Another glimpse of the madman across the water

Yes I’m dumb.

Hap­pi­ly dumb I admit, but dumb nev­er­the­less. This can be extrap­o­lat­ed from sequen­tial­ly irra­tional behav­iour on my part.

First­ly, and this is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the dumb part: I like walk­ing.

I like walk­ing in Bangkok (and oth­er sup­pos­ed­ly un-walk­a­ble Asian cities and towns) because it allows me to see the city as I would could nev­er in a car or anony­mous­ly in the under­ground or Sky­train. It allows me to explore the grain of the city, and it, as a bonus, offers excel­lent and need­ed exer­cise in places that you, frankly, would have to be nuts to ride a push­bike in — and that would almost be my pref­er­ence if it was at all a ratio­nal option, at least some of the time.

That said, with insane 24 hour grid­lock traf­fic, cycling — so I was told when sit­ting in on a cycling dis­cus­sion at Kiwi Foo 2012 — is less dan­ger­ous in con­gest­ed cities than in faster flow­ing cities with less traf­fic like Auck­land1. How­ev­er Brigid has quite staunch­ly told me that she’ll leave me if I a) do this, or b) ever open anoth­er night­club.

Cyclos on Rama IX

I began walk­ing in Lon­don in the ear­ly 1980s after I rapid­ly worked out that I would nev­er begin to under­stand the geog­ra­phy and topog­ra­phy of the city I was then liv­ing in by sit­ting on a seat in the smelly under­ground. I took to rid­ing bus­es as a pref­er­ence and then to walk­ing when time was­n’t an issue.

My A to Z bible had, as they all did, a grid of the city in the front and would use a yel­low high­lighter to cross out a grid-block once I’d explored it. It was an odd thing to do I guess, but then I do eccen­tric things (that being the point of this post) and over the next cou­ple of years I’d yel­lowed 1/2 of the map of Lon­don. I knew more of the city at ground lev­el than many peo­ple who’d lived their lives there — one woman I met, aged late 20s, had nev­er been north of the Thames, despite hav­ing a car, because she was cen­tred in South Lon­don.

I walked lit­tle in Bali, most­ly because once you’ve seen one mar­ket sell­ing machined wood­en cats, Paul Smith knock­offs and Bin­tang sin­glets you’ve seen them all. There were also too many peo­ple from Perth — and mas­sive holes every­where in the foot­paths that took the unwary into the local sew­er sys­tem.

How­ev­er, I’ve been known to walk real­ly dumb dis­tances in Sin­ga­pore, var­i­ous Chi­nese cities, Hong Kong, KL, Jakar­ta and var­i­ous Cen­tral Java towns when the urge takes.

And Bangkok. In the Roy­al Swamp, like Lon­don, my habit is usu­al­ly to go to a dis­tant train sta­tion in this mon­ster megapo­lis and just attempt to walk back in a vague­ly home­ward direc­tion. Rarely do I make it all the way, but it’s not unknown for me to cov­er 5–10k depend­ing on the heat and the ener­gy I can muster.

Mad dogs and…

Arguably the dumb part.…

But you see stuff. You see life. And they see you and of course won­der — some­times loud­ly, some­times you just know they’re think­ing it and it will come up over that evening’s Tom Yum Goong — about the ridicu­lous glow­ing farang in a city where absolute­ly nobody walks unless it’s inside an air con­di­tioned shop­ping pre­cent or to and from a taxi.

It also allows me to bypass the end­less and end­less­ly irri­tat­ing vid-ads in the trains for skin-whiten­ing cream, iPads/Tabs, var­i­ous sug­ary fizz drinks and oth­er mass mar­ket fod­der, which has to be a bonus.

