Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Bangkok Post

So we're back in KL again, getting the bikes and ourselves ready for the trip back to Oz. Which, admittedly has nothing whatsoever to do with Bangkok, except for the fact that the decision to return was made here. So we'll probably remember it for all the days where we agonised about pros and cons, costs and benefits, logistics and quotes, and all the other unquantifiable, touchy-feely, emotional reasons for and against returning to Australia.

The reasons we found ourselves in Bangkok in the first place, are also complicated. But mainly stem from an unexpected end to our time at the house in Sungai Petani. We've since driven past the place, and it seems to have undergone quite a bit of renovation, possibly in preparation for a new tenant (family). But at the moment the big house is empty, as empty as it's been for the past six months.

We're still feeling a bit hollow ourselves, after saying goodbyes to friends in SP. There's a real sense of loss, a sense of what the hell are we doing, and a slow sense of withdrawal, because we know that once we land in Oz and begin to immerse ourselves in western ways again, Malaysia and SE Asia will begin to fade away.

The morning we left SP and rode down to KL, we stopped for a break at one of the rest stops along the main highway, and as we sat there in the shade of one of the shelters a woman came up to us and said hello. She was carrying a small plastic container, and popping it open to reveal a golden treasure trove of Ferrero Rocher, she insisted we each take one. She was curious about the bikes, and asking us where we were from, was astonished to learn we'd been living in SP for two years (her home town). We chatted with her for a while, before she made her way back to her husband and daughter, who were also travelling to KL that morning. This is a typical example of Malaysian hospitality. In fact this is so typical, we could have sat there and wept, knowing this is what we're leaving behind.

Take it from us, there are some real gems in SE Asia, no matter what your TV set tells you. And Malaysia is one of them. Or rather, the Malaysian people are. They're not perfect. No one is. And sure, we're looking at things through our rose tinted spectacles right now, but leaving behind the people we've been fortunate enough to call friends here, is our loss.

It's easy to sit there in your armchair and criticise a country like Malaysia. Because places like this are not true democracies. Different racial groups are not given equal treatment here. Religious dogma permeates all levels of society, government and the law. However, none of these statements actually means anything when viewed through the abstract reality of 24/7 news and current affairs media. The only valid way to understand any issue relating to somewhere other than where you live, is to go and live there yourself for a while. Forming a judgement about anything based on media reports is nonsensical, which is why at least one of us holds the view that the media is essentially worthless as a means of informing people about what is important in their lives. At its best, it exists merely to amuse, entertain, and provide a vehicle for advertising. At its most apathetic, it exists to disseminate the spin of politicians and corporations. And at its worst, it breeds ignorance by either twisting the truth or broadcasting half-truths, and spreads fear and hatred by sensationalising and simplifying complex issues.

Bloody hell! Where did all that come from?...  bzzzzschhht!... back to Bangkok...

You probably couldn't find a greater contrast between house sits than a farmhouse in rural France, looking after sheep and walking dogs on snowy winter mornings, and an apartment in the heat and traffic gridlock of central Bangkok, with nothing to look after (even the twice-weekly cleaner watered the pot plants). In fact there were many times when we wondered what we were actually doing there, other than using the place as a hotel. There were two pools, a gym, a library, and a private ferry which took residents across to Chinatown or the LRT. All of which we put to good use.

In fact the following photos were mostly taken near Chinatown, a dumping ground for cheap Chinese tat.

The sheer amount of plastic junk bought and sold here, which surely ultimately ends up in landfill, just boggles the mind.

There's an army of guys carting it from delivery trucks, through the narrow congested alleyways... a multitude of tat shops serving the eager buying public.

It's a bit like Hong Kong, where you see little old men scurrying across the busy streets, trolleys loaded up with cardboard boxes.

Obviously at least one us of couldn't get enough of these guys.

As you can see.

Running out of intelligent things to say now...

But don't worry. Because there's more delivery guys to look at.

The lazy ones use bikes. Which are a pain in the ass really, because you're constantly trying to avoid them. But maybe they use them because they're in a hurry? No that can't be right. The phrase "Time's money" doesn't seem to apply in SE Asia - labour is so cheap.

The tuk tuk drivers are always in a hurry when they've got a fare. However the rest of the traffic in Bangkok moves at about 5km/h. Which makes riding a big, heavy, single cylinder heat monster of a motorbike through the city a complete nightmare.

Coupled with the aggressive and corrupt Bkk traffic cops, the special rules applied to motorbikes (you must only use the left lane, you can't use overpasses when signed, and toll roads are a complete no-no), and the sheer volume of traffic, makes Bkk our second least favourite place to drive.

To put it into perspective though, it's probably a distant second. Which just goes to show how appalling Jakarta really is. And Malaysians complain about the KL traffic, but it's a doddle in comparison. But to give you some idea how bad Bkk can be, we'll leave you with an experience we had while riding to Tesco one morning...

That morning, we thought we'd just take a little trip to the supermarket to get a few things. Minding our own business in the unspeakable traffic, avoiding overpasses, toll roads and keeping mostly to the left like good little motorcyclist lemmings. But this wasn't nearly enough to prevent two farang on a big bike from being pulled over by the cops. And of course this cop wanted Lucas's license, so he handed him a copy of his international license (which is all you're required to carry). But he wasn't pleased. "Colour copy. Where original?" So he handed him his drivers license. "Colour copy. Where original?" You had to hand it to the guy there, it was definitely a fake. There's no way you'd give one of these cops your real license, unless you're prepared to hand over a wad of cash to get it back.

So anyway, this sort of thing went back and forwards a few times, with Lucas rapidly losing his patience. At one stage he even accused him of targeting us because we were foreigners. Which is probably not true, but if anything they should show a little more tolerance towards foreigners. It's a pretty daunting place to drive after all.

So he started jabbering away on his radio, probably to get someone down there who could speak better English. But Lucas had had enough at this point, so he attempted to start the bike. Which resulted in the cop trying to grab the keys. So Lucas swatted his hand away and managed to start it anyway. We then backed out into the traffic and took off down the road. At one point, as we were tearing off, we swear we heard him say "fuck!", the only funny part of the whole experience.

So as we were tearing down Rama IV, half expecting him to follow on his 250, Lucas spotted about twenty cops at the next intersection. So we pulled into a side street, and got lost in behind some rabbit warren residential area, in case he'd radioed up ahead.

The upshot is, because we didn't have our GPS with us, we were a bit screwed at that stage. So it took us over an hour to bypass the whole area and find our way back to the apartment. Lucas lost his bearings at one point, but it could have been much worse. We'd only been out on the bikes three times in a week and a half, and had been pulled over twice, and he swears he only stopped this time because the cop stepped right out in front of us. But for a split second he was tempted to just run him over. But he'd probably never do that. Probably.

Can you imagine any of this happening in your own country? Maybe thirty or forty years ago, when the average cop was as bent and incompetent as the average cop in SE Asia is today. We've developed a strong dislike for the cops here. There's no question a huge number are corrupt. There's no question they target motorbikes. And there's no question that in Thailand at least, there are a massive number of them standing around doing nothing. Maybe they're biding their time until the next outbreak of red-shirt violence? Who knows. In the meantime, it seems that to justify their jobs, they pick on as many motorcyclists for as many petty infringements as they can get away with.

So our advice... take the train. Walk. Get a ferry. But for god's sake leave the bike at home...

1 comment:

  1. Back in Room 7 at the Country Roads Motor Inn, Gooondiwindi, and reading this blog. Lucas must get himself time to put all this stuff and more in the form of a book.