Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bangkok First Hand

My personal experience of Bangkok is that it is one of the most fun, vibrant, culturally infused and delightfully exciting places that I have ever visited.

While not recommend to those with high blood pressure, the is something to be said for the experience of merely driving into Bangkok. With the sizzling food stalls, the open shop fronts, the omnipresent orchids, the rattle of the three-wheeled tuk-tuks, the saffron of the Buddhist monks, it's one of Asia's biggest cities, population seven million and growing.

Bangkok is truly a melting pot of eastern and western cultures, with its own unique blend of spices added for good measure. They like, for instance, the fact that our two countries have royal families, our conservative dress, and understated British manners. But more than that they love our football, with highlights of Premiership matches to be seen hours before we see them here. From what I knew of Alex Garland's The Beach, Bangkok's Khao San Road, the international back-packers' first stop in Asia, was a dangerous, druggy place of sexual sighs behind paper-thin walls, where Western junkies hid from the real world.

While as with most developed societies that that scene may well exist, my visit to the Khao San Road provided me with a very different experience. My personal experience of Bangkok was one of inexpensive hotels, clubs, restaurants and great clubs where one could dance the night away. I was staying in the glistening, towering new Peninsula Hotel, on the Chao Phraya River, in the centre of Bangkok, across from the old city. The river was mesmerising, the living soul and main artery of Bangkok, an ever-busy place of long tailed speedboats, junks and river taxis. I took a riverboat ride upstream from the old port, the Farang Quarter (a foreigner is called a farang in Thai) with its hotels, embassies, shops selling antiques, jewels and fossilised dinosaur droppings, past the beautiful old, dilapidated European customs house and on to the Park Khlong flower and vegetable market. Nowhere in Bangkok is far from a shrine or a statue of the Buddha and, as we pulled upstream passing slums and temples the spiritual presence followed. Some of the best Buddha statues are in the Grand Palace in central Bangkok, where the 15th century Emerald Buddha, made from a single piece of jade, is the most revered.

The blend of spirituality, Asian culture and western speed is something that I have been unable to convey in words. Everyone who visits Bangkok will have heard about its sexy image and every night thousands of Western tourists are drawn to the Patpong area. While some visitors are either tempted by, or visit Bangkok specifically for the carnal pleasures on offer, many like myself find themselves in little more risqué that haggling over the price of a fake Rolex.

Not being so inclined I did not experience any of the sex clubs and similar establishments. But after a quick look around, I was making my way around out of Patpong when a smiling Thai tout in a Manchester United T-shirt emerged from a house of ill repute. "Would you like a beautiful young lady, sir?" "No, thank you," I replied politely. He hurried after me. "What about a handsome young boy then?" "Don't be ridiculous," I said, somewhat taken a back. With a philosophical shrug, the tout dropped back, obviously thinking, "There's no pleasing some folk."

But it was not all hedonistic. Hiring a tuk-tuk I sped back into the centre of town where earlier I'd spotted my own carnal speciality. Slipping inside a doorway down a riverside alley, I prepared myself for something really decadent. A beautiful young woman in a long, white dress padded over. Very gently, she took off my footwear then very carefully began to wash them. It was the closest I've come to Nirvana since, well, never mind. My feet after a day and a half legging it around Bangkok, were screaming with pain. The young masseuse anointed my feet with sweet-smelling oils, simultaneously pointing out to me, on a map of a foot, how every bone of the foot represented a different organ of the entire body. This, at last, was the exotic East. Later, on the green-canopied ferry as we made our way back across the river to the Peninsula Hotel, I realised that for what seemed the first time for ages I was standing and my feet weren't hurting. It was all I could do to refrain from dancing with joy.

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