It is extremely difficult, in Bangkok, to rid yourself of the impression that you are being manipulated. Hardly had we stepped off the ferry at Tha Chang Pier, with ‘tourist’ written all over us, than we were accosted by a young lady who informed us that our planned destination, the Grand Palace, was closed until tomorrow. We should go, instead, to Wat Ratchapradit, which was only open today. A few seconds later, one of her compatriots bundled us into a tuk-tuk, which rushed us off into the traffic, scratching our heads, wondering how this had happened.
Our son had visited Bangkok a couple of years earlier, and compared it with the set of Blade Runner. As our taxi from the airport negotiated impossibly narrow lanes, made narrower by market stalls, the tables of street vendors, and an elephant, we felt this to be an apt comparison. Our hotel proved a complete contrast, though separated from this fetid congestion only by the thickness of its glass doors. During our two-night stay, it continually showed us little touches of care: beautifully carved fruit on the breakfast buffet; an orchid in a basket on the bedroom pillows; more orchids on clean towels by the swimming pool; a damp cloth and a complimentary fruit punch on our return from a hot day in the city. Unexpected and unnecessary, but very welcome and calculated to make us feel honoured guests. Yet such are the costs in Bangkok that even this good quality hotel was affordable to backpackers wishing to recover from jet-lag before heading on to Ko Samui or a budget hostel on the Khao San Road.
And these contrasts were reflected in the transport, which, if you are not fussy, can convey you anywhere quickly and remarkably cheaply. 100 baht bought us a day-travel ticket on the Sky Train, an elevated railway, which took us from a station just outside our hotel to Central Pier on the Chao Phraya River. The ferry was cheaper still. For 18 baht, we sailed several miles past ornate temples, high-rise residential blocks and the more squalid dwellings of the riverside. Tiny tug boats pulled trains of barges, as many as four at a time, at surprising speed, through enormous rafts of water hyacinth.
Within five minutes of leaving the ferry, we were racing through the city in our tuk-tuk. These are the mechanised equivalent of the rickshaw, their name referring to the noise of their motorcycle engines as they weave suicidally in and out of the traffic with complete disregard for any rules. Passengers need to cling to the low seats, particularly while cornering, for there are neither seat belts nor sides to the vehicles. The proximity of the road increases the illusion of speed, while the exhaust fumes through which the cars swim does nothing for the health. Passengers are expected to haggle over the price of a journey, but this is mere ritual. You are arguing over pennies, and a sense of guilt results in your giving the driver a tip bigger than the fare he originally asked for.
We passed broad thoroughfares and open, wooded spaces. Roadsides were being decorated to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the King’s accession to the throne. Trees had been pruned into the shapes of animals and human figures in Thai costume. Our route followed a canal, then crossed a bridge and zig-zagged through increasingly narrow streets until we came to a halt in a back lane little wider than our tuk-tuk.
We stepped through a gate in a high wall and into a small courtyard. In its centre stood the most magnificent building we had ever seen. An army officer greeted us and introduced himself as our guide. He confirmed that the temple was only open for this one-day Buddhist festival. We were his first visitors. The temple was built in 1864 by King Rama IV on the site of a coffee plantation. Now a World Heritage Site, it is an exquisite amalgam of marble, porcelain, mother of pearl and teak. The golden doorway and its ornately carved surrounds were inlaid with coloured glasses: green, red, white, yellow and deep cobalt blue, representing such qualities as royalty, peace, harmony, which are intrinsic to Buddhist philosophy. In the ambient silence, we could indeed feel ourselves locked into a tiny cocoon of eternal tranquillity amid the bustle that was only just audible beyond the walls. Through a door in a small outbuilding, we watched an artist restoring a carved statue with gold leaf.
Our guide refused the tip we offered him, but insisted that we visit the Pan Siamese gem factory, and we were off once again in a tuk-tuk. The factory has a huge selection of precious stones, but specialises in sapphires, which are mined in Thailand. Here, we were subjected to the hard sell, as we were shown case after case of rings, ear pendants, necklaces, bracelets, watches, tiaras. “You’re from England. You’re millionaires,” which in terms of the Thai baht, I suppose we were. Not only did my beautiful wife deserve some jewellery after our years of marriage, but her beauty would be immeasurably enhanced by it. That said, the jewellery was of the highest quality, and we bought a sapphire ring for a fraction of what it would have cost in England. We were thanked for our custom by complimentary transport to our hotel in a taxi that occupied the distant extreme of comfort and fume-free cleanliness from the tuk-tuk.
The following day, the Grand Palace was closed until 2pm. Meanwhile, another tuk-tuk was hi-jacked by one of the palace guards to convey us to several other sites. By now, our city map was a scrawl of lines and circles, drawn by everyone who had taken it upon themselves to advise us where to go and what to see. In rapid succession, we were taken to the Golden Mount, the Thai Product Centre, where this time we resisted the hard sell, and several temples, at one of which, members of the armed forces queued up for a blessing to mark the King’s anniversary.
The Grand Palace was enormous and quite magnificent. Its area of 218 000 square metres is surrounded by nearly two kilometres of walls. Built by Rama I, following his coronation in 1782, it is a maze of throne halls, temples, government offices, libraries, statues, a royal mausoleum and a scale model of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. All were as ornate and colourful as Wat Ratchapradit, but on a vast scale. In fact there was just too much to take in. As we moved through the hordes from one building or giant statue to the next, we began to feel a deeper appreciation for the smaller temple, and perhaps even a secret satisfaction in that we had not shared it with a multitude. In the midst of the Grand Palace complex, a modest statue of the Buddha sat in a tiny rock garden, surrounded by bonsais, smiling at the folly of wealth.
As we headed to the airport that evening, we again passed the elephant, plodding forlornly through the traffic.