Wednesday, 17 April 2013

FURTHER TRAVEL TALES: Blessed in Bangkok

In a near forgotten past and in a life before children, there was a young girl who wandered without bags under her eyes but with a bag on her back. Here she returns to notes she made while visiting Bangkok. Oriental city and complete chaos... 

 

I make for the canal and pass Wat Poh, Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace on route. A royal bombast, they represent Thailand’s history and architectural experimentation. Polished orange and green roof tiles bedeck their colourful treasures. Gold features heavily. Mosaic encrusted pillars and deluxe marble compliment extensive murals and statues. It is an aesthetic orgy whose rich appearance contrasts with the bright blue sky and the beggars beyond. 

The water taxi can wait. For the lure of such elaborate beauty is hard to resist. I cover my shoulders for the Reclining Buddha, who apparently blesses me as I light him a candle. The mood within is purely spiritual and the aroma of incense encourages the calmness. Three young boys, heads shaved and orange robed, walk serenely by. My gaze follows their direction and I notice a sign for the massage school.

Wat Poh is the national head quarters for the teaching and preservation of traditional Thai massage and medicine. Wandering in to a large room littered with bodies, it isn’t long before I too, lie on a mat that may as well not be there. The next hour I am pushed and pulled in directions alien to my now backpack styled slouch. The masseur means business. Her tiny hands work fast and hard. Her size betrays her strength. She cracks the vertebrae all the way up my spine, she doesn’t stop there and it feels as though my neck is doubling in length.

There are lots of locals here. Their voices remain at a melodic hush. It is apparent that this is a school of healing and not just relaxation. People are here for help. The Thai woman lying beside me yelps out loudly in pain. It is rather alarming. The two masseurs nod at each other. I am sure I observe ever such a slight smile between them. It is as though they are in competition. The one working on me kneels on my inner thigh. I grimace slightly.  Then I float.  

On the water taxi I feel so relaxed from my massage, I dreamily gaze over to the bank, not hearing the noise of the engine or smelling its smoking diesel. The canal meanders alongside lush greenery, teak houses on stilts and more temples.

A sudden movement catches my eye. A man holds an eel he has just caught in his hands. The water is brown and thick and he clambers out of it onto the make shift raft of four drum canisters supporting a piece of iron. He replaces his flip-flops, and climbs up the rubber-tire stairway to street level, dripping and clutching his catch. In the next tiny inlet, a young girl sits, washing clothes. 

Glancing down over the side of the boat I reflect: Quite clearly Thailand’s riches are not simply to be found within its palaces and temples. Momentarily the girl looks up at the busy water taxi passing by, then, continues with her work. I cannot see any soap powder. All I see are thousands of television aerials, surrounding a massive Coca-cola sign suspended high above her. The consumerist West invades my daydream. And then I'm moving again - this time in a taxi on the road.




I'm traveling a highway. Fast. The speedometer comically sits on zero. At least the air conditioning works. I pass wooden storied houses, the occasional one with its pastel paint intact, yet to be blistered by the sun. Almost all have a line of grey washing. If it weren’t for the motors blasting right alongside, these little hanging clothes would be still, for there is no breeze whatsoever. 

Humid smog envelops all outside, whilst the driver’s aromatic cigarette, which never leaves his mouth, coats everything inside. I note the film on the inside of the windscreen and focus on its density; it is easier to observe than the blur we are passing.    

Off the highway, and out the cab, it would appear mopeds are clearly the best mode of transport and so I exchange fumes: cigarette for diesel. I see the cab rejoin the motionless traffic, honking his horn at tuk-tuk’s, which mockingly ring their bells in reply. The heat hits what it can see of the pavement. Baskets, boxes, pots, pans and bin bags take up two-thirds. Thai marketeers natter alongside. It is so alive.  

Back on the Koh San Road, backpacks and bootleg stalls surround me. Imitation Levis are everywhere. Copied cassette tapes, all of Western music, seem to be on every third stand. They are all competing by playing what sounds like the same song. All sound equally bad. Around a corner I witness the remains of a dog in the street, and three women apparently fighting over them, waving big pots and spoons.  Disturbed, I head down a side alley.  

It is less congested and slightly cooler in the shade. I am leaving the traffic and the market behind. I prefer it. I ditch the moped and as I tangle in the back streets, Thailand becomes real. Inhabitants having a quiet smoke, or chat, others snoozing. Women washing. I wander by two old men playing a game of draughts. They are using bottle tops for counters. They don’t stop to look up. I don’t feel as though I am intruding.

The smell reaches me before I reach them. Two grey-haired women are sat amongst their work. They are de-boning chicken wings with their mouths. The action is fast and clean. The chicken is raw. The bones are spat one side of them, the meat the other. They are engrossed in conversation. 

I continue on, blissfully relaxed from the morning massage, happily lost, and, ever aware of being blessed in Bangkok. Oriental city and complete chaos.