Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
Everyone told us Bangkok would be beautiful. Modern. Developed. Great for shopping. The roads would be great. The airport would be fantastic. We rolled our eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
The image of Bangkok as a third-world city would not be dislodged from our heads.
Until we came out of the walkway leading from our plane and stepped into the airport. Wide-eyed, gaping-mouthed and breathless, we took it all in. The cleanliness. The modernity. The space. The convenience. The air of prosperity. The efficiency at the immigration counter. The orderly baggage-claim area. We landed on a Saturday; perhaps it was just the weekend lull. But still.
A ride into the city did nothing to dispel any of these initial reactions. The roads were great. The buildings were well-maintained. The glass facades of the offices and malls shone with brilliance. It was like driving in some European city.
There was, however, plenty of evidence that we were, in fact, in Thailand.
Right around the corner from our hotel, street vendors sold incense sticks, flowers, tender coconuts (the green outer layer shaved off completely, the unopened coconuts were stored in an ice box of sorts), wooden elephants, and various other offerings for devotees queuing up to pray at a shrine to Brahma. The shrine occupies the corner of a busy intersection right next to the Grand Hyatt Erawan, and is apparently very popular with anyone who has a favor to ask of god.
The story behind the odd location of the temple was as amusing as the apparent devotion of the growing crowd was endearing. Legend has it that the hotel’s renovation was not progressing well and it was suggested to the management that they build a shrine to Brahma right next door. The shrine was duly built and construction proceeded smoothly from that point on. And, if you didn’t know already, Erawan is Brahma’s elephant.
And then there were the tuk-tuks running rampant on the smooth roads. Autorickshaws on steroids, we thought. We succumbed to the temptation and flagged one down after dinner the first day. Following the inevitable bout of haggling over the fare, we scrambled in. The driver wiggled in his seat, settled himself in and promptly tore through the Bangkok night.
Tuk-tuk is a misnomer. “The name comes from the sound of the engines of the original tuk-tuks,” our driver screeched over the din. The one we rode in and the other ones we saw on the streets were souped-up versions (with myriad multi-colored flashing lights) and sounded more like planes taking off. Our seven-year-old son, of course, had a blast, and our baby daughter, safely ensconced in her father’s arms was bewildered by the noise at first and then settled back to enjoy the ride.
We were headed to the Night Market – one of Bangkok’s great attractions – an open-air shopping Mecca for tourists and locals alike. The market is definitely worth a visit. The prices are very reasonable and as long as you don’t think you’re actually getting a Burberry coat for a fraction of its regular price, you might make a great find for your home or your closet in its umpteen maze-like corridors.
The next morning we hired a local guide for a half-day tour of the important sights. Our first stop was the Reclining Buddha temple. The massive supine Buddha is only one of about a thousand statues in the Wat Pho temple complex, but the scale and the intricate design of the largest of them all is awe-inspiring (each swirl of a clump of hair on the golden statue is large enough to fill a palm).
The Emerald Buddha temple adjacent to the Royal Palace about a twenty-minute drive away from the Wat Pho is a sprawling temple complex housing many shrines with intricate design filled with gilded and bejeweled walls and doors. It’s mesmerizing to see familiar mythological figures (from the Ramayana, for example) depicted so differently from Indian temples. The Emerald Buddha itself is a tiny statue (a far cry from the Reclining Buddha in terms of size) high up on a pedestal in one of the shrines within the complex but an object of obvious reverence to the Thais nonetheless.
Thai cuisine was all that it is chalked up to be. Although we were big fans of Thai food, as with Chinese (which adapts to each country it is found in) we were afraid that we would be disappointed by the real deal. Happily, the Erawan Tea Room at the Grand Hyatt dispelled our apprehensions.
Bangkok seems to wear its chameleon-like skin with ease – enticing visitors to its ancient culture clothed in the glitzy garb of ultra-modern conveniences. Whether you’re in the market for some culture or for the latest fashion, you can’t go much wrong with Bangkok.
Even if you’re on a whistle-stop tour, you can cover the non-to-be-missed Emerald Buddha and the Reclining Buddha temples in half a day. Note that ankle-length clothes are mandatory at the Emerald Buddha temple. Pants (for men and women) are available at the temple for hire for a nominal deposit.
If shopping is your thing, give the chain stores at the shiny malls a pass and head straight to the Night Market and the gargantuan indoor market, MBK. Tuk-tuks are convenient, thrilling, and if you are willing to haggle before you step into one, an economical way of getting around town.
You have your choice of the multinational fast food chains, but Thai food fans will not be disappointed. The Tea Room at the Grand Hyatt Erawan provides an elegant ambience for your culinary adventures.
There are sporadic reports of unrest and violence on and off in Thailand, mostly confined to the southern areas, so it’s worthwhile checking the latest reports as you plan your trip.
Originally published in March 2008 in the Sunday edition of the Hindustan Times.