by wandering freditor / Jun 04, 2009 / 0 comments


When I walked down the aisle of my Air China Airbus, she was already waiting for me, a real China doll, with rouged little cheeks, a long dark pony tail fronted by a fringe and a smile more mystic-Mao than Mona. I stowed my satchel and computer and looked at her over the top of my glasses, surreptitiously so of course, and took in the grey flannel of her skirt with a sighting of knee, the navy blue jacket with big gold buttons with the letter 'V' emblazoned, the white blouse buttoned to the neck. Stylish yet demure. I closed the locker and sat down and she tilted her head slightly and smiled again, more lips than toothy, a friendly-enough welcome which I judged not to be averse to conversation. So much better than sitting next to a fat businessman, or game-playing youth, the scent of her now fresh and close. Easing myself into the seat, I swept the cabin like a ground radar dish, and from my peripheral vision saw that the magazine she was reading was Forbes, not Vogue or Hello. A business-woman no doubt, and judging by the under-stated elegance of her jewellery, one of refinement as well, when the accent in Chinese jewellery had seemed more on bold brashness, garnished with garishness. More Corvette than Lotus, that bright, bright gold or a humungous stone in a ring that sits up and says, "Boy I am dazzling, aren't I?"  Yet here she was, a touch of class, in the "classless society".

Over the proffered drinks and croutons that passed for pre-take-off snacks, and which made her lower her Forbes, I moved my pawn forward in my practiced opening gambit. "Going far?" I asked, hoping that she wasn't just looking at the pictures. She smiled again, but this time with her warm chocolate eyes, and said with that wonderful rolling of her R's and the lilting of her 'L's' as the Chinese do so easily, "My Engris is not vely good but I have to change pranes at Guangzhou beclause I am frying to Brangkok where we have a fractory". "Oh that is where I am going too" I ventured, turning a little more towards her, "I am with a delegation from Bahrain that is holding an information exhibition in Bangkok", stopping myself, just in time, from also saying Brangkok. With the mention of "Bahrain" there was a little shudder, like an aircraft striking a thermal, as her eyes narrowed slightly and I am sure that she thought, "Where the hell is that?" But the smile returned as level flight resumed. "What a co-rincidence" she purred, "You Bangers, me Bangers too!"

The trip to Bangkok passed pleasantly although probably sometime after lunch and the leaving of Chinese airspace, we both felt more relaxed with the silence and the strain of not trying to converse in simple phrases – both for her, and for me. The limitations of language, especially the opportunity to converse about details or to conceptionalise, become more apparent when cooped together for a longish journey. We smiled a lot, but when we got to Guangzhou, we said our farewells and “see you on the next flight” with a degree of forced bonhomie. In a way I was rather glad when on the next sector, I sat next to the archetypal fat businessmen, and we merely nodded at each other in an acknowledgement of presence. She was across the other side of the cabin, and we waved jauntily at each other, me and my small bosom friend. I think that she too was possibly relieved as well.

It was half a score of years ago when I had last visited Bangkok and after China, I actually looked forward to the experience although that said, and I confess that I do not know it well, but Bangkok has never really been "my sort of city". I had lived for some years in Jakarta and it always seemed to me like Jakarta with more glitz, and where more people spoke English. I remembered the old airport, where you landed in the dead of night after a flight from Australia, and then walked for miles past passengers and staff all searching for sleep, to the usual garish duty free shops offering specials on Bailey’s or Grey Goose vodka. I had broken the journey a few times too, and stayed in a couple of Bangkok’s swankiest hotels, down by the sacred Royal river after jostling down crowded roads and pungent back-streets. It was like discovering pearls sitting in the mud, hotels beautiful, resplendent and seemingly totally out of place in the surrounds. Arriving at those hotels always felt to me like arriving in to the fort, in the Westerns I used to watch as a lad, civilization in abundance, cool Jasmine scented towels, and a lei of Gardenia to banish the smell of the surrounding tropical night and the fumes from the smoking taxi. Would it be the same I thought?

