Night Bus to Bangkok   

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They told me that the trains were all fully-booked, but I had heard that before in Thailand.

It usually just means that you have to go out the station and down a side street to an agent who will – for a price – get a ticket biked over from goodness knows where. But the crowds who had flocked south to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach were now going home and, this time, the trains really were fully-booked. All that the fast-talking agents could offer was a seat on the VIP Bus.

A minibus collected me from Nopparat Thara in the middle of the afternoon and dropped me at the interchange in Krabi Town, where a confusion of travellers sat hugging their backpacks with fluorescent dots on their singlets.

Buses came and buses went. The staff shouted, flung their arms in the air and darted about. Travellers got up, looked around uncertainly, and hurried to the bus, but most were turned back because their fluorescent dots were not the right colour.

Orange was the wrong colour several times, until, eventually, a bus came to take me as far as Surat Thani on the opposite coast, where I arrived in a tropical storm. The rain drummed on the tin-sheet roof as I waited; water advanced across the floor. Travellers lifted their feet and hoisted their backpacks onto spare seats.

The VIP bus was a big six-wheeled, double-decker coach with luridly airbrushed flanks, similar to the one below. There were no frills beyond reclining seats and curtains to pull across the windows.

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I could no more sleep on a bus than compose a piano concerto, but that was okay because I had a pile of books for the journey. Then the driver turned off the roof lights and I flicked the switch for the reading lamp and nothing happened. Twelve hours, then, of lampposts, signs and crash barriers.

It was sometime around midnight, I think, when we pulled into the services with dozens of similar buses, all heading north to Bangkok and beyond. I threaded between them and went inside, then realised I had no idea which bus was mine. I had a feeling it was red, but it might have been blue, unless that was the one I had taken to Surat Thani, and I thought it was somewhere around halfway down the third, or fourth, or possibly fifth, line of buses, but several had come and several had gone in the meantime. I blundered from bus to bus, looking for clues, and found mine largely by chance. It was yellow.

Hours later, when I was about the only passenger still awake, we pulled into a lay-by behind a van, and I could see people milling about and hear conversation and lockers being opened and shut but could not work out what was happening. I thought it was the police, then I thought it was hijackers, then we set off again and I thought no more about it.

At something to five, I spotted tuk-tuks and temples and then the roof lights came on and the woman doled out hot towels and we stopped and the doors hissed open.

The bus was supposed to run to Khao San Road, the main street of the backpacker ghetto, but the place we stopped looked alien to me in the pre-dawn gloom through the fog of a sleepless night. I was mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers clamouring for business when I tried to get my bearings, so I ducked down an alley between rows of closed shops and came out into another road and tried again to work out where I was.

What street’s this?” I asked another traveller.

Khao San Road, man.”

I had walked down it dozens of times, but from early in the morning to late at night, it had always been crowded with travellers and hawkers and tuk-tuks and taxis and big neon signs and bustling bars; and now in the silent early hours, with everything shut and the lights all off and the travellers sleeping and tuk-tuk drivers busy with buses arriving a block away, it was an altogether different street.

I checked into a guesthouse and opened my backpack and saw that the string I never bother to fasten had been neatly tied in a bow, and I worked out, then, why we had stopped in the lay-by.

© Richard Senior 2015

Bus image: By Flying Pharmacist (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thank You for Flying with the Bangkok Helicopter

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It was evening rush hour in Bangkok. The offices emptied of workers and they swarmed on the transport hubs. Motorcycle taxi drivers sat in a line on their bikes at the ends of the sois. Meter cabs worked the main streets. The queues for the buses at the Victory Monument were as long and unruly as they are in London when the Tube drivers strike and there are dozens of applicants for every place on each bus.

I didn’t know which bus to catch to get back to Banglamphu, so I shuttled between stops, and forced my way to the front of each queue in the hope of finding a route map or someone who could tell me where to go; but there was never a route map and no one told me where to go, or at least not in a good way.

I waited to see if the crowds would thin out, but they swelled instead and I gave up on the idea of catching a bus and walked to the main road and flagged down a taxi. “Khao San Road?” I said, and he abruptly drove off by way of reply. The next two ignored me and drove past, and several after that already had fares, so I gave up on the idea of taking a taxi, as well.

