Week 8(a): One night in Bangkok
Or eight nights to be precise. Oh yes. Travel. And not just any travel. Free travel. And not just free travel. Travel that I was being paid to undertake. This was going to be a fantastic week – bring on the firsts!
When I moved to the UK in 2006 I made it my mission to travel as much as I could in the time that I was there. And travel I did. In my first three years I visited upwards of 23 countries and by the time I moved back to Australia I had visited 35 in total. Working as a contractor I was lucky enough to be able to take as much time off as money and contracts would allow and I made the most of it. Around two to three months a year of those first few years was spent hot-footing it around the UK, Europe, Africa and the US. I had discovered a passion for travel that quickly turned into an addiction. I was barely back from one trip when I began planning the next. Living in London meant travelling was easy, cheap and fast. Needless to say I was desperately missing the travel opportunities since returning to Australia. And then I got a call from my big sister.
“How would you like to come and work on one of my shows in Bangkok for a week?” she asked (I hasten to point out that the shows in question were professional children’s shows – not the other variety that Bangkok is well-known for!). “Oh my god yes” I cried without a moment’s hesitation. “Take some time to think about it after I tell you what is involved” she said. “Nope, don’t care what is involved, count me in” I replied. I had never been to Thailand so I was excited that this trip would also count as a new experience.
So what was I going to be doing on the show? Well that will be the subject of my next blog post. For brevity I have broken up my Bangkok escapades and my Bangkok working adventures. Otherwise you would be reading the world’s longest blog post!
I was lucky enough to have almost 3 full days of my schedule available for sightseeing and I intended to make the most of it. My first day in Bangkok dawned shiny and hot, and after a session in the gym (the joys of jet lag #1: waking up early means you can fit more into your morning) and a very different breakfast (noodles, broccoli and cupcakes do not make for a mouth-watering feast – thank goodness for ‘western-style’ options), my sister and I hit the pavement to experience the sensory overload that is Bangkok – intense humidity, traffic, and copious assaults on the olfactory glands – I was in seventh heaven!
Navigating our way easily through the train and water transport networks (the joys of being seasoned travellers) we made our way to our first destination: Wat Pho, a Thai temple famed for its 46m long reclining Buddha and the host of one of the earliest traditional Thai massage schools. At 9am the heat and humidity was already oppressive, but that wasn’t going to stop us from taking a good look around (well my sister wasn’t quite in agreement with me on that point, but she was a good sport about it!). Arriving at the entrance of the reclining Buddha I was requested to put on what would best be described as a lurid green synthetic dressing gown. Despite doing my best to dress appropriately for the temple (trousers over the knee and shirt with mini sleeves as opposed to entirely sleeveless) I still was not covered up enough to enter. Fair enough. I donned the sexy little gown and spent a good 15 minutes wandering around the very impressive statue.
We then meandered around the extensive temple grounds looking at all of the beautiful architecture and numerous sculptures (I had returned the green dressing gown by this stage just in case you were wondering). During our wanderings we stumbled across the massage school. It was air-conditioned and ridiculously cheap ($10 for a 30 minute traditional Thai massage) so in we ventured to be stretched and prodded. I do love a good Thai massage but I think the lady next to me was expecting a more traditional massage – the look on her face after her massage was over was priceless! Thai massage really should come with a warning for those who have never experienced it before; it can be quite disconcerting to have someone sitting on you and stretching your body into a series of poses fit for a contortionist when you are expecting something quite different!
In case you have never experienced Thai massage, it is not the massage oil and kneading kind of massage that one usually thinks of when one thinks of massage. In Thai massage practitioners apply firm pressure with their thumbs, palms, forearms, elbows, feet, knees and shins to rhythmically press and stretch your body. The intent is to release tension, increase vitality and create a wholeness of mind, body and spirit. Sometimes that intent can be befuddled when you find yourself stretched on a mat with a person sitting on you and stretching your legs and arms when you were expecting a more genteel approach!
Ever since my first foray into Thai massage (which weirdly was in Slovenia) I have been a fan. I admit the first time I was wondering what the hell the woman was going to do to me next, and did start to giggle to myself when she climbed on the table and sat on me. But the feeling of euphoria I experienced afterwards was one I wanted to repeat.
After our massages my sister and I decided to swan around the temple grounds a bit longer, and then head off for some lunch. I was so looking forward to my first real Thai meal in Thailand. I love Thai food and couldn’t wait to see how Thai food made in Thailand tasted. We passed many tourists eating at the more touristy cafes (why would you come to Thailand and eat burgers and chips for goodness sake) and opted for a hole in the wall Thai cafe. Nothing to look at, but there were locals there so we were up for it. I played it safe for my first meal and ordered Pad Thai. OMG taste bud explosion! It was divine, and it only cost $3 (Australian). Happy, happy days.
