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Breaking Through Barriers - Bangkok

THAILAND | Wednesday, 17 July 2013 | Views [840]

The first thing that hits you as you disembark in Bangkok is the wall of humid heat. After struggling with the ATM and then changing larger notes into smaller ones (a generally recommended practice), I search for the metered taxis. It is possible to take a bus or train into the city but I have luggage and really don’t feel inclined to find my way at the other end.

It is quite a long journey into the city and you will pass through two toll booths where you are expected to pay the Thai Bhat 25 and THB45 respectively. The remaining fare was THB300 (although someone at the hostel paid THB900, due to a diversion caused by a ‘traffic jam’). My taxi driver speaks almost no English so I sit back and take in the views of this massive city. After Australia, the number of high-rise buildings is really noticeable.

I am staying at the Smile Society Hostel on the Silom Soi Road, a road which seems to stretch on for ever, dotted with a few large hotels, a couple of 7-Eleven shops, McDonalds and several Starbucks. There are certainly going to be cultural and language differences but at the moment the sight of these familiar landmarks is (I hate to admit this) somewhat reassuring. I heave my backpack up to the third floor where I have a minute single room with private bathroom and aircon. This is the first time I am required to remove my shoes before entering a hostel, but expect it will not be the last. Do they demand the same at the Hilton I wonder?

There is an hour or so before sunset and I use it to familiarise myself with my immediate surroundings. Market stalls are being set up along the road but I press on and eventually stop in a small pavement café on the steps of a bank. The kitchen is packed up during banking hours but for now there are several people of varying nationalities enjoying the street-side views. After enjoying open spaces and fresh air on my travels so far, city fumes are going to take some getting used to. Overhead a train rumbles past while on the street below cars, busses and tuk tuks jostle for space on the road. It’s like an artery with each component making up the lifeblood it carries.  A dish of rice and fresh mixed vegetables arrives, along with a watermelon juice decorated with a slice of watermelon, cherry and an orchid. Simple, but both are wonderful.

Night has descended and the market stalls are filling up. I am reminded of Dubai, where the cool evenings bring the place to life. Perhaps it is still early as there is a general sense of apathy and I am left to browse in peace. I have yet to really see the smiles for which Thailand is known but possibly city life and growing tourism has overtaken this general desire. I make it my mission to engage with the old man serving in the café and finally extract one smile followed by a dozen others. Observing the lack of interaction between customers – in the case of a table of French Canadians being downright ignorant – I understand that sometimes a smile is probably just wasted.

Day 2 and I am awake early wanting to make the most of the cooler weather but not yet feeling quite brave enough to venture too far. Pavement stalls display a startling array of breakfast offerings, none of which my stomach could be persuaded to accommodate at this point. I confess I cheat and head off to Starbucks for a large cup of tea and a delicious, if rather unusual, cheese & tomato Danish. I sit in the window and watch this strange world filter by. Eventually I am ready and head off to do what many women will claim to do best – shopping! Now here I feel totally at ease and could happily fill a suitcase with all the gadgets and cheap clothing. For all this however, I cannot find a pair of shoes that please me and befit my backpacker status!

Lunch is a variety box of freshly-made dumplings with a spicy soy-type sauce bought from a market stall which proudly displays a newspaper article (in English) extolling the virtue of its produce. It works for me and they are indeed delicious. From there I try the strangest looking thing I have yet come across. It is a ‘desert’ and comes in the popular clear thick plastic bag that is very popular for selling food here. I’m going to struggle to tell you what is in it as I am still not entirely sure. Bathing in a dark, vaguely sweet syrup are dates, a few bits of fat rice, a substance which most resembles a black not-too-well-set jelly and a few other items for which I have no point of reference. The lady at the hostel tells me it is good. It is unusual to say the least, but I have lived to tell the tale without consequence.

A group of eight of us leave the hostel to visit the famous Erawan Shrine - home of the Four Faced Buddha correctly known as Phra Phrom. The small shrine stands dwarfed by its surroundings but crowded with people seeking blessings. Incense sticks and candles are purchased and lit and flowers offered following prayers. Several women in traditional Thai dress dance and sing a prayer for those who purchase their collusion in order to enhance the strength of their request. We head back and the skies open. By the time we find any shelter, we are utterly drenched - so soaked that even the restaurant touts do nothing but smile.

Bangkok is a city of culture and modernism existing side by side. Daily life combines old ways with those that have definitely arisen as a result of tourism. Photograph an ornate temple with a 4D Imax cinema just behind it, dirty alleys that become garish and seedy as night falls, restaurants offering both traditional and western cuisine, local market stalls beside internationally recognised brand chains, where Westerners anticipate being scammed and locals seemingly resenting their intrusion. It is a complex yet fascinating blend and I have two more days to observe it.

Tags: asia, backpacking, bangkok, culture shock, four faced budha, silom soi, taxi fare, temples

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