The new Suvarnabhumi Airport is an ultra-modern steel and glass structure that certainly looks as elegant as any I have seen, but resembles the old airport in one way in that you walk for kilometres to get to Immigration and Customs. Now that is not necessarily a bad thing after being crowded into a metal cylinder for more hours than muscles are supposed to be squashed, but be warned a long foot-slog is ahead when you land, even taking into account those moving walkways which let you bound like Superman. There are always those golf carts, where you sit facing backwards, and they beep constantly like a truck going backwards. But the worst part of travelling that way is that you actually see the looks of people whom you race past, all with a look in their eyes which says dork! No, better to zoom past them facing forwards and not look back. Dork is so much more palatable if you only think it rather than see it said! Now for the word of me, I cannot think why the world goes past the terminal design at Singapore’s Changi Airport. It is like the ice-cream cone or the Eiffel Tower, Marilyn Monroe’s legs or Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes – some things simply cannot be improved upon. Changi is functional, attractive, well designed and laid out, and you don’t have to emulate Amundsen, trekking to the South Pole, just to change planes or to go and buy some duty free items. Yet just a few hundred kilometres to the north of Singapore, the Thais have built something which makes you think that you have just begun a training program for the Boston Marathon! In relation to the airport, maybe the Thai as in Thailand should be re-phrased as Tired!  Welcome to Tiredland or Aching-Thighland – and you've only just arrived!


Bangkok - Erwan Shrine

Erwan Shrine


Now in the ‘old days’, you also left the terminal with the speed of light, and zoomed down a toll-way till you suddenly had a crash-dummy in the Volvo experience, millimetres beyond the toll booth. The drive from Suvarnabhumi Airport was just that way again and as we neared the toll-booth I pulled my straps tighter so that gangrene was a possibility, but then we just zoomed on … and on! I was delighted and exhilarated at the same time, and before you could say “Thai silk” we were at our hotel and welcomed with a prayer-handed Sawasdee, (which phonetically morphs into wai), the Thai manner of greeting, by gentlemen in pith-like helmets and baggy pantaloons which hang a bit like those saggy old jeans that Levi Strauss used to design before he put shape into bums. On the steps were coolly dressed, delicate ladies, in elegant silk, the very personification of Thailand’s billing as “The Land of Smiles”. With an efficiency that the Swiss market as ‘clockwork’, we were soon registered, in a lift, and in our rooms with the bags already delivered! The Thais do it seemingly without effort, and with a smile as smooth as milk chocolate. Like Angelina Jolie’s lips, the room was cool, luscious and inviting, a veritable gateway to pleasure where you just knew that the aircraft carrier flight-deck sized bed was going to be comfortable. There are all the right connections for your computer and a flat-screen television the size of the screen at the drive-in theatres that I spent time at as a yearning youth. The appointments and sense of space is simply stunning. The bathroom was marbellous in every way, with a huge shower stall with a shower head the size of a motor-scooter wheel and a flow as profound as Niagara. With all the mirrors on the wall, the water cascading, and after a long flight, my rendition of Night Fever, hand movements and all, would have made John Travolta very envious!

When it comes to hotels and service, the Thais set the standards and throughout the Middle East, the Arabs have been clever enough to spot Thai service as the paragon, and they have brought in Thai staff by the jumbo load to service their hospitality industry. It is easy to take, the genuine friendliness and smiles, the ever watchful service, the benchmark in comfort and somehow the hotels at the top end of the market have a sort of Taj Mahal serenity about them. It is a bit disconcerting, and decidedly incongruous, that in all this serenity, the Thai word for "Thanks" is krap for there is nothing whatsoever crappy about the service. Hotel lobbies are invariably a veritable florist shop of orchids and sweet scented jasmine, frangipani and gardenia. It is all so peaceful and restful. I asked a friend whether Thais ever ‘lost it’ and he told me that face and self-restraint were the “hallmark of the good Thai” but when things got out of hand, there was no ‘red line’ and there had been plenty of instances where a policeman arguing with a speeding motorist whom he had pulled over, had shot and killed the man when tempers flared. As with Thai kick boxing, there were ‘rules’ which served as a guide only! He reminded me too, that the Thais love sports (in common with other Asian countries to be sure) which we in the West would see as cruel. There is of course cock-fighting and fish fighting but add to this beetle, snake and cricket fighting, as well as sword fighting – ‘events’ which are happily advertised in Government publications.  


