30 hours on the clock. Standing in Bangkok airport, waiting. A quickly filling memory card, blistered feet and one pair of impractical flip flops, an Iphone metaphorically set to count down. A delayed internal flight, a long wait for baggage. Tactical discussions in the taxi on covering as much ground as possible, a reconnaissance of Bangkok's sprawling metropolis. The traffic moved in stops and starts, freeways and flyovers criss crossing as if an ambitious kid's lego creations; sharp edged high rises sprouted like thickets of concrete and steel along the road. A place that was the very defintion of urban - fast moving, dynamic, slightly harsh, ever evolving.
The Chatrium was tucked away in the leafy Riverside district of Bangkok, a cell of calm inside a growing, pulsing body. The hotel was fronted by quiet bamboo gardens and paths flanked by white stones, green fountains and granite edging. I have a thing for a design hotel and floor-to-ceiling glass facades with sharp lines make my heart flutter. I liked what I was seeing. Inside were high ceilings, a slick lobby and slightly dark, cushy rooms big enough to live in. There was a balcony framed by thick curtains, with views over the Chao Phraya river and the roof tops, more high rises piercing the blue-gray sky, the overlapping flyovers a tangled rope in the distance. We left soon, ever conscious of ticking clocks, to wander in the neighborhood. Layla had stayed at the hotel years ago for a sports tournament and had fond memories of the area, for good reason. There were hundreds of narrow shops with red and gold lanterns strung to tiled ceilings, swaying in the evening breeze. Each one was a 'mom and pop' store of some kind - local tailors, hardware outfits, metal forges, fruit sellers, lantern makers, a garage, a speciality noodle place. Kids sat at rickety plastic tables, still in uniform, slurping thin noodles from steaming bowls of spicy broth as their grandparents lay on fraying sofas watching Thai soaps and their parents endlessly swept the storefronts. Commuters, walking from place to place would bow their heads at delicate shrines decorated; in memory of the king, the bell on the door of the local 7-11 never stopped ringing. Hawker owners fed the stray animals and school girls popped in and out of buses on their own, we stumbled across temples hidden in dilapidated courtyards and passed only one other tourist.
I thought of dad a lot, because of the river and the boats. I was surprised - the Chao Phraya is like an artery, flowing, keeping the city alive. We stood on the Chatrium's private jetty, waiting for the hotel boat to take us to the public pier a few blocks down, and it was a throwback to Rotterdam, dad's hometown. The working river with its tugboats, barges, the slightly industrial veneer, the scruffy sailors and their dogs, the quietly competent boatmen who steered us alongside a containership. I liked Bangkok already. Alongside the grit was - glamour, maybe, and a slightly rogue edge. Bangkok would be the one who managed to bluff their way into a super expensive, exclusive club they could never actually afford - and take the party by a storm. There was electricity, everywhere, and there was no way I'd be in bed on time tonight.
14 hours. A riverside breakfast, eating papaya, watching fish jump in the murky water of the Chao Phraya. Little birds flitted among the tables, out of the hotel's bamboo garden. Messengers, telling us to hurry, this day would wait for no one. We drew up our battle plans and studied the terrain, jumped onto the Chatrium's boat, climbed up to the metro station. The trains were futuristic pods, running entirely on tracks elevated above the city. They were crammed with daily commuters, men in suits and pretty women with perfect manicures and nice dresses, a handful of other tourists who looked, as I did, shamefully shabby in comparison. I felt even scruffier in the shiny malls around Siam Square, each tiled with wide, white marble slats. At Siam Paragon - the most instagrammed place on earth - the entire top floor was dedicated to sports cars. You could not help but stand and gawk as you came off the escalator and stood face to face with a shining black Lamborghini; next to an Aston Martin Store, across from the Rolls Royce store... there was a Mini, too, which made my car at home seem like a budget option. When London tried these stunts with super expensive cars, it just felt... pretentious. Bangkok pulled the enterprise off with natural flair.
10 hours, and nowhere near enough. The sweaty, pulsing streets beckoned and we abandoned the sports cars for the roads crowded with tuck tucks and motorbike taxis, lined by hawkers selling every type of noodle imaginable. There were fewer other foreign faces, the more you wandered, and the few you did see were hustling, like us, covering ground without skimming over it. A stopover destination in a city that was already constantly moving, echoing with the footsteps of its own people and visitors.
We lost the afternoon somehow. In the maze of streets where we wandered for the obligatory Chang beer t-shirt, at the stall where we bought a mango for under a quarter of a dollar and the lady threw in a second for free. Waiting at the pier for a boat back to the hotel, watching a man who looked like he was barely scraping through feed the remainders of his own dinner to a local stray, and the dog lay his head on the man's hand. Sitting on the boat alongside some school kids, who seemed to use the hotel boats as shuttles from place to place. Again we looked for sleaze, found nothing, it had either headed underground or been concentrated into tiny pockets that were far out of the way. I was charmed by the Thai culture; the courtesy and respect they had for their own people. Taxi drivers bowed to the staff in highway toll booths and friends genuinely met each other with the traditional greeting. They were hardworking, tolerant and humble, preferring to just look away and pretend I didn't exist when I pointed my camera in their direction. The youth hung out in mixed groups, I was jealous of the girls' straight, light brown hair and manicures. Bangkok's locals were proud, too, of their city, that was clear. The public spaces were well maintained and immaculate, temples had been recently painted and most neighborhoods were safe enough that primary school children were sent home on the back of motor bike taxis. As the older kids poured out of school, you got the feeling that they worked hard and did well; enjoyed it, but also knew where the fun would be on a Friday night.
The second hand flew around the face of my watch, our battle plans fell away, we failed as generals, but made pretty good foot soldiers. We packed up in a flurry, having sat out too long on the balcony watching the party boats light up the Chao Phraya. Still scruffy, still sunburnt, out of battered flip flops and into jeans instead. Into the taxi and out of Bangkok, into a dark, steamy night, where every building illuminated and burst through the horizon. There was nothing like it, no other feeling, it had been like starting a race or sitting an exam, pure adrenaline. It was unlike India because the chaos didn't leave you feeling drained; it was more satisfyingly more gritty than Kuala Lumpur, strikingly less hedonistic than Dubai. Every electric billboard suspended from a glass and steel building, each sports car, all the towering office blocks showed progress, they were arrows pointing forward, screaming this is the way the world is going. With each step we took on Bangkok's streets, it was clear, it's these cities that are leaving Europe behind. Bangkok had grown up, pushed its misspent youth behind it and there was no stopping it now. Thousands of cars on the roads, but the traffic still flowed fast; each road had four lanes and flyovers laced the arteries together, so the blood would never clot. Oh hell, Europe, you have no chance. I'd visited European cities so many times, but never had done anything like this, there I'd slept like a baby and my heart rate remained constant. Our cab rolled onto the freeway, leaving the glittering buildings behind us. Zero hour.
I am again going to direct you to this post on Layla's site for a really good guide to Bangkok with all the practical details you may want. She writes much more... coherently than I do, without making all the info boring... she has a great sense of humour, and I am always fascinated by how we perceive the same places. She doesn't write in the way she acts, if you know what I mean... I mean in real life she's into anything fun/whimsical/live for the moment, preferably involving heights, speed boats or long haul flights, but she has a retrospective, thoughtful style of writing. Anyway. I hope you gathered from this that I really, really liked Bangkok - I surprised myself by how much I warmed to the place. It's an amazing city and so worth a visit if you're ever in the area/passing through.
I plan to (finally) bake a little something in the coming few days and have a recipe up on the blog end this week. Hope that you all have a lovely weekend xx