Robert Pimm

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Enough Buddhas for today

By Robert Pimm

Financial Times, April 30 2004

At the Thonburi Snake Farm, dusty display cases stand derelict. Half the exhibits (“banded krait, poisonous”) seem to have escaped. Beneath a canopy, a small audience, dulled by heat, watches a bare-footed handler torment two cobras until they strike at him; then he grabs one by the head, forces its fangs through a plastic membrane, and milky venom pours into a jar.

Next on is a copperhead racer: a big, fast-moving, brown-and-black-striped snake. The handler goads it until it leaps over the low barrier that separates the snakepit from the audience. Children scream and scatter. “I forgot to tell you,” the compere says; “this one is not poisonous.”

Six time zones ahead of western Europe and six behind New Zealand, the ancient culture and Asian flair of Bangkok make a tempting stopover for long-haul travellers. But a family visit needs careful planning if you want the children to have a good time. Based on our three-night stay with Owen (11) and Anna (nine), that means: trim the sightseeing, book a hotel with a pool, enjoy the street life and eat as much as you can.

Every parent knows that when it comes to sightseeing with children, less is more. We should have known the fabulous sculptures of the Royal Palace and Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, would leave the children unimpressed. Amid the heat and crowds at Wat Phra Keo, the Temple of the Jade Buddha, their main interest was drawn by a water trough: “Look – tadpoles!” “No, they’re little fish.”

Top temple was Wat Pho, with its shady gardens, fountains and 46-metre long gold-plated Reclining Buddha: “It’s massive!” A canal tour also started well: the wizened driver on his raised seat, and the long-tail boat with its massive on-board motor, were reminiscent of Star Wars. The children gazed with interest as we passed dwelling-houses on stilts over the murky water, laundries festooned with fluttering shirts, and a Chinese coffin shop, the white cases decorated with more gold Buddhas. When we stopped to feed catfish, a seething shoal of white and grey rose to the surface like a single organism to consume our 20-baht loaves.

But then things went downhill. The “Sai Thong Floating Market” was neither floating, nor a market, but a large shed housing a hoard of tourist tat. “Truth is, no more floating market in Bangkok for 20 years,” our guide said. Then there was the snake farm – really a small zoo with a snake-show attached.

By the time we stepped off the boat we all wanted to return to the hotel. If the children had had their way, we’d have spent our whole time there. The Metropolitan is an oasis of calm on the South Sathorn Road where the service has a dreamlike quality: when we checked in, no less than four staff stepped forward to complete our registration forms for us. The children found the attention pretty cool.

Said Anna at breakfast: “I just looked at the bread, and the waiter said ‘Do you want some toast?’ I feel like a queen.” But best of all was the pool: outdoors, beautiful to look at, and big enough to swim in and to lounge by.

What they least enjoyed was getting around. Transport in Bangkok is a pleasure and a pain. A pleasure because the river boats, tuk-tuks and sky train are fun. A night ride in a tuk-tuk – “four people balanced in a cage on the back of a moped stuck in top gear” – was a huge hit (“Blimey, they go fast!” “Can we buy one?”). But a pain because most of the city centre is permanently gridlocked.

Eating and street markets scored highly, too. At the Suan Lum night market we entered an ancient temple. “It’s made of polystyrene,” Owen said. He was right. The painted blocks masked a 24-hour tourist police station. In the warren of brightly lit stalls selling everything from DVDs to chameleons, a little pocket money went a long way. But on the walk home, with traffic roaring by, both children pulled up their shirts as impromptu face-masks.

Good food is everywhere in Bangkok. From the stylish eateries at the Metropolitan to the road-side stalls in Thonburi, we stuffed ourselves to bursting point.

Our final day found us lounging by the pool. “How would you describe Bangkok?” I asked the children.

Anna: “Smiley. Smelly.”

Owen: “Polluted. Tasty.”

There were several hours left before our flight to Sydney. Should we go and visit the famous solid gold Buddha in Chinatown? Or should we lounge further?

It was no contest.

“Actually,” Anna said, “I’ve just about had enough Buddhas for today.”

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