Note: I’ve not finished editing and proofing this story yet, but feel free to have a read anyways.
I’ve done many things for the first time this year. It’s been my first big trip by myself. My first time around the world. My first time in California, Fiji, Austrailia, New Zealand and Southeast Asia. My first snorkelling, surfing, bodyboarding, zorbing, luging and skydiving. My first time living and working in a foreign country (well, I guess New Zealand is only slightly foreign, but it still counts). My first… Well, I can’t tell you about that right now. Hell, I nearly did my first Kareoke! It’s been that kind of year.
And now, my first dead body. Let me backtrack a little to illustrate this one very mixed experience of a day in Bangkok. It all started rather well. I’d decided to head to the chatuchak weekend market - sold to me as one of the best shopping experiences in Bangkok. Given that you can buy just about anything you can imagine here, and a few things you would probably rather not, I thought this could be worth doing. (???<-rubbish<-???) Those who know me best will be suprised to learn that I got up nice and early to get there before the crowds and the heat of the day got too much. I jumped on one of the boats that runs down the Chao Phraya River, around which Bangkok grew, and this soon delivered me to the downtown area an into the welcoming air-conditioned arms of a Skytrain (just an overhead underground). A handful of stops later and I’d arrived at Mo Chit station, just north of the market, at around 9am.
I didn’t realise at the time, but I had actually seen the market from the Skytrain. It was just that I thought the sea of undulating silver roofing was actually some kind of railway depot. This thing is simply huge. So big it’s split into sections, like Antiques, Books, Clothing & Accessories, Housewares and so on. However, I think the thing that suprised me most was what I shall forever think of as Dog Alley.
It’s not so much the fact that pets were on sale there that surprised me. It was the sheer number and variety of dogs and other animals that were on offer. Enough to make me wonder whether this was actually part of the curry industry and not a pet market all ;) I was just wandering aimlessly around when I came across some dogs being, well, manicured. You’ve never lived until you’ve seen a curmudgeonly Thai man washing, trimming, blow-drying and dressing a six-inch Dobermann. I wandered on, and began to understand the size of this place. There were dogs in cages, behind glass, in baskets on the floor and on shouting people’s knees, and for all I know, a few of the uglier dogs round the back sharing brown sacks with bricks. Or perhaps the point where a dog becomes too old to be cute is the point where the pet and curry industries meet. There were a few cats, and some small mammals of the cute and fluffy variety that I didn’t recognise, but it was mostly just dogs.
I was also particularly taken with a coffee shop hidden aaway between some furniture shops. Quite what it was doing there I have no idea, but it served Illy coffee, one of my favourites back home that I havn’t seen while being away, so I thought it rude not to stop for a while.
More suprising still was the sheer number of people who came up to me to tell me all about their sister, who was just about to move to London/Manchester/something that sounded llike Liverpool to work as a nurse/doctor. I was pained to learn that each and every mother of the aforementioned kin was deeply worried about this move, crying constantly in fact, and that it would mean a great deal to them if I could go to their house, which was never too far away, and help console the matriarch by explaining how nice things are there. I was of course flattered that my near end-ful knowledge of moving to the UK to work as in the medical profession could provide such solace for this family. However, I felt I was far to busy to help at that time, and indeed even suspected that this was simply some kind of rouse in order that some ambigious service could be rendered, so politely declined. The fact that I was usually introduced to the aforementioned sister during this conversation (5 out of 7 times) should surely not be taken as any kind of confirmation that my distrustful suspicions were in any way grounded in truth.
In between dodging these advances, pulling faces at animals and small children, and drinking coffee, I did actually manage to get a little shopping done. A couple of vaguely ethic long-sleeved shirts, only one of which I think I could actually where back home, and a rather fine silk tie were my trophies. All for around six pounds, and it probably could have been less if I was any good at the whole barganing thing.
Although I could happily have spent the whole day finding new bits of the market to wander around and squander on, by early afternoon the crowds and the heat were a bit too much for me and I decided to head on. I caught the Skytrain again and stopped in Siam Square, at the other end of Bangkok’s shopping spectrum. Gleaming malls of chrome and marble, with escalators stretching as far as the eye can see, and more desirable consumer electronics than you can shake a very geeky stick at. Nevertheless, I was still approached by a man who wanted me to meet his sister, and after the rather more enjoyable market I quickly decided to head back towards my digs in Banglampoo.
