Monday, 23 February 2009

Around the mail in 15 mails - No.8 (Bangkok)

Kwitting Bankok's Orkward

Bangkok March 29 2005

Bonjour mon amis.

I've fallen in love. She's a big girl and some who know her regard her with a suspicious eye. She has a dodgy reputation and stories abound concerning her exploits. True to form, just as love blossoms between us, my fear of commitment rears its ugly head and I'm leaving, before things get too serious. Oh, her name is Bangkok.

I came to this city expecting only to pass through on my way to Laos. I have been in B'kok for 10 days now and it with deep regret that I board a train for Chiang Mai this evening. It is rather like when you allow yourself to get excited about a planned night out, only to be disappointed, compared to those spur of the moment evenings that turn out to be great fun and talked about for years after.

I moved away from the Business/Red Light district to the more fashionable 'traveler' hang-out of Banglampu and the Kao San Road. I checked in to a guesthouse recommended by the Aussie girls I met in Delhi and have been so comfortable, happy and relaxed that I have been unable to prise myself away from the place.

I've befriended one of the waitresses at the hotel. Nan (her name not her title) has the most amazing smile, one which lights up her whole face and I would challenge even the coldest of blood not to warm a little at the sight of her grin. After a day or two, we started going for beers when her shift finished and I've learnt some invaluable lessons about Thai girls:-

1) Never, ever, play pool against them, unless your name is Steve Davis and you can be certain of victory. We go to a pool bar called Gullivers each afternoon and the place is teeming with pool sharks. It's winner stays on and no quarter is given or asked for, as I learnt to my eternal shame. After playing a couple of games against Nan and winning fairly comfortably, her friend Suan was next to play me. After a little run of luck, I found I had only one ball and the black left to pot. In a moment of what in this day and age could be construed as rampant sexism but which at the time I felt was simple gallantry, I missed the crucial pot, to allow Suan at least one visit to the table. What a monumental mistake that was - she only needed one visit and cleared up in three minutes, leaving me stunned, speechless, hugely embarrassed and well and truly hustled. I vowed then to play to win and on each day since have done exactly that - and invariably lost.

2) They may, for the most part, be no more that 5ft 2 but boy can they drink. Do not go for a quick drink, unless you have 7 hours to spare and the capacity to drink enormous volumes of bottled lager, washed down with buckets of whiskey and rum. 100% humidity and raging hangovers are not a good mix and made especially worse when your drinking partners are up and working at 7am the next day with no noticeable ill effects from the previous nights exploits.

3) Do go for meals with your Thai friends but not if you're the eldest - at 33 I invariably am. Thai tradition dictates that the senior partner pays for the meal and that the youngest serves the food and drink. Being taken under their wings has given me an insight into Thailand/B'kok that few foreign tourists sadly probably don't get. Real Thai cuisine beats anything I've eaten in India - delicate but spicy soups (go and order Tom Yam Keung NOW), profusions of flavours, exceptional street stall grub and talking of grubs - deep fried bugs are not to be missed!

It is for the the reasons above and a number of others, that I've found parting with this city so tricky. If my left ventricle is London and my right Larissa then the squishy bit in the middle is B'kok.

My friend, Nan, has an extraordinarily sad story to tell, which makes her ever-smiling countenance even more surprising. She moved to Bangkok at the beginning of this year, having previously lived with her Grand-mother for 14 years on the island of Koh Phi Phi. If you're beginning to join the dots - you're heading in the right direction. Her 17 year old step-brother, at her suggestion, moved to Koh Phi Phi last October and died on 26th of December at the hands of the Tsunami. Nan and some of her friends escaped to the Mountains and the next day, returned to the beach. She searched in vain for her brother until some days later, one of her chums came to her with news that he'd been found. She had to endure identifying his body and two days later, she left vowing never to return. Her mother, who the step-brother left, refuses to talk to her, blaming her for his death, so she came to B'Kok, to get work and put it all behind her. It's a horrible story and has really brought home to me the suffering endured by so many. I don't have the words to comfort her, nor the experience to offer real help. That said, she remains stoical and continues to smile and see only the best in life. I hope it's not just a screen and that she's bottling it all up, only for it to explode at some point in the future. For the more cynical amongst you, I verified her story with others and know she's telling the truth and not just spinning a yarn to get rich 'furung' to spend lots of cash on her.

The above was written yesterday afternoon from Bangkok. I'm now sitting in internet cafe in Chaing Mai, after a glorious 13 hour train journey.

The 'glorious' is not sarcasm. It was a great journey and yet another example of how India could do so much better if it just tried a little harder(sounds a touch like my school reports!). Two good meals, friendly and attentive staff, comfortable bed, air-conditioning that worked a timetable that was honored and a hassle free arrival at Chaing Mai. You don't need to hear all this, suffice to say, I was tempted to stay on the train and go back to B'kok.

