Blessed to be a witness

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Saturday April 2nd

One night in...

Bangkok and its steaming opulence beckoned, so we took our leave of Sim's in the afternoon, me still not feeling 100%. It was surprisingly tough leaving the friendly community they had created. Our residence there was a business transaction, for goodness' sake, but still, the warmth we experienced there was beyond ordinary. Saying goodbye to the generous and enthusiastic Sim and Maki; their adorable two-year-old daughter; the overwhelmingly friendly if slightly 'initiative-lite' desk staff; the talented cook, whose eyes literally disappeared when she smiled; and if the place needed anything further to enhance its appeal, the cutest, tiny little puppy, Cho Cho (meaning "ugly" - called thus for good luck, since he is so gorgeous) who arrived the day before we left; from all this, I got a lump in my throat as we left.

The penultimate ignominy to be inflicted on us by the Chinese government was at the exchange counter of Chengdu airport. First, they had no Thai baht, even though there are four flights per day to Thailand from there. OK, never mind, I'll take US dollars.

"Exchange receipt please."

Er... I got the money from an ATM.

"OK, ATM receipt please."

"Mei yo." Who keeps ATM receipts, after all?

"No ATM receipt, no changee money."

Oh for God's sake. What on earth is that rule for? Some hangover from the days when foreigners were forced to buy Foreign Exchange Certificates, to prevent black-market transactions, no doubt. But of course, being still a semi-closed currency, if you cross an international border with it, it becomes useless. €50 worth of toilet paper with Mao's face on it. Mind you, by this time, such a use for Mao's image didn't seem a bad prospect... Thankfully the day was saved by an American bloke who had accompanied us from Sim's. He had an ATM receipt for 2,000 yuan, so combined our money with his, under the counter, and gave us the dollar equivalent.

The final beaurocratic idiocy was after queueing up for half an hour, and arriving at the immigration desk, the guard asked whether or not we had filled out a departure card. Well, no we hadn't, because we hadn't been given one nor informed of its necessity. We're leaving the country for God's sake, can't you leave us be? He motioned to an unmarked desk at the back of the departure hall, and we had to retreat to complete the form before joining the end of the queue.

An uneventful flight on Royal Thai Airlines (thankfully the ticket was cheaper with this international standard airline than the Chinese equivalent) brought us to Bangkok in three hours. And my is it hot. Between 36C and 37C during the day. We both beamed as the new, luxury taxi service brought us through the city. Once again I was reminded of just how damn huge this place is. Bangkok is a big, brash, modern city, with all the conveniences one could want, some you didn't know you wanted, and some that you really don't want, particularly in the seedy Pat Pong district.

Whereas most other cities have highrise buildings clustered in one or two districts, Bangkok has them sprinkled liberally all over the place. In every direction from the overhead expressway, skyscrapers loomed, all the way to the horizon. I think I share with Stephen King an occasional fleeting thought that some skyscrapers look vaguely malevolent, and some of Bangkok's really do glower, especially the ones with dual antennae like demonic horns, lazily flashing red in the dusk.

Such strange thoughts were assailing me as we descended into the traffic chaos that seems only temporarily to have alleviated by the relatively new overhead trainway. And then into the backpacker frenzy of Khao San Road.

Khao San Road has changed. I realise that I'm merely the latest of generations of travellers bemoaning how it has changed, but the changes, to me at least, have made the place nearly unrecognisable. To those of you who have never had the privilege of going to Thailand, Khao San Road is the backpacker's ghetto - a street teeming with budget guesthouses, cafés, bars, souvenir stalls, travel agents. The street became a haven for the unwashed back in the 1970s, and ever since then people have been bemoaning its commercialisation - neglecting the irony that it is a product of commercialisation in the first place. However... the difference between the place between my first visit in 1995, and my next excursion there in 2000 was negligible: the addition of a 7-11, a branch of Boots (gave me quite a suprise, that did. Thailand also has Tesco), one obnoxious bar playing rave music right up until breakfast, but largely the same place as five years before. Since then it's become unrecognisable. First, it's been pedestrianised and cobbled. Next, it's a flurry of neon. There's a Burger King and a McDonald's, and portable ATMs galore. Nightclubs, hundreds of bars pumping bass into the night. M said it gives her the impression of what Ibiza must be like, and I agree.

I used to scoff at people who complained about Khao San, who looked for hostels outside the ghetto, since they were neglecting the conveniences laid on for people just like them. No longer. Maybe it's just my age, and I know that I am fulfilling a cliché, but I think it's horrendous now. Compared to the charming but enthusiastic incompetence of China, it's impersonal and anonymous, and I feel like an imposter here, too old to mingle with all the beautiful people. We're staying in Buddy Lodge, which is a new "boutique" hotel on the grounds of our former favourite bar, Buddy Beer, which was an institution - though dark and dingy, it was delightfully friendly, with rattan furniture and a pool table and cold beers. Now it's "Buddy Village", a huge complex, home to the McDonald's and dozens of other tourist traps. The hotel is rather outside of our budget, but it is actually pretty nice, and mercifully soundproofed, and has a pool on the roof, so we're staying for two nights before we eschew the convenience of the place and find somewhere cheaper and quieter.

Last night we ate delicious pasta, albeit a trifle heavy for the heat, on a pavement table at an Italian restaurant, watching a performance of Thai dancing and drumming organsied for the upcoming Songkhran Festival (a water-based celebration of the end of the dry season, and the beginning of the Thai new year). A casualty of the sixties, in his sixties, with cropped grey hair and hippy clothes made a show of himself dancing alone to the drumming like something from Woodstock. Braying ravers tottered from bar to bar. Dogs and cats milled between the legs of the thousands of foreigners strolling in the hot night. There are more foreigners in the street than Thais, and M remarked this would be the obvious choice for the next Al Qaeda atrocity, particularly with the Muslim seperatist violence flaring up in Thailand's southern provinces, and the heavy-handed way the government is dealing with the situation. I'm afraid I agree with her.

Before we left Ireland, a few people said "enjoy your holiday!" Now, I know this sounds indulgent, but the past six weeks in China have not been a holiday. They've been tourism, certainly, but there has been barely a moment's relaxation, save for the odd afternoon in Sim's garden. Perhaps a luxury tour of China, travelling in limousines and staying in 5-star hotels, might be described as a holiday, or a couple of days in a city, or a week lying on the beach at Sanya in Hainan Island, but budget travelling around China is bloody hard work, and Tibet doubly so. However, now I'll concur: Bangkok is a holiday.

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