Romklao's Bangkok

Bharati motwani uncovers a side to Thailand’s capital — Bangkok — through the eyes of a young and trendy citizen, rather than that of a typical tourist.

Romklao Sapyatosok is a free spirit — and certainly free with the spirits when off-duty. A few vodka shots and the pretty 28-year-old ex-journalist, ex-sales executive, current Communications Executive, future wife of a rich and idle man, can dance all night and into the dawn till the monks come out and it’s time to ‘make merit’.

She embodies the Spirit of Thailand — Land of the Free, the only country in South-East Asia that was never colonised. She lives with her parents in a green suburb on the outer edge of the traffic madness that is downtown Bangkok. When she gets back from work, she spends time cuddling Pang, her bull-terrier and Pie who is half-dog-half-wolf, and whose pictures clog her glittery iPhone. Then she nips into her latest Miss Selfridge frock and vrooms off into the night in her pride and joy — a silver-bronze Nissan Eco-car. On the agenda is dinner and chit-chat with girlfriends at a nice restaurant.

Till not so long ago, Bangkok was the quintessential Oriental city — grime and tuk-tuks, glittering spires, dim bars where elderly and oversized white men sat with delicate, blank-faced teenaged Thai girls, teeming markets peddling Viagra and live chickens. But Bangkok today is an emerging world city, with fine dining, a lively art scene, fabulous malls and a gleaming Skytrain that zooms over the gridlocked traffic.

For almost all Indian travellers, Bangkok city has, for the longest time, stood for just two things — shopping and sex-tourism. A small, earnest minority will stretch their itinerary to include wat-hopping — wats are Buddhist temples invariably featuring gilded spires and banks of golden Bodhisatvas — and there is a wat on every street. Some tourists might do a street-food tour — in Bangkok as across all South-East Asia and the subcontinent, the best dining is out there on the streets.

But for the city’s young and fashionable, street-food is a thing of disdain — strictly for students, or for a 2 am post-party snack. Here then, are Romklao’s expert tips: an insider’s guide to being young and cool in Bangkok.

She recommends Falabella on Rajdamri Road for Italian food and dancing. And Funky Villa, a high-end pub with a live band. Funky Villa is where the rich, beautiful and well-dressed congregate in the evenings. A world where the self-infatuated and the iPhone-obsessed sigh and squeal over each other’s Chanel and Hermes bags, Tweeting energetically all the while, Instagramming everything that arrives on their table so that it’s on Facebook and attracting responses from across the world long before it’s in their perfectly flat tummies.

Of retail and religion

But Bangkok, like our own Mumbai, abounds in paradoxes. So, when the merry-makers head home at dawn, they will stop to ‘make merit’ — offering alms or buying food offerings to give to shaven-headed Buddhist monks on their morning rounds in a ritual called tak baht.

The other altar that the Bangkokites (yes, that is, in fact, a legitimate, widely accepted word. Bad yes, but it could be worse — it could be Bangkokian or Bangkoker) worship most fervently at, are the shopping malls — of these there are many. Romklao recommends the Platinum Fashion Mall and Terminal 21 whose different floors are designed to resemble airports at San Francisco, London, Istanbul, Tokyo and San Francisco.

To fly straight into the heart of Bangkok’s youth culture, Romklao recommends a trip to Siam Square on the wondrous Skytrain — a silvery air-conditioned monorail winging high over traffic-choked streets. Siam Square with its boutiques selling edgy original designer-wear, Siam Paragon Mall and Siam Discovery Mall constitute the penultimate retail experience. And shopping certainly lies at the heart of being young and happy in Bangkok.

Retail therapy is a religious ritual in Bangkok, as in other rising cities across the world.

Here, an aggressive modernity balances incongruously against ancient  traditions. In Bangkok, where strong Buddhist traditions reject materialism in all its forms, there is no apparent contradiction in stopping by at the wat on the street-corner after an afternoon at the malls, laying down your purchases from Burberry and friends, slipping off your Jimmy Choo’s and kneeling before a statue of Indra or Erawan. Even the elegant boutiques in the malls each have a small ‘spirit house’. We have that in common with Thais — the easy marrying of the eternal with the temporal.

For a weekend break, Romklao recommends her all-time favourite getaway to the island of Koh Samui, where she stays only and always at the very stylish Amari Palm Reef resort, buffing herself to high-gloss at the Breeze Spa and dining at Prego.

Romklao’s other dream, apart from marrying a rich man, is to open a restaurant or café that allows dogs inside. She plans it out in her glossy Vidal Sassooned head while curled up on the couch at home, in between indulging in her favourite down-time activity — watching horror films, the more gore the better. Romklao and other young Thais differ from their Indian counterparts in that they do not share the Indians’ deep-rooted cynicism and disillusionment with the political class. The Thais, despite the political turbulence that saw Bangkok rocked by violent protests by Red Shirts in 2010, are united in their abiding love and support for their constitutional monarch King Bhumibol Adulyej.

The world’s longest-ruling monarch, he has been king since 1946! King Bhumibol wields considerable political power and looms large over popular consciousness, even though Thailand is a parliamentary democracy. This innocent trust, and a bedrock of traditional values, coupled with the hopefulness that comes from a steady economic growth, lend the streets of Bangkok an electric happiness.

The streets of Bangkok are a palimpsest. There are traces of early migrations — Punjabi ‘gents tailors’, Arab women in chadors, Japanese schoolgirls. Everywhere is the mixing of new and old — perfectly groomed Thai girls in tiny shorts and shiny flip-flops shopping beside robed Buddhist monks; dreadlocked Western backpackers haggling with toothless Thai grannies in the weekend bazaars. It’s a city mutable and ever-shifting, offering pleasure and piety in equal measure. If you were to stand at a street-corner for half an hour, there is material enough there to arrive at great truths, or at least to write a book.

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