A Year in Bangkok – Intro

9 08 2010

Welcome to my wee blog. I’ve been emailing friends and family about my life here in Thailand and many of them say “You should publish this stuff,” so here we go! It’s about real life, real people (names changed of course) real places and will have lots of photos. If this blog works then maybe it will become a book….who knows, but copyright on everything here is registered before it gets posted just in case. I hope you enjoy.

Getting here seemed to take rather a long time. When I was twenty eight, and fresh out of university as a (supposedly mature) student, I decided I wanted to teach English as a foreign language. It is not well paid though and, with a young family to support, I had to put that dream aside. Not so long ago, I was quite ill and had to have major surgery. During my seemingly endless months off work, I was made redundant and my long term relationship broke down. Time for some big decisions about my life I thought, and the kids are grown up now so I’m free to do whatever I want. I was looking seriously at voluntary service overseas when the Guardian newspaper published a series of articles on teaching English as a foreign language. That awoke my old dream and, after completing an intensive TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) training course, I found myself seeking work abroad. Almost immediately, I secured a job in Thailand, sold my belongings – how liberating that felt – and bought a one way plane ticket. And, as I sit writing this, I cannot think of a single possession that I miss.

So here I am in Bangkok. That’s what we call it anyway. Its proper name is Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit. That must surely be the world’s longest place name – it certainly beats the famous Welsh one! That name was coined in 1786, considerably lengthening the name given to it four years earlier. It was felt that the capital city deserved a grand name and it certainly got one. Unsurprisingly, it’s normally shortened to Krungthep although country Thais, like westerners always seem to have referred to it as Bangkok.  As closely as we can translate to English, it means ‘Great city of angels, repository of divine gems, great land unconquerable, grand and prominent realm, royal and delightful capital city full of nine noble gems, highest royal dwelling and grand palace, divine shelter and living place of reincarnated spirits’. Again, that’s generally shortened to ‘city of angels’ and now I find myself teaching  English to hundreds of little angels. The name Bangkok comes from Bang Makok (place of olive plum trees) which is the original site where the capital was established in the late eighteenth century. Ban (or baan) is the Thai word for village and makok or kok is actually the name of the tree. That capital was established by King Thaksin the Great, who was ousted by the guy who became King Rama the first, starting off the dynasty which still reigns here in Thailand. On arrival here, I stayed in Bukkalo, part of Thonburi, which is the old part of the capital and near that original place of olive plum trees.

Officially, Bangkok was founded in 1782 but I think that founding must refer to ‘Krung Thep’, the capital founded on the eastern side of the river by King Rama the first. Bangkok existed for some time before that though, presumably as a smaller place. I have seen a French map from 1693 called ‘a map of Bancock’ and showing ‘the citty’ in  the same location as King Thaksin’s capital. Thonburi now, though, is a huge area and is much bigger than that original ‘Bancock’. In my view, it is also the nicest part of the city and much of it is still based on the old canal network. The first canal was cut in the reign of King Prajai (1534 to 1546) in order to cut out some bends in the river and thus reduce the journey time to Ayutthaya. It is fascinating taking a long tail boat along those old canals, watching a way of life which has almost disappeared elsewhere. As for poor old King Thaksin the great, he was disposed of in what was then the traditional way of dispatching those who were descended of royal blood: in the presence of the (new) king he was tied in a velvet sack and beaten to death with a sandalwood club. The poor guy was only forty eight years old, that is younger than me. Interestingly, many of the old European maps of the area call the Chao Praya river, which flows through Bangkok and means ‘river of kings’ the River Menam. My assumption is that those early visitors to the kingdom asked the locals what is was called and were told ‘menam’ which is the Thai word for river. So there we have it, we Europeans in our wisdom called it ‘the river river’.

I live in an area called Thong Lor which is ten minutes from downtown Bangkok if you pick your transport carefully. It was recently described in the ‘Bangkok Post’ as the Hollywood Hills of Bangkok but anybody visiting the area fresh from the UK would have difficulty matching it to such a description. However, in Bangkok terms it is certainly upmarket and my apartment block has it’s own swimming pool, gym, coffee shop, bar, restaurant, hairdresser, internet café and mini-market. I even have a bath tub and a proper flushing western toilet – luxury indeed over here. My kitchen is outside on a balcony – al fresco cooking at its best but if I leave so much as a single grain of sugar on a worktop, a million ants swarm upon it as if from nowhere. All this for around a hundred pounds a month. I moved in to the ninth floor, overlooking the back of the building but very quickly moved down to the second floor where I got a much nicer corner apartment overlooking Petchburi Road, one of Bangkok’s main central traffic arteries. From my balcony, I sometimes think that I can see all of life. One morning, I was leaning over the balcony wall watching the comings and goings along Petchburi Road when a flash of movement from the petrol station across the road caught my eye.

A young man was running away from the petrol station and along Petchburi Road, hotly pursued by another man, shouting as he ran. Presumably, he was shouting the Thai equivalent of ‘Stop, thief!’ because, as the hapless young man ran past a motor cycle taxi stand, he was grabbed by two of the guys on the stand. They held on to him, the pursuer arrived and they had words, none of which I could hear but that didn’t really matter as I wouldn’t have understood them anyway. And nobody needed words to understand what was going on here. The pursuer then searched the alleged thief, still being held by the motor cycle taxi drivers, and found what I guess was the property which had been stolen from him. The two guys then continued to hold the young thief while he received a short but brutal beating. I guess that is the sort of rough justice many a thief’s victim in England would love to administer but couldn’t possibly do for fear of the law turning against him. And, while I was not impressed with the brutality of the beating, I did find myself thinking that the victim of the crime seemed satisfied justice had been done and the perpetrator of the crime came away without police involvement and, therefore, without a criminal record. Also without a sentence in a Thai jail which is definitely the sort of place no sane person would wish to spend any time in. I have been in one as a volunteer visitor and it is every bit as bad as we hear in the west.

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3 responses

17 08 2010
George James

Great content and pics, but do you have to include the ‘f’ word ? Spoils the rest !

18 08 2010
Ben Salmons

Hmm, interesting comment which deserves a reply. I don’t actually include what you call ‘the f word’ in my writing – not because I particularly disagree with using it but because I would only wish to do so in context. For instance, I love Bill Bryson’s writing but find his repeated use of it as a profanity tedious and a bit childish. Here it’s in a photo. The photo is fairly typical of Bangkok and the use (or, more accurately, misuse) of that word, which you often see here, especially on t-shirts. This blog is an attempt to describe life here as it is, using both words and pictures and I see that particular photo as a good and accurate reflection of one aspect of life here.

22 08 2010
Richard Small

Good answer to a pointlessly negative comment. Love the blog, good stories and great info. Keep blogging!

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