"Something seems a bit odd," I tell Paul. "Why are there only male waiters here? And why on earth are they wearing those hot pink micro shorts?”
Paul looked up from the guide book he was studying and glanced over where I had indicated.
“That’s because this is a gay bar, and we’re the exception here,” he replied.
That’s when the penny dropped. When in Bangkok, be prepared for things to be a little out of the ordinary.
Long before the trade fairs here in Guwahati brought Thai handicrafts into everybody’s living room, we had taken the Indian Airlines flight into Bangkok over one extended weekend. The fact that the airlines no longer fly this route should make it obvious how long ago that was! Now, of course, Drukair flies hundreds of holidaymakers and business travellers from Assam and the Northeast to Thailand.
The kids were too young to accompany us, so they were left with their grandmother. After the initial pangs of guilt at leaving them behind had abated, I must admit it made a nice change to be without kids in Bangkok. There was another couple from Guwahati who had booked into the same package, and over the days we became good friends. Coincidentally, his first name was Paul, too. What were the odds of that, I ask you!
In Bangkok, we did the usual tourist things; visited temple and palace complexes, spent a whole afternoon at Safari World, ate the most amazing street food and shopped till we were ready to drop. The exchange rate is great and it would be a crime not to shop in Bangkok, I reason with myself, as I loaded more stuff into the trolley. I’d never before shopped like that, nor have I ever shopped like that since. I guess Bangkok brings out the shopaholic in everyone. It helped that I didn’t have to worry about bawling kids and their complaints about aching feet or untimely visits to the loo or demands to be fed every few hours.
As any visitor to Bangkok will agree, shopping is almost a religion there. There are genuine high-end international designer brands, but also plenty of cheap rip-offs, to suit every kind of budget. There’s also a huge variety of local stuff, but without any guarantee of quality.
When faced with the cornucopia of goodies on display in the bazaars and malls of Bangkok, even otherwise perfectly sane people seem to lose the plot. It’s not unheard of tourists being shot with tranquillizer darts to slow them down while shopping. Okay – that’s a lie. I just made that up. But really, it’s not very far from the truth.
“How much?” I ask the salesgirl.
“Very cheap. Only 899 baht,” she replies, pronouncing it ‘eight-nine-nine’ and showing me the figure in a calculator they always have at hand.
“Well, how about the other one?”
“Also very cheap. Only 799 baht.”
“Too much,” I counter. “I’ll give you 500 baht.”
“Cannot,” she replies with finality in that sing-song Thai accent.
We had reached an impasse. After some more bargaining, we finally closed the deal at 699 baht, and I became the proud possessor of a fake Gucci handbag.
And that, basically, is how you shop in the local markets of Bangkok. It made me wonder, though, just how much they knew about Bata’s pricing strategy. Nothing was ever 500 baht or 750 or, god forbid, 763 baht. Things were always 799 baht or 899 or 699. You get the idea, I’m sure.
n the sea-side town of Pattaya, I went parasailing for the first time, and even rode a jet ski. It was all terribly exhilarating at my age, and I felt like a stunt woman in one of the Bond movies. Too bad James wasn’t around. I’d have loved a martini with him; shaken, not stirred.
Pattaya is also where I got my first taste of green tea ice cream. It really was the most light and refreshing ice cream I’d ever had. The scoops were so huge I had a hard time finishing it. However, I drew the line at sampling the variety of exotic insects and bugs on display in several food carts .That would be too adventurous, even for a Bond girl. I swear there were some scorpions in there, too.
We couldn’t leave Bangkok without a visit to the famous (or infamous, depending on how you view it) Patpong area. In the neon brightness of the night, everywhere you looked, you saw nubile young Thai girls hanging out with Occidental guys old enough to be their fathers, or possibly even their grandfathers.
This is a surprising duality in Thai society, I felt. On the one hand, you have a deeply religious society with their reverence for monks and other aspects of Buddhism, and on the other hand, you have this pandering to the demands of a particular kind of tourist. Or perhaps it’s because of their benign faith that this seeming duality can co-exist peacefully. The locals are tolerant of this aspect of the tourism industry. There appears to be no stigma attached to it and there was nothing furtive about it, either. It was just a job, and it meant money for families back in the village and food on the table.
At Patpong, we were accosted by young men every few metres with what seemed like laminated menu cards.
“You want to see?” they all asked hopefully, thrusting their cards at us. “Hot chicks. Very good.”
I stopped to examine one of the cards closely. The sheer variety of shows available was unbelievable, coupled with highly imaginative titles. Either these girls were all gymnasts, or it was all a huge scam.
We politely declined the risqué entertainment peddled by the young men. Friends had cautioned us about these places which were mostly seedy little dives with the possibility of fleecing by touts. Instead, at Pattaya, we took in the Alcazar show. It’s a 2 hour long variety show with opulent sets, magnificent costumes and superb lighting and sound effects. The show includes both a traditional and a modern segment. It was truly an amazing aural and visual treat, and the huge auditorium was packed to the rafters.
However, it was a bit of a surprise to realize at the end of the show that the beautiful Thai dancers were actually transvestites. For a steep fee they were willing to pose for photographs with tourists in the courtyard after the show.
But we were low on funds and there was still the duty free shopping at the airport the next day, so we passed. The ladyboys were really lovely, though, with beautiful skin tone and slender bodies that a professional model might envy.
And that’s the beauty of Thailand. If you like your holidays a little spicy, you can get that. But if you prefer it sweet and wholesome, you can get that, too. And it’s specially recommended for those who think shopping is the greatest sport ever invented. So, Thailand, anyone?