Five days in Bangkok leave me breathless, yet full of energy! We are here to meet up with Dr Fi and her family, and also to catch up with another old uni chum, Patrick Brooks, who has been living a Somerset Maugham-type of existence for the past 30 years or so (actually an ex-dip and now consulting for the EU, trying to teach them diplomacy – the EU that is, rather than the Vietnamese or the Thais, who seem perfectly good at people skills if you ask me).
The days are spent doing the temples, Palaces, markets and the klongs, and the evenings trying out Bangkok’s finest restaurants. Nahm is one of the world’s top 50 restaurants where PB impresses us by whistling up a late reservation, ‘We do not normally have place booking so late, but we know you are very special farang gentleman who is good friend to Thailand who have been honoured by His Majesty the King, so in this case we make special arrangement’. Only later he reveals that he added this in, after he has made us eat the special delicacy of durian with sticky rice (pass the sick bag). See what I mean about diplomacy?
The Issaya Siam Club is also delicious, and we sit in colonial elegance on a cool balcony surrounded by tropical gingers and orchids. Great contrast to the boardroom table and minimal elegance of Nahm, where the flavours are similarly subtle. The common factor: in neither could we understand the intricate tasting menu verbal descriptions; luckily we had PB to translate for us (his Thai is very impressive).
The traffic in Bangkok is ghastly during rush hour, so we tuk tuk it where possible and the canals are, of course, quick, although prone to rip off for ferangs like us. The orange boat at 15 Baht is a great contrast to the 500 we paid per person for a 2-hour canal tour, although we did get to see the royal barges and some vignettes of life in the old days, before the skyscrapers dwarfed the wooden shacks that still line some of the klongs.
Similarly we are ‘had’ by the age-old – we now realise – scam of being told ‘temple closed, special Buddhist ceremony, open 1.30; look here is tuk tuk, take you to Standing Buddha, very close’. Once on board, ‘after temple we take you to best tailors, and then, must stop here, get token, good for me, I get 150 Baht’ – cue to enter gloomy Chinese store of tacky variety. The second time we are wised up and just walk unimpeded in to Wat Po, home of the Reclining Buddha.
After the departure of the main Walford gang, Lylie – en route to Burma – PB and I visit the Bridge over the River Kwai and the tiger temple. The Burma Railway, or Death Railway, now made more notorious by the dreadful film/good book, The Railway Man, was built by forced labour from over 180,00 Asian press-ganged workers and 60,000 Allied prisoners. With 90,000 Asian and 12,400 Allied casualties, it was one of the great atrocities of the Second World War. The worst period of construction, spring to October 1943, was known as ‘Speedo’. Very poignant visiting the cemetery, site of 6982 graves, on the 100th Anniversary of the First World War; some of the epitaphs brought back memories of our own loss of Louise: the language of bereavement is universal. A stark reminder also, in these very troubled times, of man’s inhumanity to man.
We are right up on the Burmese border, by Hellfire Pass. The museum is fascinating and gives a good insight into what it was like. We go on a little train ride, barged about by dreadful Germans – feel like doing a Basil Fawlty ‘Don’t mention the war’, especially on this day of all days but, after all, we do have the EU dipsomat with us! Lunch overlooking the River Kwai, and some inspection of the track. It’s highly touristy, but we agree that it is necessary, ‘lest we forget’.
I can’t believe that we are really able to ‘pet’ the tigers at the Tiger Temple. Apparently the first two cubs were brought to the monks as orphans but those canny chaps, seeing an opportunity, have made it into a full-scale tourist trap, with at least a dozen of the magnificent beasts chained in an enclosure and, it seemed to me, drugged to avoid any nasty accidents, so that we suckers could have our photo opportunity. I’m afraid, offered that chance I, of course, couldn’t resist, but it did go against the grain… especially when I saw the maquette for the monstrous new temple that is being built…
Five days of walking, and my ankle and leg have ballooned, despite a foot massage. So I’m quite pleased at the thought of getting back to the peace and quiet of Singapore and catching up with solitary activities such as writing and yoga! Have decided that I must go back to see a physio as some residual stiffness is setting in and, once this happens, it doesn’t go away. This is the critical time to regain as much movement as possible. All this travelling has upset my little routine!