Thursday, April 16, 2015

Am I really in Bangkok?

A small part of Bangkok, seen from my hotel room
Of course I am (or was)—but it still is so otherworldly, despite all the travel, despite how our universe has shrunk, despite the fact that I have been in Thailand for the better part of two weeks and this was actually my port of entry.
Long tail boats on the Chao Phraya
Bangkok. For somebody born in 1956, this is still as far away as it gets. To be precise, 12 time zones from home. And now I am here, sitting in the open-air, roof-top lounge (31st floor) of the Hilton Millenium Bangkok, sipping free wine and watching how the bustling city sinks into smog and darkness, with lights springing up everywhere. (Just for the record: I started writing this update on Tuesday afternoon but completed it on my flight from BKK to Tokyo on Wednesday.)
The Royal Couple and the hot Princess are ubiquitous
When I arrived this morning at Don Mueang airport (Bangkok's other international airport, also known by its DMK code—I will fly out of Suvanabhumi tomorrow, or BKK) and, having collected my luggage, got into a taxi, I wasn't so sure whether this was going to be a love affair. Mind you, I went to the official airport taxi stand, and the driver needed to make a few phone calls to figure out where the hotel was. On the way, what I saw brought up images from The Wind-Up Girl, a book that Stu recommended and that I started to read while at Mae Klang. The book paints a picture of a dystopian Bangkok after what is simply called the incident, and I thought I had entered the plot. Smog, too many cars, high-rise apartment blocks that looked plain inhabitable, and nothing green within sight. I thought I was visiting Gotham.
What a view!
Somehow the taxi driver and I (no kidding!) managed to find the Hilton, where in exchange for a few points and a measly $50 I was set up with a stellar room on the 27th floor, overlooking said Gotham. Actually, from up here it didn't look all that bad! I have to admit that it is easy to be a snob when the check-in is in a private area, with cold towels and lavender/honey tea. It was difficult to not make an immodest move when my personal concierge showed me my room and the amenities. The room's amenities, that is. Whew! 
A little offering keeps accidents away ...

... and a bit of color never hurts, either
One of the many benis here at the Hilton is a free river boat shuttle to the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya river, to the Taksin pier. After checking in and taking good note of the operating hours of the Executive Lounge, I took the shuttle to explore a tiny part of this huge metropolis. What's better than to invest a few dollars for an all-day river boat ticket?
The tugs have these massive hooks to pull the barges

Bangkok is built on water. Just looking at the map makes clear that this is the Venice of the east. I haven't checked good ol' Google, but I am sure there is some-such moniker for Bangkok. The Chao Phraya is a scarily busy waterway, with boats of all sizes crissing and a-crossing at insane speeds. I was especially fascinated by the  "long tail" boats that are powered by what must be old Chevy engines that look as if they produce at least 575 hp. The guys who operate them work the throttle and the long propeller shaft—directly attached to the open-air engine—with much muscle and obvious dexterity. The speed that these long skiffs achieve is phenomenal! Next time I'm here I'll rent one of them for a day and explore all those canals that branch off from the main river.
Choice river real estate
And then there are the temples
During daylight hours the slow, meandering river (I know that it is a calm waterway because I saw it late at night when the boat traffic had ceased) is a churning cauldron of waves. All those boats—long tails, small ferries that look like temples, large tourist boats, tugs towing huge barges, totally overloaded large ferries—appear in constant danger of collision and disaster. There is an incessant jostling for docking slots at the ubiquitous piers. The boat attendants will bark out some vocal command for the captain to bring her to, and as soon as (dis)embarkation is complete (a matter of seconds, not minutes) a shrill whistle will indicate that once again we're on our way. Oh, I had so much fun!
Seriously overcrowded ferry
I got off the boat at the pier that is close to the Flower Market to take a little stroll. Since this is Sonkran, the market was essentially dead, with only a few of the wholesalers receiving truck-loads of chrysanthemum buds and roses that needed to be stored. Actually, it is rather fascinating to walk through such an area when it is not bustling with activity. A few shopkeepers were sitting around, but overall it was quiet and peaceful. Even the stray cats seemed to enjoy the afternoon, sunning themselves while a few kids were brandishing small water guns. No, this was not Chiang Mai—this was Bangkok at its calmest. Here are a few pics from my short walk:

I got back on a boat and continued my journey upstream. The architecture varies from the gilded wats via the ramshackle riverside slum dwelling on stilts to the ultra-modern condo highrise. Wherever you look, there is another photo opportunity. I stayed on the front deck for most of the way, trying to take it all in.
Speeding long tail boat
The engines are impressive, to say the least
I made it back to the Hilton with enough time to cool off in the scenic 4th-floor pool before it was Happy Hour in the lounge. OMG, that one was hard to beat! With an outdoor 31st-floor view of the river and the northern part of Bangkok—setting sun toward the west, glowing fiery red thanks to the ever-present smog—it was easy to while away almost two hours. The complimentary food and the oh-so-lovely young women filling up my glass didn't hurt, either. Those are the moments when I decide that I just have to requalify for HH Diamond status at least one more year....
The Hilton's pool ain't too shabby

At night, the Hilton's boat runs a shuttle to the Asiatique Riverfront market area. Well, it was a bit disappointing right by the pier—totally touristy with KFC, Burger King, and Starbucks as anchors. But a few blocks away from the water, there it was once again, the Thailand throbbing with Sonkran fever, with crazy yet non-aggressive traffic, with the satay stands and all those smiling faces. I drifted around for a while, taking in those last few impressions of a country that has been quite an experience. Undoubtedly, I will be back.
Sunset over smoggy Bangkok
Three minutes later the sun was essentially invisible because of the smog

A final beer—yes, an Erdinger!!!—on the rooftop
As always, thanks for reading.


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