Category Archives: Thailand

The return of the pocket-knife

Just before I left for Thailand I was offered the opportunity to review a camera bag for a large retail site. I took an age to decide which bag would simultaneously be of most use to me as a workhorse for my trip and as a review model for Photocritic‘s readers. My deliberations led me to a Crumpler Jackpack and I dropped a note back to the retail site saying that if they could get me one before I flew, that would be super. To my disappointment (I’m a sucker for camera bags), they couldn’t get a bag to me, and I was left loading camera gear into my Lowepro Event Messenger at the last minute.

If you’re intested, the Event Messenger is great as a car-to-place-where-you’re-staying or carry-on bag for a limited quantity of gear: camera body, two or three lenses, laptop, and a few personal bits and pieces. It’s not so great for out-and-about shooting, however. It’s a bit too bulky.

What does this not-very-tale-of-woe have to do with a Victorinox Crystal pocket-knife, I hear you ask?

In my haste to pack up my gear, I overlooked that I’d left my pocket-knife in one of my camera bag’s myriad front pockets. Pocket-knives are pretty useful additions to camera bags, but not when you’re about to board a plane. Despite any number of reassurances that you’re a photographer and not a terrorist, security aren’t so thrilled by inch-and-a-bit blades in confined spaces.

Interestingly, I didn’t have a clue that I’d left it in my bag and it seems that when I passed through security at Heathrow, they didn’t have a clue that I’d left it there, either. No one stopped me, my bags weren’t searched, and I wasn’t asked to deposit it in one of those forlorn bins of useful objects rendered useless by the threat of terrorism.

And no one spotted it, stuffed between two hankerchieves and a some sanitary towels, when I switched planes at Muscat.

Little Victorinox Crystal sat undisturbed in my camera bag throughout my entire stay in Thailand. It wasn’t until I tried to get through security at Bangkok airport that somebody noticed it. I was pulled aside, asked if I had anything forbidden in my bag, and then asked to tip it out when I couldn’t answer in the positive. There it was. I was a agog.

Seeing as poor little Victorinox Crystal had made it that far, and I rather like it, I was incredibly reluctant to toss it into their ‘You are forbidden!’ bin. I asked if there were a post office at the airport. An unflinchingly stern gentleman who thought that he spoke better English than he did escorted me down a flight of stairs and behind a barricade to the post office. He was very good at telling me that I couldn’t take my little knife through security but very bad at understanding how it got there. When I said to him ‘You’ve not understood a word I just said, have you?’ he looked at me blankly. Or maybe he was just humourless.

Anyway, at the post office I needed to queue for longer than it had taken me to get through security, but it cost me the grand total of 41 baht (90 pence) to pop little knife in an envelope and mail it back to the UK. I had no idea if it would survive the trip or be halted by overzealous Customs officers or pinched by postal workers, but it was better to give it a chance rather than abandon it.

Errand complete, I climbed the stairs and attempted security a second time. On this occasion there were no unexpected hitches, but the queue was longer. I tried not to think about my poor little knife, my own absent-mindedness, and the lack of reassurance I felt from security at Heathrow. If it made it, it made it. I continued to try to forget about it, ten days after returning home.

This morning, a little damp and slightly rumpled, an envelope addressed to me in my own hand and with a Thai stamp dropped through my letterbox. Little knife was back!

A protest marches on its stomach

I arrived in Bangkok five days before the Thais were due to go to the polls in a general election. However, amid growing discontent and dissatisfaction with Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, many people had taken to the streets to protest. Rather than face a ballot sheet comprising the names of Thaksin cronies and shills, they wanted reform first.

The loudest calls were for elections to be delayed until an unelected people’s council had been installed and had swept out the corruption and profligacy. While I’m not entirely convinced by the notion of an unelected people’s council (what can possibly go wrong there?), I do sympathasise with an electorate feeling that they have Hobson’s Choice and that there is no prospect for improvement under the current regime.

Protestors had gathered in force across Bangkok under the slogan ‘Shutdown Bangkok; restart Thailand.’ Major roads and intersections were blocked; public parks were over-taken; and government buildings were barricaded. For the most part, it was a peaceful movement with quite some support and certaily some impact.

The hotel where I was staying was sandwiched between two of the main protest sites: Lumphini Park 500 metres to the left and Rama I Street 300 metres to the right. Right up until I left Bangkok, the protest sites felt far more festival-like a child-friendly than I would anticipate from a political show of discontent. I spent quite some time wandering amongst the protestors, most of whom were happy to be photographed. Many of my photos focused on the food available to the protestors, either free or paid-for. After all, a protest marches on its stomach.

People of the protests

The hotel where I stayed in Bangkok was 300 metres from the Rama I street protest site to the left, and 500 metres from the Lumphini Park protest site to the left. I spent quite some time wandering the sites, which were friendly, welcoming, and very well-organised. Most of the protestors were more than happy to be photographed, and that included children. I was happy to photograph them.

