So, we awoke to the usual humidity, a disappointing lack of thunderstorms and a revised weather forecast from the Weather Channel from the night before (funny how that happens). 28C, partly cloudy – sounds like a chance to go be a tourist for the morning.
So we did.
This time we decided to travel light and fast. With a baby. That means the baby bjorn carrier and no stroller with the bare essentials – nappy, milk, wipes. A series of “Sawadee ka/kap”s and we burst free of the wrought iron white gates, swung a left onto Soi Langsuan, nimbly skipped over the road in front of the oncoming mopeds and moved purposefully towards Starbucks. Incidentally, the traffic lights at the major intersections here can take up to 3 whole minutes to change. During one of these epic delays we were able to watched fascinated as more and more mopeds, usually with a customer perched precariously on the back, snuck to the front of the traffic and waited on the line, revving their engines. The only time I have ever seen anything similar is in Rome.
Suddenly the lights went green and with a roar of propane and the odd non-environmental two-stroke belch of smoke they were away like the start of a F1 or Nascar race. How they don’t crash as they jockey for position into the opening bend, laying a thick carpet of pollution over the nearest street food sellers, is impressive. Indeed, the only accident I have seen so far was at the same junction at Chit Lom where a passively waiting moped got rear-ended by a fruit truck. Apologies all round, a dusting off and everyone proceeded on their way. There is irreverence for the bureaucracy of insurance companies here that is somehow refreshing.
So…for once not grabbing a latte we crossed the junction and headed for the river Klong Saen Saep. To get there we had to descend a set of broken, concrete steps and emerge onto a floating metal jetty with a verge of crushed tires. It wasn’t even clear if it was an embarkation point as no one else was around. A few minutes later we were on the right track as a river taxi slid to a halt next to us, tires squealing. We were helped on board as they spotted Isla dangling from me and barely had time to park our Western butts on one of the rude benches before getting sucked backwards by the g-forces as this barge took off like a startled rabbit. This was nothing like the sedate canal boats you see on the genteel waterways of Britain. No indeed. The aim is to get to the next stop as fast and in as smelly a manner as possible. However, it is cheap. 24Baht each to cross half of central Bangkok. I took a 5min video of the ride just to capture the roar of the engine, the foam of the bow wave that is so high they have to yank a blue sheet up the sides of the barge to stop passengers getting drenched, and the blur of the passing apartments but at 75Mb it too large to download here. (I’ll post it somewhere and let you know).
Still the photo gives an idea…
Last stop on the Klong Saen Saep was Phan Fah and there was our first tourist destination – Wat Saket. Or The Golden Mount as it is also known. It is easily accessible off Damrong Rak road and an impressive piece of architecture. The main feature of this Wat is the Golden Mount which dates from the 1800s. As we wound our way up the spiral staircase that runs around the outside with its stops for bells to be rung by everyone, the humidity began to fade away and there was a refreshing breeze at the top. The Wat has a Lanka style chedi on the top with relics of the Lord Buddha and the 360 panorama of Bangkok once at the top is spectacular. Just beneath the roof with its golden dome is an inside area with the usual gift shop; yet every niche and the central portion with its compass entry points give the chance for worship. There were two Buddhist monks and prayers were being broadcast for all to hear. Whilst there was undoubtedly every chance for the tourist to visit, to admire, to feel the history, both a quiet sense of peace and a deep reverence filled the ambience of the Wat. Like a cathedral in England one comes to admire the artistry but walks around speaking in hushed tones simply because of the respect that comes naturally in places of worship.
Descending the Wat, stopping to admire bowers of flowers I cannot even guess a name for – though there was something that was exactly like a massive bumble bee but completely black that drank of the purple flowers’ nectar – we left the Wat, walked in the road past the shops that produced exquisite wood carvings and headed towards the Democracy Monument that is about halfway up Rajadamnoen Klang. It felt like there were preparations on-going for a festival or a march. The wide boulevard has its central reservation punctuated with enormous pictures of the Thai Royal Family, a lot of the street market vendors were selling red T-shirts with the same portraits. As ever a walk along such a street takes twice as long because everyone loves Isla. People smile, ask her age, reach to touch the plump legs. She knows her role well, cooing back at every one, giggling at some, turning her face coyly away into her parents shoulders just at the right time.
Our destination this time was Khao San Road, a diplomatic nostalgia trip. What can I say about it? Well, if I was in my early twenties then it would understandably be a destination of choice. Think Ibiza. I am assured it is the off-season at the moment but the only people on it, apart from people trying constantly to sell us something – Mai ao (not want) is a phrase used a lot here – were young foreigners who looked like they’d had a heavy night. We stopped at what I think was an Irish-themed bar, went inside – not very many people – and ended up ordering a shrimp and chicken pad thai.
What arrived was two mai tai. A cocktail that is 90% various rums, 10% neat syrup. I gazed at the diplomat. Plus a large Singha beer.
“Is this a mise-bouche? Did we order this?”
There was some confusion. Perhaps this was a Khao San road cultural aperitif. However, it swiftly dawned that Pad Thai had got lost in translation. And not the Bill Murray kind. What swiftly dragged our attention away from the culinary misunderstanding was our daughter giggling at some people on the table behind us to the right – next to a pool table. It looked like they were the only people in the depths of the establishment.
They comprised a very hungover chap who was aged somewhere between twenty and forty, his hair-of-the-dog collection of beers to get him through noon, and three women, about whom I was reliably informed were hookers. Oh, and another chap playing pool. One lady seemed to be keeping score, another amusing the hungover chap and I’m not sure what the third was up to. Anyway, they saw Isla and everything transformed, the ladies flocking over to take her away to watch pool so the farang could each lunch, to exclaim over her, to play with her and generally leave the hungover chap sheepishly trying to join in as he was temporarily forgotten for a 10 month old with a beaming smile.
We had to keep a very watchful eye, not quite sure what to make of it, but the ladies shed their professional laughing for genuine humour as Isla’s parents nervously viewed what was happening. All was well, we learned at least one wanted children, that another wasn’t very good at pool. Our interlude gave the hungover chap a 15 minute chance to collect his wits. Lunch done (I did not have the mai tai – it was like drinking cough tincture) we left the hookers to resume their previous business and headed past Wat Chana Songkhram to catch a taxi on the border of Sanam Luang all the way back home where, as usual, the relief of air conditioning transcends all else.
So, there you have it. That’s the trip which ended in three hookers and a baby. Danson, Gutenberg, and Selleck would have been proud.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?