Thai-Land Of Smiles

Paradise often offers more than what is visible to the eye

A diver’s paradise, the Phi Phi islands off the southern coast of Phuket | Photo: Bob Garcia

Thailand. Fall 2009. The plane lands on time, the doors open and the climate controlled tunnel guides the passengers into Bangkok’s Suvarnbhumi airport. This airport is a monster – the world’s third largest after Dubai and Beijing – with metal limbs and glass skin, pathways that move even if it’s not going uphill. Making my way through to the baggage claim is no small task, nor does time fly by traveling on and off the kilometers of moving pathways. Luggage in hand, customs is a breeze with high tech and short lines, ending with a brand new stamp in a veteran passport.

Once out in the open space, thousands of small people crowd around waiting for their loved ones and perhaps not so loved bosses or co-workers. To get to downtown I have to go up to the third floor and exit through one of its many rotating apertures. I proceed up the escalator, a long and curvy thing that looks just like the other fifty scattered about the place, rising, then flattening, then rising again and eventually arriving back on the level.

It’s hard not to follow the throng of suitcase-wheeling, photo snapping people that move as one on into the humid outdoors. The line of taxis is never-ending, as is the sea of tiny dark-skinned Thais in flip-flops and long pants (unbelievable considering it is 30 degrees centigrade.) Shouts of “Sir, my taxi!!” or “Hello sir, taxi?” bubble over the din like exploding popcorn on top of the overwhelming heat and humidity. I accept a man’s desperate plea for business and allow him to hurriedly grab my bag and throw it in the trunk, how a man so small managed to lift my 25-Kilo bag remained a mystery.

From inside, he opens the left rear door: Where was the steering wheel? Ah ha. In Thailand people drive on the left side, steering wheel on the right, like the British and the Japanese. The pink Toyota takes off and the prayer beads and flower strings dangling from the rearview mirror move to the sway of the car.

Once leaving the airport we are on a massive highway four lanes wide and what looks like twenty meters off the ground. On the safety barricades to the left proudly stand statues in prayer, hands together at the waist and head bowed.

Ten minutes into the ride, we pass under an arch that reads “Sawasdee, Welcome to the Land of Smiles!” – a statement that turned from true to only half-true as my time passed in this ever-so friendly culture. Even if someone was smiling, it might not be because they like or respect you, but because of something they want: your money.

Bangkok is a city built on both sides of the Chao Phraya river which its many branches create a canal system, gray with smog preventing long views from the elevated highway. Factories line the way, that give way to huge skyscrapers with green glass, or blue glass, apartment buildings dense with people like ants on a jar of honey. Clothes hanging on lines on the balconies create a canopy of color across off-white cement blocks in this most bustling of cities.

Merging off the freeway the taxi enters the city streets, thick with Toyotas and the ubiquitous Tuk-Tuk pedal taxis, vehicles of all descriptions – honking on every side, motorcycle engines, bikes peddling, food simmering on grills made of metal barrels cut into two, people negotiating deals and calling to each other, dogs barking, brakes screeching and one sigh of disbelief coming from me.

These were the noises, penetrating and insistent, but nowhere near as pungent as the smells. Pork frying, chili peppers sizzling in woks next to ground beef and garlic, lemongrass, standing water, exhaust fumes and a strange scent my seemingly virgin nose had never had the privilege of encountering.

Apart from new smells and sounds, Thailand soon offered itself up completely. A country of 63 million inhabitants had a lot to show for itself: uniformity, respect, food, karaoke, cheapness, and women.

The most startling aspect of Thai culture was the docility and subversive nature of the women and their infatuation with western men (men with money.) Perhaps this was the reason behind the large percentage of men who marry Thai women and remain there. I was shocked when I visited the Immigration bureau and found a button for a waiting number that read “Thai Wife.” The patriarchal system was blown to an extreme with completely accepted prostitution and “ping pong” shows among other happenings. The latter an aspect yours’ truly cannot explain in detail in this publication. However, nonetheless the sex culture is an aspect that attracts numerous western men who are looking for a sexual thrill.

The coastal towns of Thailand, such as Pattaya, Phuket, Krabi, Hua Hin, along with many others are loaded with “farangs” (the Thai way of referring to foreigners) looking for adventure. Here, on the white beaches, a traveler can wet his whistle at beach bars, go-go bars, and practically anywhere anything is sold, an effect of the constant heat and sun exposure.

As part of my adventure in this exotic land, I went exploring into the jungle, fishing at midnight on a small inland lake, making a bonfire in a pineapple plantation, and drinking beers on closed golf courses hugging the foot of beautiful grassy mountains.

When going out in Thailand, regardless where one goes, a doorman will be there to open the door with a smile on his face and a military cap on his head. Even though these security guards turned doormen have no military affiliation they are in Thailand, a country with the belief that uniformity is godly.

Finally, the idea many future visitors to Thailand have: the place is cheap! Yes, it is true: Bootleg movies, bootleg Armani shirts, even bootleg boots are all very easy to find and very light on the wallet. A movie which is still in theaters may put you back only 100 Baht (roughly €2). That’s the beauty of Thailand, oh yeah, and the scenery is right up there.

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