If you can bare to keep reading, I want to talk about Kanchanaburi. Perhaps, if you're short of time you should close the mail and come back to it at this point, later in the day!

A few days ago, I went on a trip to Kanchanaburi, to visit the bridge over the river kwai and pay my respects. I shouldn't have to tell any of you the story, but as is now customary, a little background knowledge follows (from my memory only, so factually, probably not quite correct).

In 1941 the British were sitting pretty, sipping pink gins at the Raffles hotel in Singapore and generally looking forward to a little fight with the Japanese, who it was felt, they could easily over-power. Certain in the knowledge that the enemy would attack from the sea (of course they would never attack over-land from the Malay peninsula), all their defenses pointed outwards. Sure enough, their foe swept through Thailand and Malaysia and arrived, over-land at Singapore's backdoor, via the aforementioned peninsula. The RAF were sent to sort them out, and were destroyed. The Navy were sent to sort out the RAFs mess, and were destroyed. The Japanese continued their attack Their 65,000 men were attacking a force of over 100,000+ plus several more thousands arriving by ship each day. WSC (that's Churchill to all but Dad and Colin) declared that Singapore must not fall and that it should be defended to the last - something along the line of officers falling with their men.

Singapore listened to this advise and promptly surrendered. 100,000 men were taken prisoner, a good many of them not even having fired a shot in anger. The Japanese, who believed in fighting to the death couldn't believe how a force almost twice as strong as theirs could fold so easily and exacted a terrible punishment on their prisoners. The building of the Burma - Thailand railway was one of those punishments. The Death railway was designed to connect Thailand and Burma, so the Japanese could supply their troops etc and it was to cross the River Kwai at Kanchanburi. The whole length of the railway was 450 miles long and 100,00 died building it (15,000 POWs, the rest Chinese, Thai & Malay civilians). By my reckoning that's 220 odd per mile.

Forget the film - Jack Hawkins doesn't fall on the detonator to blow the bridge up, against Alec Guinness's wishes. In fact, the Allies bombed it in mid-1945 but it was repaired shortly after. Also, it wasn't made of bamboo but with iron and concrete.

It was a strange day, not least because I had a 5am alarm! Seriously though, I found the Cemetery very thought-provoking and cannot begin to imagine how those poor devils suffered. It was interesting that the vast majority of visitors to the bridge itself appeared to be Japanese and many of them very elderly - you can't help wondering..........? I kept my dignity, although, if you'd been very close to me, you may have heard a quietly whistled tune has I marched across.

Later and against my wishes, we traveled several miles on the railway itself. I say against my wishes but I'm not sure I mean that. The Thai population use the railway on a daily basis and it has proven very useful to them. Let's not forget the enormous deprivations they suffered, so they should be able to use it to their advantage.

As a bit of light relief, in the afternoon I went on an Elephant trek. The rest of my party were paired off but I, as the odd one out (there were 7 off us and I was lingering at the back smoking a ciggie) was asked if I didn't mind going solo on the beast. I said I didn't mind and jumped on board and settled myself in the seat on Bobo's (the elephants name) back. Everyone else had a boy sitting in front of them steering it with a wicked hooked stick. After some gesticulating, it transpired that they wanted me to steer myself. Visions of Varanasi came into my head (you may recall the boat trip I took and was made to row the boat myself). They must either 'see me coming' or they say to themselves 'there's someone that can handle themselves'! So, I slipped down from the comfy seat to the less comfy back of the elephants head, was handed the stick and led off the procession, with my fellow tourists behind me. What an experience. In fairness, I did have a boy walking ten yards ahead of me, occasionally turning round to check I was alright. On reflection, I think they were getting me to steer as a joke and were intending to take over after a few meters but, and I kid you not, I took to it like a duck to water (or like an elephant to mud). Luckily, those few occasions in my childhood when I rode a horse were quite useful. Instead of thighs and feet, you tweak the animals left ear to go left and it's right - well that's obvious. If it comes to halt, you squeeze both knees into the side of its head. I loved it and, blowing my own trumpet, the wardens were pretty impressed "You good, you good"!! Bobo and I became good friends. I eschewed the pointy stick, in favour of my hands and squeezing my way through the jungle, I had an incident free and truly memorable journey! The only down side is the fact that I've rubbed about 5 layers of skin off my knees and have worn a hole in the seat of my trousers. Why can't they develop an Elephant moisturiser? Bobo's reward at the end was two bunches of bananas - which under different circumstances, would have kept me in breakfasts for two weeks.

I'll leave it there folks, I've tested your patience for long enough and if you're still reading, then I commend you. So it's Chiang Mai now and after B'Kok, as The Specials once sung, "This town's gonna be a ghost town'.

Think I might head back the B'kok in a few days and re-evaluate my travel

Lots of love to one and all.


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