Two sides of Bangkok

Depressed by the volume of traffic, prostitutes and hawkers near my hotel, I was determined to search for some nicer bits of Bangkok at the weekend. I love water, so I started by walking to the klong (canal) nearest to the hotel, where I took a water taxi the whole of its length. Suddenly a different world appeared, as behind the shiny new tower blocks are rickety old wooden houses and shacks, mostly covered with a veritable forest of pot plants, where cats prowl, women are busy cooking and washing, and the men laze around in hammocks watching the world go by.

The water is dirty, and smelly, of course, and the water taxis have plastic “curtains” at the sides to protect the passengers from splashes – so it isn’t the best tourist transport, but nevertheless it is miles better than the traffic jams out on the roads.

Not that I’m complaining about any of it. The choice of restaurants near my hotel in Sukhumvit was superb, with Italian, Japanese – even a Manchester United Restaurant and Bar! But everywhere you look there are these couples – older, unattractive white man (receding hairline, beer belly, etc) with a beautiful, slim young Thai girl on his arm – that really bother me.

Why? I don’t disapprove of prostitution, so it’s not that. But I think that those who indulge in prostitution should have the grace to be slightly embarrassed about it, and so to keep it quiet. Here, however the men look like the cat that got the cream, so proud of their ‘conquest’. But surely they must realise that everyone knows they couldn’t attract a girl like that in a million years unless they were paying her? The girls seem to have no shame either.

But anyway, away from that Bangkok has some nice, interesting areas. After my canal trip I went to visit Wat Pho, to see the enormous reclining Buddha as well as all the hundreds of other buddhas in side temples dotted around the complex. There were surprisingly few tourists there (perhaps tricked by the many men in the area who tell you, “It’s closed today, but I can arrange for you to do a good shopping trip instead…”) and the place had a very relaxing atmosphere. I spent three hours there. Although I have to admit that even there the other side of Bangkok intruded briefly. Walking down a little lane between side temples, I looked to my right when I heard someone gasp, and was surprised to see a Thai man standing there masturbating. Not quite the respect for Buddha that you expect inside the grounds of the country’s major Buddhist temple!

Wanting to see more of the water afterwards I took a one-hour tour on a longtail boat of the Thonburi area of the city – a labyrinth of canals lined with wooden houses perched on stilts above the water and a level of peace and tranquillity that couldn’t be imagined from the busy streets.

On Sunday a colleague took me to the famous Chatuchak weekend market. It is enormous, selling everything from camping gear and Buddha statues to orchids and puppies. We wandered its lanes for several hours and I bought Tshirts, sandals and a dress. I resisted the Buddha statues but gazed longingly at a giant painting of a magnolia tree in bloom on strips of old wood. It was the size of one wall of a room, and I could just imagine it looking spectacular on the wall of one of those enormous old London warehouse flats.

But this trip was over far too soon (eight days in total), and I am drafting this whilst waiting for my connecting flight in Nairobi airport. A nine hour flight which will get me back home to Dakar this evening, before I have to turn around again 24 hours later to fly all the way back here again…

Transit in Nairobi

Just a quick business trip to Thailand, but it’s not the easiest place to get to from Dakar. First a nine-hour overnight flight to Nairobi, then 16 hours in transit in Nairobi, followed by another nine-hour overnight flight to get to Bangkok.

What to do with 16 hours in Nairobi? It’s not a bad airport, with a transit lounge for Kenya Airways passengers, but really 16 hours is too long to spend in an airport.

So I bought myself a transit visa and with my cabin baggage checked through to Bangkok I was able to get the bus into town, and from there a matatu to the Nairobi National Park. I wasn’t going to go into the Park itself, at $50 just for entrance (for foreigners), and at least as much again to hire a car and driver as you are not allowed to walk there. However there is a board-walk along the periphery of the park, with some orphaned and rescued animals on display as well as the possibility of seeing birds, monkeys etc – and this at only $20 entrance.

& I wasn’t disappointed. With Sykes monkeys (I think) in the trees, stunning little purple grenadiers flitting about, and a pair of giant kingfishers easily visible not too far from the path – a bird I have long wanted to see.

It was a good day, although Dakar-Bangkok is still not a journey I would recommend.

Trouble with the staff

One of my guards told me he wanted to have a word with me before I went on my next trip. He was particularly keen to track me down, even sending me a text at work to be sure that I would be home that evening.

I hoped he wouldn’t ask for another loan. He already owes me money, and although he is always very good at paying me back, this one has been outstanding a little longer than usual. He’s recently been bringing me the odd ‘gift’ – a fresh mango here, something planted in the garden there – I think in lieu of interest as he knows he should have repaid me by now. I guess times are tough, as security guards don’t earn all that much. & I didn’t think this was going to be a repayment, as for that there was no need to ask to speak to me, he could just hand me the money.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I answered the door to his knock on Friday evening. I did not want to lend him more money until he repaid the previous loan, but also did not relish the prospect of saying “no” to him, as he has been with me since I first moved into my house and is the sweetest, gentlest, most helpful of men.