Unimpressed in Ayutthaya

I left for Ayutthaya in a hurry. The ancient captial of Siam’s crumbling, invasion-ravaged wats that are now fighting the pull of gravity are best seen at dawn. I decided that I was going at 15:00. By 16:00 I was heading out of the door, guide-book in bag and hotel booked. Ayutthaya is about a 90 minute bus ride from Bangkok, departing from the Mo Chit bus station. If everything went to plan, I should arrive at the city that’s a UNESCO world heritage site not long after night fall.

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Like Victoria in London, Mo Chit bus station and Mo Chit MRT and BTS stations are not co-located. Unlike Victoria, Mo Chit bus station is not a well-signed few hundred metres’ walk down a straight road from the tube station. There was a solitary sign indicating the bus station as I exited the BTS station, but after that I was plunged into the maelstrom of the the Chatuchak market that takes over the entire area around Mo Chit on a Sunday. I sought help.

The security guard in the MRT station told me to give up attempting to navigate on foot and to hail a cab. It would be much easier.

My experience with taxi-drivers in Bangkok has been mixed. Some have been friendly and polite; others less so. The first taxi-driver I approached was definitely from the latter camp. He was far more interested in polishing his taxi than taking my fare. He physically pushed me in the direction that he thought I should be going and continued to polish his car.

The second taxi-driver I approached spoke neary a word of English, although I did ascertain that he was a Chelsea supporter, but between us we figured out that I needed the bus station. Just as always, the Bangkok traffic was vile, but I eventually rocked up at Mo Chit station where the information kiosk told me I needed window 54 to buy my ticket.

At window 54 I encountered a young woman in her late teens or early twenties who took great delight in laughing at my pronunciation of Ayutthaya. It was a sound I struggled with terribly. Eventually, I found that starting out by asking for help in Italian (aiuto!), got me some way to Ayutthaya. The irony of needing help was not lost on me. She sold me a ticket and sent me off to Bay 98.

Mo Chit bus station is enormous. There are close to 200 bays and quite literally thousands of people coming and going. It is the definition of organised chaos. I sent a message to my parents and brother, asking them to contact the hotel where I’d booked a room for the night, informing them that I might be later than anticipated. Between the confusion at Mo Chit BTS, the taxi ride, and the bus station itself, I was beginning to lose confidence in my grand plan.

At Bay 98 there was no bus, but a rather vocal man schreeching ‘Ayutthaya’ and directing people to his minibus in Bay 96. I tentatively presented my ticket to him and was hustled into his minibus. I’ve still no idea if that were the right bus, but it did get me to where I intended to go, in a manner of speaking.

When you’re on a bus, you rather expect that it will drop you at the bus station. It seems reasonable, no? This bus driver, however, had other ideas. As we approached the ancient city of Ayutthaya, he asked me where I wanted to be dropped. My requests for the bus station were met with derision and instead the woman seated in front of me embarked on some confused interpretation mission to get me to my hotel. It failed.

Rather than being dropped at the bus station, from where I knew how to navigate to my hotel, I was abandoned on a dark road with no pavements and no sign-posts, and told ‘Walking, walking!’ with a wave of the hand to the left. I was alone.

I adhered to the ‘walking, walking’ instruction, looking out for stray dogs, strange men, potholes, and a readable sign-post with every step. Should I be able to locate Wat Phra Mahathat, whether by sign or by prang, I would be able to find my hotel. At the end of the street, there was a sign-post to Wat Phra Mahathat. I followed it, and ended up at a huge roundabout with two wats on it. At this point, there was no choice other than to ask for help. There were no women to be seen, so summoning all the courage I could muster, I asked a man who was loading a tour minibus if he knew where my hotel was.

‘Oh yes, cross the road, it’s 20 metres on the left-hand-side.’

He was right.

What I had hoped would be a relieved arrival at a boutique hotel where I could relax was just another step on the uneven path to Ayutthaya. The security guard spoke no English and had no clue that I was expected. Two phonecalls and a great deal of concern later, I was shown to my room on the ground floor. It had a dodgy lock, a dirty bathroom, two mattresses on a sleeping platform, and a boarded-up window. And there were zanzare.

While the security guard was flapping around looking confused, I very nearly asked for a taxi to take me to the best hotel in Ayutthaya. I should have done it.

My next step was to find dinner. I tried the restaurant next door. Big mistake. The food was mediocre at best and the venue had been taken over by the contestants of Indian Princess, all of whom pushed their meals around their plates and looked more bored than a child kicking his heels on a deserted train station platform. I didn’t order dessert.

