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Bangkok in My Memory


There are certain things that stay in the memory as if they are deeply inscribed into granite – never to be erased with the passing of time. Here I would like to lay out a few of those “snapshots” that are vivid in my memory and are always with me. They are in no particular order – just random recollections of good (and not-so-good) things that I remember about Bangkok. Prominent Australian journalist Gavin Souter once said it would take a Gershwin to adequately describe Sydney – but I would like to add to that comment to say that I doubt that even Gershwin could do justice to the Bangkok that I see through my eyes.

A good Thai friend of mine posted a video clip on YouTube with this title – “Bangkok In My Memory” – over three years ago and she used an audio track from the classic Thai rock band, “The Olarn Promjai Project” – (“Ya-Yood-Yang” – Never Stop). Here is the link. This group has also had an incarnation as “The Sun” and also as “Stone Metal Fire”. You can check out my friend's clip on YouTube – beautiful collection of still shots giving a glimpse of the soul of this wonderful city as seen through her eyes with the excellent guitar work of Olarn and voice of Kor.

But this is some of what I have seen – although I don't think many of my “snapshots” would rate Gershwin's attention. Lady Gaga's attention might be more appropriate: Sunday morning, early, on Silom Road – and I am walking along for some exercise, just checking out the scene and looking for some good shots to take on the camera. I rode the Skytrain to Sala Daeng and am now walking west on the right-hand side heading toward Thanon Mahesak – lovely and peaceful for a city that is so bustling at other times of the day. A couple of people are sitting at tables in front of Silom Village, having coffee and looking at their newspapers and a Thai girl is preparing food and coffee at the snack bar/restaurant just inside the Village precincts. During normal business hours I quite often go wandering around inside the Village looking at the many different shops selling quality hand-crafted goods that you don't normally see elsewhere in Bangkok. It is a quiet and peaceful oasis in a normally frenetic part of Bangkok. Good quality restaurants inside here.

At the intersection of Mahesak and Silom I crossed over to the opposite side corner of Silom Road and Surasak, then began walking back toward Sala Daeng. While waiting for the lights to change at Narathiwat I started chatting to a couple of ladies who were waiting to cross beside me. One was maybe in her late teens/early-twenties and the other quite a bit older – I picked them as a couple of freelancers but was surprised they were out so early (or late?). They looked more Indian than Thai. The younger one began to speak.

“Good morning, where you come from?”

“I'm from Australia.”

“Oh – what part of Australia you from?”

“I'm from Sydney.”

I was waiting for “I have sister who lives there – I give you her contact.” But that didn't happen.

“What you do now?”

“I come out to get some exercise and have a look around.”

“What hotel you stay at?”

“Baiyoke Sky – I go back there now – have some things I must do.”

“I want to come with you.”

“No, no – I have lady in Chiang Mai and I go there tomorrow to be with her.”

We walked on together after the lights changed, just chatting in general. Near Central Department Store I said goodbye to them and walked across to the other side of Silom Road via the Skytrain overpass and went down to catch the 77 bus back to Pratunam. While waiting for the bus, the young one came across the road and stood beside me again.

“I want to go with you now.”

She was really quite attractive and I smiled at her.

“I like that too – but mai-dai. I have to go now.”

Fortunately, the bus arrived then and I jumped on board. Hate to think where that could have gone if she had followed me onto the bus. Still, it couldn't have been that bad, or could it?

***

The early days:

It is late evening.

I’m in the mini-shuttle transit bus en-route from Don Meuang airport into Bangkok.

There’s the driver, a Thai lady tour guide and one other male passenger (Hugo) and me. This is the one and only time I have ever used pre-paid transit in Thailand. It’s about 10 p.m. and we head for Sukhumvit, where the other passenger is booked to stay before they drive me up past Pratunam Markets to The Indra Regent Hotel.

We talk and joke about Bangkok and the Thai lady gives the obligatory advice about touts and safeguarding one’s valuables. I’ve been to Bangkok before so I know what to expect. Even at this hour Pratunam Market is busy but some stallholders are starting to pull down and pack up. but all I want to do is get to my room, shower and try to get some rest. It is Saturday night and I have just flown in direct from Australia on Thai Airways but it was an uncomfortable flight.

At The Indra Regent a uniformed dark-complexioned Indian-looking man comes to help me inside with my bags. He speaks with a sing-song manner.

“Good evening, Sir. Allow me to help you with your luggage.”

I start to smile as I remember my old Cockney step-dad, George, recounting a similar circumstance when he and my mother went on their 6-month world tour by ship.

