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Rude Travel | Bangkok Break

Though my weekend in Bangkok was disrupted by political protests in the country, I felt no fear. Nothing can curb the Thais' natural inclination towards hospitality, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2009 15:48 IST
Rude Travel | Vir Sanghvi

I’m not even supposed to be going to Bangkok. I am due in Hong Kong on Tuesday for a Discovery Travel and Living shoot. But Bangkok is on the way and I have friends in the city whom I want to visit so I decide to spend the weekend in the Thai capital.

The trip begins well. My Jet Airways flight from Bombay is packed with holiday-makers – I had forgotten that this is the Easter weekend so many Indians are heading for Bangkok – and arrives at Swaranbhumi Airport a quarter of an hour ahead of schedule.

The airport rep from Lebua, the hotel I stay at most frequently in Bangkok, is at the aircraft gate. I warn him that I need a visa on arrival. He seems unfazed. The visa is done in a matter of minutes, immigration is a breeze and I am by the conveyer belt as the first bags come tumbling out 15 minutes or so after the aircraft doors have opened.

The advantage with having an airport rep inside the building rather than waiting outside the customs hall, is that he can call the car well in advance. So, by the time we emerge from the terminal, one of Lebua’s signature BMW limos is waiting and ready to whisk me away.

I get to my suite, call for a massage and fall asleep even as my body is being pummelled. I am so knocked out from the flight that I do not wake up till 3 in the afternoon. The problem with overnight flights to the Far East is that they only take four hours or so and you’re lucky if you get more than a couple of hours of sleep. Always in Bangkok or Singapore, the first half of the first day goes in recovering.

When I finally awake, I head for a mall in the centre of town (I’m not revealing the name lest all of you have the same idea) where you get near perfect bootlegged DVDs for the equivalent of Rs 70 per disc. As usual, I end up buying 50 or so.
Should I be feeling guilty? I’ll tell you what. I’ll start feeling guilty the day the music companies and the Hollywood studios stop charging absurd amounts of money for CDs and DVDs. Till then, I’ll buy them in Bangkok and giggle each time a pirated DVD begins with that tedious film on the evils of piracy. (“You wouldn’t steal a car…”)

Dinner is at Breeze, one of the signature restaurants at Lebua. Nishant Yadav, who is the director of food and beverage, has planned a special menu. We begin with scallops done two ways and then move on to lobster, red snapper, kobe and pork belly, washed down with copious quantities of Dom Perignon and Penfolds Grange.

You wouldn’t think it, judging by the crowds at Breeze, but Thailand is in the grips of a crisis. Earlier in the day, demonstrators have invaded the Royal Cliff hotel in nearby Pattaya, where the ASEAN summit is being held. Thai security can be needlessly gentle so the demonstrators – who are demanding the ouster of the Prime Minister – have run amok. The summit has been called off and the leaders of ASEAN countries evacuated by helicopter from the roof of the Royal Cliff.

Will the disruption spread to Bangkok? Almost certainly. But I am not worried. I was in Bangkok in May 1992, when armed soldiers and demonstrators were clashing on the streets and still felt entirely safe. A coup or a demonstration in Thailand is usually no more than a mild inconvenience.

I wake up the next morning and head for the Siam Paragon shopping centre. Unfortunately, the sales that I had noticed on my last visit, are over. Nor is the merchandise terribly exciting. What, I wonder, has gone wrong with Gucci? The accessories are cheap, nasty and hideously vulgar. I know that Tom Ford has gone but surely that does not occasion a descent into such bad taste.

But at least we know what happened to Gianni Versace after he died. He did not go to heaven or hell. He went to Gucci.
I move to the Siam Centre to eat at the food court, where astonishingly good food is available at absurd prices. I am beginning to enjoy my Khao Man Gai when the manager comes bustling up to my table. The mall is closing. I have to leave.
Outside, things are slightly chaotic. Anti-government demonstrators have attacked the police headquarters down the road from Siam Paragon and have hijacked a police armoured car. The road is blocked off and shops are closing.

My first thought is: why do I feel no fear? The answer is that demonstrations in Thailand rarely affect passers-by. In India, the mob would have burnt a few cars and looted a mall or two by now. Here, these guys are showing no interest in the rest of us.

I call my Lebua driver, who points out that it might be difficult to drive out of the area. Just then I notice that I have four missed calls from the hotel. I call back. The concierge says that he has heard of a disturbance in the area. Could I take the sky train – the station is attached to Siam Centre – to Saphin Taksin near the hotel?

I do that and reach Saphin Taksin in under ten minutes. The concierge is waiting at the station with another BMW. The hotel has called all its guests to check if they are stranded. Anyone who feels inconvenienced has been asked to take the train to Saphin Taksin. And the concierge has turned up in person to receive all of us.

I speak to the Indian Ambassador and a few other contacts in Thailand. Now, I’m less focused on the shopping or the food because I know I will have to file for tomorrow’s HT.

I am assured that things are largely normal but decide to go out and check for myself. I reach the busy Silom Road, where it is business as usual. The street-sellers are hard at work, the malls are open, and Thais are celebrating Songkran – a Holi-like festival that involves spraying everyone with water.

Near Silom’s Soi 4, a street party is in progress. People are drinking and laughing. Drag queens are dancing in the middle of the street. Bar girls are spraying everyone with water. After I get drenched for the second time, I notice that my assailants are carrying bottles of mineral water. Each time their water pistols run out of ammunition, they refill them with more mineral water.

I understand Songkran because of our own experience with Holi. But mineral water? This is an interesting country.
I head back to the hotel, file my copy and then go to Sirocco for dinner. The chef has done an all-beef menu, using four different kinds of beef. There is tartar with foie gras, a Wagyu carpaccio, a steak, slow-cooked beef in red wine and rumpsteak in an onion and balsamico gravy. We start with Krug and move on to Vosne-Romanee.

Does it seem slightly surreal to be eating so well even as the city gossips about military intervention and a crackdown?
I wonder about that. But all around me, people are lining up to get into Sirocco (still Bangkok’s top table) and everyone seems to be having a great time.

I’m leaving for Hong Kong on Monday. Perhaps things will get worse after that. Or perhaps they won’t.

But I know the Thais. No matter what happens, nothing can curb their love of life or their natural inclination towards
hospitality.