Run the equator: Everything goes in Bangkok

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Everything goes in Bangkok

At 3AM I wake up suddenly: somebody is screaming in the street. Paaw-paw-paw-paw-paaaaw-paw! Ah, it’s Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes, I realize… clearly, no army is going to stop these guys in their tenuous, stumbling journey back to their hotel… or to the next bar. I go back to bed. At 4AM the roosters in the temple yard across the street start crowing, louder and longer with each cry, as if they were locked in a deadly contest for supremacy. There is no earplug in this world thick enough to dampen the sound of roosters crowing. And who would have thought… roosters, in the touristic heart of Bangkok?

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Nonetheless, I forced myself back to bed; drunk tourists aren’t much of a nuisance at 4AM in Bangkok, when even the German poofta-poofta-poofta techno music has stopped on Khao San Road. And the roosters… well, I had to remind myself of that little quote by Saint Francis of Assisi: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…” or at least to ignore them while I try to sleep. And sleeping well wasn’t that difficult: for once, we had decided against our preference for fan-only rooms and went for the more expensive air-conditioning option. It was worth all the 450 baht (about $15) we paid for it; in Bangkok’s crushing hothouse nights air-con is a very desirable commodity and a good investment for your peace of mind. Air-conditioned or not, decent budget hotels aren’t hard to find in the tourist district of Bangkok. Except for the guesthouses featured in Lonely Planet, which - good or bad - are usually booked solid, most hotels will have rooms available, no matter at what hour of the day or night you happen to land in Bangkok. But trust me, the 150 baht tiny single-person fan-only rooms at the Sawasdee hotel should have been used as cremation chambers instead…

Peaceful Bangkok

Bangkok is a city that you can easily fall in love with; it shows many different faces and has something for everyone: it’s brash and quiet, ultra-modern and historical, crazy and subdued, cheap and expensive; it’s a melting pot of Asian cultures and western influence, of tradition and modernism; it’s stylish, huge, and clean and it makes you want to eat all the time. For a slice of craziness it’s enough if you wander at night on Khao San Street, where the party never stops. For peace and quiet, visit one of the many wats (Buddhist temple complexes) spread around the city, preferably not one of the famous ones. And for style there’s always Siam Square and the never-ending row of malls on Rama I Boulevard. They are nothing like our pitiful suburban, single-level shopping avenues. Bangkok malls are cathedrals of glamour; they raise six, seven stories above the ground, without counting the multiplex cinemas on top.

Stressful Bangkok
The more sophisticated establishments showcase Ferraris and Maseratis across from Prada and Gucci; the more popular and affordable choices are beehives of frantic cruising between stalls of cheap jewelry, knock-off designer wear, electronic gadgets and the food courts. Picture Pacific Place in Seattle… times 10. And then multiply that with small variations on both sides of the street for a mile or so! This shopping Mecca comes of course with a huge traffic problem; in the streets around Siam Square cars and buses seem to be stuck in the same spots for hours; the only relief comes from the Sky Train – an elevated transportation system that runs above the boulevard – but Thais, like Americans, seem to prefer their personal vehicles even at $4 a gallon…

Temple protector

Displays of piety are common in Thailand; many people visit Buddhist shrines, lay offerings, pray and burn incense sticks. But for the westerner, the most striking act of devotion is that to the king. His serene face can be seen everywhere in Thailand: on billboards, on bank notes, on giant posters hung above the escalators in the malls, in the bus driver’s cabins, on flower-like monumental sculptures along the median strip of boulevards. The king is the first in everything: he is the foremost scholar, the best engineer, the first photographer (often shown with a camera hanging around his neck), the most hard-working agricultural worker, the wisest teacher, the most courageous army commander, the father of the country – all the symbolic attributes every communist totalitarian leader has tried to appropriate - have been granted to the king of Thailand by the own free will of the people, without violence or fear.

Royal pride
The Grand Palace guard
His persona is above all criticism; in a country like Thailand where governments are a-dime-a-dozen, politicians are corrupt and despised, and military coups are just another way of making politics the king is a unifying, deeply symbolic figure who gives strength and meaning to the life of the ordinary Thai people. We too stood up a few times and paid our silent homage to His Majesty, King Rama IX, before the movies started at the cinema (as a side note, we saw Rambo 4 – oh heavens, what were we thinking!, There Will Be Blood – weird but at least not boring, and 10,000BC – how much longer will Hollywood believe that special effects can make up for poor storylines, bad acting and worn-out clichés?)

Amulets are serious business here

Bangkok will also make you fat if you enjoy it to the fullest; luckily we only spent a few days here... How can you even resist eating all day long in this paradise of street food stands, restaurants that cover all forms of Asian cuisine, cheap beer (isn’t that food as well?) and food-courts with an infinite number of choices? Shortly after finishing lunch in the “Food Avenue” at the 6th floor of the MBK shopping center we walked to the first floor and had some Chinese dim sum… Later we grabbed a few skewers of unidentified meat from a street grill. A short stop at Starbucks for coffee and a cake… beef-noodle soup as a late afternoon snack, pizza and pasta with wine for dinner. After a few beers at an open-air bar, we finish with a late-night gigantic bowl of chicken and noodles for one dollar from a street-side wok. And tomorrow we’ll do it all over again.

Posted from Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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