January 14th, 2015
The priority this morning is to get to the Myanmar embassy and apply for a tourist visa to the country. As motivated as I was to leave early, the usual mess of small things kept me occupied prior to physically embarking on the journey into town, including making notes, reflecting on my travel itinerary, cleaning up, going to the Natcha café for breakfast when it was in fact unexpectedly closed, then waiting in vain for my order to be taken in the 24-hour restaurant of the Bangkok 68 hotel. But then there are street vendors everywhere, and in a pinch sustenance of some sort is available at a modest cost, this morning’s offering including a baggie of jackfruit freshly culled from the enormous spiked gourd-like fruit, and rice with red curry and somewhat indiscernible ingredients at a roadside eatery next to the shining glass buildings on Ratchadaphisek Road.
The security guard inspecting baggage at the metro station waves at my food, informing me that I can’t eat in the metro station as I bite off another chunk of the stringy golden fruit. ‘But this is Thailand, and Thailand is about food!’ I exhort her, to which she responds smilingly that I can eat anywhere I want to, but not in the metro system. And locals definitely obey those edicts – there is no smoking, no drinking, no eating, and people behave exceeding respectfully, something that we could only dream of back home. Well, actually you do see that kind of behavior – when you take the Skytrain to Richmond, anyway …
Happily, there is little unpredictable about this journey into town, as I already know the route well. The metro station where I am located is tomblike, brightly lit, and relatively empty at this time of day, the number of passengers in the train not more than a trickle, so I can sit the entire journey and prepare my poor feet for the battering that they can expect later on in the day. Other than the endless advertising loop emanating from the overhead monitors, the train glides almost soundlessly through the tunneled landscape of the city, and I disembark at the now familiar Silom station south of Lumphini park.
I could have walked all the way down Sathorn road towards the Myanmar embassy, but it is simply more convenient to take the elevated train that loops from the Sala Daeng station towards the Sarasak metro station, from which the Myanmar embassy is nothing more than a short walk away. But alone the connecting walk from Silom to Sala Daeng is onerous, given the distance and the otherwise intense heat. Encouraging is the plethora of cafés and bakeries that abound; little in this area is shabby, particularly what is visible through the glass sheet fronting the enormous Silom mall on one side. Well, how about a quick coffee …
The visa waiting room at the Myanmar embassy houses an intimidating and sweaty morass of people, although at least it still seems open. At least it isn’t too hot at the moment, the temperature if anything very mild, and even better, the perennial haze having abated to reveal clear blue skies. Of the motley crowd of people waiting, most appear to be Thai, although I wonder to what extent some of these people are Burmese. There are also a lot of backpackers and touts doing the leg work for travel agents. A harried young Thai woman at the back of the waiting area sells application forms, makes a passport copy as well as providing 8 passport photos for 100 baht, requiring nothing more than filling the usual details on the form. A young Italian backpacker anxiously asks me what address in Myanmar she should put in the respective field, not that in the end it would even vaguely matter. The few tables available for writing are occupied by people seated defiantly with absolutely no intent of giving their seats up, irrespective of how little use they have for the table they are seated at.
Once completed, I line up briefly at counter 4, the official inspects my forms, returns them to me and issues me a number that doesn’t seem to indicate that I will be waiting too long for final processing. From what I can see on the LED monitors, the staff here is quite efficient, the numbers incrementing on a steady basis. Backpackers of diverse provenances chatter excitedly, reflecting on their challenges and future travel aspirations.
The entertaining older woman from northern England seated behind me insists that her party days are long over, but she really needs to know where she can go out in the evening, as she just doesn’t get to bed before 3 in the morning, and wants to make the best of her time. Look, even Siem Reap had decent bars, and no, she doesn’t suffer inconveniences too happily – at her age she needs her creature comforts. I have no idea as to how she imagines that traveling through Myanmar will unfold with such expectations. Sure, you can have all the comfort you want to – but not if you are expecting to do it on a rock bottom budget. The English never cease to make their unique mark on Southeast Asia …
I descend from the Hua Lamphong metro station towards what I take to be the river, as per the instructions of a tuktuk driver frustrated by the idea of another farang escaping his grip. The haze is palpable, and yet the walk pleasant along the quiet, tree-lined canal, an enjoyable break from the omnipresent urban frenzy. The modern housing developments on the opposing side of the street draw on historic designs, in stark contrast to the dilapidated wooden shacks hanging in the dark over the fetid canal.
