A weekend in Bangkok is always fun
At Delhi airport to board the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. The last time I took this flight, some months ago, the queues extended halfway across the building. This time however check-in is smooth and painless. The airport too seems less full and immigration is a breeze.Sitting in the lounge I run into somebody I had travelled from Bombay to Delhi with a month ago.
Then, we hadn’t said much. But now, struck by the co-incidence, we introduce ourselves. My new friend is on the Singapore Airlines flight and as he leaves to board, I reach for my wallet to give him my card.
Disaster. I do not have my wallet.
Could I have dropped it somewhere? Has my pocket been picked? As these scare scenarios swirl around my brain, I phone home. It turns out I left it in my drawer. So much for being a frequent traveller!
My driver will speed to the airport with the wallet. But how I wonder with I get it from him even if he makes it before the flight departs? I have already passed through immigration and customs.
As the minutes tick away, I ask Sandeep, the Thai Airways Duty Officer, if he can help.
He is unfazed. No problem, he says.
I wait till my driver calls to say he is nearing the airport. Then I ask Sandeep what I should do.
“Give me the car number”, he says.
And then, to my astonishment (and immense gratitude) he sends a member of his counter staff outside the airport to take the wallet from my driver, to take it through immigration and customs and to bring it to me in the lounge.
I make the flight, wallet in pocket, a dedicated Thai Airways fan.
Nevertheless, this is not my favourite flight. The time varies a little depending on time of year, but essentially, it leaves around midnight and gets you to Bangkok the next morning. It sounds like an overnight flight but as the flying time is only three and a half hours and they spend an hour and a half on drinks and dinner, you are lucky to get more than an hour’s sleep.
I arrive in Bangkok a complete wreck to be greeted by a smiling girl from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), my hosts for the trip. She whisks me through the airport and into a limo that takes me to a hotel I wasn’t even aware existed. The Centara Grand.
When we get there, I work out why. It is a new property, not yet fully open (this is the ’soft opening’ phase) with a great location— in the Central World complex (formerly the World Trade Centre). I am shown to my airport hotel-like room and decide that I should have a cup of tea and a croissant before going to bed. The hotel has a truly impressive room service menu so I order a chocolate croissant.
“Right away”, they say.
Five minutes later, they call. Sorry, no chocolate croissants today. Do I want something else?
Wearily I say to send whatever they can, drink my tea, down the blinds and, as Bangkok comes to life, go to sleep.
After sleeping for eight hours flat, I wake up to find a message from Latha Reddy, the energetic and highly popular Indian ambassador to Thailand. What would I like to do for dinner? I say that I’ll trust her judgement.
As I open my eyes fully I notice that I’m also due to have dinner with the regional Director of TAT. I decide that I’ll go at 6.30 to the TAT dinner and then meet up with Latha at 7.30.
I call the hotel’s service centre. Could I get something ironed?
When you want it back, they ask, suspiciously.
This is a bit of a surprise. The Thais are usually hyper-gracious. A couple of hours or so, I say hopefully.
Oh no, they say. It’ll take a minimum of three hours to iron a shirt. And we’ll charge you double.
Do I have a choice? Not really. Fair enough, I say weakly.
I try the bathroom. I’m useless with bathroom fixtures so it is no surprise that I can’t find a way to plug the sunk. But I’m pretty sure that the failure of the bath tub to stopper properly is not my fault.
I get dressed anyway and wander through Central Plaza. One of the astonishing things about Bangkok is how, each year, everything seems to get more and more upmarket. Years ago, when this complex opened (as the World Trade Centre), it was grand and gleaming with two department stores (Zen and Isetan) at either end. Then, the fancier malls started opening up: Siam Discovery, Gaysorn Plaza, Emporium and most recently, Siam Paragon.
Now, the World Trade Centre has been reborn as swanky, upmarket Central World. The ambience is still high street rather than designer (unlike say, Siam Paragon) but it all looks much fancier than the malls that have opened in Gurgaon and Saket. The prices too are more reasonable — one reason why it makes sense to shop in Bangkok – and despite the language barrier, the service is vastly superior to what I’ve experienced in India.
