That should be the Vietnam coast down there.
I like looking out of plane windows: a whole new visual perspective on the world. Landscape, geological features, man made features, weather and fantastic cloudscapes. Unless onboard entertainment – such as a good film – provides sufficient diversion. Most people preferred any media thing, or sleep. Sometimes one had to be careful when looking out of a window to avoid being thought antisocial.
There were big regular features down there miles across it seemed; some arrangement of earthworks, hard to tell if they were ramparts or moats or both. That wasn’t Angkor Wat by any chance? We should be over Cambodia. Reckon it was! But by the time the camera was clicking only a small part of it was visible, which didn’t show up on the photos.
Thailand became visible in long strips of fields set in what looked like a huge plain. It reminded me of Poland. The plane was descending towards Bangkok so I got a good look at what was below. Canals seemed to take the place of roads and some, many perhaps, of the fields were actually small rectangular lakes. The fretted grey outline of the city itself was on the slanting horizon now as the plane descended towards the airport east of the city and the fields were turning into industrial or housing estates.
Bangkok airport was huge with a space age design. Despite that I found the meeting point for the lift to the hotel easily. People were helpful and we were soon on our way.
It was a short journey to the hotel but still interesting. There was a motorway with flyovers giving a view of built up and industrial areas just as there are in most countries with big international airports. On the other hand an extensive affair with many pagodas at a corner of the airport resembled a temple, maybe. It was a hotel and restaurant complex. We were also driving under the odd big blue ornately shaped gold embroidered banner erected gantry fashion over the road. At the centre was a portrait of a regal looking lady with statements either side in Thai and English: ‘LONG LIVE THE QUEEN 12 TH AUGUST 2015′. A recent development then. A shrine was also a base for another similarly adorned portrait of her shaped like a giant teardrop. Gold embellishments also adorned poles at regular intervals. Likewise there were statues with the same hue at regular intervals along the sides of the motorway I later realised. Some at least were bare breasted. It conjured up a parallel world feeling. One of the experiences of travel. Some things being surprisingly similar to the world one saw at home, others outlandish or intriguing. Would Britain have developed as differently had history taken a different course.
The hotel overall was in a similar league to the one at El Nido. A modern block, a postage stamp of a swimming pool but there was a dining area with alcohol available and a Thai massage room. My room was a typical hotel room but the bed was more comfortable than those in Indonesia and the Philippines because this Thai hotel at least supplied slimmed down duvets – the best way I can describe them – rather than sheets. Air conditioning by the way worked fine. So did the TV.
The opposite kind of fortune had seemed to await me in Thailand as opposed to the Philippines: instead of a tropical paradise where I’d get high with friends I’d be on my own in a big city, a friend in Thailand being on holiday with his family while I was here. The Philippines had been a disappointment. Maybe it would work the other way round here.
I was on the 4th floor and so had a good view. Not one of a tropical paradise like in the Philippines admittedly. The neighbourhood was hardly salubrious with ad hoc modern architecture, some industry and shanties and a small sewage farm, I found later. It was still interesting. In the foreground was undergrowth and a big irregularly shaped swampy pond or small lake lengthening into the distance which – for some reason – I thought would be a good place to dump bodies. Later I realised it was an overgrown version of the bodies of water I’d seen from the air. Beyond that was the airport. One could pick off planes landing with photographs.
On my first full day in Thailand I started to explore Bangkok, getting a lift from the hotel to the nearest metro station. It was going to be simpler coming back to go one stop further to the airport and get transport from there for walking was hard in the tropical heat.
The metro train here was elevated so one had a grandstand view of the suburbs going into the city. There were more of those city block sized lakes, often overlooked by flats. Maybe they were fish farms.
To begin with I hadn’t a plan apart from getting to the centre and having a look round; but then I spotted a snake centre on a map and headed for that: across a road junction surrounded by skyscrapers and clogged with traffic, down into an underground metro then up again at a corner of a park. There was a small shrine there.
One would see these shrines all over Bangkok and elsewhere. Looking like miniature temples: beautifully maintained dolls house temples, with gold embellishments and offerings such as flowers and figurines. They’d crop up anywhere from outside a prestigious establishment to a building site outside my hotel. The resemblance I felt they had to dolls houses wasn’t too far from the truth. ‘Spirit houses’ are what these structures were known as. And they were there to house spirits of all sorts: wayward ghosts, local spirits and Hindu deities to name a few, although 97% of Thais are Buddhists. The building site near the hotel was significant too: their chief function was to re-house spirits made homeless by demolition and modern construction, to give the perpetrators the best chance of health, wealth and prosperity! Or the spirits – of the malingering droput variety perhaps – could bring about dodgy consequences. Yes I’m serious! But I’m not explaining this to mock a culture as being rubbish; it’s more in a ‘spirit’ of whimsical humour and delight at the things an alien culture can come up with. My final observations? Weird though it may seem it’s not such a bad idea compared against the absurd excesses of ‘market forces.’ Shame some of this sentiment can’t be used to better the lot of those humans – and other living things – disturbed by developers; whom I hope may be plagued by unappeased spirits.
