By WALLACE IMMEN
In Bangkok, there always seems to be a buzz.
The roads teem with motorcycles and un-mufflered three-wheeled cabs known as tuk-tuks. On the river, “longtail” boats get their push from growling V-8 engines that are mounted on their open decks and turn shafts whose propellers froth the water into a rooster-tails of foam.
I chose The Peninsula Bangkok because it’s on the quiet, residential west bank of the river, with a fleet of regal-feeling boats to get guests to the action on the crowded commercial side of the river.
Thai hospitality is legendary but this arrival surpassed any I’ve had before. Two doormen and a valet whisked my bags off to my suite and I was escorted to the desk, where even men are presented with complimentary garlands of flowers on arrival. Known as phuang malai, they’re like bracelets woven of delicate stands of tiny elegantly fragrant pure-white malik and jasmine flowers.
After signing in, I was escorted by an assistant to my suite, where my bags had already arrived and a show of another sort began. Aside from its spacious suites, the Peninsula is famous for its remarkable bedside control modules that do everything from adjusting the mood lighting and open and close draperies but even swivel the high definition televisions for the best viewing.
Welcoming amenities included a fruit bowl filled with an array of colourful tropical fruits that are so exotic, there’s a guidebook included to help you figure what you’re eating. This was my chance to find out what a custard apple, a duku or a dragon’s eye looks like and tastes like and how to eat those hairy-looking rambutans.
I was staying on a weekend, which gave me the opportunity to shop in what may be the most bizarre bazaar in the world: Chatuchak market.
Acres of fascinating shops specializing in everything from blue jeans to boa constrictors are all in one sprawling market complex that seems to stretch on forever. And it’s only open on weekends.
You’ll be rubbing shoulders with wholesalers and decorators who have made special trips here from around the world to buy container loads of merchandise, furniture and art works, as well as jewellers who buy beads and necklaces by the gross.
The market started as a wholesale trading area and became a retail shopping phenomenon when the new elevated train line made it easy to get to from anywhere in the city. Prices are still at wholesale levels and you can easily haggle them down even further.
It makes for a crowded and hot day trip, so it’s best to get there in the morning when it’s still cool. Bring bottled water and cash, because many vendors don’t take cards and there are long lines for the few ATMs in the market.
I imagined I’d met the prototype for Star Wars’ Yoda in the kindly man who introduced himself as Prasart as he greeted our taxi in the cool clearing in a forest at the edge of the city. It wasn’t so much his stature but the enthusiastic philosophical insights he made about Thailand’s rich architectural heritage as he led us around exquisitely decorated palaces, homes and shrines.
“It makes me sad that so much of our culture has gone to Europe over the last 40 years. I feel it is important to protect what we have left, so I decided to set up this foundation,” he said.
Only then did I tweak to the fact that the guide was indeed Prasart Vongsakul himself. The wealthy land developer who is the owner of the large estate has set it up as an educational center for students and people who appreciate Thai art.
The result is a Thai equivalent of what Henry Ford did in collecting Americana at Greenfield Village. Many of the buildings are reproductions, but they’re filled with beautiful original artifacts from Ayutthaya, the Siamese kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767, as well as furniture and terracotta pieces from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including several delightful Buddha images. And the gardens abound with rare and endangered plants.
The Blooming Market
The cliche of Bangkok are the floating markets, where vendors sell produce from canoes they paddle on the city’s many canals. My advice is to go where the locals go and check out where all that produce comes from.
Pak Khlong Talat is the city’s wholesale flower and produce market, but it is really a district that stretches for blocks and whose wonderfully scented shops are swirls of color. You’ll see the biggest lilies, orchids and lotus flowers you’ve ever seen in your life.
Florists make bouquets big enough to fill hotel lobbies. Other whole districts are showcases of exotic fruits and vegetables.
The shop keepers are happy to have people admire their stock and show off their skills of arranging. Come on the morning you’re boarding your ship and you can get an armload of exotic flowers to take aboard for the equivalent of about $10.
Dinner By The Riverside
Home again in time to have drinks and dinner at the Peninsula’s newly renovated riverside Thiptara restaurant whose carved teak pavilion was brought here from the former capital of Ayutthaya.
A full moon was rising over the skyline of the city as I had one of the house specialty Thai curries. There was magic in the air and I’d tuned into the buzz of Bangkok. In a sense, it was a shame I had to pack up and depart for a two-week adventure sailing in Vietnam and China on Oceania.
But leaving the Peninsula, the gentle smiles of the staff made it clear I was welcome to return any time.