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Open Features: Inside Thailand

...The majestic Chao Phraya river curls like a giant brown python through the City of Angels...

Winston Ash brings a vivid word portrait of life in Thailand's capital city, Bangkok.

Mention Thailand to anyone and they think of affordable holidays in a lush tropical paradise with golden beaches washed by translucent emerald seas.

During my stay in Thailand I never ventured near Phuket, Pattaya, or the other resorts in the south. After all, glorious beaches are a dime a dozen in the world. I opted instead for Bangkok, which is often described by tourists as dirty and noisy. There I made a point of staying well away from the areas frequented by tourists.

Apart from the older area around the Palace where the museums and temples are situated, I couldn't pinpoint what we'd call a City Centre . Newsreels of the city always show Silom Road, where many tourist hotels are located.

The majestic Chao Phraya river curls like a giant brown python through the City of Angels, as they call it.

Looking up at the downy clouds floating by in the winter sky I imagined I heard the rustle of wings as they hovered above, nodding approvingly at the golden temple spires cheek by jowl with modern office blocks.

Often as I strolled down one of the broad streets in the older area I was reminded of the promenades I’d seen in pictures of the French Riviera.

The rest of the city is an endless sprawl of little businesses.
Working hours 09:30 to 16:30 strengthens the impression that Thailand is all play and no work. But for most, early mornings and late afternoons are spent manning a market stall, or two or three. Many families also have one or two little shops going as well.

I often visited one of the many fresh produce markets. Set opposite a modern Tesco superstore, this one was an interesting contrast of the new and the old. Everything was sold here – tropical fruit, including outsize oranges and guavas the size of large apples, vegetables, fish, and meat.

I did not find Bangkok a tourist-friendly city. For one thing, unscrupulous stallholders double their prices when they see you coming. And then do you in, with a disarming smile. In the end I realised I still paid far less than I would have at home. Perhaps they were getting me into the spirit of Buddhism. Someone defined a good Buddhist as someone who doesn’t know the value of money!

Thailand prides itself on being known as The Land of Smiles. Becoming upset is considered bad form. I was stopped a number of times in the street and spoken to by strangers who could detect I was upset.

However charming the people, it’s best to get a guide to smooth language hurdles. Better still, marry a Thai. Which many farangs, as foreigners are known, have done.

I think it wouldn’t have been difficult for me. “You a handsome man,” the ladies often told me. Perhaps the fact that Westerners are regarded as mobile ATM’s had something to do with it! Their currency was devalued something like 400% a few years ago. Imagine your salary doubling. Twice. That’s the effect it had on the spending power of foreign tourists.

Think of an exotic Thai meal, piping hot and prepared in under five minutes. It’s available at any mobile food kiosk, for well under one US dollar. Eating out every day is the norm rather than a special treat because it’s cheaper than cooking at home. Evenings I saw the many open-air restaurants with rows of tables and benches occupied by whole families.

In the Thai diet the absence of flour, sugar, and salt – everything that’s bad for you and for which they have their own substitutes - could account for the very few fat Thais I saw. Their chairs could also have something to do with it. They have no backrests, so you have to straighten your back and pull the stomach in when sitting. (Try it yourself, you’ll see how your stomach flattens after a few weeks.)

As English is regarded as a universal language, most Thais try to master a working knowledge. Unfortunately they bend the grammar rules along the way. A metered taxi is called a taxi-meter, Singha beer, the most popular, is called Beer Singha. Then there’s the ubiquitous farang, their pronunciation of ‘foreigner’.

The funniest expression I heard was one used when somebody is so hopping mad he could commit murder. Then he says he wants to commit dat amoye. The expression comes from the old Dean Martin song of the fifties: That’s Amore.

Thais call their country “the land of the free” as it is one of the few in the Far East that was never colonised. During World War 2 these canny people signed a pact with the Japanese and so escaped the ravages of an invasion. Although then technically at war with Britain and America, the government turned a blind eye to their own active anti-Japanese resistance movement.

The golden spires of the many temples pointing upwards reminded me of the clasped hands of the Wai, the prayerful Thai greeting - hands clasped in front of you, head bowed to touch the fingertips in a salute to your humanity.

There are many Westerners in the communities of monks attached to each temple. During a visit to one I was lucky enough to see a young lad from Europe being accepted as a novice into the Buddhist family. I joined the crowd of well-wishers as they circled the temple a few times, and then stood among them while he threw sweets at us in the courtyard after the ceremony. Afterwards I sat in one of the many little rooms in front of a statue of Buddha, trying to absorb the composure and peace of mind that is a hallmark of this religion.

I flew to Thailand by way of Dubai where I caught a flight with other tourists from Europe. There was only a sprinkling of women among them. I thought it a great pity afterwards that most of these visitors would in all likelihood have missed getting to feel the warm heartbeat behind this way of life.

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