Monday, January 11, 2010

Lost in translation

As attempted cures for jetlag go, it’s certainly novel: just cycle around Ancient Siam all day and then lose yourself on Bangkok’s public transport system.

Ancient Siam, otherwise known as Muang Boran, has to be one of the oddest museums I’ve ever visited and yet at the same time one of the most spectacular. This open-air attraction, on a site just outside the city outskirts, offers the visitor a comprehensive cultural experience in a day by either recreating historic buildings and monuments from all over Thailand or actually transplanting what in the UK would be considered listed buildings.

It sounds tacky, and sadly it looks tacky in most of my photographs - I blame the glaring sunlight for giving everything a cheap washed-out look - but to cycle around the vast site, stumbling across temples, palaces, statues and ruins as you go, is a frequently awe-inspiring experience.

Getting to Ancient Siam isn’t easy. First there’s a long bus ride in which you rely on a conductor, who speaks little or no English, to send you on your way at the right stop. Then you have to look for a number 36 songthaew (that’s a pick-up van with benches along each side) to take you the rest of the way. My songthaew driver was so excited to have me there that he let me use the passenger seat in the driver’s cabin. Being a suspicious, paranoid git, I was wary of him pulling a scam, but it turned out he was simply being hospitable and the fare turned out to be a modest eight baht (about 15p).

Once you’ve bought your ticket, you’re provided with a map of the site that features a long, rambling, cack-handedly translated essay, presumably by the museum’s owner. “I would like to draw the attention of the world population to come to witness our art, customs and culture,” he writes. “I believes certain that in one day or another they will benefit the noble spirit and will be a good reminder to those who are drawn to materialism.

“Thus the ‘Ancient Siam’ has been created. This may remedy the existing moral deterioration of human society.” Which is more than you can say for Legoland.

Another plus is that you can lose weight (something I badly need to do at the moment) riding around in the sweltering heat on a bicycle they lend you for the day. Arrive as a pair and they’ll provide you with a tandem. Come in a group of three and they’ll give you the kind of bike I thought only existed in The Goodies.

There’s even a small farm, though its livestock consists of just deer. It also has a snake-handler who invites small children to stroke his python.

I wish I’d had breakfast before I set out, or at least known that the Floating Village exhibit contained restuarants, as by lunchtime I was getting woozy and stopped off at the nearest beverage provider to drink my own weight in bottled water. For food I had two XXL packets of crisps, as it’s the only other thing they sold.

Thoroughly worn out, I left at 4.30pm, half an hour before the site closed, and took four hours getting back to Banglamphu. Catching a songthaew was easy enough. Getting a bus to stop for me wasn’t. By the time I caught one it was getting dark and since most of Bangkok looks identical, I missed my stop by miles. After a while the conductor twigged this and through gestures and the few words of English she knew, we agreed that I’d stay on the bus, turn round at the terminal and be prompted to get off when the time was right.

After all that, getting to sleep was a doddle.

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