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 dйcor 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 just beginning.