Thailand, again we arrived in Thailand, but this time by air.
The siege of Bangkok airport, which had messed us about so much the last time, was over. The president was back in country (he sneaked in via Chiang Mai) and the king was appealing for calm. In fact, the situation in Thailand was no longer bothering us. Rather, the emerging details of the heinous Mumbai massacre had us a little worried. We were due to fly to the city in four days, but the government was counselling that all but essential travel be cancelled.
Cesca and I logged into the web to find an update.
“The government site says don’t go,” she said.
“Then we cannot,” I replied crestfallen.
Cesca looked very disappointed. “But, India is the reason I wanted to come away to travel!” I looked at her, and I knew that we must face the possibility of not going, of shunting the entire trip forwards three months. It was a daunting prospect.
“Let’s look around the web, I will try on the Thorntree.”
The Thorntree is the public forum of the travel publication, The Lonely Planet. It is a somewhat clumsy collection of permanent travellers, newbie’s-without-a-clue and locals. If anyone has the news on the ground it would be these people. There were many panicked questions threads from other concerned travellers, but I ignored these and looked for ones written by the locals in Mumbai. They were mainly slightly annoyed and spoke of an overreaction. The danger had passed. I was reading deeper, when Cesca suddenly looked up from her laptop.
“You won’t believe this,” she said.
I craned over her shoulder and struggled to angle myself to be able to see her laptop screen, “What is it?”
“Its Team Galloway, they are in Bangkok!”
“You’re kidding?” I exclaimed in excitement, Mumbai momentarily forgotten.
Team Galloway was the nickname we gave to Colin and Marliuz, friends and fellow travellers through Laos. We had suddenly lost contact with them after putting them in a Tuk Tuk during the crazy Laotian “Olympics” in Pakse.
“He’s posted on Facebook that they are staying in the Khaosan Road for only three days.”
“We must go and find them!”
“What about India?”
“We have a few days before we fly, let’s wait and see how it goes.”
Bangkok, or as it is otherwise locally known “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“, is most famous for its food. The Thais cook some of the best food in the known Universe and the street markets of Bangkok are the place to sample the delights of fragrant and hot dishes. Our hotel was well away from the KoSan, but still inside the concrete jungle of dark damp streets made all the darker by the sky rail system. We ventured out to find some dinner.
It was not until I saw the choice that I realised how hungry I was. There were restaurants and street vendors as far as I could see. Side alleys and streets brimmed with people cooking all manner of fish, feasting on chicken and stirring strange bubbling pots of curry sauces. Food to die for, smells to die for. None of it what I wanted.
And then, there it was: a pub.
God, I wanted a pint. You see, for the last three months we had been eating spicy street food, fried noodle dishes and drinking local firewater. I needed a taste of home, I needed to feel like I wasn’t lost, stuck on the far side of the world.
I needed a pint, a pie and some chips.
We entered the pub and were immediately reminded of home, for it was an Irish pub. Grinning to each other about the expense, we grabbed a seat and took in the (fake) Irish ambiance. For those who live close to the Blessed Isle, these fake Irish pubs are sometimes disquieting; full of green, brass and fake sign posts to Dublin. Walls covered in ‘Irish Quotes’, like “…May the cat eat you and the devil eat the cat” and “Top o’ the mornin’”. Normally, I wouldn’t be able to relax in such a venue, but after months of strange beer, unidentifiable meet on a stick and languages I didn’t know, I need something from my end of Europe: the cold end.
I ordered a Guinness with Pie and Chips and Cesca ordered Shepherds pie.
There was one other thing that made this experience stand out, for not many Irish pubs that I frequent have the food served by 18-year-old Thai girls in latex tops and fishnet stockings!
I supped by Guinness and decided that perhaps I had actually found heaven itself.
The next day we moved hostel to a strange place that was, for some reason, 90% full of Danish people. This was obviously a well-known place in Denmark, but no one could tell us why. Despite its high reputation and good food, it was disappointing with poor rooms and (as we found later) bed bugs, but the staff were friendly and they had one of the best travel desk I used in Asia.
We caught a taxi to Khaosan Road and took a walk around. The main “road” is a crazy strip of concrete about a mile long between tall buildings on either side. Most of these are bars or clubs, and the road is awash with throngs of tourists, touts, colour and mayhem. Europeans, mostly high or drunk, wobble their way up and down the mile, while an armies of locals try to sell them things they do not need. Behind the bright buildings squats a warren of dark alleys and covered walkways that host even more shops, bars and hostels. This was a place given over to the tourist trade and the seedier side of a trip to Thailand. This is where people were preyed upon. This is where the young girls were persuaded to “carry something home” for a new lover. A decision that ends up being a life sentence.
