Bangali in Bangkok

I kept wondering why everyone was being so nice to me! It wasn’t my first international trip, so I knew the egalitarian attitude of airport people – they misbehave equally with all. But I was attended with extra courtesy. I didn’t have to go through the second round of security checking in the air-bridge. When I entered the plane everyone greeted me as if I was a VIP! Then it dawned on me. By some trick known only to them, my travel agent had arranged First Class tickets for me. Pity it was only a three hour flight.

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This was Kingfisher Airlines. It went out of business soon after. I should hastily add that I have travelled with many other airlines; most of them are still in business. First class was alright. Larger seats, a very tricky television screen hidden in the armrest, generous edible food and service with smiles – it was quite the same while returning as well.

Immigration in Bangkok was uncomplicated. But they stopped me while my baggage was being checked! To this day I don’t know what the matter was. Communication is problematic in some Southeast Asian countries and I had a first-hand taste of that. The two people who were doing the x-ray completely failed to understand each other! They couldn’t decide whether it was my suitcase or the Thai national’s – for some reason the two bunglers had put his bag along with mine – that created the blip. After ten minutes of non-vocal exchanges (it was really like watching a mime show) they decided to let both of us go. It was a good warning. I now knew what I was in for!

I had booked my stay at the Youth Hostel in Sukhumvit. Reaching it was easy. Bangkok has an excellent sky-rail system (BTS) as well as the beautiful subway (MRT). A little research will take you a long way. So I reached with minimum misunderstanding.

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The Youth Hostel was nice. It was clean, the people were helpful and the room quite lovely. There was even a television set. The only problem was there were no charging points! I had to unplug the television to charge my phone.

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I had booked through Hostelling International. After a few months I was surprised to see the Hostel no longer there in the listings. Apparently someone had complained that money was stolen from their room. And then I understood. I had asked at the reception about giving tips to the cleaning personnel. They did their job splendidly. I did not know what the protocol in the Hostel was. They told me if I leave any money on the bed that will mean it’s a tip. You leave money anywhere else they will not touch it. That’s what I did after finding out what the decent amount would be. Apparently the person who had complained didn’t bother to find out this detail.

Anyway, I was quite excited about the conference and diligently attended sessions, while lots of people were nowhere to be seen. I discovered the secret – they were all site-seeing! I was all alone and the only other person from Kolkata spent most of the time sleeping in the hotel room (as far as I could gather). I had kept the last day for seeing the sites. I went to Wat Po and the Royal Palace. They were all very impressive.

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The reclining Buddha statue is huge and it is quite worth seeing.

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The large statue obviously had large feet
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The guards are not always this genial

The Royal Palace was adequately grand. The panels retelling the Ramayana story are fascinating.

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I must mention the fabulous hospitality that was offered by Chulalongkorn University. The conference was organized by the Chalermprakiat Center of Translation and Interpretation. They gave us a kit with a local SIM-card with a decent amount of talktime. The lunch buffets were sumptuous. They arranged a cultural show and a cocktail party.

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The low light ensured the haziness. The haziness extends to the theme of the performance too. As far as I remember, this was essentially a local retelling of the Radha Krishna story.

And the conference was really something. It was inaugurated by Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya – and we were given a crash course in how to behave before royalty.

There are two warnings people give you about Bangkok. In case you do not know, let me elaborate.

Warning number one:

Never tell any local person that this is your first time in the city. The Tuktuk owners would give you a song and dance about “this” day being the very last day of an incredible exhibition+sale. Apparently you are lucky because that is the last day when you can buy jewellery (and related stuff) at throwaway prices. The Tuktuk-ers would take a pittance from you and show you around happily as the commissions from the sales would be bigger than anything you can imagine. I was forewarned. But as I was leaving Wat Po and looking for the Grand Palace, a very nice man befriended me, spoke about life in general, warned me about the shady people of Bangkok and practically pushed me into a Tuktuk. The happy driver took me to a couple of touristy but ordinary places and then he took me to this wondrous big store full of gold and other jewellery.

