Planning For A Trip to Bangkok
Madhusree and I have never travelled abroad together on vacation. Both of us individually have travelled for work and for holidays within the country but never used our passports. Money is a constraint but time is even more of one and this is because we have to leave Georgie behind all by herself with her staff. But this time we were determined to break the jinx, travel to Bangkok we will, a destination which every Bengali seems to have made to. Besides, Shubhro, Madhusree’s brother is posted in the city as the county manager of an Indian public sector company. He is all by himself in the city, homesick and would look forward to our visit. We therefore buy our tickets, the cheap ones because we buy it so much in advance and pray to God that all coordinates are in place while we travel out. We have many spoilers for our plans, Georgie’s health, our parents’ health, office assignments and who knows some natural calamity? We are neck deep in work with major assignments to submit and many conferences to pull off and submit important advisories. We are working round the clock to morally earn a good vacation. We finish our work in the nick of time, my father is slowly recovering from a spine fracture and though on the eve of our departure Madhusree’s parents both fall down in the washroom of the theatre, they are restored without much hurt. So, with fingers crossed we start our packing by arranging clothes, papers and most importantly some downloads on Thailand.
I am never quite comfortable with foreign travel because of an unfounded fear that I might lose my passport or travel documents or that my bag will be picked. Yet the lure of encountering different people, different societies and especially different civilisations help me push my fears down my gut and rouse my spirits for adventure. I have little idea about Thailand really except that Bangkok seems to be the newest fad for the upstart and the aspiring Bengali middle classes. Why not Bangkok especially as Madhusree’s cousin Shubhro is posted in Thailand as the country manager of an Indian public sector company. He stays all by himself in the city and has learnt Thai and he could guide us around the city for what we call in economics as optimization or maximum tourism in the shortest possible time. The Internet is only indicative because it suggested some impossible combinations of Kanchanaburi and the floating market, places which were on two opposite directions beyond the city limits. Hence we have to rely to Shubhro’s guidance to pragmatically plot places downloaded from the Internet.
20th April, 2017
We get into the plane to the polite welcome of the Thai hostesses. They are wearing resplendent silk, slim and petite with fine creamy white and yellowish skin. The men look soft and comely less assertive of their masculinity. The crew are wearing black badges and while we were wondering whether they were on a strike or not when we remembered that the Thai King was dead and the country was in mourning. A lady profusely apologized us and when we looked surprised she explained that she had stepped on to our shoes. What a contrast between her and the Indian tourists who rape and intimidate foreign tourists.
The airline crew were dressed in resplendent silk of hues that I have never seen in India and they had a black badge pinned on to their shoulders. I wondered whether they were on strike or not when Madhusree remembered that the Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej had died last October and the entire nation would be in mourning for a whole year, only after which the soul of the dead King would finally pass into Heaven. I wondered in my mind what kind of personalities are developed in nations without democracies? Our minds are so framed with democracies and even the nation that it becomes difficult for me to conceptualize the state of minds of the NRIs as well. How can a person who does not make her own decisions about her own government and one who does not have the full rights as citizens ever become a complete human being? I wondered. Anyway I decided to observe in the following brief time I was to be there.
The air hostess handed us two boxes of the Hindu meal insisting that we had booked the Hindu meal. This was completely false because we never like to have Indian food anywhere outside of our homes and the office canteen and to be reduced to the status of the Hindu meal was demeaning to us. The Hindu in our imagination is a conservative and ritualistic person steeped in superstition and discriminatory behaviour but for much of the world such as Central Asia and now Thailand or perhaps the entire south east Asia, the Hindu is plain and simple an Indian. She may be a Christian or a Muslim, a Sikh or even a Buddhist but to the parts of the world as these all Indians are the one and the same, the Hindu. The so-called Hindu meal arrived consisting of jeera rice, salt free green peas, pepper fish and cold pumpkin salad and pepper fish which was a half-way house between a Chinese dish and a continental baked fish in pepper sauce containing loads of cornflower paste. It was pretentious and yet inane tasting food.
I was quite surprised at seeing a number of Sikhs on board to Bangkok. Sikhs have become almost invisible in India, one rarely gets to see a turban around even in Amritsar or Chandigarh. Kolkata’s large population of Sikhs seem to have disappeared too. But now on the plane aboard to Bangkok there is a substantially visible Sikhs chattering away in Punjabi.
The plane flew amidst the dimensionless and directionless vistas of the Indian Ocean and the only thing that I could see from the clouds was that the Ocean waters were almost white, with a hint of translucent blue. The whiteness of the Indian Ocean must have inspired the ancient Indians to imagine the Kshir sagar, or the ocean of milk churning which have yielded almost every conceivable artefact of the Indian culture.
We landed in Bangkok to some kind of a VIP welcome which so kindly Shubhro made possible. It was good because as I was to realize later that almost no one spoke English in the country and even when they did, the accent remained particularly Thai. Women were everywhere as visa officers, as security personnel, behind the Forex counters, as shop keepers, as porters, lift operators, concierges and just as I half expected Shubhro’s driver also to be a woman, he turned out to be a burly Thai and who spoke English. He was a permanent employee of the Indian PSU and hence knew English, the mother tongue of India, a nation that exists as the highest common factor among a myriad of nations, cultures and even civilizations contained within its territory surrounded by the sea and cut off from much of the world by the tallest mountains on earth. His name was Lim, or Khun Lim, Khun means Mr, or Mrs, or even an Ms gender neutral universal term.
