Distance in time also gives you objectivity. As I look back and ponder over out trip to Thailand, a year and a half later, I hope for less glossy images of the experience. While I can expect to keep the gloss out, it is not so easy to forget the beauty and wonderful pleasures that enticed us. Thailand, much like our own, is a country riddled with contradictions. High rise towers and luxury hotels – the symbols of a flourishing economy, exist alongside insanitary dumps that are home to the poor. Nowhere is this contradiction more apparent than along the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
One section is completely populated with the leading hotel chains of the world; together they appropriate what is called the chief river in the ‘Kingdom of Siam’. These hotels have their private ferries to get you to the opposite bank. Nestled in them, you can almost miss the poverty and squalor that scream at you from the banks as you travel down the river to its less attractive sections. We noticed them while on the public ferry, returning from our trip to the Grand Palace.
From the glass windows of our room in the Millennium Hilton, the view is entirely different. The river spreads out below in a green magnificent expanse, and at night, the bright lights on the opposite bank dazzle.
The Hotel has a lounge on the 32nd floor called the ‘Three Sixty Lounge’, with a panoramic view of the river. They serve you the most interesting cocktails, while a strong and deep feminine voice takes you down memory lane to the Whitney Houston era – the first brush with popular Western music for many of our generation. The Hotel is a perfect example of the modern and urban, its structure rising high into the Bangkok sky, more vertical than horizontal. Modernity is however, by itself, not charming enough, and in a country like Thailand, you would feel incomplete without a dose of the cultural and historical.
Outside the Grand Palace, a crowded marketplace beckons with its vibrant, busy air. A central portion has makeshift tables where you can sit down and enjoy your meal, put together from the varied street-side stalls. It is a celebration of common spaces, and a hotbed of creativity where wonders are cooked up in an unleashing of culinary imagination. It was far removed from the illegitimacy with which street vendors in India are tainted, hounded as they are by the State authorities for ‘illegal’ occupation of public property, and for serving food in ‘insanitary’ conditions.The Hotel taps into this need with Maya, an experiential dining space which combines a live cooking show, contemporary Thai dance and a theatrical performance. In yet another modern invention that plays with mirages, the ‘infinity’ pool on the 4th floor lounge is designed to make you feel like you can almost touch the river.
The visit to the Grand Palace is but of course, a mandatory part of any trip to Bangkok. It seemed to me a distinctly Asian phenomenon- finding a space of grandeur and majesty in the heart of an urban settlement. The Mysore Maharaja’s palace is another example. The Grand Palace is a stunning synergy of Hinduism and Buddhism, bringing together walls with the most graphic and colourful illustrations from the Ramakien (the ‘Glory of Rama’, Thailand’s national epic derived from the Ramayana), and the temple of the Emerald Buddha. This cultural confluence defies artificial theological boundaries, as the living experience of the Thais assimilates the legends of the Ramakien, and the spiritual path shown by the Buddha.
Outside the Grand Palace, a crowded marketplace beckons with its vibrant, busy air. A central portion has makeshift tables where you can sit down and enjoy your meal, put together from the varied street-side stalls. It is a celebration of common spaces, and a hotbed of creativity where wonders are cooked up in an unleashing of culinary imagination. It was far removed from the illegitimacy with which street vendors in India are tainted, hounded as they are by the State authorities for ‘illegal’ occupation of public property, and for serving food in ‘insanitary’ conditions.
It was a microcosm of Bangkok for us. Discovering the familiar in seemingly unfamiliar terrain. For our part, we discovered the most interesting food on the streets. Stepping out of the legendary Jim Thompson store, we ran into a push cart. With a few deft movements, he whipped up the most delicious Thai iced tea for us. The push cart is a self contained restaurant with everything he needs, from the ingredients to smart cups with handles to drink your tea on the go. Not satisfied with just the iced tea, we tried the Hot Chocolate as well. It can give the Starbucks Chantico a run for its money. Our only ‘dining’ experience in a narrow sense of the word was at Gaggan, a restaurant that serves Progressive Indian cuisine. Based on the principles of molecular gastronomy that brings elements of science into the art of cooking, Gaggan serves up the heart of India, with a touch of the futuristic.
The Paapdi Chaat 2050 is topped with a globule of curd, almost suspended in the air. As you pop it in your mouth, it breaks up into fragments in a delightful burst of flavours. You sit back and enjoy the rush of flavour, delighted that the unusual looking Paapdi Chaat explodes into familiar flavours. It was a microcosm of Bangkok for us. Discovering the familiar in seemingly unfamiliar terrain.