Thailand: A Re-welcoming to the Land of Smiles

I stepped out into the streetside promenade fronting the Central World Plaza in downtown Bangkok, the evening skyline etched with the soaring outlines of high-rise malls and commercial buildings opulently lit up in heady and vigorous resplendence. Ratchadamri Road buzzed and swelled with sharp metropolitan verve and a crush of people ambling about for some evening leisure on a sultry Friday night. A street festival was under way, while by several street-side altars, locals paused to light incense and offer prayers. It was a night of thanksgiving, I was told.

Of Recoveries and Re-Welcomes

With Thailand reeling itself back from its recent chapters of political turmoil and social unrest, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) launched a post-crisis recovery campaign to resuscitate the country’s tourism industry which was expectedly bruised by the imposition of martial law. Many hotels, I’ve heard, ran their rates at paltry prices as their rooms stood morosely vacant during those tumultuous times. Travel operators found themselves in dire straits as the many tourist destinations in the country drummed despondently to an empty rhythm. Upon the Kingdom of Thailand, steep in ancient culture and suffused with paradisaical holiday escapes, where tourism holds a commanding role in the country’s economic growth and progress, the shunning away in caution by foreign visitors inflicted an undeniably bitter sting.

It was thus that the TAT hosted a large-scale promotional endeavor and invited more than 900 travel industry representatives from 47 countries around the world on what was “Thailand’s Best Friends Forever” familiarization tour held last July 24 to 27. Accompanied by the TAT’s Philippines marketing representative, Milky Evangelista, and Thai Airways’ passenger sales supervisor, Fannie Galang, the contingent of Philippine press envoys of which I was a part was ushered through several days of pleasure and thrills. Aboard Thai Airways, we all delighted at being gratuitously upgraded to business class and relished the luxuries of a spacious cabin and fine in-flight dining, and were introduced to a rundown of jaunts to cultural shows, gastronomic establishments, ancient temples, and shopping bazaars we were to have. True enough, each day of our excursion proved to be as frenetic as the next; each day as immensely enthralling as the previous.

It was at the Central World Plaza where all participants of the familiarization tour congregated to be cordially received and addressed by several members of the Thai government: the TAT Governor, Thawatchai Arunyik, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Navy and Deputy Chief of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Admiral Narong Pipatanasai. The reception was sumptuous, the venue teeming with foreign delegates. At the very root of the formal address was the resolve to restore confidence among visitors to Thailand, particularly with the fervent intent to oust any enduring reservations about the country’s return to normalcy.

Outside, along Ratchadamri Road, the “Thailand Happiness Street Festival” kicked in for a long night of revelry. It was a night of thanksgiving indeed. Thailand is back in business, the point being made apparent in the spirited activities I observed that sultry Friday evening.

Modern Vibrancy

The ride from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the central commercial districts of Bangkok was just as I remember it from my last trip to the country around four years ago, a rather pleasant tangle of freeways coalescing into a beguiling backdrop of bristling buildings and screaming billboards. Upon reaching downtown Bangkok, the traffic scene turned into a jumble of pedestrians, cars, tuk-tuks and mopeds. The pulse of the city was just all too palpable. It was visceral; it was intoxicating. It was the same Bangkok that had enchanted me before.

We checked in at the plush and fashionable Amari Watergate Bangkok late afternoon, a delectable accommodation conveniently near shopping complexes, business centers, and other high-class hotels. It was, for me, being the budget traveler that I primarily am, perhaps the swankiest billet I have ever had throughout my many travels abroad.

Bangkok has always been a seductress of a city, a sensual mêlée strutting to modern élan. At Siam Discovery, we took a tour of the Madame Tussauds wax museum, a fascinating exhibition of uncannily life-like dummies of different world celebrities and personalities. It was an amusing encounter with the who’s who in the global limelight – world leaders, historical figures, artists, athletes, and Hollywood A-listers. Putin was stiff, with his characteristically stern, bland expression. The Obamas were cozily accommodating in the White House office. Branjelina were their typical stylish selves. And Lady Gaga seemed somewhat a bit subdued with her scant accoutrement. The visit to the Art in Paradise museum, a gallery of 3D trick-eye paintings, was equally a tremendously fun and absorbing experience. It was hard not to gawk in amazement at the surreal hyperrealism of the artworks, as I and my companions indulged in whimsical interactions with the numerous displays.

