Blog // Tales from the trail
"Bangkok; the city of smells", said Ian as we inhaled a particularly pungent combination of sewage and durian fruit, whilst walking to the Sky Train. Ian, Keith's friend from Uni, lives in Bangkok and kindly hosted us (put up with us) for the 5 days we were in Bangkok. The city of smells it certainly is, as well as a city of mad traffic; transport traffic and people traffic. It is busy ALL of the time, its substantial and impressive public transport system, the Sky Train and the MRT, not doing much to dent the number of mopeds and cars on the roads. And, on the pavements occasionally, as a traffic-jam-avoidance measure. Just as long as they don't get caught.
Despite all the public transport, which we used a fair old bit, we walked a lot too. However, walking isn't all that easy in a city where food markets, stalls and carts spill out onto the pavements, making being on them challenging at times. Seemingly a topical point in the city, as whilst at breakfast in Ian's 'local caff', a headline in the Sunday papers cried out: 'Do we really want to be like Singapore?', opening up the debate about closing down and moving some of the local street food markets to designated covered space to reduce congestion on the pavements.
I can understand the strong argument for doing this, especially if you are a resident trying to get from a to b in a hurry on a regular basis, but they are also part of what makes Bangkok, Bangkok. Even with the glossy buildings and immaculate Sky Train looming over the city, the smells, sights and spirit of street food remind you that you are actually in Thailand.
Our time in Bangkok was spent catching up with Ian, doing the things that local expats do, as well as seeing some of the sights on and off the tourist trail, including a dalliance with an abandoned building - more from Keith on this. Needless to say, it was my virgin 'urban adventure', and whilst I don't think I will be taking it up on a regular basis, it was exactly what it was meant to be, a bit of an adventure.
Speaking of tourist trails, we certainly had a new way of watching Wimbledon this year on Khao San road, the infamous backpacker's street, eating noodles, drinking Singha beer and watching the lady boys drum up some business, all the while cheering Federer on over the equally big cheers for Djokovic. We left hours later, the boys a little worse for wear and myself, inconsolable at Federer's loss. Fortunately, the next day hangovers weren't bad enough to deter us from our 7am start to get across town in time for our booked cycle tour (whose stupid idea was that?!) - a visit to Bangkok's 'Green Lung'. Our guide from Follow Me bike tours (recommended btw) was good fun and thankfully, a true professional, navigating us (me!) safely through the chaotic traffic with a series of toots and enthusiastic hand gestures until we were in a quieter area - over the dilapidated railway track and into the riverside slums - places you wouldn't ordinarily venture to, but teeming with life all the same, smiles amazingly still on most faces despite the daily hardships.
The Green Lung, a conservation zone encompassing organic farms within a tight bend of the Chao Praya river, is a breath of fresh air (haha hahaaaaa!). The people who live there mainly subsist growing banana and coconut trees, living a peaceful existence mid-week compared to their compatriots just the other side of the river; however, it is supposedly a popular weekend spot for Bangkokians, who picnic en masse in the central park. A hangover-curing and enjoyable ride, I was just thankful that I made it around the grids of narrow elevated causeways without incident, having to keep an eye on the two naughty boys skidding around on the mode of transport that bound them together at university in the first place.
If you've never been to see it, the old Customs Office is well-worth a visit. It is now used partly as a fire-station, partly as accommodation and partly as a modelling shoot 'destination' - a well-known place in the industry where models and photographers mutually help each other out to boost their portfolios.
We were largely ignored as we wandered around the various poses and outfits and funnily enough, weren't asked for our best pouts!
We also spent a Friday night at the Rod Fai night market on Srinakarin Soi 51- a vintage lover's dream. If you're a collector of anything - records, furniture, 1980s retro sports gear, cars, guns, cameras or Elvis - you are bound to find some treasures here, and if not, there's some great food and cocktails to keep you busy.
Another piece of advice for places to visit would be Jim Thompson's house - a bit of a sanctuary in the midst of the hustle and bustle. Jim Thompson, an American, fell in love with and moved to Thailand after serving there in World War II. He became fascinated with Thailand's hand-woven silk industry and devoted himself to reviving the neglected craft. His passion for the industry has contributed to the worldwide recognition for the material, most people having encountered Jim Thompson fabric in some guise. He built himself a very beautiful house, combining six existing houses, some centuries old, which represented the best aspects of traditional Thai architecture. The result is a genuine simple space that was a pleasure to be taken round. Unfortunately after all his efforts, he only lived in it for eight years before he disappeared in mysterious circumstances in a Malaysian jungle in 1967, a mystery that has never been solved. Interestingly enough, the ritual astrologers who advised him on the most 'auspicious' time to move into his house (1959), also told him to 'be careful' when he turned 61; the year he disappeared. His tranquil house remains in memory to him and his love for Thailand and is well-worth a visit.
And so our time in Bangkok, comes to an end. It is a seriously busy city with a strong western influence all over it; all the creature comforts are available. However, there are some real cultural pockets that make it inextricably Thai.
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