Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Thai Experience

This post is to describe my first ever trip abroad – the 1 week official visit to Bangkok. I should start off by saying that how “ignorance is bliss” turned true in this case. I had thought Thailand, and Bangkok in particular would be just like any other Indian city. Since I wasn’t expecting much, what met me was totally unexpected - a very pleasant surprise. The whole experience was really good, to say the least.

While you are reading this travelog, do check out the snaps here

The First Impressions:

We landed at the Suvarnabhoomi International Airport in Bangkok around 5:30 a.m on Sunday (24th March, 07). The airport is H-U-G-E. So is the terminal building. No wonder, for I learnt later that it is the largest airport in the world! As soon as we exited the terminal building, another surprise awaited me – the infrastructure. Bangkok is a city of Expressways, fly-overs and sky-trains. Our cab (an Isuzu MU-7 SUV) took hardly 20-25 minutes to cover the 30+ km distance from airport to hotel. By this time I had also observed that the cars in Bangkok are far better than our cars. Just imagine - they use Toyota Corollas as taxis (the movie "Zinda" wasnt exaggerating on that count)! The other observation was the skyline. Bangkok has a skyline which any photographer would kill for! Skyscrapers are everywhere.

Sight Seeing:

The very first thing we did in Bangkok after freshening up was to take a boat ride through the “old city”. The ride is almost 2 hours long, and at 1800 Baht (1 Baht = 1.3 Rs. Approx), it did seem very expensive when we later reflected on it. The ride takes you through the Chao Phraya river. This is the “main river”. After a while, you start navigating through the narrow canals. This is where one gets a real taste of the old city. Life along the rivers and canals proceeds at a totally different pace than the rest of the hustling-and-bustling Bangkok city.

During the course of the 2 hour ride, we must have passed hundreds of temples. Most of the temples are located along the river. The temples (Wat is the local name for temples) all look very similar – the Buddhist architecture being the dominant feature.

We also came across a “floating market” in the river. A very sweet girl of about 12 came rowing across to our boat, decked in a wide hat. She had quite a variety of goods to sell. I was impressed by her vending skills. However, we did not find anything interesting enough to buy, and just bought a small hand-made photo album; just for the memories :)

We also had a brief stop at a “crocodile and snake farm”. I did not like this place because of the cruelty to animals for one; and the “snake show” where the snake charmers were doing dangerous stunts with the snakes.

Anyway, we were glad when the boat ride came to an end, mainly because we were beginning to get a headache due to the boat’s very loud engine. The other reason was that the world-famous landmark of Thailand beckoned us – The Grand Palace. It was noon by now, and the sun was mercilessly beating down on us.

Entry fee to the Grand Palace complex is 250 Baht. And it is well justified I would say. The fee also includes entry to a couple of “coin and jeweler museums”. But what really takes your breath away is the Grand Palace itself. The architecture, and all that glitter! No words would do justice to the beauty of this “monument”. So I guess I’l let the pics do the talking ;)

Another major attraction inside the Grand Palace complex is the Emerald Buddha. This is another masterpiece. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the temple. Provision has been made to click snaps of the Emerald Buddha from outside, but the lighting is inadequate for this.

Well, we spent a couple of hours here; and that was it. That’s all the “sight-seeing” that we did. We were too tired to visit the Reclining Buddha and thought we would visit it some other day. The rest of the days were spent in work.

People and Culture:

What one simply cannot help but notice about Thai people is their politeness. The culture is such that even a traffic cop, after signaling for traffic to stop, will bow or salute to the drivers in respect! Almost everyone we came across – from taxi drivers to shop-owners, right up to executives – they were all extremely respectful and respectable.

I personally found Thai people (atleast the residents of Bangkok) to be “pretty modern”. I hardly found any women wearing traditional clothes to work – its either a skirt-and-top or pants-and-shirt combination. The only places where I saw traditional Thai attire were the hotel (where the escorts and the “welcoming ladies” all wear traditional dresses) and aboard the Thai Airways flights (where only the air-hostesses wear traditional dress - the males wear coat-and-tie). Another observation was the apparent "liberation" of women. A large percentage of the workforce seemed to consist of women; this percentage is far greater than any I have seen in India.

It seemed that people in Bangkok are pretty well-to-do. I saw hundreds of what would be ultra-premium cars in India – Mercedes S class, BMW 7 Series, Audi A6 and the like (I even sat in a colleague’s Audi A6 :D). The cost-of-living seems comparable to that in the big cities in India. Taxi and sky-train fares are more or less similar to ours. The other ‘rates’ that we came across were fruits, Pizza, cinema tickets etc, all of which seemed similar to those back here. I also noticed a huge advertisement hoarding, which stated that there are some apartments “ready to occupy”; at 50,000 Baht per Sq. Meter – that means that even real-estate rates are at identical to Indian rates.

Thai people are extremely loyal to His Majesty, the King of Thailand. His Majesty was crowned when he was 19. Last year was the 60th anniversary of coronation, and this year is His 80th birthday. Every Monday, everyone wears a yellow shirt with the royal emblem, to show their love for The King. Apparently, His Majesty has done a lot for development of Thailand. He enjoys the unconditional love and support of his countrymen. It is unbelievable – the unity that you see all around you. Almost 90% of the people were wearing yellow shirts/tops on Monday!

