by Jamilah Samian
Bargains galore. Exotic sights and food. The tuk-tuk. Jamilah Samian experienced these and more during her trip to Bangkok.
As the brass band across the field at Sanam Luang, Bangkok played the national anthem, everyone stood erect. Many had enjoyed the candle-lit celebration, held to commemorate King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday the day before.
At 76, the King is very much revered and adored by his subjects as he often goes out of his way to see that his people’s needs are met. Last year, for instance, he expressed his dismay about the illicit drug trade in his birthday address. Still, these undercurrents are not obvious in Sanam Luang, a big field across the Grand Palace. The band’s performance ended and I continued with my stroll, browsing through the items offered by the street vendors.
The peddler before me rattled off a string of words in Thai. I presumed she was telling me the value of the socks she was trying to sell. At the prompt of “How much?” she whipped out a calculator, keyed in the numbers and held it up for me to see.
By eight, the streets across the Grand Palace were thick with activity. The shophouses adjacent to Na Phra Lan Post-Office are reminiscent of those of the Peranakan in Malacca. A few metres away in a wooden seat, a homeless man slept, oblivious to the din, his pillow a plastic bag full of his worldly belongings.
Further up, two elderly women took their time feeding a flock of ravenous pigeons. Nearby, a barber was trimming a customer’s overgrown beard in a makeshift tent. A monk walked past. The Thais are predominantly Buddhist and the faith is deeply ingrained in their lives. The taxi driver who drove me to Sanam Luang had a miniature Buddha anchored on the dashboard.
My earliest recollections of Thailand were of boats laden with colorful fresh produce at the floating market along the river Chao Phraya. It was the front cover of The Asia Magazine that I had read years ago. Along Phra Chan Road in Bangkok, numerous street vendors put up amulets for sale. A soprano’s high-pitched voice belted out what sounded like Thai opera from an outlet selling traditional medicines.
I had very much wanted to see the Grand Palace. Located next to Wat Phra Keow, this magnificent royal compound is where important religious and royal ceremonies are conducted. Alas, it’s not available for public viewing due to a ceremony taking place in conjunction with the King’s birthday.
By mid-morning, the palace grounds were full of tourists and their guards. Should I take a ride down the Chao Phraya?
Shady trees and cobbled pedestrian walkways coupled with a slight breeze made the hike to Pra Chan Pier a pleasant one. I paid 20 baht and boarded the waiting boat. A ride across the river and back would be the acid test but barely ten minutes later, I was back at the pier – the waters were too choppy to my liking. I would have to abandon romantic plans of cruising down the river for a more practical one.
My partner and I opted instead for a tuk-tuk, which is essentially a motorised, battery-operated open-air trishaw. Never having ridden one before, the two of us suddenly realised how vulnerable we were as the driver went full throttle and whizzed through the heavy traffic.
I clung on as we zig-zagged and dodged buses, vans and cars. After ten minutes, I began to relax and reassured myself that the driver knew what he was doing. Well, he did drop us off ten minutes earlier than scheduled at the Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of the largest open-air flea markets in the world. We joined the crowd descending upon the market, which is touted as a must-see tourist spot.
The sprawling complex is partitioned into many sections, joined together by narrow alleyways. Section One sells images of the Buddha while another section specialises in pets from chameleons to tortoises in terrariums to rabbits and birds. A long segment is reserved for cock-fighting enthusiasts. There was even a busker, a harmonica between his lips and guitar in hand, with a piece of cloth spread out on the ground for generous contributors to place their money in.
Another section offered home furnishings and even door-to-door packaging and delivery services. A few metres away were agricultural products among which were, of course, orchids. At lunch time, we headed for the Saman Islamic Restaurant, located near the big clock that stood out at the centre of the market. I ordered iced longan and chicken briyani with sizzling hot tomyam plus some sambal petai. The tomyam, a fiery brew with lots of cili padi, was just what I was looking for.
Thai women struck me as very gentle, speaking in a melodious lilting tone, like the waitress attending to me. On the way back to my lodging, I cringed at the sight of an old Caucasian man walking hand-in-hand with a scantily clad young Thai girl who couldn’t be more than twenty years old. It reminded me of Patpong, the red-light district, despite the Government’s efforts to change its image.
There are some things I will never understand.
Published in Life & Times, New Straits Times