bangkok and the burden of memory: remembering less restless times

while i have not managed to inform myself of the issues surrounding the dueling protests crippling bangkok and parts of thailand, i worry about the future of this lovely country mainly because i have far too many friends there, and one too many affairs with the land of the free. i first came to thailand in 1999 to debate at the chulalongkorn university, and have since visited it a total of five times. over four years ago, i celebrated songkhran in chiang mai, during a time when similar mass actions were threatening domestic security, prompting cebu pacific to cancel my flight back to manila, although the airline quickly changed its mind the following day; i managed to get home, having been spared the airport shutdown that took place just a few months prior when bangkok's suvarnabhumi was taken over by yellow shirts. at the time, i remember saying that i wouldn't particularly mind getting stranded in a place where i am both so at home and so out of place: while i am often mistaken as thai, i cannot make sense of thai beyond the most common of greetings.

my last two visits to thailand were thankfully without incident. halfway through last year, i was obliged to attend a week-long training in our bangkok office, which meant i had to suffer being checked in at a hotel along wireless road. not too bad an arrangement, but i made sure that i had allocated the weekends before and after the working week to some personal trysts.

i listed a few things i wanted to do while i was in thailand, and it included getting a bespoke suit. i read numerous reviews of bangkokian tailors and i never realized there were so many of them in such little space. one need only walk along any unnamed soi to find rows of boutiques offering tailor-made shirts and jackets that can be sewn in as short as 24 hours. in some places, you might be accosted by these corpulent punjabi men with comical mustaches and large turbans which very well could be concealing anything from kittens to a flask of whisky, calling you friend and inviting you to walk into their stores. i didn't like to be harassed in any sort of way. i very much preferred to just walk into the shops and be left to look around. sometimes, i would ask questions designed to test their approach to men's fashion. not that i have extremely good taste, or that the depth of my knowledge qualifies me as a sartorialist, but my queries were really just designed to make me comfortable. that is, after all, my guiding principle when deciding on what i would wear.

after peeking into a few tailor shops, i finally decided to try out this one shop in khao san road. a young, very slim nepalese-burmese man with very sharp shoes took my measurements, and we discussed the details about how my suit would look like. at the time, i wanted certain elements (mainly to distinguish it from the one i already have): that it would be gray and shiny, have peaked lapels, and functional buttons. the tailor suggested many nice touches and accents, which showed his keen attention to style and his departure from the usual. within 3 days, i managed to get measured, return for a fitting, and go back happily to my hotel with a new suit. i was so impressed with the fit and the form that i actually wanted another pair of pants (or what the guy referred to as trousers).

khao san road is famously known as bangkok's backpackers' quarter, where foreign budget travelers converge for cheap accommodations and less-than-cheap beers. it can get very crowded during the evenings, but the roads are devoted exclusively to foot traffic. at night, chairs, tables, racks, and benches spill onto the street as locals peddle jack daniel's shirts, souvenirs, foot massages, fried spiders, skewered scorpions, affordable pad thais, and every imaginable exotic attraction a foreigner might want to find.

when i found out that a friend of mine was in bangkok also for work, i suggested that we meet up, and he said he was going to have a few drinks with complete strangers he found on couchsurfing. i decided to go since it seemed like something i would randomly do. when i arrived at this sidewalk bar that leeched live music from the pub next door, i found myself in the multi-colored company of backpackers, voluntourists, visitors, expats, and locals. in succession, the bangkokians arrived and chatted with me and my friend in thai and we just responded by making our eyes rounder and bigger. one girl insisted that i was thai and merely pretended not to understand. i laughed and told her i've been mistaken as local... in seven countries.

despite being a center for tourists and having a very central location if you're inclined to visit some of bangkok's landmarks, khao san is actually a little out of the way in terms of accessibility. the impressive BTS does not have a station nearby, so you'd have to take a cab to get there. i felt a little more adventurous so i took the train to ratchatewi station, went to the nearby stream, boarded a river taxi, and walked to the area, not minding the sweltering heat of bangkok. although one might be able to draw many curious similarities between bangkok and manila, it is impossible to deny that in terms of public infrastructure, thailand has surged so far ahead and now boasts one of the world's busiest airports, a subway, a network of expansive elevated highways, and an intra-city light rail line that makes commuting easy and breezy. all these fill me with envy and inspire me to wonder why we've floundered and fallen behind.

but while taking the BTS makes we jealous while asking why we can't have something similar back home, a more interesting train experience is offered outside of bangkok. since i live in an archipelago, no train ride in the philippines lasts more than a few hours, even those that travel from tutuban to naga. but in countries like thailand, where the northernmost city is connected by rail to towns even past its southern border with malaysia, it is possible to hop on a train, sleep, and wake up the following day hundreds of miles away. my longest train ride happened in 1997, when i traveled from singapore to jerantut in malaysia, and my friend pitsa tells me that sometimes, he takes a two-day train ride from bangkok to his hometown in pattani. this is almost unimaginable for me, since nothing similar is available where i come from.

