What was my first impression? After arrival travellers find themselves inside supermodern Suvarnabhumi airport of Bangkok. It is said that all airports of the region are very good, however Suvarnabhumi trails behind its rivals in Hongkong, Singapore, etc. The service in the airport is great and friendly, the only queues are in immigration.
When I was standing in queue I was thinking what to write to my publisher which requested on day of my departure from Kathmandu short article on topic "What foreigners think about Russia and Russians". I did not need to look for them. Russians were all around me (obviously plane from Moscow just landed), taking advantage of visa free Thailand. After me there were two girls from Moscow. One of them in sunglasses with fashionable Apple iphone was looking quite vulgar. A lot of time passed since I tried my Russian. The girls first were surprised when I asked questions in their language, however they had some reasons to be discreet about purpose of their visit. "Leisure and business, two in one". I did not press what kind of business. Not glamourous, for sure as they started discussing where to find in the beginning cheap room for 4-5 dollars. Then my attention turned to a couple before me - bull-necked businessman with conspicioucly young looking wife on stilettos. The wife was chain smoker and while we were standing in queue she several times retreated into smoking room. The husband was completely drunk, apparently he spent fortune on the plane, emptying Aeroflot stock (this airline only sell alcohol, while Nepal Airlines gives them away and there were not many takers). The wife inquired about her plastic bag, the husband could not remember where he dropped it. Actually he even could not move his tongue in defence. She immediately turned hysteric "bastard, Russian pig, drunk like alcoholic, does not care about my bag." She found it somewhere in the backside. We passed through friendly Thai immigration officers and I started to look where to go.
I decided not to buy Thailand's guidebook (it costed 50 dollars in Kathmandu). I suspected that in Bangkok there should be a tourist ghetto like Kathmandu's Thamel where tourists stay cocooned. I was not disappointed. The girl selling bus tickets to the city advised me to take AE2 bus, departure in 10 minutes, it goes to Kaosan Rd and she gave me booklets of Sawasdee Inn, chain of 6 cheap hotels. The first impressions of Bangkok - it's looking vaguely similar to South Indian metros like Bangalore or Hyderabad, especially shop signs in Thai are looking the same, curly and enigmatic. However people around are not tanned Hindus but rather like Indian northeasterners, Assamese and like.
After airconditioned airport and bus what a heat in Bangkok! I was almost melted on spot. My first acquaintance in Bangkok - Nepali tailor Sunil. He was touting suits for 99 euro when I, exhausted from swelling heat, dropped into neighouring café for a beer. Sunil had worked in Bangkok for 10 years, before he was tailoring somewhere in Indian market (I think it was near Silom), then moved to this Sikh-run shop in the centre of Kaosan Rd area. Of course he tried to sell me his suit, I was unenthusiastic, I have two suits gathering dust in suitcase. However he helped me with advice how I can reach Sukhumvit Rd where Indian consulate is located and with more pressing need - where to find a room. He advised me to go back to Ram Buttri Rd. I visited several hotels on Ram Buttri, however rooms were not cheap. Then I found a shoe-box sized room in Wild Orchid Villa on the backlane and next morning I moved into more spacy room of New Merry Guest House on the backside.
Few words about Thai hotels. The first thing, it's incredible cleanliness. Or it was just looking so for me, after many years on Indian subcontinent? Second thing is not easy to recognize. Thailand has open-door policy, tourists from half of the world can enter it visa free, others may apply for visas in airports. Bangkok is the second city in the world on arrivals after London. Of course among many genuine tourists there are many criminals, from spies, mafiamen, whores to arms and drug smugglers. How Thai secret police cope with them? Simple, they have a wide network of police informers in all hotels. I, writer without Indian visa, did not match to any of above mentioned categories. However in order to be free of any suspicions I recalled what Kleo Odzer, a famous Goan freak (drug smuggler) said about Thailand. In fact everything I knew about Thailand at the moment came from her book "Goa freaks. My hippie years in India":
"One had to be careful in Thailand. This was not India. Thais were strict about drugs. Serious penalties existed. Thailand was one of those countries where, if they arrested you, you disappeared. They were specially concerned with smack trafficking. If you were caught with any quantity, you were executed within three days. No embassy could help. There was no time to write a senator.
However, by following basic guidelines, it was relatively easy to avoid hassle. You had to act like a tourist. Simple. Carry a camera. Dive in the pool once a day. No problem. Then there were situations to be staunchly avoided. Most important: DO NOT HANG OUT ALONE IN YOUR HOTEL ROOM ALL DAY AND ALL NIGHT. Only junkies did that. It was common knowledge that Thai hotel employees received bonuses for reporting drug suspects. Loose tobacco in an ashtray, a cigarette filter lying around, or, worst of all, a piece of cotton or a bent room-service spoon - forget it. Next thing you knew there'd be a knock on the door."
