Friday, May 21, 2010

Bangkok Dangerous

Is not only the name of a perfectly respectable action flick from Thailand, it's also what the parting remark made to me by the Japanese immigration official at Narita as he inspected my passport and boarding card.

Postponing my trip here by two days also involved taking a later flight, one that would not land in Bangkok before everyone in the city was supposed to be confined to quarters. I've come up against curfews before in Central America, but arriving by air in the middle of one seemed like a more challenging proposition.

Bangkok's new main airport is 23kms east of the city, and getting into the centre (or indeed around the centre) after midnight was always going to present some of the sort of hazards I'd promised my loved ones I would be endeavouring to avoid.

The flight was predictably quiet and I was upgraded to premium economy, the upsides of which included an excellent seafood curry and a power outlet for my netbook, but the partition between the seats is fixed, so stretching out possibilities were limited.

The loo on the plane was bigger than most of those that came with the hotels in Tokyo. Since New York it's been Asian airlines all the way, and my what an improvement, especially in their 777 incarnations, though I much enjoyed travelling on the top deck of a jumbo for the first time on my inbound flight into Japan. The engine noise is minimal and you seem to be up in the air so much sooner than one is used to on a 747.

As well as beautiful, bowing stewardesses, JAL flights feature a nose-cone camera offering somewhat disconcerting live footage of take-off and landing. I've noticed however that they don't tend to dim the lights for take-off and landing, but they do after serving the meal and the aforementioned dreamy cabin staff take great care to instruct passengers about to take a nap to fasten their seat-belts.

At the gate there was a Thai Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged in a seat awaiting the boarding announcement. I of course wondered whether he'd duly assumed the same position in the cabin.

At baggage reclaim I noted that he didn't have to pick up his own suitcase. For some time I've had the Jain brethren down as a bunch of self-righteous parasites, but I'm reserving judgment on this lot for now. In Japan the monks looked more like functionaries (and the functionaries like extras in some cheap 80s sci-fi series.) One of the first interesting signs I spotted in Bangkok this morning asked me to 'Beware of Fake Monks!'

I'll have plenty more to tell about Nikko, the town I woke up in this morning: it was quite the most memorable place I've visited on this long trek thus far. And it was wonderful to finally have a cat-swingable bedroom, my first since Miami really. In fact I splashed out on a mini-apartment with fridge, cooker, TV and sofa, all for about 2/3 what I'd been paying in Tokyo.

I spotted some cookies on sale in Nikko which professed to have been nurtured "in the greenery setting". It was certainly a relief to spend my last day and a half in Japan 'in a greenery setting' away from the only partially-fathomable sprawl of Tokyo.

One highlight was the bus driver who took me up to Lake Chuzenji yesterday morning. He dispatched each departing local passenger with a 'Hai arigato gozaimas-eeeugh' delivered in tones reminiscent of Marvin the Paranoid Android.

For me one part of the appeal of Japan is that it has a little bit of both my homes. It's an island where it rains a lot...especially in the movies. It's also a land of volcanoes and not infrequent seismic shudders. It's most definitely one of those places of which nothing can be said of which the opposite is not in some way also true. Ultra-modern, ultra-traditonal, familiar while unfamiliar*, so chic in places and yet so carelessly ugly in others, ultra-friendly yet ultra-exclusive, generally yummy but sometimes a bit yukky, soulful, soulless — and very much after your soul.

It was still nearly 90F when we landed in Thailand around 11pm. I began to fear for my *Green Tea Kit Kats.

There was still around five hours to run on the toque de queda, so given that the only hotel close to the airport is a Novotel, and that I had no guarantee that the little place I want to stay at would actually be open at this hour, the sensible decision seemed to me to be to wait it out here in the airport, specifically the restaurant zone. Let the feast commence...

I slept well on the six hour flight from Tokyo and my little Asus Eee PC has 14 hours of battery life plus six unwatched episodes of FlashForward on it. I'll just have to go easy on the Singhas.

I suppose I'm destined for an state-enforced early night on Friday anyway.

Plenty of tourists floating around and no obvious armed presence beyond the kind of police presence one would normally expect. One sees more machine guns at Heathrow.

In fact the only real intimation of 'volatility' was the 30% discount being offered by the luxury limo services.

You only have to live in Central America for a while to appreciate how international news media corporations love to sensationalise everything, even if it means sending off their own employees to die rather pointlessly in order to do so.

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