And three supervisors
Replacing Old Man Emu Leaf Springs in Pattaya is no laughing matter. As our rendezvous with the family in Ko Lanta for Christmas hurtles towards us, Landy is still luxuriating over a rather fine maintenance pit 900km away, at Plodd Stop, with a varied collection of bolts, bushes and springs all laid out helplessly along side.
The Chinese spare parts shop, eventually came up with a replacement leaf spring, especially manufactured in a factory in Bangkok, but the little yellow nylon bushes that keep everything tightly in place have proved more elusive, as has the garage mechanic offering to piece it all back together again!
Thanks to an email from Julian Voelcker, who prepped Landy in Hertfordshire, we were able to obtain the relevant part numbers and miraculously I found an ARB leaf spring supplier not 50kms away from Pattaya who are now sending the parts. (In case you are wondering, these parts are the guts of the cars formidable suspension system which has taken a hammering along the way, not helped by the unique quality of the neighbouring Cambodian highways and by-ways.)
To keep ourselves sane while we waited, we wandered into downtown Pattaya and discovered a shopping cente to rival Bluewater in Kent. There we were able to buy Jim’s socks from Marks and Spencer, a shiny blouse for me, for my attempt at Christmas dressing up. With some effort, I managed to shun the tiny xmas puddings and packets of shortbread biscuits that winked invitingly at me as I sidled past the familiar M&S xmas displays.
The real target of the outing was English speaking films in the massive shiny cinema complex, complete with drinks, slot machines and popcorn. I mention all this, because it feels like a real culture shock after so many months of something completely different.
Jim purchased some massively expensive cinema tickets to see the much fancied Freddie Mercury biopic. He explained away the incredible prices by explaining it included Coke and Popcorn. Later he suggested that perhaps he had purchased outdoor sunbeds for the screening. I really tried not to grumble, honest!
When we returned later, bearing socks and blouses, we presented our tickets and were ushered into a relatively small cinema with a medium sized screen and a dozen double beds. I kid you not! There we were led to a bed, given a blanket to snuggle under and handed a cocktail menu!
Before the screening started, we were instructed to stand for the Thai national anthem. We scrambled up from the low level mattress, to our feet and were treated to a short film promoting the younger King and his family, in various military finary with hugely modern fighter jets in the background, with accompanying rousing patriotic music. (We learnt later that much to the chagrin of his subjects, he and his third or was it fifth wife, actually now live in Germany).
Minutes later we were embroiled in Queen and the much publicised antics and music of the irrepresible Freddie Mercury.
Later, we travelled alone back to Plodd Stop and Landy, in a large Tuctuc designed for a crowd. We were now confident at our ability to arrive home in any taxi, courtesy of MapsMe on our phones which always guides us back to our door.
The busy streets we passed were full of twinkling bars and floodlit shops and tourists. Their numbers were over represented by older, mainly white men, cruising around hoping to meet a beautiful younger Thai woman, either for the night or for keeps. Some of them had obviously been successful!
As David, the owner of Plodd Stop observed, the wallet never ages!
A couple of nights later we went back into town to view ‘walking street’. That was a seedy strip selling sex, complete with gyrating dancing girls of all ages, some of them obscenely young, in skimpy schoolgirl skirts.
Most of the girls were Thai, but also there were some striking tall Russian women in mega high heels, scooping up passing men, young and old, drunk or sober, ugly or handsome, into the bars advertising cheap beers, clubs and brothels behind them. Beefy security men watched over the girls and warded off those tempted to photograph girls on bar stools writhing in the laps of balding sex tourists, whilst other girls whose flimsy under garments wrapped in silk dressing gowns, stopped to take their rest breaks.
I kid you not, but some bars had kick boxing girls, designed to lure you ringside. Other bars had cosy seats for two, where old men sat alone hugging their glass in the hope that an attractive young women would sidle up and join them. (Some of the men had companions).
What struck me, was how good humoured it seemed to be. Many girls were at worst bored with the constant writhing and jiggling expected of them, but mainly friendly and chatty, even to those coming to gawp. They consoled themselves with waving photos of sex scenes and selling tickets to graphic sex displays behind closed doors, all night long. It actually all looked pretty cheap and seedy.
