It’s one of my prized possessions. It’s a plain black designer sleep suit, roomy, light and natural-feeling. And free.
I was on an ‘educational’ (Business Class freebie) to Bangkok. I had packed assuming I’d be given a sleep suit for the night once on board. When it didn’t materialize, I asked, and was given one from First Class. I should imagine the airhostess said under her breath in lilting Thai, “it’s that difficult journo on her second vodka in row 2.”
I expected Bangkok to be full, frothing with people, and filthy. Bangkok locals give ‘street life’ an additional edge and what I found were many – many – smiling faces (it’s in the culture of givingness – as well as very sincere PR). In the centre of all of this, my accommodation was a seductive haven of peace, and even the legendary smog-filled air took a breather.
Without exception, my best experiences in Bangkok were, in this order, staying at the Banyan Tree, the visit to the Jim Thompson museum, and finding a toilet on my way to a backwater – if you’ll pardon the expression – market.
It’s a girl thing. You spend an entire day on your feet on tourist duty in a foreign city. Suddenly it hits you: you need to get to a lavatory. Immediately.
When it struck I, and my little group of would-be Thai cooks was heading to a particularly obscure market to be shown the secrets of shopping for fresh ingredients.
Our sassy guide was the diminutive, world wise Candy from the Blue Elephant Cooking School and Restaurant. On the train she had been regaling us with stories of her wonderful Bangkok shoe bargains. “Jus’ throwaway when broken,” she said with a disdainful flick of the head.
“I need a toilet urgently,” I said to Candy with the wide-eyed, fixed stare face of a woman about to give birth. “Okey dokey,” she said matter of factly, marching us down two flights of stairs from the Surasak Skytrain into the teeming masses of shoppers, vendors and the general flotsam and jetsam. We were in an area that was clearly the real Bangkok of the local people. After milling through alleyways and obstacles, Candy finally pointed to a storefront: “Supermarket. Toilet,” she said.
I rushed in saying, “toilet?’ to one, “lady’s room?” to the next and so on, only to be faced with blank stares.
‘Ah,” a female worker said finally, recognizing The Look. She pointed to a creaky elevator and instructed a minion to accompany me.
The lift took half of my life to go up four flights. There was no toilet paper in the loo. My newfound hero whipped change from his pocket and got me a miniscule packet from the vending machine. Good people are everywhere and life is a miracle.
The Blue Elephant (with a myriad branches in London, Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, Dubai, Beirut, Lyon, Malta, Kuwait, Bahrain) is one of those ersatz tourist-focused chain restaurants that offer a ‘total experience’ of numbed-down Thai food. It is – of course – conveniently located in the heart of Bangkok opposite the Skytrain station in a fabulous 1903-built French Colonial mansion.
The cooking school, too, is aimed at the tourist and offers quick-through lessons in a starter, main course and dessert. Having said that, I enjoyed the experience enormously and came back being able to create a delicious Tom Kha Kai Mapaow Paow, as well as a passable Chu Chi Koong.
The Jim Thompson story is a fascinating one. Not the American pulp novelist, but the American architect of the same name, who went to Bangkok shortly after World War II ended, as a military intelligence officer. After leaving the service, he decided to return to live in Thailand permanently.
In the biography of Thompson (Jim Thompson the unsolved mystery) William Warren says that the hand-weaving of silk, a long neglected cottage industry, captured Jim Thompson’s attention, and he devoted himself to reviving the craft. It’s recognised that Thompson had a hand in creating what is today the thriving silk industry of that country.
In 1967 the charismatic, sociable Thompson disappeared in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia while spending a weekend with friends. Although he had undergone rigorous training in jungle survival while in the U.S. army, not a trace was ever found of him again.
While this is a fascinating story, it’s his home, lifestyle and legacy that fascinate me.
His home, now the museum, consists of a cluster of six teak buildings, filled with mesmerizing antiques collected by Thompson that then became part of his everyday life. It represents the best of traditional Thai architecture and antiques.
Exploring the multi-leveled house was a must on my itinerary – and buying some Jim Thompson silk. I didn’t go to the very commercial Jim Thompson store at the house (“stand in line with ticket for guide-accompanied tour”) or the one in the centre of Bangkok. A half an hour walk down the road took me to the factory shop, where I found some very fabulous bits of fabric to slaver over once back in South Africa.
Who said travel journalists have glamorous lives? If it weren’t for traveling Business Class on the award-winning Air Malaysia I would have been seriously peeved about traveling halfway around the globe for such a short stay. Granted, my opinion of Bangkok food is based on this, and also, seeing innumerable Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger Kings and even ersatz Irish pubs with the available list of draught beers displayed on a blackboard outside.
So there was no time for meandering, wondering and wondering, and sampling. In contrast to virtually every experience I’ve had, the hotel food was at the award-filled Banyan Tree was unerringly fabulous. Even in the lounge for the supremely privileged on one of the upper floors, where one can go any time to check on emails, and scoff whatever delicacies are on offer. The hotel is humongously tall and the panoramic view of the city – especially fabulous at sunset with its pollution-infused orange and pink hues – is incomparable.
The aptly names Vertigo bar (“the tallest al fresco champagne and grill bar in Asia”) literally sits right on top of the building. I took the elevator to the second last level, then walked up a flight of stairs to the 61st floor, then a completely open-air flight of stairs to the very top. I went up there one night for a drink, uselessly trying to capture the full moon against the black sky and the vast city with its shmillions of blinking lights in sky scrapers and on highways, on camera.
On the second night we went to the opening of the cutting-edge ultra modern restaurant, Taihei (“peace”). The promise, ‘a Sake and Teppanyaki experience not to be missed’. With almost 100 types of Sake, it’s a must. As a traveler being accosted by relentlessly local cuisine in traditional settings (read, ‘let the tourists have a local experience’) the modernity of the decor, contemporary Japanese music in the background, a fabulous array of food served on black and red crockery that matches the translucent floors, I was absolutely knocked out.
The last morning, I had a three-hour spa treatment at the hotel before the dash to the airport. I was massaged (“you really want it hard?!”) by a miniscule woman with clearly enormous reserves of subcutaneous muscle; then wrapped in green tea mud, then scrubbed and polished.
I felt like a swan moving my way through airports later that day, gliding back to Hong Kong then South Africa in my black sleep suit.
Bangkok was voted Number Two City in the World in the magazine, Travel and Leisure in 2005. The old and the new compete for space in the city of temples, palaces, golden spires, orange-tiered roofs, saffron robed months, Buddha images – and fascinating backstreet areas and fabulous shopping.
Getting around is inexpensive in taxis (check that the metre is on before you set off), in a tuk tuk, the mostly packed underground subway or the Sky Train.
Cathay Pacific Airways
Tel (011) 700-8900
Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts
Lesley Simpson Communications
Tel (011) 463-8195
Blue Elephant Cooking School & Restaurant
Phone (66 2) 673 9353-8
Jim Thompson Thai House Museum