• Thursday, October 23, 2014

Travelogue

Amazing Thailand

By Sakeb Subhan, back from Thailand

A two-storied freeway stretched out before us. Having left Suvarnabhumi International Airport at around six in the evening, the drive towards Bangkok was illuminated by the dying light of day. To Bangladeshi eyes, the volume of traffic momentarily recalled the corresponding drive back home, but that connection is severed when you see the orderly manner in which the congestion resolves itself.

The drive is dotted with opulent roadside highrises -- the city wears the country's burgeoning economic prowess proudly on its sleeve. But, stopped on the highway and peering over the parapet below, there was a vista that would have fit perfectly in Dhaka -- a field of patchy grass with someone burning some things near the centre, electrical wires running haywire overhead and ramshackle, low-slung buildings in the background.

It brought to mind that Thailand's industrialisation began only around 1985 and that the country was in worse shape than Bangladesh's corresponding state as late as the 1970s. More evidence of Thailand being a developing nation is scant but nevertheless present in downtown Bangkok, as we were to discover when strolling the Sukhumvit area -- the Las Vegas of the East -- when we saw the odd mother with her child sitting on the curb with outstretched arms, a jarring contrast to the glitz and bright lights all around.

That scene by the highway also brought to mind the political unrest that beset the country in late 2013 and early 2014, which was part of the reason we, a group of journalists and travel agents from Bangladesh, were there -- to see with our own eyes that Thailand was safe for tourism again.

By all measures, Bangkok seemed safe again, and there the connection with Bangladesh was severed for good. Yes, there was strife, but to an outsider's eyes at least it seems that the military junta -- along with a monarchy that has in the past interfered in the country's politics -- that took over has shown enough unity of purpose for the Thai vision to continue. Thankfully, that vision is enough to keep political problems as a backdrop and not the main event. We should be so lucky.

Bustling Bangkok
Bangkok was the most visited capital in the world for four straight years before the troubles in early 2014 rocked it off its perch and let London take top spot. The reason for its popularity is immediately obvious -- landmarks and tourist attractions aside, daily Bangkok life is an intoxicating mix of Western decadence and technological sophistication with Eastern hospitality and richness of local culture.

From the hedonistic lures of Sukhumvit, the street shopping institutions like the outdoor JJ Mall, the beauty of the riverside Asiatique Mall to the weekend frenzy at the Chatuchak market -- where all manners of shops are set up over a huge area only to be disassembled a day later -- Bangkok is truly a feast for all five senses.

At all of these places, the least you will get is a smile and the most, a hard-fought bargain for an item you would not have thought of stumbling upon. In between are the mundane things like sunglasses, watches and of course, electronic items that will make the perfect gift for that tech-obsessed friend or relative back home. The true thrill, however, is in the exploring.

Which should lead you to the street food -- full of the rich flavours and spices that have made Thai cuisine such a global favourite. Any marketplace, like the ones mentioned above, is a hotbed for street culinary activity.
A minute's walk down these culinary alleys will offer enough options to satisfy most palates. Fried rice is of course ubiquitous, as is steamed rice (a word on the steamed rice, in Thailand it is unbelievably delicious). The options in seafood are mind-boggling and at times unheard of. And if you are a carnivorous eater, remember that vegetable done Thai street style is not to be missed.

There are, of course, landmarks and attractions aplenty. Tourism contributes, directly and indirectly, roughly 17 per cent to the country's GDP, and that is not due to the bustling Bangkok life alone.

The Grand Palace is perhaps the most famous and popular among these. It's a vast complex of buildings that was the seat of the monarchy from 1782 to 1925, and is still the venue of royal functions.

There is a palpable sense of Thailand's rich royal past, and it also serves as a timeline of Thai architecture as each subsequent monarch made new additions to the site. The Grand Palace also houses the temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Wat Pra Kaew, and the sacred Buddha carved out of a single block of emerald will leave visitors in awe.

The Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, is an iconic part of the Bangkok cityscape. Like the buildings at the Grand Palace – perhaps even more so – the intricate floral designs on this 19th century architectural gem done in the ancient Khmer style is awe-inspiring.

The Grand Palace and the Temple of Dawn are located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, cruises along which are another major tourist attraction. The beautiful river snakes its way through Bangkok, and an evening cruise is a glittering treat as the lights of the city twinkle in technicolour on either side.

One of these cruises takes you to the old part of town where you can see the way most city dwellers lived, and many still do, before it became the tourism capital of Asia. The cruise into Bangkok Noi marks a sharp contrast from Bangkok's affluent present to its not-so-affluent past, with stilt houses on both banks of the river.

If you are looking for family fun, there are plenty of options there too. The well-maintained Dusit Zoo, which encircles a large pond in the middle where visitors can indulge in a spot of paddle-boating, is a place for the children with its exotic animals and sightseeing train ride.

The 'Art in Paradise', a museum of 3D art, is another such place that will have both children and adults giggling with joy. Ingeniously done art pieces are painted on the walls, in front of which visitors can pose for pictures which come out with them seeming to be part of the artwork itself. Friends and family will be wondering how you were sitting nonchalantly on the ceiling or escaping out of a serpent's throat.

Greater Thailand
When it comes to Thailand, most people think of Bangkok and the beaches of Phuket and Pattaya, with beautiful clear water and mountains forming a heavenly vista. But there are some gems in this country that many have not heard, and which many will not associate with the trappings of Thailand.

Sam Pan Boak is known as the Grand Canyon of Thailand, and has some amazing rock formations as well as lush green forests -- perfect for the nature tourist.

For more enjoyment of serene beauty, the Red Lotus Sea in Udon Thani has soul-soothing potential with lotuses stretching out on the lake as far as the eye can see. There is plenty to do for adventure seekers as well, with Keang Hin Peong providing enough rafting adrenaline rushes to last a lifetime.

Four days were too few to explore Bangkok, much less the bounties of Thailand. As for their efforts to bring their tourism back up to speed, a Bangladeshi may wonder why they bothered. Because this is a country completely geared towards tourism, from the newly instituted tourist insurance to the traveller sim cards that allow free calls to fellow tourists to the ever-smiling, welcoming locals.

We left Thailand enriched and with the knowledge that a country like ours has a lot to learn from them, not least about their positive outlook.

Photo: Tourism Authority of Thailand

Published: 12:00 am Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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