Thailand Love Me...Bangkok and Pattaya
By Paul Shoul
Bangkok is sexy, undulating and hot. Wood huts bump up against rising skyscrapers posted with giant photographs of the king or uber cool Gucci girls, gazing upon a modern, traffic jammed cosmopolitan city, peppered with ancient golden temples.
Criss-crossed like veins by rivers and canals, the water is gray, with huge schools of fish, and the occasional crocodile. Giant monitor lizards prowl the banks. Kamikaze river taxis whip by old women paddling water market canoes.
Long low black barges reminiscent of Blade runner silently chug along at night. People gather on the porches of stilt houses jutting out over the water for an afternoon swim.
The heat forces people out onto the street at night into a cacophony of motion, sound color and smells. Some are flower sweet, others hit you like hot pepper wind from the sizzling food carts and open door restaurants.
Like market tunnels, Bangkok sidewalks are a symphony of bargaining laughter and conversation. You can get anything: food, designer clothing, shoes false teeth, antique buddhas, crocodile heads, tasers, sex, anything.
It is possible to travel in space and time and yet to never have traveled at all. You could go to Thailand and never break a sweat. I was staying in the huge Pullman Bangkok King Power complex. I love a good hotel, the cable, air conditioning, crisp clean sheets, swimming pools.
Hell, the Breakfast buffet takes up a small city block. But once I realized how much better it was outside, or that the beer in the mini bar cost literally 5 times what it did a 100 feet across the street. I started to wander.
They call Thailand the “ Land of Smiles”, a tourist PR scam I thought, but it is true. Just put your hands together like a prayer, bow slightly, and say the Thai word for hello “Swadee” and you will find out. The motives and truth behind the quick smiles in response may at times be more culturally complicated.
Enter the Masshole
The concept of saving face is strong in Thai culture: to not be loud or boasting or confrontational, never embarrass yourself or especially another person. I am an aggressive little shit from Boston and these are among my most well-developed attributes.
We “Massholes” will fight anybody, and argue with everybody about everything. It is our entertainment, how we gain status. This, of course, does not play well in Thailand. So, I decided to be nice, super nice, the nicest freaking person on the planet.
At first, I looked at it as a competition, determined to out Thai the Thais. This, of course, does not work either. They are forgiving of your foibles as a foreigner, but you can not fake a smile or Inner peace. Thank Buddha I am still open enough to learn.
Peeyapawach Rodpranee, otherwise known to me and my helplessly non thai speaking colleagues as “Pete” is a Young Thai man working as a guide around Bangkok. Supremely nice and humble, he was quick to smile and found a joke or a life lesson in everything.
He had been a monk for two years and his hair was just starting to grow and thicken. Most men in Thailand become a monk for one to three years.
Some stay and devote their lives to Buddha, but unlike the priesthood, the majority go back to everyday life. “There is no shame in leaving”, Pete said “ it is better not to pretend”
When he emerged from his isolation from modern society, one of the first things he did was to rush to the movies and see Iron Man.
We had arranged a meeting with a monk at the Dhammakaya temple just out side of Bangkok. “Meditation, he said with reference to Facebook, computers and the distractions of modern life, is a way of rebooting your hard drive” sometimes you have to turn it off for it to function better”
Although the idea of being still, and finding my inner peace initially kicked in my innate “Masshole flight response” I decided to stay for the short guided meditation. I can still hear his soft voice.”Be aware of where you are he said, the country, the room, feel your muscles relax. find your center, 2 inches above your belly button. Imagine a floating crystal ball, focus on it, the shape, the smoothness, think of nothing else”.
I was trying to project ultimate serenity while internally my mind was racing, laughing at a story told to me by a friend of mine, a comedian who at the urging of his wife, went to a 10-day silent meditation and survived by having another friend of his park outside the center and honk out the Red Sox scores.
Rather than a crystal ball at my center, I visualized a green peanut M&M. I heard Bart Simpson saying, “must eat chocolate, yes, goooood. Visualize a whole bag Paul, Yes..... eat them all, gooood”
Then, almost without trying, I was still. Coming back to the real world I received a knowing smile from the monk as if he had witnessed my inner journey.
