Bangkok is a city that never sleeps. Its nights are long and legendary. Even in the time of erstwhile Prime Minister Takhsin’s curfews, it never really closed down. Traffic roars and blares constantly. Lights flash and glare. The streets swarm with movement and people throng to thousands, if not millions of clubs, discos and bars. Whatever your particular night-life fancy, you’ll find it in Bangkok.
There are fabulous, classy, world famous clubs; playgrounds for the rich, the celebrated and the royal, where watchful bodyguards follow their charges from the edge of dance-floors surging with jewels and designer gear.
You’ll find those bars, the stuff of travellers’ tales, where tourists watch with mouths agape and eyes agog while dancers perform unbelievable tricks with unmentionable parts of their bodies. And you’ll find others again where as you sip on your drink of choice, they’ll do unspeakable things to unmentionable parts of yours.
Many of Bangkok’s clubs and bars buzz with the not so secret business between beautiful Thai youth and past-their-prime, gone-to-seed, western wallets. At the tables and on the dance-floors, clumsy paunches and graceful young figures meet against a background of relentless disco hits. Outsiders look on with a mixture of pity and amusement, at this tragi-comic commerce between the desperately poor and the ridiculously needy,
And then there’s yet another Bangkok night, down, in the city’s dark and infamous underbelly. This is the Bangkok where children are enslaved in prostitution and the world’s worst human beings collect to prey on them.
The spring sunsets in Norway are long, slow and spectacular, starting with a fade down from the brilliant blue, bright yellow and vivid white of the day, into subdued grey, subtle orange and soft pink. The contours of the forests and coastline blur, and mist, like cotton wool, gathers in the dips and folds of the hills.
This evening I am invited to dine at Holmenkollen Park Hotel, just below the former Winter Olympics venue which is now a ski park and museum. The restaurant’s boast, “Closer to heaven you cannot get” is perfectly true I think, as, sipping on a Jarlsberg, I watch the light fade over the hills below and the fjiord beyond.
Dinner consists of seven courses of Norwegian delicacies, each punctuated by a palate cleansing sorbet. The salmon is sensational, and so fresh I have to grapple with disturbing images of the delicate pink fish hurling itself onward and upward through icy waterfalls. The glazed pork main is good too but not good enough to conjure up pictures of fleet, cloven feet dashing through the forest (thank goodness!) The piece de resistance, however, is dessert – a beautiful little berry tart – a work of art for both eye and palate.
After dinner I’m ready to check out a little of Oslo’s night-life. Norwegians enjoy a drink and a party and in Oslo there are countless bars and clubs of every imaginable kind. Beer is the Norwegian drink of choice and many clubs serve a huge variety – one as many as one hundred and thirty two! Because alcohol is subject to heavy taxes, many Norwegians begin their evening with a Vorspeil, a sort of at-home, drinking party before the night begins. This might explain why so many patrons of the bars I visit are already in varying states of inebriation, from tipsy to blotto. (Not that I ‘m exactly judge-like after the numerous wines that have accompanied those seven courses!)
I begin my bar tour at Onkel Donald, a cafe/bar/pub/ restaurant, on Universitetgaten, a little side street off Karl Johan’s gate and just round the corner from the Grand Hotel. Its spacious rooms boom with the latest hits, both indigenous and exotic. I retreat to a corner with another Jarlsberg, to observe/ test Onkel Donald’s reputation as a pick-up joint.
There’s a tap on my shoulder. I look up into the bearded face of a Viking giant.
“Would you mind guarding my beer?” he asks, planting a tankard on my table.
Before I can answer he plunges into the crowd, leaving me to puzzle over the practice and responsibilities of beer guarding. I gather from his lengthy, confused and repetitious explanation, when he returns, that alcohol is so expensive in Norway, that an unguarded beer is certain prey. When he pokes me in the chest and slurs,
You know what? You look just like Heelary Cleenton!”,
I begin to think that the wise beer guard would have tipped his tankard into the nearest pot plant, or given it to the cute young back-packer counting his coins at the bar. !”
