THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER 8: THE GLITTER OF BANGKOK
I reached Calcutta after another slow-dragging, two-day ordeal with Indian railways, and was stuck there over Christmas through the delays of getting a visa from the Thai Consulate, and a flight booking with Burma Airways to Bangkok. For the best part of a week I stayed at the local Salvation Army Red Shield hostel, which was much better than it sounds, and the Lady Sergeant-majors in charge were human enough to turn a blind eye to the inmates who went night-clubbing and climbed back over the closed gates at two and three in the morning. One good point about Calcutta was that I met up with Doug again and we slapped a little more red paint on the town, but the next I heard of him after that was many months later and he was in Australia. His hopes of a job in Assam had fallen flat and he had followed the rest of the overland trail.
I found Calcutta a sprawling, dirty-guttered and grossly overcrowded city; a vast, ugly symbol of all of India's huge problems of poverty and exploding population. The swarming pavements were littered with deformed beggars, old, grey-whiskered shoe-shine boys, cobblers and peddlers, and everywhere the shapeless, sexless forms of the homeless huddled under scraps of sacking and blanket. The main living, flowing masses of humanity swarmed unconcernedly around them, and the surprising and almost frightening thing was to find how quickly I too could become accustomed to the most despairing sights. The problems were too vast, the beggars too numerous, and it became a reflex action to simply wave them away. I couldn't help them, and even when I spared a few coins for some crippled child I felt that I was only prolonging his misery into tomorrow. If there was reincarnation then surely this was the very bottom of the wheel of life.
I walked out to see the Howdrah Bridge that spans the broad, ugly grey of the Hooghly River. The third largest suspension bridge in the world it was impressive simply by its size, with two massive peaks of grey steel girders rising two-hundred and seventy feet high. Further down the river a trio of grubby freighters were moored beyond a litter of black barges and a handful of fishing boats, while immediately below the bridge there were a few score of brown-bodied, half-naked Indians ducking themselves in the oily waters. Across the bridge itself, in both directions, poured a never-ending flood of hurrying, turbaned humanity, hammering home again the fact that India was the most densely- populated country on earth.
Later I also took a stroll along the lower reaches of the river where more freighters and barges were all cluttered up together. Packs of begging children followed me like bleating animals, and a thin-faced man with hopeless eyes mistook me for a seaman and begged me to smuggle him aboard my ship. The destination didn't matter; anywhere but India.
Needless to say that Christmas of nineteen sixty-six was not the best that I have ever spent. Most of India fascinated me and one day I would like to return, but Calcutta was a depressing place. Also I had had my present fill of Indian officialdom. They had a rare habit of being servile and smiling at one moment, and then becoming tight-lipped and ignorant the moment they were faced with any difficulty or decision. Every public service was chaos, and in Calcutta there was a tram strike which didn't exactly improve matters. Traveling across India I had found that it was better to look upon the funny side rather than drive myself crackers trying to get any sense out of the system, but I had temporarily worn out my sense of humor. My tolerance had evaporated and I was glad to get out.
Two days after Christmas I boarded a Viscount of Union of Burma Airways at Dum Dum airport. The flight was delayed for an hour by thick fog, and if only there had been Victorian lamp posts instead of palm fronds showing dimly through the early-morning grayness along the airport road then I could easily have imagined myself back in London. However, when the plane took off at ten o’clock the skies had cleared to a bright blue.
The plane flew at seventeen-thousand-five-hundred feet, and the first leg of the flight took two hours to Rangoon. From the air the seemingly endless plain of northern India looked perfectly flat, like a vast untidy chessboard with the squares all colored the same drab brown. After a while they were split and scattered by a maze of twisting rivers; the mouths of the Ganges searching blindly and listlessly for the sea. Then came the sparkling blue of the Bay of Bengal, but with undersea clouds of greenish-brown silt seeping out from the slowly- emptying mouths of the delta. Green island sandbanks and strips of yellow beach showed beneath the silver wing of the plane, and the horizon was obscured in thin haze.
After the sea came the coast of Burma, more definite cloud formations, and the green jungle ridges of the Arakan Yomas passing slowly below. One of my earlier novels had been about a group of survivors from a crashed plane who had been lost in this same jungle, and I began thinking how ironic it would be if this plane was to crash and I had to find out by first-hand experience whether such excitement would really be as I had imagined it.