My war with zanzare is a well-documented campaign. I react horribly badly to bites and take the best precautions I am able to protect myself from evil winged bloodsuckers. I plaster myself with repellant, I wear long and loose-fitting clothing, I turn down the air-conditioning as low as it goes, I use unscented soap and moisturiser, and I avoid sweet foods.

But it didn’t stop the blighters from biting my face, just beneath my eyes. I woke up at 05:15, ready to observe sunrise from the wat, with a face that looked as if I’d been punched. My eyes were swollen, aching, and red. Still, I’d come to see the wats at dawn, so that’s what I was bloody well going to do.

I ventured out and made my way across the six lane road to Wat Phra Mahathat. You’re supposed to pay a 50 baht entry fee, but there was no guard there to take my money, so I wandered in with the intention of paying later. The sun was beginning to cast its tendrils of light into the day; I needed somewhere to stand. It’s harder than it looks, for there’s a huge, enormous, towering mobile phone mast in precisely the wrong place. It takes careful positioning to capture first light on a Buddha without the intrusion of the 21st century.

I think I managed okay, though.

Leaving the wat, the security guard had arrived, so I strolled up to pay my fee. Whether he thought I were insane to be there so early or terrified by my appearance, I’ve no idea, but he ignored me.

Now, I could tell you about meandering through the park, my disastrous attempt to take lunch at what’s supposed to be an amazing restaurant on the river that I couldn’t find, and refusing to ride the elephants because they’re made to dance and perform tricks for treats, but nothing quite compares to the electro-Buddha that I found in a real working wat, with real Buddhist monks and an animal sanctuary.

It’s by far the best way to end the recollection of my unfortunate trip to Ayutthaya.

The Thai-Burma Railway

There were two items on my ‘Thailand list’ that I was determined to experience during my trip there. The first was to eat Pad Thai from a stand on a street corner. The second was to visit the Thai-Burma railway. Sometimes it’s called the Death Railway.

After the fall of Singapore in 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army sought to consolidate its position in Southeast Asia into a stranglehold. Women and children were sent to hellish internment camps. Men were put into forced labour. A major project of the Southeast Asian campaign was the construction of a 415 kilometre railway, linking Thailand to Burma (as it was then), to bring supplies to the Burma Campaign. Some 61,000 Allied prisoners of war, together with countless Asian labourers, were set to work on it.

While the Japanese anticpated the simultaneous construction—from Thanbyuzyat in Burma and Nong Pladuk in Thailand—would take several years, it was actually completed within 16 months. This came at the cost of tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war and approximately one hundred thousand Asian workers. They died from malaria, from cholera, from privation, from sheer exhaustion.

The most accessible section of the remaining railway (it was broken up by the British following the end of the war) is at Kanchanaburi, where there’s a bridge over the river Kwae. Yes, that Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by David Lean. Very little of the original bridge survives, but you can walk across it and through the hordes of tourists taking selfies and longtail boatmen looking for fares, attempt to imagine the hell that the men who built it went through.

When you make it to the other side, and are faced with the encroachment of the jungle through which the prisoners of war would have to have hacked and battled, that’s where their strength of spirit begins to shine.

Slightly less accessible, but bestowing a profound sense of what these men accomplished is Hellfire Pass. It was cut at the height of the ‘Speedo’ period, when men worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, on subsistence rations. The passage through the rock was hammered-and-tapped night and day; the torchlight giving rise to the name ‘Hellfire Pass’. Now, the Hellfire Pass cutting is so peaceful, looking out across a lush green valley it seems impossible that it was a place of torture.

You reach it by a combination of train—along what remains of the original railway—and taxi. I took a taxi out, which waited for me and then dropped me at Nam Tok for the train back to Kanchanaburi. The train was delayed and it was slow. It passed through sugar cane fields that were being fired in preparation for harvesting. It was third-class only, and air-conditioning meant having the windows open. But it was a fitting way to close the loop on my Death Railway journey.

I make a habit of visiting cemeteries and graveyards when I travel; there’s a lot that they say about the communities that they serve. I make a particular habit of visiting Commonwealth War Graves when I’m far from home. These are the last resting places of men who fought and served and died, separated from family and friends, in fear and privation, to protect my life and my liberty. The least that I can do is to spare them my time and my gratitude.

The War Grave in Kanchanaburi is very different to those in other parts of the world. Instead of the gleaming white proudly upright Portland stone headstones, these are low-pedestal stones with bronze plaques, used because of the risk of earth movement. They feel altogether more sombre, and somehow that’s fitting for the thousands of men who died the victims of war crimes, from brutality and cruelty, in conditions unimaginable. It’s no less awe-inspiring.

I visited late in the day, with the soft golden light of sunset illuminating my photos and reflecting off my tears. I felt exhausted, from the heat, from the excursion, from the emotion, but it couldn’t even bring me close to what these men, all of whom went to hell on earth, must’ve felt.