The rickety old train was on its final few kilometers of the journey between Surat Thani and Bangkok. I was 20 years old and the year was 1982.
I was no stranger to big cities. I was born in London and my mother was a cockney as she could hear Bow Bells when the wind was blowing in the right direction. On my travels in the previous four or five months I had seen Kabul, Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad, Madras and Singapore. Now here I was in the capital of Thailand without a guidebook and of course without the internet.
I stepped off the train as I was accosted from right and left by coolies and tuk-tuk drivers wanting to carry my ancient black shoulder bag (I have never owned such a thing as a back-pack). Experienced by now to turn down all offers in such places I emerged from Hualampong station’s semi-circular edifice into the blazing hot late morning sun.
I squinted and looked around me. Then smiled. It was love at first sight. Nearly forty years on I have been through most of the Thai trials and tribulations except imprisonment, though two marriages made up for that.
There is still that frisson of excitement whenever I return to Krung Thep from a foreign trip. Sure, it is not so strong as four decades ago but there is still that feeling of potential for good and bad, of unpredictability in the air. It is always great to be home and as the English say – that is where the heart is.
Those first few days in Bangkok in 1982 are all a blur now. I wrote no diary entry as there was too much going on. I stayed first in a classic old Chinese hotel called Sri Hualampong by the side of the station. The noise from the trains and the street outside was nothing compared to the ice factory next door. That was ice as in frozen water, not what Brit bar owners get jailed for these days.
I made a trip to Patpong but I couldn’t tell you where exactly. It must have been to drink Mekhong Thai whisky on the cheap as my 200 baht per day city budget (twice as much as on my previous stop in Koh Samui) had to last or I’d not see out the planned six months in Asia before the World Cup began in Spain.
I ended up moving to Sukhumvit Road and after the obligatory daytime temple visits and street food my English mate, a fellow journalist,and I would find places to drink. One such establishment was the strangest I had ever encountered – most people entered through the toilets and once in the downstairs dungeon one was accosted by several hundred ladies of the night. It was the original site of the legendary Thermae Coffee Shop.
Years later when I swapped tourism for residence in the City of Angels a good friend of mine married the daughter of a policeman who had a share in the Thermae. He’d already contributed handsomely to his father-in-laws stock. I, myself, was obliged to visit a nearby British doctor who asked me where I had picked up the affliction that was ailing me. When I explained it was the Thermae just yards from his surgery Dr Dixon – who friends later nicknamed Dr Dick – exclaimed:
“Ah, yes. A lot of my customers come from there”.
I traveled round Thailand in 1983 too but always gravitated back to Bangkok, especially to the area around the Malaysia Hotel in Soi Ngam Duplee. The city was like a magnet to me and I knew on these trips that this would be a lifelong love affair. Now it’s 2019 and I must have been to over seventy of the 77 provinces in the Kingdom. But no place has a hold on me like Bangkok.
Like most people who are in love we take it to heart when the subject of our affection is criticized. Over the years I have noticed that most people who don’t live here say you’d have to be mad to reside in such a place. Some that do even say it. They disparage everything about the capital from its traffic to its hectic lifestyle; its confusion is too much to ever comprehend, they bleat. Give me the sea, give me the mountains, give me the laid back folk of Isaan – blah, blah, blah.
This week I was clearing up at home and came across newspapers from the last dozen years or so that I’d stashed away on top of a wardrobe. The headlines screamed: “Bangkok in shambles” and “Bangkok burning” (from the barricading of the city center in 2010), “Bangkok tense after Coup D’etat” (2006), “Race begins to defend capital” (as the floods approached from the north gurgling through the city drains in 2011).
Yes, Bangkokians have borne the brunt of some difficult times but we have always recovered and today if the figures are to be believed we are perhaps the most visited city on Earth. Could it be because the “Venice of the East” is still one of the most interesting and varied places on the planet? (Oh, no, everyone’s in transit say the pitiful detractors!).
So why, oh why do so many people keep having a pop at Bangkok? In the last few weeks it has been building to fever pitch with all this smog talk. If you ask me it’s a damn sight cleaner than during the height of the construction boom in the 1990’s before the crash of 1997 temporarily ended all that. My bike rides across the city in those days left my face black with grime and soot – not a problem these days.