Making my excuses, I head down the street to John’s Bar for a bit of a dance. The music is eighties Retro (Abba! Choice!) and the crowd, although described as “neither stylish nor fashionable’, is friendly. Besides they’re dancing up a storm. I’m feeling right at home as I shoulder my way onto the floor. Half an hour later I’m in disco heaven. I’ve even forgotten that cruel Hilary Clinton cut. But, suddenly, bobbing above the crowd, like a large, hairy, lunar orb is the ear-to-ear grinning face of the Viking giant from Onkel Donald’s.
“Beer Guard!” he bellows.
I drop to my knees, crawl through the forest of bopping knees to the door and escape onto Universitetsgarten.
Described as a small, very rock n’ roll bar, where loud music precludes conversation, Last Train sounds like just the place to end my night. I order another Jarlsberg, settle in a corner, smile and listen. I’m starting to mellow out into that end of a great evening kind of mood. It’s short-lived. At the bar I spot the VG again. There’s no escape this time and furthermore, he’s seen me and is bearing down on me, white teeth framed in a delighted wide ring of fuzz.
“Beer Guard” he says “I’ve been trying to find you!”
“Ja, Come to my apartment for Nachspiel”
I’ve read about this end of night, post outing drinking-party, equivalent of the Vorspiel and it sounds like a nice idea but not with an unknown, sloshed Viking giant
“That’s very kind, but first would you mind guarding my beer?”
He nods happily. I plant my half full glass on the table, smile gratefully, walk swiftly to the door and head back to Karl Johans and the sanctuary of the Grand Cafe where I enjoy my Nachspiel, with a few last Ibsenesque stragglers from the National Theatre.
It is an early summer evening. The sinking sun lights up the ornate facades of the buildings that stand at the edges of the Old Town Square. Towers and spires rise out of the shadows behind them. Restless tribes of young travellers mill around the Staropramen beer tents. From café terraces their richer, staider and more sober elders look on. A giant screen flashes FIFA hype. On a central platform, a brand new Hyundai sits gleaming like a golden calf. A boy with a Tintin hairdo buzzes around on a scooter emblazoned with “Darling’s” in hot pink letters. A matching stretch limo with tinted windows hovers in a side street nearby. The Astronomical Clock strikes 9. All heads turn. Tour groups crowd underneath and gaze up at the magical workings of its face. There’s a kind of hush. It is filled with a crescendo of classical music from a nearby church. A languid, six foot blonde goddess strolls by, her golden-brown arms hung with shopping bags – Paul Smith, Prada and Agnes B.
This is Prague today, one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world and one of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet.
Since the 1990s, Prague has been back, where, historically as well as geographically, it belongs, at the centre of Europe, at the crossroads of old trade and travel routes. It is part of the European Union. Football fever has taken hold. Global businesses and brands have colonised the commercial sector. H&M, M&S and Benetton fly their flags from grand old shop fronts. Tesco’s lurk in their basements. Gucci, Versace and Chanel occupy corners of art nouveau arcades. Consumerism thrives in this new age. Prague and its people, clearly, love to shop.
They love a good time too and Prague night life is legendary. With some of the best and cheapest beer in Europe as well a rich variety of other intoxicants (including the once outlawed Absinth), with an unbelievable number of bars and clubs which seem to be open all hours and with a laissez faire attitude to “fun” and “entertainment”, the city enjoys a reputation as one of Europe’s premier party places.
Because of its multitude of churches and synagogues, Prague is sometimes called the city of spires. Yet, the Czech Republic is one of the most atheistic countries in the world. Considering the religious dissent which had it tied up for centuries this is not surprising. While some churches still fulfill their religious purpose, others have become the stage for the classical music which has earned Prague fame for centuries.
Architecturally, Prague is breathtaking. Dreamed up by a succession of rich, powerful dynasties, with the artistic genius of the known world at their disposal, it is a wonderland of beautiful, historic buildings. Romanesque, Mediaeval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Cubist and Modern Functionalist – every age and every architectural expression, with its own unique Czech twist of course, is here. Every building and every landmark adds another fragment to this great city’s long and rich history.
Whether you’re a culture vulture, a history buff, an architecture afficiando or a party animal, 21st century Prague has everything you could desire.