As our departure date was nearing, our lives just got a trifle more hectic: Jonathan (my husband, for those of you who don’t know me personally) was wrapped up with the craziness of making the company’s numbers before the end of the 3rd quarter and I got an awesome new client (and startup) in San Francisco, so time flew by: I was going to read up before our trip, do some last-minute house projects, practice Indonesian with that app on my phone, but alas, none of that: no time to think, and maybe that was good as it made the time to worry redundant. The only thing that reminded me we were actually going was me getting my second Hep shot and getting my malaria pills and those prescription pills I will pop when I’m overcome with Bali Belly or the Surabaya Shits. When my grandparents were in Java last, I bet they didn’t get half the vaccinations and pills we got…
We are traveling light– how very liberating! After we checked in, we made it to the lounge of Emirates, because yes, I’m not going to lie or be discreet about it: we flew first class… No, dear readers, we’re not made of money and didn’t receive a large or sudden inheritance… Jonathan is an expert at collecting points/travel miles without actually spending any or little money. Our individual tickets first class on the route San Fran-Dubai-Bangkok would have been $25K/piece, but all we paid was a piddlin’ administrative fee of $14. That’s what I would call SCORE…
At the lounge, which in terms of ambience felt only slightly better than Motel 6, we had some nice appetizers and drinks, while following the news of yet another school shooting at Umpqua College where my brother-in-law teaches and nephew goes to school; they were not harmed but 13 people, including the gunman, were mowed down. How many more mass shootings does it take for America to get its act together about some form of gun control? Earlier this semester, there was a gunman on the Northeastern campus, where my son studies, too, and months ago, my daughter’s high school went into lockdown mode because of unconfirmed fears of a gunman on the prowl. We are a country under siege because of the easy access to guns. More than 40 school shootings this year? Seriously? I couldn’t agree more with Obama who gave an emotional press conference: prayers are fine and dandy but they aren’t going to prevent the next mass shooting.
As we were leaving the lounge, admiring the uniforms of the Emirates stewardesses (een petje met een netje, I said to Jon), we breezed right through, and into our First Class Cabin upstairs. I felt slightly self-conscious… I mean, all those years I have flown long flights, I have always felt envious of people in Business and First Class, but being there myself made me feel guilty (Calvinism) and weird, and especially so when one of the stewardesses kneeled down next to me after take-off and asked me when I wanted to schedule… my shower. Say what?!
OK, this has nothing to do with going on a pilgrimage or traveling through Indonesia but this bathroom with the shower was just incredible– spacious, fresh flowers etc. So how does it work? You get the bathroom for 20 minutes while the shower is on a 5 minutes’ clock. Shower attendants wait outside (yes, how very colonial and decadent). I actually needed mine, because as I had just shampood my long tresses (as if), the shower quit and I had to get out, towel up and tell my shower attendant about it. On the second leg of our travels (Dubai-Bangkok) we got the same shower deal, and clearly this had gotten to my head so much already that when I went to the bathroom, midflight, and bumped into the steward I misheard his question “Do you want me to prepare your bed?” for “Do you want me to prepare your bath”. With my jetlagged mind and American gullibility I almost blurted out “Whoa, dude, you have baths, too?”
When we were about to land in Bangkok, I couldn’t get over the fact that we have traveled this far in a relatively short amount of time. It took ships from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century more than six months to make it to the Spice Islands; after he Suez Canal was opened, it took six weeks, and well, look at us, a little more than 24 hours and we’re on the other side of the world…
Our route was interesting: we practically flew over the North Pole and then came down via Scandinavia, Russia and Iran. There’s a colonial echo there too, as Barentsz (spelling?) and others tried (and failed) to find a route to the Far East via the North Pole or Northern Passage. We just used this route, because it’s the faster way to go.Not so much for Barentsz for his men, although they did name a sea after him.
The journeys on those seventeenth-century wooden ships were perilous and risky: if you survived things like scurvy, storms, shipwrecks, pirates and mutinies, you still might kick the bucket in mosquito-infested Asia, which, in the early days, was very much the white man’s grave. And look at us with our vaccinations and pills, not so much traveling in the belly of a stinky ship but on the second floor of an airline where they served cognac and port that have aged as much as we have.
When we touched down in Dubai in the hypermodern airport, a place of gleaming surfaces and upscale tax free shopping (too bright, our minds said– we want to sleep), it was dark already outside (but still hot: a whopping 95 degrees Fahrenheit). We had a layover of 4 hours and while the urge was to sleep more, we walked around like zombies in the first-class lounge– and had another meal and checked out all the international newspapers: the Umpqua shooting had made all the international newspapers, and as usual the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf had most of the facts wrong– don’t they check facts at that paper any more?