- Kleo Odzer, from "Goa freaks"
There was no knock in my door, though. According to her advice I patiently told to concierge of my hotel about my visit - to get new Indian visa. She was seemed to be satisfied with explanation.
In Sukhumvit Rd area
Next morning I departed for Sukhumvit Rd, an area full of shining skyscrapers. As Sunil told me I found a bus stop, then took bus 511. My Asian look was not suspicious for the conductor, but somewhere on Phetcha Buri Rd she raised alarm. I tried to say that I am going to Sukhumvit Rd, she was merciless "No Sukhumvit, No Sukhumvit". Maybe I had chosen the wrong bus. She refused my 10 baht coin and I was unceremoniously thrown out somewhere under the highway.
In local eaterie
In Bangkok one can find myriad of small restaurants, restaurateurs put tables and chairs just on the street or pavement, if there is pavement. The Thai food is delicious and very cheap, I took lunch for 40 baht, bought Bangkok Post newspaper and found a taxi. Colourful local taxis come with air-conditioning and also not expensive. Thus I problem free arrived into Glas Haus Building, where on 15th floor I found VFS, the Indian visa processing company. After pleasant visit all I needed is just waiting for a week to get my passport with visa back.
I called to my relatives and friends in India and Russia, everybody was surprised I was in Bangkok. My sister asked me whether I found Thailand as fabulous as in "Anna and the king"?
Portraits of king Rama IX are everywhere but I preferred to make picture of this Siamese king, relaxing on the park's bench.
"Ever since she'd seen The King and I, Aunt Sadie had dreamed of visiting Siam. I wanted to give her a treat she'd always remember, and since I'd heard that Siam (now called Thailand) was the heroin capital of the world, we flew to Bangkok. The month long co-existence had strained our relationship ... we agreed it would be best to live separately. ...
Daytime was spent with Aunt Sadie. We visited the Reclining Buddha and the Emerald Buddha. We explored the floating market, the weekend market, and the snake garden. ...
Aunt Sadie loved Bangkok. I loved Bangkok. I adored the Malaysia Hotel [a den of drug smugglers]."
- Kleo Odzer, from "Goa freaks"
So what to do in Bangkok? I ruled out rush to visit Bangkok's attractions since I knew nothing about the country, its history and culture, significance of particular monuments and temples. I thought better to learn some things on Thailand first. That's why I made a tour of Bangkok's bookshops. There are three bookchains in Bangkok: Bookazine, Asia Books and Kinokunya. Most are located inside glitzy malls.
Inside Siam Paragon mall.
The culture of malls came here from America and took deep roots. In fact in areas like Silom, Siam Square or Sukhumvit you may not need to put your feet on the ground while roaming around the malls. You can use pathways of sky-train lines to go around. In Paragon there is underground aquarium where you can be photographed in the backdrop of sharks. Assortment of books in bookshops disappointed me - it's 99% similar to what I can buy in India and twice as expensive. (Then I already knew cross rates of Indian rupees and Thai bahts).
Especially disconcerting was glaring absence of history books. Finally I managed to find three: door stopping volume of D.G.E. Hall's A History of South East Asia, History of Thailand by Chris Baker and A Short History of Thailand by David K. Wyatt. The first is academic treatise, second is concentrated on recent events, however I liked Wyatt's book very much. It's not really "A Short History", rather "A Comprehensive History", written in laconic and clear language. I went to internet café where I checked what others think on amazon.com. To my surprise I found that comprehensive Wyatt's book is rated 3 out of 5 and incomprehensive Baker's book has scored 4 out of 5. People got angry with sophistication of Wyatt's treatise, his deep knowledge of Thai history and the abundance of Thai names, so difficult to pronounce, let alone memorize. As I am myself struggling to write about history of India I took notice of preferences of modern readers - they don't want any ancient history, they want to find in history books yesterday headlines. The shorter the better.
What about literature on Thailand? It can be divided in three groups: 1. Detectives like "Bangkok Haunts" or "Bangkok after 8 PM". A-ha, there are so many criminals around. 2. Stories of prostitutes, including of ladyboys. No comment. 3. Accounts of drug smugglers who were caught, convicted and languished many years in hells of Thai jails.
Bangkok's sky train
How ordinary Thais live? What they are doing? What bother them? The answers to such questions in India one can find from proliferated English media, yet in Thailand I was struck by almost complete absence of English media outlets. Newspapers are published in beautiful yet inconmprehensible local language. Though there are two English newspapers: Bangkok Post and Nation. The content is hardly interesting, they are full of business reports, and instead of lively Page 3 celebrities you are faced by smiling businessmen and businesswomen in boring suits striking deals. The closest to readable thing is criminal chronicle. One Italian committed suicide jumping and hanging from the bridge decapitating himself. He was recognized as poor person, no doubt another victim of credit crunch.