So I decid­ed. I decid­ed to walk from For­tune Town, a large IT mall with a new floor of sec­ond hand vinyl stores that entices me to look rather than spend right now giv­en the very large room of shelved vinyl I already have to deal with in Auck­land, to Vic­to­ry Mon­u­ment, a tow­er­ing unat­trac­tive nee­dle strange­ly ded­i­cat­ed to a ‘vic­to­ry’ in the 1940s which was actu­al­ly a draw or a defeat depend­ing on who you talk to  — the gen­er­als who got trashed decid­ed to lie a lit­tle and were able to do so since they were run­ning the place at the time — around which are now lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of mar­ket stalls, com­pet­ing for­tune tellers and more, drawn by the large uni­ver­si­ty next to it and the huge num­bers of bus­es that leave from here for all over the city and the coun­try. On a Sat­ur­day after­noon up to half a mil­lion pass through and oth­er days are only a lit­tle qui­eter.

This was Sat­ur­day after­noon.

A bus selling liquid speed

Look­ing at the map (excerpt­ed above) it’s pret­ty direct and not that far, and so — after an hour or more long­ing­ly touch­ing Japan­ese press­ings of old Motown, CTI, Philly and Impulse albums — I stepped out into the mid­day sun.

It did­n’t start well. The hotel on the cor­ner of Rama IX and For­tune Town, a big old musty Mer­cure with a very low-lit foy­er full of Arab traders and their be-bur­ka-ed wives drink­ing short sweet cof­fees whilst being told off for smok­ing, had shut the Rama IX gate — I say shut but it was blocked with a steel bar­ri­cade and two dump­sters full of garbage — and I was forced to back­track at least 300m to the Thanon Ratchadaphrisek entrance before final­ly escap­ing.

And I walked. Cheer­i­ly: I don’t mind being seen as the import­ed vil­lage buf­foon as long as I get my exer­cise and get to see. On the map I assumed it was easy, with the nor­mal local mashup of mar­ket stalls, a 7/11 or two and clus­ters of stores that looked like they had been there for a cen­tu­ry of more, as they may have been. Like much of old­er Bangkok.

I was wrong. There were build­ing sites: new upmar­ket con­do sites with big signs filled with ren­dered images of lawns, pools and expen­sive cars designed to tempt, that were just strange, includ­ing one with a smil­ing kathoey lying (sex­i­ly?) on a lawn. The video on their web­site (and no, I don’t know why I did either) is even odd­er. And there were big emp­tied sites primed for impend­ing mon­ster lux­u­ry con­do con­struc­tion between the build­ing sites. This was a road on the move social­ly.

This must be the only coun­try in the world where lady­boys are used to sell pres­tige con­dos as a mat­ter of course and nobody blinks. I like that.

There was traf­fic.

The traf­fic was, this being Rama IX and a major trans-city semi-high­way, trucks, bus­es and more trucks, each one of which seemed to have escaped the clutch­es of the required emis­sion testers. The air was filthy yel­low, it was 40 degrees, there were no trees and the fuck­ing road just went on for­ev­er.

I’d walk around a cor­ner or over a bump only to see more build­ing sites. Once I saw a tree.

I thought about stop­ping one of the pass­ing stream of taxis but refused to be defeat­ed and walked on. “I am just going out­side and may be some time.

I found a 7/11. You always, always, always find a 7/11 in Bangkok. New­bies will say ‘it’s near the 7/11’. Every­thing in urban Thai­land is near the 7/11 — there are 8,000 of them. Every 7/11 is near a 7/11.

There were a cou­ple of stalls sell­ing food.

Pink Lady, pink wall

The bot­tle of water from the store washed the yel­low stuff from my throat and I crossed over the road via an over-bridge. A small bunch of kids on the over-bridge point­ed at me and start­ed to laugh. I start­ed to laugh at the crazy man too but walked on dazed.

I had poured a large part of the water bot­tle over my face but that was­n’t the pri­ma­ry rea­son my shirt had mutat­ed from an arti­cle of cloth­ing to a drenched rag. Peo­ple in cars starred. I swam on, with sweat drip­ping onto my dark glass­es from my brow blur­ring and adding to the spec­ta­cle I no doubt pre­sent­ed.

