Bangkok Revisited 25 Years On

Scene_of_lost_and_found_glasse

January 20 Last time we were here the khlongs still criss crossed the main city and the sky train and metro were yet to be built. We traveled mainly by the riverboats along the Chayo Phraya River then, and the same is still true today, but a lot of khlongs have been paved in. Still really fun to leap on and off the river boats along with a zillion Thai commuters and foreign tourists as bemused as we are. Not sure how we did this with 3 little kids, must have been brave.

We have a lovely guesthouse on one of the remaining old khlongs in the old section of the city. When we arrived from the airport, our taxi dropped us off on the street beside a bridge and pointed down the footpath beside the khlong — it all looked a bit unlikely until a young man in an orange Tshirt with Lamphu Treehouse on it came bounding along and seized the packs. Such a charming place with a placid courtyard, far enough off the street to be a quiet retreat.

We have been exploring the city, taking in all the usual sights which are as remarkable as I recalled. The Grand Palace is truly unique, glittering with gold and gem like stones embedded in the mosaics. Immaculately kept, and very very crowded. For a few minutes I thought I was back in Bejing at the Imperial Palace there as I got into the middle of a Chinese tour complete with flag, loudspeaker, and dogged determination to stay with the guide no matter what. When someone shoved me hard between the shoulder blades sending me forward into the mass of people in front, it was “deja vu all over again.” That experience is not typical of street life though, Thais are very polite and often bow in greeting to each other while giving the right of way.

We enjoyed our morning in Chinatown which is truly old with its winding lanes and alleys. An exhibit in Wat Trai Mit (home of the very largest golden statue – Buddha you guessed it – in the world) gave an extremely interesting display of the Chinese influence in Thailand which goes back to the 1700’s. It was complete with life size figures, shops and food stalls such as we had just seen in Chinatown, the wooden boats that transported goods back and forth, accompanied by sound effects.

We loved all our days here — Wat Po was as eccentric and enjoyable as before, and I put coins in the 103 bowls alongside the huge reclining Buddha – apparently the largest reclining statue in the world, though I believe that claim is also made in Sri Lanka. Traditional Thai massage is taught in an institute there, and we went in for 30 minutes of absolute torture. They lean on you, stand on your back, and find every sore spot unerringly, quite a ghastly experience really, certainly was hoping it would help our sore bits but not so sure.

Yesterday was Jim Thompson’s house which we lived near in ’87 and which is an amalgamation of 7 antique teak houses put together to form one gorgeous one, then filled with the antique collection of the American Thompson who moved to Thailand after WW2 and never left. He is credited with resurrecting the moribund silk weaving industry and was doing very well until he vanished into thin air while holidaying in the Cameron Highlands in 1967. Fortunately his house and collection have been saved by the formation of a foundation for the purpose, it has so many lovely objects including a 7th century Buddha. When we were here 25 years ago it was quite a simple affair, and I don’t think most of it was open to the public, but you could wander around at will. Now it is all very organized, and a lovely Thai woman has to take you around. I asked her about what it was like 25 years ago, but she said she wasn’t born then. Later we rode the river boat (which we have been on and off for shorter trips each day) as far as it would go towards the north to get a feel for the various districts of Bangkok. We’ve also been to the enormous weekend market outside the city with its myriad of food stalls, a great place to try out a few specialties. We found the most lovely restaurant making authentic old style (ancient as they called it) food fairly near where we live and have tried a whole lot of new things which we noted, hoping we will be able to take a Thai cooking class at some point.

One of the most interesting experiences has been our twice daily return journeys along the khlong to get out to the main road, thereby avoiding 4 or 5 block walk along the main street. Most of it is paved or tiled like a footpath but one section has kind of caved into the khlong and been repaired with oddments of broken lumber and such. Each day we pass the open doors of the people who live along the khlong. The houses are completely open during the day and closed with a grille at night. Each one has a tap on the footpath, many of which are locked with tiny padlocks to keep others from stealing water. All manner of commerce is conducted, with people selling oddments of groceries and fully cooked meals. What we thought was a scrap metal dealer since the house is fronted with a conglomeration of old washing machines and a water purifying machine, along with broken bicycles and other machinery, turned out to be functioning laundromat for the neighbourhood. After crossing one street we are into a small wat with music playing at all hours, the Thais stand and pay their respects to the Buddha inside whenever they pass. Where the footpath is all broken and repaired with derelict lumber, tiny little cupboard houses have been constructed on either side. Each day we pass the same very skinny elderly man perched on his step whittling, a single man with a small boy lying on the floor watching tv and a woman who sleeps during the day and disappears at night. Their clothes are hanging on a rack right on the path. A gambling game sets up each evening in a space between the houses. It is here that a strange, and potentially catastrophic event happened to Doug two nights ago.

As we were walking back from dinner, Doug somehow entangled himself in the string of the curtain which the gambling group had set up to partially screen their game. He went to flick it off his face, and flicked his glasses off with it. They disappeared down the gap between the footpath and the cupboard house and straight onto the bank of the khlong. He shrieked and fell to his knees, I was behind and thought he had tripped as he has a habit of doing. The khlong is choked with the usual detritus of Asia – plastic bottles and bags, drink boxes and cans, broken flip flops, paper, rags, food containers, discarded shoes, etc and this section, being the area with the cupboard houses, was particularly noxious.

The old man who was sitting in his doorway as always, grasped the situation and seized a flashlight, all we had was one of those tiny LED lights attached to Doug’s Swiss Army knife. We couldn’t see anything, the old man tried to help, then a younger man came along with two little boys, and we all stared into the garbage filled hole. The gamblers tsk tsked in sympathy but went on gambling. We reached under and sifted the disgusting debris as best we could, and the old man climbed under and even sloshed in the water but to no avail, we finally gave up and said we would come back in the morning (in gestures no one else spoke English). At some point a tiny skinny older woman had joined in, she seemed very concerned and looked a bit familiar to me. She also seemed to have a bit more notion about conducting a search.

We returned to the guesthouse, just a few doors away and Doug ransacked his pack looking for his old glasses which he brings as a spare. Too sad, but could be worse. The next morning, Doug left his dirty shirt on to continue the search and we went down to breakfast. We were met in the lobby by one of the hotel boys triumphantly holding the glasses!! We couldn’t believe our eyes. They were all so excited and they went to the kitchen door and called the little lady, and the reason she looked familiar is she is the one who cleans our room. She found them in the water after we left!! She had cleaned them all up and not a scratch on them. We wanted to kiss her, but we thought she would be alarmed, so we thanked her profusely (sadly in English) and gave her a little gift.

So that’s our story!! We are off by train tomorrow morning (only a couple or so hours) to Kanchanaburi, the site of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai and the Death Railway museum and graves. We went there in ’74, all I remember is the bridge, I think all the commemorative stuff has been done recently.

Hope all are well, kisses from your geriatric and no longer near sighted travellers

Sent from my iPad

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