Friday, May 1, 2009

Feature Destination: Bangkok, the busy and exotic side of Asia

By Onin Cartagena

We often hear similarities between Bangkok and Manila. For one thing, our currencies are closely pegged to each other. If the baht devalues, the peso normally follows suit. Then there is the obvious similarity in the geographical terrain and the physical features of our people. In fact, I remember one movie (Brokedown Palace) which was filmed, or rather, had to be filmed in the Philippines due to its unfavorable portrayal of Thailand. Lastly, who has not heard of the notorious Bangkok gridlock, which some people say is even worse than Manila’s traffic jam?

above: Bangkok skyline

Apparently, as the above examples show, we do have lots of things in common. To its credit though, Bangkok has more to offer than the usual stereotypes. The moment I stepped into the newly built, ultra-modern Suvarnabhumi (pronounced soo-wana-pom) irport, it felt like Thailand has fast-forwarded into the future. It’s a vibrant and dynamic city with no qualms embracing the trappings of the modern world. It’s true that Thais had their fair share of political turmoil. Still, I am under the impression that the Thais have done a great job in making their country progressive.

Bangkok is a city of contrasts. It is modern, yet was able to preserve its ancient charm. It’s exotic. It’s warm. It’s friendly. No wonder it is one of the world’s favorite tourist destinations. Since tourism is one of Thailand’s largest industries, it only makes sense to invest in its promotion and development. The Thai government built modern, world-class infrastructures that rival the best in the world, for this purpose.

above: Bangkok's floating market

Bangkok is a shopping haven. There is a proliferation of shopping malls and night bazaars that cater to different classes. There are trendy malls that cater to the high-end consumers. Believe it or not, there is an Hermes shop here. I saw one in Pratunam, in the Siam Paragon Mall. Then there are those Divisoria/Greenhills-type such as Suan Loum where you can buy souvenirs, goodies and almost any type of item you want, for less. Bargaining is an experience here.

Of course, it won’t be a complete experience without tasting the local fare. A word of caution though, Thai food is generally spicy. In fact, if you don’t request for a milder or subtler version, they would normally assume that you prefer your food extra hot, just the way they like it, I suppose. That is why when you go to restaurants, for example, the rule of thumb is to ask first if the food you are ordering is too spicy, otherwise, you’ll be in for a big shock. We actually find this obsession with incorporating spiciness to Thai food both amazing and absurd at the same time. Amazing, for clearly, Thai food is one of the best in the world.

above: tasty and exotic street snacks

Another interesting part of the trip was the Chao Phrya River Tour. It’s definitely an experience since it’s not something we can do, at least for now, on our own Pasig River. Along the Chao Phrya’s banks are the dozens of temples that represent thousands of years of Thai history. The temples are a display of grandeur and superb architecture. You’ll be amazed at it’s excellent craftsmanship. It’s like traveling back in time and experiencing this kingdom’s Golden Age.

above: some of Bangkok's numerous Buddhas

Not only have I experienced Bangkok, known for the positive and sunny demeanor of its people, earning it the title “City of Smiles”, but also made new friends. More importantly, being able to spend it with my companions, who are remarkably fun and outgoing has made this whole experience worthwhile.

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