Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thailand Day 3

Clearly, a hard day's reading newspapers on Monday took a lot out of me, as I didn't crawl out of bed until sometime around 9.30 this morning. With that, my intention to explore (before meeting an 11am deadline at the Australian Embassy) was transformed into the sort of intention that paves roads to the sort of places no-one hopes to go.

I have been disappointing myself a lot recently. Take yesterday evening, when I failed to make it to my hotel happy hour because I was running 4km in the gym. I look in the mirror and don't know who that man is. Yes, that one, with the sweaty mop of hair, trying to catch his breath.

Today's main activity at the Embassy (aside from prying gossip from the Thai staff) was watching the Ambassador being interviewed by an Australian TV journalist based in Bangkok. The interview took place just up the South Sathorn Road in a very swanky hotel - I think we walked about two miles of white-washed corridors - on a set carefully decorated with stuffed koalas and kangaroos (supplied by the Embassy and carried by yours truly).

The Ambassador seems a lovely bloke and very relaxed, introducing himself as Paul and not batting an eyelid when the TV presenter pulled a businessman out of the shadows for an unscheduled chat.

I can see why the Australian diplomatic staff seem so at home here, as there is a similar deliberate unhurriedness in the Thai character. Nothing should be any fuss and nothing done quickly. Crowds drift sleepily down train station stairs and escalators during peak hour, tutting at anyone bouncing impatiently on the balls of their feet. (That's me, by the way.)

A friend who has lived in Thailand for some years has remarked on how frustrating this can be when it comes to actually getting anything done. There is an ingrained notion that the perfect state of being is whatever the current state of being is (which is unusual, considering how frequently governments plunge in crises - or perhaps explains how governments allow themselves to plunge into crisis). Anyone who might have a complaint is often regarded as rocking the boat.

Speaking of boats, this evening was spent bouncing upriver (or possibly downriver) to a riverside bar with a fantastic view of Wat Arun - or the temple of the Dawn. The Chao Phraya is still a working river, with half-mile long barges being towed beside gaudy tourist vessels. Around dusk, its waters were dark grey beneath a light grey sky, a dirty red sun slurring its way West. Occasionally silver fish leapt clear of the boat's surf, although my friend Donovan explained this was not necessarily to escape the dubious quality of the water. He himself swam through it last year as part of a triathalon, only to be knocked towards unconsciousness when he surfaced into a floating two-by-four piece of timber.

Aside from Wat Arun itself, the main attraction at dusk is watching tourists with massive cameras fail to snap a perfect sunset shot. I counted about a dozen, all of whom departed disappointed as soon as the last of the sun was seen.

Nearby is the Wat Pho temple, a large building entirely occupied by the world's largest sleeping Buddha. The temple was closed, but we glimpsed some of the divine being's golden rump through a narrow window. It was hard not to draw comparisons with the poses held by the muddied figures sleeping outside the temple grounds.

From there, we wandered through the kilometre-long flower markets, down several of the sort of alleys you only walk down if you're sure where you're going. Small children rode plastic vehicles along broken, muddy paths. These were the Indian alleys, in one of which we found Punjab Sweets, where we ate some superb vegetarian curries and drank sweet, spiced masala tea while the staff skipped through their favourite songs on ancient Bollywood DVDs.

Watching my step in the alleys as we left, I thought about the contrast between these cramped shops and those I had worn my boots out in earlier in the afternoon. The walk from MBK Centre to Central World Plaza was around 3 kilometres, taking in every possible consumer delight. I quite literally became vertiginous in the latter shopping mall, rising above six gleaming white stories of brand-name stores.

Many cities are capable of such extremes of luxury and poverty, but in Bangkok both seem to live so closely and (for some) comfortably side by side. An expensive mansion may sit beside a decrepit block of apartments, or a field of rubble in which beggars sleep. As we cruised the river last night, for every stunning riverside property, there was another whose wooden boards rotted and sagged, tipping inevitably towards the grey waters.

Anyway, here's a picture of me drinking from a coconut:

1 comment:

  1. hi myke! make sure you go iceskating at the top of the central world plaza - it's an escape from humidity and surreal. enjoy! enjoy! bangkok. i loved it - and completely agree re the incongruity of the poverty and wealth. s. xxxxx. p.s. did you know that one of the most frequent comparisons to the thai political system is the italian one? it's all about going slow and not rocking the boat as you say ... - and good food!