Call me an irresponsible parent if you like but when my five year old emerged from kindergarten with a face mask on this week that had been given to her by her teacher, I just smiled. We wouldn’t want Khun Kru to lose face, would we. But as soon as we were round the corner it went in the trash and we went swimming gulping in the air in the bright sunshine. We’re not wusses – we ARE Bangkok!
I’m not in denial. I’m just fed up with everyone complaining. It’s not just the foreigners – the Thais, like sheep, are jumping on the bandwagon as it seems the right thing to do. Everyone is burbling on about particles of 2.5 microns in diameter, whatever that means.
Despite the fact that a huge train project and several tunnels and bridges are being built in a one kilometer radius from my 12th floor duplex, the air blows cool and there is not the slightest sound except a barely perceivable murmur of an engine from afar or perhaps the rumble of a plane in the distance gaining altitude after take-off from Don Muang. Pity the poor tourists for having to leave this heaven on earth.
Yes, my city is all about peace and quiet. And development projects that promise an even better Bangkok tomorrow.
Unlike Dan About Thailand I have never felt the need to debate where I should live in the kingdom. It was obvious from the start. In the last few weeks I’ve been on road trips to Hua Hin, Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen clocking up about 3,000 kilometers. I don’t intend to bash but while Hua Hin was pleasant enough the driving there would not be acceptable in Krung Thep. And there were a lot of dogs around, not something we in Ratchayothin have to tolerate. I promised my daughter Chiang Mai would be cool but it wasn’t. On a Sunday afternoon it took three hours to get from Khon Kaen to Korat. Nah – give me Bangkok any day where we expect that sort of thing – and plan for it accordingly!
They commented on the admittedly absurd efforts in Klong Toei to fire water at the alien particles – a practice that merely made motorcyclists wet and caused street side flooding! Yes, we are a bit nutty in Bangkok, perhaps it is a requirement of living here.
If Bangkokians were smugly reminding themselves that we keep the country afloat they were not making it obvious. Stating the bleeding obvious was the general PM. With Bangkok’s pollution on his mind he came out with: “People should adopt an environmentally friendly lifestyle and learn to live by nature”.
Yes thanks for that Big Too, though it’s not quite enough to garner my vote, even if I had one. You see, on balance I have grown tired of you. Yes, you came in when my beloved city was being taken over by thugs and I welcomed you albeit on sufferance. But you’ve been here a tad too long and, let’s face it, said some pretty nonsensical things.
One could almost say that you have made up for the lack of barking in my area of town….
At least the election was finally announced this week
, a decision that will lead to half a million ugly billboards in the capital to hide the holes in the pavements and the few bits of the city that are not being rebuilt. March 24th is the latest hope. As the Year of the Pig approaches we are all hoping that swine might fly and democracy will be returned to the people along with all that happiness that Prayut promised to deliver.
Call me cynical but Thailand doesn’t really DO democracy. Bangkok has a monument to the ideal but its history is mired in controversy and many have died brutal deaths within a stone’s throw of it for merely applauding the words of speakers talking through megaphones. Some believe violence will follow the vote and the city will once again be plunged into chaos.
News that the actual result would not be announced until after the coronation added further fuel to the uncertainty. It’s all smoke and mirrors of course and designed so that those who are making up or manipulating the rules stand to benefit the most. Thailand to a T.
Some serious social issues reared their ugly heads this week though ugly head was hardly apparent on Monday as a teacher took shears to a teen’s beautiful long hair. Apparently the “nak rian” had been repeatedly told to get it cut and rules are rules. Unfortunately the student and her family accepted this old fashioned edict. Had they enjoyed a more questioning education they might have challenged the right of the school and the teacher to perform such barbarity. And discovered there was a case for assault.
For that is what this was. And assault on a child at that.
Also very ugly were the marks on a four year old’s legs
that were caused by a seven year old neighbor setting light to him with gasoline, a jolly jape I’m sure we all did as kids.
The forum blamed everyone; the mother for leaving her child with a grandparent; gran for leaving the child and going to work; the family of the seven year old for forking out the ridiculous sum of 200 baht compensation; the police for doing what they do best….nothing.
