Bangkok has become one of my favourite cities and after three days here I feel my senses have been fully assaulted. I still wouldn’t say I know the city even after three visits but I’m getting better at not getting lost.
On Monday Dom, the tuktuk driver delivered me to Lumphini park which I strolled around dodging sprinklers and cyclists – not exactly relaxing. The sprinklers were like water cannons. My walk then took me to the main shopping district and after taking advantage of the air conditioning in various shops I decided to try my luck on the Skytrain which is one of Bangkok’s transport options. It only has a few lines but that didn’t stop me getting hopelessly lost.
I started at Chit Lom and headed for Mo Chit which was in the wrong direction. After passing Bang Chak, On Nut, Pho Nimit, Thong Lo, Udom Suk, Chuk Pu and Phuc Dat I finally got to Phlong Pong.
I was looking for Soi 33 after reading about it in a book about Bangkok. Supposedly it had bar after bar named after a dead artist. I only found Monet, Dali and Goya but apparently there used to be a Renoir. It was actually a disappointment but more disappointing was that I’d been in BKK for over 12 hours without a massage.
I tried getting a straightforward massage in Soi 33 but it proved tricky as they all seemed to offer extra services as standard. Hand job, blow job, “foot” job, light gardening. So I went in search of a basic massage and met Lao. Nice chap driving a tuktuk who promised me the earth for 20 baht (50p). In future I will be a little more wary of such offerings for meagre recompense. He took me to a bar (I bought a beer), he took me to a massage parlour (overpriced), he took me to a jeweller (refused to get out of the tuktuk) and he was going to take me to a tailor before our friendship disintegrated into handbags at 12 paces. We parted company after 30 minutes together and will probably not be staying in touch. The divorce settlement cost me just under a pound.
So I was set adrift with google maps my only friend. I headed in the direction of my hotel and soon I found a massage place on the main road. I make them sound a rarity. Every other shop is a massage shop but this one had a girl who looked like a librarian so I figured I was safe. And indeed I was. My happy ending was that it only cost me £12. They provided black mesh pants which I found quite fetching so I kept them. Not sure they’re “pool attire” but I’ll find a use. Maybe light gardening.
In the evening I went to the night market which is a euphemism for something. As well as an actual night market there are also a proliferation of racy bars. I sat at the same bar I sat at last year and watched the world go by. It was early in the evening and the go-go bars were sparse to say the least (as I walked by without entering you understand). I was looking for a purse that said “I love Thailand” to put my Thai money in but they’ve only got Gucci knock-offs and the like – nothing so cheap and tacky. I didn’t stay long and on the way back I found a French bistro with an obsequious waiter.
I was up at a ridiculous time on Tuesday for the main reason for being in Bangkok – a tour of the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Death Railway. I know how to have a good time. There were eleven of us on the coach and it took two hours to reach the first stop which was a cemetery with name plaques for all those who’d died. I walked through the English section and the vast majority were only in their twenties. Such a sad waste of life.
Next was a museum of underwhelming proportions followed by a boat ride to the bridge and then after walking over the bridge, a 90 minute train ride billed as the main event. We’d all upgraded to first class for an additional two quid. Possibly the most understated first class I’ve ever experienced. No fancy seats with soft cushioning. No wood panelling or expensive draperies. It was a first class where simplicity was to be embraced in the most basic of ways. Less is more.
I’d made some friends – Pat and Stephanie (70’s) originally from Ireland but now spending half the year in Ontario and half in Maxico. I’m hearing about this Mexico option more and more. No humidity, a thriving expat community and very cheap.
After the train we had a chicken lunch at some jungle outpost masquerading as a restaurant with Kenny G playing throughout. Of course I bonded with the owner straight away as we discussed Kenny’s classics.
I was hoping that the tour included Hellfire Pass which was a 500m stretch of track that the POWs carved using basic tools and their bare hands (they could have done with the fork from the plane), but it was not part of the tour. Our guide for the tour had poor English but he did his best and on the way back decided to sing John Denver’s Country Roads. It was wonderfully tragic.
A 12 hour trip but worthwhile. I jumped off the coach once it hit the heavy traffic that Bangkok is becoming famous for and managed to get lost despite google maps. It’s a nice city to get lost in!
Wednesday was another beautiful sunny day so I went to the gym first, then swam, then sunbathed, then hit the town. Went shopping via the Skytrain again and on the platform I seemed to be amusing to a one eyed woman who’d taken a shine to me. Scared the bejesus out of me so as we boarded the train I rushed to the next carriage. After giving cyclops the slip I finally got to my destination, Jim Thompson’s House. It’s in the top ten things to do in BKK. JT was an American businessman who was responsible for reviving the silk industry in Thailand. A former architect, spy and designer he went missing in 1967 during a trip to Malaysia and has never been seen since. He built a multifaceted house by a klong (canal) and I had a tour. We had to be accompanied by a guide.
After the house tour I needed another massage and I found a little place down the side alley and a young Vietnamese girl called Jo. There was a sign on the wall saying “NO SEX” so I was safe from the start. It was one of the more unusual massages I’ve ever had. At first I thought her speciality might be ears and nostrils but later on in the ordeal I realised that her real forte was torture – she giggled every time I yelped.
Back at the hotel I went to the sauna which was like the United Nations. I got talking to a Thai chap called Boon who ran a language school charging $500 for five months (and you can attend as often as you wish). He’d got his PhD in Philadelphia ten years ago. He was 57 now but looked much younger. He said that the English were much more “cultivated” than Americans.
For my last night in Bangkok I was heading out to Kaosan Road which is a vibrant part of the city but the traffic was so bad I abandoned that idea and ended up at the night market for a second night running. I certainly wouldn’t have the patience to be a taxi driver here. It’s murder. The easiest way to get around is on the back of a motorbike and the locals do it so effortlessly. The girls sit sidesaddle and don’t even hold on. I found a bar that sold white wine and perched street side to see what I could see. It’s astonishing just how many lone single guys trawl the streets here.
Anyway, back to the River Kwai and the death railway. It was probably the most ambitious building project in the Second World War designed to aid the Japanesewar effort by moving supplies. Using 60,000 allied POWs and 150,000 Asian workers the 258 mile railway was completed in a little over a year. Along the route were a number of bridges (600) of which the River Kwai bridge is the most famous and of course Hellfire Pass. Over 12,000 POWs died during the construction of whom over half were British. A railway link between Thailand and Burma had been proposed as far back as 1885 but the terrain was considered too difficult. What the Japanese achieved through a combination of determination and brutality was quite incredible.
Note: Watch Colin Firth in The Railway Man, Obi Wan Kenobi in Bridge on the River Kwai and I may have made up at least one station name.