Monday, August 13, 2007

Winner: Most Boring Capital City

There is simply no point in denying it. Vientiane is the outright winner for 'World's Most Boring Capital City', having also snatched the silver in the closely fought category of 'World's Worst Managed Capital City' and also a Medal of Commendation for 'World's Ugliest Capital City'. I could talk about the beauty of the parks, the stunning architecture, the gourmet restaurants and tree-lined boulevards but those would be a pack of lies, so I won't. Vientiane is situated alongside one of the world's most attractive rivers but instead of creating a decent promenade for its citizens to stroll along and take in the fabulous vista, the riverside has been left as a weed infested marshland with the occasional broken down car park. Having missed that golden opportunity, the centre of town revels in its filthy, Soviet-inspired, grey downtown buildings that are in varying states of decay and squalor.  Even the occasional French building does nothing to lift the overall appearance of neglect. Most of its roads remain mud-riven dirt tracks which, the locals are taking a relaxed, century-long view to repairing. The few temples that Vientiane does have, are poor replicas of Thai ones and leave one with the sense that Buddha has forsaken Laos for its prosperous  Western neighbour. I can think of few reasons for one ever to visit Vientiane and unless it involves incentives unprintable in a family-friendly blog, I would go somewhere else, anywhere else.

During supper I got chatting to two Irish women who were on a three month holiday of South East Asia. Sue had a nondescript job in insurance but her friend Jean proved the surprise of the day. She practised International Law in Dublin but had spent the first year after graduating working on the Slobodan Milosovic trial as part of the British prosecution team. Her descriptions of Milosovic himself, the trial process and the utter belief by his defence team that he was as guilty as sin of most of his alleged crimes, was fascinating. Apparently Milosovic denounced the court and trial in public, while at the same time working hour after hour on his defense with his own and The Hague-appointed defense teams. He was the original power-mad loony toon.

I had switched from the relative luxury of the brass-placqued Asian Pavilion Hotel, immortalised in John  Le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy, and decamped to an abode of more modest means and aromatic demeanor. This proved to be a disastrous mistake. The 160 baht I saved did not compensate for the fact that outside my new bedroom window, was a makeshift home karaoke yard that was put to ear-splitting use until 4am. It was no use trying to sleep and so I read until 4am, made the impromptu decision to go home and therefore decided to push on through the night and catch the first bus to Thailand with the intention of catching a train straight to Bangkok and the boarding the earliest flight to Singapore. I was told there was a train to Bangkok from the Thai town of Nong Khai,on the opposite bank of the Mekong, at 8am. That would have been perfect, except it was really 6am and I missed it by 20 minutes. There was no other train until 6.30pm and I was therefore stuck in the outstandingly awful provincial town of Nong Khai. Nong Khai's bland industrial facade gave one the impression of a lifeless factory that, if kicked into life, would produce cheap toilet seats. I had escaped from World's Most Boring Capital City to Blandest Provincial Town and apart from the fact that is was cleaner, was in fact zero improvement. 

Bangkok for a few final hours with all its fumes, its filth and its traffic was paradise compared to Nong Khai and Vientiane. Apart from anything else, Bangkok actually has coffee and not the liquid produced in Laos that is spelt the same but could replace petrol in an emergency. I had gone on the backpacking trip to clear my head after a stressful few months. At 4am on Saturday morning, it dawned on me that taking buses, boats, tuk-tuks and nature's own transport had done the trick. It was time to go home and see my beloved wife who had so graciously let me go and traipse around Thailand and Laos indulgently, without so much as a murmur of complaint.  When all was said and done, I had stayed under budget. It has been a real pleasure despite the dodgy accommodation, rather questionable food and life-threatening transport. As Jack Kerouac knew, there is nothing quite like being On The Road.

