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Travel: The changing faces of Bangkok

The red shirts are fomenting political unrest but change is a constant in Thailand



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After Ayutthaya, we slipped into the Elephant Stay, a "working elephant village" involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of abandoned animals. I heard some grumbling among our small group about this Australian-run enterprise, but it was hard not to delight in the sight of infant elephants jostling for space in an over-crowded "bathtub."

Interesting though both were, more to my taste was the Jim Thompson House in downtown Bangkok. Here, in the late 1950s, Thompson, an American GI turned Asia-phile, assembled six traditional teak houses into an evocative stilted home on the river (klong) and filled it with stunning Asian art and antiques.

At the same time, he single-handedly revived the Muslim silk-weaving industry in the neighbouring byways along the klong. Today Jim Thompson Inc. raw silk scarves and other items (not cheap) are sold around the world.

A happy surprise - and located in the King Power complex - was a modern take on traditional Thai puppetry. With the king's backing, young actors and dancers formed a troupe called Aksra Hoon Lakorn Lek. And while the performers, all clad in black, deftly manoeuvre the giant hand-made puppets representing Thai mythological figures, they simultaneously perform small, repetitive footsteps in a dance that is mesmerizing. Theatre-goers I talked to were blown away by, in particular, the show's human element.

I returned to the famed Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, 100 kilometres west of Bangkok. And while the ride through the steamy klongs on the "longtail" boats was fun, I found the "market" now dominated by clothing and souvenir vendors. With the arrival of hoards of tourists, it seems that most of the water-borne produce sellers moved away.

Still looking for an older Bangkok, I taxied to Chinatown, where I seemed to recall smoky old-world lanes with soot-covered men hammering on metal. What I found on this visit was shop after shop selling heaps of cheap shoes, and stall after stall, with rack after rack, flogging almost valueless bling and glitter.

I watched a street vendor cut open a coconut for a passing tourist and another wrap tiny treats in green leaves. Noisy tuk-tuks whipped through the crowds to deliver yet more goods to the stalls.

Finally, and against the advice of a tourist guide (no reason was given) I took a taxi to Banglamphu, full of backpack hotels and rooming houses. No sooner had I arrived than I discovered the reason I'd been told to stay away. Here thousands of "red-shirts," in from the countryside for their protests, were living in a sea of tents and filling the streets.

By the time I left Thailand, the red-shirts had had some success - the prime minister had agreed to a face-to-face meeting. But of this I was sure: if I ever get back to Bangkok, the city will have changed yet again - at least in my own eyes.