Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Living on water

Away from the cramped tenement blocks and high-tech apartment mansions of Bangkok's city centre, a longtail boat took us through the intricate, meandering canal systems of Thon Buri, east of the Chao Phraya river that bisects Bangkok, and gave us a glimpse of other ways of Bangkok living: in rickety wooden houses, some bowing in the middle so alarmingly that I was sure they would cave into the canal or khlong at any moment, balanced on damp stilts, with endless curtains of laundry drying from every window and balcony and from wooden poles suspended over the water. As we cruised around, we saw men submerged waist deep in the water fishing with sticks and strings, people washing themselves to cool off from the heat. Mini shrines and small temples or wats at every turn; floating markets selling Cola, coffee, trinkets and vegetables.

It is easy to see how Bangkok was once a floating city. In the 1840s, 90 percent of its population of 40,000 lived in houses built on rafts, even before stilt houses lining the river and canal banks became popular. At the end of the of the 19th century, Bangkok was known as the Venice of the East.

Bangkok is also a city of temples. 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist and The Grand Palace and its Wat Phra Kaeo is the most ornate -- temple buildings, altars and figurines encrusted in gold, lavishly painted murals of mythological scenes and a tiny Emerald Buddha. We also visted Bangkok's oldest temple originating in the 16th century -- Wat Pho -- featuring a magnificent 150 foot long gold gilded reclining Buddha with mother-of-pearl inlaid feet.

We almost didn't get inside The Grand Palace. This city of angels is also a city of deceivers. At the palace, a suited man claimed the Palace was closed and urged us to go to another fee-paying temple and some shops. "Trust me, I'm the palace manager!" he exclaimed. He had told the people in front of us that they couldn't go in the Palace because they were wearing the wrong shoe -- they weren't.

We take the high tech SkyTrain and newly-built and underdeveloped metro system everywhere here and feel like we're on the set of the movie Bladerunner. The SkyTrain is particularly convenient for us as it starts at the Shangri-La -- our fabulously luxurious 5-star hotel in the Old Farang quarter.

But we also find taking the passenger boats along the river to different parts of town very easy. We went by boat to Chinatown which was predictably and marvellously a maze of narrow, bustling and noisy alleyways crammed with stalls selling fabrics, fake watches and "designer" clothing, plastic trinkets, green and black tea, gold jewellery, glossy pink and white dumplings, an array of nuts and pork scratchings, candy floss, CDs, DVDs and electrical goods, flowers from lotus to marigolds, wicker baskets filled with red, green and orange chillis or pak choi or cucumbers. It was colourful, fun and exhausting.

We've just visited two old, traditional Thai teak house -- Jim Thompson's House and The Siam Society -- and now we are recuperating from the humidity and heat in the air-conditioned Black Canyon Coffee house off Sukhumvit Road drinking frothy, frosty coffees and surfing the internet.

We're off shopping now and then hope to visit a Thai boxing match tonight. Tomorrow we're leaving Bangkok for four days of chilling in the sun on the beach of Hua Hin.

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