by Basil Waine Kong
This is our first visit to Thailand. So, Sawatdee to one and all. If we were greeting you in person, in addition to “Sawatdee” we would clasped our palms together under our chin and bow slightly. There is no good morning or good night, as they ignore the time of day but wish that God will shower his blessings on you. This is called the wai. While the actions are the same, the equivalent word in India would be “Namaste”.
We departed from Atlanta on Tuesday, October 26 at precisely 9:47 am for the first leg of our flight to Seattle. Because of our incessant presence on Delta Airlines planes, each year, we accumulate enough miles for our annual two week safari to distant destinations around the world—first class! As a result, our ample seats recline to beds; we watch movies from our individual monitors as they lavish us with all the food and libations we can handle, again at no cost. They step it up on international flights and tend to our comfort including kits with toothbrushes, lotion, slippers, blankets and pillows. We will need them.
We are pleasantly surprised to find that two other couples who we know from previous cruises are taking the same route to our cruise are also on the flight with us: Dr. and Mrs. Roy Irons who was recently elected President of the National Dental Association as well as Loni and Judy. This will be our twelfth cruise.
We gain three hours and arrive in Seattle at 11:00 am (five hours later). After a two hour layover that we spend in the Sky Lounge, we depart again for Tokyo, Japan on Thursday, October at 1:00 pm landing at 5:00 pm (ten hours later). Yes, we lost a day that we will get back on our trip back home when we will again cross the International Date Line. After a two hour layover at the Narita Airport in Japan, we are off again on our 6 hour flight to Bangkok at 7:00 pm and landing at 1:00 am having flown for 21 hours! After clearing customs and claiming our luggage we are surprised that we can just walk out without anyone checking our luggage or even having to turn in a declaration form. We are relieved that we immediately spot our driver who is holding up a sign with our names. He takes our luggage and accompanies us to the car we reserved.
We are impressed with how clean the streets are but we passed a road block where the police are checking drivers who may be impaired due to alcohol. We had no problem and we arrive at the Kingston Suites hotel at 2:00 pm—exhausted but exalted. We are pleased with the quality of our accommodations and immediately step into the shower after two days of travel and were able to sleep for four hours. The time difference between Jamaica and Thailand is eleven hours.
A full breakfast is included in the cost of our hotel so we go down at 8:00 am and was surprised at the familiar fruits: mangoes, leeches, jackfruit, papaya, oranges, figs, strawberries, water melons, pineapples, sour sop, custard apples, rose apples, guava, jackfruit and even neaseberries (sapodilla). I was, however, unfamiliar with mangostem, lampotan, dragon fruit, rambutans, durian and logans. We both got western omelets along with our usual coffee and croissants with orange marmalade.
We decided to take a walk into the city to just experience the sights, sounds and smells of the city and as we depart, we are asked by the desk clerk: “pai nai?” which is a friendly “where are you off to?” To which we responded: “No where in particular. Which is the way to the city?” The usual rush hour traffic was brutal. As there are far more taxis than passengers, on our walk, we are constantly approached by taxi drivers with offers to take us on various tours. The streets are crowded with “tuk tuks” (motor cycles converted to seat six people), Japanese cars, busses, trucks, bicycles and motorcycles. Motor cycles are best for negotiating the traffic but the passage, usually a woman, sit sidesaddle. Unlike Jamaica, all riders and passengers wear helmets. In many ways, this is Kingston. When I left Kingston, the authorities were struggling with vendors about crowded sidewalks. It is the same here. You can get a full breakfast from street vendors who cook and sell you breakfast items as well as lunch and dinner later. Like Jamaicans love soup. Instead of pumpkin, peas and pepper pot, Thais love Tom Yum.
On our way back to our hotel, we passed the “Dream Spa “and my wife decides to get a massage. The cost is US$50.00 for 60 minutes although the cost elsewhere is advertised as low as $20.00. By the time we rendezvous back at the hotel for our 1:00 pm tour of the Grand Palace, she is glowing and absolutely relaxed from her spa treatment. She promptly falls asleep in the car.
On our way to the Palace, Tony, our guide, imparts essential data about the country and their culture. He does not speak English very well and I am obliged to ask him to repeat himself and even to spell out what he is trying to say. In a country of about 60,000,000 people, 15 million live in Bangkok, the capital. I learn that “Korp khun mak” means thank you; “mai pen rai” or mai mi pan ha” means no problem mon” and “Jai yen yen” means “Don’t sweat the small stuff or “Be calm, what difference does it make?”. Unlike Jamaicans, the people pride themselves in not being excitable. They speak in a whisper and never never lose their cool. Unfortunately, the down side of their personality is that one can never tell if someone is glad to see you. The guide and driver say they are impressed that I am showing so much interest in their culture.
