August 2013

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The Queen of Thailand

An homage to the Queen of Thailand in the lobby of the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok. Photo by David Lansing

The Queen of Thailand, Sirikit, celebrates her 81st birthday on Monday. She has been queen for over 63 years, which means she’s been doing her job even longer than the Queen of England, which quite pleases the Thai people. They love their queen. Ask them why and usually they’ll say something like, “She is very good to the people.”

She’s championed a number of hospitals in Thailand, including a children’s hospital and a new 10-storey hospital in Bangkok, both of which have been named after her. She’s also been the honorary president of the Thai Red Cross since 1956.

Everywhere we go in Bangkok there are tributes to the queen—along the boulevards, in the parks, even in the hotel lobbies. It’s as if the pope were visiting (and, indeed, the Thai people consider her to be semi-divine, rather like the Holy Father).

My guide, Ketsara, tells me that because of the queen’s generous nature, on her holiday (which is also Mother’s Day in Thailand) the Thai people try to do something of merit. For instance, there will be free haircuts. Thousands of barbers will set up in pavilions in the park and anyone who wants one can get a haircut. I think that’s a fine way to celebrate the queen. I might even get a free haircut myself. In her honor.

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The Thai Liberace

Mr. Paul Boonrungreung whose title at the Sofitel So Hotel in Bangkok is Just Say So Guru. Photo by David Lansing.

As I sipped my Magical Drink I asked the Thai Liberace to tell me about himself. He’s got an interesting story.

His name is Paul Boonrungreung and his title at the Sofitel So Bangkok is “Just Say So Guru.” Which means, he told me, that his job is basically making people happy. “Whatever they need, I can get.”

He said that he was working at a rather famous restaurant in Bangkok taking care of guests. “A lot of very famous people go there and my job was to take care of them.” One of the regulars was the general manager of So Bangkok. “He kept coming back and always asking me to work for him. He ask me maybe four or five times but I didn’t go. I tell him I don’t know anything about the hotel business and he say, ‘Good. Just be yourself.’

“I asked him what I would do here and he said whatever I wanted. What I wanted was to be the brand manager, so to speak, of the hotel. So I set the tone here. I provide every inch of the guest experience—where to buy diamonds, where to buy shoes, where to buy a T-shirt that says ‘Bangkok Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ I think,” he said as he got up to refill our glasses, “I am the Sofitel So Hotel.”

I think he may be right. And maybe he’s Bangkok as well.

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So Magical Drink

Sofitel So Hotel Bangkok

The reception desk at the Sofitel So Hotel, Bangkok. Photo by David Lansing.

When PaLè and I finally make it to the Sofitel So Hotel in Bangkok all I want to do is get checked in and go to bed. Even though it’s barely noon. The 2am departure from L.A., the 17 hours of flying, the acrid smell of the city—I’m done in. At the reception desk we are escorted over to a plush couch and minutes later a grinning Thai Liberace (red silk jacket, pink lips, gray nail polish, rhinestone-studded glasses, and purple highlights in his pompadoured hair) slides up to us carrying purple drinks bearing large sticks of lemongrass.

“Look what I brought for you!” he gushes. “You are tired, I know, and this is an elixir to make you feel better. Try it, please, go on and try it!”

It’s delicious. Tangy, perfumy, slightly sweet. I ask the Thai Liberace what it is.

“This one called So Magical Drink.” And then he laughs infectiously. “You like? I’m so glad! It’s delicious, isn’t it?” He tells us that the So Magical Drink is made of lemon grass juice, butterfly flower elixer, and lime juice.

“Is it noon yet?” asks the Thai Liberace rhetorically. He slaps his leg with his perfectly manicured hand. “It is! So maybe we should add some vodka to So Magical Drink. Don’t you think?” Like a model on a catwalk he sashays over to the bar and comes back bearing two more So Magical Drinks, this time juiced up with a little lemon Citron. I like this version even better. Bangkok has suddenly come to life for me. I’m ready to take it all in. All because of the So’s Magical Drink.

So Magical Drink, Sofitel Bangkok

The So Magical Drink. Photo by David Lansing

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Arriving in Bangkok

What you most notice on the taxi drive in from Bangkok airport is how non-descript the city is. The clogged motorway is littered with massive billboards hawking Laz-Y Boy recliners, Heineken beer, Samsung televisions, and Bridgestone tires (“Your Journey, Our Passion”). This could be Los Angeles or Frankfurt or even Tokyo.

The empty rusted warehouse remind one of Havana, post-Russia, and the brilliant cartoonish graffiti covering the walls invokes downtown Los Angeles. After a 30-minute drive you pull up to a stylish but androgynous hotel that might just as easily be in Istanbul or Berlin where in the lobby is a chocolate shop (“Open daily until 8″) that reminds one of Paris or Florence. Where is the Thai in Thailand, you wonder? Where is the Bang in Bangkok?



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All it takes is about 30 minutes inside the Taipei airport to realize that, for whatever reason, LAX is a disaster. When I left LAX last night I was unable to find a decent bar…or a restaurant…or even the newspaper. I ended up having a beer at something called The Marine Bar where, maybe, they could seat 15 people and their only choices for bourbon were Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. And this was in the Bradley International Terminal. It’s very, very sad to realize that this is the best my hometown can do: a $9 Budweiser and a bag of chips.

Compare that to Taipei where I landed some 14 and a half hours later. There were noodle places galore and a green meditation room that was dark and quiet and, perhaps most astoundingly, a Hello Kitty Breast Feeding Room. I wanted to go in just to see the decor but, of course, that would have gotten me arrested. Then again, I’m sure the detention center at the Taipei airport is as luxurious as everything else. Afterall, this is an airport that has a big red SOS panic button in every toilet stall. Just in case you happen to have a heart attack while doing your business.



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