Our South-East Asian Office
Thailand, © 29.Jun.2003 gM
Photos of Thailand
Introduction to Thailand
Our South-East Asian Office
Thai Pieces
Border Crossings
Mahboonkrong Shopping Center (MBK) was our hub
Mahboonkrong Shopping Center (MBK) was our hub / © gM
Who would have thought that Thailand would turn out to be more than another destination on our route around the world? Bangkok in particular became our base, our South-East Asian office, where we reliably could get done all the things that needed to be done. Returning to Bangkok felt like coming home, back to a familiar neighborhood with good restaurants, first-rate movie theaters, and public transport we had already figured out. It also felt like coming home because of the welcoming, friendly owners of our hotel, a hotel which holds my personal record for the highest number of different rooms occupied.

Shadow puppet play
Shadow puppet play (left) and dancers (middle/right) / © gM
Buddhas in Ayuthaya (left), Buddha in Sukhothai (middle), and mural in Bangkok (right) / © gM
Wat Phra Mahathat
Wat Phra Kaew
Wat Phra Mahathat in Nakhon Si Thammarat (left) and Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok (right) / © gM
Thailand is the driving force in this region, its people immensely proud of their cultural heritage, their king, and their religion. One can strongly feel that this nation never suffered through the turmoil of colonialization, in contrast to all of Thailand's surrounding neighbors. Thailand's economic prosperity is evident through its relatively stable currency and well developing infrastructure. There are poorer areas in Thailand, especially in the northeast, and progress has been somewhat slowed because of the Asian market crisis when Thailand's economy came to be known as "Thaitanic". I have no doubt though that Thailand will continue to prosper at a much greater rate than other countries in this region. At the border between Thailand and Cambodia in Poipet, thousands of Cambodians cross both ways each day. We arrive early in the morning. Our first impression is that the border had to be closed because of a fierce riot on the Cambodian side. This is not a far-fetched assumption since four months earlier, the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh was ransacked by an angry mob outraged by the comment of a Thai movie actress who claimed Angkor as a Thai cultural heritage. The embassy staff had to be rescued in an emergency military operation and the border at Poipet was closed, trapping thousands of Cambodians on the Thai side. Our "riot" turns out to be no riot at all. The border is closed because it is too early for the border to be open, and the loud, stick-wielding Cambodians turn out to be vendors carrying supplies to the market on the Thai side. When the border on the Cambodian side opens, that on the Thai side remains closed, allowing a continuous stream of people into Thailand. Only half an hour later, when the wave of Cambodians slows down a little, does the border open for entry into Cambodia.

Health care in terms of private hospitals is rivaled only by Singapore in the region, and certainly beats some of the European and North American hospitals that I have seen. At the one we used, a hotel-like reception in the entrance hall issues patient ID cards on the spot to each new patient, signs everywhere indicate a maximum waiting time of 15 minutes, and the service actually does live up to this promise. There is something very calm about the building and the people working in it, much in contrast to the world outside. The atmosphere is one of high professionalism and organization. It is almost cheerful, but certainly business-oriented with posters advertising specials on general health checkup packages for families. Government hospitals, of course, tell a different story - one of overcrowded rooms, insufficient air-conditioning, and apparent suffering.

