Sunday, January 30, 2005

BANGKOK

King Bhumibol, wearing dark glasses, seemed to be staring in my direction, as he slowly walked past. The soldiers with their walkie talkies also seemed to be staring at me. I was the only person not bowing. I was thinking of what had happened to the king's older brother, Ananda.

(In 1946 Ananda was found shot in his bedroom in the Grand Palace. This ensured that teenage Bhumibol became king. And it ensured that pro-American Field Marshal Pibul became the power behind the throne. Bhumibol had once said of his brother's murder, "It was not an accident...it was political." )

The king's head was protected from the sun by a lovely red umbrella. The king's face was thin and most serious.

It was 28th July, the beginning of Buddhist Lent and the birthday of the Crown Prince. The women and children sat quietly, some holding gifts of flowers. Two little boys were singing a Thai song.

How nice to have a bit of ceremony and respect. (In the cinema, when the national anthem is played, everyone leaps to attention.) Be aware that some Thais have been sent to jail for insulting the monarchy.

King Bhumibol it seems is one of the GOOD guys. Ordinary Thais describe him as being good, loving and brave. He has a difficult job, surrounded as he is by certain corrupt fascist generals who allegedly have links to the CIA. In 1973, when pro-democracy students were being shot at by the army outside the Chitralada palace, Bhumibol ordered the gates of the palace to be opened, to help save some lives.

When the generals were again getting violent in 1992, it was Bhumibol who summoned General Suchinda to the palace and had the meeting televised live. The entire Thai nation could see General Suchinda crawling across the carpet to the feet of the monarch.

(Did you see one of the films about King Mongkut who got a Victorian governess to tutor his children? Mongkut spent 29 years in a monastery and then father ed 83 children by 35 wives, before dieing of malaria.)

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When the king had gone, I took a close look at the Grand Palace and at the Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Keo right next to the Grand Palace. I suppose Wat Phra Keo and the Grand Palace must be among the highlights of any visit to S E Asia. The shapes are like something out of science fiction although some of the curvy bits remind me of old Norwegian houses.

I loved the Celestial Garden, or Suan Dusit, which is linked to the Grand palace by the elegant Rajadamnoen Avenue.

I took a short taxi ride North to the Marble Temple. Among the red, green and gold tiled buildings, the palm trees, and the yellow robed monks, I watched hundreds of Thai schoolchildren dance classical Thai dances. Great to have the old traditions!

In the same area as the Marble Temple you find the Chitralada palace, where Bhumibol lives, the zoo, and the Vimanmek Palace. The latter is a fine teak building containing Siamese, Chinese and Russian antiques.

I took a taxi South to the area around Silom Road and Surawong Road. At the Oriental Hotel, down by the river, I sat next to green plants, purple orchids, white marble, and cool fountains, and wished I could afford to buy a drink.

I found a restaurant in a small room which opened onto the street. The room contained three worn tables, an ancient fridge, a television, kettles of boiled water, a bucket of ice, empty tins and bottles, faded posters for cola, and a glass cabinet where a youth stood cutting up chickens. In the toilet was a spider as big as my hand.

I dined on sweetcorn, crab, chicken, cashew nuts, prawns, coconut cream, chilies, spring onions, pork, garlic and rice. Yummy. Oh, and I had some Mekong whisky.

Backstreet Bangkok is a mass of small workshops. Even late at night, young children can be seen at work, on building sites, in car workshops and on the street. Small children sew bags, carry wood, push enormous water carts and dash in and out of the traffic to sell newspapers.

On Pisanulok Road, near the Royal Turf Club, I came across a toddler, around three years of age, asleep alone behind a bus shelter.

Then he woke up and wandered over several busy traffic crossings to a building site where his mother was among the buildings workers.

"The traffic is dangerous for the child," I said to a shopkeeper.

"Yes," he said. "Would you like to buy something. Tonight there is a good show...."

Charoen Krung (New Road) stretches from near the Grand palace south eastwards all the way to the Railway Station (and on to the Oriental Hotel). Have a look at the Chinese area between Charoen Krung (New Road) and the river. You can find Chinese blood in 65% of the citizens of Bangkok. In China Town you can buy gold rings, shark's fins, or a little opium. At the weekend Market you can buy dried squid, monkeys or rambutan fruit.

And you can buy children. According to The London Minorities Rights Group, August 1980, "the police encourage it. From labour shops they receive an income in return for silence. From the brothels they can take their pick for free. The Government prefers not to know."

In 1980 one third of the rural population lived in absolute poverty (this could mean one meal a day and no money to buy shoes or typhoid medicine). In 1980, a child working 11 hours a day, in a workshop in Bangkok, would earn £36 PER YEAR! Yes, per year! Great for the Americans getting their cheap shoes and clothes made by child labour.

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In a go-go bar I met a Red Cross worker called Hans Peter.

"We seem to be the youngest tourists here," said Hans Peter. "The others all seem middle aged."

We sat on bar stools around the circular bar and stage. On the stage two tired girls danced in a way that could be described as unimaginative.

A plump Thai woman in her forties came and sat beside me and then on my lap. Her breath smelt of garlic. (Garlic protects against the farangs).

"Where you flom?" asked the girl.

"London," I replied.

"You live Flance? You like Palis?"

Hans Peter ignored his girl and began chatting to me. Across the bar, one girl was yawning and another was picking her nose.

"They call us farangs," said Hans Peter. "They think we dress very badly. Sometimes they call us bird-shit tourists."

"But they keep on smiling and pretending," I noted.

"Your girl looks a bit old," said Hans Peter. "The older they get, the less chance they have of finding work."

"Why do they work in places like this?"

"The alternative is a textile factory where they may end up with lung disease, or a building site, where there are no safety regulations. If they work as a waitress, they'll probably get the sack when they no longer look like teenagers."

