Food Glorious Food?
On their first morning in Bangkok, L & D make their way down to the hotel breakfast room.
L: But I’m not very hungry.
D: I’m not surprised. It’s two o’clock in the morning in England. Your appetite’s probably still fast asleep.
From the breakfast buffet come powerful wafts of prawn curry, and a group of Asian guests enthusiastically load up their plates. L looks queasy, and retreats to the furthest corner with a bowl of fruit and some coffee.
Later they walk through Chinatown’s maze of bustling and aromatic market alleys. Tiny shops, some no larger than booths, line both sides, selling clothing, jewellery, toys, household goods and a variety of surprisingly unrecognisable food. The crowds are thick, slow moving, and they shuffle with the flow, under awnings which meet overhead and shut out the light. The stalls each have their own odour – fishy or pungent or sweet or spicy or earthy. Fruit is stacked high, large and small, prickly and knobbly and smooth, yellow and orange and pink and purple and green and brown. Most of it they cannot put a name to – little of it is to be found in Sainsbury’s. Raw fish and meat is laid out on tabletops. Plastic bags of liquid contain indecipherable delicacies. There are sacks of spices, and bags of dried mushrooms, dried shrimp, dried fruit. D grimaces.
D: Pig face.
D: Not you. I just saw one.
L: A pig face?
L: On a pig?
D: No. On its own. Spread out flat and cooked.
L looks dubiously at a butcher’s counter.
L: D’you think they have Food Hygiene Certificates?
D: Don’t be ridiculous. Anyway, it’s fine. The meat’s all butchered and sold so fast that it doesn’t have time to go off. Same goes for street food. It’s a well known fact that you’re far more likely to get ill from a hotel buffet than from anything off a busy street cart, where the food’s fresh, thoroughly cooked and doesn’t sit around long enough to do any harm.
L: OK then. Now all we have to do is learn to recognise what we might actually be eating.
D: We’ll just ask.
L: In our fluent Thai. Or maybe Mandarin.
D: Ah. Good point. We’ll read the signs and ask Google Translate then.
L: Everything’s written in squiggles.
D: Um. So it is.
L: Trial and error then?
D: Trial and error. When shall we start?
L: Maybe tomorrow.
D: You said that yesterday.
L: In the meantime, can I have some crisps?
D: As long as none of them are octopus flavoured.
L: Of course not. Which would you prefer – seaweed, cuttlefish or lasagne?
Bangkok’s Waterways Three Ways
The Chao Phraya River meanders its way along the southern and western edges of the city and provides a useful transportation alternative to Bangkok’s busy streets. The wide expanse of puddle coloured water is busy with passenger ferries, tourist boats and great commercial barge-trains: four vessels strung together nose to tail. Scraps of polystyrene and wisps of plastic bob on the surface, mingling with water hyacinths, and an egret drifts by, long legs wobbling to balance on its own tiny plywood island.
They join the tail end of a patient crowd standing on a floating platform waiting to catch a ferry. From a loudspeaker above their heads comes an assault of hysterical-sounding shouting. They listen obediently, but in puzzlement, as it is all in Thai. A ferry arrives and the loudspeaker’s tone cranks up a notch. Some people shuffle forward, some stand still, and others create a faster moving bypass along one edge of the pontoon.
L: Shall we go, shuffle or stay where we are, do you think?
D has the advantage of being taller than the crowd and peers over the sea of heads.
D: That’s not our boat, it’s pointing downstream.
The ferry departs and an upstream one arrives. The amplified voice reaches new heights of excitement and apparent fury without pausing for breath. They join the bypass queue, leaving the noise behind, to be greeted by a bellowing operative hustling them impatiently onto the boat, and another on board shouting wearily at people to move along. The pair continue to yell and berate the passengers until the boat is full to bursting. D & L are thoroughly scolded for not having the correct change for their tickets, and again for standing in the way of the safety rope, which is eventually slung across the gangway as the ferry gets going.
D: (grinning from ear to ear) This is great, isn’t it?
L: (squashed between a ladder, two Korean tourists and D’s back) Take a photo.
They book a short trip on a long-tail boat to explore the canals.
Many of the smaller boats on the Chao Phraya are traditional Thai long-tails. These narrow wooden vessels have high curving bows and brightly painted rainbow striped topsides. Designed for fishing or moving goods and people along Asia’s coastline and rivers, today they are mostly filled with up to a dozen tourists, perched on wooden bench seats and shaded by a canopy overhead. Propulsion is provided by an immense pivoting truck engine mounted near the stern, with super-long tiller and drive shaft protruding fore and aft.
The man in the booth takes their money and ushers them to a bench overlooking the river. The sun is shining and families are strolling the waterfront, stopping to photograph each other next to a large smiling pink plastic elephant at the entrance to the jetty.
Man: 5 minutes.
He gets out his mobile phone and makes a call. Then another. And a third. He smiles at them and rushes off to the end of the jetty where he taps his phone some more and looks eagerly up and down the river. After a while he rushes back.