The Skytrain does not stretch that far, so I found one of the few remaining canals in the city and caught a boat back towards Banglampoo. This was perhaps the best bit of the day, as these boats zoom through these narrow channels, zig-zagging between the other boats and the many and various concrete and steel pillars which have been placed in the canal apparently at random. As the backs of the backstreets of Bangkok whizz by, I got to play the ‘guess when to get off’ game again. Fortunately, the end of the line was pretty close to where I wanted to be, and very close to a place called Golden Mount, one of the temples I wanted to visit.
Golden Mount appear to be the only hill in Bangkok, which lead to some unaccustomed legwork but also some very fine views over the city. I could have spent longer there, enjoying the tranquility of the temple and its gardens with the heaving masses at a safe distance, but there were closing for the day. I took my time walking down the hill, wondering what to do next. This temple had reminded me of aother one not too far away, containing 3 metres of actual real gold Budda. This was also near the train station, so I could go and get the information I needed from their and see if that temple was still open while I was at it.
On the way out I the grounds of the Golden Mount, I was haruanged by yet another tuk-tuk driver, or rather by his English-speaking friend who was acting as a translator. I was giving the usual nothankyous when he said ‘10 Baht anywhere in the city’. This sounded like a remarkably good deal (in hindsight, perhaps I should have thought about that more closely), so I asked him to ask him to take me to the train station.
I’d not actually been in a tuk-tuk before this, and was rather enjoying bombing around in this puttering pram. The only problem was that as it wove through the streets I quickly lost my bearings. I’m always happier when I know where I am and which way I’m heading.
The journey seemed to be taking a little longer than I had expected, so I started trying to work out the route we were taking. As I started paying attention to my surroundings again, I realised that the road we were on could not by any stretch of the imagination be considered a main street. In fact it looked pretty dodgy to me, so I asked the driver where we were. He just said ‘train station, train station’ while waving vaguely towards the vast lot of abandoned and gently decomposing railway carriages we happened to by flying past at the time.
I was not entirely convinced by this, and took my most valuble belongings, like my passport, and put them in my secret hiding place (under my hat - thanks Sarah!) as discreetly as I could. I thought I was probably over-reacting, after all, they seemed such nice people, and they’re probably friends with the Monks and everything, but I was rattled.
Finally, we turned off this back street and back onto a main road. I was about half-way through my sigh of relief when he made a very sharp right and then slowed down onto yet another dodgy looking backstreet. The previous one had worried me because it was so quiet, deserted in fact, but I suddenly saw that ‘occupied’ could be much worse.
There were a lot of Thais here, just milling around. The street was clearly very poor, but they still had their pride. The young men were simply but sharply dressed, and the few cars there were gleamed with polish that comes with being someone’s only prized possession. I felt like I was being pushed through Moss Side in a shopping trolley.
It was about this time that I saw a young man lying awkwardly in the road by one of the cars, prostrate with his legs twisted against the front wheel. As the tuk-tuk drew slowly passed I realised this was just some young kid, probably only 17. Then I saw the pool of blood underneath his head, and the fresh blood gently seeping from his face. He really was very still. I looked away.
I was now quite convinced we were heading well out of town to visit some of my drivers friends, and that if I was lucky, I might just get left with nothing. To my relief we turned onto a reasonably busy street - even a few more tuk-tuks were a welcome sight at this point. Again, my relief was short-lived, as we started to turn into yet another backstreet. This time, a dark, enclosed, winding alley. I just couldn’t take it any more, so as we slowed on the turn I leapt from the tuk-tuk, almost losing my now priceless hat in the process. The driver stopped and seemed genuinely confused, indicating that we were nearly there. I just gave him the money and walked off like I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Except I had no idea were I was. At least the street was fairly busy, but there were no pedestrians around so all I could do was head to wherever the traffic looked densest. I got lucky and hit one of the main roads quite quickly, but in that state of mind I just could not work out where I was on the map. Not least because I didn’t want to look too much like a lost tourist, for fear of getting in even more trouble. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, but the real problem was I couldn’t find anyone who knew how to use a map. I ended up with three wildly different and entirely wrong opinions of where ‘here’ was, and one of the people I asked was a bus driver! I ended up talking to another tuk-tuk driver, who offered to take me to the station for five Baht. Yet another cheap offer just freaked me out even more, so I just kept heading towards where I thought the town centre must be. About 20 paces later, a large building that was clearly the train station came into view. Now I understood why that 5 Baht was still overcharging.
