Only a few hours to go until I finally leave Bangkok for Battambang in Cambodia tonight. People here keep on saying to me ‘so when is your journey starting?’ I reply to them ‘it already has’. But I guess that in terms of ‘hitting the road’ (or the ‘frog and toad’ as one Thai person enlightened me) to Birmingham, the true ‘journey’ aspect to the trip doesn’t start until today. Although its somewhat ironic that my first sojourn will actually take me further away from my final destination!
(Postscript, I’m finishing this blog still in Thailand in the insalubrious border town of Aranyapradeth having missed my train to Cambodia due to forgetting the time whilst writing this blog! Had to get a later bus instead and arrived after the border closed! )
Its been nearly 2 weeks since I arrived in “Krungthep’ as the locals call it, and I thought a good way to review my time here would be to focus on the experiences I’ve had due to the implications of one rule in particular which I set myself. For a quick recap of the 5 rules check out this video (apologies if you’ve already seen it a million times)
The rule that has been by far the dominant factor thus far has been the one about ‘raising awareness about sustainability issues in each country I visit’. It’s a rule which has lead me on a weird and wonderful path to bits of, and experiences in, Bangkok I never could have expected before the trip began. It’s also helped me coin a new word for what I’m doing – ‘investigative tourism’. Like ‘investigative journalism’ – only the travel experience is just as important as the article….
Hence rather than traditional tourist experiences of Bangkok being defined by nights out on the Khao San road and days spent sweltering in the Grand Palace, my 2 weeks investigating sustainability have been defined by: encountering the Bangkok Women’s Network, meeting an ex BBC magician, visiting a bloke growing vegetables with fish in his backyard, getting 2 nights free accommodation in a guesthouse, participating in a children’s birthday party planting trees, going on a ‘tweed’ cycle, meeting with Greenpeace , staying on the floor of someone from the UN, being introduced to a class of hill tribe children and having a private boat trip organised for me by one of the community leaders of a slum area. No need to bungee jump from the top of State Tower in order to achieve the objective of having an ‘adventure’ then! Let me elaborate on how this all came to pass.
I picked the topic of water pollution to investigate in Bangkok. They’ll be a follow up ‘docu blog’ to this about why this particular topic was chosen, how it’s affecting the city and its residents and the potential solutions. I hope you’ll find it interesting! Obviously I could have just regurgitated a load of documents and produced a rather dull, university style essay on the subject. However that’s not the point at all – the whole idea is to bring the subject to life. And that means meeting people! But where to start in a city you haven’t been to in 9 years investigating a subject you don’t have much background in without the help of any ‘gatekeepers’?
Before arriving, I’d fired off a couple of speculative emails to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, the Pollution Control Department and some academics who’d written a couple of papers on topic. No reply. I headed on the plane from Sri Lanka with absolutely nothing in place. Time to think outside the box a little…..
My first day in Bangkok was spent holed up in my Thai friend Taz’s room firing off emails to try to get something sorted.
I decided that couchsurfing might actually be a good bet – so searched for any couchsurfers in Bangkok who mentioned ‘sustainability’ in their profiles. Bingo – 10 found. All messaged! I also decided to tap into a community of sustainability professionals I’d been a member of back in London. It’s called Net Impact. Previously I hadn’t even considered that they might have lots of people in Bangkok (its mainly US based), but upon paying a membership fee to unlock the ability to search the database and send emails to other members, I found about 30 sustainability professionals in Bangkok. Another load of emails sent!
Obviously when you’re doing lots of emails in this fashion at such short notice, you’re unlikely to get everyone replying. But I was fortunate enough to get 2 excellent responses through Net Impact and another 1 through couchsurfing.
Those 3 responses were all I needed to trigger the ‘butterfly effect’ and unlock the quite unexpected chain of events which followed. Thankfully they were also enough to give me sufficient access to people to make a decent story about water pollution in the city. It’s quite a liberating feeling to have 2 weeks earmarked for a city with no prior plans and just see where things take you by following a particular path.
So here’s how the events unfolded….
Bangkok Network of Women…
The first ‘Net Impact’ response was from an incredibly helpful lady called Piyawee. She put me onto Pacharee from BNOW (Bangkok Network of Women). A few emails later on that first day and I was invited to what I assumed to be a ‘BNOW’ lunch. She said I might be able to make contacts with the right kind of people there.
A lunch with just me and a load of women sounded fun so I was mildly disappointed to find a bunch of (mainly ‘farang’) hairy old men when I turned up at the ‘Bangkok Foreign Correspondents Club’ the next day. It turned out that it wasn’t even a BNOW lunch at all – instead I’d rocked up at the BBC (Bangkok Business Connections) lunch – the other organisation run by Pacharee.
It was at this lunch that I met Howard Posenar, an ex BBC magician who was looking to further his business in Bangkok’s high society hotels. Not much use in terms of water pollution, but he did provide some excellent magic tricks including this one which I filmed.
He was also a personal friend of Ainsley Harriet (which the British amongst you may found amusing, but is probably lost on the internationals)
More usefully for the sustainability angle, I also met Mark Hindelang at the event – a Canadian developing urban aquaponics. If that doesn’t mean much to you (and it didn’t to me previously) its basically growing organic food with fish who shit a lot. All in the confines of a backyard. Its actually incredibly ingenious, and the link to water pollution was that it could negate the need for so much fertiliser to be used in intensive agricultural practices (with the link to runoff in the river from fertiliser and pesticides). Mark was kind enough to invite me to his home (in the middle of nowhere in the south of Bangkok) to have a look at the fish and eat some of the delicious homegrown tomatoes. Much more on this in the water pollution docu blog forthcoming.