Guardians of the King's Grand Palace, Bangkok

Guardians of the King's Grand Palace, Bangkok


I went out walking very early before the sun had put its heat feet on my brow and back and there were, as yet, no touts about. Like cockroaches, touts only came out at night, offering first a taxi ride and then delving into a pocket like a purveyor of risqué French postcards, and revealing ladies firing ping-pong balls from deep inside their anatomies or doing things with bottles of Coca Cola that would have stretched the imagination of headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia! Already at that early hour, Bangkok was a city throbbing with every form of wheeled vehicle imaginable, and often going in opposite directions on the main road where there appeared to be only one direction flow. Lots of uniformed men with bandanas, the James Gang of the roadways, waving flags and whistling (yes whistles, looking as though Viagra enhanced against the cotton of the bandana) so that the traffic flowed as relentlessly as the Amazon, with its host of tributaries. Somehow I had forgotten the frenetic pace of Asia with its “move baby move” theme, footpaths as stepped as the Great Wall of China, with missing bricks and veritable pits to consume the unwary. The stalls were already in place, smoke rising from some in the way that a smoker’s first drag casts an instant pall, and the smell of roast meat scented the air. Here and there I came upon a shrine with its smoking joss sticks and enough orange flowers to make you think that you were in Holland, and the shop signs which serve to make you laugh with names like Smile Emporium or Lucky Tailoring or even Happy Ending Massage. Noise is like a pirate’s parrot, for it sits constantly on your shoulder, the squawking of the vendors, the grunting of the cart-pullers, the machine gun staccato of the tuk-tuks, the slurring chatter of motor bikes, the honking of horns and the squealing of brakes, the thrum of the Sky-train, and above it all, the shouted half conversations of the mobile phone users.


Gold Monkey at the Palace, Bangkok

Gold Monkey at the Palace


In the past, Bangkok rather overwhelmed me. I preferred places of history and a quantum of solitude, where in the morning, you could wander without the crowds and when you got lost, find a quaint little coffee shop where you could relax, regroup, study your map, and continue your stroll. Asian cities are not like that for they have the constancy of a relative who wants to keep talking at you forever, a grasping quality that most European cities lack. With the slight exception of Singapore, I find Asian cities very wearing. But this time, after the dull frenzy of Nanjing, with it throng of uniformity, the ‘flair’, colour and sheer alive-ness of Bangkok had an unaccustomed appeal. Thai women, in the main, have that wonderful litheness of movement that makes them look as though their feet are little mini-hovercraft so that they glide, even when they negotiate broken footpaths or their way around obstacles. Skirts were short, and shorts even shorter, but generally in an eye engaging manner and without any of the trashiness that such hemlines sometimes purvey. After the Middle East and China, it was almost akin to walking in a nudist colony, such is the comparison. And while the foreigners looked for Thai silk to take home, the locals were in denim and cotton which they managed to make look clean and elegant in a manner which somehow eludes most Westerners. Even when you travel down the dusty streets or backstreets, or alongside the main roads where the market stalls trade smoke from satay fires, and the smells are a mixture of sweet and rancid, the drains are full of smelly olive sludge, the Thais still look as though they have come straight from the dry-cleaners. Their standard of visible cleanliness never fails to astound me.

The climate is always deceptive for even at that early hour, the air does not hang, it weighs. You feel as though you have sprung a leak under the arms, then the temples follow, and your face takes on a cheesy sheen while clothes cling and hands feel clammy. So it goes all day till at last the early evening’s tropical downpour washes away the grime of another day and the roads flood temporarily, draining away the filth and slightly cooling the air. Unless, of course you enter a super-cooled hotel lobby or a giant mall and then the chill of the air hits you with all the whammo of a Muhammad Ali punch.