I invited him in to sit down, and he started by telling me that he hoped what he was going to say would not upset me, that he knew he was risking his job by what he was about to say, but that he could not keep quiet for any longer. I told him to go ahead and tell me whatever it was.

“I’ve fallen in love with you” he said.

Well! That was the LAST thing I expected, and I really didn’t know what to say. He is a lovely person, who would treat a woman really well (the type who would never look at another woman again in his life) – as I said above, a really sweet, gentle and kind man. Reminds me of my Mum’s new husband, in fact.

But not what I would be looking for, even were I looking for a man at all! I really didn’t know what to say to him (nor how to talk about this sort of thing in French…) so had to just tell him I was not interested in him but that I was not upset by what he had told me and that his job was safe. Apparently he has been hiding this feeling for some six months now, and the fact that I was about to be away from Dakar for seven weeks meant he just had to tell me how he felt. He wants me to ‘think about it’ while I am away.

How do you tell someone, gently, that there is absolutely no chance on earth that you will ever get together with them, in a way that is final but does not hurt their feelings?


Senegal’s national sport, even more popular than football, is wrestling. There is Senegalese wrestling on TV nearly every night of the week, and that is only from the stadia around the country; there are countless smaller arenas and village squares where young men wrestle each other to the ground.

I’ve watched it on TV many times and determined that I had to see it in real life. The actual wrestling bout (a mixture of wrestling, judo, and - at the higher levels where they progress to ‘wrestling with boxing’ - also the odd punch) usually takes just a few minutes but the preparation takes an hour or more with the participants strutting about in little loin cloths with various bits of leather and rope entwined about themselves to hold their gris gris – leather pouches containing protective amulets. Traditionally these would be bits of ground up animal or vegetable matter invested with various powers, but those rejecting animism for Islam might now replace the chicken bone with a Moslem prayer (perhaps coated in ground-up chicken bone just in case…). Their spiritual guide will also have prepared various liquid potions for them, which they bring in plastic bottles to drink, pour all over their bodies or sprinkle over the arena before the fight.

All the time there will be relentless drumming (from an official troupe but also by people in the crowd), and a praise singer calling out the virtues of the fighters. Meanwhile the TV cameramen prowl around, and journalists from various newspapers trail the wrestlers with their cameras and microphones – and really the whole thing seems like that characteristically African organised chaos that I love so much about this place.

Finally this weekend I got to go to a real live wrestling contest in a stadium in the middle of Dakar (sat between the treasurer of the national wrestling federation and the father of the favourite to win the cup so inevitably I was also featured several times on the TV, as I discovered at work the next day…). It was everything I had seen on TV only louder and more confusing, with the ‘sand pit’ in the middle where the fight takes place, a group of drummers and singers up one end, two TV commentators talking away constantly (how I wish I understood the Wolof language), journalists milling about everywhere, the various wrestlers (for the four different fights) preparing themselves and of course the crowd getting worked up. This appears to show some sort of blood-letting as part of the preparations:

I enjoyed it so much that my hosts took me on with them to a second competition, not in a stadium this time but a local arena in a suburb of Dakar. Here there was the same drumming and praise singing, but some thirty plus wrestlers strutting about, whilst two or three wrestling bouts were usually taking place, each with its own referee, in various parts of the sand pit. All this built up to a grand finale for which the winner not only got $2,000 but also the opportunity to move up to the ‘wrestling with boxing’ in a proper stadium with bigger prize money.

A spectator at this second venue explained to me that there are four requirements for a successful fighter: physical power, intelligence, serenity and effective mystical charms (the gris gris and potions). I asked whether the charms weren’t just a show to psyche out the opposition, and was assured that they were real, that they work, and that without them a fighter has no chance – indeed without them to counter the power of his opponent’s charms he may find himself powerless to even move once the fight starts. & I must say in the sultry heat of the rainy season, with the hypnotic drumming going on and on, and semi-naked wrestlers pouring these strange-coloured liquids over themselves, it was almost possible to believe in them.

Certainly when I thought about the headlining fight at the first venue, it was hard to comprehend how the fat guy (below) beat his opponent (with the usual impressive fighter physique) without some kind of supernatural help.

Sun worshipping

Apparently a statistical analysis showed that there really is a greater likelihood of rain at the weekend than during the working week. This analysis was done in the UK, but I can confirm that it applies here in Senegal too.

All last week I looked out of the window at the sun, waiting for Sunday (no work, no guards and no maid) when I planned to lie there sweating out litres of fluid – as it is now the humid time of year – in the pursuit of that permanent suntan. Sunday came, at last. I opened the curtains, only to see dark grey clouds, and within a couple of hours the rain started, and continued throughout the day.

On Monday, of course, the sky was blue again and the sun back out.

This is the third weekend out of four when my sunbathing has been scuppered by the weather, during which time we have had only one wet weekday. I know it is protecting my skin from further ageing (and how I’ve aged since I’ve been living in Senegal!) but I feel so much better when I’m brown.