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The other monastery, Lord Buddha’s expression says it all

I was thoroughly disgusted by then. (I was hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I am hungry!) But I took the challenge. I looked at every piece of whatever they proudly presented. I expressed interest, curiosity and asked intelligent questions. After an hour’s performance I told them I have no money. They did not know how to respond. Before the veneer of politeness could be broken, I took leave. The Tuktuk driver literally kept hitting his forehead with his palm. This was his unluckiest day – not to have a prey is one thing, but to have one and not profit is quite another.

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He still didn’t know what he was in for

The second warning:

This is of a thoroughly unwholesome kind. There are certain areas in Bangkok which are known for a specific kind of tourism. And even in other areas such trade can be seen. Sukhumvit was no exception. While walking to the Conference venue I saw several men accosted by several women (at least they seemed so). One man of white skin was surrounded by four women offering a variety of services. In the evening when I was looking for affordable dinner (could not risk local street food, they had a smell of the unknown, and I was overjoyed to find a MacDonald’s) I saw several such cases. I rehearsed, fortified myself, and was ready to defend my honour and my purse. And, to my utter dismay, not once was I approached! I have never felt more insulted (or more boring) in my life.

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Me 12 years back

The day I went to the Grand Palace was my final day in Bangkok. I explored a lot of commuting possibilities. The guided tours were very expensive. Hiring a car seemed useless. I was alone. So I took the subway to the Hua Lamphong Railway Station and then took a taxi to the Grand Palace. The Palace and Wat Po are in the same location. I had to give my map to the taxi driver, who was very helpful but had zero English in him. I returned the same way. It cost me 80 Baht taxi fare (exactly the same both ways) and about 20 Baht on the MRT, so I spent approximately 200 Baht. All other options would have cost more than triple.

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I had booked the one luxury that I thought I’d gift myself – the evening cruise on the Chao Phraya river. Two hours with dinner, it was on the expensive side. But I thought I would pamper myself a little. It was a mixed experience. The hostel people had arranged the best for me. It was the air conditioned lounge. I was all alone occupying a table for four.

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Before the crowd came aboard

There was a sumptuous buffet. And a girl started singing Hindi songs. “Kajlale kajlale tele kale kale naina” (in case you are wondering about the original song click here) – it sounded wonderful and felt good too. But soon around fifty other (moderate to extremely fat) Indians started gyrating around her (alcohol was served for extra cost). The outside view was hampered by the glass anyway. So I had a quick dinner (some fish and chips) and went to the front deck. My camera did not behave well, so everything about that ride was disappointing.

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This was the crowd on the boat!

The only bright point was the view of the magnificent Bangkok fireworks that we saw from the luxurious jetty. Just before boarding two (boat)hostesses asked me if I was alone. The moment I said yes one stood by my side and the other took a photo. On the boat they were selling those photos (framed beautifully) for 200 Bahts! I managed to evade them. I had no intention of squandering money! I regret not squandering; it would have been a great memento, as well as a great conversation piece. Sometimes money needs to be squandered for the sake of memory.

 

Earlier Posts:

Old Lucknow

Colonial Lucknow

Going Downhill - Versey to Dentam

Going to Garhwal

The Walkers

Palamau

Rishikesh

Kolkata Kolkata

The Roar of the Clouds - Santiniketan

Of Pests and Men - Uttarey

Where Hikers Fear to Tread - Rudranath

Old Times

History in Ruins - Pushpagiri

Once There was a Heaven

Serenity

Pilgrim's Progress - Kedarnath

Unfinished - Gaumukh

Ghatshila

Nothing Important

Manu's Alaya - Manali

Santiniketan

Little Lhasa - Dharamshala

From Varuna to Assi - Varanasi

Tunganath

Transitory Blues

Gurudongmar

The Beginning

Yumesamdong