Onward down a straight road to the snake centre on the right. The entrance was guarded by a herd of small carved elephants on a lawn, beyond that a large pond in front of an imposing building. Part of a hospital complex? I was entering the ‘Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute’ established in 1912, originally to distribute rabies vaccine after a princess had died of rabies infection. It was later placed under the supervision of the Thai Red Cross Society and in 1923 became a snake farm. This lay beyond the imposing building.
Many tourists went there and I was just one of them again but what the hell? I was fascinated by snakes from a very young age: their sinuous shapes and movement, the extraordinary patterns and colours of their scaly bodies and the notoriety of many. There were many snakes here including some of the most notorious and as luck turned out I was not to be completely on my own. Some time was spent with a girl from south London – small world – who kept a few snakes and was just as interested in a place like this.
The structures I noticed most of all amidst the tropical greenery were as follows:-
A high lenghty mesh enclosed space like an aviary; securely thorough in its construction. It needed to be. The ‘aviary’ was actually a King Cobra enclosure.
An intriguing affair under a roof with open sides with a walkways and pits as curved and sinuous as the snakes within.
There was another building beyond with 2 floors of vivarium exhibits and an auditorium with an area walled off by glass. That was where the milking of King Cobra’s took place. A team of white coated staff demostrated this. I’d seen it before while illustrating 4 reptiles in a smaller snake park near Johannesburg: the head of the snake securely held, mouth opened, fangs puncturing the polythene top of the beaker, or funnel in this case. The length of the King Cobra though was always impressive and it was here. It’s one of the world’s largest poisonous snakes, in excess of 13 feet. The Bushmaster of South America rivals it in length and the Black Mamba, though the mamba weighs less; while Diamondback Rattlesnakes may match the King Cobra in weight but not in length.
There were the other notable snakes of this region too of course. The medium sized banded krait, Russels viper, surprisingly small but size is no indicator of potency of venom, certainly in this case. Pythons, tree snakes and water snakes. In some ways the most memorable was a non poisonous snake which could extend most of its length up the glass of it’s enclosure in a ceaseless effort to venture beyond. I couldn’t stop taking photographs.
The afternoon snake handling show? Okay it was for the tourists but it was spectacular, especially the methods and the close proximity of deadly snakes to people on seats a short way above. The King Cobra was the star of course. It’s banded brown beige length rearing up in regal manner as it faced its admirers with the flattened ‘v’ of the underscales resembling livery. It seemed to strike a pose of formal royal enquiry: ‘You seek an audience? To discuss matters of death?’ The handler catching it certainly seemed to want that: his hand circling slowly over the snakes head to grab it behind. What was to stop the reptile just striking forward? Only animal psychology it seemed.
Other snakes? There were other Cobras, ‘Monocled Cobra’s’ with a single patch on the rear of the hood whereas Spectacled Cobras in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Riki Tiki Tavi’ had 2 on the tops of a ‘V’ marking. There was a snake that was camouflaged to look like a Krait but was non poisonous, like the Coral Snake and the Milk Snake which had very similar markings. The Krait itself was incredibly unaggressive, to the point where the handler could handle it freely; I know it’s odd to think of snakes having temperaments but the Boomslang is reputed to be similar whereas the Mamba is highly strung. Like the ‘Copperhead Racer,’ its snazzy markings like a villian’s shirt, its upper length zig zagged like a spring about to bounce forward and hit the handler with open threatening jaws. Then there was a Pit Viper at home on a small branch, a fragment of its natural habitat; like other tree snakes it looked as though someone had tipped a can of bright green paint over it.
Finally there was the python handling. I couldn’t resist.
Afterward I wandered – slowly because of the heat – around a large park near the spirit house I’d seen; mostly lawn and lakes but with huge tropical trees and stands of spectacular vegetation. Some distance away on the other side of the park was the shrine where the bomb had gone off that I’d seen on TV in the Philippines. I’d no wish to go there; to do so just for the bomb would be ghoulish. This incident became known as the Bangkok Bomb; killing far fewer people than the Bali Bomb. It was still mass murder and personally I’d have no regrets if the perpetrators of such crimes were assassinated by cobras. I particularly felt for one Chinese relative, who had to identify the mutilated bodies of his entire family!
