Sunday, 26 February 2012

BANGKOK - THAILAND

11th - 20th Feb 2012

Her Majesty. In honour of her Diamond Jubilee. Stupidly I forgot to put the rat on the chair. Silly me.
Flight into Bangkok with Air Asia was uneventful and due to pre-paying a $20 'extra' on my ticket I could take up to 30kgs of hold baggage. These weight restrictions are good little earners for cheapo airlines and bear no relevance to the technical aircraft all up weight ( AOW ) safety limit. There are other rules and regs about quantity, size and weight of cabin baggage but thankfully, in Rangoon airport, the staff are quite flexible about this. They are most attentive but not complete jobsworths.
Another thing ( permit me a little rant here ); why is it in these supposedly third world 'developing' countries the immigration, security and customs staff tend to look smart in neatly pressed uniforms, well groomed, appear efficient, and often greet you with a smile and a cheery hello? If you ask them for assistance they usually provide it willingly and helpfully. In general they appear enthusiastic, attentive and well turned-out. Whereas in the UK you are more often than not met by scruffy, sullen looking individuals who give every impression that you, as a passing traveller, are a great inconvenience to their daily routine and, if anything at all, greet you with a grunt of acknowledgement when you pass by having interrupted the interesting conversation they are having with a colleague. The characters manning the UK airport arrival passport 'control' desks frequently look as if they are third world immigrants themselves, are unkempt, wear untidy civilian clothes and whenever they, or customs 'officers' ( and I put that word 'officer' deliberately in inverted commas ), are compelled to wear uniform it seems as if it is done with the utmost reluctance. I have often witnessed UK customs men lounging around arrivals, chatting to one another in unpressed white shirts, ties undone, scuffed black shoes and with their hands in their pockets! No, really, its no exaggeration. I would expect any self respecting SNCO, which obviously don't exist in that organisation ( and I've forgotten what it is called nowadays because they keep changing the name to become ever more politically correct and unaccountable ) to have an apoplectic fit and scream at them to "get a grip and smarten yourselves up you idle little man or woman 'cos I can't tell which, and get yor effing hair cut before you trip over it". Standing on parade with your hands in your pockets used to be, and probably still is, a lockable-up offence in the army! It comes as no surprise when I read of the UK Border Control Agency being in complete disarray and that thousands of illegals have snuck into the country under their unwatchful, disinterested eyes. It is not all the employees' fault I hasten to add; it is due to a total lack of leadership and proper man-management. Why does no-one in authority notice the sheer indolence and apathy which surrounds the employees of this shambolic system and if they do, why has nobody 'got a grip' ages ago. Whoever is in charge, and I doubt anyone owns up to it, should have been sacked years ago. It is a most depressing situation and the chaos which ensues rather inevitable. It must also give a terribly poor impression to visitors to the UK. Rant over.
Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International airport has the advantage of being constructed only a few years ago. It is modern, high tech and customer friendly. It is infinitely superior to the chaos and congestion at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted etc. One of many things I notice in airports are the baggage trolleys. Why on earth do British baggage trolleys have four castoring wheels and are therefore impossible to steer. One experiences and sees passengers swerving uncontrollably around the concourses and crashing into one another. Modern ( third world ) airports, i.e. Suvarnabhumi, and some of the up to date European ones, have more sensible trolleys with three wheels; the two back wheels are non-castoring and the front one swivels. These trolleys are easily steerable and must be cheaper to produce. They are also designed to be used on escalators and the more modern stepless moving up/down walkways. It means you can take your baggage from carousel to onward transport ( train, metro, taxi etc. ) without offloading it. Why the HELL do British airports lag so far behind in such convenience to overwrought passengers. Pathetic.
Following normal SOP, I went upstairs to departures to get a taxi. The arrivals scam merchants were charging 800 Baht ( £16/$20 ) to the city centre, the so called Official Price as displayed on their self made laminated price lists. At 'departures' the metred taxi cost me 240Baht ( £5/$8 ). I have explained this before.

Sunday was spent at the Chatuchak weekend market in the north of the city. This is a huge popular market which sells anything you can think of at relatively cheap prices. Fun, and I bought some clothes, and listened to this chap ( left ) playing a guitar, amongst other things.

Next day on to the Cambodian Embassy to get a visa for Cambodia. Unexpectedly the whole process took only 15 minutes and cost $20. Most efficient.











Several days spent in Bangkok visiting a few friends, and opera singers. I bumped into ex-colleagues from Vietnam Airlines doing their simulator training ( right ). Actually the chap in the middle is a Thai friend of ours who has nothing to do with Vietnam Airlines but is very hospitable and looks after us. The tall man with the rat is Christian, an Austrian B-777 training Captain. On the right F/O Ha from Ho Chi Minh.

