Delta Skelter - in and around Bangkok

Article excerpt

FOR the tourist the disadvantage of Bangkok is the other tourists. The waterborne Floating Market -- most popular of all Bangkok tourist attractions -- now employs several white-helmeted floating policemen to keep the tourist launches from swamping the legitimate market boats, so that the age-old entreprise can continue to function at all; and in all the great Buddhist 'wats' (temples) the ceaseless clicking of cameras and strident conversations in American and German spoil the atmosphere of complete calm proper to such places. Small wonder perhaps, that many tourists, baffled by the confusion and heat of this city of many contrasts, give up altogether and retire to spend the day in a plastic sunchair by the swimming pool of their luxury hotel, eating a Western-style sandwich lunch and swilling endless expensive lagers.

The Tourist Organization of Thailand (TOT), however, offers its more adventurous patrons as well-conceived alternative. Starting at 8:00 a.m. in an air-conditioned bus, your first experience of Bangkok life is three or four hold-ups, each one ten minutes or more, jammed tight in commuter traffic. The word 'Thai' means free, and not even Paris provides so cogent a demonstration of Parkinson's Law that traffic expands at once into every space created to accommodate it. The hold-ups give one time to study the fantastically wired street lamp posts, which in cats' cradles of staggering complexity fifteen feet above ground sustain the whole of Bangkok's street lighting, domestic power and telephone systems. Thais love small evening parties with intimate friends in gardens with lights strung from trees; an the temptation to shin up these posts and lift the extra current direct from the mains is one not often resisted.

At last we are away westwards down a long straight dual carriageway, through miles of subtopia complete with shop-parades, tyre dumps, small factories and all the other features of the suburbs of all modern cities. There are fortunately no elephants about today -- the slow-moving working elephant, most of all when returning unlit at dusk from his day's job, is a hazard that all Thai drivers fear. Twelve miles out, among the rice fields, we turn sharp left down a much narrower road which takes us past an enormous long low chicken and duck battery and brings us finally to Samut Sakhon.

This litle town at the sea's edge, with a direct rail link back to Bangkok, is the principal fish market for the big city, its narrow shady alleys all but impassable for the jumble of wooden tubs and trays offering an incredible profusion of dried and fresh fish of all sizes, some of them still alive. The innate sense of grace and style which informs everything that Thais do ensures that everything is done to give the fish 'package appeal'. In particular, what caught my eye was a neat way of putting up eight tiny sprats in a star shape, heads together in the centre, the whole battered ready for frying.

Europeans are a rarity in Samut Sakhon, but Thai courtesy towards guests soon overcomes their natural shyness, particularly among the very young and the very old. It was not long before a schoolboy, dared on by his laughing comrades, stepped boldly forward and held out his hand. Nothing in Thailand must ever be done casually, perfunctorily or without due ceremony, least of all so personal a gesture as shaking hands. Look the stranger straight in the eyes, place both your hands over his, shake several times seriously and with determination -- and for better or worse you have made a friend for life. I later had trouble in shaking off a smiling little grey-haired old man who followed me everywhere with his hand in mine, repeating incessantly the only English word he knew, which was 'fish' (pronounced 'fifth'); it was as well that I knew no Thai at all, since I felt that with only the mildest encouragement he would gladly have packed up at once and come back with me to London. …