One problem that we faced was communication with the locals. People who speak, or even understand, English are very rare to find on the streets of Bangkok. We had a tough time getting our point through, especially in shops and taxis. One reason I could think of for this is that Thailand enjoys the distinction of being more or less the only country in this part of the world that was never colonized. That is a great achievement by any standards!

Getting Around:

Although the infrastructure is good at some places, Bangkok is plagued by traffic jams in other places. The quickest and most hassle-free way to get around is to use the sky-train if it is available in the route you want to visit. The taxi ride to from hotel to office would take us 30 to 45 minutes; the same would be covered in 15 minutes by sky train! Bangkok also has “tuk-tuk” which is a slightly larger version of our auto-rickshaw. But since its not metered, you are left to the mercy of the drivers, and they demand crazy fares (how very similar to the case back home).

Cuisine:

Since both me and my colleague are Vegetarians, we were a bit worried that food might be a problem. That was not the case. We found an Indian restaurant at walking distance from our hotel. That took care of our daily dinner, although it was expensive. For breakfast we’d have noodles, or fruit. Tropical fruit in Thailand are simply delicious. Oranges, pineapple, bananas, golden longan – it was all just too good.

Near our office, we found a Thai Veg restaurant. Although this was not the authentic Thai cuisine, it took care of our lunch needs. This place was reasonable as far as price is concerned. We simply never tried the traditional Thai food – this can be attributed to the awesome food we got at the Indian restaurant.

Things to Do:

During the course of the week, I took a few massages in Bangkok – a foot massage, a traditional Thai massage. These are all very relaxing and soothing experiences. But, the situation in which I visited was kind of far from ideal. Ideally, one would spontaneously decide to take a massage, like when one is very exhausted etc. Instead, I would decide one evening that I should take a massage the next day! Anyways, the total money I spent on massaging was less than 2000 Baht, which is way less than what I would have to spend here in India.

We spent half of our last day (Saturday 31st March) in Bangkok looking for souvenirs. We first went to a mall – Siam Paragon mall. This mall is enormous. But it dint have any souvenir shops worth mention. We caught a 4-D movie (250 Baht for a 25-minute movie). Then we found a few showrooms of some of the most desirable car brands in the world. I was delighted when I found out that we could enter these showrooms and take photographs of the cars. The automobile enthusiast in me took over as for the next 20 minutes, I drooled over the cars. I took snaps of, and standing next to, Bentley Continental, Ferraris, Lamborghinis (Gallardo et al), Jaguar S-Type, Maseratis, Porsche – you name it.

Our last stop in Bangkok before we headed for the airport was MBK shopping mall. Here, we finally found some souvenir shops. But try as I might, I couldn’t find anything that would be decisively Thai. I settled for a wood-and-resin replica of Erawan (the four-faced Buddha), and another handcrafted candle stand. I also purchased the yellow T-shirt with the royal emblem.

The Farewell:

The absolutely amazing airport terminal ensured that our last few hours at Bangkok were also well spent. After checking in the baggage and entering, one finds a large statue of the “Samudra Manthana” scene from Hindu mythology. We clicked a few snaps here and then again started hunting for souvenir shops. We found a few, but again, these did not sell any authentic Thai stuff. We finally bought some chocolates at the duty-free shop. I have only one sore experience – I did not find a phone booth at the waiting area :( - this is a serious flaw in the facilities planning.

All in all, I would definitely like to visit Thailand again. Nice place, very hospitable people, familiar weather conditions. Swatdee-Kha!

4 comments:

Ashish said...

Nicely written... :)

One fact I remember... - Suvarnabhumi airport was named so very recently - from some English or Thai name - sounds nice to have a Sanskrit name for a foreign country airport... the name was given somewhere in late 2006...

nice to see the pics etc - u didnt write much of the floating market - nice idea re... ;) - i think we have one in Kashmir too - dont know for sure though - but shud be there... :)

And heh - where are the chocolates? and my gift??? :D

Ashish

Navyatha V said...

Hello, good to read your experience!! And, must say, great Decription!! A small doubt though, what does "Swatdee-Kha" mean?

Kiran said...

@Ashish:

From what little I know about Suvarnabhoomi, it was not renamed, but opened sometime late 2006. The old international airport in Bangkok had an english or Thai name.

Floating market - not much to describe re.. u should experience it :). And chocolates are long gone :D. This blog and the snaps are your "gift" :P

@Navyatha:

Hey surprise visitor to my blog :D. 'Swatdee' is a Thai greeting - its used for everything - when u meet, or when you take leave of someone - its like 'namskaara'. 'Kha' is added as a polite post-fix. Its like 'ji' in Hindi.

PN Subramanian said...

The Thai experience was pleasant. One thing which occurs to me is, why don't you put some really goods snaps to go along with the write up. You may provide a separate link for more photographs. Without photographs the pages look barren. Thank you again.