Sunday, 10 September 2017

Whistle-stop around Bangkok

Rather curiously, our trip to Bangkok had begun with a plan to visit Corsica and Sardinia.

However, after initial research, it emerged that we each had different ideas about the kind of holiday we wanted and the kind of place we’d like to stay. Nothing much happened after this revelation – until an unsolicited email arrived from Kuoni, featuring what looked like a great value holiday comprising three nights in Bangkok and seven on the island of Koh Samui.

Of course, by the time we’d added three nights and a beach-front room on Koh Samui, it wasn’t quite such a great bargain, but hey, a holiday is for indulgence and the Brexit-bashed pound can still buy a reasonable amount of holiday fun in Thailand.

A “package holiday” – albeit an upmarket one – is a bit of novelty for us, as people who work in travel and are well versed in the art of the self-assembly vacation.

But, as I sit today outside said beach-side apartment at the appropriately-named Rocky's Resort, and reflect on two days and three nights in Bangkok, the experience thus far has been a thoroughly positive one.

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that people were predicting the death of the high street travel agent and, by implication, the specialist operators too.

This has not happened – the industry may have been shaken down – but there remains a place for those who add value to the holiday experience or who simply take the pain and frustration that can overtake our own valiant efforts. And Kuoni very much did that for us, starting with a telephone sales team who clearly knew their destinations first-hand, and continued right down to the pre-departure phone call to check we had all our documentation.

With personal service on arrival at Bangkok, it seemed only natural to extend the philosophy by buying two ground tours from Kuoni’s agent in Thailand. OK, so we paid around £60 to visit three temples, a royal palace (replete with mourners as the anniversary of the king’s death nears) and a jewellery factory (in the reasonable knowledge that our guide, “Victor”, might be enjoying a bit of an “arrangement” on that one).

But economics is about more than the mere price of goods and services: there’s the opportunity cost attached to overcoming your jetlag to navigate your way through a strange and frenetic city; getting lost on the overground, perhaps; arguing with a taxi driver over an unset meter; joining the wrong queue. For once, a pair of self-assemblers could relax and let someone else do all the thinking, sharing his personal knowledge with us as we went.

So, we did see a lot of Buddhas and very fine ones at that: the huge seated Golden Buddha; the somewhat smaller but perfectly formed Emerald Buddha, fashioned from jade; and the quite enormous Reclining Buddha – all 46 metres of him – representing the Buddha towards the end of his life.
Gold Buddha, above, and Reclingin Buddha, below
Mara, the Buddhist devil, in a detail from an ancient frieze at the Grand Place, Bangkok
And now, here’s where opportunity cost (or benefit) comes in: still time to spend the afternoon at the pool at the Rembrandt Hotel, a pleasant four-star.

The following day saw us drive out of town after an early start, through near continuous ribbon development for more than an hour to Maeklong Market. I’d seen this on TV when Rick Stein did his Far Eastern TV odyssey, and it’s famous for the fact that it does, indeed, take place on a railway track. It was quite something to watch the market stalls miraculously retracted into buildings at either side of the line, just seconds ahead of the train.

Once the train has noisily tooted its path through the merchandise, the market quickly resumes in all its chaotic tumult: a chaos undoubtedly worsened by tourists (like us) who gawp much but buy little. The traders must be thankful that the train doesn’t run too often.

It’s a quarter-mile or so of market that has pretty much everything you might think of eating and much that you might prefer not to: alongside the chickens (raw or pre-cooked) you’ll find cooked frogs on sticks, buckets of edible grubs and fish so fresh from the river that they still thrash about in an inch or two of water.

Frogs on sticks…
After a short and quite educational stop at a coconut farm, we made the last bit of the trip to Damnoen Suduak floating market by fast boat. These are shallow-draught gondola-like craft, powered by throaty V6 or V8 car engines with a propeller on a very long shaft attached directly to the prop shaft. They are designed this way to help the driver steer the boat round right-angle corners of the canal system. The “straights”, however, are a real speed treat that becomes petty choppy when another of these water beasts passes the other way. Talking of beasts, you may spot a huge monitor lizard on the canal banks too, if you’re lucky!

V8 engine with direct drive to prop… Vrooom!
That evening we returned to self-navigation mode, and made for our cheap and immensely cheerful local P-Thai restaurant, before taking a stroll along Soi Cowboy, one of the city’s red light streets. Probably the worst part of our trip thus far, with many of the girls (and maybe ladyboys) seemingly barely in their teens and the usual clusters of middle-aged Brits who seem to think it a show of virility to casually quaff lager outside a brothel.

In a city whose love of the skyscraper seemingly matches that of 20th century Manhattan, it seemed only right to research the best rooftop bars, and so we took a short and cheap taxi ride to the Banyan Tree, where we ascended by rocket-fuelled lift to the 59th floor, before climbing another two flights to the VertigoBar. For someone who does struggle these days with the vertigo affliction, it felt like a precarious perch, the whole city spread out around us in a quite sensational vista. Of course, you do pay for the view when you buy your drinks (here, or in the standing-room-only Moon Bar, a few metres away) but our service was so gracious and friendly that we did indeed feel special right up to the moment when we made for the lift, ahead of an advancing thunderstorm!

Losing bearings in Vertigo bar…
The plus side of Bangkok’s reach for the skies is that many of its tall buildings are immensely graceful and its newest and tallest – MahaNakhon, or “great metropolis”– will boast its own rooftop facilities, 77 storeys and more than 1,000ft up, from next year. It’s a visually highly original structure designed around the idea of pixels, as the architects would have it, or like a Jenga tower, as you or I would more likely observe.

MahaNakhon – or Jenga Building, if you prefer…
High-rise Bangkok does have its downsides, however. One is the fact that the city is said to be sinking into the soft alluvial ground at an alarming two or three centimetres a year, thanks to the extraction of groundwater and the sheer weight of all those towers. Another is the manner in which more traditional low-rise building are being overwhelmed. Similarly overwhelmed are the now dingy streetscapes beneath the cheap and efficient Skytrain network.

Ahead of visiting Bangkok, everyone tells you about the traffic, which is indeed, frenetic. But there is a remarkable sense of order to a chaos in which every traffic signal has big display counting down the time until the lights will change. Sometimes, though, this seems to be counted in hours, rather than minutes and seconds. You’d have time aplenty to grow a beard – man or woman!

And what they don’t tell you is just how clean the streets are – the cleanest I can recall seeing in a city of this size. A shame then about the wirescape that lines every street at first floor level. The advent of fibre-optic cabling has added a new dimension to this, with great coils of wire suspended from every pole, like abandoned knitting. Apparently the art of splicing a fibre-optic cable hasn’t yet caught up with the art of installation, and so surplus lengths are just coiled up and left in situ.
Fibre-optic delusion
Of course, no-one can really do justice to a city like Bangkok in a couple of days and, after this carefully orchestrated sample, I look forward to returning to discover its neighbourhoods, museums and galleries. I shall also once again enjoy a Thai foot massage at one of the many little parlours near P-Thai: nothing better after a long flight!
Immaculate streetscape, above, and artistic Thai litter bin, below