Bangkok 11

March 31st, 2015

Having procured the tourist visa for Myanmar, I need to book a flight and hotel, the former not such a big deal, given that there are only a few airlines serving Yangon from Bangkok, and Air Asia is always the clear winner. It is important to follow through on the tentative bookings to ensure that all potential costs are factored in, since airlines do their best to add costs incrementally through the booking process.

The hotels are an entirely different matter, what with trolling through the various classes of hotels on Tripadvisor and secondarily on other sites, factoring in the rating, cost, location, visual aspect of the place, commissions, all a very time-consuming process. In the end I book a hotel on the waterfront for much more money than I would consider spending anywhere else, and for a place that has no ratings attached to it yet. It is a gamble, but Yangon is simply phenomenally overpriced.

As a result of spending hours planning forward, I experience the usual late start towards Sutthisan MRT station. It’s not as if I really have any great plans for the day, other than have a nice strong coffee to regain some consciousness, and perhaps migrate on towards Wat Arun, the challenge always being getting anywhere before it is too late or closes, given how far I am located from anywhere that matters in the city.

I should take some photos of the area around the Bangkok 68 hotel, although as much as the naked eye could capture some poetry on the street, the portrait the photos depicts is far more prosaic, both in terms of subject matter and quality. Surprisingly, the back alleys around the hotel reveal an unexpected residential world, with small roadside stands attended to by smiling matrons, the greenery growing prolifically over the fecund properties, an air of tranquility only mere steps away from the relentless traffic on Soi Ratchadaphisek 17.

The shallow patio in front of the hotel is inviting, and yet I never seem to spend any time there, just as I only walked around the pool once and never managed to actually enter the pool. The Natcha Cafe across the street I have been avoiding as of late, given the tantalizing offering at the market across Ratchadaphisek. Even here, the ambulatory vendors trudge through with their carts, oblivious to holding up the stream of taxis cruising along the road.

Further towards Ratchadaphisek, the gleaming white condominium towers erupt skywards from the thick tapestry of tropical foliage. The single interesting public space is the canal whose walls are illuminated with a continuous stream of graffiti. Around the cooking school there are even a few moderately traditional-looking houses, which is somewhat of a surprise in this area of Bangkok.

The concrete diorama amplifies in scale closer to the main road, the angular condominium towers framed against the McDonalds and Au Bon Pain, whose business model eludes me, given how expensive and bad quality their offering is. En route to the bridge across Ratchadaphisek is the same vendor selling baggies of sliced sweet and tart mangoes with condiments, his main focus jackfruit, the small food stand closer to the Sutthisan metro station entrance already closed down for the day. On the far side, the the visitor descending the steps is greeted by tables laid out with all manner of whole and cut fruit, apples, red and green grapes, oranges, marian plums, watermelon, mangoes, papaya, pineapple.

Added to the mix are vendors of cake slices, Thai deserts, roasted sticky rice stuffed in banana leaves, pork and egg fritters, all manner of soups and curried stews to be eaten on site but preferably taken away, the vendors delighted at my interest in taking photos of their humble activities. Inside the prepared food market, the day has ended long before I arrived, the usual vendors politely but firmly refusing to serve me as they shut their activities down for the day.

I hadn’t had big plans for the day, but even those don’t bear much fruit. I move on to the MRT, prodding the staff at Silom station to turn the overhead lights on, given the throngs of people that push through here and the poor visibility at the ticket machines. Their indifferent laughter turns to sneering when I insist my complaint is no laughing matter.

The Silom Centre offers a heady, gleaming mixture of pricey restaurants and cafes, banks, cellular and electronics companies, the coffee places stupidly overpriced for what they are offering, and some restaurants not excessively far from the norm, the prices intended to keep the masses of riff-raff from the street away from this synthetic glimmering paradise.

A mediocre coffee on the top floor, then trenchant exhaustion, driving me back to the Skytrain and the river ferry, the afternoon light brilliant and warm from my prized seat. I am instructed to walk back from the Royal Palace jetty I disembark at toward the Wat Pho jetty, from which I can catch a smaller boat across the river to Wat Arun. Orange and saffron clad monks wait patiently for the boat to dock, their demeanour in stark contrast to the older man raging inside the ticket wicket, although in his defense, who would want to deal with an endless stream of tourists and the same questions repeated over and over while locked up from morning to evening in the boiling heat in the same tiny booth.

Wat Arun is not particularly momentous, the central prangs closed for renovations, and any budding photo opportunities quashed with the departure of the brilliant sun behind a cloud when I reached the Wat Pho pier, leaving the compact temple complex relatively shrouded in darkness, the scaffolding-cladded spires with layered intricate floral designs, lower rows dedicated to contorted demons leering out from the narrow towers.