I wandered first to the Erwan shrine of Phra Phrom, the four-headed Brahma statue, which was enshrouded in the smoke of joss-ticks and candles, while all about hung bright orange floral adornments and people lined up to pray and sway with a group of Thai dancers dressed in that golden head-gear which the Germans probably regard as an Oriental pickelhaube. In 2006, a disturbed man destroyed the statue and the crowd turned on him and beat him to death, such is the fervour of prayer at the shrine and it is always busy for prayers and offerings. In fact all over Bangkok there are tiny, and not-so-tiny, spirit houses and shrines which offer worshipers a chance for prayer. It was particularly busy for prayer at the time of my visit because King Bhumibol’s sister, Princess Galyani, was to be cremated in the Buddhist manner, and everywhere there were little stalls selling pieces of banana-tree trunk on which intricate floral tributes were placed and then launched on the waters of the klongs (canals) and of course the Chao Praya river, a sea of green, white and orange floaties, all launched by a million prayers.

The side-streets in Bangkok are called Soi’s, a much nicer word than ‘street’. Think of all the fun you could have as a town planner with Soi Long or Soi Howarya or Soi R.U. Finished! (I can see you making more appropriate titles as you read!). There is already a Soi Cowboy, an area of dubious as well as legitimate massage parlours, which is lit up at night like Las Vegas and caters for the Soapy Bubbles massage crowd, mostly foreigners of course. For while in financial or even political terms, some may see Bangkok as a sort of “Second Division” Asian city, it is widely acknowledged as the “First Division” sex capital of the world. Thai massage, which is highly regarded as beneficial and therapeutic, is very much a Thai way of life and signs for ‘foot massages’ and ‘genuine massages’ abound. For Thais, massages are as fundamental to well-being as eating and drinking. But there is also a wayward cousin that uses ‘massage’ for all forms of erotic and body-to-body oil massages, and there are a plethora of bars promoting vaginal dexterity and acumen. It is the brazenness of it all that shocks the first time visitor, and it is why people have a ‘knowing smile’ when you say you had a massage in Thailand. You find yourself explaining yourself, to an often sceptical “yair, right mate” audience! Some, of course, don’t even bother, for the invariably young, trophy wife by their side speaks volumes of spousal 'tolerance'. I am sure that there are some genuine unions, but the men in such equations are often great of gut and years, and the union reeks of servitude as well as desperation on the part of the woman, to get out of Thailand via any available vehicle, even if that vehicle be a toothless, balding jalopy. I often wonder whether such women really know what they are in for, later stuck in the suburbs of Sydney or worse still, a town in the bush, a fish out of water where the neighbours snigger and the men are full of innuendoes. Then, the bosom of Thailand must seem very distant.

I saw some Soi dogs while I was walking, mangy dirty curs, and yet when I looked at them, some actually had collars signifying once there were owners, or may be, even still. I saw a pack of ten on the busy corner of Phloen Chit and Ratchadamri Roads, some sleeping in the dust, mere centimetres from the kerb and others beneath nearby beautification hedges. People passed them by without attention, but I hurried to a nearby food stall and bought four pork sausages and proceeded to lob sufficiently cooled pieces near the dogs. They sniffed, and then turned their heads away, the meat untouched. I felt immediate and acute disappointment, more so when I lobbed a piece of my Kit Kat nearby and saw the same look of disdain. Maybe, for religious reasons, they didn’t eat pork, but a Kit Kat! My reservoir of goodwill for the dogs emptied rapidly. Later a friend told me that generally people fed such dogs, which was a sight better than in other places where people often hurled stones and abuse at them. But it did little to mollify my own disenchantment that my snacks had been spurned!