Man: 5 minutes. Sit.
They are already sitting, so they carry on. The man scampers back to the jetty, energetically making more phone calls and peering keenly at the river. Eventually he returns, looking tremendously pleased with himself.
Man: 5 minutes. Yes!
A battered longtail arrives, its faded rainbow topsides flaking, and they embark, admiring the immense rusted hulk of engine and its matching skipper, both past their prime since the 1950s. They are the only passengers. The engine chokes unwillingly to life and they are off.
The boat is fast and the river is choppy. L grins as the spray splashes her.
D: Try not to get too much river water in your mouth. It may not be very clean.
L: Oh. Will I get typhoid?
D: Probably not. Only if you drink it.
L inspects the damage.
L: I’ve got some on my arm. Might I get arm typhoid?
L: What about foot typhoid?
D: Not even.
L: I’ll probably be alright then.
D: You probably will.
Back on dry land, they head for their next stretch of water. A narrow canal – the Klong Saen Saeb – runs east-west through the centre of the city. To reach it they find themselves strolling the famous Kao San Road. Around their base in Chinatown they hardly see another Western face, but now they are in Bangkok’s Backpacker Land. The street is wall to wall bars and restaurants and tour operators and B&Bs and massage parlours and souvenir shops. There is Western food and drink and music and signs all written in English. They spot a tattooed youth asleep on a pub table, and further on another one out cold in a car seat on the pavement. It is nearly lunchtime but it is also the first of January and some people have clearly been celebrating hard. L pauses to buy a pair of thin cotton trousers patterned with elephants – as comfortable cover-up clothing for visiting temples. (She later discovers that every backpacker in Asia has a pair of these trousers, probably purchased right here.) They walk on, feeling intrepid that they have chosen not to be based here surrounded by the familiar, and conveniently forgetting that their own slice of Bangkok authenticity comes with a bewildering inability to communicate and a fear of all things edible.
Despite the fact that the canal water-bus shuttles to and fro between some of the city’s most famous sites – from the Golden Mount viewpoint, to the historic Jim Thompson House, the shopping streets of Sukhumvit and the sex on tap on Soi 3 – almost all the passengers are locals. They step down into the boat.
L: Great, there’s masses of room.
They pick a spot. More people get on. They move to the far side of the boat, out of the way. More people get on. They budge up. More people get on. They shuffle closer. More people get on. Once the boat is sufficiently bulging and no-one aboard can move, they set off. The narrow stretch of water is faced with ramshackle homes built of tin and wood and breezeblocks. A young man skips nimbly around the outside rim of the boat, holding on to a rope and reaching in to collect fares from outstretched hands.
L: Why’s he wearing a climbing helmet?
D: I have no idea.
The fare collector continues his circuit of the boat, his back to the direction of travel, as the waterbus rumbles along the narrow channel. He reaches them and leans in to hand them a ticket. Without warning, he suddenly ducks, and they are all thrown into darkness. The boat plunges under a low bridge, and he avoids decapitation at the last second purely by instinct and the skin of his teeth, as he must do dozens of times a day, without looking.
D: That’ll be why he’s wearing a hard hat.
All Buddhas Great and Small
Waves of sightseers ripple through the grounds and courtyards of Wat Pho, below the ornately decorated bell-shaped temple spires, or stupas, brightening a flat grey sky with their golden tiles and pastel mosaics seemingly crafted from fistfuls of sugared almonds. Through a doorway, past a towering demon-like guardian statue, they enter a silent gallery of lifesized golden Buddhas, seated in contemplation on pedestals of brightly coloured jewels.
L: There’s something very calming about them, isn’t there? Look at the body language – how relaxed their shoulders are, and their beautiful hands.
D: Hold on – why are they so thin? I thought Buddha was a jolly fat fellow.
L: Wrong! They’re two different people. The laughing fat one isn’t the founder of Buddhism at all. He’s a chap called Budei, a kindly Chinese Buddhist monk who has become a symbol of luck and wealth. He was known as a sort of year-round Santa Claus figure, protecting children and handing out presents. His laughing shows contentment, and his belly, abundance. He’s revered as a holy man, and is often called the Laughing Buddha, but he’s not THE Buddha.
D: Right. So do all proper Buddhas look like these ones, then?
L: Not quite. He has a few different postures, all of which mean something.
D: Like what?
L: So – all these ones are seated cross legged with the right hand pointing down to touch the earth and the left hand palm upwards in the lap, showing Buddha’s moment of enlightenment.
They continue into an elaborately decorated lofty temple. To their left is a long wall of gold.
L: (squeaking) He’s ENORMOUS!
D: (tapping at his phone) He’s 46 metres long and 15 metres high, to be precise.
They crane their necks to admire the famous and serenely Reclining Buddha, leaning on one elbow and looking relaxed, his body stretching away down the length of the temple.
L: He’s amazing – take a photo.