Thailand has the death penalty for drug offenses and what may be suffered in these back alleys, would lead to a series of very sharp shocks to someone trying to take “a little of Thailand” back home in their bag. The Thais believe in sharp shocks in the form of a serious beating with a cane at the very least.
However, when you are on a mission and in unknown territory there is only one thing you can do: fit in. We pulled up at a large street bar and got the beers in. Cesca spied along the street and I watched a group of tourists with a 20 pint “tower” jug fill their boots to bursting. The road was packed with people. What chance did we have to find Colin and Mariluz in all this?
After a few beers, Cesca and I, knowing our task to be almost impossible, started to relax and just enjoy the night together. Cesca made a sign, which we would post on the web the next day, so at least they would know that we tried.
Five beers in, I wanted to call it a night.
Then I saw her. Mariluz was walking right by us. Her hair was different, it was in dreads, but we recognised her immediately. We ran over and it was hugs all round. Cesca and she were jumping for joy and screaming in happiness, but where was Colin?
“Eee’s playing Pool”,” said the Spanish lady, “in there.” She pointed into the bar.
I walked around the side and spied the, also dreadlocked, Irishman potting and talking toot to his chums. I leaned against the rail,
“Will you be taking a pint with me sir?” I asked out loud.
He looked up and broke into an emerald smile. “Bloody Hell! Basho!”
Our mission was complete. Amongst the thousands lining this road, we had found two great people. In great British style we got our drinking boots on and the rest of the long night is somewhat of a happy blur. Thinking back to it now, I really miss them both.
What were the chances of finding them like that? I wondered at this good luck for over three months, until, amazingly we ran into them again in Hong Kong.
But, that is to come later, what of the sights of Bangkok? The next morning, nursing our hangovers, we ventured down to the river and caught the boat around to the temple area.
There are many excellent sights in Bangkok and we had to be selective. Walking through street markets we made our way up to the Grand Palace. At least we tried to. The entrance is not immediately obvious and standing looking like we did, we attracted a shark.
A well dressed man in black trousers and white shirt approached and spoke to us in excellent English, “Good morning, sir.”
“Err, hello,” I replied.
He smiled probably the most genuine smile I have ever seen, “This way to the entrance, to buy your ticket sir. This gate is closed” He gestured along the road to the next gate around which a few people were standing. So expert was his performance that I started to move towards it led a few steps ahead by the smiling man. Then a hand caught my arm; it was Cesca.
“Darling!” She whispered with an urgency, “He’s mafia.”
I looked again at the man and then it struck me. Of course he was. We were about to get filleted and I was taken in by it. The Bangkok Mafia is the name given to the the companies who run the Tuk Tuk’s in the city. They are justly famous for their tactics, their aggression with tourists and the their ability to con the unsuspecting. I suddenly knew how this would go. This guy was leading us to a closed gate, which would have a fake ticket inspector outside. He would say that the palace was closed for lunch and that we should come back. Our friend here would then convince us to buy tickets form this man which “included” a tour of the city while the palace was closed. We would get in the Tuk Tuk and not be let out until all our cash had been fleeced. If we spoke up, we would be dumped at the side of the road. It was an invitation to be seriously extorted.
A lucky escape.
We turned back towards the gate and a shout came from the guy ahead. We kept walking but I looked back. His smile was now gone, replaced by an annoyed grimace. He waved to us in the Asian way; arm held out towards you and hand flapping up and down. We ignored his protests that the gate was closed and strode straight inside it. Of course it wasn’t closed. The palace doesn’t close for lunch. Inside we found a real ticket booth and made our way through.
We later met a very nice English couple that had not spotted the scam. They had been driven all over town and to store after store. At each store the driver forced them inside and did his best to prevent them from leaving. This prevention took the form of pleading, cajoling via references the health of his dear-hearted mother, his children’s livelihood, the souls of his grandfathers, the souls of their grandfathers, up to and including veiled and not so veiled threats. After 4 hours they were dumped nearby the Khao San Road where the driver demanded $40 for the privilege of the “City Tour”.
Not much fun, but for us thankfully avoided. We don’t have $40.
Buddhist palaces in South East Asia are always large and impressive, more a sort of focus point for the people than a palace in the traditional sense. They are full of small temples, amazing national treasures and tourists. With more of the later than of the former. Joining the crowds at any time can be daunting, but we swam into the mix and walked around the structures.
The first thing that struck me about the buildings that I was seeing was that they were not only Buddhist. Similar to Cambodia, there was a large Hindu heritage to be found. The walls enclosing the main temple compound were painted with the story of Ramna, one of the Avatars of Vishnu, and his story where his wife is kidnapped by his rival. Not that she seemed to mind, judging by a closer inspection of what the kidnapper was doing to her. I also spotted, holding up giant Buddhist stupas, the form of Garuda who is Vishnu’s mount.
