How did I end up half way around the world?
Well, like many a tourist, I was enticed by a
sly deal. Malaysian Airlines had ads offering
flights to Kuala Lumpur with options to stopover
at 24 other Asian cities for $747. For that one
price, I could visit Beijing, Hanoi, Bangkok,
and a dozen and more destinations. I fancied myself
traipsing atop the Great Wall one day and cruising
Bangkok's canals another. It was a great deal
until I examined the fine print. Every flight
required a stopover in Kuala Lumpur before departing
to any other destination. Gladly, I never flew
on wily Malaysian Air but their tease enticed
me to explore a trip to Southeast Asia - that
clump of countries that include Vietnam, Laos,
Burma, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand. At first,
I thought of visiting them all but the logistics,
the expense, and thoughts of safety, and comfort,
led me finally to one choice - Thailand. So, fifteen
hours flying time from California and 15 hours
ahead of Pacific Standard Time, I found myself
in Thailand and another world.
The Thais are proud people, unique as the only
country in Asia never to have been colonized.
The roots of their Buddhist religion make them
tolerant and friendly to visitors, marked by their
traditional greeting of hands clasped together
under the chin with a faint bow. It's a greeting
not so easily reciprocated by foreigners and usually
seems a bit strained. Sort of like trying to be
"cool" and do a thumb-clasp handshake.
While I encountered far more tourists from Europe,
Australia, and Asia than from the U.S., Thais
seemed to genuinely like Americans.
Situated in the heart of Southeast Asia, it has
beautiful mountainous jungles in its North that
border the Mekong River and the nations of Laos
and Myanmar (Burma). The Mekong and hills to the
east mark the border with Cambodia. In the South,
between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea,
there are some of the best beaches and island
paradises in the world - picture perfect locales
for major movies from James Bond epics to Leonardo
Decaprio's "The Beach."
But the heart of Thailand is its capital, Bangkok,
a city of ten million inhabitants, with a conundrum
of life at once exhilarating but frustrating,
dilapidated and modern, beautiful yet filthy.
Here, marvels of skyscraper design are as eye-catching
as the riverside wharves of factories, homes,
and shops built ages ago and anchored atop precarious
stilts above the river.
The city sits astride the great Chao Phraya River
and practically all that's worth seeing can be
accessed from the riverboats that cruise the waterway.
I stayed at The Peninsula (66-0-28612888), a five-star
hotel, rated by Travel and Leisure magazine as
the best hotel in Asia, and one of the top-ten
in the world. Extraordinary décor and service
are a given. The high-rise hotel has views from
every room of the busy river, and the barges,
ferries, and long-tail boats that ply it. The
rooms average more than 400 square feet, with
central electronics to control window curtains,
mood lighting, music, satellite TV, or even summon
a personal valet. There are comfortable sitting
areas in every room and luxurious bathrooms with
built-in TV's above the tub, separate showers,
and dual vanities. Anywhere in the "West,"
room rates in a hotel of this quality would average
$400 or more. You can stay at The Peninsula for
$130/night including a sumptuous breakfast - American
or Japanese. So, you can have bacon and eggs for
breakfast, or dumplings and miso soup.
I began my tour of the city by renting a "long
boat" at the Peninsula Hotel's pier for a
tour through the klongs or canals of Thonburi,
the west bank of the city where the old canals
that once crisscrossed all of Bangkok still exist.
The long boats are quaint vessels powered by old
auto engines and maneuvered by long-shaft propellers.
Business thrives; people live, mostly in squalor
along the canals. The water is muddy brown, full
of the debris of civilization and lush foliage
washed down from upstream. But people wash their
clothes, fish, and bath here. There were several
wats (Buddhist temples) along the klongs, a few
elegant homes, but mostly ramshackle wood and
corrugated metal shacks teetering on stilts. Small
boats, some laden with fruits and vegetables,
some with touristy souvenirs, slip alongside to
sell you their wares.
After traversing the Thonburi canals, we exited
again into the main channel of the Chao Phraya
and disembarked at the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun,
with its picture postcard prang or tower. The
18th century tower is decorated with broken pieces
of porcelain from the holds of ancient Chinese
cargo ships. The tourist business here is thriving.
You can have your photo taken with a giant anaconda
wrapped around your neck or pose with Thai women
dressed in traditional ornate garb and headdresses.
I looked better posed with the women than the
anaconda. Everywhere you look too, there are passive
but thin, stray dogs lying about - almost underfoot.
And I never saw anyone feed them.
A ferry takes you across the river to Wat Pho,
Bangkok's oldest and largest temple. Entrance
fees to most Thai attractions are very reasonable
- 20-100 Baht (42 Baht=$1) and for another 300
baht you can hire an English speaking guide. The
main attraction at Wat Pho is its giant 150-foot
gilded Reclining Buddha with mother-of-pearl designs
on the soles of its feet. Not far from Wat Pho
is Wat Phra Kaew with its Emerald Buddha. Next
to that is the Grand Palace, a former residence
of the king. (However you are pronouncing these
Thai names, you're probably wrong. But don't worry.
I never got any of the pronunciations right either.
Not even the simplest greetings. "Sa wa dee
ka," "hello." "Kop Koon kop,
"thank you." But the Thais seemed to
always appreciate my effort.)