Censorship in Thailand flourish, there are not many political freedoms. Sounds vaguely familiar? The country plagued by chronic political struggle between factions of ruling elite. One is aligned with the court, another - with fabulously rich businessman, oligarch in self-imposed exile Thaksin Shinawatra. He is hiding from Thai justice somewhere in Dubai or Hongkong. After his deposition in 2006 Thaksin won parliamentary elections using `phone-ins', his supporters formed the government. In 2008 his enemies, wrapped in yellow shirts demonstrated against the puppet government for many months, they even paralised shortly Savarnabhumi airport. The government headed by Thaksin's brother-in-law fell. Abhisit Vejajiva, a young technocrat, became new PM. He is troubled by economic crisis and red-shirted supporters of ousted Thaksin. When I arrived to Bangkok red-shirts calmly crossed historical Rattanakosin (old Bangkok) and headed north to blockade PM office. Later it was reported that their blockade was ineffective, they have not much sympathy in royalist Bangkok, their main base is located in rural areas around Chiang Mai in the north.
You can see 7-11 sign
Bangkok's middle classes work hard and spend their money in neighouring "7-11"s. In fact these supermarkets with white-red sign are everywhere, on every corner. If you come closer to the one, its door automatically slips sideway, with "beep-beep". It is the sound of Bangkok. Inside the shop you can find all kind of eatable products, plus newspapers and cigarettes and alcohol (the latter is sold only from 11 to 14 and from 17 to closing time, 23).
On the party
What about Bangkok's expats? I have friend, long time correspondent of mine, she spent many years working in Bangkok. Now she moved to South America. When she learned that I am on the way to Bangkok she gave me a number of her friend Dare. Dare is working in American embassy. When I called her she invited me into restaurant near Nana sky train station, just next to Sukhumvit. It was not easy to find each other in such busy place as Nana BTS. When I arrived I called her, she asked me where I am. "I am standing next to jewellery shop." "Where?" "Yes, Siam Textiles on opposite side". "Don't disconnect, I am trying to locate you". "There is an elephant here, its mahout asked me for donation". "Ah, it's you". We were talking about 5 minutes standing next to each other in the crowd. She was surprised to find instead of burly and tall Russian small Asian. Then we proceeded to the restaurant where she explained there was "lucky hour". It was almost all-women party, the only exception was a tourist from US with his girlfriend. After introduction I was overwhelmed by many questions. "You was born in Russia? Terrible country". "Maybe your parents emigrated into Russia?". "The Russian government is so bad, many journalists were killed in your country". As I understood people around me were all Bushistas, "Hillary is bitch". Then they loved civilization too much, with glittering skyscrapers and stores, airconditioned cars and hotels. There was nothing wrong in this passion, I myself felt somewhat misplaced in comforts of Bangkok after so many years on Indian subcontinent and especially after Nepal where there was no electricity at all. However I am not so fond of life in concrete jungle, while the girl next to me said she is dreaming to go to Shanghai with its futuristic landscape.
"John and I did not stay in Bangkok longer than absolutely necessary. But after Goa [in India], one always desired to indulge in the luxuries of civilization: Peking Duck, Tobleroni, cheese fondue, air conditioning. Now THAT was living. John and I capered through the American-style supermarkets like tourists at the Louvre. ..Look at this! Wow! What a cute label. So many brands of cereal! Oo, oo - ketchup!"
- Kleo Odzer, from "Goa freaks"
When I returned to India, to Calcutta's Subhash Chandra Bose Airport, I notice only one Air India plane. I felt sad for India and Calcutta, before the city was bustling with trade, it was one of the greatest cities in Asia. Now passengers disembarked into village style building without air conditioning where strict immigration officers check documents and stamp passports. Then travellers take one of the yellow non-airconditioned taxis, a model of Fiat of 1950s. On the road to the city one can see piles of garbage, pissing men, stray cows and of course political demonstrations. That day Lal Krishna Advani, 81-year old right-wing BJP PM candidate, was visiting Calcutta and he was greeted by enthusiastic and chanting party workers. My driver said: "No chance for BJP, it's communists or Trinamool who will win". I did not care who will win, I just wanted they will transform India to the modern, decent way of life.
So I returned to my temporary home (though I spent already more than 3 years here) in the foothills of Himalayas, the place where Dalai lama lives. It's very homely and lovely as usual. Nothing changed here - Tibetans still demonstrate against occupation of their country by Chinese, lamas are performing ceremonies in temples. However I am feeling changed myself. After such long and chaotic journey through cosmopolitan Bangkok, friendly and unsophisticated Kathmandu, long and ardous trek to the celestial Everest, after I met so many interesting and different people I recalled what Frodo Baggins said in the end of Jackson's movie "The return of the king": "How to pick up the threads of an old life? How to go on, when in your heart you begin to understand, there is no going back?".