Later, my Soi dog tale-teller took me to a restaurant in a Soi that looked dark and foreboding, and like a training venue for muggers. I walked down it with my shoulders tense, with swivelling eyes and my fingers jutted in a karate pose! We passed through a low portal and into a front garden of large, arching trees, with small tables where candlelight burnished the faces of trysting couples, dark shadows on assignations best hidden from view. I immediately thought of the movie Emanuelle with its haunting, whispered music and the blackness at the end of a candle-flame. Most aptly the place was called Once Upon A Time, for as time goes by, places like this become so much rarer. We went into the old, two storied wooden house with its wooden floors and its old rosewood furniture. There was a staircase leading up to bedrooms, which were kept in the style of the Twenties and Thirties, a bed dominating the room, with mosquito-netting traipsing like a cape from a ceiling crown, the smell of wax and the portent of illicit sex in the air. On the walls there were sepia portraits of Asian men with thin moustaches and white suits, a fashionable ‘flapper’ demurely seated before them in a long dress, legs elegantly crossed, with a glimpse of ankle above chunky, then-in-vogue shoes. It was European-posh, but for the faces, and all with just a whiff of eroticism. In one corner was a tin bath, and I imagined the naked shapes in the candlelight, watched over only by mosquitoes, beads of perspiration like little balls of gold, trickling all oily over glistening skin. We sat downstairs and dined on hot Thai foods, sour soup, and curry. When perspiration wet my brow, I told myself that it was the chillies and not a surge in thought about what had happened above my head once upon a time, a long, long time ago.     


Bangkok Street Seller

Bangkok Street Seller


Coming back to the hotel, I saw that with the modern shopping malls now closed, Bangkok had changed little in the thirty years since I had first come. The roads were still congested with tail-lights like a river of lava, the street stalls now lit from generators and no longer hissing Tilly lamps. Small children and mothers with babies draped across their legs, still begged for coins, while artisans fashioned objects out of wire or grass and offered them for a few baht. The small food stalls did a roaring trade. The juxtaposition of such stalls, outside stores which sold tiny bags by Louis Vuitton or Chanel which retail for more than a stall holder might earn in five years, is rather incongruous. Bangkok, like most Asian cities is alive at night, for the night so often hides the squalor beneath a blaze of neon or lights which only highlight the products on sale, and hardly even illuminate the footpath. When Neil Diamond sang “Thank the Lord for the night-time” he was in tune with the thoughts of millions of Asians who constantly make the night-time their time for living outdoors, in a manner that most Westerners seldom do.

When I did my Diplomatic training course over a score and ten years ago, we had a Thai diplomat among the ‘foreign contingent’. We lost touch, and he may well have been the Thai Foreign Minister thrice removed, for all I know, but I remember that he was not much taken with Australian cities, during the day and the night, for he found them “lacking in thrum”. In fact not much at all impressed him about Australia, but I do remember that he stood looking stunned and disoriented when our plane landed at Cook, a tiny railway town on the Nullarbor Plain, to refuel, and all he could see was … nothing. From horizon to horizon there was only grey-green spinifex grass and a sky so hurtfully blue, that sunglasses were mandatory. A few small houses, a railway line to nowhere, two people to refuel the aircraft from big drums, and that was it. Not a dog or a rabbit or a breeze or a sound, and now, after visiting Bangkok, I realised why Cook was as alien to my Thai colleague as if he had been transported to Saturn! Noise, movement, smell and congestion, it is the Thai DNA, and he could not imagine a place where those essentials were absent.

I travelled through Chinatown, with its narrow alleys and street-spilling stalls, its eateries and jam of people, its Thieves Market where, if you were lucky, you could buy back the items stolen from your house the night before. Twice a month, merchant ships from China arrived to stock Chinatown with all manner of items that had not been sold in China and they were now being off-loaded in a host of Asian cities at a cheaper price than it had sold for in China. It was the reason d'etre for Chinatowns.  As long as you didn't want the latest styles and fashions, there were bargains to be found in Chinatown. The Chinese Diaspora had also built gates, temples and a hospital in a Chinese style so that their home away from home wasn't really a home away at all. And right next to Chinatown, in neat geographical juxtaposition, was the Indian quarter, with its temples to the Buddha blending in nicely with the Thai temples to the same deity, for it is now over 250 years since the Thai branch of Buddhism came from India, and stayed. Now Bangkok alone has 410 temples, and there are over 5000 in the entire country.

