There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Bangkok (2) Jim Thompson's House and Other Shrines

On a sunny morning we set off for Jim Thompson’s House, first making our way back to the bridge over Khlong Saen Saeb. ‘Khlong taxis’ ply up and down the waterway, but for this journey they were unnecessary, we only had to walk a couple of hundred metres along what at home would be called the tow-path.
A 'Khlong Taxi' passes as we walk to Jim Thompson's House

Jim Thompson arrived in Bangkok in 1945 to set up the local office of the OSS (later known as the CIA) and subsequently became Military Attaché at the US embassy. On leaving the army he created a business dealing in Thai silk, the huge success of his enterprise saving the country's ancient but then dying craft of silk weaving. He was an art collector and brought six old teak houses to Bangkok from the countryside and reassembled them as one house for himself and his treasures.

Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok

It is a beautiful house set in a lush tropical garden which makes it difficult to photograph, but is so peaceful it is hard to believe you are in the heart of the city. We were shown round by a sharp-tongued guide, ‘don’t hang around taking photographs here you can do that later... put your bags in these lockers... don’t take any photographs inside... take your shoes off here’ but who revealed, as the tour went on, a dry and very appealing sense of humour.

Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok

Thompson collected objet d’art from all over SE Asia including many statues, some like this one (outside, so photography was permitted!) lacking heads or other parts of their anatomy. To Thais this is eccentric behaviour; damaged statues bring bad luck and should be destroyed, not collected.
Headless statue, Jim Thompson's House

In 1967, while visited friends in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, Thompson went out for a stroll after lunch and disappeared. Despite extensive searches no trace of him has ever been found. Many theories have been put forward and some, given his CIA background, involve interesting if improbable conspiracies. To our guide the answer was simple: that’s what happens when you collect broken statues. [update March 2017, Cameron Highlands: we saw the house from which he disappeared]

After coffee in Jim Thompson’s snack bar, we returned to the canal and hopped on a Khlong Taxi. ‘Hop’ is an appropriate word, the boat slows but barely stops and the already high sides are topped with a tarpaulin to protect passengers from the sun and splashes of the extravagantly polluted water. The crew, hard hats on their heads, clamber along the gunwales outside the tarpaulin, thrusting a hand through to collect the minimal fare. We only wanted to go two stops, but our boat terminated at the first stop and everybody had to climb off and then onto the next one – an interesting scramble above water you really would not want to fall into.

On the Khlong Taxi, Bangkok

Some poor map reading made it an unnecessarily long walk to Nai Lert Park where there is a small shrine…..

…. which is hardly unusual in Bangkok, but this one gained a reputation for promoting fertility, resulting in many interesting donations from those in hope and those giving thanks.

A small selection of the phalluses at the shrine
Nai Lert Park, Bangkok
We lingered briefly among the lingams before heading back to the main drag and turning right towards the MBK centre. We passed a shop which seemed a little early with its New Year message. In Yangon a few days previously I had photographed Father Christmas seriously overdressed for the climate. Here everything looked right, it was the music that was wrong. It is weird to hear a choir singing about ‘dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh’ when the temperature is on the high side of 30.

Happy New Year, Bangkok style
A little further along we passed the Erawan Hotel. Its construction had been plagued by a spate of accidents so instead of looking at their health and safety policy the builders constructed a shrine. This solved the problem and news of the shrine’s protective powers spread resulting in a steady stream of supplicants bringing their own petitions.[Update: In August 2015 the shrine was the scene of a bombing in which 20 died and 125 were injured. The bombing is believed to be the work of Uighur nationalists in retaliation for the extradition of one of their number to China].

Brahman shrine, outside the Erawan Hotel, Bangkok

We reached the MBK Centre in time for lunch. MBK is, I read, Bangkok’s trendiest shopping mall, though on some floors it looks more like a covered market. For us the attraction was the food court, which had been recommended by Hilary (who is reliable in these matters) and Lynne’s hairdresser Fay (who has yet to establish a track record). We made our way to the 6th floor, bought an appropriate supply of coupons and wandered round the stalls deciding where to spend them.
The MBK Centre, Bangkok

The food court is bright and clean and offers a variety of Asian cuisines at reasonable prices. It had the feel of a huge cafeteria, but I would forgive that – and the lack of beer – if the food was good. Selecting a Thai stall (well we were in Thailand) Lynne ordered Pad Thai prawns and I went for mussels on a sizzling dish with a variety of accompaniments. Lynne said her meal was nothing special; mine was so bland it could have been anything. Sorry Hilary and Fay, perhaps we picked the wrong stall.

After lunch we wandered round the shops failing to find a XXXXXL(local size) tee-shirt to fit my XL western frame.

We walked back in the hot afternoon and dropped into the 7/11 shop outside our hotel to acquire a couple of cold beers to drink in the air-conditioned comfort of our room. Grabbing some cans from the chiller I took them to the counter to be told, very apologetically, that it was illegal for shops to sell alcohol before 5pm. With that plan scuppered, we repaired to the little restaurant where we had eaten dinner yesterday and found them happy to deal with our hard earned thirst.

Traffic beneath the skytrain, Bangkok
At the hotel, we wrote some emails before attempting to look up King Bhumibol on Wikipedia. In China there are lots of bits of the internet you cannot access, Facebook for one, but in Thailand with its more-or-less functioning democracy and liberal tradition we were surprised to be greeted with a screen informing us that we were not permitted to view this page.

Accessing it at home we found little to upset the Thai authorities. The king, we already knew, is above politics and greatly revered by his people. He ascended the throne in 1946, making him the longest reigning monarch in Thai history and currently the world’s longest serving head of state (beating Queen Elizabeth by 6 years).

For once the evening was dry and we selected a street restaurant near our hotel. Although it had been set up by hand in the hour since dusk, there was an extensive menu (with English translation) and a good selection of drinks. Lynne chose a lightly fried fish which she said was excellent but my ‘duck north-eastern style’ was less successful. Livers are not my favourite part of the bird, and there was so much lemongrass it overwhelmed everything else – but at least it was not bland.

Elaborate street food, Bangkok

Dinner over, we strolled up and down the road. We would set off for home the next morning and felt unconvinced our short stay had allowed us to properly get to grips with Bangkok. Beneath the pedestrian bridge over the main road was a small shrine, and on that shrine was a cat, stretched out and asleep. In my memory this has become the defining image of Bangkok.

Cat on a shrine, Bangkok
Myanmar, Land of Gold

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