Our next stop was to be MBK – a famous shopping mall standing 8 stories high with more than 2000 shops – heaven on a stick! On the way we passed by a little store and, our curiosity piqued, we ventured in to be met by the cutest and friendliest little Thai man who regaled us with stories of his family and showed us all of his pictures taken with the King of Thailand. He was just divine. He gave us some little treats as a gift, and asked us to send him something from Australia when we returned home, as many others had done before us. He showed us some of the gifts he had already received from all over the world – what a fantastic thing to do. It really was a lovely and unexpected experience; and it is these kinds of encounters that I truly love about travelling.
When we arrived at MBK I almost wet myself with excitement seeing all of the stores stretching in front and above me. I am a shopaholic. I love to shop. I can shop anywhere, anytime. I am a shopping machine. Wind me up and watch me go. And go I did. I powered around the different levels looking at dodgy DVDs, fake brand-name handbags, electrical equipment, paintings, clothes, manchester, and all manner of souvenir items. Although things were not as cheap as I imagined they would be, they were still awfully cheap. I managed to purchase quite a few items, although my sister was able to talk me out of the 12 or so handbags I wanted to buy (I did have more time in the week to shop, she said, which was a good point, well made). We then headed back to the hotel, a mere 2 train stops away, to dump our goods and meet a new arrival – the lady who would be my wardrobe and props manager for the show later in the week.
We then headed out to Pat Pong – the area notorious for the “downstairs lady part” bars where ladies do things with their downstairs areas that have to be seen to be believed. There are also some fantastic markets in the area which was the actual reason we were going! We avoided all of the “speciality” bars in favour of the markets and another yummy hole in the wall dinner. All in all it was a great introduction to Bangkok and I was looking forward to more exploits during the week.
The next day I had to work for several hours, but at 1130am I was set loose with the wardrobe manager to entertain ourselves for the rest of the day. Off we went to China town to scope out some wardrobey stuff and generally mill around. It was a lot of fun scouring all of the lanes and alleyways of China town, although those who are not used to crowds, big cities and ungodly smells may not have found as much enjoyment as we did!
To get back to the hotel we opted for a Tuk Tuk ride – something I had been dying to try. My god it was a blast. They don’t get their reputation of craziness for no reason. Hang on tight and enjoy the ride is all I can say if you ever try one. I loved it. We met up with the rest of the crew at the hotel and went out for another street dinner which again was a fun and decidedly tasty affair.
The next few days I spent working on the show, but I did have the nights free to enjoy the nightlife. And enjoy it I certainly did! Having missed out on the “downstairs lady part” bars on the first night, I was looking forward to finding a partner in crime to go with me. I found such a partner in a 6 foot 5 Aussie crew member who had never had the pleasure of the nightlife in Bangkok and was just as keen as I was to head out. For good measure we took along another crew member who had had much experience with Bangkok nightlife (he is also one of the funniest people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I swear my stomach muscles hurt the next day from all of the laughs he gave us on our tour). After yet another exquisite local dinner we settled in for a few games of pool and $2 beers. Once my partner in crime and I had been defeated 5 times in a row we decided it was time to venture forth on our Bangkok nightlife mission. First stop – ladyboy street. Wowsers those boys were pretty! And boy did they have a lot of takers heading into the rows and rows of bars. It was fun to banter with the very fabulous ladyboys, but we were ready for the main attraction of the evening, so heading out of ladyboy street we flagged a cab to take us to Pat Pong. Funniest. Cab-ride. Ever. Our “tour guide” kept us in stitches for the entire journey.
Entering the vicinity of the “speciality” bars we were assaulted with menu after menu of what was on offer. Oh yeah, there are menus. The most eye opening, eye watering menus imaginable. Want to see a lady open a bottle with her downstairs area – you can. What about blow a horn? Play ping pong? Write your name? Blow out a candle? Blow up a balloon? Or one of the other 25 things on the list? Who knew there was so much one can do with their nether regions.