A young woman from Berlin heading in the opposing direction is somewhat perplexed at my vivacious exposition on the wonders of her country and assures me that I would not want to walk all the way through Chinatown and on to the Royal Palace. But indeed I do – when I came here yesterday I saw too many photographic opportunities slip from my grip. Along the historic building marking the far end of Chinatown, I am advised to cross one of the quaint bridges, arced over the canal with a string of bright flowers as accompaniment, in and out of the embrace of the Milanese couple who remind me yet again how the brilliance and charisma of the Italian people has brought the human experience into a different dimension. The smallest turns of phrase, inflection, the most incidental sentiments are metamorphosed and tossed back in my direction.
Initially staid, the busy shop houses become more concentrated, the occasional wreck of one of the two-storied wood structures remaining bereft of the vaguest hope for restoration, the sagging balconies threatening to collapse altogether. Past the brilliant red traditional Chinese gate marking the entrance to Chinatown proper, I follow the bus I took in frustration the other day at a leisurely pace in this quagmire of traffic, the retail concentrating and erupting onto the streets, innumerable vendors of oranges, mandarins, pomegranates, papaya and mango competing with grilled meats, sausages, deep-fried battered chicken, satay in various forms, indiscernible concoctions assembled from innumerable ingredients, grilled bananas, and inside, luggage, Taoist devotional objects, pharmacies, automotive and stationery supplies, shoe stores, occasional restaurants, and almost none of the massage parlours seen elsewhere in town.
The Canton House looks somewhat inviting but offers some of the worst dim sum I can remember having ingested, portions small, the texture gluey and flavour disturbing. The charming owner of the neighboring BKS cafe concurs – they really do have the worst food in the area. Small and tasteful hostels appear here and there, the sois that feed into the main roads heaving with life, irrepressibly vomiting forth goods, traffic, and pedestrians. The local population is admirably respectful, considering the amount of tourists taking up the small amount of available space, halting to snap photos or gawk at the brilliant and hypnotizing spectacle around them.
Beyond the concentration of Chinatown, the broad swath of Ko Ratanakosin opens up to its royal mysteries, and bordering the Chao Phraya, the wall of bristling towers lining the far banks of the surging river, moments of intimacy, passing ferries, and the occasional bridge to the far side.
Away from the commercial fray on the inner side of Ratanakosin lie regal touches of European architectural prowess from bygone eras, ostentatious ministerial structures lining Sanam Chai road, then the military base, the fecund green of Saranrom Park and its energetic denizens, ensconced in varying degrees of exercise, from the turgid repetitive movements on the public exercise machines to huffing runners along the manicured trails, and further on, the vast emptiness of Sanam Luang, and even further, Khaosan Road …
January 15th, 2015
The goal of today’s ventures involves wrapping a few walks in the city’s core areas around the mid-afternoon return to the Myanmar embassy for the purpose of picking up my passport and hopefully visa. The Natcha Cafe is open again today when I leave the Bangkok 68 at the usual unfathomably late hour. ‘Just give me something with a lot of flavour!’ I tell the employee in the cafe, and his stir-fry noodles don’t disappoint, rich in chopped chili, lemon grass, parsley, basil and fresh peppercorn, which rounds out the exotic bouquet of the apparently humble dish.
The woman in the small cafe near the Suthisan metro station is happy to see me and instructs me in a few words of Thai, her other customer only too enthusiastic as to my thoughts on the state of affairs here while the locals seated outside eye me with curiosity. The futile baggage check in the metro station again, the attendant very polite, sharing in the vague humour of the experience. As everywhere, poised lady boys prepared for the day’s adventures join the crowds on the metro. Rather than entering the brazen commercial fray of the Terminal 21 mall, I continue along Sukhumvit Road which runs into Ploen Chit road running further to the west.
