After our first night out together in Thailand, Jack and I woke up about 7am with our very first Bangkok ‘Changover’. The city’s scandalous humidity has rudely nudged us into an unwelcome consciousness. The weather in Bangkok is oppressive; the heat produced by the people, pollution and relentless business – locked in its sprawling confined streets – amounts to a stifling atmosphere you could probably box up and send home. It’s heat with substance.
We decided to work out a plan for the rest of the day. Firstly, we were to drop off our bags at a travel agents where Jack had bought us some train tickets to Chang Mai yesterday. Then we had to find out about departure times and the like before we chugged our way northwards through the tropical forests that evening.
All this means we effectively had a day off to explore the city. We collected and packed our strewn possessions, dragged a city map from behind one of the bed’s headboards and – in the resulting chaos – cheerfully proceeded to throw away all our booking information for the next couple of days. Blissfully unaware, we sat down to work out one of Asia’s premier urban hubs.
Now, I consider myself pretty capable with city maps. Once I get my bearings and spot a few landmarks, I can usually wander about with only occasional glances at a map. I can work underground systems in foreign languages. My sense of direction isn’t awful. More often than not I end up where I intend to. However, Bangkok remains a mystery to me. There’s just too many sections and neighbourhoods and apparently no-one can agree where one stops and another begins. There’s no ‘centre’ as such, just urban sprawl for mile after mile. We looked our map for quite some time and actually became more ignorant about Bangkok then we had been only moments previously. So we did the sensible things and just wandered out the hotel and took a left.
We popped to the travel agents to drop off our bags and started to head, possibly, in the direction of Chinatown. We stopped on a small bridge over one of numerous inconsequential canals. It’s infested with life. God knows how, the water looks and smells like refuse tank at a colonic irrigation clinic a week into the new year. A small, elderly man using an umbrella as a walking stick stood behind us and prodded me gently in the ribs.
‘This is not a river’.
I take another look at the bubbling water. It definitely looks like a river.
I turned to face him because it was a statement worthy of attention.
‘This is not a river, Chao Phraya is over there’, he pointed his umbrella over our heads.
‘Oh right no, we didn’t think that, we just saw the… fish’, Jack said as he waggled his hands helpfully in a fish-like manner.
“Oh, is that what they are?’, Jack nodded solemnly a couple of times before continuing, ‘Sorry, could you tell us where Chinatown is?’
‘You shouldn’t eat catfish’, the elderly man said, wagging a finger at us like this might well have been our intention.
We look at the river just as a small dead – but slightly nibbled – dog floats past.
‘Right. We’ll probably give that a miss then’
We all stood and looked at the brown, scummy water for a moment or two.
‘So, Chinatown. Do you know where it is? We’re not sure which way to go…’, I asked our new friend.
‘Chinatown? I walk there now’
He walked off briskly, his umbrella rapidly tapping away beside him. After 20 feet, he turned and waved for us to follow him.
It turned out the man’s name was Chai and he had been the Agricultural Minister for Thailand for many years but now lived in Chang Mai. He was a particularly friendly, knowledgeable guy who unrelentingly called me ‘Arix’ and never once understood a word I said. He taught me almost everything I know about Bangkok/Thailand’s culture and was a genuinely likable soul.
As an introduction to his generosity, Chai introduced us to the free buses that run throughout Bangkok and guided us through China town and the lesser known, but more interesting, India Town. At one point, we jumped off the bus to explore and take a stroll through an intensely beautiful flower market. Each one of my senses battle for supremacy as we amble through the little street stalls – the luminous glow of the lotuses, the constant blare of the tuk-tuks, the smell of fried street food – and I started to feel a touch overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the city and the after effects of last night’s festivities. I think Chai spotted that we were becoming a little uneasy and took us to the relative sanctuary of a nearby ferry dock.
After insisting that he pay, Chai led us onto a rickety old barge and told us about the flooding that often occurs in the rainy season. Some of the houses on the riverfront had signs of water damage about 2 metres above the usual waterline. As we disembarked onto a mouldy dock and were taken through some dizzying backstreets to a remote Buddhist Temple. Chai, a Buddhist himself, explained the various rituals and statues that we saw dotted about. One of the things he told us was that people often mistake the Fat (or Lucky) Buddha as ‘the’ Buddha. The actual Buddha is the rather more svelte Siddhārtha Gautama. Our tour guide joked that the Lucky Buddha is sometimes referred to as the Chinese Buddha because ‘Chinese people are only concerned where their next meal is coming from’ and chuckled happily at his own joke. I consider all the fat Chinese people I’ve ever known or seen. It doesn’t take very long.
After another brief chat about Buddhist dogma, Chai excitedly showed us his temple’s showpiece – an enormous, golden statue. It’s 300 years old and exquisitely crafted. Before we were allowed in, we were asked to take our shoes off. This was something I really, really didn’t want to to do. I’d hate to dishonour our friend but I’d been wearing my sweaty, sticky sandals for a few days now in extremely humid conditions and frankly, my feet stank. There were signs everywhere saying that entry whilst wearing footwear was ‘strictly forbidden’. Feeling very uncomfortable, I guiltily removed my sandals and apologised to everyone present. No-one really seemed to mind because – coincidentally – everyone had just finished their prayers for the day anyway and began streaming out.
