Jane and I departed from our wedding, as by vague tradition, at around the 10pm mark and before the guests left. We headed to a hotel in a part of Brisbane city known as Fortitude valley. It is Brisbane’s vibrant entertainment hub, a little akin to StKilda in Melbourne, or King’s Cross in Sydney. We chose this location because it was in walking distance from where I first met Jane, and where her and I first lived together.
We had eaten barely anything throughout the night, which seems quite normal for circulating couples at their wedding. So after getting changed out of our wedding outfits we headed back out of the room to find something to eat. Only one lift was working and it seemed to take forever to arrive. Once it did, the doors opened and there on the floor of the lift was a young man laying in a pool of liquid, which had come from a bottle of cheap cola that had been carefully placed in the corner of the lift probably as the man’s overdose took hold.
Jane and I looked at each other, not with shock but with a sigh of familiarity. The intentional lack of identification in the man’s wallet told me that this wasn’t his first rodeo. Fortunately for him it wasn’t ours. We did some checks and he was at least breathing and his heart going. Nothing else was all that good at that moment.
Jane went outside to call and flag the ambulance as the hotel front of house fumbled with figuring out what to do. I stayed with the man to keep an eye on him, and eventually defending him from the body-builder hotel manager that seemed to think that shaking the patient would wake him up. Oddly enough it didn’t work, and probably just as well. I’ve seen ODers wake up suddenly and violently, and no matter how big you are, they can potentially plough through you like a freight train.
ODs can go either way. They can get dramatically worse, or the person can suddenly snap out Which was exactly what happened. As I was talking to the muscle bound manager the man on the floor snapped awake, sucked in a big lung full of air and launched to his feet with an expression on his face as though he’d sucked down a hundred coffees. I pushed the managed back and spoke calmly to the man to de-escalate him, leaving an open space for him to go through so he didn’t feel trapped. Moments later the paramedics arrived, and we left them to do their job.
So let’s get to Bangkok already….
The next day we left Brisbane on a Thai airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and after 9.5 hours we arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok. We passed by hundreds of glowing duty-free stalls filled with middle-class luxury goods of the ‘you aren’t good enough to afford me’ kind. By sheer luck we got shuffled through diplomatic customs and were on our way quickly, counting our luck that we didn’t end up in the cluster of Chinese tourists that had just arrived on two huge airbus A380s. After navigating several crowded halls and escalators we arrived outside and into the thick, humid air of Bangkok. The taxi trip was around 50 minutes to our hotel which was located on the other side of the city. Scenes of late-night Bangkok rushed past our car as we travelled on the expressway. I glimpsed into the towers of crumbling concrete through doors and windows held open to allow the air to flow through in the hope of some respite from the heat. Families travelled 4 at at time on scooters, no helmets. A Ute passed with a specially made cage on the back to hold pineapples in perfect position for safety until delivery.
A new city is always a lot to take in as it unfolds around you. And by reputation there’s few city’s in the world with more to take in than Bangkok. Giant glowing billboards advertising top-end Android phones confront visitors as they enter the city. Closer to the city centre they give way to giant memorial boards celebrating the beloved king of Thailand that had passed away a little under a year before our visit. Our taxi-driver re-iterates how beloved the king was when we ask him about them. We arrive at our hotel and are swarmed upon by a small team of friendly staff who grab our bags and direct use to the 11th floor, where the check-in desk is located.
There, while waiting for the clerk to organise our room I look out the giant windows at Bangkok, where its night time lights glisten like a calm ocean at sunset. Tall buildings fight with glowing temples for the attention of my eye. All monuments to either Buddha or Mammon. A silent night’s sky laying motionless and filling me with the eerie sense of unfamiliarity of this city. I feel instantly out of place and ignorant as to the vibrant life of the city below.
A rose and some chocolate had been laid on a table next to our bed. A gesture to our honeymoon from the staff of a hotel barely a year old. So new was the hotel that most of taxi drivers didn’t of know it. We’re sent to the 18th floor and to a room with magnificent view over the south of the city. As Jane fell asleep, I sat up looking out across a new city, excited by the prospect of having another amazing urban landscape to explore.
