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There’s always Bangkok

Despite the political unrest, Indians continue to flock to the Thai capital. They don’t feel unsafe, and it remains the ultimate value for money destination, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: May 01, 2010 19:14 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

BangkokThe flight to Bangkok is packed. Normally this would not be surprising but these are not normal times. The day before, the Prime Minister of Thailand has declared a state of Emergency. Many countries have issued advisories against travelling to Thailand. The international news channels are full of stories about how Bangkok has been paralysed.

At first I think that the passengers are all going to Bangkok to connect on to flights to other parts of the Far East. But then I realise that this is the day-time Thai Airways flight, one that reaches Bangkok too late (5.45pm) to be much use for connections. (People with connections take the Jet Airways or Thai overnight flights from Delhi). And sure enough, a large proportion of the passengers head directly for Immigration, by-passing the transit lounge. Most of us are here because we want to be in Bangkok.

Why is it that Indians seem so undeterred by the bad news? For years, I’ve heard Bangkok residents complaining about how little coverage Thailand gets in the Indian media. (This remains true during the week that follows – it is America, Britain and Poland that obsess the Indian press). But now, I reckon, they should be pleased. Perhaps Indian visitors do not realise how bad things are supposed to be because of our media’s lack of interest in Thai news.

When I get to Lebua, the hotel I always use in Bangkok, I am greeted by Aya Kihara, the Japanese general manager. I tell her how full the flight was. At the conveyor belt, as I waited for my luggage, I tell her, I fell into conversation with a few Indian passengers from my flight. Were they worried? Oh no, they all said, Thailand is completely safe! Aya seems thrilled to hear this. It has been – by any standards – a terrible time for tourism in Thailand. In 2008, protesters shut down the international airport for over two weeks. A year ago, another set of protesters disrupted an Asean summit in Pattaya, forcing such delegates as our own Kamal Nath to escape to safety by helicopter. Then, Bangkok shut down for a couple of days as the army cracked down on protesters. And now, there is the latest round of protests.

Thailand’s tourism industry has managed to bounce back from previous setbacks – the Thais are actually targeting a million more tourist arrivals this year. But now, there are valid doubts about how long Thailand’s luck can hold and those tourist targets seem fanciful. But, says Aya, “it is the Indian market that is the most loyal market.” Till a few months ago, the Thais had counted on Chinese and Indians to fill the gaps left by Europeans, Japanese and Americans who run away at the slightest hint of danger. But this time round, the Chinese have cancelled in droves. Only the Indians are still coming.

Why do Indians love Bangkok? It is not the nudge-nudge-wink-wink reason. By and large, Indians are too cheap to spend money on massages or at girlie bars. Most Indians don’t like wasting money on anything they can’t take back. Nobody is going to splash out for a sandwich – let alone the ‘sandwich massage’ of legend – if they can buy a toaster and take it home instead.

My theory is that we like Bangkok because it offers us everything we will get in the West – or in Singapore or Hong Kong – for much less money. The best hotels (and Bangkok hotels routinely appear on lists of the world’s best hotels) will not just cost less than similar hotels in London (or Hong Kong or Dubai). They will cost less than Delhi or Bombay hotels. The food in Bangkok is among Asia’s best (last month, in Tokyo, many globe-trotting Japanese executives told me the best Japanese food outside of Japan was in Bangkok), no matter which cuisine you like. (Mezza Luna at Lebua would easily get a Michelin star if it was located in Hong Kong or any other city with a Michelin Guide). The clothes are cheaper and the designer brands (not cheaper than India, alas) offer a greater range.

If you want to live on a budget, then that’s easy in Bangkok too. There are excellent three star hotels which cost under Rs 2000 a day and there’s lots of midmarket to downmarket shopping. As I always say, Bangkok is the one city in the world where Indians do not feel poor.

But why do we feel safe? Perhaps it is because riots and demonstrations do not faze us. We have seen much worse at home. Besides, the Thais have a rational attitude to protests. They rarely attack tourists. They treat bystanders with courtesy. And they do not damage property, burn cars or go looting. (After I leave, grenades do go off on Silom Road, damaging Thailand’s reputation in this regard).

I’ve been in Bangkok during protests and have never once felt anything other than mild inconvenience. Which, I guess, is why I am back this time, ignoring the gloomy news on the TV.