We knelt there for quite some time – eyes watering due to joint pain and odour- whilst Chai told us about his time as a Monk. In Thailand it’s compulsory for men to attend a monastery for 3 months or more in their life. It’s a source of great shame to the parents if this tradition is not adhered to and is generally regarded as fundamental to the country’s structure and the people’s gentle disposition.
After pottering a round for a little while more, we eventually left to find a water taxi. We joined a queue of folk, all well dressed and presumably making their way for their lunch break. Surrounded by these respectably -attired people I became acutely aware that bodily functions don’t hold the same social taboo’s in South East Asia as they do in the the West. It’s quite something to watch a suited, middle-aged man openly burp into a pretty lady’s face who counters by breezily and unashamedly farting onto your leg. Acts of this nature weren’t uncommon through our Asian odyssey. I never got used to it.
Breathing through our mouths, we arrived at the water’s edge and alight a colourful but visibly leaking taxi. We powered along a tributary surrounded by a plethora of wooden shops and houses. Some people, we were told, live their entire existence without ever leaving the river. Little kayaks float between all the houses selling everything you might possibly need to survive so there’s no need to go anywhere else. One lady paddled along whilst frying chicken on an open flame on her boat. I couldn’t decide whether I was envious or not; everyone looked incredibly content as they gently bobbed along but it must take a strong stomach to live so close to Bangkok’s putrid river systems. It’s also an incredibly limited way of life. As I considered these thoughts, I was rudely interrupted when Chai barked at Jack to move across the boat so they could both act as a ballast to me. I suddenly feel a certain amount of empathy with the Lucky Buddha.
As we skipped along, Chai pointed out the varying states of decay on the wooden foundations of the shacks surrounding us. Some of the houses were in such a state of disrepair that they were dipping a tentative toe into the murky waters that constantly lapped against them. Apparently the homeowners replace the supports every 10 or so years. After looking at the maciated wooden stalagmites poking up through the river’s surface, I imagine – for the sake of my mental wellbeing – that I would be replacing them every 3-4 years. Then again, it’s exactly the sort of job you would never get around to isn’t it? Until the fateful day you get a very rude awakening.
Between the bowing huts, there were bare patches of land along the river banks. Chai told us that farmers buy plots along the river and intensively abuse the land until it has nothing left to give. Then other people buy the land and build properties on them. As such, Bangkok is seeping out along the river at an incredible rate and the trend is only accelerating. 70% of all Thai people are farmers in one way or another. Chai’s job and status is therefore of massive significant. Without him many of these people would be caught in a perpetual loop of breeding and farming, breeding and farming, breeding and farming. He works hard to ensure that the farmers’ children get an education so they have opportunities to pursue other ambitions. He said it was hard but rewarding work.
10 minutes later, we stopped in a little shop to have a couple of beers and some fresh pineapple. The guy piloting the water taxi parks up by ambitiously – but successfully – managing a handbrake turn in a boat. To this day, I have no idea how he did it.
We sat with the shop’s owner and spent an hour or so sharing 3 or 4 bottles of Chang between the 4 of us, I was at the very pleasant stage that a man gets to after 2 pints and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I watched life on the river float past and a farmer ruthlessly toil the land on the bank opposite. At one point he threw us one of the coconuts that he had just harvested. Jack seemed particularly relaxed too. Chai however, was completely arse-holed. He’s a small, elderly Asian man and that last bottle of beer hit him like a tyre iron. Swaying heavily, he escorted us both to the toilet because there are ‘no toilets on the boat’. I looked down the hole he was directing me to piss through and saw the river below. It struck me that rather than there was no toilet on the boat, the boat was actually on the toilet.
As we left the small shop, I noticed the sharp smell of antiseptic. There was a hospital bed half-hidden around the corner from me and I could see a pair of frail, blue legs jutting out the bottom. I spotted the lady of the house merrily massaging the calves of her bed-bound patient whilst occasionally popping a cube of fresh fruit into her happily smiling mouth. It was a rather surreal moment.
Everyone who was able to came and waved us off and even handed us a few cans of Chang for our return trip. I watched a pissed Chai lightly skip onto the waiting taxi before he turned to offer me his hand to help me aboard. Still smarting from his earlier implication that I needed a ballast to sit on a boat, I decided to jump from the platform with my trademark cat-like grace. I landed on a an emergency oar, stumbled and came sphincter-tightenly close to rugby-tackling our driver off his own taxi. I help Jack across the narrow boat and sit very quietly by myself.
It was an enjoyable trip back – jumping waves unsteadily and leaning into the corners – but things soon turned a little stale. For quite some time, Chai and the driver were discussing something vehemently but Jack and I were lost as to what was going on.
After much shouting and gesticulation, it became apparent that the driver wanted 1500 baht for the trip ‘because he waited long time’. That’s about 30 quid. ‘Tenner a piece?’, I thought, ‘that’s a wee bit pricey but nothing to get too upset about’.
Then the driver said ‘Each’.
90 quid. 90 British pounds. We could genuinely have bought the whole boat for that. £90 buys you a week in a 5* hotel out here.
We argue and haggle but in the end we have to pay . Chai was getting more and more upset – almost crying – and I didn’t want to rock the boat further (sorry). We paid the full hit because swimming for it – with a drunk, elderly Agricultural Minister in tow – was never really an option.
The driver even had the audacity to ask for a tip.
Chai lavishly broke wind as we left the boat.