The pictures are now up - look here.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Thunder and Fire(Water)

A storm had been following our boat moodily down the Mekong, but had not unleashed its fury, just a few discontented rain drops and dark, menacing clouds when we docked at Luang Prabang. It kindly gave the intrepid travelers a few hours to find accommodation and have a noodly supper. However, just as I got to my bed that evening, the storm lost its patience and vented its violent wrath on the riverside town. The rain lashed down in furious gusts at my pane less window frame and streaks of lightning shredded the sky as the thunder cracked and boomed with morose unhappiness. The hawkers, who had so colourfully displayed their silks, tee-shirts and nick- nacks in front of the guesthouse, evaporated in seconds and I was left with only the deafening sound of nature at her most disgruntled. The first drops of water appeared innocuously enough along the wall opposite the bed. The drops soon became a trickle and further trickles appeared above the bed and along another wall. Before long, it felt like I was camping in a holey tent there was so much water pouring through the ceiling, which had a clattering, corrugated tin roof for its own meagre protection. There was nothing else to do, but wait for nature to exhaust herself and then sleep on what little dry patch of bed I had left. At about 3am, I woke with that confused start, that only totally unfamiliar sounds inspire. I heard in the pitch darkness what sounded like someone slowly stripping the wood panel behind my head, piece by piece. Luang Prabang is a quiet place and at 3am even quieter; the stripping to me was as loud as if I was in a workshop. It took me a while to realise that sound was coming not from behind me, but above - rats, whose scratchy paws I could discern, were in the ceiling and were clearly helping to make the ceiling as porous as it was. The sound was so malevolent I simply could not get back to sleep and when dawn finally yawned onto the Mekong I checked out and found a cheaper, and apparently better, establishment.

The old town is adjacent to the Mekong and one of its tributaries, the Nam Khan, and is relatively flat with only a single, steep, temple-crested limestone hill in the centre to interrupt the view to the surrounding forested mountains. The old pastel French buildings are being restored by UNESCO or commerce and, combined with the attractive Laotian-style temples and palaces, the town has a fabulously laid-back feel to it. It is undeniably touristy, but avoids the worst excesses that many tourist towns succumb to. Frangipani trees and hibiscus bushes add colour to the many avenues and hardwood villa compounds that make up the central district. With its fine restaurants and cafes, it is definitely a place to bring a lover and not just a backpack. Having made that egregious mistake, I set out to taste some of the local liquor as a poor substitute for having Kate with me. I found a bar that was run by an expatriate Frenchman called Georges who enthusiastically did the drink introductions. We started off gently enough with various brands of molasses whisky that all had an inevitably sweet but acceptable taste and varying degrees of strength. After the entree, Georges said, "Ah, maintenant yoo wil try thees won - Lao Lao!" and then he reached with a curious grin under the bar for a plastic bottle that looked innocently like a bottle of water. The contents were far from innocent though, more the sort of liquid one might expect an executioner to administer, not as a last rite, but for the final dispatch itself. Before the colourless liquid even hits your lips, the fumes singe the nose hairs and then as it actually hits the lips, a searing heat spreads across the tongue, down the cheeks and then scorches the back of the throat. The liquid then follows with its foul, bitter taste of rotten tamarinds as the brain takes temporary leave of its connection with the here-and-now and enters Jenny's 'seventh cosmic perspective'. I was attempting to return to the earthly perspective, when Georges filled up another two glasses and said "Of courze, I 'av been 'ere for yerz, I zink", he seemed unsure of this point, "not too sure I will ever leeve", he concluded and then he looked happily around his pub and smiled, "Sante!".

It is not good to stay for long in a town that offers its firewater for only 12 baht a glass and so after two nights, the second of which was actually worse than the first due to unnameable sewage problems, I decided to head south to the current capital of Vientiane. There are several luxury tourist buses that can take you there in 8 hours, but time was not a problem, so I opted for the 10 hour local service at just over half the price. The are a couple of things a passenger does not want to see on local bus service in a fourth world country: the driver wearing a cowboy hat and speakers the size of a small nightclub built into the interior. The driver tipped his broad stetson respectfully as I boarded but then gave me a you-have-just-joined-the-drive-from-hell smile which almost made me get off and reconsider my budget. Before such a cowardly and extravagant decision could be made, the ticket was stamped and the bus rolled into the hills. Cowboy decided to play DJ about a mile into the journey and made the snappy selection of some screaming which was a cross between Hindi and Korean pop and adjusted the dial to an impressive 114 decibels. It was thus that I drove through some of the most spectacular countryside in the world. The huge limestone mountains, dense with forests, their foliage hiding tigers, monkeys, deer, small cats and other mammals too numerous to mention, passed in winding, awesome splendour. Cowboy actually drove very well, and despite the numerous sheer drops at every hairpin bend, I did not feel that we were likely to join the other rusting wrecks we could spy occasionally.