Fortunately the plane continued smoothly to land dead on time at Rangoon airport. It was only possible at that time to get a twenty-four hour visa to visit Burma, and to me it hadn't seemed to be worth the bother. I stayed with the plane and after a thirty minute delay we were airborne again.
There was another one hour and twenty minutes of flying time at seventy-thousand feet, but now there was a gleaming white carpet of sunlit cloud covering the green valleys. More great masses of cloud piled up on the horizon, like huge, frothy squirts of whipped cream. Over Thailand the clouds became darker and more ominous and then surged up to envelope the plane. There was nothing outside but the prop whirring through murky fog and occasional fleeting glimpses of the earth streaming through the broken shreds of grey as we dropped lower. When we landed at Bangkok the sky looked full of rain, and the air was hot and humid.
An airport bus took the plane's passengers along the fast dual carriageway into the city, and most of them were distributed among the more respectable, palatial hotels. However, the hotel I wanted was a little Chinese establishment near the station called the Thai Song Greet, which took a little longer to find.
At nearly every major stop along the overland route to Australia there is a rendezvous and meeting place for hitch-hikers and World Travelers. In Kabul it was the Khyber restaurant, in Delhi it was usually Wengers, in Katmandu it was the Globe, and here in Bangkok it was the Thai Song Greet. It was the cheapest place to stay and the cheapest place to eat, and it had the added refinement of being a discreet brothel. The girls would wander cheerfully around the corridors and landings, and if your doorway was open they would pause and smile hopefully.
A return smile would bring them in, or a negative gesture would cause them to shrug sadly and continue on their way. It was all very polite and incidental, the service was merely there if you wanted it. Respectable girl travelers stayed at the Thai Song Greet, and casually ignored the hotel s modest sideline.
Bangkok was smart and pricey, a boom city blessed and nourished by the almighty American dollar. It was a favorite liberty port for the American troops on leave from Vietnam and its prosperity was reflected in the well-stocked windows of its modern shops, the bright lights and the glittering enticement of its night clubs. The traffic was hectic, but it was all buses and flashing cars, and never a rickshaw in sight. By night the main streets were rivers of flowing neon, and the multitude of over-hanging shop signs speckled with mysterious Chinese characters added an oriental flavor that was a foretaste of Hong Kong.
The Thais themselves seemed to be a very pure race, their skins a light golden brown and sometimes almost white. The men were all short, with smooth flat features, narrow eyes and slick black hair. The young women were all pert and chic and vastly more attractive than their Indian sisters. Both sexes were simply, but smartly and cleanly dressed, and they were always happy and laughing. The Thai youths were incapable of growing a beard, and so my own beard brought me smiles and giggles from the girls wherever I went. After India and the Middle East Bangkok was a much-needed tonic, and the Thais were so polite that often the bus conductors were reluctant to ask a foreigner for the fare. Perhaps they were doing so well out of the Americans that they could afford to give the rest of us a break.
The most gorgeous jewels in Bangkok were undoubtedly its temples. They were vividly colorful, brilliantly decorated, and in the blistering hot sunshine they were painfully dazzling to the eyes. In fact I soon realized why nature gave slit eyes to the oriental, for as I explored Bangkok my own eyes were always narrowed into squinting slits against the glare.
The city contained five or six complex groups of temples, monasteries and Buddhist schools, and all of them were splendid beyond description. The architecture of the main buildings was basically the same, slender columns, square and elegant and set with silver, mosaic or semi-precious stones, supporting three tiers of sloping roofs tiled in blue, red, green, or flaming orange. From each of the many eaves and corners sharp celestial serpents curved up into the sky, gleaming golden in the sunlight, and lofty spires soared up from the surrounding courtyards. In the cloisters there were often long rows of life-sized statues of Buddha, each one sitting upright in a cross-legged posture with the hands resting placidly in the lap.
Usually they were plated with gold, and looked down with impassive serenity.
Around the Wat Pho temple the courtyards were a maze of rising spires, broken up by occasional trees, palm fronds, rock gardens and still pools. Grim demon statues, like fearsome Chinese mandarins or warlords, guarded every entrance. The spire shrines tapered up to needle points from their squared stone bases, and together with the main buildings made a magnificent composite picture of Thai art and design. While in the gloom of a vast pavilion in the western courtyard lay a colossal reclining Buddha, one hundred and sixty feet long and forty feet high, leafed with yellow gold.
