Theresa and I left Dallas at 8 a.m. on Saturday Feb. 5th and we arrived in Bangkok on Sunday Feb. 6th just before midnight. Bangkok is 13 hours ahead of Dallas, so our travel took about 27 hours from airport to airport. We flew from Dallas to LA, LA to Hong Kong, and then Hong Kong to Bangkok. The two overseas legs of the trip were on Cathay Pacific, an airline with first-rate service and very comfortable and luxurious accommodations both in the air and on the ground.
We cleared customs in Bangkok quickly, met our driver, and were at the J.W. Marriott by 1 a.m. on Monday morning. After six hours of sleep, I went into the office for a full day of meetings with staff, colleagues, and vendors. During the course of the day, I had a couple of trips out of the office where I got my first real taste of Bangkok’s traffic.
The roads are very crowded with trucks, buses, taxis (pink Corollas for the most part), passenger cars, motorcycle, scooters, and tuk-tuks. The tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled, open air vehicle with hand controls like a motorcycle and a bench seat in the back that looks like it would seat 2 comfortably but in what seems to be typical Bangkok-style, they were often crowded with 3 to 6 riders. Everyone drives on the road together with the motorcycles and scooters typically riding between the lanes of traffic, sometimes going completely against traffic, and even driving, albeit slowly, on the sidewalks. The cycles and scooters frequently have two, three or even four people on them. Indeed, there are motorcycle taxis where one gets a ride on the back; apparently they come in handy when traffic is heavily congested since the bikes weave in and out of the traffic flow. When the larger vehicles are stopped at a traffic light that can stay red for 2-3 minutes, the motorbikes will work their way between the stopped vehicles and congregate at the front of the pack, often 50 or more at a single light.
What I found astounding was that despite all the weaving, the drivers are very polite to each other and they let others cut in front without horns honking or obscene gestures; essentially, a moderately controlled chaos. Most Thais are Buddhists and thus they believe in reincarnation; a corollary belief is that how they live this life will influence how they come back in the next, so courtesies that are largely absent in the states are in abundance in Thailand.
I worked again on Tuesday but on Wednesday we went out with our estate agent to find a place to live. We knew that this was potentially going to be difficult since the plan is to bring our dog, Calliope, with us to Bangkok. Our housing agent, Mr. Henry, and I had emailed several times in the weeks preceding our trip and we discussed the challenges that the dog might present. I even sent over a description of the dog – age, height, and weight – and a couple of pictures. Khun Henry pulled together a list of about 15 apartments that would allow the dog, so I felt that we would have some good choices.
Apartments in Bangkok fall into three categories – regular furnished apartments, serviced apartments and condominiums. Regular and serviced apartments are typically owned by a company or investor while condos are owned by individuals and rented out to others. Regular apartments are condos otherwise are similar – most are furnished but it is up to the tenant to arrange and pay for utilities – electricity, cable, phone, water, internet, etc. – and to bring along or buy items such as dishes and flatware, towels and sheets, some kitchen equipment, etc. A serviced apartment provides everything for you – utilities, maid service, linens, etc. For a comparable price, serviced apartments are about 60% of the size of the regular apartment or condo. Every place that we saw had a gym with all of the torture equipment, pool, and sauna; some even had squash courts.
Our housing agent recommended living near the embassies for two pretty compelling reasons. First, if there are power outages, the authorities are less likely to cut power to the neighborhoods near the embassies. Second, if there is any social unrest, the police and military are more likely to provide better protection and security to these neighborhoods.
We saw several apartments but there were only a couple of serviced apartments that were willing to allow us to have the dog. Both were close to where I will work and both were very nice. One was on a very beautiful street (Soi in Thai) near the U.S. embassy and it has a first-rate restaurant, Artur’s, on the ground floor. The other was a newer property that is managed by Marriott and near the Australian and German embassies. We ultimately chose to go with the Marriott property (www.marriott.com/bkkea ) since it is a bit larger, it has a slightly better kitchen, and it provides Marriott points.
The floor plan of our unit is on the left below and a picture of the pool is on the right below.
Once we settled on the apartment, we had two days to see the sights and we crammed a lot into them. According to Fodor’s, the top must-see attractions in Bangkok are (1) the Grand Palace, the former residence of the King and site of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew); (2) Wat Arun or the Temple of the Dawn; and (3) the Jim Thompson House. Our housing agent accompanied us to the Grand Palace, and he recommended that we also go see the traditional floating market at Damnoen Saduak, about 100-120 km from downtown Bangkok.