We were lured into a bar with the “fantastic deal” of a free show for the price of one beer each (costing about $5 per person). Bargain. It was a dingy little dive inside, and I was quite appalled by what I saw. Sad looking women who clearly wanted to be anywhere but where they were. I was saddened by the fact I was perpetuating their misery, and my partner in crime was also far from impressed, so we started to leave via the cashier. That is when things took a nose dive. Rather than the “fantastic deal” we were quoted prior to entering, our bill was now almost 10 times over the quoted price. When we refused to pay it, the scary manager lady stepped in to tell us that the sales guy did not quote us the right price, and that on top of the drinks we had to pay for the “show” we had seen. We had been royally scammed. Enter our “tour guide” who had seen all of this before. He started right in on the manager with a massive tirade, with the manager giving it right back. We were soon joined by another heavy from the bar. Uh oh. There were threats made to call the police on us if we did not pay the full bill, but despite the drama we just could not stop laughing at our “tour guide”. He was pure gold to watch in action. After around 10 minutes of fighting we managed to walk out of the bar having paid just the original quoted price, and with no police in sight. Phew.
Not deterred, we decided to go to a more “reputable” bar. The drinks at this bar were the same price as the previous bar, and there was a menu from which you could choose and pay additional money to see a “show”. We chose ping pong, with much thanks to Priscilla Queen of the Dessert for the inspiration. But even better than the movie, you could take a bat and actually hit the ball back, almost like a normal game of ping pong albeit it minus the net and with an opponent who used a more unique way of serving the ball.
The women in this bar seemed a lot livelier and I did not feel like I was exploiting them as I had felt in the other bar. I do realise that was indeed what I was doing, and being a staunch feminist I did have some twinges of guilt, but overall the atmosphere inside was one of fun and frivolity rather than sadness and despair. I chatted to a few of the ladies and also scored myself a massage by two women who were, well, not entirely dressed. That was a pure accident (I was trying to save my partner in crime from being utterly devoured by all of the women), but they were good masseuses, I was fully clothed, I was sitting at my table in the bar with my companions, and it was very much in keeping with the theme of the evening (plus I remunerated them for their services). We saw a few other acts before we called it a night and hailed a Tuk Tuk to take us back to the hotel. Another hilarious ride later we arrived at the hotel none-the-worse for wear despite the hairy ride, our escapades, and the early hour of the morning. A fantastic night all in all, and surprisingly cheap. Note to self: getting home at 3am when you have an 830am work start time is probably not ideal; but hey, you only live once right?!
For the next few days I was utterly consumed by work, from 9am to 8pm’ish. The crew still managed to have some jolly dinners and swims in the stunning pool area every night though.
My last day in Bangkok was entirely free – our flight wasn’t until midnight and we had finished our shows, so my bar-hopping partner in crime, the stage manager from the show, and I decided to take in some sights. First stop, Wat Phra Kaew, another of Bangkok’s exquisite temples. We arrived to find masses of people queueing to get inside the temple. After a quick discussion we decided that we indeed did not want to wait hours in the line to go inside, and instead wandered around the outskirts, gazing in wonder at the beautiful architecture. We then meandered along the streets until we reached the river were we boarded a boat for some lovely views from the water. The contrasts on the river front were severe – on one side: pure poverty was clearly visible. On the other side, extreme wealth was on show. It was an interesting insight into the world of Bangkok.
I then escorted our little group to MBK for some more shopping. We shopped and lunched together before breaking off to do our own thing. I bought more loot on this adventure. I then decided to walk back to the hotel via two massive shopping centres where I wandered shops that I hadn’t seen since leaving the UK (Boots, H&M, Zara, Jimmy Choo, Prada and many more) – it was pure heaven. I managed to escape with only a few choice purchases of clothing and the most divine heels. All in all I shopped for 7 straight hours and loved it.
Then sadly it was time to return to the land of Oz. I loved every single second of my time in Bangkok. I met great people, had some fantastic experiences, bought a lot of fabulous things…stick a fork in me, I was done!
Introspection time out
So what did I learn from my myriad of firsts this week?
I learnt how much joy I get from travelling, and how much it soothes my soul. I returned from my trip renewed and ready to take on the world once again. My mum even remarked when I disembarked the plane that I looked just like my old self again.
I learnt that some women have some very interesting talents.
I learnt that Thai people are some of the most beautiful, helpful and gentle people one could ever hope to meet. The disaster in Pat Pong and cab drivers aside, the people of Bangkok were only too happy to lend a helping hand, point us in the right direction, or just have a laugh with us. It is such a beautiful culture and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to experience it first-hand.
I learnt that I am definitely a traveller not a tourist. What is the difference? I think this quote just about sums it up: “The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.” –G.K. Chesterton
I learnt that when I am truly passionate about something I write extraordinarily long blog posts.
And thus endeth another week. Until next time…
To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.” – Hans Christian Andersen
Some of my favourite signs that I came across during my explorations: