March 31, 2017
They turn on the elephants in the pool at 7:00am sharp at the Bandara Resort on Koh Samui. If I wasn’t already awake, they’d wake me up for sure as there are 8 of them just spitting water all over the massive pool and so it sounds like you’re in the middle of a waterfall. It’s actually kind of soothing.
But I’m already awake by then because, like everywhere else in SE Asia, at sunrise about an hour earlier, a rooster or two has been cock-a-doodle-doing. There are chickens everywhere in SE Asia. Mostly next door to wherever our hotel is. I first noticed this when I looked out the window the first morning in Hanoi at about 5:00am and saw the neighbour lady from across the street sitting on a little blue plastic stool from hell boiling a vat of soup in the middle of the street with her chickens and roosters all squawking and squeaking around her. The squawking & squeaking hasn’t stopped since.
But by sunrise I’m already awake because, by then, the noisy flocks of birds in the trees outside our room have been holding a convention. They go off like an alarm clock 15 minutes before sunrise every morning.
But the winner in the ‘what wakes me up in SE Asia’ sweepstakes is the gong show from the Buddhist Temples that starts at 5:45am and lasts for exactly 108 gongs. With luck, the temple is directly next door to where we are staying so that the gonging and bonging is that much easier to hear. Frankly, I think it’s the gonging that sets off the birds that triggers the rooster that starts the elephants spitting.
(Side Note: It’s pretty clear that Passover is just around the corner because that last sentence reads like an alternate universe verse from Chad Gadya. I’m thinking of making an entire Chad Gadya song for Pesach for use in SE Asia based around that. That should keep me busy on the 14-hour flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver later this week. Stay tuned.)
Anyway, and so, elephants spitting in the pool at 7:00am is just, for me, a morning diversion about an hour or more after I’m already up. Some holiday.
Bangkok is huge. It starts at Suvarnabhumi International airport, where the one terminal in the airport (for both domestic & international flights) is the largest in the world. I mean you can walk and walk and walk and walk and…. well, you get the idea. Actually, they have a very well developed series of moving sidewalks. Edmonton International Airport – take notes.
(Side note: It turns out that the airport is a favoured spot for foreign nationals to commit suicide. An Irishman did that yesterday – jumping to his death from the 4th floor in an atrium area of the airport. A Canadian jumped to his death last year. A policeman at the airport who doesn’t want to be identified confided to the reporter for The Nation – Thailand’s No. 1 online English language newspaper – that 3 or 4 foreigners jump to their death at the airport every year. People, I don’t make this stuff up – it’s in the news.)
As I was saying, Bangkok is huge. Its metropolitan area holds Just under 15 million people (the 19th largest population on Earth). We met most of them in the traffic jam we were in on the way into the city from the airport.
Bangkok covers 1,568 sq. km. of land, most of which is located somewhere within spitting distance of the Chao Phraya river that snakes itself up, down and around the city (look at a map, it’s like the thing does a couple of loops, just for fun). This means that the city is bisected by the river in every which way. Uncountable canals and creeks (called “klongs”) branch off from the river as well.
Some of the klongs are natural, but a lot were built by slaves at the order of King Rama I who, in the late 1700’s, moved the capital of Siam to Bangkok (on the east side of the river) from Thonburi (on the west side of the river). Klong building is the kind of thing you do when you are king and have nothing better to order your slaves to do.
All of that water makes boats a traditional and very practical option for transportation. The river and klongs also support a number of floating markets.
We made some strategic decisions about our time here in Bangkok. All of them centred on the theme of “Whatever we do, let’s stay off the roads and out of traffic jams.” That means using the river boat ferry transport system called “The Chao Phraya Express”.
In addition, we have a couple of added land based choices. Since we were last here (I mean in 1984; not 4 days ago en route to Koh Samui) an entire metro system has been built. Two really. One is above ground (the Sky Train). Yes, it’s the same name as the one in Vancouver but I really don’t know – or care – which one came first. The other is below ground (the Metro). Yes, it’s the same name as the ones in Paris & Washington, D.C. This is simply evidence of a lack of imagination on the part of the person who was in charge of naming things. I wouldn’t make any more of these similarities than that, really.
Many of Bangkok’s residents live in its 581 skyscrapers (5th most on Earth). Many more will live in the ones that we can see on the horizon in various stages of being built.
And, speaking of horizon(s):
“The whole picture was so perfectly proportioned that the eye was entirely unhastened from one part to another; there was no vying or vanity”.
Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933)
The fictional lamasery in the book that is located high in the Tibetan Himalayas is called Shangri-La and that is also the name of our hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya river here in Bangkok. I looked it up – the book came first. Shangri-La (the hotel) has quotes from the book like the one above scattered all over the place. Like this one, on the bookmark left on our bed tonight:
“It was not so much any individual thing that attracted him as the gradual revelation of elegance, of modest and impeccable taste, of harmony so fragrant that it seemed to gratify the eye without arresting it”.
As you can see, Mr. Hilton (who, by the way, is not the hotel guy) has a thing for unhastened & gratified eyes. I haven’t read his book but I hope it’s got more of a plot than just talking about eyes. If not, Eye for one won’t be reading it. I’ll let you know more on this as I investigate the other quotes from the book in the coming days that I suspect will ‘gradually reveal’ themselves.
Meantime, Shangri-La (the hotel) has a free shuttle ferry boat service that heads about 10 minutes downriver every hour on the hour to The Asiatique, a sprawling riverside open-air night market complex incorporating over 1,500 vendors stalls and restaurants located in what was the original space occupied by warehouses of the East Asiatic Company, a Danish based company that set up camp in Bangkok in 1897 but which is now, as I just said, an open-air night market.
We checked out The Asiatique tonight. It was highly recommended by Peter (not his real name – the real one is unpronounceable and un-spellable). Peter drove us to the hotel from the airport. Very slowly – I told you about the traffic jam – so he had lots of time to chat.
He feels that locals go to this night market and that the prices are better than the tourist prices charged at the Patpong Night Market (a couple of districts away from the Bang Rak riverfront area where we are staying). Peter the Unpronounceable is a local, so we went with his advice.
He was right. The number and variety of restaurants at The Asiatique is more than sufficient to bring us back here nightly for dinner, we expect, as there is no freaking way we are going to eat dinner in any of the restaurants in our hotel. Each of those ones cost as much as trying to get to Shangri-La (the one in the book). Thank God, the breakfast buffet is included.
Seriously, this is the kind of place we are staying: There is a little hardbound book on the bedside table titled “Tales by the River”. On the back of the book (aside from another pretty much indecipherable quote from Lost Horizon) it says this: “Every one of our hotels has its own story to tell and we’ve tried to capture them in these little books. Collect as many as you can from our 70 hotels & resorts worldwide.” Well, that’s very sweet of them. Are they paying?
(Final side note: There is another small book in the room. This one is all about "Chi", the spa at Shangri-La. Here, the menu of treatments includes ‘The Caviar Deluxe Treatment’. What a waste of caviar, no?)