I travelled to the King's Grand Palace via the 'open all hours' flower market which because of the coming cremation, was itself like a field of flowers hosting a colony of human bees. Flowers play such an important role in Thai daily life and they are cheap, plentiful and abundant, and why wouldn't they be in a country where you put a stick in the soil and the next day it sprouts leaves! Then it was on past the mightily impressive Defence ministry with its assembled cannon, and to the Palace gate. Already, the high, gleaming white walls with temples and roof lines peeping over the top, had all the allure of the first sighting of the sea when you are going to spend a day at the beach, and I could not wait to go through the gates. First, however, there was a sea of touts to breast, but I fell neatly in behind a stout, bearded fellow tourist, and he cut a swathe through the pestering postcard sellers as though he was Moses. And then we were inside the gates, and I gazed in wonder across what looked like a brilliant green croquet field with topiary trees and hedges clipped like nails, to a huge golden stupa and beyond it, other towers in Thai and Khmer (Cambodian) styles.

The Grand Palace really is breath-taking in its ornate-ness and you are dazzled by the detail from afar, and up close. The entrance to the courtyards surrounding the Wat Phra Kaew Temple, which houses the fabled "Emerald Buddha", are guarded by giant Gods, the Yak, and a host of mythical creatures, half animal, half man (Kinnorn), which glitter in the sunlight. Once all the colour was derived from precious stones and jewels, or real gold, but Burmese invaders had carried those off. Now it is semi-precious stones and gold-leaf, and vast areas of broken porcelain which came from China as ships' ballast, and has been meticulously colour-assembled and used for external decoration. There are also sculptures of the famous white elephants which showed the power of the Kings of Thailand, and which are still regarded as a lucky symbol by the populace. (I have, for years, kept one given to me by my son, in my wallet). At the temple, we all took off our shoes, dabbed 'happiness' holy water on our brows and went inside to see the little Emerald Buddha (which is really carved from a single piece of Jade) who the next day, by the call of the King, would be dressed in his winter clothes. (The Emerald Buddha also has summer and rainy season outfits). The wooden floor was packed with people in supplication, all fully obedient about not pointing the soles of their feet (a great insult) towards the Buddha. There was something quite magical, and mystical, about the setting and the solemnity of it all.

Later we walked past depictions of the tales of the Ramayana in gilt, and to the impressive Coronation Hall with the gold throne on an octagonal base and under a parasol canopy, and then outside to see the pavilion where the body of the soon to be cremated Princess, was being housed in a porcelain jar. The pavilion had a high step which made easier the alighting from an elephant, and an ornate roof-line which looked as though the ridge line ended in gold fishing hooks. Outside, soldiers in sparkling white uniforms stood stoically guard, seemingly oblivious to the tourists who came and stood beside them, grinning furiously or giving a most unmilitary salute. Despite the crowds the Palace seemed to maintain its serenity, and one could not fail to be impressed by its grandeur.   

We drove back via Bangkok's "street of democracy" (Which came in 1939), through the area owned by the Royal Family, with our guide telling us time and again that the Royals took no money from the State and that they had to mount their own enterprises to make a living. It helps, I presume, when you own large tracts of land, so much so that in the centre of Bangkok, the monarch has a huge estate which contains farms and handicraft factories. The land must be worth mega-baht! Elsewhere too, palaces of marble abound, and we drove past a stunning school given to the State by King Rama the Fifth, which had all the hallmarks of Harrow, even the manicured rugby field. Elsewhere were houses and apartment blocks commanding, no doubt, a right royal rent, but since the King moved the capital to Bangkok in 1782, the city has grown more in bounds than leaps, so accommodation is at a premium. Today Bangkok has a population of over 10 million people, and the Royal family is revered as the preservers of Thai integrity in a manner that the military and the politicians are not. Yellow (the colour of the King’s birth day, a Monday, for the Thais have a different colour associated with each week day) flags abound all over the city in an abiding declaration of loyalty, and when I saw a Princess Royal opening our exhibition, there appeared to be genuine awe and respect, and a lot of bowing, among the gathering of Thais. At times, I am told, it has been that loyalty and respect which has allowed the King to hold the country together, and while talk of his ‘departure’ (He is now 80) is seldom discussed, even in private, the issue of succession is one of concern to the Thais.

