Friday, 3 February 2017

City Fatigue

I'm going to start by saying I have City Fatigue. Since selling our bikes just before we left Cambodia we’ve been firmly on the tourist trail, stuck with buses and trains as a means of transport, which has inevitably meant spending a considerable amount of our time in tourist town surrounded by every other backpacker out here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking those people (well ok, maybe the drunk ones who come in at 3am, the not-drunk ones who just don't give a shit about anyone but themselves and the ones who get involved in the ‘well I’VE been to…’ battles, trying to desperately win what they oddly perceive to be hierarchy points) but it’s tiring and after a while something inside of me snaps and screams and wants to run away from it all. Today though, we've got back on track at last and we're both feeling much more positive. More later about that...for now I'm playing catch-up!


After a long ride on the hell bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok, we arrived in the city around midday, exhausted and far too easily influenced by those around us, hence we found ourselves wandering along Khaosan Road in search of a place to rest our weary heads. The bus had been sold to us as a sleeper bus featuring seats that recline 70%. Clearly I misunderstood this statistic as mine was clearly in the 30% that didn’t recline at all due to being at one end of the back row with the rear pillar of the bus in the way. This didn’t stop the young guy in elephant pants in the seat in front of me reclining his seat fully and thus sleeping in my lap for the following 15 hours. At one point the bus stopped for three hours by the roadside with the engine, and therefore the AC, turned off and almost suffocated everyone on board. Eventually Evan woke the driver up and insisted he turn it on, much to everyone's relief. Upon finally arriving at the border, at which point we had to get off with all our belongings and fight other tourists with our elbows to retain our place in the immigration queue, we were shattered. We were not sorry to see the back of the bus some hours later when we finally arrived in Bangkok.

Khaosan Road, I’m sure, will be well known to many young people (and probably plenty of not so young ones too) as party central. I wish we had know this when we found our amazingly cheap room in a clean, friendly guesthouse right in the middle of the street at 3pm in the afternoon. At this point there was no evidence that four hours later the music volume at every bar within a hundred yard radius of our guesthouse would be cranked to the max and would remain there until 3am. Every. Day. It was Saturday the day we arrived so we were lucky enough to witness it at its craziest right from the off.

Basically, Kahosan is a mecca for hard partying kids, predominently European, many clearly on their first holiday away without mummy and daddy. Alcohol flows freely and it became normal to have to step over comatose youngsters lying in the road as we left our building each morning. Those that weren’t passed out were still drinking in the bars, or worse (as happened a few nights while we were there) they decided to roll in between 4am and 6am crashing and shouting and ensuring they awoke everyone in the building. One girl decided dragging her huge wheelie suitcase down the six flights of stairs at 6am was a sensible idea after spending the previous two hours shouting at her friends down the hallway.

Out in the street there’s what appears to be a carnival atmosphere, until you look more closely and realise that very few people are really having ‘fun’. There are a multitude of cheap cocktail bucket offers thrust in your face on placards every time you fight your way through the crowd. Slightly more coyly unlikely-looking old men slide smaller flyers in front of you, enquiring ‘Ping Pong Show?’ I would say google it, but on second thoughts it’s probably wise not to. Others proudly grin at you and wave signs advertising ‘Very Strong Cocktails - we don’t check ID!’ It’s a bizarre place, worth visiting briefly, but not somewhere I think I’ll ever feel the need to return to. Which probably made it all the funnier for the lady at reception who struggled to contain her amusement when for over a week we appeared at her desk every morning and asked to stay another night. At the end of the day it was the cheapest place by miles and after a while we learnt to tune out the noise for the most part.  

After we’d recovered from our journey the first thing on our agenda was to decide what to do next. At first the obvious plan seemed to be to head for Malaysia and buy bikes there, allowing us to ride up into Thailand and Laos too, but we decided this would wait and, after finding a good deal, promptly booked flights to Myanmar for the following week.

Myanmar has long fascinated me and has long been up there on my list of places I most wanted to see in SE Asia alongside Vietnam and Cambodia. I’m not sure whether it’s the fact it has such a long history of being inaccessible to foreign visitors or just because it’s a little different to the rest of SE Asia, but I was excited to be going there at long last. This left us with a week or so in Bangkok and we filled our time being good tourists, visiting temples and museums and eating way too much.