I settle down to lunch at Nara, a Thai restaurant on the seventh floor. It never fails to astonish me how, if you order something basic like Fried Rice, it is almost impossible to go wrong in Bangkok. As valid is this other golden rule of eating Thai in Bangkok: there is no connection between price and quality. Eat at a super-expensive restaurant and the chances are that the food will actually be worse than at a roadside café.
At six thirty, having changed into something vaguely formal, I head for the TAT dinner. This is more difficult than I had thought. As my hotel is connected to Central World and as the dinner is being held at a restaurant in Central World itself, it should be easy.
But I have not counted on the Bangkok International Film Festival which is also taking place at the cinema in Central World. As I make my way down, I am jostled by fans screaming and shouting at the sight of their favourite movie stars. The crowds are so massive and the diversions are so forbidding that I finally abandon all hope of making it to the TAT dinner.
Latha Reddy arrives in the lobby to get me. She has brought her friend Deepa Bagai, who now works with the World Bank in Bangkok with her. It turns out that Deepa and I know each other having met over a decade and a half ago when she was a civil servant posted in Lucknow. Small world?
Latha takes me to Breeze in the State Tower building. The restaurant is relatively new but its siblings – on higher floors of the same building — are now internationally famous. The Sirocco complex (which includes Distil, the bar) is probably Bangkok’s only destination dining spot. Nearly everybody who comes to Bangkok has been told by friends to go to Sirocco.
I went, many years ago, when the restaurant has just opened and was struck by the fabulous views of Bangkok, the great cocktails and a menu that made imaginative use of oysters.
Since then, Sirocco has achieved a measure of international fame partly because of the expensive dinners it hosts, flying in many Michelin starred chefs from all over the world.
Most gratifying is that the whole complex is the brainchild of an Indian, Deepak Ohri, who has triumphed in a city full of highly paid food and beverage expatriate experts.
Breeze is more seafoody and vaguely Mediterranean but the food is fine and our table, out in the open, lets us enjoy the cool wind, a rarity in hot and steamy Bangkok.
I am in Bangkok for a purpose. Every two years, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) organizes Tourism Awards. Most awards are given in the predictable categories. Best Hotel, Best Airline, Best Spa etc.
But one of the categories is called Friends of Thailand. It’s meant for overseas awards and TAT honours foreign airlines, tour operators, hotel chains and the like. Within this category is a smaller sub-category for international media. This time, eleven journalists, publishers, TV hosts, radio presenters, trade journos and the like have been selected for the award.
My qualification apparently is that I’ve been going to Thailand for two decades now, uninvited by TAT or any Thai organization, and writing about the country purely out of Love of Thailand. This does not seem like much to me — I do genuinely love Thailand and the Thais —- but the Thais have been gracious enough to draft an elaborate citation talking about my “deep understanding of Thailand and Thai culture”.
The ceremony is scheduled for 5 pm in the convention centre attached to my hotel and promises to be a heavy-weight affair – the Prime Minister was due to attend but he’s had to step down and it appears that his recently appointed successor is out of town, visiting his home province.
A rehearsal is scheduled at 3.30 and I take the line that as this can’t take too long, I’ll turn up in my street clothes and change into a suit for the real thing. Imagine my surprise therefore when I find a dozen of Westerners, all wearing their fanciest clothes sitting beside me.
In the event, the rehearsal is informal. I never cease to marvel at the Thais. In some ways they are like the Chinese. Everything is done according to systems and procedures. But, in other ways, they are like us. There is a cheerfully chaotic air about them and they strike me as being more intuitive and instinctive than the Chinese despite all the talk of systems. Certainly, they are a much warmer people than most other East Asians.
The rehearsal over, I rush back to change. The well-dressed white people are not perturbed by the hour-long gap before the actual ceremony because cocktails are being served. Back in my seat, tie in place, I am amazed by how well the Thais do this sort of thing. Any such function in India would be slightly tacky. But perhaps because the Thais take tourism more seriously than we do (17 per cent of their revenues come from tourists), they have pulled out all the stops.
The Tourism Minister gives out the awards, the ceremony is grand and well-organised and the Tourism winners are some of the usual suspects (Banyan Tree Bangkok, Six Sense Spa etc.)