01/02/03: Arrive in Bangkok and scramble off to the Khao San Palace; check emails; Wally’s for breakfast; coffee at random café with colleague, L, O and the mercurial F; drop of a roll of film for development; dinner at The Connection – not great – with the aforementioned crew; Dong Dea Moon and Chart with the same, plus ‘Mai’ and ‘A’ – Thai friends of the Nong Kai contingent.
02/02/03: Wally’s; pick up photos; riverboat to Chinatown with companion, L, F and Welsh B; back to our original domain but then get taxi to Nana for an Indian; Dong Dea Moon for a quick beer before retreating early.
Welsh L & K had a connection in Bangkok: somebody who lived there in a penthouse apartment, with a swimming pool and everything. Furthermore, it happened that K’s brother, G, was on his way over for a month’s holiday and they’d be tied up with all of this for at least the next couple of days. They left our train at Samsen Station, as opposed to terminating at Hua Lamphong with the rest of us, and it wasn’t long before O and the faceless extra from Mut Mee had gone their separate ways too. Everybody who’s ever been to Bangkok normally has their preferred place to stay, so by the time we’d reached the Khao San Road it was just the two of us – my colleague and I – booking back into The Palace.
But our accompanied travels were far from over, L made sure of that. Before we parted company, she arranged for us to meet her and O later in a café at the end of the road. There we would be introduced to F, a by now semi-mythical Dutchman who L and O knew through their time spent teaching English to Thai nationals.
The rainy season had reached cessation and, as we entered February, the climate had levelled out onto a very hot plateau. I didn’t feel uncomfortable being back in Bangkok, although this change in the weather didn’t suit, but neither did I feel very much at ease. However, this had more to do with the pending arrangements that needed to be agreed upon as a matter of urgency, especially if we decided to revert to our Vietnam plan and had to obtain visas in advance.
After returning to Wally’s for breakfast, I found myself in an internet café checking my e-mails. After that, I moved onto our rendezvous early to drink coffee and gorge myself on CNN to find out how the UN Weapons Inspections were getting on (Laos had been a television free zone, for the most part). Nothing substantive had materialised as yet, but that didn’t seem to be good enough for the United States who, like some wild animal being held back by Colin Powell’s leash, were gnashing at the bit, impervious to the UN’s pleas to allow the inspectors to complete their task. I had another cup of coffee and cursed it was not of the Laotian kind.
One by one our entourage arrived: first O, then L, and finally F. Standing at around 6 feet 4 inches, this lanky Dutchman, with an Andrew McCarthy-esque quality about him, possessed a voice of surprisingly deep timbre. As with O, I took to him almost instantly.
Our meeting was brief but attempts were made to untangle the mystery of what to do with the rest of our allotted time in Southeast Asia. My companion and I had a month left before we were due to fly out to New Zealand. O had almost the same amount of time at his disposal, after which he was scheduled to leave for Outer Mongolia! L was in a similar predicament, but without the far-flung destination to go to at the end of it; she’d be returning to New York. I cannot recall F’s exact circumstances but I think he was the least restricted of us all. The early reports were that Welsh L & K had disappeared off the radar, but we knew that they too had plenty of time on their hands and had made explicit their intention to explore someplace else other than Thailand, once G had got himself settled. And given that everybody had either already explored the south of Thailand, or had no interest in going there, a common dilemma appeared still to be shared: Cambodia or Nam? Or even Cambodia and Nam? Indeed, unless one flew, to get to Vietnam one would have to travel through Cambodia anyway, so if any of us were intent on going to Nam then they might as well go to Cambodia as well.
About a week or so prior, some Cambodian rag (the Light of Angkor) had attributed a highly inflammatory quote to the Thai actress Suvanant Kongying, wherein she had supposedly accused Cambodia of having ‘stolen’ Angkor Wat from Thailand and that, as a corollary, she ‘hated’ all Cambodians. It’s almost certain that she had said nothing of the sort, but Cambodians, apparently, are a people who don’t very often question what they read in their press – a bit like readers of the British Daily Mail. Not even the then Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, bothered to check his facts – for there was no physical evidence to back the story up – and publically denounced Miss Kongying, chipping in that she was, “not worth a few blades of grass near the temple,” with the Cambodian Government the next day banning the broadcast of Thai television programmes across the whole of the country.
