Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: City of angels
I think I fell in love with Bangkok the very first time I visited the city as a schoolboy with my mother. The big hotel in town was the Siam Intercontinental which had acres and acres of gardens, a running brook and a collection of exotic birds which roamed the grounds. In those days, at least from what I recall, Bangkok was a relatively sleepy city (we had been to the more bustling Hong Kong and Singapore on the same trip) without the energy of, say, Bombay (as it was then ) but with a great deal of character. My mother went on and on about how graceful and elegant the Thai people were but I may have been too young to notice.
All this came back to me when I went back to Bangkok in 1987 (or was it 1988—I can no longer remember) on holiday as an adult. I went, to be honest, because I would have been crazy not to go. I lived in Calcutta at the time and Bangkok was nearer than, say, Bombay. The flights were cheaper and in those days, the rupee was so strong that you could buy two baht for one rupee.
I stayed at the Siam again, marvelled at the birds, wandered the grounds and had a great time. But I noticed that Bangkok was changing. The Siam Intercontinental seemed a little tired. And the two top hotels were The Peninsula, not far from the Intercontinental, and the Oriental, which had a tiny old component (the Authors Wing) and two ugly modern buildings.
But the hotel I fell in love with was the Peninsula. People say that it was designed like a Thai house. Certainly no other hotel I have stayed at is built around two open courtyards but the driveway and the main entrance reminded me of the Hong Kong Peninsula.
Bangkok was going to go through many changes in the years to come (as were we: chiefly the sharp fall in the value of the rupee: one baht is now over two rupees) none of which I expected. The Siam Intercontinental was pulled down, its acres of gardens transformed into the Siam Paragon mall and various parking lots plus a new Kempinski hotel.
But that was the least of it. Thailand saw political turmoil. Regimes came and went. Sometimes protesters blocked important crossings. There was a financial crisis around 1997 and there were devastating floods. And yet somehow, Bangkok always bounced back, stronger than ever. It was as though nothing could keep the city down.
Today’s post-pandemic Bangkok is a very different place from the Bangkok of the late eighties. The signs of prosperity are everywhere. The malls are better than, say, Dubai’s and on par with Singapore’s.
There are more Michelin-starred restaurants than I could ever have imagined. In the list of Asia’s Top 50 restaurants, four out of the top ten are in Bangkok (most of them opened not more than five years ago). It is a global capital in more ways than one. The sleepy city of my childhood has disappeared.
And yet, there are still things you can hold on to from the old days. The grand Peninsula was taken over by Regent Hotels, the pioneering Asian company that rewrote the rules of hoteliering. Regent was bought by Four Seasons, so it became the Four Seasons Bangkok. Through it all, I stayed with hotel, marvelling at its ability to hold on to its heritage and its service tradition. As faceless, characterless, international hotels opened in Bangkok, it remained distinctively Thai, in its identity, in the way it was laid out and in the air of gracious elegance that characterised it.
Then, in 2015 (or around then), the billionaire Bill Heinecke, who controlled the company that owned the hotel (the land it stands on belongs to the Crown Property Bureau of Thailand) decided that he didn’t want the Four Seasons (who now run an excellent new property, not far from the Oriental) but would ask his own Anantara chain to run it. By then Anantara was a leading global chain, by far the most important Thai hotel company, so the shift made sense.
My first few stays, after the hotel changed its name to the Anantara, were full of trepidation. But over time, I began to treat the change as I had treated the smooth shift from Regent to Four Seasons.
Last week , when I checked in, having stayed away from Bangkok for over two years because of the pandemic, they told me that this was my tenth stay after the hotel became the Anantara Siam. (Not counting all the stays in the Regent, Four Seasons days).
And almost from the moment I put my suitcase down in my room and looked out at green spread of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, I knew I was back in the Bangkok I remembered. I could still walk to the sky-train station (four minutes from the hotel) and avoid Bangkok’s traffic. I could walk in the other direction to the Erawan shrine, which is five minutes away.
For me, the shrine captures the almost subconscious connection between Thailand and India. Though most Thais are Buddhist, there is a strong Hindu connection. The ancient capital is called Ayuthaya (after Ayodhya) and each king calls himself King Rama. Brahmins conduct ceremonies at the court and the Thais have their version of the Ramayan.
These are all conscious evocations of Hinduism. But there are those which ordinary Thais don’t even recognise as being Hindu. For instance, the Erawan shrine is dedicated to Phra Phrom, a version of Brahma. But though Thais believe that any wishes made there will be granted, some even think that Phra Phrom is a Buddhist deity. (Some call him the four-faced Buddha.)
Likewise the glittering giant Ganesh murti outside the massive Central World mall draws thousands of Thai worshippers every year. But each time my wife and I go to pray there, we are the only Indians.
It is this kind of connection that makes me feel so at home in Thailand. But of course, there are two other reasons for visiting. I always say that there is no longer any need to buy anything abroad; everything is available in India. But I still end up buying something. This could be because, despite the collapsing rupee, Bangkok is still the one city in the world where Indians don’t feel poor. I find it about half the price of Dubai, for instance.
The restaurants remain a powerful attraction. You can eat on the streets or at a mall café and you will nearly always spend less than you would for an equivalent meal in India. And the top restaurants are world class; better French, Japanese and Italian food than in India and the world’s best Thai food, obviously. And now, there are some perfectly reasonable Indian restaurants. The good news is that Gaggan, fresh from his triumph in Singapore, will soon re-open a Chef’s Table in Bangkok. (If you want to know where I ate, read my other column The Taste on our website.)
Hotels are not more expensive than in India. The Anantara Siam is half the price of a top Delhi or Mumbai hotel. And even the Oriental is about the same price as an Oberoi hotel. It could be that these are post-pandemic rates so I would suggest you plan to go soon.
I know I will. Now that Bangkok has opened up, I am not staying away.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, June 18, 2022
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