By 10.30pm I was in dormant Vientiane, my ears ringing with "baai, baai, baoaioiao, ba ba aha, eeoai' in the pouring rain and without accommodation. That would not have been too bad but I was also at a different bus station from the one indicated on the faded map and none the wiser for this fact. Tuk-Tuks had deserted like unlucky gamblers from the moneylenders' bazaar and so I shrugged and walked in the general direction of town hoping to snag a waterproof one. I was joined in the sopping endeavour by a Parisian couple who bickered with less and less humour as Madame found the situation "quite intolerable". By the time we found a Tuk-Tuk to take us into town I was soaked through. We tried several guesthouses, which all seemed to be full of Chinese package tourists. Finally we came to one that had, alas, only one room free. There is a look that a Parisian woman can give that says 'Don't even think about it' and so I didn't. Madame and Monsieur checked in, and I remained stranded in a town with as much sophistication as Phnom Penh but with fewer bullet marks, and this could have been a thoroughly depressing moment. I put my backpack back on, walked out into the rainy night and wandered until I came across that weary traveller's oasis - a hotel. Not just any hotel, but one with a brass plaque that says 'HOTEL' in an official and hot-running-water sort of a way. I entered, beat the receptionist down (not physically - he didn't put up much of a fight) to an acceptable rate and retired to the dry, warm and distinctly luxurious bedroom.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang the old French capital of Laos, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is said to be one of the best preserved French Indochinese towns left. You can fly there from Bangkok but not on a budget of 20 pounds a day. My fate was to catch the painfully slow boat from Chiang Khong/Huay Xei to Luang Prabang down the broad, spectacular Mekong River which at 4880 kilometers is considered the tenth longest in the world. As it is low season, only one boat leaves each day for the two-day journey, and the ticket hustlers cram it with as many passengers as possible. For the first time on my journey I encountered dozens of sparkling-white-smiled Westerners in one place and the atmosphere was jovial, carefree and filled with solidarity for the bum-numbing journey ahead.

The creaking, ancient boat had hard wooden seats without cushions and a mere inch or two of legroom if you were lucky. By way of compensation, cheap cold beer was sold and consumed in vast quantities. Laos is one of the few countries left in the world where the majority of its landscape is forested. Sailing down the river, the soaring limestone mountains on either side were densely covered in lush, verdant montane forest buzzing with butterflies and swooping birds. The occasional cottage one sees peeking through the vegetation looks like an intruder on what must be one of the world's great remaining wildernesses. While our captain skillfully navigated floating debris and eddying whirlpools for hours on end we hardly saw another man-made thing apart from a few long, flat, narrow fishing boats being paddled by dark-skinned semi-naked locals. It is a shame that the physical discomfort of the boat dulled the enthusiasm for the extraordinary countryside vista and by nightfall the passengers positively cheered with delight as we berthed at the small town of Pak Beng for the half-way mark.

One of my overwhelming perceptions of the journey will be the obvious wealth difference between the Westerners and locals. The majority of people on board were European students backpacking in their university holidays. Despite the inevitable grubbiness of the travellers they looked infinitely healthier and wealthier than any local you could encounter. The average backpack contained more value than most locals would see in five, perhaps even ten, years. A cleaner in a guesthouse in Laos earns about 15 pounds a month, a sum so pitiful that one can lose the heart to bargain over rooms that only cost a pound a night but could be had for less if you were tough.

On the second day of the boat trip, I sat next to an American girl who took no time to tell me she suffered from ADHD. I assumed she needed a bucket of cold water over her head, but as time wore on and the air became discomforting, sultry and humid, I was exceptionally pleased that she was regularly taking her four different types of medication. "I need to lock my house exactly five times every morning before I leave" said nutcase Jenny from Boulder, Colorado "or I spend the rest of my classes banging my head against my desk. But that is not the worst of it" she continued, "if I don't lock my car exactly seven times, I have to drive home again and start my morning routine over, which makes me late for class, often". Jenny was reading a book called The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, but I think there was a much bigger crack in her head and that the interior was filled with albumen and little else. Still, her lunatic ravings made the day pass with wry amusement, and day two did not seem as bottom-numbing as day one.

When we finally docked at Luang Prabang, I managed to escape Jenny's pleadings "to see the world from the seventh cosmic perspective" and headed into the sleepy but idyllic town of cafes, bakeries and teak shuttered century-old French buildings.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Hill Tribes and Spanish Card Players

Chiang Rai itself holds little special appeal. It is a four hour bumpy bus ride north of Chiang Mai, which has beautiful scenery along the way for compensation. Chiang Rai does have the advantage however, of being the gateway up to the famed Golden Triangle. Burma, China, Laos and Thailand all collide in the Triangle where opium production and smuggling, although diminished, still take place. During the French Indochinese colonial period, Paris sanctioned opium production and later the CIA did too, during the Vietnamese and Laotian wars of the 20th century. Crop substitution programs have replaced the poppy flower with tea bushes but the mountainous region still holds its romantic appeal. The opium interest is not in Chiang Rai itself but in the hilltop villages further north populated with primitive tribes. It was to one of these, Doi Mae Saelong, near the Burmese border, that I caught a local bus which fortuitously had on board several very friendly Spanish, Italian and French backpackers heading the same way. The vegetation of Mae Saelong is more alpine with fragrant pine forests rather than sweaty montane jungle. Doi Mae Saelong is unique in Thailand, in that it looks like a Chinese village, rather than a Thai one, due to the Yunnanese refugee settlers that have made it their home. There is very little to do apart from hike in the hills and try their local aromatic teas. I had therefore planned for this to be a day trip, but fate and serendipity had a different plan. I was told the last bus back to Chiang Rai left at 5pm which would have been perfect except that it was really 3pm. I walked about 8 kilometers to a local road junction but could not for love or money get a lift and so had stay in Doi Mae Saelong for the night. I rejoined the EU contigent and we had an early evening trek of serene beauty through the locals hills to watch the sunset. As night fell, we could see wispy white smoke emanating from the local thatched villages and hear tuneful singing as the farmers returned home from tilling the tea fields. If you had closed your eyes, you could have been in Africa. That evening I was introduced to the trump card game 'El Presidente', which is as easy to win as it is to lose and is as addictive as it is hilarious. By the time the proprietor of our guesthouse amiably forced us out of his open air bar, the inconvenience of being a hundred kilometers from my bags seemed, and was, inconsequential.

The local muezzin and roosters had a competion to wake the village earliest and the muezzin won at 4.45am with his mournful call to the Muslim faithful that "prayer is better than sleep". The villagers all seemed to agree and his call heralded a bustle of activity for the local market. It was pointless to try and sleep, so I rose and wandered around the village admiring the pre-dawn enthusiasm of the hawkers and colourfully dressed buyers who descended from the hills to acquire pig's trotters, myriad vegetables, dried plums, roasted cashews, fresh river fish, locally made pungent cigarettes and above all golden, fried fritters which appeared a Sunday morning speciality. I was only tempted with the fritters dripping with honey, which were justifiably popular.

Munching on sticky fried batter, from the high vantage point of the town, one could see hundreds of miles across the folding, forested valleys below with sporadic thatched huts dotted here and there. Deep pools of misty cloud clung defiantly in patches, like fugitives hiding from the solar policeman who would inevitably appear. All too quickly dawn had become morning and it was time for the bumpy return journey to Chiang Rai where my landlord was the none the wiser for my unexpected overnight absence.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Moats, Temples and PushMe-PullYou's

Chiang Mai is the kind of town that at first glance is tourist trap. Within the old moated town, every second shop is promoting touristy activities and this puts me off. "Massage sir?", " Trek sir?", "Elephant park sir?" seems to be all you hear and the cynic in me said I should leave straight away, especially as I was staying in Beelzebub's own motel. However, Chiang Mai grows on you if you give it a chance. The Old Town is a calm square of tree lined streets, cafes and temples that somehow gets under your skin. The people are genuinely friendly and by and large the food is superb, cheap and served in an environment that says, "Please stay a while longer". The moat, with partial surviving ancient red-brick fortress walls has been turned from deterrent into a pleasing attraction with fountains and sloping green lawns where dogs and children play with happy abandon. Chiang Mai itself has colourful history with its roots in the Khmer culture of Cambodia. It was haggled over by the Thais and Burmese for centuries, with alternating control, before it decided to settle down and be a Thai tourist town - which it now does with aplomb. The local Lanna-style architecture that is found in stately buildings and temples alike, is a glorious combination of teak and stone, that appears light and important at the same time. Some of the 300 temples with their multicoloured, swooping roofs and separate chedis are spectacular. There are no charges for entering the temples, which in my mind is a plus as it appears the Buddhists are more interested in worship than money. However, the lie to the non-commercial appearance, is apparent in the details. In one, I was asked to make a donation into the bowl labeled with the day of the week I was born so "I would be assured of long and happy life". Apparently God is most concerned with which day of the week you were born and only bestows favours if you praise him accordingly. The temples, like most Buddhist temples, all contain impressive, huge golden statues of a serene-looking Buddha who impassively smiles at the hoard of food and grocery donations placed at his feet by the faithful. Vast red carpets, numerous bells and huge teak columns complete the pious picture and tranquil beauty. All very humbling, except when one considers the abject poverty nearby and the huge sums diverted to these ornamental buildings instead of education or health.

On one of my strolls, I came across a sight that almost got me run over. I was crossing the street, and while waiting in the middle, I noticed two dogs attached on the opposite pavement. They were attached, not in the traditional, erh, doggie style, but rather backside to backside. Both were complete mongrels; one was white and one was black. They seemed as confused by the situation as I was. They turned themselves around clockwise and then anti-clockwise and then repeated the process, seemingly unable to detach themselves. I could not see what bound them together, but bound they were. The moved forwards, they moved backwards, but for whatever reason they simply could not part wyas. I was contemplating this strange imitation of the famed "PushMe-PullYou's" when I was almost mowed down by a bus. Realising that placing myself in mortal danger was not worth solving the riddle, I left my mid-road vantage point and moved on in ignorance.

I shared a breakfast table with Phil from Phoenix, Arizona. Phil was a teacher traveling during the holidays. In a display of extraordinary humility, he seemed to apologise profusely for the dismal state of the world and George Bush's dire foreign policy, which he saw as its root cause. He appeared to experience physical pain at the thought of him and beseeched the powers that be, almost in prayer, to replace Dubya with a Democrat, any Democrat, in '08. He explained that as an English teacher, his main problem is getting kids to read. He has to contend with the Religious Right attempting to ban popular books like Harry Potter on blasphemous grounds which promptly sends the kids scurrying to MTV instead. Phil came across as a man who had been released from prison now that he was traveling across South East Asia, and I guess, in a way he was.

I found a little bar, that is the kind of bar, that is only found in transient backpacker towns. It has a live band, free pool table, staff who want to drink with you and is decorated in a combination of faded flags and photos of travelers engaging in hedonistic revelry. It did not take much persuasion for me to become another photo on the wall, beyond budget and thoroughly intoxicated.

