Two nights in Bangkok

November 17, 2012

I spent last weekend in Bangkok: years ago it might have been the beginning to some terribly sordid story, but thankfully it wasn’t this time.

As a mark of my incredible advancing years, I worked out that I’ve been going in and out of ’Bangers’ for the last 25 years. When I lived in Hong Kong, I used to pop over for weekends, the details of which would make your hair curl, and on which I am officially silent. It was, however, a fun town, and I made a lot of friends, although not necessarily ones I’d take home to meet the parents.

Over the last few years, I’ve become quite disenchanted with the city, and with Thailand in general. I think this may be more my problem than Thailand’s. Bangkok has grown beyond all imagining. Sleek glass-clad towers punctuate the skyline in every direction; when I first spent time there it was basically a collection of shacks [obviously not entirely true, but I have a journalistic licence].

It would be both churlish and arrogant to complain that Thailand has done brilliantly well in terms of making life better for its people. It’s not Monaco, but from certain angles, it could be. It might have lost the sort of soul that jaded old hacks like me like so much, but the people are clean and well-fed and generally happy, so more power to it.

I was staying, thanks to an almighty piece of blagging, at the Mandarin Oriental, which almost beggars belief in its cradling sumptuousness. (I had my own butler, for god’s sake. By the end I got bored of saying ’thank you so much’ as he removed my shoes to polish them yet again. I still said it, though.)

One morning, I took a long-tail boat up the Chao Praya River, through the vast canyons of luxury apartment buildings crowding the river’s edge. The ride was choppy and faintly unpleasant, and I decided that I still didn’t like Bangkok much anymore.

Then we turned off into the network of little canals that criss-cross the city, and gradually, Southeast Asia charmed me again. There were little wooden houses on stilts, draped in bougainvillea, straggling down to the waterline, old ladies paddling dugout canoes with baskets of produce, people fishing for their dinner, children splashing in the shallows. It was lovely, bucolic, simple.

Eventually, we turned back on to the main river, the skyscrapers piercing the low clouds, the din of commerce and economic progress loud in my ears. The hotel limo wafted me silently and coolly to the airport at warp speed, along the elevated freeways next to the monorail tracks, and an hour or so later I was back in Phnom Penh.

Installed in a rattling tuk-tuk, I couldn’t help but reflect on the differences between the two cities. It was stiflingly hot and dusty, with thick traffic fumes, and the tuk-tuk’s elderly engine whined deafeningly. Half-naked children played in the dirt at the edge of the road, while old men wobbled by on even older bicycles laden with mountains of aluminium saucepans and cardboard egg boxes.

We stopped at some lights. Next to us was another tuk-tuk, filled with bananas, maybe 5,000 of those tiny thumb-sized ones, threatening to overtop the carriage. The banana driver saw me looking at his load, and broke into a huge smile. Why, I don’t know. But of course I smiled back. It was good to be home.

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