Sunday, 2 March 2014

Best bits of Bangkok

Bangkok is a tough city to love. There's too much of it. It's too difficult to get around. It's too touristy. And it doesn't wake up till eleven o'clock in the morning - even the Dunkin' Donuts near Siam Square doesn't open for breakfast till ten-thirty - which is no good for a morning person, which I tend to be when I'm travelling.

And then many of the things I'd expected to like were rather disappointing. The Chao Mae Tuptim shrine with its phallic offerings is amusing but not very atmospheric. The Chao Praya River is wide and choppy and the waterfront is relatively unspectacular. Chinatown and Little India were tedious. The shopping malls around Siam Square were full of the kind of brands you get in any airport terminal, with price tags to match, and Chatuchak Market was far less interesting than I'd expected (though I did find a wonderful little street of paper merchants, where I got some sweet notebooks and fine marbled paper).

On the other hand....
  • The river taxis out along Khlong Saen Sap are great fun, speeding up the narrow canal and thrusting out a massive foamy wake as they go. Along the canal side an older, single-story, wooden-built Bangkok coexists with the skyscrapers in the background; caged birds hang from the eaves of some houses, roosters strut back yards. You catch glimpses as the boat rushes past. A hundred yards away there's a six-lane road choked with traffic, but you can't even hear it over the noise of boat engine and splashing water. I didn't have time to get to know the klongs of Thonburi... next time, I will.
  • Wat Saket was always going to be a favourite place of mine, given my love of pilgrimage mountains and hilltop sanctuaries, even though this hill is really no more than a slumped and overgrown stupa base (South East Asia Visions has a fascinating view of its previous dilapidated state). It's kitsch and yet charming, the way up screened by high bamboo and jungle creepers, with bodhisattvas posing elegantly in the shrubbery. At the top, you come out to the platform surrounding the golden chedi; and there below lies the whole of Bangkok - a low skyline punctuated to the west by the chedis of Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the other monasteries, and to the east by the skyscrapers of the new city, and right underneath, the geometrically disposed buildings of the Wat Saket monastery. Pilgrims offer money or incense to the many buddhas, or bash the hanging bells and gongs along the way - a temptation I did not resist.
  • I strolled out to Wat Mahathat in the early morning and found the amulet market in full swing. Even better, I found the wholesale market tucked away between the monastery and the river, part of it, I think, actually floating over the river; small shops around long thin courtyards or off shadowy alleyways, and only just opening for business, with that lazy feeling of a shopping district before anything starts happening. The world of the Thai amulet is a fascinating ecosystem, encapsulating everything from mass-market key-ring Buddhas to hand-carved, brass-inlaid willies (Thailand maintains a thriving phallic cult, as at the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine); collectors will inspect old amulets through a loupe (cheap, good jeweller's loupes are an absolute best buy here) and dicker for hours about the quality and price of the one they've got their eye on.
  • Surprisingly, some of the most interesting experiences I had were not far from Khao San Road. You don't have to go far off the main drag to get out of Backpackerville, Arizona and into the Thai existence. Early in the morning, nuns were preparing the monks' breakfasts at Wat Chanasongkram, the roofs of which I could see from my guesthouse; rice from a huge steamer, and stir fried greens, and a single fish split down the middle and splayed out. Inside the temple, a middle-aged man sat to read his newspaper. In Wat Borroniwet, a few minutes' walk further away, the gates were hung with the black and white of mourning, and worshippers filed into the hall where the three-months dead Supreme Patriarch sat within a golden urn, and bowed and prayed in unison; and I was handed a plate of fruit when I came out, and given a cup of sweet cold tea.
My souvenirs this time? Bargain bottles of Pelikan ink from a stationery shop in Chinatown, at a fifth of what they ought to cost, and a couple of Thai school exercise books, bound in stiff card with a dharma wheel printed on the cover. And, rather more expensively, a Thai hammered dulcimer, or khim, which I can now pronounce properly (it's an upward tone, which, Thai being a tonal language, is important), and which I am beginning to play with reasonable proficiency thanks to my friends in Chiang Mai and the wonderful resources of YouTube.

Motorbike freedom... and safety

One of the most important things I did a while back was to get a full motorbike licence. It's given me real freedom on the road. It's given me something else, too: confidence.