This evening, we slipped back in to the Plodd Stop yard out of town, to locate Landy amongst a motely collection of resting overland vehicles and reflected on what we had seen.
Jim reminisced that only 40 years ago, Pattaya was a mere village, which had grown by becoming one of the biggest sex capitals of the world. It had become a destination of choice for American soldiers on duty in Vietnam seeking ‘rest and recreation’ and it grew from there.
Moving on, our intention had always been to spend a couple of days in Bangkok and in our run up to Christmas, to take in one posh nosh. But for now, it was clear that Landy was going nowhere and in spite of me nursing a cold, we decided to hop on a bus to Bangkok and take a few days out from hassling for car parts.
The journey was very fast on a modern motorway. We were amazed to pass familiar brands including Macros, Tesco, Decathalon, Habitat and Ikea. Bangkok was the most modern and accessible capital we had seen since we had left Europe. (Drawing a veil over China). Many streets in Bangkok were too narrow, the pavements often missing. Here drains were at least covered and the streets were relatively clean and litter free and refuse collections were under control. A complete contrast to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.
What was familiar though, were the thoroughfares lined with rows of black sagging electricity cables. We had seen this in Vientiane, in Laos and in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. In most streets these were suspended between buildings and dipping under their weight, barely above head height in places. You did have to keep your eyes peeled as these wires could hang down at neck level with a danger of inadvertant decapitation.
Back in Bishkek, Kyrgistan, where we had been grounded for a few weeks, we had revelled on finding a taxi app for our phones and it took us no time in Bangkok to find Grab the equivalent. This takes price and route negotiations out of the equation as it is all agreed in advance. These are just a version of Uber and in Bishkek at least they worked very well!
However, the traffic in Bangkok is horrendous. Jim and I had donned our best clobber to go to Gaa, a Bangkok Restaurant that had just achieved its first Michelin Star. Jim had had his suit trousers and shirt especially pressed and his favourite gold cufflinks had made it to Bangkok. I had slipped into slinky silk trousers and a shiny top and we had both had our whiskers trimmed! However, all did not go according to plan in Friday evening rush hour.
Jim managed to ignore my pleas to order the taxi early. What could be worse than getting there late? Getting there early!
Jim’s usual impecible timing went seriousy awry. Our Grab taxi did not arrive after 40 minutes and we could not make our booking on foot, in time. In the end, in desparation, Jim flagged down a couple of taxi motorbikes and hopping on, we tore separately through the traffic, seated behind our orange vested drivers, directing them with our gesticulating iPhones. Jim decided that a short cut through Lumphini Park might speed things up and we weaved between strollers and parked cars and exited past a flabbergasted security guard, facing the wrong way down a dual carriageway!
After a couple of death defying u turns, we ended up going at a hair raising pace, the wrong way up a one way street. At this point we alighted, only slightly shaky and dispatched our bikes. Jim then announced that we only had 500 metres to go and we hot footed it down the road, avoiding all obstacles in our path to arrive panting, if not a little flushed, and only 15 minutes late.
Needless to say, the evening took a turn for the better as, plate after plate arrived with curious dishes, given the Gaa treatment, accompanied by wines, selected by Frederic the fabulous Swedish sommelier, that we were determined to track down back in Europe on our return.
For those interested, follow the link below.
Before leaving Gaa, I visited their ladies room. The facilities were very swanky and I was drawn to an electronic panel alongside the loo. It seemed to suggest pushing buttons to wash the nether regions, followed by front and rear air blowers. I could not help but try the buttons. Unfortunately if you don’t sit square on the bowl, water shoots up behind you. In my case I got a large damp patch up my back. So on returning to the dining room, I sidled in backwards holding my handbag firmly behind me in the small of my back and I edged my way out as quickly as possible as the second sitting arrived. My advice to diners is to leave well alone!
Needless to say, Jim did more sight seeing in Bamgkok than I did. I was nursing a grotty cold and worried that it might become bronchitis just before meeting up with our family for a week on the beach. I missed the reclining Buddah and the Wat Pho temple, about which I can say very little.