Once more onto the streets, dear friends.
After a lovely breakfast at the hotel, again overlooking the city through beautiful giant windows, we head down to the river to catch the ferry from the hotel across to Sathorn Pier. From there we have access to the entire city via the train network. We explore near the pier and get our full first impressions of street life in Bangkok. The road is cramped with slow moving traffic and smoking buses all being lapped by Motosai (motorcycle taxis) weaving through the tight spaces between vehicles. Cables lace along the street between street posts, lining the street in a tight lattice of a jumbled mess of wires. Internet networks are filling the streets with unregulated lines, leaving providers to fight with each other for space on the poles. We stop in to a Japanese restaurant where Jane instantly becomes addicted to a Icey lemon based drink that in the heat of bangkok is amazingly satisfying to sip on. A woman starts talking to us as she walks along the street, asking us where we are from. I feel suspicious, but she’s just friendly. We soon find the Thai are all a lot like that.
We grab a train and head an infamous shopping district where an entire street is lined by mammoth shopping centres with a fly-over that runs the length of the street below connecting them. This allows you to walk from one to the other without ever having to touch the traffic crowded street below.
The first mall we go to is like a giant market and low-end shopping centre in one, with each floor set aside for specific kinds of products. It is known as ‘MBK’. It’s like many of ‘commercial centres’ I’ve been through in Hong Kong and China, and I don’t care much for it with the exception of an interesting food hall where we grab lunch. Next we end up in a giant and elegantly decorated mall filled with high end label stores lining uncluttered wide hallways decked with faux pink marble and known as ‘Siam Paragon’. We briefly pass through a third mall as it is clearly aimed towards affluent young adults in Thailand. We then end up at a 4th, where we shop for books and other small items before debating if we’d like to see a movie. At the 5th – ‘Central World’, we find a mall very much alike the kind you find everywhere in the western world, just on a huge scale. By this time we’d had enough. I looked at my activity tracker and it told me I’d walked something like 18 thousand steps – roughly 10 kilometres of walking. With our feet aching we gave up on shopping and head towards another part of the city where we enjoy some food from a Chinese-Malay vendor on the street. It was delicious. Exhausted we head back to the hotel and reflected on how little we had bought.
A very unsatisfying typewriter safari.
The next morning I left Jane to her own devices. Well, more like the capable hands of the hotel day spa. My destination was in the north of the city where a man was located that sold and maintained typewriters. I’d organised to buy a Siamese language machine off him, and was keen head over and have a look. I took a train to a station as close as possible to him, then found a taxi to take me the rest of the way.
But it wasn’t just any taxi. Oh no. At the front of the taxi rank when I arrived was a customised machine that just called out to be ridden. Not to me, but a former manager of mine that I’ve stayed friends with. So in her honour I hopped into…
The famous Bangkok Hello Kitty Taxi. My former manager was a Hello Kitty collector, so how could I not!
How could I not? Well, I probably shouldn’t have because he was a terrible navigator, and the trip went twice as long as it should have when he had to turn around and head a different way. I didn’t mind though. Taxis are very cheap when they are on the meter and after exploring half of the north of the city it still only cost me about $3 Australian.
Sadly, his navigation skills were sill something of a failure. He dropped me about 2 kilometres further up the road than I needed, but instead of grabbing another taxi I chose to walk. Upon arriving at my destination I found no-one to be home. Nobody answered the phone either when I tried to call him. Much to my disappointment I wasn’t going to be getting another machine for my collection today.
But I didn’t mind too much. This was a part of Bangkok that tourists don’t travel to, very often, and I have to say it was the cleanest and generally most relaxed part of the city. There’s a culture there that makes do with what they have, and I saw some genuinely innovative things.
Further adding to the frustration I found the taxi drivers were reluctant to drive me back to the hotel, and instead they launched into lengthy rants in their own language hoping I’d just get out of their taxi. I used an app on my phone called ‘Say-hi’ to do voice translations on what they were saying, and it turned out to be mostly bullshit, which stopped the moment they heard their own words being repeated back to them in English from my phone. I left them in their cars with their embarrassment, bewildered that there was technology that could translate what they were saying.