In need of a couple of electronic items, we’d read about the enormous electronics malls in the city, so on one of our first days there we tracked down a local bus (11 baht each rather than 400 baht for a taxi!) and headed to Pantip Plaza. On arrival it was indeed an overwhelming sight, endless floors filled with small electronics vendors selling everything from mobile phones to SD cards, power banks to cables. For hours we wandered in awe, covering floor after floor, all the time not needing to buy anything very much. We did eventually pick up a few things - some micro SD cards, a higher capacity power bank than the one I had, some cables we were missing, all for much-too-cheap prices. And that there was our downfall. Remember that saying ‘if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is?’ Later that night we discovered that the cheap SD cards were cheap for a reason - they were only a few gigabytes in size but had chips that had been hacked to make the capacity appear higher - and the power bank didn’t even hold enough power to charge my phone to 50%. A little frustrated, we learnt our lesson.

In fact this was one of the things that we struggled to comprehend in Bangkok. Everywhere we went we were continually reminded that buying and possessing counterfeit goods was illegal, as well as the dire consequences for taking Buddha’s image in vain, including purchasing statues of him. Yet everywhere we went we found these items openly for sale. Not just in grotty markets, but in flashy shopping centres. At a guess I'd say at least 80% of goods in Pantip Plaza are fake. One bar near Khaosan Road has an enormous figure of Buddha sitting on the floor (already a big no-no) dressed as a pirate (double strike!). Warnings about the possession of pornography run alongside market stalls where men leaf through top-shelf magazines plainly on display, right next to stands selling sizable arrays of sex toys. Bangkok is certainly a city full of bewildering contradictions.

When you travel a lot it becomes harder and harder to find things that make you take a step back and say ‘Woah, WTF??’ but a Sunday afternoon stroll in Chatuchak Park provided us with such a moment. After a couple of hours wandering around the weekend market, reportedly the largest in Bangkok (or maybe even Thailand, I can't recall?) we decided to kill some time before the night market opened wandering around the lakes, enjoying some respite from the noise and smell of the city. It seems we weren’t the only ones. 

As we rounded a corner we stumbled upon what we later discovered was the weekly gopher picnic. Apparently keeping gophers as pets is a thing in Bangkok and every weekend when the weather is nice a group of owners get together for a picnic in the park. They bring along their gophers, all dressed up in their Sunday best and tether them to stakes in the ground so they can run around. It was a sight we certainly weren’t expecting.

Wandering around amongst the little critters we realised that it wasn’t limited to just gophers. There were a couple of polecats and some people with lizards, all dressed up too of course. One guy had put wings on his lizard so it resembled a tiny dragon as it sat on his shoulder. Another young lad was sitting on a bench apparently chatting up two young girls with his squirrel, wearing a dress of course, on his lap. Rather oddly, but perhaps not really surprisingly, the humans involved didn’t so much interact as sit with their respective animals, preening and grooming them and generally looking a bit bored and anxious. Honestly, I’ve seen some weird things in my time but this was up there. 

Later, the rather retro night market rounded off the day. It was like stepping back into car boot sales or markets of the early 90’s with pirate cds and dvds on sale alongside piles of stickers you could sort through with prices for bulk purchases and chunky plastic 'ice’ wristwatches.

It was while we were at the market that I got a message from our friend and fellow biker Adam, whom we met in Honduras last year to say he was also in Bangkok and later we spent a very pleasant evening catching up over dinner and a few beers and talking about our forthcoming plans. It seems we inspired him to make his next destination Myanmar and likewise he inspired us to try out some local train travel. It's these random encounters that I love about travelling in the way that we are.

One of our days in the city we spent applying for our Myanmar visas. Literally, a whole day. We didn’t actually have to go to this trouble, we could have done it online, but we both liked the idea of having a physical visa in our passport and besides, we had the time to kill. The office, across the other side of town from where we were staying, was a longish bus ride followed by a reasonable walk. We thought we’d done our research and already knew that applications were only accepted between 9am and 12pm each day. Arriving at 10am we hadn’t banked on there already being almost 100 people there ahead of us. 