The temple and gardens lie directly against the river, the extensive monk’s residences set further to the back of the complex. Symmetrical floral motifs adorn the walls of the main structures, the continuous row of rectangular windows set in elaborately decorated gilt frames crowned with fluted false arches. The decorative floral patterns adorn the corrugated facade of the slender prangs, quite unusual in Thai religious architecture, the elaborate crimson, emerald and gold fascia on the temple gables much less so.

Wat Arun is one of the few attractions on the west side of the river, and undoubtedly few tourists make it this far, given that neither the travel books nor any of the city maps include any detail about this area. I venture no farther than the well-maintained alley running to the back of the temple, a few proper stands set up to sell snacks and full meals to pedestrians. As much as I would love to venture further, the day has now progressed to the point that I have to worry about getting back to town, given that the river ferry service ends around 7 pm.

The usual confusion reigns on the Wat Pho pier, given that no indication is provided as to the direction the boats are going in, and the differentiated services provided. It may seem obvious to the viewer that boats originating from downstream are heading upstream, and vice versa, but some clearer confirmation could also be provided, as some boats cross the river.

The German I provide the requisite directions for navigating river travel and the larger city has just completed an engineering practicum on vehicle safety for Mercedes in Bangalore, where he took the opportunity to see many of the diverse and interesting sites in the area. As much as Thailand may be overloaded with tourists, they very quickly dissipate in the vast quagmire of India, which is as difficult to contend with as it is fascinating.

We proceed through the throngs at Saphan Thaksin, then onto the metro and towards Sala Daeng, where we look for a place to drink amidst the confusion of roadside stalls. Ironically, beyond the shiny retail, Silom Centre, the massage parlours, girlie bars and contrived restaurants, there are only a few places really suited for drinking in this apparent tourism magnet, and they are ridiculously overpriced for Thai standards.

Both of us are happier buying our beer at the 7-11 and standing on the street drinking, as it turns out other local people do, making themselves very comfortable amidst the mess of roadside food stalls whose fare is both inexpensive but also presented in such a painfully unappetizing way.

Robert only has two weeks to see Thailand and another two in Vietnam, needing to get back to Germany to look for work. He doesn’t have big plans for Bangkok, other than wanting to see a ghost skyscraper that was built somewhere – and for which I can only recommend the area around nearby Sathon Road, given that that is where most of the high towers in the city are concentrated.

He looks at me in a somewhat circumspect manner, not surprisingly, given my rather elliptical impassioned monologues. It’s not as if he was paid lavishly on his practicum, and has little chance of getting back onto his former employer’s payroll, given that Mercedes prefers hiring full time employees with solid experience. As we eat and chat, the evening progresses, and by the time I finally make it back to Silom station it is far later than I would have wanted to be returning back to the Ratchadaphisek area.

April 1st, 2015

Another day of dragging out my surreal adventure in Bangkok, today in fact being April Fool’s day, the joke definitely being on me. Unlike most other days, I actually am ready to leave the hotel by the mid-morning, and yet feel obliged to accomplish some of the many tasks outstanding before heading back to Myanmar tomorrow.

Forget (yet again) about going to Royal Palace – there are only two tasks set out for me today outside the hotel: buy stamps for the post cards I have laboriously written, and pick up the camera from Nikon. The issue of the camera itself weighs down on me like a loadstone, difficult to spin in any positive way. This trip was intended to be an effective swansong, and it really has been one of the worst I have had in many ways in a long time, largely due to the mediocrity of the stay in Thailand, never mind the fiasco with my camera.

The idea of even returning to Nikon fills me with dread. The walk through along Soi Ratchaphisek towards Soi Pracha Suk, and then down toward the post office is anything but memorable, weathered concrete, narrow streets, heavy traffic, and the intense heat. The postal employees could probably imagine doing lots of other things in this blistering heat, but it still eludes me how they can’t respond positively to my request for stamps for post cards.

At first I am told to take a number, then people in the lineups are clearly not taking numbers, so I join the queue. The employee behind the counter tells me helplessly he doesn’t have stamps, then it turns out he does, but the only ones he appears to have are for three baht, and then I am told to wait. After a while it becomes apparent that I am not really waiting for any particular purpose, and so I approach the counter again, asking specifically if the man has 5, 10 or 15 baht stamps. Yes, it turns out he has 5 baht definitives – a good start. When I ask for 45 stamps, he gives me nine stamps …

I haven’t eaten, and am absolutely loath to enter the cramped, dark and overly hot roadside eateries with the condiments thrown every which way, sallow and sickly cooked chickens and heaps of lurid blubbery pork waiting to be thrown into soup-like concoctions. On other occasions, yes, but now, no.

Weaving through the intimate alleys peppered by the putrid stench of the canal, the only thing the buyers of luxury condos here really have to look forward to, in addition to having to weave their cars through the labyrinthine narrow roads that are continuously blocked by errant food carts, the ones on Pracha Songkhro waiting for another busy evening at the night market. And yet there is no decent, even somewhat clean, presentable and air conditioned eatery in the neighborhood of the Huai Khwang MRT station.