Bangkok is changing continually and is scarcely recognisable from the place 20 years ago. Some changes are for the better. They now have  magnificent metro and 'sky train' systems which are immaculately clean, fast, quiet and efficient. Soothing music is played in the stations with no silly unnecessary announcements. It is cheap and if you are over 60 ( and this applies to foreigners as well ) you pay half fare. I was rather upset that when I asked to pay half fare the chap on the desk did not even question my age! Good for the wallet but not for morale. The pavements and streets have been cleaned up, new highways and flyovers have been built which hardly alleviate the traffic congestion because they just encourage more road usage and further fill up the streets below. The traffic lights have count-down clocks on them which, when at red, start at 180 seconds. That means very long waits. I always think that in large cities and affluent countries it doesn't matter how many big roads you build, they always fill up until eventually grid-lock is reached. Talking of traffic, only in UK have I noticed the ludicrous situation of having roundabouts ( of which I strongly approve ) and then putting bloody traffic lights on them as well! It totally defeats the object of the idea. Back to Bangkok; they now have many very smart and upmarket shopping centres, hotels, restaurants and entertainments. In short, the city has become a modern, hi-tech and cosmopolitan place. The downside is that much of the old 'character' has gone. Many more rules, regulations and restrictions are in place ( smoking is banned in most public places, although perhaps not so zealously as in UK ), the iconic Tuk-Tuks have been emasculated and now have 4-stroke engines which don't make the proper 'tuk-tuk' noise any more and whereas the number of these has been greatly reduced the prices have dramatically gone up. They are now just an expensive tourist attraction. The infamous Pat Pong area has gone downhill from being at the 'cutting edge' of the sex trade to rather a shabby, seedy, sleazy, rip-off zone ( so I am told ).  Probably the most noticeable difference is the average size of the younger Thai. One of the penalties any city pays for modernisation appears to be a willing surrender to the American mass market and to allow their addictive burger and fizzy drinks chains to infest the streets. The result is that there are now many overweight and probably diabetic Thais. They used to eat, exclusively, a healthy diet and had lithe, beautiful and fit looking bodies ( especially the girls ). Now it is Macdonalds, KFC and Coca-Cola which prevail and an average increase of about 2 stone and plenty of flab. That is really sad. American culture and diet will be the death of us all.
Some old traditions still persist however; for example, in downtown touristy Silom area, the habitual Thai greetings of 'youwanmassar', or 'youwanladyshow' are still the norm. As indeed is the traditional British response of 'fuck off'.

This guy ( left ) is obviously not addicted to Macdonalds or Coca-Cola. I think he must have been following me here from India. Possibly coming over to have a serious word with his tailor.

















....and this bloke ( right ) is nominally in charge of the evil empire which is entirely to blame for lots of things. Do all wealthy Americans have hideous glowing white false teeth? Reminds me of George Mitchell's Black and White Minstrel show.

As an example of how the city's department stores, and customers, are now so affluent I visited the Siam Centre, a vast shiny three building many storied temple to consumer excess, where I passed a large shop displaying an array of Steinway grand pianos. I asked the price of a natty golden coloured model and was told it costs $138,700. Having given up the piano after one term at school ( I still recall with horror the evil tempered Miss Unwin who taught me and remember the pain of having the piano lid slammed down on my fingers when I made repeated mistakes ) I decided not to buy it. I expect the shipment and import costs would have been well beyond my reach. I expect the piano stool alone would have bankrupted me.

Self, Christian and our hospitable friend, who is nicknamed 'Skinny' for no apparent reason, went to visit the Thai Aviation Museum located at the old Don Mueang airport in the north of the city. This area was badly affected by the floods which hit the country last November. Indeed we could see at the restaurant where we had a delicious beef and noodle lunch the water level marks about four feet up the walls. Sadly the museum had also been inundated and most of the exhibits were undergoing, or had been removed, for repair and renovation. Christian ( left ) found a good second-hand transport aircraft to play around in.


.....and likes to be remembered ( right ) as the 'oldest tiger'.

Lots of other old haunts around the city visited including the famous ancient Oriental Hotel down on the river-front which features the Writers' Wing where various well known characters have stayed over the years; you know the normal list of brilliant minds such Noel Coward, Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie, Ernest Hemmingway, Rudyard Kipling ( who no doubt saw lots of flyin' fish playing on the river ), Marilyn Monroe and 'Sir' Mick Jagger. They do a very good and rather expensive English style 'tea'.


I was also taken to the Royal Bangkok Sports Club by aforementioned 'Skinny' ( left ), who is a member, and treated to a very good lunch in the members' dining room. It is a most pleasant if curious place in that it was started up in 1929 by British ex-pats as a tennis, squash and bowls club. Even now, as then, all the signs, boards and notices are written in English. Quite extraordinary considering the membership and committee are now almost entirely Thai.





Right: A smart grass racecourse, which still flourishes, was added in 1948 ( or thereabouts ). There is a golf course inside the track and there are grass tennis courts, squash courts and bowling greens outside. I was told they hold race meetings about once a month. It was due to host the prestigious annual 'King's Cup' meeting on the day I was due to leave. It is a thoroughly pleasant 'green' area in the middle of the city and is obviously immaculately maintained.
I had a marvellously idle time in and around Bangkok and don't have that much to report really. Incidently I rediscovered the 'Oirish bear' scene hear. The O'Reillys, Murphys, Flannigans and Paddy McGintys establishments, etc, are thriving in downtown Bangkok. I had forgotten all about them as the last Irish drinks establishment I remember was in Singapore, I think. They must be banned from the sub-continent and haven't yet made an appearance in Burma.

Next off to Cambodia. The train departs from the excellent Bangkok Central Station ( left ) to the most convenient crossing point at Aranyaprathet at 0555hrs. It is a 7 hour journey and although a rather slow train with somewhat stiffly padded seats it is reasonably comfortable and ladies come through the carriages selling soft drinks and snacks. Aircon is supplied by a gentle breeze through the windows and the open outside doors.




The extraordinary thing is that the price of the ticket is 48 Baht, exactly £1. Isn't that amazing!
Right: The station. Very smart and efficient. Helpful and polite staff.










Left: Apropos of absolutely nothing, did you know the name of this so-called artist? I met him here. His full name: Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepumuceno Maria de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santisima Trinidad Ruiz Picasso.


Next report from, probably, Siem Reap, Cambodia




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