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 10:03 AM

Followed by a pint at The Robin Hood.

George D
March 21, 2012 at 05:03 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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