When we boarded our second flight for Bangkok, in the same lap of luxury, sleep came much easier to me, while Jon stayed up, ordered more food, showered once again but I don’t have to bore you with that do I? After all, we had a little more than 24 hours in Bangkok, where, when we touched down, the rain came pouring down so torrentially that the entire city from the air and airplane cameras was a blur. We fled from the rain by metro, followed by a taxi ride (Hello Kitty seat coverings) in the traffic congested streets and even though the hotel bed looked awful tempting in our room, it was 10 AM and the key is to keep trucking…
BANGKOK: Jim Thomson and the Lady with Thirty Cats and Two Ducks
After a quick shower, we ventured out again into the sprawling but mesmerizing chaos that is Bangkok. While the main arteries are clogged with traffic (15 million people, 8 million cars), (where sitting in traffic is true to its name), the real Bangkok seems to come alive in the intriguing chaos of its side streets and alleys, teeming with life and mixing the questionable scents of the river with the delicious aromas of Thai curries and tropical fruits from street vendors. Declining the ride from a tuk tuk driver who clearly tried to rip us off by overcharging, we were bombarded by women coming out of massages parlors (tempting that one, too) but eventually hailed down a cab.
The woman driver was a gem and the real Bangkok as far as we were concerned. Weaving her way through the insane traffic (at times it’s better not to look), the 54-year-old told us about her life in Bangkok (“It’s all I know, Bangkok my paradise”) with that Asian wisdom that seems to come from old souls. Her dark joyful eyes sparkled in a face that exuded serenity and a temper that was slow to anger: while many tuk tuks and mopeds invaded her lane, speeding towards her even (“That’s my lane” she would laugh), she knew the shortcuts through side alleys that seemed meant for pedestrians, not cars. When Jon asked her whether Bangkok had changed much, she complained of young people, the Google generation she called them, entitled millenials, she seemed to imply, who don’t know how to work hard anymore because they’re glued to their screens. She, on the other hand, worked 12 hours a day, and took no vacation. But she said, and raised her arms in jubilation: “no debt, no credit cards”.
Asking her if she had kids, she said no, then laughed: “I have thirty cats and two ducks.” Happy cats coz they were fat and slept most of the day but gave her unconditional love: “Not like kids”.
The economy was bad, she said, something was off with the climate (driest summer she had seen) and politics in Thailand never changes. When Jon suggested maybe more women needed to get in power, she laughed so hard as if he had just suggested that her chubby cats might fly one day. But she praised Angela Merkel and knew exactly how many people lived in America. She commiserated with the Syrians in Europe, said foreigners were great for Bangkok and when Jon asked her the loaded question why Thailand had never been colonized, she shrugged, indicating that that was a complicated question, but, and here’s the kicker, maybe Thailand might have benefited from colonization (I was reading Niall Ferguson’s Empire on the plane– a book that seems to argue that colonization and certainly colonization by the Brits wasn’t all exploitation and genocide but also about importing English as a world language, liberty, democracy and the game of cricket).
When she dropped us off at our destination after about 30 minutes (less than $3, including tip), we felt we had just met with a very gracious soul and were grateful for this genuine encounter. We then walked into the little oasis that is the Jim Thomson museum, an ancient Thai housing complex with an interior garden that seemed like a miniature paradise of peace, quiet and art in an otherwise noisy city.
Who was Jim Thomson, you ask? Thomson was an affluent American and architect who fell in love with Thailand in the 1940s and decided to preserve some of the ancient Thai architecture by going inland and moving some of the old homes he found, plank by plank, roof tile by roof tile (William Randolph Hearst comes to mind) and rebuilt them in Bangkok where he collected Southeast Asian art, and revived the Thai silk industry which was borderline extinct at the time. In the 1960s, he went for a short hike in Malaysia (leaving a cigarette and opened book in the house of friends where he was staying) and… vanished. Body never found. But boy, what a legacy he left…
The dark wooden paneling of the house, the artifacts, the living room, which was practically an open veranda looking out on a tropical garden with a pond of gold fish, the simplicity and the elegance– an unforgettable experience.
When we came back to the hotel with Japanese and German tourists in the elevator, we missed that awesome cabbie and Jim Thomson’s spirit, but didn’t have much time to dwell on it, because there was that mattress, those pillows… and that view…
Bangkok is da bomb. Sleep tight.