Back to Piyawee, Big Trees and Tweed
We have to go back to Piyawee, to explain how I ended up at a children’s birthday party planting trees, going on a ‘tweed’ cycle, and getting 2 nights free night’s accommodation in a guesthouse.
It turns out that she actually had a plethora of contacts in the city and also ran a swanky guesthouse called Lub D. I was fortunate enough to be offered to stay there for a couple of nights which I gladly accepted. Sadly this ‘fairy godmother’ that is Piyawee remains an elusive figure for me – she was out of the country when I stayed at Lub D so I haven’t actually met her. I can only offer my sincere gratitude!
One of her contacts was a lady named Oraya – founder of the ‘Big Trees Project’. Basically its a project to ensure that Bangkok retains some green spaces. I thought it sounded fun, so was delighted to accept her offer to come and help plant some trees at Wat Pho last Sunday morning. I thought it would be a good opportunity to hang out with some other sustainability (or at least green fingered) gurus in the city. Although Oraya was incredibly helpful and welcoming, it turned out that I’d crashed a 4 year olds birthday party! Some Thai kids parents had decided to mix birthday celebrations with a spot of gardening – and I was some random visitor going round taking random photos of the kids and planting the odd tree. They must have thought I was a total weirdo!
Fortunately as I was saying my goodbyes, Oraya told me about an event happening in the city that night called the ‘Tweed Run’. Organised by the Bangkok Bicycle Club, it was a proposed bike ride round the city wearing Tweed. Why not? Although cycling in tweed in 30 degrees heat may not be everyone’s idea of fun – I thought it sounded like something worth doing. Over 200 likes of the picture for the event on Facebook gave me confidence it could be quite popular.
I managed to blag a Brompton style bike for the evening from a café outside Thamassat University, although sadly I couldn’t find any tweed. For a while it looked like having no tweed would be the least of my worries as I stood outside the designated starting place at the designated start time of 5pm alone with my Brompton. I forlornly asked local students as they walked by if they were participants in ‘Tweed Run’. They looked at me very strangely.
Eventually at 5.15 someone came past on a bike. ‘Tweed Run Tweed Run’ I shouted excitedly.
‘Yes Yes. Tweed run. No tweed. Start soon!’ the reply
‘Wahoo. Lets get this party started’ I thought, but didn’t say.
We waited another few minutes by which time a massive amount of 5 more people had showed up. Not the 200 I was expecting, but a nice little group of Thai students and me none the less. Cycling in Bangkok as the sun goes down is a surprisingly pleasant experience.
Greenpeace & visiting the Hua Kwong community
The Greenpeace and private tour around Hua Kwong came via my other fairy godmother from Net Impact – a lady called Prae. Again, I never actually got to meet Prae, but she put me in touch with her cousin Ply who worked for Greenpeace and Mr Pongporn who was the district leader for the Hua Kwong area. Ply from Greenpeace gave me a fantastically detailed and candid interview at their head office, and even offered to become my ‘gatekeeper’ should I ever want to expose any more issues in Thailand!
Mr Pongporn – an incredibly inspirational individual – took half a day out of his unbelievably hectic schedule (he’s a full time architect – being the district leader is just something he does in his spare time) to proudly show me round the Hua Kwong district which he represents. It really does show the kindness of individuals – he organised for me to be introduced to a class of hill tribe children who were learning Thai in an educational centre, interview the local community leaders (and translate for them), meet another architect who revealed his plans for cleaning up the canals and associated transportation links and organised for me to meet and photograph the local canals (khlongs) on a private boat. I owe him a decent report at the very least!
Here’s a brief taster of the ‘docu blog’ to follow shortly….
The UN couchsurfer
I really can’t speak highly enough of couchsurfing following my ‘couchvember’ experience around London, and it came to the fore again as I spent a couple of days surfing with Marta- a documentary film maker from the UN Environmental Programme. As alluded to earlier, she was the only respondent from me messaging all Bangkok couchsurfers with sustainability in their profiles. Although she wasn’t directly knowledgeable on the field of water pollution, she introduced me to some of her colleagues who were and had offered to help me make a documentary out of my experiences around Bangkok. Unfortunately she was called away on business to the Philippines at short notice so we couldn’t make the docu together, but we have provisional plans to make the Laos section of the trip into a professionally shot documentary.
I’d meant for this blog to be a review of all the rules of the trip, but realised as writing that there was just some much from just the one of them that it would be too crowded to review who the other 5 rules have fared so far. Suffice to say that I’ve been zipping around the city on a mixture of Bangkok sky train (BTS), boats and motorbike taxis in a bid not to use ‘tourist transport’, am still within my budget of not paying more than my London rent (just), I’ve been staying with ‘local’ people (definition is debateable. Subject of a future blog) on all but the 2 nights I got the free accommodation, and I managed to successfully sneak my hand luggage on the plane despite it being a couple of kilos overweight. I’ll write a more in depth review of how all the rules are faring some time over next few days…..