New Years Eve morning, and we headed for a famous traditional Thai house close to the shopping district, Jim Thompson's House. We'd read in a few magazines that it should be checked out, so check it out we did. On the way we'd guess what nationality he was and what had made him famous in these parts. We had narrowed it down to Anglo-American, architect, art collector, painter, sculpture, author, nookie-hunter, and we weren't far off.
A narrow side street led to an immaculate entrance and reception area, and further on was the collection of beautifully designed buildings. The whole place seemed to be the quietest, most serene area in all Bangkok.
Jim Thompson turned out to be an American, WWII vet who was based in Asia, who, after the war decided that he liked Bangkok so much he would make his home there, starting a silk making business and building his house from scratch gathering a vast collection of paintings and thousand year old statues of Buddha in the process. After becoming very successful and kick-starting the Thai silk industry single-handed he went on a little jaunt into the Malaysian highlands and was never seen again. A story like that made the tour around his house all the more intriguing.
Jim Thompson's House didn't really catch our imagination when we first heard about it, I mean, what a boring name? But this was an occasion when we were very pleasantly surprised and had become one of the highlights of our stay in Bangkok.
A short taxi ride and we were back at the Khao San Road for lunch, and a stage was being constructed for the night's entertainment of phat hip-hop beats and electric boogalooing. We'd pass up the chance to bring in the new year spinning on our heads, settling for just our heads spinning a little.
We planned on spending the night at World Trade Centre, where we'd spent an evening supping Singha a few nights earlier, but on arrival it was looking dubious that any alchoholic refreshments would be passing our parched lips. The whole of Thailand must have had the same idea as us, and all roads led to the beer festival. After barging our way as far as the Heineken compound, claustrophobia was engulfing us as fourteen thousand people tried to squeeze into an area no larger than half a football pitch.
I choked out a plea to Soph:
"Heineken crushes the parts other beers cannot crush . . . let's get outta here."
We made a break for the shopping complex and slipped out the back way, heading straight for the BTS and the safety of our hotel.
It was Bond night again at The Atlanta with a showing of 'You Only Live Twice', perfect. One film, one bottle of wine and a few beers later it was nearing midnight, so we ordered a couple more beers and headed for the pool, which we had to ourselves as the fireworks went off in the distance, which suited us fine. A thought entered my head as we sat there, of an ageing New York couple a few thousand miles away 'playing a little'. I quickly extinguished the unwelcome mental image with my tried and trusted formula of repeating 'Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher'. Soon does the trick.
The first day of the new year would be our last day in Bangkok, and it was 'chill-out by the pool day', with the peace only broken by an hours worth of screaming spoilt brats, the worst of them a proper little madam who would have given Bonnie Langford a run for her pocket money.
Evening approached and it was time for us two lumps of mutton to be dressed as lamb, so we headed to our room to clothe ourselves in the best Top-Man and Top-Shop has to offer. After a good dousing of Brut 33 and Tweed it was out into the night.
The Vertigo restaurant was a ten minute dash round the corner in a taxi, and arriving half an hour early we headed for The Moon Bar, also on the top floor.
On the way we passed three enormous Americans talking business:
"If we increase our profit by just 1% this year, we can open another factory!"
And we thought lines like that only appeared at the cinema.
Sitting ourselves down by the edge, the red aircraft warning light over Soph's shoulder reminded us how high we were. Served our drinks in a pair of ultra-snazzy lop-sided glasses, we looked out into the void scanning the skies for any unwanted low-flying kamikazes (a thought I'm sure was on everybody's minds up there).
On the table next to us sat some big-walleted, big-arsed tourists from big ol' Texas, the US invasion of Bangkok was now really kicking in and after switching on my conversation-scanning radar, a few beauties were picked up:
"I've had these boots 15 years, still as good as new"
"You just can't beat Big Berthas"
"What's the pay like, I mean, is it a financial wipeout?"
Before they could start yee-haa-ing and breaking into a chant of 'U-S-A, U-S-A', we headed for our table.
After a starter of crab tempura, it was a main course of steak and blue-nose parrot fish. For afters we had a platter of five mini-desserts from the menu, not forgetting the obligatory bottle of Aussie plonk.
The top floor was on a number of mini mezzanine levels, and just as we were finishing our meal a young couple tottered unsteadily down a small stairway behind us, apologising to the waitress for not having stayed long. It was unclear who was holding who steady, but it was clear the restaurant had stayed true to its name - they had been gripped with vertigo.
You can always count on a traumatic debilitating phobia to liven up the proceedings, it was the perfect end to a perfect city-break (no Heaven for me at this rate).
It would be a sad day tomorrow leaving Bangkok. A 45 minute flight north to Chiang Mai awaited, Thailand's centre for culture and trekking.
Ladyboy Gaz & Manlygirl Soph