I did not do the cooking Tom Yam Gool course I contemplated, however Chiang Mai baked a warm souffle of happiness in me and I was just a tad sad to be moving on to Chiang Rai.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Trains and Tuk-Tuks

There are several train services to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. There is a rapid service with flashy accommodation and there is the service that stops at every village along the 700km journey. I had taken the first sleeper available, which was the slow coach. The train has about ten carriages and three different classes. First, sleepers with aircon; second, sleepers with fan, and third, seating only with open windows. The second class journey is priced at the princley sum of 531 baht which suited the budget perfectly after my earlier extravagance. Each second class carriage ingeniously holds about 20 sleeping berths. The upper berths can fold up during the day, while the lower can transform into blue leather chairs with a fold-away table. The carriage panneling is a stomach churning cream-soda milkshake green, while stainlees steel mesh baggage racks incorporate tiny ladders to the upper berths. Stocking thin, stagnant-pond coloured curtains give a semblance of privacy to each bunk. The Thai Railway Board has obviously decided that, despite the fact one has booked a sleeper, that is not your real intention as the vast overhead strip lights never turn off during the 15 hour journey and the train beverages hawker thinks nothing of waking snoozing passengers at 2.30 am to take their rice porridge breakfast order with cheerful sprightlyness. Ceiling fans languidly rotate in mechanical indifference to the sweaty plight of the passengers huddled into the carriage. Our carriage included a aging, orange-haired farang with his young Thai 'girlfriend' who slurped and slobbered behind their stocking-curtain before their sleep finally gave us all some peace. We also had a Kim Jong-Il lookalike, with scrubby hair and square gold glasses, who alarmingly paced up and down examining each berth in detail with the efficiency of the famed North Korean secret police, but turned out to be bored rather than conspiratorial.

When dawn broke, the grimey smog-ridden surrounds of Bangkok had been transformed into a lush giant fern sub-tropical jungle. We were climbing in a narrow ravine with the train line and reluctant, drowsy telephone poles the only evidence of man's presence. The diesel-coated heart of the engine seemed to splutter, cough, pant and gasp as we trudged and wound up the gentle incline. One could lean fearlessly out of the carriage doors, certain that if you fell off the train, it was moving so slowly you would be able to hop back on unharmed. We would occasionaly clatter across a small wooden and rusted-steel bridge over a country stream that gurgled happily below. Golden butterflies competed with white-winged orange-tipped ones in erratic races alongside the train before dissapearing behind bamboo clumps. All of a sudden the landscape changed and we emerged onto a giant plateau, ringed with distant green mountains bearing illegal quarry scars. Chaotic and unruly jungle was replaced with symmetrical and ordered rice paddies in early, bright green shoot. Traditonal teak houses painted in various colours interupted the farming landscape. Giant monsoon clouds were building over the horizon, gently kissing the summits of the mountains in mockery of the violent downpour they were bringing to Chiang Mai. We traversed the plateau with significantly more pace as Mr. Engine found his rhythm on the flat. Once again we began to climb into the mountains towards Chiang Mai. Behind, one could see numerous brown rivers oozing across the plateau, like painted henna tattoos on a giant green body.

Without warning, as we climbed into the mountains again, the torrential rain came as if a giant airborn dam, hidden by the cumulonimbus clouds had burst its wall and released it entire contents onto the verdant valley below. Several passengers scrabbled to close the uncooperative, aging, dirty windows. I, however, ran to the carriage door and leaned out to enjoy the summer drenching which was as close to a shower as I had come in nearly 36 hours.

Chiang Mai station is thronged with touts and tuk-tuk drivers hoping to get you into commission-paying hotels and mountain-trek tour companies. I deliberately avoided their boisterous sales pitches and crossed the road looking for a tuk-tuk bus, which is the recommended budget-conscious transportation into town. I pointed on the map to an intersection beyond the central moat, negotiated the fare and crammed into the back with a few non-plussed locals. The tuk-tuk bus sped off dropping people off here and there and, in due course, crossed what I assumed was the moat. I indicated to the driver I wanted to jump off and despite his slight reservation, he acquiesced. It took me half an hour of wandering to realise that what I thought was the moat, was in fact a distant river and I was miles from where I wanted to be. Furious with my eager stupidity, I set off on foot in the right direction in search of a hotel that would drag the budget back in line. It has been a while since I stayed in a hotel that requires you to bring your own secret papers, but the Golden Muang Hotel off Moon Muang Street, is such an establishment. It has two good points: it is in Chiang Mai and it is likely to be condemmed soon, so that future travellers will avoid this excuse for an hostelry.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Bangkok Flâneur

