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Delta skelter - in and around Bangkok.

FOR the tourist the disadvantage of Bangkok is the other tourists. The waterborne Floating Market -- most popular of all Bangkok tourist attractions -- now employs several white-helmeted floating policemen to keep the tourist launches from swamping the legitimate market boats, so that the age-old entreprise can continue to function at all; and in all the great Buddhist 'wats' (temples) the ceaseless clicking of cameras and strident conversations in American and German spoil the atmosphere of complete calm proper to such places. Small wonder perhaps, that many tourists, baffled by the confusion and heat of this city of many contrasts, give up altogether and retire to spend the day in a plastic sunchair by the swimming pool of their luxury hotel, eating a Western-style sandwich lunch and swilling endless expensive lagers.

The Tourist Organization of Thailand (TOT), however, offers its more adventurous patrons as well-conceived alternative. Starting at 8:00 a.m. in an air-conditioned bus, your first experience of Bangkok life is three or four hold-ups, each one ten minutes or more, jammed tight in commuter traffic. The word 'Thai' means free, and not even Paris provides so cogent a demonstration of Parkinson's Law that traffic expands at once into every space created to accommodate it. The hold-ups give one time to study the fantastically wired street lamp posts, which in cats' cradles of staggering complexity fifteen feet above ground sustain the whole of Bangkok's street lighting, domestic power and telephone systems. Thais love small evening parties with intimate friends in gardens with lights strung from trees; an the temptation to shin up these posts and lift the extra current direct from the mains is one not often resisted.

At last we are away westwards down a long straight dual carriageway, through miles of subtopia complete with shop-parades, tyre dumps, small factories and all the other features of the suburbs of all modern cities. There are fortunately no elephants about today -- the slow-moving working elephant, most of all when returning unlit at dusk from his day's job, is a hazard that all Thai drivers fear. Twelve miles out, among the rice fields, we turn sharp left down a much narrower road which takes us past an enormous long low chicken and duck battery and brings us finally to Samut Sakhon.

This litle town at the sea's edge, with a direct rail link back to Bangkok, is the principal fish market for the big city, its narrow shady alleys all but impassable for the jumble of wooden tubs and trays offering an incredible profusion of dried and fresh fish of all sizes, some of them still alive. The innate sense of grace and style which informs everything that Thais do ensures that everything is done to give the fish 'package appeal'. In particular, what caught my eye was a neat way of putting up eight tiny sprats in a star shape, heads together in the centre, the whole battered ready for frying.

Europeans are a rarity in Samut Sakhon, but Thai courtesy towards guests soon overcomes their natural shyness, particularly among the very young and the very old. It was not long before a schoolboy, dared on by his laughing comrades, stepped boldly forward and held out his hand. Nothing in Thailand must ever be done casually, perfunctorily or without due ceremony, least of all so personal a gesture as shaking hands. Look the stranger straight in the eyes, place both your hands over his, shake several times seriously and with determination -- and for better or worse you have made a friend for life. I later had trouble in shaking off a smiling little grey-haired old man who followed me everywhere with his hand in mine, repeating incessantly the only English word he knew, which was 'fish' (pronounced 'fifth'); it was as well that I knew no Thai at all, since I felt that with only the mildest encouragement he would gladly have packed up at once and come back with me to London.

At the waterside, among all the market craft, there were three flat-bottomed speedboats waiting, a kind of motorized punt holding up to six passengers lying back in pairs on the floor of the boat. The many sharp bends in the river, the need to avoid floating branches in the waterr, and the bump-bump bump of the flat bottoms crossing te wash waves of other passing craft made the handling of these boats quite a skilful affair, the more so as the operators were determined for the honour of Thailand to travel as fast as they could and show off to the utmost in front of the honoured foreigners.

We set off northwards up the Tachin Riverr, then swerved west into the maze of tributaries which connect the Tachin with the next big river the Meklong. The scenery was pure Conrad -- mangrove and coconut swamp on both sides of the pale grey turbulent water some hundred yards wide; stilt-built wooden houses with landing-stages, froom which children waved to us like maniacs as we passed; temples set back from the river across a lawn, the larged ones with tall chimneys at the side, sine in Thailand all the main temples are also crematoria; large new bungalow schools; an occasional smaller buildings at the water's edge boasting a square red brick chimney, which turned out to be sugar factories.

A visit to one of these shows you that the raw material of Thai sugar is the juice of coconut palms, which have been milked down a bamboo tube. Chips of wood from another tree are added to the liquid to prevent fermentation, and the whole is reduced by simmering to a pale yellow fudge-like substance in only a few hours. The final thickening -- hard work in the heat -- was being done by hand by a gorgeous teenage girl, manipulating and outsize wire whisk with the most beautiful wrist movements, which we poor untutored Europeans found impossible to imitate and extremely tiring. The final sugar product is packed away in square tins, where it keeps indefinitely.

The river goods traffic is carried in long chains of barges with tin or thatch roofs and the usual strings of family washing which distinguishes barges the world overr. No one seemed to have heard of the Plimsoll Line -- the loaded barges ride with decks awash, so low in the water as to appear capsized altogether; but each barge has its attendant, and no doubt they know what they are doing.

After an hour of darting in and out of these barge convoys we dashed in fine style up to the quay of Meklong town. Here we took to the train, a four-car diesel built in Japan, second and third class only, the former well upholstered in pale ble plastic. A picnic lunch was produced from nowhere, served with the utmost simplicity and ingenuity in three polythene bags tied together. Bag one contained cucumber salad, bag two roast porkstrips on long wooden sticks with some pieces of fresh toast, bag three some Thai-style hot red sauce, into which you dipped the pork and toast as required. Oranges and bananas out of a basket, and soft drinks out of a small wooden crate followed at exactly the right moments. British Rail please copy!

We ate running past thousands of acres of square man-made sea-water pans where a large part of the country's huge demand for sea fruit of every kind is artifically bred. This enterprise is an essential part of the national food supply, and efforts are constantly being made to improve and extend it, even to starting prawn colonies in mangrove swamps, hitherto regarded as useless for all purposes.

The rail trip ended on the Tachin River again, and a ferry crossing brought us once more on the bus waiting in Samut Sakhon. Returning to Bangkok late in the afternoon, we again hit the commuter traffic, this time coming out of the city. One of the worst hold-ups was in the Street of the Invisible Menders, where the practitioners of this intricate craft, male and female, sit on the pavement all day long chatting to each other at their work, which is said to be as cheap, as good and as quick as any of its kind in the world. Certainly the animated, laughing, gossipy scene was a marked contrast to those solitary, dejected-looking ladies who I remember plying the same craft in the London windows of the Invisible Mending Co. before the war.

Perhaps the eight-hour excursion had been no more than the equivalent of a tourist staying at the Cumberland Hotel making a journey to Southend and taking a look round the Essex market gardens; but even as such as journey would undoubtedly show a foreigner more of English daily life than any more conventional visit to the Tower of London, so we returned feeling we had learnt more about Thailand than most of those millions who pass temporarily through Bangkok.
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Title Annotation:Thailand
Author:Horder, Mervyn
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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