A Bangkok Travelogue

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Film director Jonathan Newman takes a break from the publicity surrounding his latest film, Swinging with the Finkels, and travels to Bangkok for some peace-time that isn’t actually quite so peaceful.

It’s a familiar smell…at least, for anyone who’s been to Bangkok. A musty mix of chilli, lime and fish sauce made by street vendors pierces through the humid air. I am half intoxicated by the smell, half terrified by the thought of unrefrigerated meats being pushed around in wheelie-carts and the potential effects on my sensitive Semitic digestive system.

When I step off the plane my immediate thought is that someone has a large hairdryer that is blowing hot air in my face. I remind myself never to sit in the back of the plane. Like a see-saw, it’s furthest from the centre of gravity and therefore the shakiest part. It was bumpy and I hate turbulence.

I am actually here on the hunt for coconuts. This is the beginning of my journey. But the first thing you might see when you land in Thailand is a large smile. Thai people like to smile a lot. I wonder if this week will reveal what is beneath the facade of the happy smiling people, keen to service the need of every sleeper, diner, shopper and sex tourist. I wonder if I will get to know the real Thai people.

Everyone is selling something in Thailand. Apart from the obvious for sale, food, bags, clothes, electrical goods, etc, I have also seen ninja stars, guns and people selling themselves on the street. Shopping in Thailand turns the most experienced shopper into a miserly bargain-hunting penny-pincher, intent on getting a deal.

I am in MBK, one of the largest indoor shopping malls in Bangkok. Full from back to front with vendors selling knock-off designer bags, fake Rolex watches and Mont Blanc pens, Thai trinkets, and every electrical good on the planet. As I purchase a nifty chip that unlocks the SIM on my iPhone 4, I am no longer clear what is real or fake, including the women…

It is widely known that vendors have two prices, the ‘farang’ (foreigner) price, and the Thai local price. I find myself negotiating over Disney underwear for my daughter. The asking price starts at around £4. After some heavy negotiating with the stall vendor, I manage to get the price down to £3. But I find myself walking away because I can’t get an extra 50p off my item. Huh?

As I walk, I question my sanity walking away over such a paltry amount. Am I really that cheap? I think part of the reason we become so miserly is primarily down to three things. One, the unfamiliarity with the currency, because 100 baht, though it sounds like a lot of money, is really only £2. But you add that extra hundred and it feels falsely high. Second, is the need to win the argument. Third is the feeling that you are always getting ripped off in Thailand whether you are shopping or travelling in a taxi. We do not like the feeling that we are being ripped off or conned.

In Bangkok, I see dogs and cats everywhere, undernourished and thirsty. I marvel how dogs here are so street smart and don’t wander into the streets and get hit by a car. I think that Western dogs are not so smart and don’t look both ways before they cross the road. But I suppose Thai street animals must be genetically predisposed towards survival on the mean streets of Bangkok city dwelling.

It is chaos on the roads. Every man for himself in what appears to be bumper to bumper traffic all day long. An incident of overtaking or weaving through traffic in London often turns into road rage, swearing, flicking off and the ever ominous turning of the head and staring into the offending car beside you as you pass it. Here, this kind of driving is just part of Thai culture.

I am struck that taxi drivers do not know the town all that well. I later find out that many live in the country and just come for the day. One driver showed me his takings for the day: £2.

I find myself wandering past the infamous Nana Plaza. Along with Patpong and Soi Cowboy, this is where sex is for sale. I see many older Western men sitting at bars with Thai women.

A girl in her 20s with a smattering of badly applied pink lipstick accosts me (I later find out that they are trying to emulate the makeup of a famous Thai actress).

“I come with you?” she asks sweetly.
“What?” I reply.
“I come with you, hotel?”
“No thanks. I’m ok.”
“I come with you hotel” she pleads.

They are nothing if not persistent. As I walk through the sprawling 4 floor complex of go-go bars, each one tries to lure me into the premises. You would be forgiven for thinking some of the beautiful women here are actually women. Thailand seems to have the highest percentage of ladyboys and I find myself wondering why that is.

From documentaries, transgendered and gay people say they always knew their sexuality from an early age. And why not, heterosexual people do too. But the ladyboy population here is so high it is a bit of a phenomenon. And I begin to think that maybe there is a cultural element at work here, a herd mentality of following a trend. I ask my Thai friend who tells me that she spoke to one of these ladyboys once, who told her he became a woman because of how badly his father treated his mother, and was ashamed to be a man. Sadly, I did not get to see a ping pong show. I guess that will have to wait.

While the underbelly of Thailand is the street vendor, the sex worker and the poverty, Bangkok is also a very cosmopolitan city, with a vivacious nightlife of sophisticated hotel bars and middleclass Thai girls and expats mixing it up.

I am at a bar called Nest on the top of a high-rise. As we are served our lychee martinis, it is only the sweat dripping down my back that reminds me I am not in LA, Paris or Rome. I chat to some Thai girls that are with us on our bar hopping evening. The obsession with phones and Facebook here seems to impede any genuine conversation. Lovely though they may be, it is less the language barrier between us, but more the BlackBerry that will stop these friendships becoming anything other than superficial. Still, I am thrilled that my martini has three lychees in it.