Another outstanding example was Wat Benjamabophit, a more sedate monastery of pure-white false marble, with a score of red-tiled roof levels rising to a central apex and a forest of curling golden serpents. Polished Buddhas of black stone lined the cloisters in a great variety of poses, and inside the temple was a superb golden-bronze Buddha above a dimly lit altar that was twice life size. The surrounding lawns and gardens were beautifully lush and green, shaded by trees and giant palm fronds, and with a little red-railed, hump-backed bridge spanning a narrow stream like a scene from a Chinese willow pattern plate. There were tortoises in the stream, and the surface was broken by their shell backs and horny heads as they lazily fed upon popcorn sold by two little Thai girls from a stall nearby. In the quieter corners of the gardens there were several young monks with shaven heads and bright orange robes, undisturbed as they read their books in the shade. It was all very cerebral, and a perfect place in which to study.
The remaining temples were mostly similar to Wat Pho, and though a feast to the eye would become repetitive to describe in detail. The exception was the temple of the Emerald Buddha beside the Royal Palace and here I ran out of words. How can mere words portray a scene which a Rembrant’s brush, dipped in gold and silver and all the flashing brilliance of the rainbow, could never hope to reproduce? Like the Dome of the Rock, the Taj Mahal, and the glory of sunrise over Everest it was supreme of its kind.
The Emerald Buddha itself was some two foot high, carved from solid green-black jasper and enclosed in a glass case high on a splendid golden altar throne. The doors and windows of its temple are framed with gold leaf and the high inner walls are one vast continuous painting depicting scenes from that great Homeric epic of Indian literature the Ramayana.
To one side of the Emerald Buddha temple stands another, equally elaborate, with golden statues of warlords and strange birdmen guarding its doorways. Then there were three single spire temples all of different architecture. One was a gigantic golden bell, rising up into the familiar tapering needle. Second was a high temple of gleaming black marble, supported on slender columns, with a steep roof intricately carved into climbing steps that merged into another soaring point. And third a great blunt spire of carved, thrusting stone, like some huge phallic emblem raping the scorching blue sky.
Everywhere the courtyards between were scattered with lesser golden spires and shrines; and huge brightly painted demons, sixty feet high and with grinning, gargoyle faces stood guard with their hands crossed over the hilts of their swords. Altogether it was blinding to the eye, a unique composition of all the colors imaginable, richly splashed with all the sparkling wealth and wonder that might have graced Aladdin's Cave.
After the temples Bangkok’s main source of endless fascination lay in its waterways and the busy floating markets. Fine modern roads now bisect the city, but the interlaced network of canals or Klongs, that spread out from the river remain. In places the dark brown water would be almost hidden from view by the host of sampans and small boats that plied noisily back and forth. They were loaded high with coconuts, melons, pineapples, bananas, sugar cane, and a score of other fruits I could not even name. The men and women wielding the short paddles invariably wore wide lampshade hats made from palm fronds. They chattered and haggled cheerfully but without pause. There were large sampan homes turned into huts of corrugated tin which must have been as hot as hell inside but the owners were usually seated beneath large brown sunshades at the bow or stern; and wherever the brown water was visible naked children splashed and swam.
These scenes existed in small glimpses in Bangkok, but to see them fully it was necessary to take a boat trip along the river, and then turn up one of the wider tributaries off the west bank. It was a regular tourist excursion and left at dawn to see the morning market. Once the launch had turned away from the river the waterway was lined with wooden shacks, shops and houses all raised on stilts and holding back a waving green skyline of coconut palms and lush foliage which seemed to be striving to push them all into the water. It was rather like cruising up the flooded street of some placidly overgrown shanty town. Canoes paddled briskly past and returning launches like our own, and there were traffic jams under the wobbly wooden bridges where long strings of overloaded barges had got tangled up. The barges were always awash and the oarsmen were knee-deep in the river as they walked up and down to pole them along. At regular intervals cool, green-shaded lanes of winding water led off from the main channel, vanishing into silent mystery.
