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.