Defeated, unhappy, and soaked in sweat, I enter the 7-11, which at home would be an absolute nadir – but this is Thailand, and the bar is exceedingly low. And their air conditioning functions admirably well. I make a point of never traveling without having a solid meal, but in this case, I just want to get out of this area. I should have passed through the Sutthisan market prior to coming here, as it is really the high point of the area, and then the Silom area I am heading into is awful in its own way.

I recall looking up the Silom Centre shops online and realizing that there is an entire swath of eateries in the basement, an area usually relegated to cheap food courts. Most of the eateries in the basement are Japanese and Korean, which I want to avoid, as the food doesn’t appeal to me here, is relatively expensive for what you are getting, and may not be that good to begin with.

Even though the upper floors of the mall feature a liberal number of coffee shops, the basement has possible four or five coffee bars, most of which are also pastry shops, which is very enticing, considering that they are also less expensive than on upper floors. Of the several bakeries, one features reasonably authentic German bread, and other than a lingering taste of mould, the long sesame roll is a delight – I just want to feel that crunch, and savour that sublime taste of good bread.

The cafes are enticing, and the Black Canyon Coffee outlet does not disappoint, nor does the conversation with the older French couple about to return to France, for whom their own country is fairly exotic, given the lengthy years they spent living in Africa, he as a teacher and she in the diplomatic corps. They enumerate the countries they had lived in, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Algeria, and Morocco, a distant world and far cry from the pedestrian commercialism and predictability of a country such as Thailand, although it’s all new to them anyway.

And now the bad news – going to Nikon to see how much they want to repair my camera. The equivalent of $1,800 CAD – even though these cameras are manufactured in the Bangkok area? Seriously?

I should somewhere hardly be shocked at the outlandish repair costs being asked by Nikon, given the rent they must be paying high up in the Empire Tower, probably one of the most prestigious business addresses in town. I politely try to get an elaboration on how the technicians arrived at estimating so much for the camera repairs, but the clerk just gives me relatively bland and disinterested answers, never mind the language barrier and her lack of technical knowledge.

All things aside, I could hardly justify spending the kind of money they are asking for the repair, given their inability to articulate the issues to me and communicate in general. I realize that this is not an English-speaking country, but as such I would rather take my camera back home where I could demand some more accountability before even thinking about spending money on having it repaired. I sign off on the repair order cancellation and pack the non-functioning camera away in my bag, secretly praying that they don’t spring hefty charges on me for looking at the camera – and they don’t.

I am perversely relieved, as disastrous as the entire experience with my camera has been – an utter and pathetic waste of hard-earned money, especially considering how frugal I normally am, never going out on a limb in any way, shape or form. $1,800 CAD thrown out the window after having spent a generous amount of money on upgrading photographic equipment …

But at least now the purgatory of my trip is over, and having accepted defeat, can move on without wasting more money on camera equipment. As tragic as the prospective repair costs for the Nikon medium format camera may be, I haven’t actually spent any money on the repair or acquiring a new equivalent camera, so beyond having bought the Olympus camera, I am not that far out on a limb financially. And then I can also plan forward without having to come back to Bangkok yet again to pick up the camera following a lengthy repair period, allowing me to travel directly from Myanmar to Sabah or Sarawak.

The afternoon was intended to be a functional exercise, and nothing more, but the vendors on the street around Chong Nonsi represent an interesting photographic and gastronomic excursion, not that using my new camera doesn’t drive home the tragedy of having lost the use of the Nikon digital medium format camera. Smiling vendors and tasty food crammed into the narrow passages leading to the metro station, a few tiny restaurants with loaded buffet trays, the blistering heat and daylight abating somewhat, the skyscrapers of the business district towering around us.

And this is as good a place as any to stock up on food and snacks, considering the relatively deplorable situation around Silom station and the evening vacuum around Sutthisan. Buying the food items on the street, metro tickets, coffee, sitting down in a restaurant, I peel away the 20s, the 100s, and occasionally the 1000 baht bills. In this innocent quotidian way the money just keeps on pouring out of my pockets, although soon in Myanmar the expenditures will be considerably less (other than hotels, at least).

Seeing the crowds weaving docilely into the packed metro illustrates the calmness and restraint of the Thai people, although it is also worth saying that their casual and relatively slow saunter drives me somewhat crazy, especially in heavily trafficked pedestrian areas. Bangkok is definitely not Hong Kong, although on the other hand, Bangkok is far more hot and humid.

The mostly female passengers are very well dressed, heavy on the black and white, the prevalence of brand name clothing probably liberally studded with fakes. And then amidst the adult passengers glued to their cell phones, a woman with nursing baby who can’t keep his eyes off me …