From Taiwan we flew back to Bangkok, for the 3rd time this year, but this time we had an apartment booked through Airbnb. The owner was abroad but his friend and neighbour, Thomas, met our taxi on a convenient corner and guided the driver through the narrow lanes to the Thai Sathit building. Talad Noi, was a gritty, working class area wedged between Chinatown, the river, and the more upmarket Silom. Actually more oily than gritty, since the main economic activity was the recycling of car engine parts; the constant soundtrack was of angle grinders and hammers on metal, and the stacked piles of components blocked the pavements. No tourist restaurants or swanky shops here, just stalls, noodle shops and a 7-11. Occasionally small groups wandered through with a guide, obviously on a ‘See the Real Bangkok’ walking tour. The locals ignored them, as they mostly did us. It wasn’t that they were hostile – they just didn’t speak English, didn’t expect foreigners to speak Thai, and guessed that we weren’t in the market for a secondhand clutch plate.
The fish seller in the narrow market alley was friendly though, handing me the metal bowl with a smile so that I could scoop in prawns and squid with my bare hands, and fishing out the chunks of ice before she weighed them (I always made sure it was my last stop, as I then had very fishy hands!). My regular fruit and veg lady was initially grumpy but warmed a little when I became a regular, and then we bonded over an incident where she temporarily mislaid her bum bag which was stuffed with several days’ takings. At first the stallholders showed me the amount I owed, either on a calculator or by holding up notes, but by the end of our stay they’d stopped, obviously expecting me to have learned my numbers. I hadn’t, but by then I knew how much things cost.
Thai Sathit had its own little shop, so crammed with shelves that you could hardly get in, where we bought beer (and water, when the block’s drinking water filter broke down), and its own hairdressing salon which doubled as a laundrette and blanket shop (blankets?!), but whose proprietor spent most of her time sitting on the floor prepping and bagging vast quantities of vegetables for sale to street food vendors. The Thai model does not require that lines of business sharing premises be remotely related, so any random collection of income generating activities can be found together – high-visibility jackets with temple offerings, photocopying and silver jewellery, ice cream and bicycle spares, spring rolls alongside SIM cards and sunglasses.
Our apartment block was 18 storeys, the tallest building for several streets around (most were just 2 or 3), and it held well over 200 condos – just one room with a kitchen area and separate small bathroom. The corner apartments were occupied by families who spilled into 2 or 3 adjacent units and appropriated the corridor too. The long term tenant of our flat was Spanish, so the kitchen was somewhere we could actually cook, with a double electric plate, toaster, microwave and electric kettle, and a proper sink and worktop. In many of the places we’d looked at online the ‘kitchen’ was actually just a fridge with a microwave perched on top. Eating out can be so cheap in Thailand that many people in cities don’t bother to cook.
What the apartment also had was a stunning view. From our 15th floor window we looked down on a bend in the Chao Phraya river and across our low rise neighbours to the skyscrapers of Silom, right round to Siam Square. The river is Bangkok’s artery, busy from dawn until after midnight with wooden passenger ferries (across and along), traditional sampan-style shuttle boats belonging to the ritzy riverside hotels, noisy, painted longtail boats, and trains of 3 or 4 huge barges (loaded with sand or tarpaulin-covered mystery cargo) towed by a straining tug. We quickly realised how skilled the pilots of these tugs had to be to deal with the changing tides and currents that constantly threatened to sweep the hindmost barge into the bank, sideswiping a few other vessels in the process. Every morning a dozen little yellow fibreglass boats that we christened the Minions paraded downstream en route to their assigned spot to hoik rubbish and propeller-clogging water hyacinth from the river. Every evening between 19:00 and 21:00 we watched a dozen or more wide dinner cruisers pass by with their disco lights and blaring music (or worse, karaoke) – apart from the odd police siren from the expressway this was the only noise that we noticed from our lofty home.
Well, apart from the thunder of course. It wasn’t full swing rainy season, but there was a thunderstorm almost every other day, and they were humdingers. Normally I quite like thunderstorms, but it’s a bit different when you’re high up and watching the lightning actually strike the buildings around you, only a few hundred metres away, causing showers of sparks to cascade from their roofs. And then it strikes your building with a blinding flash and simultaneous crash that might just be the loudest noise you ever heard. That’s just scary.
Although exotic foods such as cheese and baked beans were unavailable in the immediate vicinity there was a French bakery selling good bread a 10 minute walk away, down by the Sheraton, and a bus from the Sheraton took us to the malls around Siam Sq – from cheap and cheerful MBK (full of Russians cramming their wheeled suitcases with fake designer T-shirts) to exclusive Paragon (where there were handbags that cost more than my house, and prospective customers had to wait outside if there was already someone in the shop).
Surprisingly though, we bought more food from Paragon than from MBK. The Thai pricing strategy is very different from the UK: shops differentiate themselves by what they sell, not how much they charge for it, so my favourite plain yoghurt (the Japanese Meiji Bulgaria brand – yum) that cost 40p in Talad Noi 7-11, cost 40p in Big C (a cross between Aldi and Asda), 40p in Tops in MBK (Waitrose, more or less), and 40p in Gourmet Market in Paragon (Marks & Spencer meets Fortnum & Mason). There was an awful lot in Gourmet Market that we couldn’t afford, but the fish was reasonable and the cheese counter usually had free samples, so we filled our small rucksacks and crossed our fingers that the return bus would turn up before the butter melted into a puddle in the bottom.
It was hot in Bangkok. Seriously hot. 38°C in the shade, and who knows what out of it. We ducked into air conditioned shops and malls at every opportunity, and it’s the only time I’ve ever appreciated the presence of a monstrous concrete skytrain track running down the street 30ft above me – it kept the sun off a treat. At least the flat had air conditioning, although we managed without it at night: with the window open it got down to 27°C. At one time I might have considered that hot – now it seems quite comfortable.
Our original plan was to stay in Bangkok for the 30 days allowed, perhaps with day trips to places like Ayutthaya, then go somewhere else before Indonesia in late June. But after a visit to the nearby Golden Buddha Temple we realised that it was too hot for seeing Sights, and we found there was a cheap flight direct from Bangkok to Bali so we extended our stay in the Talad Noi apartment to 7 weeks. Which then meant that we had to schlep out to the Immigration Office (located in the middle of nowhere in the far north of the city) to extend our permission to stay – not a difficult thing to do, but expensive. We kicked ourselves for not getting Thai visas in Taipei as it would have been much cheaper (although it would have meant sacrificing an entire passport page).
So once again it was a stay focused on practicalities – Indonesian visas, the dentist (Mr V), a dermatologist at Bumrungrad Hospital to get some moles checked (me), new hat, scarf and handbag (also me), and new glasses for both of us. I now have varifocals for the first time, so I can sit and type this without having to remove my specs. Having a fixed address for a few weeks meant that we could have vital new bank cards couriered to us from the UK, thanks to the kindness of family. Lots of online stuff got done too thanks to an excellent wifi in the flat, so all our Australia bookings are done and we have lots of new films and TV programmes to watch at our leisure.
I can’t believe how quickly those 7 weeks went. We finally managed to get together with Thomas for a drink – he turned out to be an American journalist who had spent most of his working life in central America, but moved to Thailand 10 years ago to work as an editor for a wire service. An interesting guy. And he seems to have liked us, so we have a good review on Airbnb which will make future bookings easier. No doubt we’ll be back in Bangkok at some point – if so, I hope our apartment is available. It was damn near perfect and I miss that view already.