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Arriving in Bangkok

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Bombay airport isn’t as I remembered it as a boy. Two decades ago it was a throng of pushing men, clinging women and wailing babies, all crowding around check-in desks like they were the last helicopters leaving Saigon. Today it is a different place with air conditioning and chaise-longues for those travellers that need to grab forty winks. Some things haven’t changed though and there is still an air of desperation, of massed humans on the edge, amplified by the sleep deprivation caused by the ungodly hour most international flights depart. Our flight to Bangkok was scheduled for 4.45 am - but with a three hour check-in.

We left India, enshrined in the comfort of our economy class seats, just as the sun was washing out the red charcoal embers of Bombay’s urban lights. The plane banked one last time before penetrating the clouds and we took our final look at India with somewhat mixed emotions. We had barely scratched its vast surface and still felt it had a lot to offer us – but on a different trip – we had had enough. As we breathed the canned atmosphere and settled into the orderliness of modern air travel we relaxed, the subconscious worries and frustrations that India breeds draining from us.

Last time we were in Bangkok we hated it and it was tough to see how moving from one of the world’s most polluted cities to another of the world’s most populated cites was going to be an improvement. However, from the second we disembarked we were struck by the wealth, cleanliness and orderliness of Bangkok airport. Clear signs directed us through spotless, carpeted hallways and soothing music eased our tensions as we waited in line for immigration. The smiling and laughing officials cheerfully went through their work and congratulated me on Barbara’s beauty, leaving us both beaming as we walked away to reclaim our luggage.

We made our way directly to Khao San Road, marvelling at the affluence of a city that just three years ago we thought to be a squalid open sewer; the roads were smooth with frequent flyovers, the taxis were air conditioned and there were BMWs everywhere. Khao San Road, a tightly packed area of Bangkok that almost exclusively caters to the budget traveller, provides little in the way of a cultural experience and is either a tourist hell or a Mecca depending your perspective. From where we were standing it was a paradise.

The streets are lined with every convenience: tasty chicken skewers, fresh cut pineapple, charcoal roasted corn on the cod, pad thai, freshly squeezed orange juice, noodles, star shaped burgers and barbequed fish all available for 25 cents. In what little available space is left between the shops and the roads are semi-permanent stalls that sell all travellers’ wants; from cheap strappy sun wear to endless displays of $4 CDs. Restaurants ply their trade as much by the latest Hollywood film that is showing on their 14 television screens as the food that they sell.

Later as night begins to settle it becomes the New Orleans of Asia. Strong beer combined with super-heated capitalism and a dash of corruption has nubile Thai women selling beer and liquor out of a flower power painted VW vans. Small stalls spring up selling margaritas and white russians for those that can’t make the 20 meters till the next bar without further intoxication. Beer in hand, like an “Access all areas” badge, one can move from club to bar on the assumption that if you bought one you’re likely to buy another.

While this was obviously not Thailand proper, we relished the moment, conversation bubbling out of us, glad not to have to cross the culture divide for just a few days. We were drunk on the elation of how easy everything was. We felt giddy just like when you return from a two-week camping trip to rediscover hot water and clean linen.

Very soon the reality dawns; we did not travel half way across the world to be cocooned by the familiar. So we left Bangkok with still a lot to test and taste; the cinema with reclining Lazy Boys that serves beer and food, Thai boxing and excellent international cuisine. We reconciled ourselves, knowing we would be back at least three times, as Bangkok forms the axis for travelling around the South East Asian mainland.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Bangkok - bright shiny and rich

Bangkok - just one big restaurant

Market selling fresh fruit and veg, fish, meat, clothes etc
River is not as polluted as you would think

River view

River view