In the fabulous 19th century Parisian tradition, I set out to wander Bangkok as a flâneur this afternoon. With Bangkok still enjoying the Buddhist holiday, only Chinatown had any semblance of life. Chinatown is a labyrinthine quarter of alleyways and crowded markets where vendors of every type vie for the attention of locals and curious tourists. There is barely room to move for the abundance of items on offer from cheap electronic calculators to exacting scientific flasks, ornate gilt-edged coffins to exotic herbs, tea and fresh fruit and more items whose intended purpose I could not fathom. One does not wander through, but rather descends into the warren. Black spaghetti wires strangle the sky overhead as goods crowd the pavements and streets below. Struggling through the markets is an explosion of colours, sounds, smells and textures. Bright flames from charcoal braziers lick grilling chicken legs and spicy lamb sausages permeating the area with sweet barbecue and chilli aromas. Hessian sacks overflowing with dried bael fruit tea compete with buckets full of raw brown almonds, heaped dishes of saffron and pink roselle. There seems no logical order to the stalls with counterfeit DVD sellers ("Porno XXX under counter", written in English) rubbing shoulders with DIY plumbing stalls and fake Barbie dolls smiling dumbly at patent leather bags and shoes side by side with greasy, sugary doughnut stands. It is like shopping at a Wal-Mart run by lunatics without a care in the world for hygiene or health and saftey. I emerged from this intoxicating morass to a monsoon rain-laden sky and headed for the cover of the nearest street canopy, just escaping the deluge that came in biblical proportions. Under the canopy I found Donnica, a Canadian biology and neurophisiology student sheltering from the summer downpour. She expressed extreme dissapointment that the Buddhist holiday had resulted in the closing of the university's forensic museum, "with its fascinating collection of formeldehyde foetuses in various states of (mis)development". I did not share her dissapointment and made a mental note to not pre-judge young, blonde women reading Maslow's 'The Farther Reaches of Human Nature'. On the edge of the main market is the Siam Bank set in a building that dates from the French colonial era in Indochina. This grand, teak shuttered, yellow painted building is home to one of, what must be, the world's remaining elegant banks. Teak-framed, brass-barred, marble-countered tellars are watched over by important-looking duty managers in smart suits. The hand-painted, multicolored floor tiles and wooden reception desks give a grand and nostalgic air to the voluminous double storied interior. If that is not enough reason to step inside, it also happens to be airconditioned providing respite from the humid, foetid, lead-filled, choking air of Bangkok.

From Chinatown one heads closer to the broad, brown vital Phrayo river that is the city's main transportation thoroughfare. Every building is grimey from the seething mass of human existence. The few remaining canals that gave Bangkok its Venetian comparisons look forlorn and filthy. And yet, occassionaly one can spot in the gap between dirty, uninspired buildings, the soaring golden temple pagodas and elegant roofs of palatial buildings and Bangkok's magic inspires. People are always friendly, even if enthusiastic to get you into the golden jewellery emporia, and the living sights make it worth aimlessly wandering about. Just as the feet start to drag, one will come across a wheelbarrow offering piercingly sweet juice, freshly squeezed from tiny mandarins and one thinks nature commanded that it should be just so.

With only a few hours to spare before the train will take me north to Chiang Mai, I came across the sort of coffee shop one dreams of. The Fine Time Cafe near Hua Lamphong Railway Station is a real coffee-lovers gem. Excellent espresso is prepared and served by the grey ponytailed, goateed, architecturally-fingered owner on simple wooden tables. The small, whitewashed room is decorated with superb photos taken by the owner. An old LP player had Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms crackling through large speakers waiting for the Bee Gees to take over. The menu included numerous coffee combinations but only one snack, buttered toast. I whiled away few hours in there talking to Peter from East Anglia who had just moved to Bangkok to teach English, and shared my passion for Graham Greene novels.

Baudelaire was on to something with flâneuring, it is a great way to get to know a place.