I looked at my phone. It refused to pin­point my GPS loca­tion. Google’s map­ping ser­vice had decid­ed — at this par­tic­u­lar moment — to blind­side this par­tic­u­lar square of greater Bangkok. I was, it seemed, in the only place in the met­ro­pol­i­tan area with­out wi-fi.

I’d left the con­struc­tion sites and there was a strip of shops — all bar one shut­tered up for, I guess, demo­li­tion in prepa­ra­tion for a con­do.

There was an obvi­ous­ly long closed Piz­za Hut. It had a fresh sign out­side, paint­ed onto the win­dow beside the bro­ken door. I guess nobody had told the mar­ket­ing guys it was closed.

The excep­tion was a glo­ri­ous feath­ery cos­tume shop. Inside stood half a dozen lady­boys try­ing on their extrav­a­gant­ly sequinned and be-feath­ered show­girl cos­tumes. Some stood look­ing in long mir­rors — pos­ing and strut­ting as I sus­pect (and no I real­ly don’t know) they would for the lads down in Pat­pong in these same brief cos­tumes lat­er that night — whilst oth­ers just, again, starred back at me. One blew a kiss and I point­ed at my cam­era ques­tion­ing­ly. I’m sure these ‘girls’ rarely say no to pho­tos but they waved me away and I crawled on.

I walked around a cor­ner. I was at a huge inter­sec­tion, with a net­work of pedes­tri­an over-bridges, a motor­way on-ramp and some 5 lanes each way. It was­n’t on the map and the GPS was still play­ing dumb.

Two guys work­ing on a phone-box looked at me.

Vic­to­ry Mon­u­ment, yuu tee nee?” I asked. One point­ed me around to the left so I wan­dered 100 metres or so until the foot­path died and I found myself stand­ing on the edge of the road filled with oncom­ing trucks look­ing for the motor­way on-ramp. I ran across the road. Two old ladies were groom­ing a black labrador which seemed to have been giv­en yel­low dyed streaks. It wagged its tail and one of the women told it off.

Vic­to­ry Mon­u­ment, yuu tee nee?”

They both looked at me, thought for a moment and both point­ed in oppo­site direc­tions.

I took a gam­ble, less cal­cu­lat­ed than ran­dom and head­ed down the best groomed look­ing avenue run­ning off the inter­sec­tion. It went on and on. An aban­doned apart­ment build­ing had a few food stalls out the front so I splashed out anoth­er sev­en baht for iced water. Then there was a large school. And Min­istry of some­thing, even larg­er. Much larg­er.

Brigid rang. ‘Where are you?’

I have no idea.”

Where are you going?”

Vic­to­ry Mon­u­ment.”

When will you get there?”

Soon, I hope.” And I said good­bye.

I looked up and saw a huge green road-sign, point­ing towards yet anoth­er motor­way onramp (Bangkok’s raised high­way sys­tem is both vast and end­less­ly con­fus­ing — there is no end or begin­ning to it and they sell atlases devot­ed just to it). It said ‘Don Muang’, the old air­port far, far, far from the cen­tre of town. I’m fucked, I decid­ed.

I walked under the motor­way, hav­ing decid­ed to seek a cab and admit defeat, and an old man offered me a green drink. I declined and shook the sweat off the phone. The GPS had found life and there I was, less than 200m from Vic­to­ry Mon­u­ment. I’d been walk­ing par­al­lel to one its con­verg­ing road­ways for a kilo­me­tre or so and, no, nei­ther old lady, who — like the Lon­don­ers I met years before — may nev­er have actu­al­ly been to the mon­u­ment com­ing as they did from the pre-Sky­train and Metro era when the traf­fic was so awful almost nobody left their ‘burb unless they absolute­ly had to.

Victory Monument - just

Around the cor­ner I was thrilled — no that’s not the word at all — ecsta­t­ic to see, peer­ing through yet anoth­er on-ramp, the approach­ing dis­tant nee­dle. I sat for a moment and gath­ered myself.

