When I first arrived in Bangkok, I hated it. It was as if a black-and-white film of the post-industrial age was screening in front of my eyes and I wasn’t allowed to leave. I was overwhelmed by the traffic, the people, the noise. Slowly, I learned to see the colour. Unexpected beauty was everywhere if I paused to look, to listen, to smell. And now it’s home.
Songkran: Thai New Year
It’s the hottest, most oppressive month of the year. For the first two weeks of April even the traffic in Bangkok seems languid and sleepy, the horns subdued. The heat is stifling, searing and almost inescapable (there are always the air- conditioned malls!).
But on April 13 , as the sun moves into Aries, the mood changes, even if the temperature doesn’t. Thais right across the country converge on the steamy streets for the start of Songkran, Thailand’s three-day wet and wild New Year festival.
The focus of the celebration is water. In the wats (temples), Buddha images are solemnly purified with holy water. Young people honor their parents and elderly relatives by respectfully pouring water perfumed with flower-petals over their hands.
But out on the streets the mood is exuberant and boisterous. This is Thai sanuk (fun) at its very best.
In Bangkok, water pistols the size of small children are bandied about, spraying all and sundry, while pick-up trucks loaded with people roam the streets throwing buckets of icy water over pedestrians and unfortunate motorcyclists.
At bus-stops, water bandits also lie in wait: armed with the ubiquitous blue PVC water pump, not even commuters who have to work on this holiday – such as me – are safe. The bus doors open (the windows are sensibly closed) and an incomprehensible volume of water shoots in. There are huge guffaws and smiles all around.
I can’t even suppress a smile when this happens to me on my way to work for the third day running.
Lazy yoga, some call it, and at first Thai massage seemed to be nothing more than a gentle, rather ineffectual rub down. It was an acquired taste, after years of expecting a massage to involve oils and aromatic essences. Now I’m hooked on this ancient science of opening up the body’s natural energy paths.
Three years after my arrival in Thailand, I have been massaged under swaying palm trees on white-sand beaches. I’ve had the herbal massage under the creaking fans at Wat Po, the country’s famed Thai massage teaching center. The soggy hot poultice packed with herbs – kaffir lime smelt the most distinctive – left bright yellow traces of turmeric all over my body. I’ve been to flash places where the air-conditioned rooms are private and the staff speak excellent English.
But my favorite place to have a massage is in a modest shop- front on a dusty main road of Bangkok. Many of the masseurs are blind. The two treatment rooms are tatty and run down, with threadbare curtains separating the plastic benches that ‘patients’ lie on. The masseurs speak just a word or two of English. If I can’t tell them where I’m particularly sore in Thai – for here they will treat you for particular ailments – I hold the masseur’s hand and press it to the stiff, unyielding muscle I’d like them to relax.
The hands here seem to impart a healing energy that the masseur conjures up with their silent, almost holy concentration. It’s far more than massage; it’s a spiritual experience.
And when I face the world outside again, I’m rejuvenated and invigorated.
Public Buses in Bangkok
They belch black smoke as they brake and accelerate, brake and accelerate, swinging the standing passengers inside around like rag dolls.
The drivers of these non-airconditioned public buses will often be married to the conductors, so the buses in effect become a second home. Sometimes a young child will be asleep on the bench at the front; babysitters don’t come cheap.
There’ll be a garland of red, yellow and white flowers hanging around a rear view mirror – sometimes the scent of them cuts through the fumes to reach the noses of sweaty passengers. If there’s not, the driver will be accosted by a vendor selling them at every second set of traffic lights.
Some drivers have thriving potplants sitting on the sill at the base of their vast windscreens. There’ll be photos of their family stuck around them; perhaps also a picture of a revered monk, some Thai album covers from the sixties, or banners from an English premier league soccer team.
There’s always a cooler full of water stored at the front, but when the traffic’s bad the conductor might jump off and run into a shop to buy something sweeter to sip, along with a snack of banana fritters or some sliced pineapple from a roadside vendor.
The grime is unavoidable; after an hour-long ride to work, I’d love another shower. But I wouldn’t miss this piece of life for the world.
The Thai Character
It’s always dangerous to stereotype national characters. But a friend warned me once before I went travelling that one of the very pleasures of travelling is discovering how these stereotypes originate.
In Thailand, the people are known for their laid-back, smiling approach to life – as well as their enthusiasm for having a good time.
‘Mai pen rai’, the standard response to any problem, means ‘Never mind’, and it’s always said with a generous smile. This is a great attitude when you’re a backpacker spending your days on the beach. The plumbing in your bungalow is stuffed? Mai pen rai. You learn to say it yourself.
However, when you’re living and working in Thailand and you have a deadline to meet, this relaxed, easy-going attitude can be quite frustrating. If someone doesn’t turn up to work: mai pen rai! If your computer has crashed and you need someone to fix it: main pen rai! You’ve just got to learn to acknowledge the frustration and let it go!
Thais are also known for their honesty when it comes to assessing your looks. If you’re not sure whether that skirt makes you look fat, don’t worry – someone will tell you if it does. A woman in my apartment building whom I had never spoken to once told me how much weight I had recently gained.
I smiled. ‘Mai pen rai!’
I’d learned well.
The average percentage of land allocated to roads in cities when they are planned today is 20 to 25 percent: in Bangkok by the late 80s, just 2.5 percent of land area was devoted to roads.
In the 90s, Bangkok had the most vehicle registrations per kilometer of all Asian cities: 502. You can get stuck in a jam at any time of day. There won’t be any accident up ahead, so don’t bother to crane your neck and look. Chat to your cab driver and ask where they’re from; grab a book if you’re on a bus and be prepared to finish it.
Or look out the window at the life going on around you: the stalls on the side of the road selling barbecued squid, red pork soup, banana fritters, sliced papaya and guava, iced coffee, roses, tiny pancakes stuffed with sweet cream and carrot. Spot the shoe-mender, the woman with the ancient sewing machine, the key-cutter, the watch repairer, the barber in his open air salon.
There were three major transport projects underway in Bangkok prior to the crash of ’97: the Skytrain, which opened in December 1999 and has not improved traffic but does get you around town very quickly; the underground metro, which is not due to be finished for a few years and right now is doing an admirable job of making the traffic worse; and the Hopewell project, an ambitious rail scheme currently shelved. At one stage in planning, these three projects crossed at more than twenty points with not a single interchange.
Which, come to think of it, would have made business improve for the vendors.
The Erawan shrine
Under spirals of scented smoke, devotees leave delicate yellow garlands, along with wooden images of the three-headed elephant god Erawan, whom the Hindu god Brahma traditionally rode.
The Erawan Shrine, possibly the most famous non-Buddhist shrine in Bangkok, lies incongruously at Bangkok’s consumerist heart.
Lying adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Erawan hotel, and almost in the shadow of the various shopping malls surrounding it, the sparkling golden statue of Brahma attracts hundreds of visitors a day.
If you arrive at the right time, you might catch a performance of classical Thai dance, paid for by supplicants who have had their prayers answered after visiting the shrine.
The story behind its construction is unusual: when the Erawan hotel was being built in the 50s, accident after accident occurred, including the deaths of workers and cost overruns. When a ship transporting Italian marble for the construction of the lobby sank, the workers decided something had to be done to placate whatever upset spirit was at work.
Spirit doctors were consulted, and a shrine to Brahma was deemed necessary. In 1955 after the shrine was built, the mishaps ceased and the fame of the shrine spread.
Somehow the blend of devotion and shopping is not an unhappy one; rather, it’s a magical symbol of how Bangkokians have successfully held on to their spiritual beliefs while also embracing the global culture of consumerism.