Friday, 12 August 2011

Two nights in Bangkok…

Bangkok. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand breath out.

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Gleaming airport. Fast queues. Smiling immigration. Safe luggage. Working ATMs. Taxi rank (taxi rank!). Shiny car. Ice cold air con. Fast road. Toll booth. Skyscrapers. Megacity skyline. Neon dazzle. Megacity buzz. Stomachs tighten. Megacity promise.

The western world welcomed us back with open arms. After six weeks in India and Nepal Bangkok airport was first world familiar and yet strangely new. Even the immigration official had a smile, as he apologised after belatedly realising that I had a Thai visa and that he hadn’t stamped me in for the appropriate one month stay. The taxi drivers were waiting patiently outside in a huddle on the other side of crowd barriers, and kindly waved us to the booking desk where a chit was issued for our journey. The polished taxis were neatly lined up at identical 45 degree angles to the kerb, the driver charged us exactly what the guide book said the cost of the trip would be, and took us straight to our hotel door.

On the toll motorway into central Bangkok the skyline slowly grew as we approached it. Glittering spikes of advertising aimed their points at the lowering monsoon twilight – “Joy is BMW” glowed up the side of one tower in letters that must have been ten metres wide to be able to dominate an entire panorama with such ease. Billboards that would have had a desultory couple of floodlights pointed up at them at home were made of LCD screens here, with images so blinding in intensity that it was hard to believe they didn’t constitute a driving hazard for the passing traffic. And then a ramp, and down, down off the elevated motorway and suddenly the city revealed itself at first hand: handcarts jostle at the side of the road for space to sell every type of food imaginable, rickshaws weave in and out of the bigger vehicles, countdown clocks tick red at traffic lights so that drivers know how long they have to wait (and presumably don’t sit and gun their engines?), police and parked motorbikes stand and watch intersections, and of course the king. The King. His Maj.

Enormous images of the king appear at every turn in Bangkok. The king in official pose. The king going “casual”. The king taking photographs. The king watching us looking at him. The revolting orgy of sycophancy that was the “royal” wedding in London earlier this year made me think that the UK was a royal-obsessed country, but Thailand has a trick or two to teach us yet. If you’re reading this in the hope of some political, cultural or historical erudition concerning the countries we’re visiting, then you’ll be sadly disappointed. I have no idea what the king represents to the Thai people, but judging from the outside, he seems like a father-figure that everyone loves and who has successfully prevented his offspring from reading Freud. There are entire shops dedicated purely to the business of selling images of the king, and we’re not just talking about postcards – some of these things could be used to clad the side of a house. My prejudices get the better of me. I don’t like him. No matter what anyone says, a society that is functioning healthily needs a monarch like a fish needs a bicycle. Where was Elizabeth Windsor when Tottenham was burning, eh?


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But I keep my feelings to myself (and resolve never to be caught out at the cinema in Thailand at 6pm when apparently they play the national anthem and everyone stands. As in, “everyone stands”). The hotel is an oasis of untrammelled delight in the middle of this megacity. A birthday present from two of the loveliest people in Cardiff, we have two nights in the place to gawp at the effortless Thai kitsch, the flawless cooking, the indefatigably hospitable staff, the kids play area. Even the plumbing is stupidly, unnecessarily pretty.

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Oisin stares in mute disbelief – a kids play area. With other children! Take a child away from everything he has ever known, drag him halfway round the world to places where no one speaks his language, everyone seems to want to pull his cheeks off his face, and the unrecognisable food is largely inedible despite what your parents insist, and maroon him with precisely the very two bores who have spent most of his life shouting instructions at him and what do you get? You get a little boy who initially seems to be taking things in his stride, but by the time you get to Bangkok you have a little boy who is clearly not at ease but unable to articulate it, and who has two parents who expend far too much energy reacting against the bad behaviour and not enough time wondering where it is coming from. It’s not long before there are fisticuffs and tears in the play area, and we dive in (again) to drag him off and ask ourselves what is going on. There’s only one answer for an emergency like this, now that we’ve finally twigged that something more than simple naughtiness is afoot – a phone call to Nana.