It was easy to get back to the airport. The terminus the other way had the suggestive name of ‘Bang Sue.’ A district of accidents and legal complications or – more likely for many I think – the neighbourhood of a very liberated and popular lady perhaps? Suggestive place names are one of the attractions of travel. Anyway it was easy to get from the airport to the hotel too; where I had a good evenings conversation and drinking session with an American couple from Hawaii.
Back into Bangkok again after a good nights sleep. This time it was to be a river trip.
I tried comparing the suburbs here to the ones at home around London. The stations on this line at least were hangar like spaces up flights of steps. Residential architecture was more regimented it seemed with an imposing view of pylons beyond. Maybe there were no real upmarket areas between the city and the airport 15 miles to the east, but Google Earth displays similar looking places elsewhere around Bangkok. The houses and flats did indeed look like the Thai version of housing estates with no hills or difference in ground level for relief. On the other hand there was the odd temple – doubtless many of those spirit houses too – and more artificial lakes here. Wonder if it was better to have fishing as a hobby here and if so what would one catch?
Other unusual things? Trees on modern highrises, on a few occasions. While approving of the apparent awareness of green issues I wondered how their root system was coped with? At the other end of the scale was the advertising covering some of the metro trains. Although not a fan of advertising I liked the novelty of the futuristic technology. Alternative Britain again: a juxtaposition of science and shrines.
I got to the river embarkation point and realised that by chance I was witnessing the site of a Bangkok bomb after all! Or to put it accurately the one that hadn’t killed anyone. There were 2 bombs and the one not exploded at the shrine went off under a bridge at the landing stage I’d got to, Sathon pier, when people were walking over it. The bomb exploded like a submerged geyser giving them a fright and a shower of water, which might even have been funny had it not been potentially lethal.
The Chayo Praya River flowed through the city like the Thames but it was wider, flowing more than 231 miles from upcountry. Every kind of boat was on it. From sleek palatial tourist vessels to long craft like the one I’d been on in Indonesia, though some of those were as fast as speedboats, sending up a spray from their outboard motors. There was a train of massive barges with a guy relaxing in a hammock on one of them. There were too, many identical boats with ornate roofs on them, like a cross between a boat and a house. One is in the photograph here.
All in the architectural hotchpotch of a 3rd world city: surviving pockets of riverside slums balanced precariously on pole foundations, old colonial buildings, temples like giant embellished bells or with ornate roof structures, the inevitable modern blocks from the ‘Assumption College’ to towering prestigious hotels and a high rise or 2 that was straight out of a science fiction illustration.
The prize though was Wat Arun or ‘Temple of Dawn.’ The name on its own was good enough to go for but from the photos I’d seen it was an amazing structure;– like an colossal gold bell with an ornate handle for its tower. Something like that was a must for an adventurer. Should be opposite the palace and coming up soon.
But as the boat came round the river bend I couldn’t help exclaiming “Oh CRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPP!!!!”
It might as well be vandalised for there was the ruinous scribble of scaffolding all over it! Just like the Parthenon it was bloody refurbishments all over again. The curse of my adventures. What with the heat I was too demotivated to go to the palace instead – the boat didn’t stop there anyway – and – amidst photography, changes of transport and a meal – made my way back to the airport and hotel.
After a kip to regain strength I went on a wander around the neighbourhood and came across 2 Siamese kittens playing outside a shanty. The family there were pleased to see how delighted I was with them. It took me back. When I was a teenager my family had a dynasty of Siamese cats and I wondered then whether I’d ever get to the country they originated from? Now I’d made it here I their presence reminded me in a comforting way of the adolesence I’d had: long ago in a faraway land I was on my way back to.
More or less. I still had some days left and took a bus next morning to Pattaya Beach. Motorway all the way across a plain although there were some hills skirted and palm plantations on the approach to the destination. The driving was better in Thailand than in the Philippines. More like Bali. The Buddhism influence perhaps?
I’d rolled the dice with the hotel picking a cheap one without knowing what it would be like. A base to be endured maybe, until I could return to the relative luxury of the one in Bangkok. Here was a real surprise though for it turned out to be a massive luxury affair with open air lounge, landscaped swimming pool, spectacular tropical plants everywhere. Plus a penthouse type suite for me with open plan shower and balcony with table. A hotel good enough for James Bond and the equal of the one I’d used as a base for the Komodo Dragon adventure. My room was better in fact but for some reason this hotel didn’t have a bar. Not that that mattered much for there were restaurants and stores in the neighbourhood. Of course it couldn’t match the view and sunsets at the Indonesian luxury place either, though the Pattaya view wasn’t bad: a smaller Bangkok with distant hills.