The Grand Palace fully lives up to its name in both scale and grandeur. We only had a few hours to spend here and it is a place where I will want to return with a Thai guide who can help us understand the significance of what we see. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha defines opulence – it is the most gilded and ornate structure that I have ever seen – take a look at some pictures below.
On Thursday, we had our driver take us out to the floating market. We bought tickets to traverse the canals in a small boat that took us by numerous merchants selling spices, food, other merchandise, and massive quantities of souvenirs. The boat driver stopped at selected stalls along the canals; I suspect that these are business associates who provide him a kick-back from each sale that they make to his passengers. Like any bazaar, the bargaining was pretty intense. The vendor would put forth a price, we would say no thanks, the vendor would cut the price, and once again we would say no. Most vendors, however, would not accept no as an answer and often gave us a calculator so that we could make an offer. Makes sense, since up until then the vendor was simply negotiating with herself. When we refused to put forth a counter, the seller would lower the price and then entreat us to buy so that it would bring good luck to her. At one stall, an item that started at $60 ultimately came down to $18 and I think that we still probably overpaid
A coconut sugar factory and a Buddhist temple were two other stops along the canal. At the sugar factory, coconut milk was boiled to remove the liquid and leave the residual sugar. The process (picture on left) reminded me of how maple sap is processed into maple sugar.
The temple was of interest because of its position on the water. The monks sold fish food – little kibble-like pellets – that you throw into the water and the fish immediately swarmed. You really could not see the fish before the pellets hit the water but there had to be hundreds of them in the canal because they swarmed regardless of where the pellets landed (picture below on right.)
On the way back to Bangkok, we stopped at the Samphran Elephant ground. This is basically a zoo with a couple of tigers, lots of elephants, crocodiles, and monkeys; the elephants, however, are the real stars. There are 15-20 elephants here that you can go right up to and feed. For 30 cents, you get either a bunch of bananas (six to eight) or a bundle of bamboo. When you go by the elephants with the food, they do something – paw the ground, sway their trunks, etc. – to get your attention in the hope of being fed. While most would simply take the food that was offered and eat it immediately, some kept collecting 3, 4 or 5 pieces in their trunks before eating. One elephant put his trunk up in the air and opened his mouth so that I could put a banana right in. These animals are big but so gentle.
On Friday, we went to the Jim Thompson House (http://www.jimthompsonhouse.com .) Jim Thompson was an architect in NYC before WWII. After the war, he went to Thailand and founded the Thai Silk Company. He is credited with creating the modern silk industry and it apparently really took off when his company provided the materials and costumes for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.”
Thompson bought six traditional Thai homes and moved them to Bangkok where he combined them into a home for himself. The traditional Thai homes are built on stilts so that they can survive the flooding that often occurs during the rainy season. Thompson lived in his Bangkok compound until 1967 when he disappeared during a vacation in Malaysia. No one knows whether he was killed by animals in the jungle, whether he was abducted, or whether he simply chose to disappear. His house and gardens are currently a museum that exhibits his art collection and they are maintained pretty much as he left them when he disappeared.
Next, we visited Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. This temple was begun over 200 years ago (1809) and it is noted for its tall central prang (a tower or spire) and four satellite prangs. The towers are decorated with ceramics that are set in a stucco-like material. There are two sets of very steep steps that lead to two terraces high up the main tower. From the terraces, there are stunning views of the Chao Praya River and of the skyscrapers in downtown Bangkok. Going up the steep steps was a challenge and coming down was almost frightful – thankfully there were hand railings on both the left and right sides of the stairs.
We ended the day at Raja Fashions, a well-known tailor shop in central Bangkok (http://www.rajasfashions.com .) Bobby, one of the owners, greeted us with a drink and probably 100+ books of fabric samples. After a couple of hours, I had finally selected material for three custom-made suits (with two pair of trousers for each) and eight custom-made Egyptian cotton shirts. Bobby took my measurements and my new wardrobe will be ready for a final fitting when we return to Bangkok.
On Saturday, we left the hotel at 5:30 and were at Bangkok airport a bit after 6 a.m. to check in for our return flight to DFW. The flight left BKK at 8:15 am (7:15 pm Friday in Dallas.) We flew on JAL to Narita and after a three-hour layover we were on AA on our way back to DFW. We landed at 3:30 p.m. The flight was about 7 hours shorter than our trip over since we only had a single stop on the way home and we had a strong tailwind.
We are now waiting for our Thai visas and getting everything ready for a permanent move to Bangkok.
You can see additional pictures at: http://cid-7f0356bdd6b7671b.skydrive.live.com/redir.aspx?page=play&resid=7F0356BDD6B7671B!165
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.