Beware of the Elephant…

Thursday, June 27, 1996

Not The Elephant In Question

You know they say ‘travel light’? And you always ignore it? Well, I think I understand what they mean. I’m dreading packing tomorrow before I fly to Singapore, so I think that I’m going to end up mailing some stuff back to my parents in the morning. There are some films and a tape that I’ve used up, I haven’t used my tripod so far (it’s not very heavy, but is bulky) and I guess I can lose my alarm clock too. I can use my watch if I need to, or rely on someone waking me up. That will probably only save about a kilogram in total, but a lot of room.

Back to recent events, yesterday started out as Taxi Hell. I’d found that when I met a taxi driver who didn’t understand English I could just point at the Thai version of the placename in the Lonely Planet guidebook and that would usually work. Unfortunately this time it didn’t, and I ended up being dropped off at the end of a small alleyway on an almost deserted road. For some reason it was blocked off, but I didn’t know why. During the week I’d noticed that a lot of grandstands were being assembled in the centre of Bangkok. If I’d realised that I was only a few hundred yards from them I might have worked out what was going on.

I wandered around for a while looking for the place I wanted to visit (the old Palace), and eventually gave up. I tried to take a second taxi, but the driver just gesticulated wildly in various directions so I gave up on that too. I could see a large tower above me and signs to the ‘Golden Mount’, so I decided to skip the Palace and take a look at that instead. I walked through the Buddhist Temple and just as I got to the steps up the mount someone blocked it off. Oh well.

Finally, I grabbed another taxi and the driver explained that there was a big army parade that day to commemorate the King’s fiftieth anniversary. This explained a lot. I arrived at the old teak Palace and explored it for a while, it was quite pretty and full of objects which the Kings had collected from all over Asia and Europe on their travels. I caught the end of a traditional Thai dance show by the canal, then left in the hope of taking afternoon tea at the Hilton.

Finding a taxi was easy. Explaining to the driver was very hard, and he eventually dropped me off on a street corner after a total failure to communicate. I tried a few more. The only taxi who wanted to go there wanted four times the usual rate. I started walking and found a street sign which was marked on my map, finally worked out where I was, then spotted some paratroopers dropping out of the sky only a few hundred yards away. Then a column of armoured cars rumbled past, and I finally realised why the taxis weren’t very happy about travelling in that direction. At this point I regretted not refilling my water bottle from the Palace restaurant and decided that I’d better walk past the parade zone and pick up a taxi on the other side.

I followed the route, skirting the boundaries of the area that had been closed off, then the road abruptly came to a halt with a crowd of people in front of me. Jets flew over only a few hundred feet up, a military band paraded past and MPs on motorbikes drove up in front of us. In the distance I could see the Golden Mount where I’d started my travels. I now understood why they’d been so concerned about closing it off, it was only about a hundred yards from the grandstand where the Royal family were sitting, an ideal sniper shot.

Tanks Roll Past

Well, as I was stuck there I thought I might as well enjoy the show. It was fun, something of a big boys’ toy show. Tanks and missile launchers rumbled past, more planes flew over, fireworks went off, the band played, flags waved, the MPs sternly kept everyone under control and squirrels played obliviously in the trees and telephone wires. I also had a excuse to pull out my video camera and get some use from it. That’s the first tape finished…

So I missed my afternoon tea, but saw the Thai Royal Family and lots of cool toys, and waved at the soldiers with the rest of the crowd. I might even appear in some crowd-shots on TV or in the newspapers, as some official-looking photographers and guys with BetaCam cameras were filming us during the parade. Afterwards I hung around for a while taking pictures as they packed up, then began the walk to the hotel. By the time some taxis had emptied I was half-way there and could see little point paying them rather than finish on foot.

Sunset At A Memorial (or something)

I’ve actually been walking a surprising amount here, and if you don’t mind sweating like crazy I can recommend it. You’ll get a much better understanding of the geography and see a lot of things that you miss from the road. The city is packed with tiny food stores and huge night-time food markets which you can’t see from a taxi because you’re either in the wrong place or too low down to see over the walls. In fact, food seems to be the thing in Bangkok, at night any empty space from the sidewalk to building sites comes alive with food stalls of various sorts.

Ah well, that’s enough for now. I have to nip down to the cyberpub to check that all’s well for tomorrow, then get ready to fly to Singapore. I found some accommodation for when I get back here, it’s not as impressive as this hotel and costs more than I paid the travel agent for this one, but it’s about 1/3 of the price that they wanted for me to extend my stay here. Hotels are strange…

Hee… may be on TV again – a TV crew arrived to film the cyberpub while I was there. They only interviewed some of the staff rather than the customers though. I also saw something that I’ve never seen anywhere but Bangkok – elephants blocking the sidewalk. See what I mean about the advantages of walking?

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