One should understand that Cambodia has a sort of inferiority complex where its larger, more economically successful neighbors are concerned (Vietnam to the east being an equal source of antagonism, although Laos, to the north, less so), and following Hun Sen’s comments protesters gathered en masse outside the Thai Embassy in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to express their distaste. Worse was to follow when on the 29th January 2003 word erroneously spread through the protesters’ ranks that twenty or so Cambodians had been killed in reprisal back in the Thai capital. Naturally, these nefarious rumours sent everyone ballistic: the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh was razed to the ground and many Thai-owned businesses were either looted or destroyed. Consequently, the border between the two countries was closed indefinitely, although officially only to Thai and Cambodian nationals. And this is where F’s experience came to light, for he had recently tried to enter Cambodia via the border crossing at Aranya Prathet, only for the Cambodian Border Agency to stamp his visa, rendering it null and void, turn him around and send him back to Thailand.
We’d been aware of these goings-on (what would soon become known as the 2003 Phnom Penh Riots) since our second day in Nong Kai, but it had taken a while for the actual severity of the situation to fully reveal itself. Welsh L & K had raised the possibility of travelling to the island of Koh Chang to wait and see how events panned out. Located south of Trat Province on the southern tip of Thailand’s border with Cambodia, and not far from Bangkok itself, its location was conducive in these circumstances as a place to bide one’s time. It was also an island L had already been to but thought pleasant enough to visit again. The question really was how long were people prepared to stay in Koh Chang and where would they go from there? The answer could only really be Cambodia, with maybe a short stay in Nam tacked on the end, assuming that the political tensions between Cambodia and Thailand could be resolved quickly enough.
This skeleton of a plan agreed upon, and with enough room still for manoeuvre, we re-dispersed and agreed to reconvene at The Connection – an establishment catering for Jewish diaspora – at L’s behest. In-between, I submitted a few rolls of film for development. I did this because I was concerned that some of the older rolls of film I’d taken might start to degrade in the humidity, and also because the many cartridges I was now carrying were taking up vital room in my bag.
Later, to compensate for the exclusivity of The Connection, my companion and I persuaded everyone along to Dong Dea Moon. It was nice to be back. Next up was Chart, where we’d watched K-19: The Widowmaker and Panic Room during our last stay in Bangkok, and where we were joined by Mai and ‘A’, young Thai lads (‘A’ was called exactly that, although I assume that this was an abbreviation or sobriquet of sorts) who L had seemingly adopted as her guides, having got to know ‘A’ through her teaching network.
Meanwhile, L’s limits were fast becoming obvious: she demanded civility, liked things to be just-so, and had no obvious enthusiasm for getting drunk. But at least she liked to get out and about and was entirely unfazed by her surroundings, no matter how weird. With this in mind, we agreed to meet up with her on the Sunday, where she had arranged to meet up with yet another of her many contacts.
They shuffle about, the staff in Wally’s, but I quite like them for it. This is in no way unique to Wally’s, as a lack of urgency permeates throughout this corner of the world.
I wish L would shuffle about a little. Instead, she’s whisking us off to catch the Chao Phraya Express, the riverboat that services the Chao Phraya River. But great news: F is with her! We’ll also be meeting Welsh B at Pier N13/Tha Phra Athit, the nearest port of call where we can board a vessel. (I include the “proper adjective” in describing Welsh B because she made a fanatically big issue out of her Welshness; whereas I applied the same description to Welsh L simply to differentiate him from American L.)
We have no fixed destination in mind and so make a spontaneous alightment eight piers downstream at Pier N5/Ratchawong, which services the area in and around Chinatown. Chinatown is pretty hectic and really there’s not a lot to see or do, save for the odd shop selling cute Asian tat. That said, it’s a colourful spectacle and certainly worth a look.