D: (grumbling) He’s much too big. I can only fit small bits of him into the camera.
L: He’s very beautiful.
D: So what does his reclining posture mean?
L: He’s ready to go into Nirvana, or Heaven, having finished all his cycles of birth and death and reincarnation. What’s that noise?
D: What noise?
L: That rhythmic chinking sound.
D: Builders? Dripping water? Pigeons? Music?
They look around, hunting the source.
L: Found it!
On the other side of the temple is a long line of copper bowls. 108 of them. People are working their way along the line carefully dropping a coin into each one.
L: What are they?
D: Alms bowls. For monks. It’s both giving charity and earning merit, or good karma. And 108 seems to be a lucky number.
On their way out, they admire the magnificent soles of the Reclining Buddha’s feet, decorated with 108 exquisite panels of inlaid mother-of-pearl, many of which are temporarily shrouded behind canvas and scaffolding for restoration.
D: Right, come on. Let’s go and find the Emerald Buddha. Follow me.
As they walk towards the Grand Palace, the streets fill with people dressed in black, all heading the same way. The country is in mourning. There is a road block ahead and a long trailing queue, many thousands of people standing quietly in line, holding photographs. There are traffic closures, security searches, appropriate clothing checks and free water points for the mourners.
All over Bangkok, every public building and many private ones display black and white ribbons, memorials, banners and billboards with the image of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has died after reigning for 70 years. He is resting in the Grand Palace, where people are flocking to pay their respects.
They part company from the crowds, heading for a discreet corner of the palace where a tourist entrance allows access to the temple of the Emerald Buddha.
D: This Buddha’s seen as the country’s protector and has been revered for nearly 600 years. It’s probably Thailand’s most important Buddha image.
L: Where exactly is it?
D: Not sure. There’ll be signs. Start looking.
They roam around a compound dotted with buildings and temples and milling with tourists waving selfie-sticks. They join a queue off to one side, but all that happens is that security staff tie a ribbon to their day-pack. They keep searching.
L: Is it actually emerald?
D: No, but it is green. Jade or jasper I think.
The crowds are heading in all directions, offering no clues. They come across a ticket office, away to one side, but all that happens is that they are sold a ticket and waved away again. Any signs to be found are written in squiggles. They find however that they have inadvertently been swept into a current of people all moving the same way.
D: (confidently) It must be along here.
They are funnelled through a ticket checkpoint and disgorged into an inner compound. There are no signs and the crowd start once more unhelpfully milling about taking photos of themselves.
L: Come and see these fantastic frescoes! What’s going on?
The walls of the compound are decorated in finely painted images of vivid landscapes, ornate temples, golden warriors and a fierce looking army of demons or monkeys.
D: (tapping his phone) It’s the story of the Ramayana.
L: Which is….?
D: I haven’t got the faintest idea. Hold on a sec.
L admires the delicately gilded chariots and dragons and eight-armed archers, against a background of forests and rocky cliffs and threatening skies.
D: Here we are. It’s a massively long and ancient epic Hindu poem with 24,000 verses.
L: Blimey. What’s it about? The extremely very short version.
D: Right. A prince, banished by his father, travelling across India with his wife and brother. Wife gets kidnapped by demon king, lots of fighting to get her back, and they return home where he becomes king. Happy ending.
L: But why is it in the temple?
D: The story’s full of philosophy and ethics and portrays ideals in behaviour – ideal father, brother, wife, king etc, and ideal goals in life. Apparently we’ll come across it all over South East Asia and India.
The frescoes lead them around the cloisters, away from the tour groups and self-portrait photographers who swirl around the centre. Temples are dotted around the compound, stunningly decorated in golden and jewel coloured mosaics, most of them closed. The sheer acreage of gold leaf is staggering.
L: So where’s the Emerald Buddha?
They drift past the front of a temple. Thirty people stand at the foot of some steps leading up to a doorway. They hold their cameras over their heads, pointed through the door. Not only is entrance forbidden, but so is access up the steps. A blank-faced guard eyes them all suspiciously. The interior of the temple is in darkness but at the back, glowing out of the gloom is a seated figure on an altar. It is the Emerald Buddha.
L: (squeaking) But he’s TINY!
D: (tapping at his phone). He’s 66 centimetres high and 48 centimetres wide, to be precise.
D: And he’s meditating.
D: And he has three outfits, which he wears depending on the season. And only the King can change them for him.
L: That’s very fashionable of him. Which one’s he wearing now?
D: I can’t tell. He’s too small and far away.
L: Oh. Have we got any crisps?
No Sex Please, We’re British
L: So have we seen Bangkok?
D: Some. Of course there’s lots more we could do.
L: Like what?
D: Well, your sister recommended a ping pong show.
L: Did she indeed? Um, I think she might have been joking.
D: But I can’t find it in the guidebook. I don’t know what one is.
L: No. You clearly don’t.
D: I’ll Google it, shall I?
L: You do that.
D: (tapping his phone) Oh. Right. Err… No.