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Bangkok, Thailand

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Trip in September 1996. All "facts" are how things seemed to me at the time.

The landing at Bangkok's airport, Don Muang, was delayed somewhat, when the pilot announced that we would be landing in the middle of a storm. The landing was about 20 mins late while we held waiting for the storm to let up (a bit). Eventually we touched down and it was raining hard. The airport looked deserted also, with hardly and planes at the jetways. There was a British Airways 747 though, a brief glimpse of something familiar. I was expecting some mean looking customs men looking for drug smugglers, but not a one. There was one bored looking guy who took my customs form with a grunt. Luckily I didn't meet any touts waiting to take me to a rip-off taxi ride or anything, I was met quickly by a Kuoni rep, this one a Thai woman, who took me to a Toyota driven by a man who didn't say anything to me. Luckily the tour rep sat in the front, turned round, talking all the time about Thailand, asking me if I'd been there before etc, also telling me about Bangkok. She was extremely friendly and happy, and smiled and laughed a lot. A nice introduction to the country.

The men however, only seem to interested in ripping off tourists. After a few costly taxi rides, I discovered that the best way to get a taxi was to walk away from the Hotel and get a taxi driver who spoke no English. This way they can only put the meter on and not haggle about prices of offer alternative destinations like tailors or jewellery shops that "they know". Many men will stop you in the street and offer you things "You want Taxi?, Tuk-Tuk?, Massage? ..Girl?..Boy?.. Tailor?.. Jewellery shop?..etc" until they run out of options... "So what you want then?" Like I even asked! I wanted them to quit bothering me, but as this was the country that invented Kick Boxing, I stayed polite. Eventually I just kept walking past and shaking my head, and this deters most of them. They do seem not to be able to understand the concept of just going for a walk. This is probably because most of the Thais do not walk any great distance, due in part to the pollution, which was so bad I came back to England with a sore throat and hoarse voice. The state of the pavements does not help, as they are all concrete block paving attacked by several years of subsidence, such that blocks and manhole covers extend several centimetres upwards, causing me to nearly come a cropper several times. As if that were not enough, the traffic also makes it difficult to cross the road after doing it's primary job of causing pollution.

Crossing the road is a skill I needed to aqquire early on, by watching the natives. Whilst the traffic is slow, it still moves in such a way that there are no "gaps" in the conventional sense, and many roads and junctions have few bridges. So the solution is simple, you just walk out into the moving traffic, and hope it can slow down or dodge you, or you can dodge it. I nearly burned myself on a few motorbike exhausts,but other than that I was ok with this technique. The motorbikes (of which there are many) also ride up on the pavement if the roads are too busy, possibly another reason why walking is so unpopular. I wondered if this was illegal until I saw a Police motorcylist do the same. Some of the pollution is caused by the Tuk-Tuks, a small three wheeled device with an engine that sounds like a chainsaw, and a smoke blowing exhaust. I went on one of these once, after negotiating a price. They are quite worrying, as you sit up quite high in the back and there is no side protection. Also you cannot see where you are going, so you can't brace yourself for the corners the driver doesn't slow down for. The Tuk-Tuks have a fair amount of power though, as I saw one towing a car.There are also motorcyle taxis, a quicker way of suicide than the Tuk-Tuks.

Sightseeing

The main sights in Bangkok are the Grand palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Arun and Wat Pho (Wat=Temple) There are many temples in Bangkok, but the three I mention are the most visited by tourists, and with good reason. One contains the reclining Buddah, a 40 meter statue of a Buddah lying down, covered in gold. Amazing. It's mouth alone was about 1 meter across. Also is the temple of the Emerald Buddah, which is actually jade. You are not allowed to point your feet at this one, or wear your shoes in either (or any for that matter) temple. The Emerald Buddah is about 80cm tall and sits high up on a massive pile of other golden Buddah images. Religion is taken very seriously here. There was a book in the hotel, next to the inevitable Gideon Bible, called "The teachings of Buddah" I read it all during my stay as it wasn't too long, but I can't say it made any more or less sense to me than any other religion that I've looked at. Interesting that, considering how seriously that take religion, they are willing to do things in direct opposition to it's teachings, like ripping people off. (main teaching of Buddism seemed to be - "Don't do anything bad"). Ripping people off is bad Karma. The temples themselves, on the outside really have to be seen to be believed. There are many buildings, some conventionally shaped, and many in big bell shapes. All are covered with tiles about 2cm square, either bright colours or gold. It must have taken absolutley ages. I couldn't really do them justice by writing, so I'll leave it at that. Look at the photos if you want to see more.

The Grand Palace consists of a few buildings in various architectural styles the oddest of which is European Colonial style up until the roof, which is a traditional Thai style. This makes it odd to look at, as you expect it to be either one thing or the other. (Thailand was never a colony of Europe or anywhere else, strange they should have some of this type of architecture then). Near all this is the main river, the reason for Bangkok being where it is. This is by far the most disgusting river I've ever seen, a yellowy brown colour, with much foliage floating in it. There did seen to be a lot of fish stalls near the river, though I find it difficult to believe that anything could live in there, much less that anyone would eat anything that could.

Thre is some poverty in Bangkok, though much less than in Bombay. Because I was here longer though, I got to see as much over time, people with the most hideous skin diseases you could imagine (or not, if you are lucky). I would rather have not seen them, as I'll never forget them. Some beggars line the streets too, looking especially out of place at times, with children begging outside of Mercedes dealerships for example. The humidity here was not as bad as Hong Kong, as its the rainy season, but it's still hot: you can walk around at 3am in shorts and T-Shirt. There is still the same desire to drink though, and here it's even better, as there are loads of cheap fruit juices available. (And fruit, I got a whole pineapple, sliced up in a bag, with a stick to eat it with, for about 7p) The local food, which I tried 6-7 times, just to make sure I wasn't that keen on it, is mainly Thai curries, which are quite watery. You can't eat them with a fork ,so you spoon them over the rice and the eat that. The curries (and other dishes) are very spicy, and I needed to take then with a glass of Pepsi or something. One of the dishes had a side portion of chilies that were so spicy, one the size of a quarter fingernail was enough to burn your mouth off.

Luckily, Bangkok is more westernized than I thought it would be, so you can actually read about what you are going to eat before getting it. The standard of English here is quite good (Much better than the standard of my Thai, which extends to about 4 words). There are, of course, also the usual fast food outlets. Food is cheap in Thailand, and many other things are too. Tailormade clothes are cheaper than either Singapore or Hong Kong, and so are souvineers, fake Rolexes, fake Nikes, fake Levis fake etc.. Whether you're a backpacker or not, it's worth heading for Khao San Road just to check out the cheap food, street cafes showing (pirated) American films whilst you eat, and for the large selection of fake ID cards which can be made while you wait. £1 is enought to buy you a student ID or Press ID complete with your name and details of your choice. Back home in the UK, the student card is indistinguishable from the real thing, and can save you a fortune with discounts etc etc.. if you're of the mind to (ab)use it.

Bangkok has a Chinatown like most big cities, but this was by far the most crowded and untidy I have seen, a condensed Hong Kong. If Hong Kong is the town that goes to bed late, this one is even later, if at all. Most department stores are open till 9pm, and I saw a tailors open at 3am. Most of the bars do not shut until about 2 or 4 am. Although I saw few police, I felt safe walking across town in the middle of the night. This could have been due to ignorance though, however nothing happened.

I was quite sad to leave Bangkok, as I liked it a lot. The flight back was on Thai Airways, and was very smooth, though boring at 13 hours. I was really unhappy at being back in England afterwards.

I went again in Feb 1997 and again in March 1998

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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 1996

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