Monday, 31 January 2011

First impressions of Bangkok

The author, demonstrating the rolling ball action in a dragon's mouth.
© Joyce Lee/2011/Thailand

Like déjà vu or a half remembered dream, Bangkok strikes me as both familiar and unknown. The hustle, bustle and good-natured chaos of Banglumphu (the old town and backpacker district) reminds me of Manila. Among the glitzy, air-conditioned skyscrapers, malls and skytrain of Sukhumvit, meanwhile, we could easily be in Hong Kong or Shanghai. In between are the temples, saffron-robed Buddhist monks, monarchy and Sanskrit writing that are inimitably Thai. The city is in a mid-point of development. It has left behind the huge, sprawling slums of Manila but the streets are still gridlocked, lined with hawker stalls, and home to stray dogs in feral packs and street children selling flower garlands. “It’s like Hong Kong fifteen years ago, before they made the street stalls illegal,” Joyce says.

I’m here on a 12 month contract with UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Regional Office. My job is to help develop websites and other digital activities like email and social media for UNICEF offices in the region. I'm focusing on the middle-income countries, such as Thailand, China and Malaysia. While UNICEF's main business in these countries is still delivering programmes in health, education, child protection and the like, they also have an opportunity to fundraise from an emerging middle class that is wealthy, online and looking for projects to support.

I came out a week early with Joyce (my fiancée) to find a flat, sort out practical matters like banking, and get a feel for our new home. For the first week, we stayed in a guest house in Banglumphu. The district is full of foreigners (called 'farang' in Thai), bars and restaurants with shisha pipes, and travel agencies offering cheap rides down to the islands or to the hills up north. Images of the King are everywhere, from calendars in shops and cafes to giant portraits at road intersections and on government buildings. While staying here, we went out for cocktails on Ko San Road, the famous hippy mecca. It reminded me of the dance village at Glastonbury festival, with pumping trance music, t-shirt stalls and glow-in-the-dark gadgets. Unlike Glastonbury, however, it also features beggars displaying their missing or broken limbs, in an uncomfortable reminder of the darker side of tourism in a poor country.

It’s now the middle of winter, which in Thailand terms means it’s cool for a few hours in the morning before the mercury rises to 30 degrees at midday, after which Bangkok swelters through the afternoon. I quickly learned to walk on the shady side of the street with the locals, rather than on the opposite side with the sun-starved European tourists. On a hot day, the smells of the street intensify, alternating between sweet and foul. One minute it’s all incense and green curry, the next you’re caught off-guard by the stench of drains and pollution from vehicle exhaust pipes.

Thai people are charming – full of smiles and polite bows, their hands clasped in a prayer-like symbol of greeting. At first they can come across as a bit shy or deferential but once you get to know them they’re full of warmth and humour. We made friends with a woman called Joy in our local travel agency who decided that Joyce was her idol. “I want to be more like you,” she declared. “I am always shouting and arguing with my husband but you two are so soft with each other.” On another occasion we came in to find her on her break, watching a YouTube video of a fat man in a bikini doing a belly dance. She collapsed into giggles and turned it off. “It’s OK, I’ve seen it many times before,” she said.

Keith, Carlene and Joyce share a joke at the river boat pier.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
We’ve been brushing up on our Thai etiquette. The Lonely Planet, my indispensable travel bible, warned us that Thais are very foot-phobic. So it’s important to take your shoes off before going indoors, to always walk around things rather than stepping over them and never, ever to point your feet at people, Buddha statues or the King’s portrait. When sitting down, you need to tuck the offending appendages behind you, pointing harmlessly away from everyone.

We’ve also learned to eat with a spoon and fork. Unlike the UK, where a fork is for shoveling food into your mouth, here you eat with the spoon after pushing food onto it with the back of the fork. Thai people used to eat with their hands, like the Malays across the southern border, but in the 1880s King Rama V visited Europe and came back inspired by ideas of western architecture and cutlery.

As well as the ethnic Thais, there are lots of Chinese here and a few Indians. The Chinese are typically rich businessmen. Very few speak Cantonese or Mandarin but they have kept other traditions like eating with chopsticks. Our guesthouse owner in Banglumphu was old Chinese man who got very excited when he met Joyce (who is from Hong Kong) and proceeded to say hello and count to ten in Cantonese. Beyond that, however, his Cantonese was about as good as mine.