You don't need a full licence to rent a bike in many countries. For instance in India, no one is going to check your licence if you rent out a bike. And you can get a moped in Thailand with just your passport. (I don't know whether or not that's legal, but you can do it.)

But with a full licence, I know I can do it anywhere in the European Union, where motorcycling laws are quite tight. I can get an International Driving Licence that shows my motorbike entitlement, and that will work pretty much across the world.

I also know I've been pretty well trained. Emergency stops; check. Swerves: check. Countersteering: check. Which all helps when you're not a great biker, and not a very experienced biker (outside the UK), and you're confronted with the following traffic hazards:
  • Cow in the road. (India)
  • Flock of goats crossing the road. (Pyrenees)
  • Potholes. (England. As well as plenty of other places.)
  • Huge lump of ice falling on to the road. (India.)
  • Twisty mountain roads.
  • The Thai road designers' obsession with U-turns.
  • Crazy traffic .(India, Thailand, Cambodia.)
  • Road made of mud. (Cambodia).
  • Road made of loose gravel and mud. (France.)
  • Kids playing in the road. (All over, including a complete 22 boy cricket match at one place in India.)
So why bike? Why not rent a car? Why not rent a moto with its driver, which in Cambodia - with few road signs and many of its most interesting sights stuck somewhere in the jungle with little or no signage - is definitely a good move?

Quite simply, it's the freedom. Stop when and where you like. Go fast or slow. Take the high road or the low road, or the little lane shaded by high hedges and tall trees. Roads not suitable for cars are open to you. Parking is easier. And you are in the elements, not divided from them by doors and a windscreen. (Besides, in many places, car hire is next to impossible. Less so in Europe, but certainly in Asia and Latin America.)

In particular, the motorbike gets you out into the middle of the country. If you're travelling mainly by bus and train, it's just too easy to get stuck in urban mode, going from city centre to city centre. A motorbike gets you to villages, hamlets, isolated huts, mountain passes, tiny gompas stuck up side valleys. It gets you off the main road. It's the internal combustion equivalent of hiking.

There are the friends you make. Chatting to a biker with a Tamil Nadu registration plate while waiting for a bridge to be rebuilt on the Manali-Leh pass (I wasn't biking that time, but he was, and he had interesting stories to tell me about the ride up to Srinagar and along to Leh). The Sikh guy with his young son in front of him who grinned broadly when I praised his Enfield - "Best bike in the world," he said.

And there's the sheer pleasure of biking. The first time I ever rode a motorbike, I remember taking a series of nice easy curves between green English hedges, and feeling how much I was leaning the bike, and how the tyres were gripping the road, and suddenly realising my grin was wider than my visor. If you see a dirt track as a pleasurable challenge rather than a failure of the road traffic department, you are already on the primrose path that leads to the Khardongla Pass.

Still, hiring a bike is not without its dangers, so here, in the interest of safety, is a bit of advice based on my own experience. Even if you're going to hire a moped without a full licence, I'd recommend getting a good bike school to take you through the basics. (In my view, there are two things you really, really need to get right. One, emergency stop. Two, helmet.)

And you need to do a bit of a teach-in every time you hire a different bike, since in my opinion most bike hire companies don't take you through the bike properly. They rattle off at very high speed, "here's the gear and here's the brake and here's the speedometer and this is the horn", and then they set you loose. Before you ride off, do your own checks.
  •  Check you know how the gears operate. South-East Asian bikes tend to have 'rocker' gears where you use your toes to go up a gear and your heel to go down, as opposed to the UK/Indian style where you use your toes to hook the lever up and down. It takes a bit of practice to change your habits.
  • Just in case... check that the brakes are where you expect they are. Older Enfields have a different configuration from UK bikes, with the front and back brakes on opposite sides of the bike (so you brake diagonally rather than with both brakes on the same side).
  • Before you take the bike out, make sure you've identified some relatively traffic-free, easy streets to put the bike through its paces and get used to where the gears are speed-wise, how forceful the braking is (or isn't),  how noisy the bike is (I've had some that roar even in neutral, others that are totally silent at traffic lights), how sensitive the clutch is, how much acceleration you've got.
  • And get the mirrors set up so you can see the road behind you properly.