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A CIA agent and some Thai boxing - Bangkok all over

THAILAND | Monday, 30 March 2009 | Views [2067] | Comments [1]

We woke up late and hungover and struggled out the door so as not to completely waste the day. We were heading for Jim Thompson's house – the home of a an ex CIA agent who practically single handedly revived the Thai silk industry who mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron highlands in Malaysia in the late sixties. I used to live beside a pub/restaurant/bazaar called the same name (and owned by the same foundation) in Fulham so I wanted to see the original. We took a fast canal boat, complete with tarps on either side to prevent being splashed (MOT 32) and stepped off at Siam Square deep in the commercial district.

Up until that moment we had seen Bangkok as a hectic but quaint city filled with street vendors and little alleyways. That illusion was torn up and thrown away by the sensory overload that is Siam Square. It's pretty much the most hectic place I have ever been. It still has the street hawkers and the stalls but added to it are massive skyscrapers, the biggest shopping centre I have ever been in Centre World, one of 4 which are around the area. Blaring TV screens, gaudy advertising, Buddhist shrines, sky trains, elevated pedestrian walk ways, constant bumper to bumper traffic and no idea where Jim Thompson's house was combined with our sore heads and left us numb and dumb. We retreated to a food court and regrouped.

After a 30 minute walk we found the place eventually. It was a beautiful collection of about 4 country buildings in traditional Thai architecture style that JT had dismantled and transplanted to Bangkok when the only access was via canal. He used the muslim silk markets nearby to help develop his craft and gradually filled his house with traditional artefacts. On the top floor of Centre World we found of all things a supermarket containing ludicrously expensive Waitrose products which we passed up.

The luxuriant grand palace was the next Bangkok box to be ticked, former residence of the universally revered Thai royal family and home of the emerald buddha. As it was so hot we were wearing as little as possible but traditions dictate require modesty in these areas so we hired a sweaty long sleeve shirt for Claire (to cover her shoulders) and some baggy pants to hide my knees. Like almost all Wats or places or religious significance we had seen so far it was brilliantly painted and restored to within an inch of its life so you could never tell what was old or new. Thousands of snapping tourists thronged around the main areas, everyone trying to get a decent photo and acting as if they were in the place on their own. The old dislike of rude tourists and oblivious holiday makers experienced more than a few times since Maccu Picchu came rushing back.

Tourists aside it is a fabulous place with the usual fabulous pagodas, an impressive scale model of Angkor Wat, a European style residence in the style of Versailles and a bot (sanctuary) housing the Emerald Buddha itself. The King changes the golden suit which the tiny statue wears according to the seasons – it was wearing its most splendid summer outfit when we visited. The little statue has a tumultuous past having been originally covered in plaster to hide it's true “colours” (it's actually made of jasper not emerald) and exchanged in wars with Laos a few times before ending up in Bangkok as one of Thai Buddhism's most revered statues. Also impressive are the enormous murals depicting the Ramayana, the Hindu epic tale of the triumph of good over evil. One thing that struck us was that all the images of Buddha are not the happy fat little fellow we seem to get in the west but a more serene, serious and waist-conscious version wearing a hat that I always thought was a Hindu image. I guess I was wrong.

The evening was quiet, staying in the guesthouse, catching up on the blog (still writing bits of New Zealand!) and chatting to some of the other guests. Met a good guy, Steve who had made his way up from Bali with his girlfriend Jane. Also, a particularly enjoyable conversation about culture, religion, modernity and philosophy with an interesting American architect, Lou, who had made SE Asia his home many years ago and a French banker on holidays from KL in Malaysia. And a few beers of course! Great to get some advice on what to do where to go. Starting to find out about the upcoming Thai new year and the water festival and the resultant transport and accommodation issues. Some planning is required!

Next up Chinatown. Not really sure what we wanted down here so I took my set of inoperable speakers in which had leaked some cheap Bolivian batteries some time ago in an attempt to get them fixed. If it could be done it was here among the electronics shops but they all said I should just buy new ones. Chinatown is another busy place with huge gawdy gold shops providing the backdrop for stalls selling all things imaginable and unimaginable, lanterns, buddhist offerings, buddhas, pigs heads, quails eggs, viagra, vibrators and novelty condoms. And that's just one stall of a million. A kick boxing instructor got talking to us and tried to take us to a travel agency but we declined, a bit long in the teeth for that now.

We had been thinking about taking various buses west and north eventually making it up to Chiang Mai for the water festival but given the amount of people telling us that we needed to book everything in advance we decided to go up straight to Chiang Mai to see the situation for ourselves and get ourselves organised. We took a tuk tuk (sorry) to the station and bought tickets for the overnight train to Chiang Mai for the following day. We were ushered into yet another travel agency after buying the ticket but refused once more to book a trek or accommodation in advance in accordance with our instincts and experience.

For our last night in Bangkok we took ourselves to the Radjamnoen Muay Thai stadium for some Thai Boxing. It's an incredibly violent but entertaining sport, each match consisting of 5 3 minutes rounds separated by a 2 minute rest. These guys are so incredibly fit it put me and my wobbly belly to shame. We had ring side seats beside the red corner, literally being spattered with sweat as the kicks, knees and punches landed. The little man who looked after the corner, setting up the seat at each rest break and sorting out the ice and water befriended us immediately and was constantly giving us cheeky thumbs up and making jokes. When an agitated fellow sat down beside us to shriek at one match he pointed him out to be the promoter, who's photo was on the programme. Our friend made the universal sign of lots of cash as he pointed at him. I suppose it was the equivalent of having Don King sit down beside you.

We took in 10 matches that increased in quality until the seventh which was the most evenly matched, fervent and exciting. The whole atmosphere was amazing: the garlands of flowers around the necks of the fighters as they warmed up, praying and blessing the corners of the ring before they started, the crazy rousing rythmical music played during the bouts, the animated cries and gestures of the punters betting on their favourites, the visible respect that fighters showed for each other, checking the other was ok after a knock-out. The last bout was normal boxing, seeming slow and unskillful – the place was almost empty by then and not even the boxers seemed to care that much.

Tags: boxing, buddha, chinatown, cia, hangover, palace



I think I've done the same route as you. Its pretty surreal seeing such serene buddhist temples by day and then the brutality of the fights by night, and how they co-exist side by side so easily. I have actually been rather taken by the sport and now train with http://www.londonthaibox.com . One day I hope to go back and be allowed into the ring myself but I fear it may be a long way off!

  Chris Jun 12, 2009 2:10 AM

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