"Do the girls like tourists?"

"One girl told me she couldn't stand Thai men, because they are unfaithful. But she thinks the tourists smell bad. She likes their money. She sends most of the money she earns to her family up in the North East."

"Are all the girls promiscuous?"

"Not in the least. I visited a Thai girlfriend in her village. She had to be chaperoned. Thai girls are supposed to be virgins when they marry. They are supposed to be very modest and conservative."

"Why do so many girls come to Bangkok?"

"Over-population in the countryside. Drought causes poverty. And poor soil. And unscrupulous money lenders." ;

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I eventually bade farewell to Hans Peter and headed down the street to look at neon lights and stalls selling watches, paintings and tee-shirts. There was blaring music, lots of tuk-tuk taxis, and lots of noodle shops.

The Grace Hotel (used at one time by Kuoni) is an ugly tower block in an Arab area to the East. Lots of Arabs come to Bangkok. The huge hotel lobby is full of plump, painted girls, from the bottom end of the market, and here you can play snooker or drink coffee. My hotel room was not clean, but it was cleaner than the hotel pool.

I never had a massage, but I inspected a number of massage parlours. All were luxurious establishments. The girls, dressed demurely in evening gowns, sat in rows behind huge glass screens.

I visited a disco owned by a man who insisted that his brother was a policeman and his disco was a respectable place. Watcharindra, one of the waiters, is a law student and he told me he earned £300 per year. The dico has a show featuring stunning young girls, who are actually boys.

In an open air cafe I met Cha, Cha's curly headed girlfriend whose name I couldn't pronounce, Moo, Dooey, Sa, Noy and Som Choi. Cha makes his money by chatting up tourists. The boy called Moo is a go-go dancer, earning £1 per night.

The group took me to their tiny one room flat. The flat had a concrete floor and no furniture. Clothes are hung on a piece of string. Showers are taken in the communal lavatory on the ground floor.

Cha said the flat was better than the wooden shack on stilts where he used to live. Cha spends his money on rent, food, clothes, and on helping his friends, like Sa, who earn nothing. Before I headed back to my hotel, I offered them some money. They refused to take it.

I visited a restaurant for lunch; and when I went back in the evening, the place h ad become a seedy bar. I spoke to the owner, a fat and ugly American.

"The girls here are very young," I said. "Do you not have problems with the authorities?"

"I have legally adopted all these children," he said.

"What brought you to Bangkok?" I asked. "I was killing people during the Vietnam war, and this is where we came for R and R. When the war ended, I decided to settle."

I made my excuses and left.

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Bangkok is unwalkable. The pavements are often non-existent and the heat and the traffic are killers.

Well, there are a few areas where you might try walking. Take Wireless Road to the North East, where you'll find the British Embassy and Hilton, and take Henry Dunant Road, which has the Chulalongkorn University. Here there are some trees and here you can walk.

Then there are the parks, such as Lumpini. Lumpini has quite a few restaurants.

If you want to see canals (klongs), cross the Memorial Bridge into the Thonburi area and turn right, heading for Wat Arun. For the poor, canals are still places for bathing and playing.

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In the Oriental Hotel I got talking to a retired Thai gentleman called Yong. I asked him how things were going in Bangkok.

"There is a power struggle going on within the army," said Yong. "On one side we have the reformers who want to end the army's links to drugs and karaoke bars. They want to purge the army of mafia colonels. And on the other side we have the conservatives who want to continue to do deals with the Burmese junta and the drugs barons."

"The army has often killed pro-democracy demonstrators, I believe."

"Huge numbers were killed in Bangkok in 1992. Thailand is no more democratic than America or Britain."

"You don't think Britain and America are democracies?"

"Can pigs fly?"

Yong read to me the calypso written by Allen Ginsberg in 1972:

In nineteen hundred forty nine
China was won by Mao Tse-Tung.
Chiang Kai Shek's army ran away.
They were waiting there in Thailand yesterday

Supported by the CIA
Pushing junk down Thailand way.

First they stole from the Meo Tribes
Up in the hills they started taking bribes
Then they sent their soldiers up to Shan
Collecting opium to send to The Man
Pushing junk in Bangkok yesterday
Supported by the CIA...."

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WHERE TO STAY The Montien Hotel is very central, being on Silom Road, and not too expensive. The Amari Atrium is cheaper. CHILDREN Magic Land, 72 Phahon Yothin Road, just past Chatuchak Park, (Aircon bus 3, 9, 13) has dodgems and other fun fair rides. Lumpini Park (centre of city) has a lake where you can hire a rowing boat. GRAND PALACE Why not go there by express boat, arriving at Chang Pier? The actual palace is open 8.30-11.30 and 13.00-15.30. Try to see the Emerald Buddha in the Chapel Royal. MARKETS Nakhon Kasem (thieves market) is at Yaowarat Road, reached by Aircon bus 1, 7. This is a maze of alleys selling bric-a-brac. Damnoern Saduak Floating Market is best reached on a guided tour as it's 80km from Bangkok's centre. NIGHTLIFE Respectable nightlife can be found at Napoleon's Bar, Patpong 2, Silom Road. Women and couples will not feel uncomfortable. PARKS Sanam Luang is a pleasant park opposite the entrance to the Grand Palace. RESTAURANTS Silom Kitchen, 148 Silom Road, does excellent Royal Thai cuisine. SHOPPING Bangkok night bazaar, 2 Sukhumvit Road, has hilltribe products, lacqerware, and much more; and a great atmosphere. TEMPLES Wat Pho (next the Grand Palace) has the famous 46m long reclining Buddha. Wat Traimit, Traimit Road, has the golden Buddha.

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