Although most Thais do not practice meditation regularly, the majority are Buddhists and the teachings permeate society. They promote self-awareness, peace, acceptance and inclusion of different lifestyles.
When I asked Pete about the ‘Ladyboys” I had encountered earlier in the trip and treatment of gay folks in Thailand. He said quickly. “It may not be for you, but you do not have to look down upon it. It is just another way.” Buddhism is the smile behind the land of smiles.
Pattaya is the quintessential Thai beach resort area. About 85 miles south of Bangkok it is Thailand's 2nd most visited city. The endless beach along curve of the bay is lined with shaded chairs where you can laze away the day while waiters bring you plates of luscious food and cheap cold beer.
Just off the shore, motor boat towed paragliders fill the sky as the party barges below, speckled with the gyrating silhouettes of dancers, bob aimlessly in the surf with no destination other than an inevitable appointment with a hangover the next morning.
Along the ocean walkway lined with palm trees people stroll and sit and talk. It is beautiful. Young lovers walk hand and hand, yet some of them, are holding the hands of 70-year old men who have come to take advantage of thailand's liberal sexual standards.
Thailand is famous for its massage, I had one, and it was the most skillful body work I have ever experienced. But there is an option of a “happy ending” openly offered at many places and there is abundant sexual tourism. I was given a sales pitch by a few women, at least, I think they were women, and I have no problem with consenting adults doing whatever makes them happy or provides them with an income, but the teenager with the grandpa thing rubs me the wrong way. It is there if you want to find it, but not so much that you cannot ignore it if you're with a family.
Speaking of family adventures, one of the must see activities in Pattaya is the Ladyboy cabaret show at at the Alcazar. With a thousand seats and three shows a day, it is always sold out. This is entertainment at its best with over 40 performers, all men who are undeniably beautiful and talented.
There are no sexual overtones except for the fact they are stunning and make you go “hmmmm”. At least a quarter of the crowd were families with children.
A mixture of cabaret, Las Vegas, stadium pop and Asian theater, with over a dozen set and costume changes, it is a drag queen extravaganza that should not be missed.
After the show, the towering gorgeous lady boys gather in the front of the theater to greet their adoring fans. They hold large wads of cash beckoning to the crowd of fans to be photographed with them for a small fee. My friend Linda had her picture taken with them and said, “my God, I don't hold a candle to these guys, their breasts are perfect!
A word about the food
Thai cuisine is one of the world's purest and most exciting culinary experiences. Although it’s cooking techniques have has been influenced over time by neighboring countries, the food is uniquely Thai.
It is a combination of distinct flavors: sweet and savory, sour, a little bitter sometimes and often with a luscious feel to the tongue.
It is famously spicy, but that is too simple a description and minimizes the role of hot peppers in their cooking. I counted four different killer peppers in one dish of steamed fish.
They added a depth of flavor, that was so much more than heat added as a condiment, and was only dangerous if you were dumb enough to eat one of them.
They have an intimacy with their food and are proud of it. Thai chefs are eager to show you what they can do but hesitant to let you into their kitchens, a few laughed at me when I asked to photograph them as if they would give away a thousand years of secrets so easily.
One of the travelers with me was Suchart Thongneppakun, we called him ‘Spicy man.” During one meal I asked him about a particular spice in a dish of soft shelled crabs, 32 plates and five days earlier in the trip. He stopped flirting with the girls immediately, closed his eyes and seemed to go into a flavor trance.
His eyes popped open as the memory flooded him. “ It was the young fresh green black pepper plant,, ” he said before it is harvested and dried”. It is hot but not spicy. Spicy is the long heat he said with a smile, Like me!”
Falling in Love
I am not sure at what point I fell in love with Thailand but I knew that it happened.
I wondered if I had the right to. I thought about the hundreds of times I have heard other people tell me of their travel adventures, that they too had fallen in love with a place. Cliche I thought, as if life was not going on until, like Columbus, we discovered it.
When you love a person or a place the question is, do they love you back? Are you worthy of their open arms, their deepest feelings, and secrets, do they even know that you have a relationship? If not, you are just a cultural stalker, a face in the window of a passing tour bus.