People who know Bangkok reasonably well will know the crossing of Rajdamri and Ploenchit. This is the area where some of Bangkok’s best known shopping complexes are: Central World, Gaysorn Plaza, Erawan Complex and Big C. Slightly away, to one side, is Central Chidlom. And a short distance away, on the other side, are the Siam Centre, Siam Discovery and Siam Paragon. This stretch also covers several top hotels: the Intercontinental, the Holiday Inn, the Grand Hyatt, the Four Seasons, the Centara Grand etc.

It is no exaggeration to call it the centre of upmarket tourist Bangkok. There are more downmarket areas elsewhere but only one top mall – the Emporium – is outside this area. So, you can imagine the horror of the Thai authorities when tens of thousands of villagers took up residence on the streets here,forcing the malls to close and setting off a mass exodus from the area’s hotels. The day I arrive, the occupation of upmarket Bangkok has already been on for close on to a week. The general feeling is that no government can afford to hand over such an important part of the capital to protestors. A crackdown is expected.

When I first started visiting Bangkok regularly, the area that the protestors now claim as their own was the centre of my Bangkok. I lived in the old Siam Intercontinental before it was pulled down to build the hideous Siam Paragon shopping centre. I went to a rock bar on Gaysorn Road before the entire road disappeared and became part of the Gaysorn Plaza mall. I saw Central World come up before my eyes. (It was originally called World Trade Centre).

So I know the area well. And ignoring the entreaties of the hotel’s concierge, I take a car to where the action is. My driver stops near the MBK Mall and asks me to walk the rest of the way. Halfway down the road, the protestors have parked a truck sideways to indicate that this is no longer a thoroughfare. But this is Bangkok so the ingenious will always get around. Next to the truck, an impromptu taxi stand for motor-cycle taxis has come up. If you want to go in to where the protesters are headquartered, you just whiz in on the back of a mo-bike!

I walk anyway. The first thing that strikes me is the carnival-like atmosphere. Lining the streets are food stalls serving the most delicious Thai food imaginable – from grilled squid to complete meals, consisting of curries and rice. There are stalls with cold beer and chilled Diet Coke. Stereos are blaring Thai pop. Some people are singing. This could be an office picnic.

At the main crossing, a stage has come up and speakers are delivering fiery political harangues as the thousands assembled there cheer enthusiastically. There are old men, smiling women and even children clutching balloons. Of course they are wearing red (these are the Red Shirt protesters – the ones who closed the airport in 2008 were Yellow Shirts) and many seem much rougher and poorer than the average Bangkok resident. They have taken over the area, sleep on the street, pee in the parking lots and make for an incongruous sight, eating Som Tam (the famous Thai papaya salad) in front of large picture windows for Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

But here’s the thing: it all seems completely safe. Political rallies in India always have a whiff of menace about them. You never know when the mood will turn, or when the stone-throwing will began. Not here. The atmosphere is genuinely peaceful. Nobody pays the slightest attention to me, even though I am clearly a foreigner who does not belong.

It is Saturday night at Sirocco. Against the odds, the trendy roof top restaurant is packed out with tourists eager to discover why it is Bangkok’s hottest spot and rich Thais trying to relax and enjoy the weekend. As I enter, I hear the news everyone has been expecting. The government crackdown has begun. The crowd near Gaysorn has not been touched. But the army has moved in to disperse the protesters from their other base near the Democracy Monument. Shots have been fired. People are said to be dead. I look around. Nobody – not even the Thais – seems to be in any hurry to leave. The jazz singer belts out New York New York. Elegant Thai waiters glide by, bottles of champagne in their hands.

Outside, 64 stories below, people are being shot on the streets of Bangkok. Thailand does not have its own NDTV or CNN-IBN. The local channels broadcast mainly in Thai but late at night, I find a channel that is offering a simultaneous English translation of the Prime Minister’s live address to the nation. It turns out that the army operation has failed. Though there have been casualties on both sides, the protesters have not been dislodged. The army is withdrawing. The PM offers his regrets.

