It was dark. The feral dogs sensed our distress, their teeth glimmering in the distant streetlight. We were drenched in sweat from having carried, more than rolled, our wheelie bags for over a half-hour, the mangled narrow Bangkok sidewalks being unsuitable for walking, much less rolling. I still don’t know where we went wrong.
It looked simple enough on Google maps, a 25 minute jaunt of slightly over 2 kms, only three turns, all to the right, and we’d be at our hotel. Maybe we exited from the wrong end of the Makkasan Airport Link station. Whatever the reason, when the second right over the canal (expected) dead-ended (unexpected), I knew we were lost.
It was surprising that the sun set in Bangkok so early as 6:45pm just a week before the summer solstice. I suppose I should have checked. Frustrated and exhausted, I admitted to Frank Lee “I have no idea where the fuck we are.”
Frank Lee hurled himself affront a taxi, negotiating at length how much it would cost to get us to an obscure address I thought could be a block away. I was certain the 200 baht we forked out was an outrage. Yet, it still took another twenty minutes, the taxi taking an incredibly convoluted course. If he hadn’t negotiated the flat fare, I would have been certain the driver was padding the fare, as we seemed to go around in circles, again and again. Even with the agreed fare, I doubted the driver was taking us where we wanted to go.
As it turned out, somehow we had walked 38 blocks – 38!! – passed our intended destination. In retrospect, that taxi fare may have been the best seven bucks I’ve ever spent.
Thus, two lessons about Bangkok were learnt in a hurry.
First, Bangkok is not a “walking city”. Traffic is omnipresent at a crawl, and where they exist, the sidewalks are at best irregular and narrow; at worst, death traps. No place for a wheelie bag!
Second, disregard the instruction to insist the taxi driver turn on the meter (“If he says it is broken, get out and find another taxi!”). Rubbish. It is a whole lot more enjoyable to agree on a flat fare for delivery to a desired address, then relax. It is true our 200 Baht ride probably would have cost 50 on the meter, but I would’ve been apoplectic throughout with a false certainty we were being taken for a ride. We’re talkin’ about seven bucks! And if the meter had been deciding the price, we WOULD have been taken for a ride – taxi drivers gotta eat, y’know. There’s just no getting from point A to point B in Bangkok; every motor vehicle trip requires a swirl of navigational ingenuity.
This fact supports a widely known truth about Bangkok: best to stay out of cars if you can. Indeed, for most folks, it is probably best to just stay the hell out of Bangkok altogether. One has got to love, I mean really, really, love, the sociological phenomenon we call a city to enjoy the throbbing frenzied chaos of the 13 million denizens of Bangkok’s mazelike streets.
Luckily for me, having thrown myself into the middle of it, I do. Yet it was still overwhelming at first, an adrenaline rush some might call a panic attack.
Our hotel was a place called Ariyasom Villa, a 28-room oasis on a back “soi” (street) in the Sukhumvit district. We settled in with a lovely dinner at the hotel’s vegetarian bistro, which served surprisingly tasty “vegetarian duck” and “vegetarian chicken”, whatever that is. Well disguised tofu, I suspect, as tofu ought to be. Mosquitos, which are not vegetarian creatures, munched on my ankles, leaving a series of impressive welts. Even in that rarefied environment one could sense the hurly burly of street life outside, the canal boats roaring outside the high cinder block garden walls.
In the morning both our Netbook and iPhone were acting strangely, suffering from jet-lag more than we, or so it seemed. We fortified ourselves with another huge breakfast, including “vegetarian bacon” and “vegetarian sausage”, whatever that is.
The hotel owner stopped by our table for a chat. He explained, amongst much else, that the house had been in his wife’s family since 1941 – which struck me as an interesting year to be acquiring real estate in Bangkok. Thailand muddled through World War II under the guise of neutrality, effectively collaborating with the Japanese, enabling just enough atrocity to ensure they were allowed to carry on business as usual, kind of like Coca-Cola and Bayer did.
That, in a nutshell, is the Thai character. Pleasant, accommodating, and unassuming, nothing seems to faze them. These traits would seem a prerequisite to survival in Bangkok.
The papers were abuzz that junta chief General Prayuth Chun-ocha had mocked a flock of bureaucrats by offering “Whoever wants to be PM can raise his hand.” No takers; no surprise. Pleased by their acquiescence, our fearless leader later rescinded the curfew altogether.
After double-checking neither of us was wearing a red shirt or a yellow shirt, we hit the streets for sightseeing. As military coups go, this one appeared a rather docile, as everyone else had double-checked that they weren’t wearing red or yellow, too. To be sure, there were a number of bored young men in uniforms yielding intimidating weapons on the streets. Never having been to Bangkok outside a military coup, it was hard to say how much this was an “increased military presence”. I can say that I have been more unnerved by the armed cops in South Boston on St Patrick’s Day than I was here; at least these blokes were sober.
We certainly made good on our promise to give Bangkok its sightseeing due this time around. An early trip on the Sky Train took us to the Chatuchak weekend market where we bought clown pants to put over our shorts when we later visited the Grand Palace. Grand indeed, to say the very least. We checked out the Victory Monument before viewing the majestic Golden Buddha and a fantastic 50-cent lunch in Chinatown. Then we ferried up the Chao Phraya to enjoy the towering Wat Arun. A wonderfully air conditioned taxi got us back to Ariyasom Villa with time for a swim and nap prior to heading out again. The evening included a sunset boat ride to the Siam Hotel for lovely riverside dinner.
Before retiring, we watched a bit of the Propaganda Channel; talented uniformed military musicians belted out inspired yet impenetrable Thai ditties. Fox News, Thai style. Below them on the screen a weather warning scrolled across: “Western and southern Thailand should prepare for torrential rain, flash floods, and deadly mudslides tomorrow and Monday.”
Our plan was to board a train tomorrow, heading west and south.