But most of all, without a scrap of evidence that any husband or father was responsible, the forum curmudgeons blamed all Thai men. I have said it before and I’ll say it again – I am sick of this unrestrained and racist bashing of Thai men. It comes from the very people who complain that Thai men only hunt in packs when the odds are in their favor. Are not the baying hounds of Thaivisa’s foreign “manhood” guilty of just such a bullying, pack mentality?
I have been blessed to have met so many good, honest, dedicated, intelligent and considerate Thai men. Both in Bangkok and in the countryside, I might add. I can’t help but think that this bashing of Thai males comes from those who have teamed up with Thai women who have been either divorced or let down in relationships. Their opinion is one sided and clouded by their situation. And the Thaivisa pack with their “fragile Thai male ego” nonsense are influenced by the seedy male characters – and of course there are some – who hang around bars and pubs and who prey on the people who frequent them.
The attack on the boy was ghastly and many were at fault. At least the mother – who has now taken the boy back into her care – had the good offices of the Paveena Hongsakul Foundation to help. Many such organisations and NGOs do great work in Thailand and I commend them. Many children nationwide are left in the unsuitable care of grandparents and it is this aspect of Thailand that needs to be urgently addressed rather than singling out one section of society for blame.
They turned out to be gents of the night – a fact brought home to the hapless tourist after police studied the hotel CCTV and saw two men in stilettos making off with his 150,000 baht stash. He had been drugged with whisky and watermelon, of all things.
Rather in the manner of Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring – “Don’t tell them your name, Pike!” – I have no intention of revealing Sergei Igolov’s identity.
That would be a triple whammy.
Honesty award for the week went to the latest whiter than white cabby who trumped his compatriots – and wound up the forum no end – by returning a 170K diamond encrusted Rolex
to a grateful Songkhla businesswoman who gave him a 5,000 baht reward.
No surprise that this upstanding male member of society was residing in Bangkok, I noted smugly in the smog.
Prate are the tall “hungry ghosts” with their tongues hanging out. Temples like Wat Phai Rong Wua feature many other devilish depictions that serve to warn locals not to misbehave in this life lest the next be worse (expats please note). The copper pot being stirred for the wicked is another and I always gulp around Mrs Rooster when confronted by the rabid dogs forcing the adulterous to endlessly climb the red cotton tree, known to Thais as “Ton Ngiw”.
The teacher in me came out as I translated the story. I wanted to show how the feeling of defamation was strong. But also that the police reaction would be deemed absurd by most Thais. I adore the Thai language and, despite being a translator, am constantly amused, perplexed and flummoxed by both its vagueness and its intricacy.
I discussed the matter with Mrs Rooster who listened patiently to my enthusiasm before expressing that she was tired today and would not be making me dinner tonight. She said I was to prepare my own – something she referred to in ‘newspeak Thai’ as a “buffet” arrangement.
Finally “The Most Hated German” in Thailand reared up above the parapet again
. Two years ago Benjamin Holst with the big leg annoyed the Thais by scrounging in Bangkok then blowing his donations on beer and prostitutes in Pattaya. Now he was taking his wife from The Gambia to Hamburg and asking for donations for impoverished African kids online. Some seemed to have got wise to his schemes as he had only got one Euro so far!
One poster called the story “persecutory”. Him and others need to lighten up. News is not just about informing people of events but increasingly in the modern world it serves as entertainment. Herr Holst had contacted Thaivisa himself and he loves the limelight – I should know after following him for years on Facebook.
His story should be seen in the same light as others on Thaivisa over the last three years. The endless saga of balding US millionaire Harold and his porn star Thai wife Nat and the reality TV couple Annie and David to name but two.
Alongside these has been the almost soap opera antics of slapstick tourism minister Kobkarn and her pronouncements about Durian Kit-Kat, the hand gestures and media hogging of former chief of the met police Sanit Mahathavorn and the yearlong epic of Lady Kai and the downtrodden that finally ended with her incarceration for Lese Majeste.
Thaivisa is here to inform but is unashamedly also here to entertain featuring both Thai and foreign pantomime characters in the news. Besides, you can always decide not to click on a story.
That’s why we put Big Joke in the headlines.