After an hour of chugging along the picturesque klong the launch stopped at a wooden quayside that was already packed tight with similar craft. Here there was an open silk factory where young Thai girls worked at their looms, but it was also the usual tourist trap cluttered with souvenir stalls and camera-draped visitors. There were even a few captive animals for the pampered tourists to photograph; two small black bears in a cramped cage, and a young grey elephant with a short chain securing one foreleg to the bole of a palm. The elephant had sorrow-filled eyes and made helpless, frustrated efforts to walk. I couldn't blame the Thais, for the poor need to make a living, but I felt disgusted by the stupid flocks of fat, mainly American tourists for whose benefit he was chained.
When the cruise continued the launch turned a few more bends and then at last arrived in the river-front village that set the scene for the floating markets. Here it was even more busy, colorful and bustling with life than it had been in those minor back canals in Bangkok. Scores of narrow, deftly paddled canoes shot back and forth, all loaded almost to the point of sinking with an endless variety of fruit and vegetables. Melons would be piled like mounds of huge green cannon balls in the prow, and the straw-hatted boat-owners would be almost buried under baskets of red tomatoes, white cauliflowers, and heaps of yellow pineapples. The flat Thai faces all seemed to wear a smile, no matter how hard their bodies were working, and the fierce sunshine blazed down from a hot blue sky.
My time in Bangkok was limited for I was fast running out of money and British currency restrictions made it impossible for to me to get any further funds sent out to a non-sterling area. It was a nuisance but I had to make an early departure for Malaya and Singapore. I was tempted to try my hand at selling pills or soap, which was a thriving racket which attracted many recruits from the Thai Song Greet. There were a certain number of local sharks who had learned the value of employing American or European salesmen to impress the more simple-minded populations of the outlying village markets. The routine was for the salesman to stand up and shout a barrage of fine-sounding words through a megaphone. It didn’t matter what was shouted because the audience could never understand. At the same time the orator would be making vigorous hand-washing or pill-swallowing and tummy-patting movements, depending on whether the product was pills or soap. After this demonstrative bit of play-acting the shark would then take over the megaphone and tell the gullible audience in their own language that they had been listening to a famous American film star, or English doctor, or French scientist or whatever, who had come all the way to Thailand to tell them about these remarkable new pills. (or soap.) The cheap nasty pills and the cheap nasty soap usually sold like hot cakes at prices treble those asked for genuine aspirin or Lux bars in the city shops, and the shark and the hard-up traveler split the proceeds. However, my basic rule has always been never do unto others what thou wouldst not have done unto thyself, and so it was only a passing thought. I never did like sharks anyway.
So I had to leave, but my last day in Bangkok provided a pleasant surprise. I went out to post a letter, turned a corner, and practically tripped over Dilys who was standing idly on the pavement. A moment later Dick came out of a shop doorway and I learned that there was another small hotel only a few yards away that was half full of Overlanders. George was there and more surprisingly Jean and Tessa whom I had last seen in Kabul. A reunion was obviously called for, and that letter didn't get posted until hours later. I learned that the girls had all met up again in Bombay, and then traveled here to join up with Dick and George. Now they were all staying together with the adventurous idea of island hopping down the chain of Indonesia to reach Australia.
I hadn't realized that my last night in Bangkok was New Year's Eve, but it was and once enlightened I joined them all to celebrate in the night clubs. We went first to a place called Gogo’s that was a wild joint packed to capacity and with virtually no lights. The waiters groped their way around with tiny green-shaded torches and there was an animal mob of American teenagers twisting frantically to a hideous beat group. Fire crackers went of continually and the noise was deafening. Drinks were expensive but we had bought half bottles of cheap Thai whisky in the Thai Song Greet and smuggled them inside in the girl’s handbags, so we only needed cokes.
The noise finally drove us out and we went into the Can Can where even the cokes were so ridiculously high-priced that we stacked them back on the waiter’s tray and told him what he could do with them. After that we found a third nightclub where it was so dark the waiters didn’t even notice us in the general mass of customers. We drank our own whisky, cheered the cabaret, and toasted the New Year as rowdily as anyone else.
The latter part of the evening, or rather the early hours of the morning are lost forever in a hazy fog of hilarity, and I only know is that when I woke up I was back in the Thai Song Greet. January the first was mostly history and I had missed my train to the south.