Travel: Chaos fringed by calm: Bangkok bustles, but the jungle still sleeps. Simon Calder visits Thailand
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Sunday 20 February 1994
That was how the Third World seemed to me seven years ago, as I gritted my teeth, tightened my moneybelt and nursed an arm bulging with inoculations. Thailand looked terrifying.
Which, of course, it wasn't. Instead of villains, I found a graceful and gracious people, remarkably tolerant of the often loutish behaviour of tourists. They live in a country which meets every traveller's needs: high culture, grand scenery and beaches so perfect they test the efficacy of the word 'idyllic'.
Yet, the most frequent question asked by new arrivals to Thailand's capital is not 'Where's the tourist office?' or 'Which sight shall we see first?', but 'When's the first flight home?' Bangkok is growing fast, and makes no concession to the wide-eyed newcomer. Six million people, most of them driving their cars at the same time, inhabit a swampy slab of land wholly unsuited to being a capital city.
The assiduous ticker-off of sights will have his or her work cut out in the Thai capital. Bangkok could be renamed 'Temples'R'Us', given the huge number of wats (Buddhist shrines). The dutiful visitor will see the three most important temples - in terms of history and culture - plus the Royal Palace and the National Museum. Personally, having slogged around all of the above, I would strongly recommend that you skip everything but one temple, which (a) contains the finest Buddha you are ever likely to see, and (b) is jolly handy for the train station.
Wat Traimit is the temple of the Golden Buddha. Despite its location, enveloped in deafening traffic noise, this 10ft figure is worth battling through three lanes of murderous motorists to visit - not least because it is one of the most valuable objects you are ever likely to see. It is made from five tons of solid gold, and worth a shade less than pounds 50m.
Your cultural dues paid, you can now start having fun. Take a tuk-tuk - an absurd motorised three-wheeled taxi - across town to Jim Thompson's house. Mr Thompson was an American adventurer who became involved in the silk trade and settled in Bangkok. He spent much of his fortune in assembling a mansion from traditional Thai architectural styles. Thompson is no longer in residence: he was lost in the highlands of Malaysia in 1967.
Snaking through the city, the Chao Phraya river is one place where you can escape the traffic. Twenty pence buys the freedom of the river all the way through the city on one of the River Express boats. One of the Bangkok thrills is boarding this beast as it bobs around: the boatmen wouldn't dream of anything so cissy as tying up while passengers gamely attempt to hop on and off. Few experiences would be so appalling as falling into the oil- smeared sludge which passes for a river.
If you can plan your trip right, take a southbound boat and leap ashore at the Oriental hotel. Find the riverside bar, and order a (stupendously overpriced) beer. This is an outright tourist trap, air-conditioned and sanitised. Great, isn't it?
Three hours north-west of Bangkok, the train rumbles over an ungainly metal bridge. Dozens of cameras are aimed at the structure. A few of them focus on the plate which shows the country of manufacture as Japan. Here, near the town of Kanchanaburi, thousands of Allied prisoners of war died building the bridge over the River Kwai. In 1942-43, the Japanese brought 60,000 PoWs from Singapore and set them to work alongside 200,000 Asian labourers. A quarter of the workforce perished, one for each sleeper along the track.
The graves of 6,982 Allied soldiers occupy a quiet corner of Kanchanaburi. Painfully graphic details of their suffering are depicted in the Jeath Museum, a collection of bamboo huts on the banks of the tranquil river. 'Jeath' is the acronym for Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland, a loose selection of the nationalities who worked on the railway.
Kanchanaburi rests in a tranquil valley amid stately scenery, and is home to some intensely friendly people. After witnessing the horror of the Jeath Museum, my faith in humanity was restored by a bunch of labourers working at the riverside. They politely insisted I shared their bottle of Mekong whisky. This small kindness was all the more poignant for the scale of inhumanity that had been perpetrated here. -
GETTING THERE: Non- stop flights - on British Airways, Qantas and Thai - are relatively expensive, but the Travel Bug (061-721 4000) has excellent deals on Eva Air ( pounds 418 return) and China Airlines ( pounds 414).
RED TAPE: British travellers need no visa for stays of less than 15 days. For longer stays, contact the Thai Embassy, 29 Queen's Gate, London SW7 (071- 589 0173).
INFORMATION: The Rough Guide to Thailand ( pounds 8.99) is a companionable introduction to the country. In the capital, I used the Lonely Planet Bangkok ( pounds 4.95). The Tourism Authority of Thailand, 49 Albemarle Street, London W1 (071-499 7679).
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