So, I’d lept from the tuk-tuk not all that far from the station, but on the opposite side of and not that much closer to it than where I’d started off from. Looking back, the driver was probably just avoiding the rush-hour traffic, but didn’t realise that tourists like me don’t really want to get that close to the real Bangkok. We’ll never know.
Walking over to the station, I got approached yet again. This time the guy looked vaguely official, although the fact that he had a Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) identity card cannot be taken as a guarentee in a city where anything can be bought, up to and well beyond the identity papers of your choice. He just happened to have the leaflet I needed, so I gladly took it and headed towards the station again. At this point he started to explain that everything would be much cheaper if I went with him to the TAT office. I pointed at the large sign outside the official TAT office just opposite the station, and asked if he meant that one. He mumbled something about that office only dealing with guesthouse bookings, in clear contradiction to what it said in big writing on the bright yellow-on-blue sign, and that the place I wanted was just ‘round the corner’. They always are.
While I understand why it exists, I really hate this scammer culture towards westerners. Simple because they take advantage of my tendency to be polite to strangers, and force me to lie extravagantly and then be rude to them simply in order to get on with my day. I really do not enjoy having to do that. Also, being a lone pasty bloke does not help me to blend in, and many of these people usually assume I’m a sex tourist, which is downright offensive. Not a single tuk-tuk driver failed to make a comment about whether I wanted to be taken to a show, or have some Thai girl/boy/whatever-you-like for only 1000 Baht for a whole night, including drinks! Is there something wrong with me, that I should find this all so utterly depressing?
Having got the information I needed, I checked out the temple of the Golden Budda and found it had also closed for the day. Ironically, until the Bangkok subway open next month, the main train station will continue to be one o the least well connected parts of the city. I was still feeling shaken by the tuk-tuk ride, and completely stuck as the night began to close in. I wandered in toward Chinatown, but the streets were getting darker and I was feeling even more isolated. Again, another tuk-tuk driver approaches me, clearly aware of my state, and makes me anoffer I can’t refuse. Either 50 Baht back to Thanon Khao San, with two stops at shops he gets commission from on the way, or 100 Baht with no stops. Even the 50 is overcharging, but at least this scammer is open about it, although I’ve heard that people sometimes get dumped at the shops, with no easy onward transport. I so want to get back to my guesthouse, that I take the no-stops option.
Even now, I feel edgy all the way back, trying to work out where we are and if we are heading home. Eventually, I recognise where we are, and am relieved to step out into the manic but familar surroundings of Khao San. He gets his 100B and a special goodbye wave from me.
I walk up Khao San, taking in the bright lights of the horrendously familar - Starbucks, MacDonalds, Burger King, hell even Boots the chemist - and I’m briefly glad to see them. I head on to one of the shinier bars, and treat myself to a rather good red curry, and a whole damn jug of Chang beer thank you very much. My bed is only a short walk away. Bangkok is certainly an impressive place, a kind of logical extreme, by turns magnificent and depressing. I think it’s time to move on.
Short version, in case I ever feel up to re-writing it.
- Early start, weather etc
- Boat on river
- Sisters, mothers and offers
- Shirts and tie
- Golden Mount
- Tuk-tuk to station, ‘near station’, backstreets, dead body of a young man, leap out
- Eventually find wrong side of station, almost as far away as was before. Could have been cause of rush hour.
- 5B tuk to the corner
- Scared of tuk-tuks, esp cheap ones.
- Eventually pay expensive one.
- Back to Khao San for beer and a very fine red curry.
- But really rather shaken by the whole thing.