nevertheless, i did get a taste of the traditional train ride when we visited kanchanaburi province, which is just over 100 kilometers from bangkok. pitsa had planned the trip for just the two of us, but serendipitously, a friend of his was planning to take a pair of pinoys working in pattaya there as well. we were spared having to take public buses, and enjoy the unique thai countryside and all of its attractions, which started with a visit to the what could probably be thailand's oldest buddhist temple, but is most certainly  the largest pagoda in the world: phra pathom chedi's 120-meter brick stupa rises over a hill and can be seen almost anywhere in nakhon pathon, which is halfway between bangkok and kanchanaburi. the temple is filled with buddhist worshippers offering flowers and prayers, and has a huge inner courtyard which we explored. we also had lunch at the nearby market before proceeding to kanchanaburi.

first in our itinerary was the world war II cemetery. little flags are placed in some of the small gravestones, some of which have very touching epitaphs. although thailand was spared much of the atrocities of the second world war, it became the stage for the world's most expensive railway when scores of prisoners of war were forcibly made to work by the japanese empire on what is known as the death railway: a line that would have provided the axis forces access to burma. a museum was donated by the government of australia near the hellfire pass on the border of thailand and burma which documents how workers suffered under inhuman conditions and torture during the construction of the railway. so although no actual fighting took place in siam during that time, the death railway's cost is measured not in terms of the money spent to build it, but the number of lives it claimed.

the highlight of the daytrip, of course, was the train ride to the bridge over the river kwai. although local residents still use the train to commute, most of the passengers are tourists curious about the experience that's been immortalized by a critically-acclaimed movie from more than half a century ago. although parts of the death railway crossing over to burma have been dismantled, there are still parts of it that are being used for local travel, trade and tourism. the inside of the trains are remnants of old, something you don't see in more modern carriages: the seats are made of wooden planks and nothing seems to be electronic. the ride was just over 2 hours with views of some lovely provincial scenery. the train does not go very fast, and pitsa confessed that it is still more efficient to go by car, which makes me think maybe the train is being maintained mainly for nostalgic reasons.

on our way back to bangkok, we dropped by a night market where i was coaxed to waste a lot of ice cream when thailand's most famous ice cream seller asked me to stand 5 meters away as he flipped some scoops to my direction. i held on to a small cup and the idea was that i would be able to catch it, but i never did, even after a number of tries. it was embarrassing not only because i soiled my shoes with perfectly good ice cream, but also because the man is surrounded by many curious tourists and i think he announced i was from the philippines.

bangkok rakes in truckloads of tourists on any given day, apparently even now that it is being swept by political unrest. the trick is to offer these visitors a variety of things to do. when i took one of my spontaneous trips back in august of 2010, i flew to thailand via philippine airlines in an effort to calm myself of some gnawing doubts and insecurities. i didn't do much but walk around the city and boozed myself silly during the evenings. patpong was an all too eager friend at the time.

but so as not to waste my time as a tourist, i decided to check out a half-day trip to ayutthaya, the ancient capital of siam. it wasn't far away, and the bill for a guided tour seemed affordable, so i booked myself a seat. the following day, a van filled with only four people: myself, a tourist from new zealand, the helpful but rather bored tour guide, and the driver. we were given the usual speech about the rise and fall of the once prosperous city of the ancient kingdom, until it fell into ruin after the burmese attacked in the 18th century. what struck me most about his lecture was his reminder not to disrespect the headless buddhist statues. decapitated by non-buddhist burmese, there are rows of bodies of buddha that are missing their heads, and creative -- if not ignorant -- tourists seem to have a penchant to have their pictures taken py placing their heads over the statues. i didn't spend 10 minutes there when i saw someone do exactly what the tour guide told me not to do.

perhaps the most popular image ever to be produced by ayutthaya is the severed head of a buddha statue that seems to grow from the tangle of a trees roots. i've seen it on postcards, guide books, travel websites. the thing is, it isn't possible to stand beside the buddha head and have a picture. one's head should be lower than the buddha's head so as not to disrespect buddhism. the problem is that the head does not rise more than 3 feet from the ground.

the ruins of ayutthaya are part of a UNESCO world heritage site, although if you've been to cambodia's angkor wat, the area might be somewhat of a let down, since most of what's left is just a pile of rocks in comparison. nevertheless, one can get a sense of how grand it must have once been. the tour guide was thoroughly uninspired, despite the useful information he gave us. it was as if he felt he didn’t matter when he spoke in detail about the history of a place and would conclude: okay, i give you 15 minutes to explore the place. he took us to a few other nearby attractions: a palace surrounded by a moat, a sprawling and manicured lawn that had plants shaped into elephants, a reclining buddha covered partially in a giant yellow blanket, and even more stupas in varying states of ruin. our day ended with a trip to a market where i do not remember buying anything.

i am suddenly possessed by these vivid memories of bangkok and its surrounding provinces because i cannot help but be eaten by gnawing concern over the immediate future of thailand in the midst of the disquieting protests that are filling their streets with seas of yellow, red, and white shirts. if you think about it, thailand’s government has been rocked by scandal and shaken by too many changes in recent years, one might wonder how it still manages to function. but it does, and notwithstanding the temporary disruptions, it is still a great place to visit. i remember traveling north to sagada some years back and i shared a van with some british teenagers who said they changed their vacation plans and avoided bangkok due to the airport’s shutdown. the situation now is not unlike 2008: some anti-government factions have seized and taken control of a number of ministries and continue to paralyze traffic and other vital public services. as a result, almost 50 countries have issued travel advisories to their nationals, telling them to avoid the troubled capital city. i can only hope that the ongoing protests remain peaceful, and result ultimately, in a more mature democracy.