That left what is known locally as the Bangkok helicopter: the fastest, most dangerous way to get across town. I approached a knot of drivers and interrupted their sniggering conversation and asked the one who had a spare helmet clipped to his bike if he could take me to Khao San Road. He quoted an inflated price and I tried to haggle but it was a waste of time so I agreed and got on the bike.

I asked for the helmet but he waved a dismissive arm and roared off while I tried to insist. It is illegal in Bangkok to ride without a helmet and I would have been the one to be fined if we were stopped; farangs are easy targets and assumed to be good for the money. I had more immediate anxieties, though, than the risk of being handed a fixed penalty.

I held onto my hat and bag with one hand and gripped the handle with the other. I have no idea what speed we were doing on the expressway, and nor had the driver because the speedo was broken; but it was comfortably above the speed limit. Everyone busts the speed limit in Bangkok if their cars or bikes or trucks will go fast enough. It is so widely ignored the police barely try to enforce it.

The driver kept up the speed as the streets became narrower and busier, ducking through traffic, overtaking a bus, undertaking a truck, carving up a taxi, mounting pavements, weaving to the front of queues at the lights and setting off shortly before they changed, ignoring the horn concerto which the other drivers performed. It seemed to me to be more of an adrenalin sport than a mode of transport. All it would take is a car to swap lanes without warning, a passenger to fling open a door at the lights, a pedestrian to step out between buses.

But locals, as ever, seem relaxed. It is, for them, just a convenient way to get to the office, or school. You see kids of ten or eleven on the back of motorbike taxis, and office girls side-saddle, using the time to finish their make-up. Only the cost would deter them from using the Bangkok helicopter: not the danger.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Fresh Look at Bangkok

The fruit vendor woke me up as she drove her van down Soi Rambuttri, calling out through a megaphone attached to the roof. The brush seller came after her on a motor tricycle with a putt-putt engine and hee-hawing horn. He had bottle brushes, paint brushes, wire brushes, flue brushes, and every size and every colour of sweeping brush. But no one was buying brushes that morning.

The shopkeepers had rattled up the shutters a few hours before; the barmen had dragged the chairs and tables back onto the street. Travellers sat at a few of them with coffees, cigarettes and Lonely Planet guides; the rest were empty as yet. Tuk-tuk drivers were massing outside the guest houses, like reporters at the home of a shamed politician.

An early ice cream man pedalled past my window on a tricycle with an icebox slung from the handlebars and a tinny chime which suggested a theme from children’s TV. Dee-de-dee; dee-de-dee; dee-de-diddly-dee-de-dee. Behind him was a man with a hundred year-old pushcart piled up with watermelons, who dinged a bicycle bell on the handle as he shoved it down the street. No one was buying watermelons either.

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The street food vendors had claimed their pitches along Rambuttri, around the corner and down the next street. The pad thai, the spring rolls and satays are familiar enough to the travellers passing through, but the rest is new and not all of it welcome, least of all deep-fried crickets and bamboo worms. Thais like them well enough, but if you tell them we eat snails in Europe, they are disgusted.

By the middle of the morning, the roads were an anarchy of honking buses and beeping cars and crazy, fearless motorcycle taxis darting around them; and the pavements were crowded with people and everybody was constantly in somebody’s way. But there were none of the hundred explosions of temper which punctuate every British day, and too readily end in a whirl of fists and knocked over tables. No one seemed to mind very much if someone bumped into them or stood in their way for a moment. And it is easy to say something glib about Buddhist serenity, but it is as much about keeping face.

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The soaring eaves and gilded stupas of Wat Phrakaew and the Royal Palace shimmered in the haze at the other side of the Sanam Luang public gardens.  There are something like 500 temples in the city and monks are as much an everyday sight as nuns in Rome and estate agents in London.

There is a long stretch of pavement near the most important temples filled with dozens of stalls selling amulets. The devout believe that they keep them safe or bring them luck. There are effigies and statuettes, medals and coins, bracelets and pendants, stones and used false teeth. Collectors peer at them through magnifying glasses. Groups of monks browse the stalls. Travellers stop and finger the amulets and pretend that they know what they are looking at.

