Cracking backbones, neon evenings, spices divine all coded in common ground
Taxi driver either has a deathwish or cannot drive. He has zero English and I being an asshole tourist of course don’t have any Thai. ‘Highway?’ He asked when I got in. ‘Eh, yeah?’ I answered, fairly bemused. I mean, this is your city mate, I’m clearly not a local judging by my translucent complexion and lack of local dialect. You’re a taxi man; if you say highway it’s not like I can offer my pearls of wisdom of a speedier route. Needless to say, we took the highway.
On arrival in Bangkok, my old friend Bex took me out to dinner at a beautiful rooftop restaurant a good 48 floors up. Bex and I met 8 years ago in Peru and spent 7 weeks touring South America in the same group. Being from Woking; Bex. moved into London and ended up living there at the same time as me and our friendship really solidified there. Every so often you meet people who are completely on your wavelength- Bex is most definitely in this vein for me. I can’t imagine not knowing her now. She is a strong, beautiful, fun, intelligent woman and I’m incredibly lucky to have her as a friend. And she always just totally understood me-that is such a rare thing to find in a person. Bex is the kind of gal you could either go out with on Friday and come back Sunday morning, or go on a yoga retreat for a week-whichever, you would always have an absolute riot of a time doing either one. Any conversation topic can be broached, no matter how outrageous and she will converse emphatically-never questioning what some may perceive as irrational.
We caught up on the last couple of years of our lives, our states of mind, our careers, various nostalgic memories of when we travelled across South America together. Bex just got engaged to her wonderful man Dave (congrats guys!) and they’re living in a beautiful apartment in Bangkok, they both teach in an international school there. They’ve just acquired two little kittens-Pearl and Jam, still at the mischievous wreck the gaff stage of kittenhood and are so tactile and full of love. They were my bedfellows whilst I stayed :).
The metropolis that is Bangkok surprised me somewhat. Reminded me of a cross between São Paulo and New York. I guess I didn’t expect it to be so high rise and western. I got the impression that there is a lot of money in Bangkok. The bustle of the streets is like any major city. Having come from Bali, the people in Bangkok are noticeably far more accustomed to and fed up of tourists. The warmth I experienced everywhere I went in Bali was definitely missing here. Having spent so many years living in London, I kind of get it. I know how annoying tourists are. The street vendors sell everything from fresh fruit, pad Thai, fried insects, coconut icecream, Pringles-you name it, it’s all here for pennies. The smell of spices in the air from said food vendors, is sporadically permeated with incense from offerings and a mild undertone of pollution. The energy is high and you can’t deny the different buzz which comes from being in a massive city.
The next day, I got up early and walked around to the school where Bex and Dave teach. I got the chance to meet the children she teaches and see her at work. Being an international school, there are kids from France, China, Belgium, UK, Indonesia etc all together in this cultural melting pot of a classroom. I always said I could never be a teacher. Don’t have the patience. But when I went into the classroom and saw all of those little faces looking up at me, I could start to appreciate the appeal. The comments they come out with as 4 year olds is enough to keep you in fits of laughter all day. Still, it’s a vocation-I have a lot of respect for anyone who spends their life’s work impacting the life of a child. I’m very grateful for a very rare insight to see how the mechanics of a classroom works. I mean, it’s not something that occurred to me while at school, that every aspect of the class is designed to aid the education and development of the children. Every response children give and behaviours they display is carefully noted to track their progress.
That afternoon I went for a Thai massage. A very interesting experience altogether and not one for the faint of heart I’m sure. I was given a pair of pyjamas to change into and for an hour and a half all pressure points in my body were pushed and kneaded with relative force. A lot of it was reminiscent of yoga. Although on the massage bed, she pulled me in and out of several poses; pigeon, bow, hero, various twists including the most intense spinal twist I think ever ever experienced in my life. It was oddly relaxing although it was a very active massage, afterwards I felt floaty and properly aligned. Similar to how I feel post yoga. I can see why some people liken it to ‘someone beating the crap out of you’, even still-highly recommend.
Second evening Bex, Dave and I went for a walk in the park in the centre of Bangkok-much like a smaller scale Central Park. Everyone out on their evening runs. One side of the park was occupied with an aerobics class. K-pop and some dodgy Kylie Minogue b-sides were blaring as the instructor screamed out the moves in a staccato song. There were easily 100 people getting involved. It was kind of surreal as a lot of the people were almost robotic, knowing the moves inside out. All of the other non-regular attendees didn’t seem to have a fucking clue what was going on. Some geriatrics made it up as they went along, just getting lost in the music-which, to be fair was probably lost on them.
Come 6pm, a strange signal sounded over a tannoy. Like magic, everyone in the park came to a halt and stood perfectly still. The Thai national anthem played, every human insight was a personified statue. It was so bizarre. Once the song ended, like clockwork the congregation went back to whatever they were doing. Eerie. I felt like I was in the movie Return to Oz and everyone had been turned to stone and then turned back again.
