Old school Thai, my Bangkok return, by Tristan Rutherford
Sunday Times Travel Magazine, March 2018
Aged 18, my four days in Bangkok were a busted flush. With sixth form naivety I scoured the Lonely Planet for the cheapest dorm on Khao San Road. My great unknown was what backpackers did all day. I ate banana pancakes with Kiwi gappers to assuage a bitter loneliness. On Hotmail I lied to friends about scoffing fried insects when really I just missed my mum. In a rubbish bit of planning I arrived mid rainy season. My fake Armani pants bled orange in the damp, forcing me to hop to the hostel showers wrapped – Beckham-style – in a batik sarong. What a wasted opportunity. What a tit.
Now in my forties, four nights in Bangkok without the kids is an immersive treat. It begins when I join local commuters on the £2 airport Skytrain into town. The raised route glides above water buffalo ponds, canal shacks and rising skyscrapers – the 18th century meets the 21st. At Phrom Phong station, double doors ping open onto a cacophony of sensual colour. The smell of grilled squid, clove cigarettes and temple joss. The screech of street hawkers and mototaxis. The sight of on-the-go massaman curry being poured into plastic sandwich bags. A 20p lime juice poured down the throat, to counter the novel stick of noodle steam on bare skin. Five minutes into the blender of modern Bangkok and I’m deafened, spun and completely hooked.
Like 20-odd years ago, my first night is in a hostel – with a difference. One Day is Bangkok-meets-Brooklyn. The establishment is an industrial chic array of gunmetal ceiling fans and polished cement floors that must be padded barefoot. A visiting family would love the cool linen and white brick walls of the four-person dorms for £40 all-in. My private double room pairs Parisian bathroom tiles with flea market hangers, plus an internal courtyard where I sip a sunset Singha and tune Spotify into classical Thai radio.
For dinner I’m directed to Emporium Mall on Sukhumvit Road. (The city sweats like a Finn in Florida, so some activities take place indoors.) Underneath the Uniqlo superstore sits a basement food hall where 80 individual vendors turn out sashimi, summer rolls and mee goreng in tiny spotless kitchens. It’s an air-conditioned Asia-lite, with £6 half-hour foot rubs available across the street. Like Istanbul, Bangkok is a city is dedicated to eating and shopping, with kaffir lime and discount massage sprinkled on top.
The next morning I ride the Skytrain five stops to the Jim Thompson Silk Museum. It’s a must-see I missed in my cooler-than-thou backpack days. Thompson was an American serviceman stranded in Asia after WWII, who resurrected a silk weaving estate in a bucolic corner of downtown. His raised wooden homes showcase 1950s Bangkok like a period photoshoot for AD; rattan recliners with blood-orange antimacassars, plus yellowing portraits of tiger hunts and palace scenes. The gardens nurture houseplants run wild: rubber plants and emerald ficus have grown to unfathomable sizes and swish above a black pond that sways with red carp. My toddler children would love the estate’s bamboo trails, before they wilted in the midday heat and refused to climb any more stairs.
My wife would also disapprove of my next activity. Google Maps claims it’s 45-minute cab ride to my next hotel, but I know a way to get there in ten. Mototaxi drivers prowl for pillion passengers on every street corner. My driver tucks my bag between his legs and we roar into a screaming torrent of traffic.
Like a video game – with only one life – our motorbike brushes with trucks and clatters over storm drains like there’s a biblical flood behind us. I thought I was the amber gambler, but my driver shoots red lights a madcap Moses, a sea of cars slamming a second behind like a klaxon curtain. During occasional stops I witness further ways to part with baht. Four-hand massage joints, unisex waxing salons and tailors that promise three-piece suits with two shirts for £80 – plus a free silk tie. With a final trigger squeeze the mototaxi skirts up a sidewalk to The Siam, the city’s most highly rated hotel, where a butler raises an indulgent eyebrow as he retrieves my dusty bag.
The Siam is a lavish establishment where you’ll be lulled into delusions of Joseph Conrad as you pen postcards amid a mini-museum of curated Indochinoiserie. You can learn to kickbox in the gym, make pad thai in the kitchen, or ensure the only thing that sweats is your lemongrass G&T. The real USP is The Siam’s private launch. Nine times a day hotel staff wave from the pier as the elegant wooden cruiser escorts guests down the Chao Phraya River for free.
The city’s pumping artery cuts through a cross-section of Thai society. Next to temple wats that point skywards like golden rocketships, multi-coloured shacks tumble hugger-mugger into the brown chop. Tugs strain to pull four-barge conveys, as sunset river cruisers and mobile barbeque boats exhaust respective serenades of Céline Dion and grilled pork. I alight at Jam Factory, a former warehouse where the riverside terrace is buffeted by giant steel fans. My iced cappuccino is served with a jug of sugar syrup. Few in Bangkok can stomach a hot drink so sachets have become redundant.