By the third time this happened, I used the app to translate back to a driver to drive me to the nearest train station. The ranting stopped (in his case, the voice translation told me he was ‘too scared to drive through a particular suburb on the way’ and he was happy to drive me to the station. I learned a lesson here, that drivers mostly don’t like travelling too fair from the suburbs they usually work in. The ones that do tend to hang around the airports looking for longer fares. Later I learned that others around the city will do so, but will sting you for far more expensive unmetered fares that you negotiate before you go.
Later that evening Jane and I headed across to ‘Asiatique’, a large mall that was dressed up like a market and was filled with a lot of Thai tourist trappings. A Muay Thai stadium, fish to eat the muck off your feet and more stalls selling localised food and interesting drinks made out of local fruits. Here we met a friend of ours named Michael. He’d just moved here and was feeling a little isolated and low, and it was great to catch up. That is until the rain started. And gosh did it rain. Drenched through, Jane and I waited at the dock for 40 minutes under a barely adequate shelter as a tropical downpour flooded the roads around the city. Our ferry appeared out of the rain and we ran on board and huddled with the crowd as water splashed in through the sides in the wind.
After getting across the now very choppy river I stopped to give the captain of the boat and his mate a ‘Wai‘. Whereas the rest of the tourists charged off the boat quickly. I did this to most Thai that gave me a Wai, but this time I could see they appreciated it. For the rest of our stay I was greeted with greater recognition and a much more welcoming smile every time I got onto the ferry.
A more satisfying typewriter safari.
Jane and I went and had some lunch and hung out by the hotel’s pool the next day. Later that afternoon we headed back across the river where we made our way via train and taxi (further fights with drivers about a destination) to the Rot Fai Train night market. It is a location known for its vintage goods as well as street food and has been built into the sheds of a former train depot. Only half the stalls around the places were open at the time we arrived.
We marched through a collection of glowing marquees filled with the usual fodder that you can get anywhere in the world. Knock-off brand t-shirts, phone covers, cheap shoes and handbags. I wondered to myself if in the future there were going to be entire acres of landfill made up of rubbish-looking novelty phone covers. Are there any that would be considered ‘collectable’ in this day and age, or in the future?
We moved away from these stalls and headed to the old train sheds. Here we found must more in the way of vintage and antique goods. Indeed, the first store I walked into had several typewriters. I found more machines at the next store, all line across the floor. The front of the store was guarded by statues of ‘greys’ – extraterrestrial humanoid alien figures that have become synonymous with how we think of creatures from other planets. I thought to myself about how the store was being guarded by statues modern-day mythical creatures much like the temples around Bangkok have ages-old creatures of myth at their doors and gates.
I stepped into another store and find a typewriter that had been converted into a lamp. I’m seeing more and more of these, and I’m starting to feel that this is the next ‘keychopper’ craze. Full antiques that someone deems aesthetically pleasing but useless to them, so they make it ‘useful’ by turning it into a lamp. Further into the complex I found a workshop filled with vintage motorcycles. I then find a workshop working on vintage cars further up the lane. Around the corner beautiful old machines lined the yard and glisten in light from the the overhead festoon lamps, while in further workshops machines featuring beautiful pre-digital design curves sit on stands as people slowly lavish love upon them. Most of these cars have been imported from America and still have the steering wheel on the left side of the car (Thai cars have it on the right, as they drive on the left side of the road there). These cars are too beautiful and well preserved to have ever seen much time on the chaotic roads of Thailand. They are for show – toys for the wealthy or passionate to own and love. Even though the traffic moves so slowly through Bangkok that accidents are far less than you’d expect, it still would be hugely risky to drive these cars on the roads here in a place where the parts would be extraordinarily hard to come by.
After finding some food we again retreat back to the hotel, having again barely bought anything while there. After all, I didn’t need a new phone cover.
…. to be continued in Pt 2: The temples, the bars, the massage parlours. We take a tour of the canals and end up exploring the some of the ‘Sois’ that make Bangkok the infamous city it is.