I am told Thai girls are very cliquey. They hang out in groups. And if you join another group it is often frowned upon. There is a clear sense of loyalty to the group, but at the same time a fierce jealousy. I find out that Thai people do, indeed, get angry. Not only do they get angry, but they can flip out fairly easily on a given evening and will act as though nothing happened the next morning. I guess the reverent smile does mask a repressed culture. But unlike the Japanese, who rarely show the repressed side, in Thailand the inner dragon surfaces more readily.

The city is buzzing. People are out every night, and out late. Fun is the name of the game and everyone here knows how to party.

The expat community, whom I have met a lot of on the course of this trip, are abundant but also transient. I ask a Frenchman about his experience of dating. Finding a Thai girl is not a problem, he says. Rather, finding quality is the issue. I ask a Thai girl about her experience of dating in Thailand. She does not like Thai men, she tells me, they are uncultured and all the same. She goes back to Facebook. I am glad data roaming on my phone is so expensive and therefore switched off, as I am pleased with how little I have found the need to glance at my phone and look at an email or see a stupid status update. I feel an evening out is a better evening when you can engage with the people you are with, as opposed to the people you are not. Must remember that when I return home.

I am on the hunt for coconuts. Young coconuts to be precise. The water inside a young coconut (before it turns to milk) is a highly nutritious beverage and known for its high electrolyte content and health benefits. I am embarking on a new beverage business, and this journey is my field research. My drink is aptly called Ch’i. Ch’i is Chinese for the “life force” that runs through us all.

We are in Nakohn Patohm, known to have some of the sweetest, most fragrant
coconuts in Thailand. We stop on the side of a road to buy a coconut. It lived up to its reputation and I feel refreshed. The owner takes us to meet her mother, who has a plantation 100km from here.

The mum tells us she can supply the quantity of coconuts we need. Great news. We now have a source. I could not have done this from London no matter how many phone calls I made.

I visit a factory where coconuts are cut open and processed. I marvel how the low paid employees work in the heat. When I take off my white protective clothing I have sweat marks running down my shirt. It is some consolation that I have my coconut shampoo, coconut conditioner and coconut body wash waiting for me at the hotel. I find the smell of coconuts intoxicating. Vanilla too. Better an addiction to coconuts than booze, alcohol or drugs, right?

I think about a documentary I saw in London about British people that have been locked up in Thai cells, usually from minor drug related incidents. Thailand has a zero tolerance drugs policy. I think about life inside jail. I hope that young girl on the TV show finally got out. She didn’t have the money to bribe the Thai police officer and now faces a long stint in a Thai prison.

The last time I was here was in 2004 for my honeymoon. It was early in the morning and we had taken a boat from Phi Phi Island to Krabi. The night before we decided to take the first and earliest boat possible, just to make the most of the day.

A few minutes after arriving at our resort, a group of soaking wet tourists, one covered in blood, appeared. They took the boat 15 minutes after us.

“Our boat has just capsized and we’ve lost everything” one said.
We are told not to go down to the beach but to stay in our rooms, by the staff.
“You should probably call your mom” my wife says.
“Do you think? It’s probably just a localised storm,” I reply.

As we switched on CNN we see news of the tsunami that has just hit Asia. I called my mother who hadn’t heard from my sister who was holidaying in Gall, Sri Lanka, one of the worst hit areas in the region. We checked in regularly and got news that she was ok, though had a dramatic escape story involving running in sandals with her passport to seek refuge in the top of a monastery.

When the tide returns to normal, we headed to the beach. We watched as the Thai people pulled together to rescue people, dead and alive, from the neighbouring islands and secluded beaches.

We wondered how we could help. We wondered if we should go home early. The Thai Market vendors are upset that no tourists will come anymore. Peddling fake Gucci and Louis Vuitton is an honest living for some. We decided the best thing we could do is stay out our trip and support the people.

My wife questions the existence of God and vowed to visit the Rabbi when we got home to ask his opinion (note to reader, she did visit the Rabbi but did not get any conclusive evidence one way or the other).

Those are my last memories of Thailand. I think about that as I get my feet massaged at the shopping mall. I’ve had the pleasure of three massages this trip. All of them had the happy ending of a price tag of £4 for an hour. They are paid very little so I am sure I give a generous tip. Money is of better use in their pockets than in my mine.

On the taxi journey to the airport, I mistakenly pay the driver 900 baht when I should have paid 400. I kick myself. The money looks the same.

I have been on a wonderful gastronomic journey through Thailand, but my taste buds long for salt, starch and carbs, so I allow myself the pleasure of tender chicken strips, fries and Coke Zero at Burger King.

There is no TV on the back of the seats in this plane. It’s one of those old ones that have a screen up front. I remember those old headsets one used to get on planes – they resembled a plastic doctor’s stethoscope.

I note the number of fairly old tattooed British men with Thai wives and children on this plane. It is quite curious. The women, from impoverished backgrounds, are attracted by the promises of a better life. They probably have no idea of the council flat awaiting them in Brockley.

I change my seat to sit in the middle of the plane this time, just over the wing. I wander to the back of the plane to test the theory and see if it is bumpier towards the tail.

It is. Thank God I changed my seat.

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