Suvarnabhumi Airport, BKK
The Bangkok airport was a huge affair, but it was very cold and functional. Bangkok is among the world’s busiest airports as Thailand is a major tourist destination apart from being the gateway to the south east especially for those who flew over the Atlantic. The airport had about six floors with a long corridor connecting it straight to the city rail. The city was not as glittery as Kolkata and in fact parts of it seemed to me to be rather dark. Many of the major crossing of roads and flyovers had a distinct feel of Chennai’s Annasalai area.
Shubhro lived in one of the poshest localities of Bangkok, centrally located on a busy thoroughfare on the 19th floor. Living so high and amidst Thai high culture, I expected to get a taste of the Thai literally and figuratively from above. We dropped our bags and Lim parked the car in the garage and drove off to his home twenty kilometres away towards the limits of the city and we hailed a taxi to spend some time at the night market of Pratunam. We had pretty much here what we also have anywhere else in Kolkata, plastic table mats and curtains, bags and purses, an array of artificial flowers and decorative lights, T shirts and shorts, tights and shirts, mementoes in the form of key chains and paques and fridge magnets, belts and watches, lipstick and nail polish and various kinds of plastic and porcelain stuff like figurines. Ganesh was widely available across Bangkok but that I was to realize a day later when we visited yet another tourist spot, Kanchanaburi. But I did notice that the quality of the products were far superior to almost the similar stuff found on the pavements of Gariahat in Kolkata. Quality of work is a major indicator of development and clearly one can say that Thailand is a much more developed country given its good quality of manufacturing.
There were some young men supercilious and arrogant selling memento stuff the cheapest one could find and they introduced themselves as the MR people, MR meaning Myanmar, a community who the Thais seem to resent. I sensed a slight hint of a social boycott of the Burmese by the Thais. Among the Thai shopkeepers once again I saw the space being totally overrun by women. They were selling their wares, eating dinner, listening to music and making their faces up by dabbing foundation, reapplying their mascara and lipstick, or doing their nails. Children, like the men were absent from among some thousand shopkeepers along the street panning Sukhomvit and Pratunam.
We soon entered into an open air dining area with yet some thousand dining sets and shops all around these serving exquisite Thai delicacies. Once again all were women, only apparently so. Many among them were transgenders, and male cross dressers; Thailand was overwhelmingly feminine. The food was way beyond my idea of Thai cuisine formed through the culinary presentations of chefs in India. The Thai have a distinct flavour which is clearly discernible from cuisines of Vietnam, Laos, Burma and even of Indonesia and Malaysia even though seafood, sticky rice and fish sauce constitute the kitchen core of the entire region. I think that it is the galangal, the root ginger that makes all the difference and no wonder the term gaalagaal in Bengali means abusive, pungent as the Thai galagal.
Streets in Bangkok were agog with life; the particular night market which we visited and which extended into an open air food court was called the Talat Neon; Talat meaning the beholden beauty in Arabic while neon means plain English, neon lights. The table, chair, cutlery, crockery were all made of plastic, cold drinks were served in plastic glasses, snacks were served in plastic, so were the wares one bought, all thrown into plastic bags and yet I did not see a shred of plastic anywhere that I cast my glance. In order to avoid plastic waste, one need not ban plastic, one only needs to dispose it off responsibly. The Thais are more responsible people, the Indians are not.
Madhusree and I are clearly over our attraction for street food because we find sitting down in uncomfortable furniture and inadequate crockery and cutlery no longer to be our thing. Also we have an aversion to street food because we think that the hygiene standards are profligate. But on this muggy night with some rain clouds turning reddish against the dark sky threatening thunder and rain, we neither had fear of dirt nor the discomfort of the chairs. I think that the way the food was served with respect, interest and enthusiasm and the total absence of dust even in the light rise of the breeze, our reservations against street food vanished. We relished the Thai cuisine; it was exquisite, nothing like this we had ever tasted before.
Stuffed with food and all the gifts we bought for family back home, the three of us were in a bit of a hurry to get back home. We were eager to ride a Tuk Tuk just for the heck of it but the drivers were much worse than those in Delhi or Chennai charging us a bomb. We abandoned the idea of the Tuk Tuk and hailed a plush airconditioned taxi back home at a fraction of the cost of the Tuk Tuk.
Shubhro’s rented flat has no ceiling fans, the Thais use only pedestal fan and indeed I saw many selling a hand held battery fan. Fans for the Thai is a personal affair and not a matter of changing the environment as for we the Indians. But we had a lovely night because of the air condition and no power cuts in Thailand. I felt let down by the Haryana power supply for even in the lightest of rains power can be snapped for over six hours. Here in Bangkok, a city of rain and thunder, electricity continued uninterrupted with the same kind of overhead electric wires. I tried to look closely at the wires, they were thicker, glossier, and sturdier. I wondered why we could not have these wires for the Haryana Power Utilities especially when we were funded of half a billion of USD by the World Bank.