The area comes across as Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur, but at a much later and more regrettable stage of development, what with the cheap Asian eateries, lurking sleaze and tourist bars overwhelmed by gigantic corporate towers and glistening five star hotels, the massive growth of the elevated Skytrain cutting a protean swath overhead and obliterating any sense of escape, a lurid example of the almost insatiable appetite the city has for growth. The small alleys radiating outwards could reflect some sense of respite on the surface, if not for the myriad of massage parlours, hustlers, and general sense of subterfuge emanating from the cramped establishments.
The street level of the main road is hardly more inviting, generic sports bars, Indian restaurants and other culturally apropos businesses, massage parlours and notions stores competing for the attentions of the passing pedestrians. Near one metro station, a row of vendors prepares traditional street food with the usual charm, against a backdrop of soaring concrete and glass monstrosities.
I had expected the walk to be onerous and lengthy, but when I check my bearings on the map, it seems I am making good headway without even trying. For once! Gargantuan malls erupt around me, the Central World multiplex a paean to moneyed consumerism, the glossy surfaces and brilliant lighting beckoning the privileged into the bowels of overmarketed haute couture, expansive boutiques counting amongst the likes of Gucci, Kenzo, Versace, John Varvatos, and Fendi, the usually brazenly corporate brands trolling the pocketbooks of wealthy Asians for their riches.
The shimmering tomb-like interior remains largely bereft of human life other than the few disinterested locals wandering absent-mindedly through the passages. The adjoining mall offers off-the-rack merchandise from the same brands, in a more a conventional mall setting, cluttered together in micro-boutiques reminiscent of the latest merchandising trends. There is a food court on the 7th floor, but after a brief perusal I leave again, disinterested in paying inflated prices for presumably off-beat Asian versions of western foods, Thai food assuming only the most incidental presence.
Now down towards Lumphini Park, the fashionable restaurants, Mercedes limousines and luxury condominium towers with artful facades and posh courtyards bespeaking the desirability of the area. As hard as it may be to get a decent coffee elsewhere in the universe, that certainly is not the case here. Much as I avoid chains, the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf prepares an amazingly good cappuccino, and in any case, the chain kept my spirits alive when there was little hope of a decent coffee elsewhere in Malaysia. But most of the area has a formula luxury feeling to it, with little sense of authenticity. The western-style restaurants I would expect very little of in any case.
And yet, here, as everywhere else in the city, street vendors are present, discretely maintaining their distance from the purview of the privileged, ready to offer their hearty and inexpensive wares to the humble denizens that lubricate the underbelly of the economy, the cleaners, hospitality workers and construction crews that abound. You really never need go beyond the street here to eat a quality meal at a bargain price.
Lumphini Park offers respite from the bustle of the city, although far from the wild space that the Englishman I met on Sathorn road seemed to indicate. Broad paved walkways meander amongst the smattering of trees, the lakes set against the grey spires of distant skyscrapers, hosting individual paddleboats embarking on their romantic afternoon cruises.
Stray tourists wander through, intent on taking in another one of the city’s innumerable sites, others resting on the grassy meridian, attempting a retreat from the pressures of city life. Schoolchildren are herded along and further to the south, a group of young Thai in traditional costumes carrying instruments and engaging in agitated chatter when not distracted by their social media commitments.
The return to the Myanmar embassy should be relatively easy, given that I have plied the route several times already. Climbing to the elevated platform of the Sala Daeng station south of Lumphini park, the frequent Skytrain snakes along the elevated roadbed toward Sarasak station, and weaving through the uniformed schoolboys attending the Catholic school, I join the throngs at the entrance of the Myanmar embassy pushing their way in as the doors open for the afternoon pickup session commences, a number of lines forming evenly, and when I finally reach the wicket, I am told that I am in the wrong lineup.
