Saturday, April 2, 2011

One night in Bangkok

Bangkok has a romantic sound to its name; evocative to the ear, and redolent with unfulfilled and partly out-of-focus images. It is a city that smiles, usually, offering the world a simplicity and an ambience; a welcome to weary travellers and a place to relax. So I stopped as I flew from France to Australia, taking advantage of the break to visit an old friend, a chap I have known for nearly thirty years, and a man who has been pretty successful in the travel business here.

Firstly, I have to say, that Bangkok is big; gone are any possible connections with “cities of the sleepy east” so beloved from Somerset Maugham novels of the 1930s; I say this not out of surprise because I have been to Bangkok many times, but not for possibly twenty years. And the change is astonishing.

It is, it has to be said, a triumph of concrete over civic planning; aficionados of concrete should come here immediately, and stare in wonder at the stuff on display. Highways, railways, houses, flats and factories jostle for every square inch available, and sprout in a bewildering prism of greys. Nature throughout the region surprises, and it is the ability of sturdy trees to grow in this hostile environment and sprout eccentrically between, around and even through the concrete. The cityscape is punctuated with the periodic gorgeous temple or some structure that dates back perhaps thirty years or more, but alas, they are few and far between.

Men of a certain age, and let’s be honest, it is about the age that I am at, walking alone in Bangkok are confidently assumed to be trawling for some sexually favour or other; a bewildering selection of offerings are proffered, and my stroll was not even close to the dens of iniquity that populate Patpong Road; I wouldn’t dare go there alone. It has to be said, though, that there are all too many septuagenarian men, usually with that sort of seedy, trousers-held-up-by-shabby-suspenders look, with a considerably younger Thai woman or girl in two that one finds in most cities.

I did, I have to say, settle for a rather demure but wonderful foot massage, and at $8 the hour in a most respectable establishment, was a bargain to be repeated soon; so within the hour, I did.

Food was a bit of a challenge; it is plentiful, of course, but not wishing to eat at the Shangri-La, I ventured out, finding all manner of fascinating stalls selling all manner of noodles and wildlife. Heaping, and rather gorgeous plates of scorpions with red chillies, scorpions with green chillies, other peculiar bugs, wonderful looking fish and chicken barbequing and an endless parade of soups, noodles and food beyond my immediate recognition. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out how it was “done”; in particular the soup, sold in delicious portions but in plastic bags that were then deftly tied to avoid spillage. Having no crockery or utensils of my own, I soldiered on, and found only one establishment that offered a menu; in pictures rather than English, but very good it was.

And so to the airport, and the gentle ministrations of a flight with Thai First Class to Sydney. Their lounge, where I am sitting now, is a masterpiece, and a splendid place to while away the time before the flight. I am entitled, apparently, to a complimentary one-hour massage and have every intention of enjoying that privilege before the last leg of the long journey from Europe to Australia.

Bangkok? Yes, absolutely worth a stop, but be sure to tie a string to the front door of your hotel before venturing too far; one bustling street of massages, made-to-measure tailors and soup sellers can look pretty similar to another after the first twenty or so.