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A few blocks away, there is a street on which the shops sells nothing but Buddhas. There are tiny Buddhas and enormous Buddhas and all sizes of Buddha in between; there are sitting Buddhas and lying Buddhas, fat Buddhas, thin Buddhas; Buddhas made of plastic and Buddhas made of steel. Then, next to that is a street on which every shop sells policemen’s caps. Elsewhere, there are workshops crammed with boxes and drums, bicycle frames, engine parts, pieces of wood and old bathroom fittings, and right in the back there will be an old man engrossed in repairing a pocket watch or stripping an alternator down. Who knows what his business is? There is never a sign (even assuming you know a ช่าง from a ช้าง) and it is often hard to see any connection between the things inside; much of it looks like junk.

I know that, a couple of miles downtown, there are forests of office blocks which could be in Manhattan, and malls which might be anywhere in Europe, and all your favourite multinationals; and I know that the younger Thais might speak idiomatic, American-accented English, and eat at McDonalds, and stream the same movies and listen to the same music as us. Yet travellers are way too quick to write off Bangkok as ‘Westernised’. So many people said it to me, so automatically, that it was obvious it was no more a view they had come to themselves than when the man in the pub recites something he read in a tabloid about the economy.

For all that is familiar, there is a great deal that is not; and plenty is all but unfathomable for the average farang traveller.

© Richard Senior 2015

Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet: Eating in Bangkok

All along the street, there are pushcarts piled up with food; with fried chicken, grilled octopus, satays, spring rolls, meatballs, noodle soup, and pad thai, which the vendor will make to order in seconds. She throws diced chicken into a hot wok, adds beansprouts and rice noodles, an egg if you want one, then soy sauce and tamarind, tosses it together and tips it onto a paper plate. You add a handful of chopped peanuts, a few dried shrimps, a sprinkle of sugar, a glug of fish sauce, chilli flakes, chilli sauce and pickled chilli slices.

My guidebook grumbled that the pad thai from carts around Khao San Road is not authentic, and doubtless it is not, but it was at least as good as I would get in my local Thai restaurant, and I was not complaining for the price of a packet of crisps back home.

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The first few times I ate out in Thailand, I tried to order a starter, a main and a side; but it either all came at once or in whatever order it happened to be ready. Thai meals are not structured like that. Rice – a side dish to us, a change from potatoes – is the heart of the meal for Thais. Khao means rice, but it also means meal. Everything else, the soups, the salads, the curries, the grilled fish, is a garnish for the rice. The idea is to have a balance of flavours: Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet, the cornerstones of Thai cuisine (and perhaps also the members of a Nineties girl band).

The fish was laid out on ice at the door of the restaurant and the eyes were black, the gills bright red. I had fish every night for a week. Always on the bone, grilled or deep-fried whole, served with a dipping sauce of fish sauce, chilli, lime juice and sugar. Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet.

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There is a lot more to Thai curries than the soupy green and red clichés the whole world knows. Fiery jungle curry, for instance; and the subtler turmeric, lemongrass and coconut flavours of Massaman curry. Yellow curry paste is smeared over seafood before grilling; red curry paste is stir-fried with pork and green beans in pad prik moo.

I like chilli well enough, but it took me a while to build up the tolerance for incendiary dishes like som tam, made with shredded papaya and enough birdseye chillies to win a bet. I asked a Thai girl how many chillies she would use in a papaya salad. “Hmm, four, six,” she said, as if that were not many.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Classic travel scams #1: the 20 Baht Temple Tour

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“I take you many temple. Twenny Baht,” the tuk-tuk driver says, and you’re new in Bangkok and the humidity is enervating and it seems like a bargain and you don’t stop to think how it can be worth his while for less than 40p (60c). He might take you to a few temples, but you will end up at a fake gem shop or a bogus travel agent.

I knew about this one before I went to Thailand because a mate of mine fell for it (the same guy once inadvertently paid €900 for a hat to wear to a party). There are a few variants, though. One guy approached me, claimed he was a policeman and flashed what might have been his library card. He warned me that some tuk-tuk drivers were dishonest and that I should only take the “official” tuk-tuks with the Thai flag on one corner and the royal flag on the other. They, he said, would take me round all the temples and then to a special shop where I could arrange cheap travel all over Thailand.

Just then, a tuk-tuk came round the corner with the Thai flag on one corner and the royal flag on the other.

 (c) Richard Senior 2014