Flooded streets
Flooded streets in Bangkok / © gM
Polluted canal
Polluted canal in Bangkok / © gM
Dragonfruit, mangosteen, lychee, and rambutan
Dragonfruit, mangosteen, lychee, and rambutan / © gM
Bangkok's modern shopping centers near Siam Square or along Thanon Silom comprise an integral part of our South-East Asian office. They are ideal places in which to escape the city's polluted air, the stench from the canals, and the traffic noise while running one or more errands. In the basement, there is the well-stocked supermarket with all the usual things, plus a large selection of fresh tropical fruits, a small stand which sells fried or roasted insects, and a section with "Monk Mini Boxes" and "Buckets" for auspicious gifts to monks. The boxes and buckets typically contain soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and other personal care items. There is also a food court at the same level and a few more on levels higher up. On the top floor, there is the cinema. And in between, there are all the ubiquitous designer wear, electronics, cell phone, jewellery, watch, audio/video, and photography shops. Sprinkled among them are banks, Karaoke stations, Internet cafes, Thai massage parlors, and possibly the odd department store. One has to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the "You-Can-Use-My-Cell-Phone" businesses: one person, a small table, and one or two cell phones for cheap phone calls to anywhere in Thailand. Internet cafes offer varying connection speeds, and at peak hours, background noise reaches deafening levels because of the many kids playing the multi-player computer game Counter-Strike. A visit to a Thai massage parlor is on most travelers' must-do-list. I got a bit discouraged after my first visit in Chiang Mai when my masseuse - with upper arms like those of Conan the Barbarian - proclaimed halfway through the massage that Thai massage has to hurt "a little". Movie theaters show both Western and Thai movies. Most of the latter have English subtitles. The hilarious "In the Name of Love" is a comedy about a timid, non-confrontational boy from Bangkok who falls in love with the daughter of the local mafia boss in Mae Sai. The boy is forced by the mafia boss to travel from Bangkok to Mae Sai picking as many fights as possible along the way in order to marry the daughter. "Ong Bak" is a stunt-filled muay thai (kick-boxing) movie about the theft of the head of a Buddha statue, and the recovery of the same by the village's hero. We only saw trailers of a movie about a volleyball team whose players are all lady boys. We, however, made up for it on Ko Phi-Phi since a quarter of the regulars showing up for beach volleyball in the afternoon were lady boys. Nothing, however, can beat the English captioning of the rather serious American movie "About Schmidt" starring Jack Nicholson. The whole audience was unable to focus on the movie because from beginning to end, the captions translated words like daughter into phrases like "social flower intercourse"!

A mid-sized spirit house
A mid-sized spirit house / © gM
Whenever we go to the shopping center, we notice Buddhist offerings, from a couple of small rice-filled bowls and incense sticks on a shelf of a ten square meter shop, to the huge spirit house outside for the whole shopping center. Daily offerings are made to the spirit house to ensure that harmful spirits live in the spirit house instead of in the main building with people. The most touching display of genuine caring, however, can be found at the anatomy portion of the Siriraj Museums in Bangkok. On each and every display case with conjoined twins and other stillborn babies, countless offerings have been placed: coins, candy, origami birds, toy cars, dolls, and dinosaurs.

Fireworks during Loi Krathong
Fireworks during Loi Krathong
Fireworks (left/right) during Loi Krathong, Bangkok / © gM
We celebrate New Year's Eve outside one of the large shopping centers, the World Trade Center. The streets are closed for traffic, and thousands of people are crammed into the streets. We get caught in the masses, unable to move anywhere but where the crowd is moving. We finally reach our observation point, a pedestrian walkway across the main street, from where we watch the performances, the people, and the fireworks at midnight. On the streets below us, spectators tightly sit beside each other on spread-out tarps, drinks in hand. More than once, an ambulance, its lights flashing, must make its way through this seated crowd. Commendably each and every time, the crowd immediately rises and fluidly moves out of the way of the ambulance. As the ambulance passes, the gap in the crowd quickly and calmly closes as everyone returns to their spots on the street. For a moment, I think back to Hat Yai where we saw an elephant trotting along a busy street with a flashing red light on its tail. Would it be able to make its way through the sitting New Year's Eve crowd too?

Finally, just a few words about Thai food. To sum it up, it is fantastic. Here is a short list of what not to miss:

  • spicy salads - my favorite is pomelo/carrot but there is also green papaya, beef, prawns, and more;
  • tôm yam kûng (lemongrass soup with prawns);
  • sticky rice - the further north in Thailand, the better;
  • phàt thai (flat rice noodles with vegetables, egg, tofu, peanuts, bean sprouts, and lime);
  • fish in a tamarind sauce;
  • whole grilled freshwater fish at the Mekong - the fish is not gutted before cooking but completely covered in salt, herbs are stuffed into its mouth;
  • squid filled with sticky rice and cashew nuts;
  • any kind of curry - green, red, yellow, brown;
  • fried taro or sweet potato balls, chocolate buns, and taro ice cream;
  • thin crepe with toppings such as shredded pork or banana with chocolate;
  • chocolate or banana cake from the woman on the beach on Ko Bulon Leh;
  • banana, dragonfruit, durian, guava, jackfruit, lychee, mango, mangosteen, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple, pomelo, rambutan, rose apple, soursop, starfruit, watermelon - the list goes on.
  • And then there is also something we did not try: fried or roasted insects such as praying mantis, water beetle, grasshoppers, or for the really brave, live larvae from a vendor at a street corner in Nakhon Si Thammarat! Maybe next time, when we come back to Thailand.

    Introduction to Thailand  /  Our South-East Asian Office  /  Thai Pieces  /  Border Crossings