There is no touching in Thailand. You will never witness any public displays of affection. A man touching a woman (not his wife) even to try to shake her hand is a serious offense. Touching someone’s head is a fighting offence. So, no hugging or kissing!
They do not joke about their benevolent King who is greatly loved and revered. Thanks to shrewd maneuvering, they were never colonized while Viet Nam continuously repulsed foreign attempts at occupation. If you remember when the country was Siam, the movie “The King and I”, depicted a naive King Rama V, who welcomed missionaries and teachers to their Kingdom but remained independent. By the way, the movie is still censored in Thailand and our guide never saw it.
The current king, Bhumibol Adulyade, (Rama IX), who is the longest serving monarch in the world, was actually born in Cambridge, Massachusetts when his father was studying medicine at Harvard. So, he is an American citizen. He loves dogs, so no one would dare abuse them. As a result, dogs are to be found all over the country. He is also an aficionado of Jazz, sailing and photography. While the country is democratic and has a democratic parliament, every so often the King will put his food down and say: “It no go so” and will have his way. You would not expect anything less as they celebrate December 5 (The King’s birthday) as father’s day. In Jamaica, you can be locked up and fined for cussing out a police officer, in Thailand, you can be charged with “lèse-majesté” for not showing enough respect for members of the Royal family. In Jamaica, many people look forward to earning Christmas money, in Thailand, the King will advise everyone: “nai nam mi pla nah mi khao” (There is fish in the water and rice in the fields, don’t be lazy, go get it.”
As we arrive at the Grand Palace, we encounter the unexpected. It is, indeed a grand palace that I believe is more impressive than the Vatican, the Hermitage in Moscow, Versailles in Paris, any of the Mormon Tabernacles or Buckingham Palace. I have always been impressed with the effort that can be invested for God and King. The moment we arrived, we were awed and overused the word ‘wow” to describe one impressive temple after another. The Wat Phra Kaeo (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Budha) are particularly spectacular; I could not possibly describe this experience. You should definitely put seeing it on your bucket list.
Exhausted from walking several miles viewing the various edifices in the compound, we ask our guide to take us to a great Thai restaurant and we would end our tour at that point. Both of us agreed that there are better Thai restaurants in Atlanta such as Nan’s. Common ingredients in Thai cooking are coconut milk, curry, fever grass (lemon grass), ginger and chili peppers. The word for toilet, Lou or powder room is “The Happy Room”. We enjoyed the meal, however, walked five blocks to the sky train, got off at the Astok stop and walked five more blocks to our hotel. There was never any feeling of intimidation or concerns regarding our safety on our various nighttime walks.
As we will have three days in Bangkok after the Cruise, we sat down with our tour guide to plan what to do when we return in seven days, we read in the paper that Tiger Woods, Carmelo Vegagas, Paul Casey and a local pro will be playing a skins game match in honor of the King at the Amada Springs Country Club and decided to do that on November 8. We may also see the Tourist Resort Island name “Phucket”. While I felt uncomfortable trying to pronounce it in polite company, it is actually pronounced “Phewquet”.
After a jointly sponsored meeting on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Ramathibodi Hospital between our group and the Thai Society of Cardiology hosted by Dr. Supachai Tanomsup, we make our way to the Silver Shadow. To our pleasant surprise, in addition to the wonderful food that cruises are known for, all drinks are free. There is a bottle of Champaign on ice in our room and I order a bottle of Glenmorangie single malt scotch for our room as well. We meet our butler (Andrew) who promise to accommodate all our needs.
We arrive in Samua, a small island in the South on Saturday (October 31, 2010). On our tour we visit the Big Buddha, the smiling Buddha and more other Buddha we could count. We saw elephants dancing, playing soccer and giving massages, monkeys picking coconuts as well as a demonstration on how to husk coconuts and extract the milk. We are late getting back to the ship but they accommodate us and depart an hour late. So, tomorrow, Good Morning Viet Nam!
Bullet Columnist Basil Waine Kong has written several pieces for this journal and especially likes to expound on his favorite subject: his beloved Jamaica. He is a former Atlien (resident of Atlanta GA), and was the CEO of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) for 22 years before his retirement in 2008 to return to Jamaica. This article is reprinted with his permission from his blogsite; Coming in From the Cold… Bob Marley