One gives a mention of Bangkok, and the notion of unbridled shopping and limitless entertainment thrills would surely be not far behind. The tour brought us on a spree around a few of Bangkok’s commercial centers and, with many retail establishments selling off goods for as much as an outrageous 80% discount at the time, sending us headlong into some irrepressible bouts of compulsive spending. There was lunch at the Platinum Fashion Mall, a gargantuan playpen for bargain hunters and budget fashionistas, and an evening hop to Asiatique The Riverfront, a mega-shopping enclave and night market situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River and touted to be the country’s biggest lifestyle development project. There at the Asiatique, we watched “Muay Thai Live – The Legend Lives,” an extraordinary stage spectacle which traced the roots and evolution of the traditional Thai martial art of muay thai and which featured some high-flying stunts, fancifully choreographed fight scenes, and breathtaking aerial acrobatics.

Traditional Grandeur

On our first night in Bangkok, my tour companions and I went to the Siam Niramit theater, where, upon our arrival, we were graciously greeted with orchid brooches pinned by graceful usherettes wearing traditional Thai costumes. At first, I thought that Siam Niramit pertained only to the show that we were about to watch. But it was far more than just the show; it was furthermore the theater complex itself – a grand events ground comprising function halls to accommodate conferences and various cultural and entertainment affairs, an opulent dining venue with a smorgasbord of international cuisine, and a Thai village replica showcasing various traditional crafts.

The Siam Niramit show was an epic production, the scale and extravagance of which was just staggering. Live elephants walked the stage and the audience aisles, a river in which performers veritably swam, bathed, and paddled flowed across the performance platform, and actual water poured down during scenes where rain was called for. The set design and special effects were dramatic and complex, the costumes incredibly intricate and lavish. Divided into three acts – the first portraying how Siam became a crossroad of Eastern civilizations, the second illustrating the karmic beliefs that bind the Thais as a people, and the third depicting how their various religious ceremonies earn the Thais merit in this life – the Siam Niramit’s “Journey to the Enchanted Kingdom of Siam” show was a grandiose and world-class showcase of a country’s history and culture.

A more empirical journey into the historical and cultural heritage of Thailand came with our outing to the city of Ayutthaya where there stood the silent ruins of a bygone era. Founded around 1350, Ayutthaya was the second capital of the ancient Siamese kingdom, flourishing during the 14th to the 18th centuries as one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas and as a center of global diplomacy and commerce. The kingdom eventually was drawn into wars with neighboring dynasties, until it finally saw its demise in 1767 when the city of Ayutthaya was attacked and razed by the Burmese army. Today, the remains of the old city are preserved with Ayutthaya’s enlistment as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We visited the ruins of Wat Maha That, the “Monastery of the Great Relic,” the most consecrated of the temples in the old city and in which were enshrined artifacts of the sacred Buddha, and of Wat Chaiwatthanaram, the “Temple of Long Reign and Glorious Era,” the most emblematic of Buddhist influence on Thai culture. As I explored the grounds, I wondered to myself what the historic city of Ayutthaya must have been like, how life played out against a setting of imposing edifices and olden traditions. But there was not much that I could decipher for myself, and I was left being awed by the crumbled walls and broken stonework, the stolid effigies that stood watch, the lofty spires and stupas swathed in detailed masonry, and the peculiar sight of a Buddha head ensnared in the tangled roots of a banyan tree.

From the temple ruins, we then proceeded to the Ayutthaya elephant village where elephants, under the charges of their mahouts, performed and danced to the glee and amusement of guests. There, as I watched the raucous show of gentle giants, I found myself stoic, pondering upon the civility of what to me was a strange cabaret. As much as I realize that the breaking of elephants is such an intrinsic facet of Thai culture, I cannot help but feel an aching ambivalence creep over me. I brushed this aside as we then moved to a model of a kumkhunphan, a type of stilted house typical in the Ayutthaya province, usually made of golden teak and characterized by a capacious central common area, with living quarters placed on each of the four sides of the house.There, Mr. Kasemsak Bhamornsatit of the Trikaya Cultural and Academic Services, together with his family, welcomed us for a mid-afternoon degustation of popular Thai fruits which included mangosteen, rambutan, cotton fruit (santol in Tagalog) mangoes, and (gasp!) durian.

Like a Familiar Enchantress

There was little time for me to hie off to my own explorations, as the considerably tight itinerary of our tour kept me and my travel companions ceaselessly bustling about. And the frenzied rush through the arterial quarters of Thailand’s capital only kept me aspiring to see more. The first time I visited the country, it left in me the mental imprint of a mesmerizing maiden, her hands demurely clasped to her breast, her head tilted to make a supple bow, her lips breaking into an enchanting smile. It is difficult to part ways with, and much less forget, such captivation and seduction. I know I will always be drawn to this Land of Smiles, a land ever enticing, ever welcoming.