Given that there was only one counter processing people at the usual government agency processing rate of one person every 42 minutes, we figured that we’d be there until around the middle of March. Ok, that’s exaggerating a little, but still, we were number 92 so we found some coffee and made ourselves comfortable and struck up a conversation with number 79, an English girl travelling on her own who planned to head to Myanmar two days later. Eventually our number was called and after handing in our forms and passports we were told to return two days later to collect our visas.

With little else to do but kill time for the next few days we took the opportunity to visit some of the beautiful temples and wats in the city, including Wat Pho and Wat Arun. 

We hunted down more street art, wandering the city streets searching out the murals painted during the 2016 Bukruk Festival, including another Roa, this time some tumbling elephants on the side of an old apartment building. The street art scene is relatively new to Bangkok and a prominent local artist, Alex Face, became another easily recognisable talent we started to notice all over town with his three-eyed child/rabbit character, Mardi.

We took river taxis across and along the river, stopping near the site of the derelict Sathorn Unique ‘ghost tower’ an unfinished skyscraper that had fallen victim to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Until only a couple of years ago this fabled tower was a magnet for urban adventurers risking the climb to the top, but after a Swedish backpacker hung himself on the 43rd floor in December 2014 the company that owns the tower has made concerted efforts to keep people out by erecting a steel fence around the perimeter and firing the security staff who used to take bribes in exchange for access. In addition it seems that the owners have taken to using the full force of the law against people who are caught, demonstrated by the copies of police reports posted on the hoardings detailing recent prosecutions. Sadly we had to accept that we really weren’t going to get in, but the videos on youtube demonstrate just how amazing the views are from the top.

Bangkok is an interesting city and a place that I found myself liking more than I expected to. At the same time though it is one of the dirtiest, smelliest places I’ve ever been. Rats run openly across the streets and along the sidewalks, especially at night. The river smells like the open sewer that it is and even more revoltingly the smell of human urine from people openly peeing in the street is at times overwhelming. Several times we commented as we passed a food stand that looked appealing that we’d eat there if is wasn’t for the stomach-churning smells coming from nearby. Poverty and an inability to deal with waste is one thing, but when it’s willful littering and urinating in the street it is a bit hard not to be disgusted by it.

With the recent death of the king, it was an interesting time to be in Thailand. A year of mourning was declared upon his passing and it’s impossible to walk down a street without passing dozens, often hundreds of local people dressed all in black on their way to visit the Royal Palace or another pilgrimage site to pay their respects. Huge boards displayed everywhere express feelings of loss and sorrow alongside floral tributes. It’s overwhelming at times. It meant that when we visited the flower market late one night, rather than being filled with the usual stunning array of flowers - roses, orchids, etc - 90% of the flowers on sale were yellow chrysanthemums, a traditional symbol of loss and mourning.

Fast running out of places to see we stumbled by chance upon a very interesting museum just across the river. Located at the main city hospital, the Siriraj Medical Museum is literally a collection of gruesome medical artefacts. Rows and rows of pickled foetuses and babies, cross sections of conjoined twins. Tattoos carved off of the bodies of victims of the Boxing Day Tsunami. Organs preserved in formaldehyde showing the effects of horrific injuries caused in accidents, diseases and attacks - shot and stabbed heart, lungs from cancer patients, various parts of bodies of those who suffered terrible traumas displayed alongside graphic photos of the victim as they were found. There was even the mummified body of a cannibal rapist who preyed on young girls. 

Whilst this sounds like it would make for a far from enjoyable place to visit, there was something strangely captivating about the exhibits. Being a predominantly Buddhist country and the spirits of the dead being of great importance, it was actually more disturbing to see the little gifts or toys and trinkets brought by visitors and placed in particular near the babies and foetuses. Another section of the museum focussed on Parasitology and made us think very carefully about what we were eating! Used by medical students as a resource, so not merely a macabre tourist installation, it was certainly one of the weirder museums I’ve been to, up there on the list next to the Phallological Museum in Reykjavik. The bottom photo here is courtesy of google - I respected the multiple signs indicating that photos were strictly prohibited.

Soon enough the days dwindled down and newly printed visas in hand we headed to the airport, next stop Myanmar!

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