Becalmed in Bangkok

Trip Start Jan 27, 2006
Trip End Sep 09, 2006

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Saturday, April 1, 2006

When we rang the A-One Inn from KL, they seemed a little surprised - but delighted - with our proposed 5 day reservation. We put that down to the fact that few people ring ahead choosing to simply turn up on spec. Not so. Their surprise came from the fact that the place was under a foot of rubble and we had to squeeze past an elephants-eye high stack of cement bags to get to the room. Within an hour we had checked out the competition and found that the street we were on was pretty popular. No rooms at the inns. However the Wendy House (luckily just the name, not made out of lurid plastic and stapled to the back lawn) had rooms the following night with a great breakfast, cheap beer, hot water, lovely staff and loads of internet. The eponymous Wendy had pretty much thought of every home comfort for the weary flashpacker. We stayed 8 nights.

8 nights meant we could really get under the skin of Bangkok AND become naturals on a city's public transport system for the first time since leaving home. It is a unique mix of skytrain, subway, bus, longtail boat, riverboat, ferry, tuk tuk and taxis - we took every one at least once. The key to getting to grips with it is to accept that the stations and stops for one type of transport almost exclusively don't match up. We found ourselves humming "Oh, the skytrain's not connected to the subway, the subway's not connected to the fast boats, the fast boats ......." etc. etc.

On our first night we obviously had no idea about any of this, so took an impromptu and slightly unplanned walking tour of downtown. We headed for the Bayioke II Tower, an 86 storey hotel with a revolving observation deck on the 84th. For 200 baht (3 quid) we got to go up the tower and take advantage of a 'free soft drink'. Our Scam-o-meters flickered into life again, but we gave it a go. Good job too. The views of night-time Bangkok were breathtaking, the city revealing itself as the floor revolved slowly beneath us.

After an hour, we dropped a couple of floors and retired to the bar to claim our free Fanta. The waitress sauntered over and dropped a menu in front of us which featured a full range of alcohol on it - all for 200 baht. "Any drink from this menu" she stated. "You are kidding, right - we are going to have to pay for these aren't we ?" "Any drink from this menu is free with your ticket, sir" she insisted wearily (not for the first time we imagine). We did a double take and gibbered a bit. Sam recovered her composure first (I put my state down to the lack of oxygen at this height) and ordered the stiffest gin this side of my mothers' - and she certainly knows how to mix a stand-your-spoon-up g&t. We sat and stared out at the panorama nursing our drinks until the ice was just a memory and our stomachs were groaning louder than a rain-soaked pension queue.

Over the next few days we got to grips with Bangkok zipping along on longtail boats from Jim Thompsons House (a quiet museum dedicated to the American Silk entrepreneur) to the backpacker haven of Banlamphu; firing down the river from the majestic Golden Palace; catching the skytrain through modern downtown Siam Square.

Searching for the Air New Zealand Office (we needed to change a flight) we stopped into O'Shaughnessys' Pub (very Thai !!!!) to get directions. We assumed there would be an English speaking Irish person there. The pub is on the corner of the notorious Pat Pong district - famous for Thai ladies (and lady boys) and their seemingly limitless abilities to combine their nether regions with ping pong balls, pens and lit cigars in the name of adult entertainment. The few pasty, hungover lunchtime clientele in the pub had obviously had one too many 'entertainments' the night before and were not to be approached. Luckily a tired looking waitress pointed us down the street and we were out of there faster than you could fire a ping pong ball across a crowded bar.

On a high from a successful piece of admin (it's tough out here, you know) we headed for the Khao San Road. This is a mix of copy designer watches, t-shirts, book stalls, bars selling burgers and chips, street food (two chopsticks, no seats), dreadlocks, sunburn and tattoos. Nice to visit.

T-shirts bought, photocopied Lonely Planets haggled for, and two plates of 15p noodles eaten we headed for one of our 'big ticket' items - Thai Boxing.

This happens every night of the week in Bangkok, usually 10 bouts per event. It is a marvellous spectacle, one which illuminates the different aspects of the Thai character. There is history. There is reverence for family and clans, There is honour. There is violence. There are few rules. And then there is the gambling.

Each 5-round bout is preceded by the two combatants performing a ritual which is part shadow-boxing, part warm up, part slow disco, each paying homage to their clans, the sport and the crowd. Unfortunately it appears nobody gives a hoot about this apart from us starry-eyed westerners. The crowd is far too busy placing bets with each other, waving their arms around feverishly and shouting the odds.

Each fight seems to follow a similar pattern. The first couple of rounds pass relatively quietly with the boxers finding each other out, the crowd checking their betting slips. It hots up in round three, four and five with the punters getting partisan, heated and bloody noisy as the fighters start to aim knees, feet and fists at each others heads.

The main event was different though. This is when we realised that this sport should be called Thai Betting. The boxing is just a means to an end, a bit like horse racing only with blood and guts. As the two main contenders battled their way into round 4 it became clear that the wirey little bugger in the red shorts was kicking seven shades out of the sinewy little sod in the blue shorts. The crowd simply switched off, ignoring the last two rounds completely, swapping betting slips, popping to the loo, making phone calls. It was the quietest I have heard a crowd since standing in the freezing rain watching Fulham vs Crewe (91st playing 92nd in the league) on a December Saturday.

Our last day was spent witnessing the story of a very different battle - the horrific battle for survival of the POWs who built the Bridge over the River Kwai. We'd decided - wrongly as it turned out - to see this on a 14 hour day trip from Bangkok. The Bridge still stands and is in use today. So is the Death Railway to Burma which winds through beautiful jungle landscapes which were considered impeniterable before the war - but not by the Japanese apparently). 16,000 POWs and 100,000 indochinese workers died whilst building this supply line, driven to their deaths through a mixure of exhaustion, dysentery and malaria.

The war graves near the Bridge in the town of Katchanburi tell the story more eloquently than any tour guide could. Line upon line of marble epitaphs. To read the few snatched lines of remembrance from parents to lost sons was too much to take and a reminder to both of us that we are so incredibly lucky to have the chance to do what we are doing.
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