An admittedly polluted sunset scalds the river a violent pink. From the café pier I ride a 7p public ferry through the dusky fug. The guide for my night stroll isn’t Lonely Planet but Bangkok Days, a voyeuristic memoir by resident novelist Lawrence Osborne, which chronicles his nocturnal stumbles around Asia’s crossroads city. Under a cloak of darkness I spy backstreet mahjong joints, gold pawners, sacks of shaved squid, silk kimono depots and priceless bolts of silk so hefty it would take an army to steal them. Rising up are stupas, minarets, church spires and embassy flags. Plus the riverside Mandarin Oriental where, according to barman notes from the 1920s, “Mr Somerset Maugham likes his martini served in a very chilled, long-stemmed glass. The Vermouth should be Noilly Prat, the gin must be Tanqueray.”
The streets get naughtier in the darker east. Women catcall from massage joints and I run away. Strange buckets surround blackened shops: scallop dust, sea cucumbers and wriggling shapes you definitely can’t order on Ocado. Then there’s Patpong Road. Here ladies, now clothed by law but leaving little to the imagination, do dastardly things to bananas at bars like The Strip and Bada Bing. The night ends at Tep Bar, a grungy Thai music club that serves yadong hooch made from scorpions and dead snakes.
My final full day is reserved for the big sights. My taxi past Khao San Road runs the gamut of Thai architecture: blinging temples from Rama IV (Yul Brynner in the King and I) and Europeanised grandeur from his son Rama V (educated by the story’s English governess). Then French chateaux and Italianate mansions from Ramas VI and VII, both of whom were educated at Eton. I’m more interested in spotting backpackers. Holidaying couples sport ballooning pantaloons in DayGlo colours like a pair of Stabilo Boss marker pens. Their backpacks seem monumental: 60, 80, 100 litres. The exhausted bearers lug Calor Gas stoves past stalls that sell tom yum soup with fishballs for a pound a pop. Surely, that was never me?
At the Grand Palace I meet tour guide Oranee Sanghataivarit, who leads groups on Explore’s new Simply Thailand tour. By her estimation some 20,000 Chinese tourists visit this glitzily indispensable sight each day. The site’s first gold leaf was painted in 1782 when Bangkok became Thailand’s capital – and didn’t stop until Absolute Monarchy was dissolved in 1932. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha has the cherubic figure moulded from gold and seated on high. To keep him cosy staff adorn him with a golden shawl in winter. A fabulous fresco highlights Thailand’s folkloric history around the mile-long perimeter. It reads like a tropical Game of Thrones with leaping demons, blowpipe wars and monkey armies commanded by naughty simian demigod Hanuman.
Fortunately Oranee knows how to lose a crowd. We duck into Pak Khlong wholesale flower market, Thailand’s largest. Here hotels purchase armfuls of orchids that rest on slabs of ice like fish. At Ta Chang pier she has reserved a longtail. These boats are controlled by a cutthroat propeller on a giant pole powered by a car engine – in our boat’s case one from an Isuzu truck. Our pilot rips through the canals at jetski speeds.
Like Venice we peer through people’s balconies while they do the dishes as we slap-slap-slap through the lily-strewn water like the devil’s own gondola. There are leaping catfish, canaries in cages, drying washing and palm trees, plus basking monitor lizards the size of crocs. We slow down near Oranee’s old waterside primary school (she used to swim across the canal after class then walk home). Then alight at an artists’ residence built on stilts, known as Baan Silapin, to see their contemporary puppet show. Here three men operate a life-size Hanuman, the wicked monkey. The simian puppet kisses female audience members, touches their bottoms, then rifles through their handbags. Charming.
Tour groups cast envious glances as the longtail drops me off at Ratchawong pier for Chinatown. Minutes later I’m immersed in a fragrant, sticky, pre-developed Beijing, a world of gold emporiums with digital price tickers, monks dressed in yellow and street signs in Mandarin. Truth be told I’m only here for the food. My barbeque stand owner plies me with crab claws and sticky prawn satay until I beg no more. For dessert I’m visited by push wagons with bags of papaya and jackfruit sitting on ice cubes. Before juice carts stocked with pressed tangerine and watermelon finish a £5 dinner par excellence.
A few blocks east Hualamphong train station is a terminal for memories. Eastern & Oriental Express trains still depart for Singapore, and there are Thai couples taking wedding portraits in the Italian-built foyer. Back in 1995 I travelled third class on the night train from here to Chang Mai, when for a few dollars more I could have bagged a luxury sleeper. I make no mistake now.
A quick hop on the Skytrain delivers me to The Cabochon, an eight-room colonial mansion redolent of 1920s Saigon, where G&T orders can be telephoned down from the rooftop pool for £2 a pop. Would I return to my backpacker roots to save a few baht? Pah. Once you’ve been upgraded there’s no return.
Kathryn and Tristan have written many travel stories about Thailand and South East Asia