My travel agent had found me a ticket from San Francisco to Kolkata
that was $200 cheaper. Downside being a 12 hour layover at
Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok’s brand new multi-billion dollar airport. I had
done similar stretches at Singapore’s Changi and I was none the worse
for wear. Besides, I had never been to Bangkok before, and it sounded
like an adventure. Worst case scenario would be a nap at the transit
Upon arrival at Suvarnabhumi, I realized the problem. Too few
toilets. No lounge chairs, no showers, no workout facilities. Maybe I
could have taken a nap in one of the many prayer rooms. Cost of the
dingy little solitary transit hotel, in a remote part of the airport,
was outrageous. I had already been traveling and sleepless for 18
hours, and yet my mind rebelled against spending time and money at that
hotel. So, there I was, with 12 hours to spare, at an unfriendly
airport. Getting out was the only sensible option.
The information kiosk staff were polite, friendly and not informed at all.
They would tell me nothing about my options outside the airport.
Sure there were hotels. And there had to be tour operators. But as to
whereabouts, how to find them, recommendations, approximate cost, maps,
or flyers, I drew a blank. This brand new airport has a long way to go
in the customer service department.
I recall clearing immigration with my fingers crossed. Thankfully,
business triumphs over bureaucracy. As soon as I had cleared customs, I
saw the the tourism kiosks. Maybe the information desk staff had
feigned ignorance to avoid making the effort of speaking English. It
took me no time to hook up with one of the airport travel agents for a
city and temple tour. They were charging me too much for too little.
But I had only myself to blame for that, I was ill prepared to take the
city on my own.
It was sweltering hot when I stepped out of the confines of the
airport. Sky was overcast and it seemed like imminent rain. First
impression of the city reminded me of Kolkata. Same tropical trees –
lots of krisha chura, the ones with touch-me-not like tiny
leaves and dense red canopy of flowers. Tall expensive malls co-exist
with hawkers and slums. And, homeless people live underneath billboards
advertising million dollar luxury apartments. I was almost home.
I was to meet my guide, Nancy, at the city center. My guide turned
out to be a young chap, nicknamed Arm, who confided to me that Nancy
was a fictitious character. There may be a circuitous reasoning that
makes this right but I don’t want to know. The first temple that Arm
took me to was that of 5 tonne solid Golden Buddha, my 20 Bhat ticket
read Wat Trai Mit. I later read that the statue, about
800 years old, was revealed underneath a plaster Buddha statue only
half a century ago. Arm had rambled on about Burmese invaders.
It had started drizzling by then. I persuaded him to take me for a
walk around the neighboring Chinatown, which he did with great
reluctance. According to him, Chinatown was a poor part of the city and
not very touristy. Duh! Bangkok’s Chinatown is big, far bigger and far
more varied than San Francisco’s Chinatown. Not pretty and not touristy
but real people live here. Trinket sellers are far outnumbered by
regular shops selling everyday items. There are many food vendors
selling all sorts of fish and animal body parts, few cooked and fewer
still, familiar. It was bustling with life, even on a rainy Sunday
The second temple we visited was that of reclining Buddha, Wat Pho,
also the center for Thai traditional massage. Buddha here is gigantic
with mother of pearl soles. While it is the oldest wat in Bangkok, it
was rebuilt entirely about 200 years ago, without any attempt to
imitate its previous architecture. It sounds like steady metallic rain
inside – sound of pennies being dropped in a row of hundred urns, a
karmically positive activity for visitors. And I recall cats, many
skinny ones shuffling along the numerous courtyards. The murals along
the walls, typically related to Buddhist way of life in Thailand, would
have been more enjoyable with some explanation but my guide looked
bored by now.
Afterwards, we took a short detour to see the river. It was a slow
moving river, like Hooghly in Kolkata. But that wasn’t a touristy bank,
not even one where natives go. All I saw were some derelicts and
possibly, drug abusers. Was he extracting his revenge because I had
dragged him to Chinatown?
Third and final temple of the day was the marble temple, Wat Benchamabophit,
the royal monastery. Made from Italian marble, it has some European
architectural influences like a cloister and stained glass windows. To
my untrained eye, the most appealing part of this monastery were a
series of bronze statues along the corridor of the cloister
representing fifty or so different forms of Buddha. Bangkok is a city
of thousand Buddhas and thousand Kings. All over the city were many
large portrayals of the King – on a throne, posing with a camera,
riding a horse, being ordained a Buddhist monk – maybe he had fifty or
so different forms as well.
Finally, came dinner. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I was
expecting the dinner to be the highlight of the tour. I love Thai food.
I cook Thai food. I had asked my guide to specifically take me to an
authentic restaurant. He took me to a place that looked very down to
earth and authentic. Until I had my first bite. It was positively toned
down for tourists – no fire, only salty, sweet and tart. Later my guide
told me proudly that he brought all his customers there – the Germans
liked it very much. Oh la la!
By the time, I got back to the airport, a tropical rainstorm was
underway. Between my visa, airport and tour fee, I had lost the $200
advantage. But, I had seen a little bit of Bangkok, albeit through an
under-trained guide and drizzling rain! Last I remember of Bangkok is
dozing fitfully, curled up cold on the metal seats, and wishing for the
rainstorm to stop.
PS: Some historical, architectural and religious context,
is needed to fully appreciate the numerous temples. If you are there
for a few hours, it may be more fun to take in one or two of the
temples, walk about in Chinatown and find some good eats in the city.
If you know where you are going, you can take a cab from airport to the
city and tuk-tuks within city. Unfortunately, almost all
signs are in Thai language and hardly anyone speaks English, so it may
be a good idea to have a sense of the distance and direction of one
site from other. It may also be possible to hire a cab for the day
right at the airport.