Arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport, the first thing I was struck by was the hospitality. A lot of countries are used to having tourists and visitors, but I have yet to witness a similar level of courtesy and friendliness in another urban centre. This too during turbulent political times for Thailand. The airport was big and busy, but well laid out so that one could breeze through it easily. Neatly dressed young women and men, helpfully pointed passengers towards where they needed to go, mostly with a smile. Currency exchange? Taxi required? No problem.
There weren’t many hours to go before the day’s end, so right after setting down my bags, I had gotten a hold of the concierge and put together a quick itinerary for myself. It turned out that the best (and perhaps only) way to see the city by evening was to take a cab and drive around, which I did. There are several historic locations scattered across Western Bangkok, and they are at least an hour’s drive from the city-centre. And then we were off.
Observation 1: If you are in a car in Bangkok and it is moving, thank God. The traffic is terrible! For an hour, it seemed we barely moved. So I busied myself with taking in the surroundings and trying to develop an ear for Thai pop. The downtown area is a mix of glossy towers and advertisements. However, even though we were stuck and barely moving, you could still feel Bangkok’s irrepressible energy. People were out and about, and the markets were busy.
Observation 2: I found Bangkok to be an incredibly young city (though this may have been a function of having been in an area packed with offices). There were 20-somethings everywhere.
As we made our way out of the central district, the traffic thinned. Eventually, we came to a bridge (over what I believe is the Chao Phraya river). As we started to cross it, the driver pointed to the left and excitedly shouted ‘Wat Arun!’ ‘Wat Arun!’ The temple’s spires were visible in the distance, lit up gold by floodlights. The bridge seemed a popular viewing/hangout spot, and several groups of teenagers had collected there, eating and drinking. We then drove on and entered a busy market where all the retailers seemed to be women. Beyond the market was the Grand Palace, and another temple – Wat Phra Kaew. At the late hour of 10 PM, it wasn’t possible to go inside (despite my attempts at sweet-talking the palace guards), so I saw what I could from the outside, and took grainy photos with my phone.
Before long, we were off. I was pretty hungry by then, so we stopped at a street-food joint, which, like everything else, was packed. I made my way through the crowd, chairs, and tables, before finally figuring out how to place an order. Crepes were on the menu, or rather were the menu. They were excellent, in fact the best chicken and banana crepes I have had to date! As I ate dinner, I looked up to see a sign indicating that there was a mosque nearby. Intrigued, after dinner I stepped into the alley it was supposed to be in. It turned out to be an interesting community mosque, lit up with colourful lights for Ramzan. A couple of old men were engrossed in a game of backgammon of some sort on a bench outside – not a common sight outside mosques I have been to! I decided to take a look inside, and found the mosque full of life. There were children from the nearby community running around inside, playing games and racing each other through the halls. Indeed, it turned out that the mosque was under the management of the community around it. An interesting model, compared to many mosques in Pakistan which are not managed by communities but rather by organised groups.
Thankfully, the roads were much clearer by the time we started to make our way back to the hotel. As the glossy buildings and advertising signs of the office district had passed by, my thoughts had been about the economic growth taking place in the region. Being in Bangkok was a great opportunity to see first hand, how the hammer of capitalism is forging new economic futures in East Asia (as elsewhere). Pragmatic countries are working hard to identify and exploit there economic competitive advantages. I was also impressed by the hospitality and warmth of all the Thai people I met.
30 hours will give you only a glimpse into life in Bangkok, but they will make you realise how much more there is to see.