The only reason I could see for the price being the way it was was the distance from the beach; a good mile if not more. Some distance away from the action. What Pattaya Beach is notorious for was along the beach area in the side streets leading back into town.
Bar girls. Prostitutes. Hardly ideal and undesirable to many. I’m going to disappoint those who expect me to moralise further along those lines though. Sex slaves? To blanket ‘the world’s oldest profession’ with that assertion is like saying they’re all ‘healers’ which is how one science fiction writer described them in his novel. Many are neither though they both exist within the profession. Criminalise the clients? Well along with the slobs and the psychos disabled people would be criminalised and those who’ve been unlucky in love or those whose only crime is being unable to fit into the accepted way of doing things. As for the accepted way of doing things? The puritanical extremes of political correctness and pressures upon one’s time have largely killed off the art of socialising and flirting, isolating many into many lost souls out there. Enough for internet dating agencies to be as numerous as flies around dung, making a killing out of a basic need being frustrated, without truly satisfying that need in many cases, isolating the lonely more than ever. And if one’s going to attack what goes on in Pattaya Beach on the basis of money the whole system needs to be overhauled;- such as material status, mortgage slavery and money problems being a major cause of relationship breakups. I guess I’m probably in danger of being attacked in the quagmire of sexual moralising I’ve got myself into now; but despite sooner being elsewhere to keep my mouth shut would be abandoning the principle of freedom of speech, which I’m dead against doing. My parents were involved in a world war that had something to do with that. So if this attracts the attention of moral fascists out there I can only say:- ‘Go ahead, make my day.’
Well Pattaya Beach held other attractions such as wind surfing, excursions to offshore islands and elephant rides out of town. I chose a mini-expedition through the tropical heat to ‘The Sanctuary of Truth.’ A sanctimonious name possibly but interesting.
The beach itself was a healthy sight in the morning, with a person practising yoga on a stretch of sand clear of people, with a backdrop of windsurfer parachutes out in the bay beyond. There were so many of them.
The northern headland was right by there, with the Sanctuary of Truth on the other side. Hiking off into the back streets around there I found myself passing a forest of condominiums and hotels. It felt like a forest for the buildings were towering and opulent. One even looked as though it had a mosque on top. At another a security vehicle appeared right behind me as I was taking a photo. Well those upmarket towers made for spectacular compositions.
I risked irritating the security profession further by following a lane down to the shoreline and finding myself wandering along the back edges of properties. It seemed to alternate between public and private. Something of an obstacle course but doable so I risked it and wasn’t challenged, getting good shots of people fishing on a quay, rounding a headland and then there it was in the distance on a flat promontory.
Being backlit by the sun gave it a dark look and sinister air amidst the heat and horizontal empty expanses of beach, sea and coastline. Like something out of Mordor in its desert wastes. But the alien spiky look to it reminded me of something else. The castle of the ‘Skeksis’ in ‘The Dark Crystal.’ Surrounding walls resembling battlements could be made out. I was getting into this now!
Getting away from the beach through the labyrinthine levels of a luxury hotel I was able to walk down a lane which went to the proper entrance. A wooded slope was some distance beyond with the temple – for that was what it was – beyond that. The closer I got to it the more intricate it appeared but there was one problem. The racket of my old enemy refurbishments again! There was no sign of scaffolding though.
At the bottom of the slope were wooden carvings of deities and elephants. There for rides, I was tempted but wanted to be careful with money being not far from this Asian oddysey’s end. Besides it would have been a diversion for across a small lake affair was the temple itself which by now looked fantastic. The whole thing looked as though a mass of carvings had taken over a palace, rising in an ornate triangle of roofs and towers surmounted by mythical figures to a point about 105 metres up.
A closer look across an ornamental lake affair revealed refurbishment. In just one corner of this structure. Although it was noisy and there were a few people with hard hats around this was bearable and what I was about to see made one forget about that. I found a workshop as big as a barn with an impressive model of the place – still higher and bigger than people around it – and carvers working away within. Later I learned from a woman who’d lived near Pattaya that it was a never ending job and the refurbishments were part of that.
The place itself was a vision in the true sense of the word. One of bizarre splendour. As though a surrealist painting had become architecture. Deities, elephants, monkeys, serpents, gargoyles, massive heads. All together and on top of each other. The feeling that it had not so much been carved but grown somehow got out of control inside the temple. It reminded me of the film ‘Alien’ since there was an extruded look about the bizzare chaotic profusion of carvings. Another weird aspect was the wood seeming to have an almost golden glow in some parts and I wasn’t sure whether I was looking at heaven or hell what with the visual impact and the subject matter but I could appreciate – as an artist – the dedication and the work that had gone into all of this apart from which there was the achievement which was utterly fascinating. It was as though they’d managed to solidify a vision of someone who’d been on a hashish trip or whatever. Like, some amazing stuff man! I wondered what one would feel if smoking a joint in here?