I stank and was wrecked but I had no choice, I need­ed to get to the mon­u­ment, clean up some­how and get on the train home.

Obliv­i­ous to much of what was around me I moved on to a cross­ing — with a green walk light — and was forced to find the ener­gy to run to dodge a mini-bus which clear­ly had no inten­tion of stop­ping — it may have been the same one. It was relat­ed.

The minibus cometh

That did­n’t help.

Walk­ing into the mas­sive press­ing crowds that gath­er all around the mon­u­ment I noticed I was the only per­son who had space. A large hole quick­ly formed around me in the crowd as I walked through. There was an up side to all this — at least to me. I knew, how­ev­er, that this was because I was gross­ly social­ly unat­trac­tive after two hours of extreme heat and fumes. The way I both looked and smelled was offen­sive.


Victory Monument

A young girl and her boyfriend stood above me on the walk­way and looked down.

They point­ed at me — the wal­low­ing, sweat­ing white man who failed — as we always do — to heed the warn­ings of those who know bet­ter: we will nev­er belong here, and our unhealthy, dairy pro­duce primed, bod­ies will nev­er learn to deal with their heat — and laughed.

I shrank and tried to be as incon­spic­u­ous as a farang can be in Thai­land, which is nev­er much.

I wait­ed a dis­creet time in a qui­et cor­ner of an air con­di­tioned mall, and invest­ed in both per­fumed wipes and a deodor­ant before I strug­gled towards the packed Sky­train.

Victory Monument

On the Sky­walk toward the train, a man tried to give me a bible. I’m not sure it would’ve helped so I smiled no.

I spent about 15 min­utes on the walk­way — a man was mak­ing a loud polit­i­cal speech on the moment foot although nobody was lis­ten­ing, and the mul­ti­tude of mov­ing adver­tis­ing hoard­ings tried to sell me — yep — skin whiten­er, an iPad, fast food and a hol­i­day in Aus­tralia.

Victory Monument

I went home.

I’ve just noticed a warn­ing on the above map: ‘Note don’t try and and walk to Thai­land Cul­tur­al Cen­tre from here’, ‘here’ being the sim­i­lar­ly named Thai­land Cul­tur­al Cen­tre Sta­tion. The two look as if they are right next to each oth­er — about half a cen­time­tre — but clear­ly walk­ing the dis­tance is ill-advised. I feel dumb.



Show 1 foot­note

  1. I’m still stag­gered how quick­ly you can, by road, get places in Auck­land — if you have a car of course.  I tried to use the trains and bus­es in Auck­land in ear­ly 2012 and, yes, they still suck bad­ly when put up against the ser­vices I now take for grant­ed.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

March 21, 2012 at 10:07 am

Fol­lowed by a pint at The Robin Hood.

George D
March 21, 2012 at 5:49 pm

A won­der­ful­ly illus­trat­ed tale. You tell them good.

Walk­ing’s about the best thing you can do, in any decent city. I fig­ure that the emis­sions and the exer­cise about even out, but you’ve got the fit­ness the next time you’re in the coun­try. But most­ly, it’s about actu­al­ly see­ing things. I spent a week or so in Bangkok, and walked a cou­ple of hours most days, and it was delight­ful — with­out a map, I might add. I sim­ply knew if I walked enough in the right direc­tion I’d hit the Chao Phraya, and make my way back sub­se­quent­ly. Of course, the locals think you’re mad, and they’re not wrong. Indone­si­a’s the same, and I sus­pect it holds true in most parts.

I’m also the lucky bas­tard who does­n’t sweat. (Sor­ry).

The oth­er thing I rec­om­mend, in any city in the world, is get­ting on the pub­lic trans­port, tak­ing it out to the burbs, and walk­ing around for a bit. It’s very easy to think the world’s com­posed of CBDs and mon­u­ments. We will nev­er be those peo­ple, (or even their friends, in most cas­es) but we can at least take a look down their streets and have _some_ idea.

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