That evening I met Alex, a British ex-pat who has been in Bangkok for 5 years. The same age as me and a Cambridge maths graduate, he now lives here playing professional online poker-although I believe there is something far more at play. Hacking, perhaps. Either way, he wasn’t divulging that to me, although he did seem surprised that I suggested he was a hacker, as if no-one had every questioned the poker spiel. I reckon I was bang on the money. Anyway, acting as a tour guide for the evening, he took me around Bangkok at night on the back of his motorbike. I’ve never really felt exhilaration like whizzing through the highways of Bangkok at night, flanked by skyscrapers and travelling at a speed I’m not sure I’ve ever travelled before. As we drove through the city, he pointed out anything worth mentioning and relayed to me all the cultural norms of the city. He took me to 3 different rooftop bars at the top of skyscrapers which overlook the city. We whizzed down side streets and popped into quirky dive bars. I saw the city from so many different viewpoints that night. The evening was impulsive and slightly adventurous; a definite vagary of sorts. I had an instant affinity to the city, I haven’t felt that for a city in a long long time.
The next evening, Bex and I went down to the Khao San Road. Basically, the tourist hub of Bkk. Bars full of westerners, scores of street vendors selling EVERYTHING, tuktuks, neon lights-the works. It’s like Leicester Square in London. It’s where westerners go to buy gaudy things they don’t need and get smashed on buckets of alcohol. Paradigms of gender being smashed with the ladyboys fooling the Brits abroad.
Bex and I went to a little salon and got pedicures and facials-man, do the Thais know their beauty treatments. Layers of various products, exfoliation tools, suction tools, a steamer, your face is covered in cucumber at one stage-this I actually couldn’t keep a straight face for. I couldn’t stop laughing, then much like when in school a fit of the giggles erupts and nothing can be done to cease it. I knew the beautician was probably horrified at my mockery of the cucumber moment. But I just couldn’t stop picturing myself with a cucumber face. Luckily, Bex was finished and actually got a picture of my cucumber face. THANKYOU Bex, very well played.
Today I decided to go to the Grand Palace. Trying to get there was a bit of a nightmare, my fault to be fair. I should have memorised the name of it in Thai. Trying to convey to several taxi drivers where I wanted to go didn’t really suffice. How do you hand gesture a Palace? I didn’t really want to mention the King too much as even that is a bit if a taboo subject there-long story. Luckily, after about 7 highly gesticulated conversations, one taxi man knew English and instantly understood me. The palace requires you to wear long skirt/trousers and capped or long sleeves. I, of course, rock up in a miniskirt and sleeveless top (it was 29degrees) only to be turned away. Me being me, I obviously had a long sleeved cardi in my bag. My biggest fear in life is being cold (and needing to pee when there is no toilet) so I always come prepared, even in tropical climates it would seem. However, I didn’t have a long skirt. Not to be deterred by this minor obstacle, having already gone through quite a bit to actually get there I knew this must be a common occurrence with tourists and went in search of a sarong. Within seconds I found one, paid the €2 for it and went on my merry way. The stalls selling said sarongs also sold light long trousers in the same fabric of varying colours. As I walked in amongst the hundreds of other people, loving my new attire, I looked around and realised that 80% of the people in my vicinity must have had the same predicament as me. We were all dressed the same. Same elephant print ensembles. Hundreds of nationalities brought together in unison with out new uniforms, elephants showing their respect for the palace.
The palace did not disappoint. The Eastern architecture and carvings in particular was breathtaking. Wall frescos done with such detail and outlining various aspects of Thai history. The Emerald Buddha- which is actually carved from Jade, but was first believed to be emerald was a lot smaller than I had imagined. It is housed in the most beautifully ornate room poised high above the ground upon tiers of gold carved wood, the exterior of the building is made up of mother of pearl adorned doorways, intricate mosaic work and lavish carvings in gold leaf. I went into the marble floored room having taken off my shoes and knelt down in front of Buddha to pray. I stayed a while, taking it all in. A Buddhist monk was kneeling in front of me, his still demeanour and orange robes were mesmerising. I could tell he had been there for hours.
Later this evening, I got a taxi to the train station. Popped into a restaurant for dinner before boarding an overnight sleeper train up to Chiang Mai. Once on board and having sized up my travel companions, I went to check out the lay of the land, or train as it were. The toilet cubicle smelt like eucalyptus and I’m fairly sure the contents of the toilet bowl just drops onto the ground below. It’s definitely a don’t-touch-anything type scenario. Across from me are a group of Japanese girls. I’d say they’re around 19/20. The seats are turned into beds around an hour and a half into the journey. The bottom bunk is about the width of a regular single bed, the top bunk is slightly narrower. When the woman comes around and deconstructs our seats to make the beds, all of the Japanese pals pile into one of the lower bunks. Equipped with snacks, magazines and of course, eachother. Like the mother of all sleepovers: on a train…overnight. Slightly envious at how much fun they’d have and what a memory it will be for them in years to come, I asked could I take their photo. They all seemed shocked but flattered that someone wanted to photograph them. Shrieks and loud giggles ensued. I took a picture, adorned with peace signs and massive cheesy grins. Even though had I been there with my girls it would have been far more debaucherous-bottles of wine no doubt and we would be pissing off the entire carriage. For a moment I wished I wasn’t alone. Although I say for a moment; I turned around and pulled the curtain back to see my own bed. A perfect little alcove, segregated from everyone else on board, complete with its own window. This to me-is perfection. It’s also where this blog post is being written. No better place to write, watching the anonymous Thai lights sail past the exterior night sky complete with waning orange moon and good old Jupiter.