No wonder Christian missionaries had been freaked out by this sort of thing. ‘Thou shalt not make graven images’ and so on, apart from the potent competition. The deities consisting mostly of bare breasted ladies didn’t help either although personally I welcomed them as warding off of the evil excesses of puritanism. I really felt as though I was getting to grips with a culture that was truly alien.
It seemed to be mostly Buddist inspired but there was also some Hindu influence in the carvings and because of a tolerant aspect: for all religions and philosophies were regarded as being one way or another to an enlightenment and heaven. Something else to annoy the Christians or Muslims. This place was constructed as a reflection of an ‘Ancient Vision of Earth,’ a manifestation of Heaven on Earth. It’s halls encompassed such things as the Universe, love, truth, even the family.
‘Humans are only dust in the universe and will ultimately become one with it.’
‘Physical beings deteriorate, ravaged by time, but truth and goodness are immortal.’
These were a few of the ‘truths’ I found written here.
Meanwhile one of the many apertures in this place framed the distant manifestation of materialist values: the massive hotels and condominiums.
Time to continue my existance before I became dust. If fate or God or whatever would allow me to get home. A bus back to the airport hotel. A night or two there and then the final 2 flights back from the space age airport with massive Thai scupltures of warriors, deities and a golden dragon.
I’d hoped to see the Himalayas but was sitting on the wrong side of the plane as we crossed northern India.
Eventually there were mountains but they were mostly arid although high enough in some places to have snow. It looked like Afghanistan to me. I hoped not to see a surface to air missile coming up from below.
Much further on the remains of the Aral Sea lay below. A huge abstact of wasteland and remaining lake muted with haze.
There were large squalls verging on storms as we came in to land at Moscow. The need to get photos of the dramatic effects overcame trepidation, over a landscape of forest and pale blocks of flats. A citadel of grey towers in the distance by a storm appeared to be the fabled city itself.
The airport appeared dowdy after Bangkok. More like Manila. But there was a grandstand view of Aeroflot planes and others set against a spectacular sky.
The weather at Heathrow seemed also tricky judging by the lights in the night below being obscured by various masses of darkness which must be cloud and the long time it took to land.
I had to hurry to make the bus and wasn’t even in the right terminal, having to take a train and I went down the wrong corridor. When I eventually made the ‘express’ it made a sick joke of its name by doing absolutely nothing for too long!
The bus had just left 5 minutes ago the woman at the terminal told me and there wasn’t another one.
“I’ve been on 13 flights and this is the first time” “It’s not my fault!”
Typical. Some staff in my home country have a bad habit of taking things personally and I left before I really lost it with her. 13 flights going without a hitch only to miss the last bus home in this bloody country. Welcome home! Typical!
I had to get out of the airport and grin and bear the cost of a hotel for the night but got into a limbo of traipsing down endless subways and corridors seeking a sign that led to salvation.
The attitude of the staff here didn’t improve. Eventually I came across a knot of them standing in the middle of a vast hall chatting. But they were having their social get together and made a point of completely ignoring me!
“EXCUSE ME I WANT TO GET OUT OF THIS AIRPORT WOULD YOU PLEASE HELP ME THANK YOU!”
That should get their attention short of assaulting them! For what that was worth. I was directed back to where I’d come from, landing back at the bus terminal again. Luckily the woman I’d offended had gone home.
Someone informed me of the obvious. There were local buses too and that was all I needed to get me out of here.
The bus deposited me across a dark expanse of main road from the hotels.
The first one was of prestigious size and appearance but seemed to have forgotten – what with that concern – to actually provide a bloody entrance. There was a rear one but I gave this pretentious place the finger and trudged across a dark traffic haunted waste to the next.
That turned out to be the hotel hosting a science fiction convention I’d attended. It seemed as busy in the middle of the night as it would be during the day and there was a long queue but when I got to the desk the black guy and I hit it off. He appeared entertained by my tales instead of offended and my tales became full of humour. Best of all this place was quite cheaper than I’d thought an airport hotel would be so I decided to pay them for a sumptuous breakfast too.
Now for a drink to end my travels and travails at a bar I’d drunk at before with friends at the convention. After that surfing the room TV and the bed for the night was utter luxury.
© D Angus 05 16