BLAISE HOPKINSON glides from cliché to homily in “busy Bangkok”
If you have ever cruised on the “mighty” Chao Praya, seen “barefoot saffron-robed monks” collecting alms at dawn or visited the temple “nestling” atop Chiang Mai’s “imposing” Doi Suthep, you have discovered the “best kept secrets” of ancient Siam.
Naturally, the natives smile perpetually and offer the charming “deferential wai”. No. Puhleeze stop. Travel clichés are the refuge of the ill travelled or dull.
Thailand, Southeast Asia’s most intriguing country, welcomes upwards of 28 million tourists a year, coups permitting. With that flotsam comes the ignoscenti jetsam. Every blogger or backpacker with an internet connection records their musings about “exotic” or “amazing” Thailand on every social media platform. And yet, all the clichés ring true. The Chao Praya is “mighty”, in its lugubrious way, as is the Mekong, when the Chinese haven’t dammed it to buggery.
The Thai smile is charming, of course, but it rarely means what you think. Cultural engagement gurus – “call me a guru if you can’t spell charlatan,” declared some genius – say the Thais smile as they empty your tourist wallet. They giggle as they sell you a nylon nightgown masquerading as silk and grin as they give you the wrong directions. You’ll get the full ear-to-ear treatment as they take a bribe from you to enter the Grand Palace.
Thai food is delicious, but the origins of most spicy food from Kerala to Kommetjie, is to hide the rotten meat or fish the peasants were forced to eat.
A tandoor-less restaurant in Sea Point called Tandoor, run by a German called Froggy who served vase-sized rum and cokes, had something on the menu known as “FH curry”.
When fire-dousing waters flooded the Tandoor building, his sign – “Sorry, closed due to fire damage. Fire not caused by FH curry” – said it all. Napalm had nothing on the FH (oh, work out the initials for yourself) but we wolfed down the mystery meat none the less.
The same goes when you travel in Thailand, where the provenance of the mystery meat is folkloric.
“Stepping back in time” in Siam is something travel writers seem to do a lot here. You can actually do the Dr No Tardis gig if you go into the backstreets of old Bangkok or on the klongs (canals) of Thonburi. You see life as it was a century ago, if you ignore the True Visions “direct to home disks” ads.
“Chaotic Bangkok traffic” is another cliché, much loved by the ignoscenti who clearly know nothing about “le circulation du traffique”. Bangkok is a heaving, (sorry) metropolis of 12 million “souls” (had to get that in) but when you drive here you realise the chaos is an ectoplasmic life form that actually works.
At a traffic intersection when surrounded by a swarm of 50cc motorcycles – “moto cy taxi” – you learn to swim with the shoal. You retract the electric rearview mirrors to let all the slithery fish surge forward, and when the lights change, it is like the end game in Ravel’s Bolero. A pure 10!
When you see the rictus grins of rich tourists returning the smile of the doorman at the Mandarin Oriental, you pray they won’t commit the cardinal sin of returning the “wai” to the servant. I’d be rich had I taken a satang for every time I witnessed that tragic set piece.
Travel broadens the mind, but wai, oh wai, can’t it broaden the vocabulary too?