We passed a group of demonstrators whose appeal was against "too much democracy" in that the vote of the 'peasants' in the countryside had as much weight as the intelligentsia in the city, and that the cunningly clever, but now ousted and exiled Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, had manipulated the country vote to marginalize the Bangkok nabobs. Politicians they argued, should be 'appointed by people who knew what they were doing' rather than to hand such an important issue to largely ignorant, slavish followers through elections. Or to quote from Alexander the Great, have an army of sheep led by a lion. For a while, Thaksin was that lion and had swept all before him. He had 'changed things', but then corruption had undone him and he had fled his country, claiming that he could not get a fair trial in Thailand. He was probably right, but a Ghandi, or a Mandela, would have stayed and fought, and his 'runner' has cost him support. But his departure was a relief to many in power, although he still looms as a dark and increasingly distant cloud.

We drove back into the central city area with its hotels, malls and bars, stopping at a level crossing where the Orient Express train slowly crossed our path on its way down the Twiggy-like waist of Thailand, and I imagined Hercule Poirot just settling down in his leather seat with a Gimlet in his hand. The roads were clogged again, and the motor-cycle taxis were darting in-between the cars like dragonflies around lily-pads, pillion riders drawing both breath and legs together while everyone else just honked and reved their engines. At the State Building we went up nearly seventy floors to the outdoors Skyline Bar, and looked down upon a Bangkok that was just lighting up, boats on the river like lighted matchboxes, laser light sabres probing the purple skies, neon lights winking in a myriad of colours. Just the breeze, and everything else below, a somewhat eerie feeling as the walkway round the bar was see-through glass, but if it bothered the Martini and Daiquiri set, they did not show it, although I felt decidedly queasy.

Back on the ground, we headed for a huge seafood barn with the motto which said “If it swims, we have got it” and I looked for Michael Phelps in one of the tanks. The barn could have easily fitted a Jumbo jet, and as in a supermarket, you took a trolley and loaded it up with all the ingredients for a salad or stir-fry, still flapping fish or crustaceans, bottles of beer or wine, paid for it at the check-out and took it to an industrially-sized kitchen where an army of chefs prepared all for the table. And, I was told, the place was packed, night after night after night! When we came out, the flags were already changing from Green to Orange signifying that Wednesday was over and Thursday was coming, and I had to flag down four taxis before one agreed to take me back to my hotel, so great was the congestion in the area to which I wanted to go. Even the taxi drivers, it seems, sometimes get fed-up with the congestion. Yes, in many ways, it was still the same old Bangers.

On a night when the full moon rose on tall blocks of apartments amid malls and street stalls, with the sky again purple and smokey, we left Bangkok. Our driver paid to enter a car park simply to find a short-cut exit for already the traffic serpent lay still. We slithered forward a little here and there, till at last we found a toll-way and picked up pace through fields and past ponds, till aircraft appeared in the sky, and we knew that the airport was close by.  The check-in was easier than before, the security clearance too, although we still walked vast distances. And from the comfort of my Business Class seat, as we banked over the city and its swirl of lights to the horizon, I reflected on how much more I’d enjoyed my visit than on previous occasions. Much in the city was new and reflected prosperity and modernity, but so to, there was still the 'old' Asia, the scented heavy night air, the velvet sky, the bustle and the traffic, the stalls and the streets teeming with people, the Bangers of old. Singapore has swept much of that ‘old’ away, as has Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. But somehow, Bangers has maintained the right mix between the old and the new. And that, in my view, makes it worth visiting again … and again.          


Winfred Peppinck is the Wandering Freditor Editor for Wandering Educators