Instead, I sat and reflected on the missed carol services and the almost complete absence of Christmas spirit and indeed the approaching Christmas day here is just another working day.
It was not just absence of consumeristic consumption that was noteworthy, but also for us at home, there is usually a huge build up with Christmas music, cards and letters, church services and special family meals. The huge amount of wrapping, the decorating of the tree, unpacking the fairy lights, smiling at all the baubles and fairies collected over a life time. In my case, buying loads of hanging chocolates for the tree and for stockings on the pretext that the children will eat them. And then eating them all and having to buy them again in secret.
Ordering the turkey and lining up with neighbours to collect it, plus the sausages for pigs in blankets, the brandy butter and last minute food deals in Sainsbury on Christmas eve. All this we have missed. (Not to mention the cost!)
I can see why the family are reluctant to spend Christmas anywhere else but at home.
Well you wont believe it, but such was my nostalgia, that my eyes misted over when outside a Bangkok department store we saw these blinking lights, designed to lure in shoppers.
In Bangkok, Jim and I had a couple of days whizzing around and sampled the hugely modern subway system as well as above ground, their motorbikes!
We also briefly stepped inside Bangkok railway station which harked back to a bygone era with lashings of shiny chrome. So glad it is still there.
I was then lured to visit the Royal Palace which comprised a virtual village of elaborate historical buildings. We hopped from shady spot to shady spot, trying to find space to photograph buildings without tour guides marching past waving flags, following by a cluster of ernest relentless visitors.
We did see the Emerald Buddah, which you cannot photograph and fabulous murals telling the Thai version of Ramayana and shiny gold painted stuppahs and fierce looking statuary.
After a while we sloped off and I recovered in a little local, much less visited cafe overlooking the river. It was astonishing. I had not realised what a busy thoroughfare the waterways are in Bangkok.
It was actually quite exciting watching the little passenger boats speeding past, with these huge motors on the back. These were interspersed with totally huge barges the size of a floating village, carrying hidden cargo. Rubbish? Older wooden cruising boats glided past more gracefully. There are so many piers and the river was quite fast flowing and choppy. It had an energy and a buzz largely absent from our own River Thames in London.
With the canal system too it reminded me very slightly of Venice. So close to the sea and masses of busy waterways.
We then followed the river bank along and found a little shopping area that was similar to bits of Covent Garden with little craft shops selling trendy jewelry, clothes and street food. Before long we flopped into another old style timeless cafe, facing the opposite bank with a modern city scape including a maternity hospital and office blocks that could be anywhere in the 21st Century. We drank another cold drink and watched the river speed past and slap and slosh noisily up at our window seat, bearing hefty water plants and discarded polystyrene cartons floating on top.
Before we returned to Pattaya the next day, to renew our efforts to get the car repaired, we went to the Jim Thompson Museum. He was an American abroad who had settled in Bangkok and who played an important role in revitalising the Thai silk industry. This was an amazing place which had his 1950s collection of antique Buddahs, artwork, fabrics and amazing furnishings. He had erected and linked a collection of old historical Thai wooden houses on sturdy stilts next to one of the waterways and had created a beautiful jungle garden of encroaching greenary and mature trees. He had merged the separate buildings at first floor level and had included a number of internal staircases and had sourced old marble tiles to create cool floors. (Shoes had to be left outside).
Most of the rooms were naturally ventilated and had no glass in the window frames, except the study which I believe had air conditionning. The whole complex was a now thriving heritage visitor centre with cafes, high end clothes and silks for sale and a bevvy of Thai guides explaining about the man, the mystery of his death and his fame for producing the costumes in Thai Silk, for the very first King and I musical on Broadway.
We felt that Bangkok with its vastness, its eateries, massage parlours, its traffic, transport system, shopping malls, office blocks and historical buildings and the river dominating its heart, had a lot more to offer and that we had but merely sampled a few of its delights.
Certainly after Vientiane and Phnom Penh you could sense the difference in per capita income in Thailand and whilst there was still visible poverty particularly on the streets at nights, it was very much a modern city in a developing country.