The real trophies from Thailand are not the pictures of you in front of the hotel pool, exotic temple or riding on an elephant, they are the internal images you take home with you, the moments when you step outside of your comfort zone and the pieces of a different culture that mingle with your DNA, remain in your soul, and never fade with time.
Where to stay. Things to see and do. How to get there
Amari Orchid Hotel. Right across from the beach, this is a well designed, classy hotel that was a pleasure to stay in. My room, ( $140 usd) was a studio layout, with a tub, and separate shower and toilet. The bed was extremely comfortable, and there was a small porch overlooking the swimming pools and the beach beyond.
Flight of the Gibbon rainforest zip-line canopy tour. Under an hour's drive from Pattaya, this eco adventure park located in a wildlife sanctuary is home to abundant wildlife and a small “open Zoo”. The Zip-line is over 3 km long and the highest in Thailand. Safety was tight with training and oversight from “ sky rangers” during your flight.
The fabulous Alcazar ladyboy show is not to be missed.
Specializing in seafood, Suttangrak Restaurant overlooks the beach in Pattaya with outdoor dining. and live fish tanks on site for ultimate freshness. A comfortable place with spectacular food.
Rimpa Lapin Restaurant is almost worth the trip just for the amazing view of the beach and multi level cliff side dinning. The food stands on its own. It was fresh fantastic and the best soft shell crabs I had on the trip.Be patient with the waiters, Its a steep climb up and down the stairs on the cliff.
Gullivers Travels Tavern is the kind of place that I would have walked by had I not been invited there. Bright white, and a little gaudy, it has outside dining and a pub with guinness on tap and pool tables on the inside. The food was excellent. If you're longing for good old pub comfort food, try the steak and fries. They also serve up Thai classics and the Pad thai was outstanding.
A world unto itself The Pullman Bangkok King Power has 366 rooms, 14 business meeting rooms, a 550 seat theater, a spa, fitness centre, salon, 6 bars and restaurants, an infinity pool and an absolutely mammoth breakfast buffet. My room was about 1$50 usd with breakfast and was very comfortable.
The Amita Thai cooking class is held in the home of owner chef Tam Piyawadi, located on a canal in the old town of Bangkok. This is where she grew up, and through her hands on cooking classes she passes on the authentic Thai recipes she learned from her Grandmother. Mother and aunts.. Tam is a wonderful teacher, and her home is like an oasis.
The Grand Palace is the must see landmark in Bangkok. A complex of pavilions, gardens temples and golden buddha statues, it is spectacular
The old city of Ayutthaya is a designated World Heritage site, Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the most important Temple within the royal palace compound.There are three huge bell shaped Ceylonese style pagodas built during the 15th century to enshrine the ashes of Kings
Samprin Riverside is an all in one thai culture experience especially good for families with children. There are dance, music, elephant shows, and live demonstrations of different thai crafts. A good one day trip from Bangkok or stay in their 160 room hotel or in one of their traditional wooden thai houses. They have their own organic farm and prepare regional specialties. I had a pork broth noodle soup that I could not stop eating.
Supartra River House has traditional Thai cuisine with deck dining on the river. The Chicken Massaman curry was extremely rich and the spicy prawn soup with lemongrass had all the complex sweet sour and savory flavor that Thai cooking is famous for.
Somboon Restaurant Bangkok is famous for its thai and chinese seafood dishes. It is busy, noisy and humming with people chowing down on great food. The house specialty is Crab fried in a creamy yellow curry paste with shallots and egg. Add some jumbo prawns with chili sauce and wash it all down with pint bottles of Singha beer.
The Grand Pearl River Dining Cruise takes off from the French restaurant of the same name along the banks of the Chao Phraya river. The crew line up when you board the ship with a saxophone player on deck. The buffet of western and Thai food is endless and good. There are candlelit tables on the deck and a cover band for dancing at the end of your two-hour cruise through the city.
How to get there
Thai Airways impressed me. On time and efficient, the level of attention and simple kindness by the crew, even in economy,
was exemplary. The food is some of the best you can get in the air.
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.