This half eagle, half man is possibly the most awesome form of transport ever imagined. Here he was shown standing on a giant snake. A clear reference to his hatred of the giant snake/dragons called Nagas and his promised food by the God, Indra. Of course, in Buddhism the guy is known by a different name, and the Buddhists have made some attempt to appropriate the legend into their own mythos, but it remains a clearly Hindu icon. This is because Thai Buddhism is built on part of the remains of the even more ancient primitive Hinduism of the Kamchupkans; builders of Ankor Watt, et all. While Buddha himself and the rise of Hinduism are of roughly the same time period, you find places all over the world were one had supplanted the other, and visa versa.
After a few hours amongst the crowds of the palace, we moved on to the nearby Wat Pho temple. Again we had to walk around hordes of Tuk Tuk drivers, one of which tried to convince me that the temple was a short ride away and he could take us there for free as long as we visited his uncle’s store… This was on the very steps of the temple itself!
Inside this structure is a giant golden resting Buddha.
It is often called a “Sleeping” Buddha, but actually the statue depicts the moment of his death. It is important to realise that Big B, once he became such, had cracked the secret meaning of life. Death held no more fear for him. As he lays dying of food poisoning, he is smiling happily, with no fear. His final words echo down through eternity, “Look after your own salvation with diligence”. This giant representation of this event held me captivated. It is inside a building barely able to contain the giant figure and it is only possible to see parts of it at once.
What a guy!
You walk around and the eyes and smile, the feet, the hands flash bright gold as the pillars holding up the roof hide and reveal. It is quite magical. I saw very few actual Buddhists, and many many tourists, but I don’t suppose Big B would have minded.
Outside this building the temple complex continues. Strangely though, all the tour groups don’t make it this far. This is good for us, but a giant mistake for them. Around a few building and paths lays a magnificent temple. Inside is the traditional high-end Buddhist temple experience of golden treasures, magnificent statues, emerald idols and smiling Buddha. It is only lacking in visitors. We went in and sat amongst the quiet and meditated for half and hour. The splendour of a hundred kingdoms surrounded us and, for a moment, I almost felt the peace that comes from being a priest.
Cesca, moved us on, for she had other plans.
Thai massage is evocative. The idea of being rubbed down by a pretty Thai lady is on the to do list of most human males. This temple was the home, the heart, of all Thai massage and the most famous school for such is at the far back of the grounds (http://www.watpomassage.com/2009/). There, Cesca assured me, is the best place in Asia to get a massage. The idea appealed to me; I am a big fan of having my back massaged, having a very large back, and love to relax every now and again face down while a masseuse plies the trade. I often fall blissfully asleep as the fragrance of the oils makes my mind drift away in peace.
Stop right there. Thai massage is not, I repeat not, like anything you have enjoyed in England. Indeed it is fair to say that I hated it with a vengeance.
It all started so well, the lady was indeed small and looked expert. We paid and were led to our beds amongst about a hundred all full of people being “massaged”. I wish I had looked closer at what was happening as I may have picked up a clue and made a bolt for the exit, but no like lamb I want to the slaughter, led by the Judas goat of Cesca’s smiling assurance.
I lay down on my front and suddenly I was in combat.
I even screamed, “Good Christ!” The “little” lady had just expertly body slammed me.
And so began one of the most painful and horrifying experiences of my life. Now, I am no wuss. I practice full contact karate. In fact I am often to be found having a serious kicking session and a wrestle with a succession of huge London geezers. I practice arm locks, leg holds and chokes against people who fight in Cage Rage on Sky TV.
They were as nothing.
This lady put me in more pain than Neil “Goliath” Grove did. She poked nerve endings, he battered muscles, she pulled arms in sockets and dug into shoulder blades with elbows. It didn’t stop for half and hour and it was executed with a professional slowness that even now makes me quiver.
After the pain was lifted, I thanked the lady, who wasn’t fooled for a minute, collected my stuff and hobbled out.
Cesca joined me, and she was smiling. Smiling!
“Ooooh that’s better!” she said. “What did you think?”
I was on the verge of tears so much was the pain in my limbs, “I think I have just been beaten up, just very slowly.”
She laughed, “What did you expect?”
“Well not for it to bloody hurt for a start!”
“That’s a Thai massage, did you not know?”
“I do now.” I took her hands in mine and looked into her eyes, “I will never, never, never, have that happen to me again.”
“Blimey,” she laughed. “You really didn’t enjoy it did you?”
“I spent the entire time desperately trying to remember the Thai for, ‘Call the police!’”
“Then lets get you a beer.”
And so, we did.
Coming next – our amazing adventure into the Burmese Border, where we meet wild spiders, wash in rivers, trek jungles and see the horrors of the Japanese invasion of Thailand for ourselves.