The Sunday papers speak of 12 deaths (in fact, 21 people died) and 600 casualties (at least 100 on the army’s side) so I expect that Bangkok will now look like a ghost town. The hotel has, by now, given up on me so I go back to the demonstrators near Gaysorn. The mood is a little more sombre and the crowd has thinned somewhat. But that is about all. There is still music. There are still the street food stalls. There is still the same welcoming attitude to foreigners. What’s more, a few metres from the protests, life goes on normally. I walk down Rajadamri to Petchburi Road (a four minute walk) to find traffic in full flow, hail a cab and go back to the hotel.

Because the army has withdrawn and the government is talking to the protesters, Bangkok takes the line that life has returned to normal. There are crowds at the Emporium mall. The Central Department Store on Chidlom re-opens and it is business as usual.
I go off to Sukhumvit, to the street behind the Indian Embassy to meet Renuka Narayanan, until recently, HT’s spirituality and culture editor and now, head of Bangkok’s Indian Cultural Centre.

We go to an Italian restaurant, discover it is shut – not because of the protests but because these are the Songkran or Thai New Year, holidays – and end up at a more modest Italian place on Sukhumvit road where Renuka drinks red wine, eats calamari and regales me with stories about her life in Bangkok.The only sign that anything out of the ordinary is taking place occurs on the way back. I am startled to find no cops on Asoke, one of Bangkok’s better known roads. Instead, the Red Shirts are directing traffic. And they are doing a better job of it than the regular police.

The next day I go to a relatively modest restaurant that has been highly recommended by my friend Rohit Khattar (of Chor Bizarre, Indian Accent and Habitat Centre fame). The restaurant is full of Thai families and because it does not take bookings, we all wait for tables. The wait is worth it. The food is terrific: fried soft shell crab, mange tout with crispy pork, prawns with asparagus, chicken with chilli and basil, snowfish in red curry, garlic and pepper fried prawns etc.

I enjoy the experience because it gives me an opportunity to check how Thais are reacting to the protests. Fancy restaurants like Sirocco can sometimes give you the wrong impression. But even here, there seems to be no sense that anything untoward is happening. The restaurant is full of good cheer and laughter. There is none of the barely suppressed tension we notice in India when things have gone wrong.

How it will all end, though, is hard to say. The Thai elite believes that the demonstrators are being paid off by ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which they probably are. But the depth of feeling runs deeper than any loyalty to Thaksin. Beneath the good cheer of the coloured shirts lies a determination among Thailand’s have-nots to upturn the social order and demand a better deal for themselves.

The demonstrators have not turned violent only because the army has not attacked them. (Thailand has a history of army firing on civilians). But this Som Tam-fuelled insurrection is a very real one. My guess is that the demonstrators will not go away. I cannot see how the Prime Minister can avoid calling for fresh elections (which he will probably lose) indefinitely. One way or the other, a change is going to come. Say this for India, at least our democracy prevents such stand-offs from occurring.

My last day in Bangkok. Naturally, I want to go back and check on the protesters. Naturally, the hotel thinks this is unnecessary. When I get to the Siam Square location, I notice that the Red Shirts are getting ready to mount a procession. Dozens of vehicles with red flags are being readied. I go to the other side, to Ploenchit. There too, there are more vehicles on the road. Central Department Store says it will close early (3.30pm) to avoid the traffic snarls the demonstration will undoubtedly cause.

I head back to Lebua. On the way, groups of noisy young people lean out of cars and trucks and open fire from ugly looking guns. Except that these are water-rifles. And their ammunition is nothing deadlier than cold water.

The Thai Songkran takes place during our Baisakhi and closely parallels Sankrant, the spring festival in Gujarat. But it is celebrated in a manner more akin to Holi. People rub white flour on your face and spray you with jets of water. While Holi has now been moderated, Songkran remains as boisterous as ever – anybody who passes by is fair game. So while the Red Shirts are preparing their vehicles, the rest of Bangkok is out in the streets, fighting another kind of battle with nothing more dangerous than white flour and cold water.

I say bye to Aya before leaving for the airport. Throughout my little excursion to Siam and Ploenchit, she has been phoning me on my mobile to check that I am okay. “Relax Aya,” I tell her. “There really is no danger.”

“Thank you for being here in such a difficult time,” she says, in her gracious Japanese way.“Don’t be silly,” I say in my reckless Indian way. “We are Indians. We go anywhere!”

First Published: Apr 30, 2010 14:14 IST