Naturally, no signage indicates which lineup I should have joined, and so I brazenly inform the somewhat startled young backpackers in what should have been my lineup that I will now be joining them – whether they like it or not! The visa is valid for 28 days, and has to be used up within three months. So the next step in organizing the trip to Myanmar will be booking a return flight to Mandalay from Chang Mai the day my Thai visa expires, and returning 28 days later to Chang Mai.
One station further to the Saphan Taksin metro station, and I am in another world of mystery and subterfuge, the riverside quarter south of Chinatown replete with narrow alleys, dilapidated shops, elegant boutiques, brazen luxury, mysterious boutique hotels, riverboat piers, and shimmering temples.
Under the muscular torso of the elevated train channel, rows of food vendors fastidiously present their gastronomic wares to the narrow passages shared by local commuters and tourists alike. A plethora of fresh fruit and other exotic constituents, including orange, passion fruit, hibiscus, chrysanthemum flower and galangal, roast and dried fish, all manner of grilled sausages on skewers, and water and sodas await the crowd milling towards the pier, the jetty bouncing up and down for every passing motorized vessel, the lengthy barges on the Chao Phraya complimented by the river ferries and smaller long boats rented to tourists to explore the heart of the city from the perspective of its watery lungs, hulking towers visible in the haze on the further banks of the river. The artfully appointed stone terraces overlook rank sewage floating in the water, and to the back, the reds of the Taoist temple shimmering in the mid afternoon light.
A passage behind the temple leads past a collage of narrow alleys, one-time warehouses and fish processing facilities converted to whimsical cafes and budget guesthouses, and then the monstrous Shangri-La soaring overhead. Chinese jewelers and fashionable retailers cater exclusively to the moneyed Asian customer, and then another river boat pier swallows pedestrians onto the boats plying the waters of the Chao Phraya.
Devotees prostate themselves at the altars of a Buddhist temple sandwiched amongst the jumble of corporate towers and shop houses, the labyrinth flanking the surging river revealing a diverse but tastefully blended collage of differing architectural styles and periods. The area is bound by Thanon Charoen Krung on the east, running all the way up the Hua Lamphong train station and then beyond, past Chinatown, to the Royal Palace, reflecting a serenity largely absent in the mayhem further to the north.
Further through the alleys, the soaring neo-classical facade of the Assumption College and the muted luxury of the narrow, wood-coffered corridors of the O.P. Place, row upon row of elegant boutiques offering every manner of exquisite locally made craft and jewellery at presumably exorbitant prices. The liveried doormen graciously open the doors for errant visitors, and again I am thrust outside amidst the wrecks of palaces far removed from their former glory, the stark whitewashed surrealism of the French embassy swooping above.
Continuing this foray through Bangkok’s riverine architectural paradox, between the Mandarin Oriental and the angular telecommunications tower, yesteryear’s dilapidated elegance broaching on the Bang Rak fire station, whose charges break out into a game of rattan ball, a punch of the ball with the palm leading to a head butt, a kick with the ankle and then over the net, the ball interchanged between players until again clearing the net – or hitting the ground.
Dusk is setting in and my feet need to be in a prone position – and I am nowhere near a metro station, which means walking all the way back to Hua Lamphong along Charoen Krung, limping most of the way. The Green Box offers some classic Thai fare in a modest setting with correspondingly low prices, an anomaly, given the elevated prices that seem automatically ascribed to the area.
I am dreading having to walk an even far greater distance to get to the Hua Lamphong metro station, my feet reduced to raw wounds at this point, uneasily sliding around the surface of my Keen sandals to avoid further discomfort, and yet, perversely, when I strip them off altogether and walk on the raw concrete, I am in heaven! I am not really sure what this is meant to portend other than the regression to an anthropologically much earlier state …
The Old Town Hostel provides another example of budget accommodation available in this area of Bangkok, offering communal facilities at inflated prices, the young Breton who enters to inquire as to the prices as unimpressed as I am. He seems very intelligent and attentive, having learned a lot about the city in the short day and a half he has been here already, much more than can be said for myself. But his innocent demeanour and youth belie his profession as mechanical engineer, currently on a short break from his position at Switzerland’s CERN …