Destination: Thailand: Bangkok
2011: Bangkok Update
For weeks leading up to my southeast Asia trip, which kicked off in Hong Kong, I had become a flood junkie, reading anything I could get my hands onto regarding the situation in and around the Thai capital. Some reports compared Bangkok to post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, others stated that once monsoon season ended, the city would take exactly 10 days to completely drain. Insiders and locals I spoke to said that the most important part I could play as a traveler was to go on my trip and support the local, hard-hit economy. And so I didn’t change my plans and returned to Bangkok, a city of fascinating juxtapositions and one of Asia’s most vibrant capitals. And I can report that its current state is a composite of everything I had read: in some ways the flooding is everywhere and nowhere.
The biggest difference I noticed on my first morning, waking up in a river-view room at the Mandarin Oriental: the Chao Phraya River was silent. Instead of the incessant, traffic jams of small-to-supersized boats making their way up and down and across this Thai lifeline, there were just a couple of hotel shuttles drifting quickly, and often sideways, down the gushing water. Other than the changed river-picture, however, everyday life continues in central Bangkok as always: buzzing, relentless. Many of the sights and temples, like the Grand Palace, Wat Po and Wat Arun are lined by sandbags, but all is dry and open for business.
Locals, including the staff of many of the luxury hotels lining the river, who cannot afford rents in central Bangkok, have, of course been hard-hit. Especially suburbs to the north remain badly flooded and the government is being accused of leaving these poorer neighborhoods intentionally underwater and instead focusing their efforts on keeping central Bangkok dry. On my first day the International Herald Tribune reported a blast set off by residents in the northern Pathum Thani district, reportedly meant to both sound protest and shift sandbags so that water would begin draining.
“Instead of saying Hello, we now say, How’s your house?,” explained my wonderful tour guide on our walking tour my first day. He spoke to many of the vendors, who come from all over Thailand to sell their goods in the capital. The floods destroyed the orchid plantations of the center, but left the roses and marigold fields intact. The vegetable plantations of the north were also fine, while some of the rice fields, in the central west were badly damaged. Amazingly many locals he spoke with seemed to take everything with incredible poise, even humor. One merchant told of a housing advertisement he had seen, which stated: “Even higher-floor apartments can be conveniently reached—by boat.”
I asked my guide, who is one of the most entertaining and informed specialists I have ever toured with (ask him about Buddhism and you’ll know what I mean), whether a lot of his clients had canceled their trips in recent weeks. He said no, many just cut the Bangkok portion of their trips shorter. (The only noticeable change to a Bangkok itinerary is the fact that the klongs, the smaller canals, are closed off and river tours via boat are not possible.) Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle are not effected; nor are the islands, like Koh Samui and Phuket. “It’s wonderful to see that tourists remain supportive and continue coming here,” he said. “It’s so important for the local people.”
And the local people remain some of the kindest, most hospitable hosts one can imagine. Whether it’s the vendors at one of the sprawling food markets trying to explain their wares in broken English and a lot of pantomime, or the thoughtful staff at the Oriental, at every turn someone is making you feel welcome and interested in learning more about the culture. Hopefully the flooding situation will continue to greatly improve over the coming weeks and travelers will return in healthy numbers. I, for one, am glad to be here and catch—and support—the city at the end of this challenging, momentous time.
Some great finds on this trip: the Indian Market, a maze of color, fabrics and spices in the middle of Bangkok; the solid Golden Buddha at Wat Trimitr, a fascinating story of discovery (it was hidden beneath stucco for decades); and Taling Pling, a low-key Thai restaurant where the locals outnumber the visitors. I also returned to some of my old-time favorites, like Indian restaurant Hazara, the incredible Distill Bar a top of the State Tower and the pool oasis at the Mandarin Oriental, still the best place to recharge from Bangkok’s colorful, unique vivacity.
More on my trip will post soon.
For an introduction to our preferred tour guide, who leads incredible tours of the markets (including non-touristy floating markets west of the city), main sights, temples and more, contact our Bookings Team.
The political events in the last year have shown tears in the seemingly solid fabric of Thailand, a country that precariously balances between an ultra-modern and ultra-traditional world view. The intricacies of the political system and events of recent years, which have included a bloodless military coup, the ousting of a prime minister, months of mass demonstrations and the dismantling of a government, are not easy to understand, especially for visitors who have no sense of what living in a country with a very strong constitutional monarchy means.
During my most recent visit, in October 2008, anti-government protesters clashed with police forces, leaving two protesters dead and several people injured. The sudden violence shocked this peaceful nation, but what I found even more surprising was the fact that during the day of the biggest protest, my husband and I traveled all over the city while sightseeing, not once aware of what was happening not too far from the city’s main sights. When I asked at the reception of my hotel what they would advise and how to gauge the political situation, I received a bored shrug and impassive explanation that tourists were not effected at all and that I should just carry on as if nothing was happening. Of course just a few months later, visitors were very much effected when the protesters took over the airport, stranding millions of travelers in early December 2008. Since then, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s most important unifying figure, has sworn in a new government, but early this year, there have been more protest, and the country has been effected by the global economic downturn and rising unemployment.
One ex-pat said to me while I was visiting: “There are some days when you can see Bangkok turning into the next Singapore, and others when it could just as easily become the next Burma. It’s a fine line, and the city teeters in between.” Another explained that this kind of back-and-forth power struggle is simply the “Thai way” of doing politics, reminding that the country is a young democracy and that in reality, the monarchy is still a major ruling faction. (Proof of how powerful an affinity there is for the king and queen: a British novelist was sentenced to three years in prison earlier this year for insulting the Thai king in a self-published novel.)
The bottom line is that as a visitor, you’re most likely not to be confronted by the political drama unless you seek it out. The Thai people are extremely kind proud to show off their country, so you will feel appreciated, welcome and at ease while exploring the city’s treasures.
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