“Carry your bag, Sir?”
“No, you can let her walk.”

“Alice, you look like a million dollars – just keep your mouth shut!”

Good old George.

Check-in formalities attended to we go up to the room, I give a tip to the bellboy and heave a sigh of relief.

It’s been a long day and I feel really stuffed yet I can’t sleep. My mind is free-wheeling like the discs on a broken old poker machine but I can’t come up with aces. Outside, the noise from the street drifts up and further prevents the attempt to relax.

So, what will tomorrow bring?

***

Some years later:

Early morning once again on Silom Road – around 8 a.m. and I've just turned the corner after walking from Chong Nonsi, just a little past the old Thai Airways Building. A street crew is walking along with a sprayer truck, cleaning the sidewalk and the LH lane and they have moved on further down toward Tower Inn. I stood back near the wall as I had no desire to get my shoes filled with spray from the truck and was just observing the men work with their brooms – they seemed to put so much effort and enthusiasm into their job.

I was just about to continue on, when a motorcycle-taxi went past with a Farang on the pillion – not wearing a crash helmet. About 200 metres further on, the bike skidded on the wet road and threw the Farang head-first into a solid tree at the edge of the kerb. A group of Thai people nearby rushed to help him but it was obvious he was in serious trouble as he went into some hind of fit – his arms and legs twitching as he lay there while the people tried to comfort him and waiting for help to arrive. The motorcycle-taxi rider was OK.

I know that traffic accidents are a common sight in Bangkok but I was quite sick and jittery for the rest of the day. Started to think about whether he had Travel or Health Insurance; Did he have someone who needed to know about the accident; How serious was his condition? Would he survive? And I thought “There but for the grace of God go I”.

Ever since that day I have carried Health and Travel Insurance.

That morning always stays close in my memory.

***

Another time – much, much earlier – my “Newbie” years:

Thai Tina lives in a new, two storey house in a gated, security-guarded estate. The house has four large bedrooms, and two bathroom/toilets upstairs and polished wooden floors throughout. Downstairs there is a large living area, dining area, kitchen, separate laundry and two more bathroom/toilets. There is also an undercover parking bay for a vehicle. The grounds are security fenced and turfed with landscaped trees and shrubs planted and established.

Tina and boyfriend Pon come down and we exchange morning greetings. Tina goes out to the kitchen area.

"Mark, will you have coffee?"

"Yes please – two sugar and milk thank you."

I walk into the kitchen area to see if I can be of help. She smiles at me.

"Mark, you go sit down and I bring coffee to you."

Over coffee they suggest that it might be nice to make a trip up to The Golden Triangle and they could show me some of the places that are very popular in Chiang Mai Province. The words "Golden Triangle" rang alarm bells in my head and I had visions of being detained with them for possession of illegal substances – but, of course, I was over-reacting internally and had no reason to suspect that they had any intention of obtaining drugs. I suppose I was just being super-careful here. A suggestion also came up of a dinner cruise on The Chao Phraya River and that would be nice but I imagined quite expensive with three people – and I would be expected to pay, no doubt.

As the morning progresses a taxi pulls up and two Thai ladies and a teenage lad get out and come in the gate and are welcomed by Tina [The Chao Phraya dinner cruise bill has just doubled.]. The younger one is Tina's younger sister, Aya, and a real Thai stunner who has just flown in from London, while the other one is an older lady, Kongkrai, who turns out to be an elder sister of Tina – about 45 I guess. I don't know who the teenage lad is. I imagine he probably is the unplanned child of some liaison of Kongkrai's.

Introductions are performed and the women adjourn to the kitchen while Pon and I go for a walk around the estate to a small shop that sells groceries and drinks. Pon is an interesting man and I find myself at ease with him although one has always to be aware that you are in a strange country and the customs are different.

At the shop we buy Coca-Cola and I am gob-smacked as the man behind the counter takes the tops off the bottles and pours the contents into two small plastic bags with straws and he then proceeds to secure the necks of the bags around the straws with elastic bands. I look at Pon in amazement and he just smiles.

“Saves the deposit on the bottles and reduces pollution.”

Of course, why didn't I think of that – but what about the plastic bags?

Back at the house, another taxi arrives and we all head off to somewhere that turns out to be a major shopping centre where we purchase meat, fruit and groceries to take back to the house. We are now sitting in a circle on the floor of the kitchen and eating rambutan and mangosteen – Tina and Kongkrai are also tucking into Durian.

