Monday, July 26, 2010

Curfewed nights in Bangkok

After landing in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, I remembered Bangkok’s old airport that I had once transited through. Compared to Suvarnabhumi, the old one had more character, a wicked charm. The new one was huge and awesome but it looked utilitarian.

We were received by my brother-in-law who works in a regional non-profit. His office was closed due to the political unrest.

Outside, Bangkok didn’t look like a curfewed city at all. Buses, cars and taxis plied on the road. Only the trains were out of service.

As we entered the city, I began to love it. Bangkok was sprawling and chaotic but it had a beauty about it. It was what I wished Delhi and Kolkata to be—clean and functional. Bangkok has a great road and expressway network and its river is, unlike Delhi’s Jumna, navigable. Later, from my sister’s 9th floor flat, I had a great view of the city. Unlike Singapore, Bangkok is not minutely designed and manicured but it exudes a spirit of independence, a sense of wild beauty.

By this time, I was told, the protestors had been flushed out of their protesting zone. The Red Shirts’ had set fire to Bangkok’s biggest mall, Siam Paragon. On the way from the airport, I had seen the charred skeleton of the mall. Only night curfew was imposed in the city. Bangkok’s other malls were open and it was business as usual, I was told.

Next day, we set out in the morning to see the floating market (Suaq Al nahr, said an Arabic sign) at Ratchaburi. We hired a taxi and it took us more than an hour to reach the place, over one hundred kilometers west of Bangkok. Taxi to and fro cost us 2000 bahts.

The floating market is spread over an area of several kilometers, crisscrossed with canals. We hired a boat with a driver for 2000 bahts and spent nearly an hour in the market, buying things from local fruit sellers on boats. According to my wife, the experience would have been better but for the stinking water of the canal. Perhaps Western tourists, coming from sanitized places, would like that organic stink, I thought mischievously.

Next day was Sunday and we wanted to see the Grand Palace. We reached the area (that reminded me of colonial Delhi) after lunch but we were stopped at the main gate by authorities in civilian clothes. “The Palace will open at 3pm,” a burly official informed us. Since we were one hour early, the man advised us to visit Wat Po first and then come back to the palace. “We can’t, we just let our taxi go,” we protested. He hailed a tuk tuk for us and at an unbelievable fare of 20 bahts, he sent us for a ride to Wat Po and back.

At Wat Po, we admired the Reclining Buddha and took some pictures. Then the tuk tuk driver took us to an emporium of art and craft. The place had a great collection of gems and jewelry but what was most impressive was the courteous behaviour of the staff. We did some shopping there.

Finally, we returned to the Grand Palace. It was mind-blowing— sprawling, beautiful and magnificent. It offers a colourful vista of gold and silver, of shining spires, mosaic-rich columns and intricate murals. The afternoon being hot, we took a quick tour of the palace but actually to do justice to it, one needs to spend hours in the complex. Within the complex, the Wat Phra Keao, the temple of the Emerald Buddha, Chakri-Mahaprasad Hall and Amarindra Vinchai Hall are a must see for tourists.

We spent three nights in Bangkok, each night under curfew. But in the condo where we stayed, we never felt anything amiss. The city looked peaceful and calm and there were no rising columns of smoke to be seen in the skyline nor were there any wailing police sirens renting the air. But when we switched on the telly, we saw news about the unrest in Bangkok. It seemed so surreal—beyond the patina of calm was news of troublemakers that the television brought to people’s drawing rooms.

The condo, in the heart of Bangkok, eerily seemed like a Green Zone, with its swimming pool and tennis court on the fourth floor and salons, restaurants and massage parlours on the ground floor. So self-sufficient.

The night before we returned to Singapore, we had our first foot massage of the trip. I and my wife, sitting beside each other were being fawned over by the masseuses. We didn’t know that the foot massage would extend up to the upper thigh. On the flight back, my wife said: “The massage was good but next time we go for it, we must tell the masseuse not to move beyond the knees.”

I nodded with a smile in reply. I didn’t know when that next time would be. As we moved away from Bangkok, we hoped that complete peace would soon return to the city. This magnificent city, the city of Emerald Buddha, deserved it. And I also told myself that Bangkok was not an ordinary city: there was something about it that needed more exploration.

Back in Singapore, I remembered Bangkok as a girl to whom I had said only hello. I knew I needed to converse more with her.

Read the first part of this travel piece, Postcard from Phuket here.