Tuesday, September 30, 2008

World Tour: Bangkok

Once again, I was surprised. From the moment you arrive at Helmut Jahn's Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport, Thailand screams at you with its newfound prosperity.

I wasn't sure what the country would look like, but 9.4% average GDP growth from 1985-1996 and the ~5% average growth from 2002-2007 have certainly left their mark. Downtown Bangkok is full of new skyscrapers and malls selling designer goods and Rolex watches.

I still have a high level of nostalgia for a weeklong vacation on the island of Crete in 2001, interrupting a 6 month internship at Yahoo Germany. During that trip, I read Charles Petzold's Code and many other books while chilling on the beach. I was worried I wouldn't have enough to read while travelling and relaxing. Yet, in Bangkok, I found B2S, an upscale book store that puts any Borders to shame, complete with its very own Starbucks.

If anything, it's almost too much like America here. But Bangkok has other sides as well. Teeming markets with ventors cooking Pad Thai, fried rice in the open (And other delicacies such as these little delicious pancakes I don't know the name of.) Long-tail boats are zigzagging the river, floating markets - that's Bangkok as seen on TV.

Than there is the Grand Palace, with its impressive temple, impeccably maintained. To see the temple, there "gringo tax" of 300 BHT ticket for foreigners, common in India, but unexpected in otherwise highly developed Thailand.

I'd never been exposed to Buddhism before. I'm fascinated by the ritual of taking off your shoes before entering, but I'm having serious trouble in keeping my toes from pointing forward at the Buddha statue, which is a big no-no.

Then there's the sex tourism. There's nothing covert about it: One of the parts of town with many hotels is full of middle-aged European men, with a Thai "lady" in arms. I'm not sure what to think of this, but it's apparently accepted in the local culture. Oh, and the smog and the density of traffic are also a bit disturbing.

Most importantly, Thai people are very friendly. I don't know a word of Thai yet, but misunderstandings are soon forgotten with a smile and a laugh. Even the hawkers try to charm rather than giving you the hard sell, even while haggling. The Lonely Planet says Thai culture regards visitors as guests from heaven - I've definitely been feeling that way.

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