Tina does not seem happy with Pon. I noticed when we arrived about 2 o'clock this morning that she had found an ashtray with cigarette butts in it and there is lipstick on two of the butts. Nothing was said then but I can tell there is going to be trouble. Tina has just returned from Australia with me and Pon was supposed to be living here on his own.

After we have eaten, another taxi arrives and Tina, Kongkrai, Aya, the teenage lad and I head off to a bigger shopping centre (Minburi, I think) where I can cash some traveller's cheques and the ladies can have their hair done. That seems to take forever – but I am surprised that Pon has not come with us. After the hairdresser is finished it is quite late in the afternoon so we go to wander around and find a Japanese restaurant where we have a meal of sukiyaki before browsing in a market. I bought a couple of long-stem roses and gave them to Tina. Don't know where Aya and the teenage lad have gone – never saw them again.

Back at the house, Pon comes and goes several times and I can hear raised voices from their bedroom and he is removing some of his belongings from the house. I get the impression that she has told him to go. But, it is time for bed and Kongkrai has arranged a small mattress in the next-door room but it doesn't look very comfortable and I am half-tempted to offer to share my big bed with her – but I guess that is not really appropriate so I refrain. I hear the front door open and close with a loud bang several times later on. This feels very uncomfortable and I feel my presence is only making things worse.

From the other room I can hear them arguing about something – and I can only guess it is about my being there – or the cigarette butts with lipstick traces. Who would know?

Later that evening Pon leaves again.

The next morning begins with Tina removing Pon’s belongings from the upstairs room they shared.

Tina comes down to talk with me and she tells me that Pon is gone. She wants to talk with me about the house and asks me if I would be interested in buying a share of the house. She shows me a pile of documents and tells me that she will eventually go back to Australia but wants to make sure that the house is looked after. Then she gives me details of a bank account and the account number where money can be paid into if I should decide that I want to do this. I must have “DILL” tattooed on my forehead – but I go along with the game.

I tell her that I don't have the money to do that as my money is tied up in property back in Australia (that was true) – and that I have given my daughter Power Of Attorney to act on my behalf (also true) so I don't have access to that kind of money in any case (this is crap). To be honest, I think I am being told a story because I don't really believe Pon is gone – this is just a game to play me. But that's OK and people will always try to see if you are awake to things – particularly if you are a Farang in a strange Asian country. As it turns out, though, Pon does come back a couple of times later on toward the evening and leaves again so I guess my thinking might be right on the money. He's probably come back to see if I signed the agreement papers.

Pon and Tina are arguing and I can only imagine what is being said. A while later he leaves again.

Kongkrai is sitting beside me on the sofa.

I am starting to get the drift that she seems concerned that I should make sure my money and personal things are secure and out of sight. I suspect she does not trust Pon – and that worries me quite a bit.

“You go – Sukhumvit? – hotel – Ambassador – you wait there.”

Kongkrai holds her hand up to her ear as though holding the telephone hand-piece. She looks into my eyes, questioning my thoughts but unable to reach them.

“Phone Tina – Sukhumvit?”

I’m flipping through the pages of the Thai Phrasebook and Robertson’s Thai Dictionary but I can’t make myself understood well enough to convey my thoughts to Kongkrai. It is dark outside and the heat is oppressive – very humid. On the television a Thai newsreader is reporting something to do with the Thai Ambassador visiting Malaysia. A gecko moves slowly across the ceiling.

Kongkrai, how I wish I could speak your language better or you could speak mine. We have so much that needs to be said yet we fumble for meanings as if we are two people struck dumb by the hand of God. She sits beside me on the sofa – her skin so brown and her long hair partly tied back yet still falling down by the side of her neck. I think she has had a hard life – it shows in her face yet she is still an attractive woman who would possibly be a very good wife to the right man.

Her presence beside me is tinged with sensuality and I could quite happily make love with her – perhaps that's what we really should do right now – it might defuse the situation – yet my thoughts are with Tina. I find that a contradiction that bothers me yet I don’t understand it. Why did I let Tina talk me into this?

It's now late afternoon, on the following day, as I stand in a departure lounge at Don Meuang, looking out at the rain drizzling down. Way off in the distance Bangkok City seems half-hidden – shrouded in cloud with only a few of the taller buildings poking above. I'm waiting for a British Airways 747 to dock so I can get aboard, throw a couple of Valium down the hatch, settle down and suck on some of that good old whiskey to tide me over.



Stickman's thoughts:

Nice.