Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Bangkok: a City of Contrasts


A guide book described Bangkok as being like marmite; you either love it or hate it. We don’t totally agree, since we found ourselves loving and hating it on the same day. Instead, we think of it as a city of contrasts.

It is difficult to describe in words what it is like so we are including a few more pictures than normal. Most streets are full of vendors, cars, scooters, hanging wires, dirty signs, and crumbling curbs. And then there are some wonderful temples, or the exquisite King’s Palace, and you are in another world. You are also in another world when you enter the fabulous hotels, or visit the many new shopping centres full of name brand merchandise, generally at good prices compared to Vancouver. After all, much of the luxury footwear and clothing we buy is made just down the street, or in a nearby town.

We came to Bangkok at Christmas 2005 with Claire and Georgia to see friends, and spend time in Phuket on the anniversary of the Tsunami. This time we stayed with Ross McClellan, whose name once adorned the letterhead of a number of highly regarded Vancouver law firms. Today, he and his wife Ou and two maids are squeezed into 3400 square feet on the 29th floor of a luxury highrise in the centre of the action. Ross now channels the energy he once put into drafting complex legal documents, into his health and well being. He has traded in his Rolls Royce for a Honda SUV that he fearlessly maneuvers through the streets like a local taxi driver. And it appears he speaks and writes Thai as well as, or better than most taxi drivers. He also plays a bit of golf, so it seemed entirely appropriate that we should leave him our cherished golf clubs, for the use of his former partners Dennis Parolin and Jonathan Rubenstein, and any other golfing visitors.

A good way to see Bangkok is to take one of the many boats up and down the Chao Phraya River and its network of canals. In places, the canals become the floating markets we see illustrated in National Geographic or Thai Airlines advertisements. Here you find old temples juxtaposed with ramshackle buildings and luxury new apartments. There is also the Royal Palace, one of the most spectacular complexes we have ever seen. The Royal Family is very prominent in the life of Thais, and one must never show disrespect to the King. Just ask the Swede who, in a drunken stupor recently defaced the King’s portrait, and is now serving 10 years in prison!

To get around, you can take very inexpensive metered taxis. The drop rate is 35 baht ($1) and the fare increases by 2 baht (7 cent) increments very slowly. You can go a long way for 39 baht. But it can take a while, especially when caught up in the city’s notorious traffic congestion. Michael Audain, who has been coming to Thailand for more than 30 years, prefers to get around town on one of the taxi scooters. We admire his courage; we won’t risk it! You can also take the city’s Skytrain that is quite similar to our own, except for the platform stations, and the plethora of advertising. Presently, the transit operators are testing televisions in every car with screaming ads and film previews. We hope this doesn’t continue. The city is noisy enough already.

While in Bangkok, we had two main objectives: to get medical check-ups, and Visas for India.
I don’t know why we are bothering with Visas since just about everyone we speak to warns us not to go to Delhi in May when the temperature can rise to the mid 40’s. (That’s centigrade!) Nonetheless, we did go to the Indian Embassy and it was an experience we won’t soon forget. I have never witnessed a more chaotic and disorganized process. Unfortunately many of the people in line had been turned away at the airport since they were not aware Visas had to be obtained at the Embassy beforehand. Moreover, they were quite upset when told by a very miserable clerk that it would take at least 4 working days before the Visas could be issued, and when ready, they must return between 12 and 1 to drop off their passports, and return between 3 and 4:30 to pick up the Visa. If they are late, they must wait another 24 hours! We can’t wait to try and pick up our documents.

Of course Thailand is famous for its food, and we tried a lot of different things. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat the fried red ants that Ou and her girlfriends enjoyed after a magnificent dinner at their home Sunday night, while trying on the tiny shorts they had bought at the market earlier in the day (for about $3 a pair). Fortunately ants were not on the menu the previous night at a most enjoyable dinner with Michael Audain and Ross, who is one of the best hosts you can find in the city. Look him up the next time you’re here!

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