Food is central to Thai culture and it is truly fantastic. My early favourite was steamed sea bass in lime and chilli sauce. You can eat out for as little as 40 Baht (80 pence) so it’s very tempting to do so every lunchtime and evening. You do need to develop a strong stomach, however, and even the ‘special chilli-con-carne’ I developed as a student had not prepared me for a twice-daily intake of jalapeño peppers. There are some local delicacies I have yet to try. While eating at a riverside restaurant one evening, we saw an old couple in a wooden canoe paddling along the riverside selling dried squid to diners. The woman smoked the squid over hot coals, while her husband rolled them through an iron press to flatten them out.

The reclining Buddha - happy but not for the reasons you might expect.
© Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

By coincidence, our friends Carlene and Keith were in Bangkok for the weekend, on holiday from the US, so on Sunday we went out with them for a day of sightseeing. We got the riverboat downstream from Phra Athit pier. Unlike the Thames, the river at the heart of Bangkok (Chao Phraya) still has shoals of large fish in it that come up to the surface at dusk to catch flies. There are also clumps of reeds that drift down from rural areas upstream. The west shore of the river is less developed, with old wooden houses, temples and open land.

We got off at Tha Tien, a crowded pier with noodle stalls and souvenir shops pressed up against the river’s edge. From there, it was a short walk to Wat Phra Kaew, home of the famous ‘Reclining Buddha’. The temple was very Chinese-influenced, with sloping, tiled roves and statues of Guan Yu, the Chinese patron saint of honour and justice who is revered in Hong Kong by police officers and triads alike. There were also stone dragon statues, but with an interesting innovation compared to their counterparts in the Middle Kingdom – the stone balls in their mouths had been carved to come loose and move around their mouths. Both the balls and the inside of the dragons’ mouths had been worn smooth by being rolled around by generations of curious visitors.

Inside the temple was a giant, gold statue of the ‘Reclining Buddha’. The temple must have been built around the statue, which is so massive that you can’t see the whole thing at once. The Buddha lies on his side, his head resting on his hand, with a languorous, almost sensual smile on his golden face. In fact, he is depicted at the moment of death and his pleasure is the anticipation of imminent nirvana. At the other end of the statue, the Buddha’s massive feet are covered with intricate patterns and pictures of horses and elephants in mother-of-pearl – which seems a bit odd given Thai people’s aversion to all things foot-related.

The temple walls are covered with murals in which scenes of everyday life are intermingled with epic battles and scenes of calm contemplation. Buddha figures painted with gold leaf appear throughout, in sometimes improbable places. On one wall, an army is storming a fortress with elephants, while on the back of one great beast a Buddha figure sits smiling and calming playing a sitar.

The air was full of the smell of burning incense and the sounds of the temple were almost musical. A deep booming gong was accompanied by a higher tinkling sound which turned out to be caused by a constant stream of worshippers filing past a line of metal pots and dropping a coin into each one in turn. Around the temple, people prayed, burned incense, pasted small squares of gold leaf onto Buddha statues, or dipped a lotus flower into a bowl of water and touched it to their foreheads. It occurred to me that although the religion and philosophy of Buddhism is very different to the Catholicism of the Philippines, somehow the ritual and ceremony ends up being remarkably similar.

As we left, I noticed hundreds of coloured roof tiles piled up outside the temple for restoration work. The underside of each tile carried a message, presumably from a donor. Most were in Thai but occasionally there was one from a tourist such as ‘Wat’s up?’ from Bruno in Australia, who was clearly a bit of a joker – ‘wat’ is the Thai word for temple.

After lunch we caught a boat to Wat Arun, another temple on the other side of the river but hundreds of miles away in terms of its influences, which were much more Indian. It comprised several tall tapering towers with rounded tops, guarded by demons with green faces and tusks in full battle armour. The temple was covered in multicoloured ceramics, including flowers made from broken plates. Its spires rose vertiginously, with staircases that climbed to the third level, getting progressively narrower and steeper at each level. “Please don’t make me go up there,” implored Carlene, who doesn’t have the best head for heights. In the end she came with us, white knuckles on the railings, and was rewarded with stunning views across the river with tiny boats plying the piers far below and skyscrapers rising over the Central district to the east.

On the way out, we passed a series of statues of farm animals. Someone had left a coffee cup on the plinth of a pig statue and the stone animal had his head turned towards it, looking for all the world as if he was contemplating whether or not to take a sip of the steaming liquid.

The stone pig considering his options. © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

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