All the time we’re there, Welsh B chatters away to L about this, that and the other. And did I tell you it’s starting to get REALLY HOT of late? Actually, back on the boat, the river’s a good place to be in weather like this, and it’s a good way to see Bangkok too – everyone who visits should give it go. The Chao Phraya River itself is the colour of mud and probably a pretty dirty body of water, but you wouldn’t know it from the preponderance of water hyacinths that float upon its surface.
The evening, staffed by the same crew, brings with it irritation. First up it has become very apparent that Welsh B is some sort of racist, the focus of her heavy disdain being me and my colleague – in other words, the English. The way she expatiates on the matter comes as quite some surprise, especially when she moves on to the subject of rugby. So brazen is her manner that I can only conclude one of four things: that Welsh B thinks my colleague and I are Welsh too (unlikely, despite our surnames); that Welsh B has wrongly assumed that at some juncture she let us know that present company was to be excepted, or that she did actually say this but I just didn’t hear her (a little less unlikely); that Welsh B actually doesn’t like me or my colleague and has contrived to cause as much offence as she can (not impossible); or that Welsh B takes great pleasure in talking up her Welsh heritage and it doesn’t even occur to her how she might come across (probable). My colleague and I aren’t really bothered either way, but the relish with which she delivers a blow-by-blow account of how the Welsh Rugby Team narrowly defeated the “arrogant English” on their own turf – an account that is delivered completely off-subject to a group of people who either don’t care for rugby or know not what rugby even is – is bizarre at best and downright egomaniacal at worst. [I am satisfied that the game in question took place as part of the 1999 Five Nations Championship. On this occasion Wales defeated England 32-31, the deciding try and subsequent conversion being scored in injury time, depriving the tournament favourites of a Grand Slam victory and handing the title to Scotland instead. This was almost four years prior, and, after investigating further, it was revealed to me that England had comfortably won their three (by now Six Nations) Championship encounters with Wales since. On top of that, England had won two Championships in this intervening period and would go on to win their third tournament and first Grand Slam in four years by the time we had returned to Blighty, beating Wales (in Cardiff) 26-9 along the way. So really, the perceived arrogance of the English team at the time was not without its grounds. And I don’t even care for rugby.]
The bad conversation would be easier to bear were it not for the bad food that accompanies it. I had been nervously excited about dinner: an Indian meal in the district of Nana, just down from Siam Square. L warned us that the area was a little salacious, although maybe not as notoriously so as Patpong (I am afraid that modesty permits me from expanding on this) but that the Indian cuisine found there was the best to be had in the whole of Bangkok.
If this is true then we have drawn a very short straw. The food itself isn’t terrible but the chicken I’ve ordered is nothing of the sort; a dry, dark-grey brawn, I suspect it might be of canine origin. It could be pork, at a push, but if it is then the bones holding the meat together don’t make much sense, for they are quite small. It could be the flesh of another animal entirely but I think it his best that one settles on ‘dog’, for there are nastier possibilities still.
And then there’s the service, which is cursory, and L apologies for the complete failure of it all – she’s visibly embarrassed by the behaviour of Welsh B in particular.
The evening ends with a couple of drinks in Dong Dea Moon. Man, I should be on some sort of commission.
It was around this time that I began to labour under the misapprehension that the classical actor and theatre director Simon Callow was no longer with us (i.e. dead). I have no idea from where I acquired this grim untruth – maybe I was disinformed, or perhaps I even dreamt of it – but you can imagine my surprise when many, many months later (it could even have been a full year) I chanced upon a television interview with said actor, looking very much alive and, by all accounts, very well.
He was not dead, then, but I had perceived him to be; for a period of time my point of view was that Simon Callow no longer existed. To take a solipsistic view, this could mean that for a while he really didn’t exist, and my discovery to the contrary represents a sort of perceptual resurrection.