Wats are perhaps the most distinctive architecture
of Thailand with temples of ornate multi-tiered
roofs, grand chedi towers containing relics of
the Buddha, smaller prang towers honoring the
dead, and countless statues, murals, and other
decorations depicting the Buddha and his epic
story. To my western eye all the gilt, lacquer,
colored porcelain and glass mosaics, mother-of-pearl
inlays, and often hundreds of similarly cast statues
of the Buddha surrounding a wat seemed at first
simply "gaudy." But once you adjust
yourself to a new culture, they begin to look
different - strikingly beautiful, eclectic, full
of curious and dazzlingly interesting details.
While touring the Vatican in Rome, one might see
dozens of priests or nuns walking about. In Bangkok,
however, there are thousands of saffron-robed
monks - from the very young to the very old. Riding
one of the ferries down the Chao Phraya you might
find yourself crowded among dozens of monks heading
to their instruction or prayer. Becoming a monk
is a rite of passage for Thai males. Most teenage
boys become monks for a few months. Some men,
usually later in life, choose a monk's austere
existence for life. Even the present king, Rama
IX, King Bhumibol, now in his seventies and the
longest reigning monarch in the world, was once
a monk. While Thailand is a constitutional monarchy,
the king and queen here are highly revered. Their
photos are displayed almost everywhere - from
the lobbies of luxurious hotels to the thatched
hut walls of hill tribes. It is Buddhism and the
monarchy that most unite this country.
While you can traverse the city by air-conditioned
taxi or in the more exotic, less comfortable three
wheeled motorcabs called tuk-tuks, by these modes
be prepared to be consumed by the most chaotic,
noisy, smog-reeking traffic in the world. Rush
hour with stoplights lasting as much as fifteen
minutes can drive you berserk. Though taxis have
meters, drivers often refuse to "throw"
them and put you through the task of bargaining
for the fare to your destination. But there are
other options. On the new Skytrain, an elevated
rail system, you can get to most of the city's
major tourist areas and fares are usually 30-40
baht (less than a dollar). The Peninsula has its
own ferry that departs every five minutes for
the Skytrain's Taksin Bridge station on the Chao
Phraya. Better yet, embark on one of the express
riverboats for 5-10 baht, and take in great views
of the city's skyline and waterfront. Here you
can chat with a monk or other local - many Thais
speak English - and stop at the major tourist
sites or shopping areas like the upscale River
City mall or Chinatown with its street stalls
and exotic wares. As for Thai food, most restaurants
are very good and inexpensive. The ones along
the riverfront, particularly in the first class
hotels like the Peninsula, the Oriental, and the
Shangri-la, will be extraordinary.
The dollar goes a long way in Thailand and, except
for restaurants, major department stores, and
luxury hotels, almost everyone expects you to
bargain. It's an acquired talent but you probably
can't go wrong in offering half of the starting
asking price. Even then, you may well end up paying
too much. There were several times when an asking
price began in the thousands of bahts and ended
in the low hundreds. If you're looking for native
wares, silks, clothes, electronics, or art, I
found the best shopping between Siam Square and
the MBK (Mahboonkrong) Shopping Centre. Get there
by taking the Skytrain and getting off at either
the Siam or National Stadium stations.
There's interesting street shopping too in Patpong,
most famous for being Bangkok's sex district.
Though it shouldn't be a highlight of your trip,
consider a brief traipse through the decadent
alleyways here as part of your Bangkok experience.
Interestingly, I felt quite safe in Bangkok. Despite
the crowds and the juxtaposition of poverty and
wealth, there is far less crime and violence here
than in America's great cities. I also saw no
beggars in Thailand. People will either try to
sell you the most meager items or provide "entertainment,"
but no handouts; no "spare change" was
ever solicited. Perhaps these characteristics
are owed to Thailand's Buddhist culture. There's
a deference paid to those that are wealthy and
successful. They believe in reincarnation and
if one lives a righteous life, you're reincarnated
into a higher station. Hence, the almost godlike
stature of the king.
Thailand is also renowned for its massage therapy.
Ask your concierge for a referral. If you ask
a taxi driver or a local, as a "farange"
or foreigner, you'll be presumed to be seeking
a "sex massage" and sent to such a destination.
But there are innumerable wonderful and "legitimate"
spas and massage parlors in the city. For 400
baht (less than $10), you can get a two-hour Thai
massage. It's an experience part pure pleasure,
part exquisite pain.
If you become satiated with sightseeing, shopping,
or simply relaxing, consider learning a little
Buddhist meditation. There are two main branches
of Buddhist meditation - samatha (calmness and
concentration) and vipassana (insight). You can
attend classes in meditation at one of many teaching
monasteries for an afternoon or evening or for
several days. Wat Mahadhatu near the Grand Palace
has centers open to tourists. Or you can call
the International Buddhist Meditation Center (66-2-623-6326)
for a referral. Bring flowers, nine sticks of
incense, a candle, and an open mind.
Bangkok is alive 24 hours a day. It's chaotic
and exotic, filthy and gaudy, cultural and sensual,
devout and debauched. But it was only a taste
of Thailand. The country has far more to offer
as I discovered next in visits to Chiang Mai in
the lush mountains of the north and then the tropical
isles of Phuket and Ko Samui. My adventure was