A Toast to a Salacious New Year

Travel broadens the mind, they say and I agree whole heartedly. There are things one learns from the cultures and experiences of a new land that cannot be gathered by thumbing through the pages of a book. That is not to say that, every time I travel I have an epiphany of some sort, but rather the euphoria of finally understanding what already is. That may be too philosophical a way to start a blog post but something’s have to be said. There is a single common thread that runneth through the fibre of humanity in South East Asia – Faith! Faith in the form of religion, faith in the form of your travel companion, faith in the form of new relationships that begin on the experimental ground of shared experiences – Faith, yes that Faith!

I’ve been to South East Asia twice this year, to places that are in a lot of ways as far removed from the other, as chalk and cheese. While Bali is a small unassuming island with a contended and traditional population, whose religious roots were tied to Hinduism, Bangkok is a bustling metropolis with a mixed population of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, who forever are on the go. Bangkok was a revelation, and the pun isn’t intended. Eyebrows were raised when we announced our intention to travel to the city for New Year’s Eve. People even questioned the sanity of my husband for taking his wife along on the trip. The recent floods in the city that sent Nikonians everywhere into hoarding mode, didn’t make things easy for us. In fact we had almost made up our minds that we were going to a city that was filled with cheesy malls, seedy bars with anatomically ambiguous dancers, tuk tuk filled traffic laden roads that were in desperate need of repair, bursting at the seams with dirt and people. What we saw however, was a bustling metropolis that co-exists with its traditional roots and could have been any city in the modern world except for the distinctly “Thai” architecture of its temples and palaces.

Salacious – is probably a good word to describe Bangkok. In Liz Gilbert’s style that is probably the word I would give it. It’s a city that is alive and bumping and grinding till the wee hours of the morning. Her people wake up to the spicy smell of chicken and rice, while tourists trundle on their way back to their hotel beds after a night of hard partying. As the city stirs awake in the morning, long commuter boats line up along the canals getting ready for the morning commute, vendors open up breakfast stalls to hawk everything from mango with sticky rice to congee with prawns. Like a spring awakening, Bangkok mornings are rife with color. Tuk Tuks in bright blue with electric pink seats, vendors with tropical fruits in every color of the rainbow, street stalls laying out tables and mini plastic stools in electric shades of the color wheel, pearly pink prawns being sautéed to perfection and the morning sky brilliantly reflecting off the steely façade of the high rises.

Corner shrines are getting spruced up for their influx of devotees on the go. Yesterday’s flowers and incense are discarded to make way for the new. Bright yellow marigolds adorn the golden statues of Buddha or Shiva or Brahma or whichever god reigns supreme on that street. As they pass by, the pious buy their set of incense and flowers, walk in through one gate, kneel in prayer in front of the deity, offer their obeisance and walk out through another gate. Somewhere in the corner, the sweet smell of toffee flavored, toddy like coconut comes wafting in. Just as you figure out the direction, a hawker chops off the top of a coconut and hands it to a thirst passerby. The satisfaction in the sweetness of the coconut is evident in the smile that comes out as the reflex to a quenched thirst.

A worn-out tourist with a child hanging down his neck hails a cab and we realize just in time that we are next in line for one as well. Hopping in, we hand the driver a card with the address of our destination, and off we go and join the maddeningly long traffic jams of Bangkok.  Its’ hot in December and the air conditioner is on, the bored driver switches on his radio. I will never understand why the Thai’s listen to music that should belong and be heard in private karaoke clubs in the 80’s. Its electronic pop sung with the gusto of a drunk karaoke singer who thinks they sound like Billy Joel! Now that has some serious potential for permanent brain damage. It takes an hour to traverse a distance of 10kms, and what should look like a majestic palace or temple looks more a like an endless array of touristy souvenir shops. It takes a while to learn that Thai vendors don’t take ‘No’ easily, so once you master the art of ignoring, you are delivered at the ticket counter far earlier!

Legacy, tradition, craft, and history have a huge role to play in Thailand. Buddhism is finely woven into the fabric of Thailand and Bangkok’s greatest treasures and symbols were borne out of these threads. The final set of tapestries, that I had the chance to feast my eyes on, are strewn all over Bangkok. From the temple of the Golden Buddha to Wat Pho – on the banks of the Chao Praya river, they reek of a certain sense of royal glory as opposed to the austere look and feel that one expects of a Buddhist shrine.  Then again that is quintessentially Bangkok – there is a sense of over the top exaggeration in everything. There is no sense of peace and quiet to be had at any of these temples, they are tourist attractions and merely that at this point, so if the milling crowds akin to the lines outside Best Buy on Black Friday, albeit much less aggressive, are not your kind of thing, then this definitely is the wrong place to be. But there is much wonderment to be had once inside – there is a sense of scale, grandeur, intricacy and color in every etched piece of glass or tile. I could wax eloquent on the brilliant pieces of art and handiwork adorning every wall at Wat Pho, but then why must I make this blog an unofficial tourist brochure. There is some proof in the pictures that accompany this post and I am sure they do justice.

If climbing steep ascents and taking ferry boats just to see a shrine is too much to do, perhaps floating in a long wooden boat down a stinky canal lined with as many clothes, curios and touristy brick-a-brack is appetizing? Especially when you throw in a heady mix of  bumper cars but the long boat version, with fresh Thai food and aggressive Thai hawkers who literally reign in the boats – then the floating markets of Thailand are a veritable feast. It’s another place where the tourists out number the Thai’s and no one can escape without a souvenir from here. Experiencing a traffic jam on the road with aggressive drivers is one thing, but to experience it on water – in which you wouldn’t dip a finger tip in- is a whole other experience. The bright side though is that, one can’t truly capsize because there really is no space for a boat to turnover.

Ringing in the final year of human existence as the Mayans predict, definitely calls for celebration – after all, if this is the last New Year’s Eve of my life then surely I want to go out with a bang! And from the rooftop pool bar on the 37th Floor with ring side seats to Bangkok’s main celebrations and fireworks show, we rang in the New Year with our old buddy Veuve Clicquot and some new buddies from Holland and France. Faith intertwined that day as well, with 300 people sharing every square inch around the bar, 6 strangers and travelers from different corners of the globe met for the first time over a glass of champagne and the need to share a single table, to usher in a banging New Year in Bangkok!

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A Toast to a Salacious New Year