August 2013

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Tuk-tuks in Bangkok

Tuk-tuks make their way through Chinatown in Bangkok. Photo by David Lansing.

“Khun Ketsara?”


“I want to ride a tuk-tuk.”

Ketsara shows no expression on her face. She is silent for a long moment and then says, “Okay. Maybe after lunch. It’s not good here in Chinatown. Too much traffic. Not safe.”

“Promise Ketsara?”

“I promise.”

Tuk-tuks are to Bangkok what gondolas are to Venice. And you can’t say you’ve really been to Bangkok until you’ve gone on a breakneck, murderous ride upon one of these colorful three-wheeled motor-rickshaws.

The thing about tuk-tuks is they make no sense. You don’t really get a good look at the city riding in one, particularly if you’re tall like me, because their curved canvas roofs black out a view of anything other than the potholes directly in front of you and the swerving motorbikes zipping by your side so closely that if you stuck your hand out, you’d knock the driver off.

They’re stinky and foul and, what’s even more annoying, cost just about as much to ride as an air-conditioned taxi.

So why do I want to ride in one? Because one senses that before too long tuk-tuks will go the way of the double decker bus in London. More and more they’re being seen for the noisy, polluting, dangerous vehicles that they are and certainly it won’t be long until they’re relegated to some sort of cultural tourism classification—you’ll pay $20 to ride a “classic” tuk-tuk two blocks along a designated area of the city and then pay another $10 to have your photo taken next to the driver who will be dressed in a sort of Disney tuk-tuk uniform. So I want to ride in a tuk-tuk that is as wild as its driver, driving up sidewalks, pulling a U-turn in the middle of heavy traffic, illegally going the wrong way down a one-way street. A real tuk-tuk, not a Disneyland ride.

As we are finishing our lunch, it begins to rain. Not a light rain, but thick, heavy plops of water. A typhoon is reportedly coming down from China and this is the first warning.

“I’m sorry,” says Ketsara, “but I think no tuk-tuk today. It’s too dangerous. But we will find a tuk-tuk for you tomorrow.”

“Promise, Khun Ketsara?”

“I promise,” she says.

Back in my hotel room I watch the rain come down across the city, hoping it stops long enough tomorrow for a ride in a tuk-tuk.

A view of the storm over Bangkok from my hotel room. Photo by David Lansing.

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Thai chiles and hairy rambutan

The Pak Khlong Market in Bangkok offers a wide range of Thai chiles. Photos by David Lansing.

Walking through the Bangkok flower market was giving me a headache. All those perfumey smells wafting in the hot, humid air. So I walked and walked and walked until suddenly the market transitioned into long, dark corridors with giant bamboo baskets filled with cabbages and ginger root and, of course, Thai chiles. Lots and lots of different Thai chiles. From “oh-my-this-is-hot” to “HOLY-CRAP-MY-MOUTH-IS-ON-FIRE!.” Some of the chiles were so hot that just walking past them made my eyes water and the top of my head sweat.

I turned a corner in the market and now I was in the fruit section: Thorny red rambutan, finger-size bananas, bumpy custard apples, mounds of unpeeled lychee and longon, and those baby Thai pineapples that, I think, are the sweetest and tastiest in the world.

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Bangkok’s flower market

Bangkok flower market

Bangkok’s flower market is open 24 hours a day but the best variety of blooms can be seen around 9am every day. Photos by David Lansing.

I’ve been to some of the biggest flower markets in the world—L.A., New York, Paris—but the Pak Khlong flower market in Bangkok just blew me away. It wasn’t so much that they had just about everything, from Dutch tulips to 5-gallon bags of rose petals, but that it was all so incredibly inexpensive. Big bouquets of orchid sprays, almost too large to hold in your fist, cost a little over a dollar; two dozen perfect pink roses were $3. And those big bags of rose petals? About five bucks. Imagine being able to toss thousands and thousands of fragrant rose petals at a wedding reception for the price of a Big Mac Supermeal.

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Bangkok’s Golden Buddha

Wat Traimit Temple

The Wat Traimit Temple, home of the Golden Buddha, in Bangkok. Photo by David Lansing.

We were stuck in traffic on our way to the Pak Khlong Market, the epic Bangkok flower mart. Inching our way along, Ketsara casually mentioned that the Temple of the Golden Buddha, Wat Traimit, was on our right. Then the traffic cleared and suddenly we were in a round-about with me thinking, Waiti! Why are we not stopping to see the Golden Buddha?

And right at that moment, Mr. Johnson, a Canadian-born Dominican who lives in New York and works for Tourism Thailand (I know, very confusing, right?), says, “Khun Ketsara, could we stop at the temple?” I was elated.

Ketsara spoke quickly to the driver who reversed directions and, minutes later, we were inside the Temple of the Golden Buddha. I wanted to see this wonder not so much because it is the world’s largest solid gold Buddha (although I’ve heard that while the head, arms, and legs are all solid 18-carat gold, the torso is “just” 3 or 4 inches of solid gold), but because of the story behind it.

The Golden Buddha. Photo by David Lansing.

It seems that the Buddha was discovered accidentally in 1955. At the time, the 13-foot-high Buddha was nothing more than a rather plain-looking stucco Buddha that had been unearthed when workers were extending the port of Bangkok. For 20 years the sorry image sat unnoticed at the Wat Traimit Temple until one day a crane dropped it while moving it out of the way.

The plaster cracked, revealing the gold Buddha beneath. Evidently the statue had been encased in stucco since sometime around 1750 to hide it from Burmese ransackers.

What seems odd to me about all this is how could they not know that a 13-foot-high Buddha made out of stucco could not possibly weigh five tons? I mean, when those construction workers first unearthed this Buddha in 1955, didn’t they think it was a little strange that it weighed so much?

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Chao Phraya River from Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok

A view of the Chao Phraya River from the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok. Photo by David Lansing.

I’m not staying at the Shangri-La Hotel but I’d heard so much about it that I wanted to visit, which I did Saturday night. Many years ago my sister-in-law was a buyer for a major clothing retailer and often took trips to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok. On one of these trips, my wife went with her and they stayed at the Shangri-La, which she described as the most elegant hotel she’d ever stayed in.

But that was years ago. These days it’s still very fashionable for a certain clientele—families, package tours, the Chinese. Part of the attraction is its location—right on the Chao Phraya River and just a 15 minute boatride to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

We dined at the NEXT2 Cafe, the hotel’s celebrated buffet restaurant that curls along the banks of the river. It was a warm evening but there was a slight breeze over the river to cool off the humid night. I’m not a big fan of buffet fare—the sad looking noodles, the uninspired salad bar, the always-crowded roast beef station where a bored chef in a toque ringed with perspiration slices off the smallest chips possible from a haunch of beef that has been sitting under hot lights for hours.

But the chef at the Shangri-La, Lokendra Pal Singh, who was born in New Delhi, specializes in more exotic fare: tandoor dishes, eggplant and cherry tomato massala, Kashmire lamb rogan josh, and a most wonderful stuffed garlic cheese naan. I think I could have just noshed on the naan bread and sipped their signature River Kway cocktail while watching the boat traffic go by and been perfectly happy. Which is pretty much what I did.

Dinner at the Shangri-La along the busy river bank. Photo by David Lansing.


The restaurant’s signature cocktail, a River Kway. Photo by David Lansing.

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