It is a long way from London to Thailand, about the same distance to L.A. but in the other direction. Our plane was 12 hours late leaving due to a technical problem, so we spent the first night of our exotic Eastern vacation
in the two-star Ibis Hotel east of terminal three at Heathrow. But finally we took to the skies in a packed 747 full of Brits in search of sun. We sat next to a fat English truck driver with a penchant for double whiskeys and half-witted philosophy. After 12 hours of hearing how "he just don't give a shit" we arrived in Bangkok at 4am local time. The 45 minute taxi ride into the center of the city cost us 350 Bhat, which sounds like a lot, but was actually only $10. We were SO ready for some five star luxuries and the impeccable service that the Thais are famous for. The staff greeted us with bows and smiles, and the lovely sounding "Sawatdee-Ka" (which translates to something like 'Aloha'). The Shangri La Hotel is five stars of supreme luxury situated on the
bend of the Chao Phraya River. After the exhausting flight, the sight of our gorgeous 19th floor suite brought tears to my eyes. The room was double aspect with the balcony facing up river, and the glass bathroom with huge marble tub facing down river. We watched the sun rise, had an extraordinary breakfast, and headed out to explore the city of Bangkok.
The Shangri-La has a riverside dock where we caught a colorful river taxi heading up stream
towards the palaces. Along the way our long skinny boat passed riverside temples next to ramshackle houses with corrugated tin roofs next to gleaming modern hotels with fantasyland gardens. Rich and poor line the banks seemingly oblivious to each other. We stopped to explore Wat Phra Kaeo, The Grand Palace, which is a huge walled complex with the palace, a military compound, a hospital, and many sacred golden shrines. One of these houses, the breast bone of The Buddha (the equivalent of Christ) and another, is home to Thailand’s most sacred icon: the Emerald Buddha. The faithful remove their shoes and kneel before the three foot tall androgynous Buddha made of jade and draped in gold. Next to the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, another temple complex featuring the famous Reclining Buddha. An impressive site at 300 feet long covered in gold, with huge mother-of-pearl feet.
We left the temples and walked through the crazy chaotic streets of old Chinatown teaming with pastel colored cars, smoking buses and motorcycles with cages on the back called 'tuk tuks'. The streets are crammed with grimy shops that spill out on to the sidewalks where street vendors are cooking all manner of sea creatures fried in coconut oil. People are happily sitting on the sidewalks among their pots and pans and dogs, eating, chatting and selling trinkets and good luck charms. As we walked through the choked streets, wave after wave of
smells hit us: the sweet smell of Plumeria
flowers, pungent spices, boiling lemongrass and the faint smell of sewer. I did not find the 'street food' as they call it, very appetizing amongst the cacophony of smells, and I have an all-consuming fear of food poisoning. But the locals have no problem sitting over a sewer grate noshing away on meals concocted from the contents of a tide pool. We hailed a tuk tuk out of the madness for a welcome rest and a swim back in the paradise of the Shangri-La.
Later we took the Skytrain over to the new city where mega malls are selling luxury items at international prices, which the average Thai could never afford. There are a lot of poor people in Thailand but no one is starving. On the contrary, they always seem to be eating! The Western tourists must look strange and extravagant to the locals but their lives are improving rapidly through ever-increasing tourism. Thailand's economy expanded more than any other country in 2007. Also, I was surprised to feel so safe
in such an enormous city. As a country of Buddhists, they definitely want you to part with your money, but they would never dream of stealing it.
At the end of the day, the heat eases, and the city changes gear as night falls. The sex trade is still very much alive and well. In Patpong the night markets are selling fake designer watches and sunglasses and pushy touts are beckoning the masses into the bars for fleshy entertainment. On 6th street, the bar tops are packed with girls on offer and on 4th street, you will find the boys. Both boys and girls wear the same skimpy white thongs (with numbers on them) and the same bored expression. Like us, most of the crowd just wanted to see what it was all about, and like us, most left feeling a little disturbed.
On the way back to the hotel we stopped for a lychee martini at the chicest bar in Bangkok. The Sirocco is an open air bar and restaurant on the roof of a 67th story building playing smooth house music for the rich and beautiful. A sea of lights spread out in every direction as far as the eye can see. Amazing.
The next day we again hired a water-taxi to take us up river and deep into the waterways on the outskirts of the city to find the fabled 'floating market'. Thai women paddle small flat boats to this spot to sell their home grown mangoes, bananas and bok choy. Some of them have their boats kitted out with wood burning grills and propane rice cookers and sell
grilled fish to the hungry lunch crowd. The women chatter away, oblivious to the handful of tourists that have made the trek. There is a long canopy covered dock where locals happily sit and eat whatever takes their fancy from the passing boats. Nearby a group of boys were swinging from a rope and gleefully dropping into the slow moving light brown water that matched the color of their skin. At that moment, I never felt so far away; truly exotic, truly Asian, and feeling that time was standing still.
On the water taxi back to the hotel, I asked our guide why the boats all had strings of flowers draped over their bows. He told me they were for good luck. In fact, amulets adorn everything in
Thailand. Strings of flowers, beads, images of Buddha...people wear them around their necks, hang them in their cars and wrap them around trees. They are superstitious people and they believe in the amulets powers to bring good luck, prosperity and good health. After the maniacal taxi ride through Bangkok back to the airport, I realized they need all the luck they can get.
Next stop: The island of Phuket (pronounced 'poo-ket', not 'fuck it' )