We’re not sure when we will be back here and so the trip, at this point, has taken on some heavy nostalgia for me. I came to Thailand the first time around 30 years ago. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been back but it is somewhere around 15 visits. Despite some trouble with my health this time my by now familiar fondness for Thailand remains undiminished despite all the changes that have taken place here. With new territory to explore thanks to our European base we think we may not be back for awhile and as a result I am very happy we have decided to stay at the Atlanta Hotel in Bangkok for our last few days.
The Atlanta Hotel was built in 1952. The King (deceased) and Queen used to dine here in the restaurant. Back then it was called the Continental and was a bit more posh (!)…The hotel owners, eccentric as they come, have watched the neighborhood deteriorate in some unfortunate ways; we are very close to some of Bangkok’s most infamous bargirl establishments and as a result the hotel has developed a strict set of rules for its guests, the top one being no sex tourism. The hotel itself went through a major decline in the 70s and when it was rescued a decision was made to invest in the art deco lobby but to just make the rooms habitable without major refurbishment. As a result, the rates remain amazingly low for a comfortable hotel with a pool and garden and some amazing art deco décor in the very heart of busy, crazy Bangkok.
We arrived in Bangkok by train from Prachuap Kirikhan the day before yesterday. We took a third-class train (the only way to get our bikes in a baggage car) and as it turns out we rode in the baggage car with the bikes, along with motorcycles and food sellers and bags of produce headed for various markets along the route. For seven hours, we sat on hard plastic benches and joked with our fellow passenger, whose name I never learned, who is from around Milan and has spent his whole life travelling with no home base. He was full of information and stories about living on 5000 euros a year…but also had a lot to say about the superiority of Italian food and wine (over French)…all in good fun.
We arrived at the Thonburi station around 12 kms from our hotel. I decided to skip cycling in Friday evening rush hour Bangkok traffic (!) so took a tuk tuk with my bike strapped to the back (adventurous enough in my opinion) while my adventure junkie husband put on his helmet and merged his bike into the chaos.
I enjoyed my ride and reminisced on my own as my tuk tuk driver, skillfully avoiding the worst of the traffic jams, took me on a tour of downtown Bangkok. Reunited a couple of hours later, Ian and I compared notes here at the hotel restaurant where nostalgia is also heavy on the menu (he had chicken a la king, fondly remembered from our previous stay here in 2008 and his childhood).
And so as we wrap up our trip, which has not really been about cycling since we stopped at Prachuap Kirikhan a week or so ago, I am in the mood to wander Bangkok streets and old neighborhoods and think about all the changes I’ve seen this trip.
The first of course is that the King died in October 2016. He was much loved and respected and Thailand is still observing a mourning period. There are billboards everywhere with a picture of the King on a black background and black and white ribbon and bunting adorn every public building. Civil servants and some businesses observed the period with a change of wardrobe, trading in pink or yellow golf shirts for black ones. The result, respectful as planned and I’m sure unexpectedly is quite chic. I’ve also noticed coffee bars everywhere – here in a country where you once had trouble finding nescafe in a jar. These Starbucks like (and perhaps inspired by) places have all the favourite caffeinated treats and are full of twenty somethings in skinny jeans and retro-fashionable tops (only grandmas wear sarongs anymore) playing on their smart phones. We also saw many many more Thai tourists and shared many a resort with them on our travels, where we were always a minority and often the only westerners in a hotel. I can’t say how happy I am to see this as globalization here as meant an increased standard of living for many people and after years of seeing mainly old white men exploiting young Thai women it is very satisfying to watch Thais enjoy their own country.
But the old Thailand still remains in the markets and in the crazy entrepreneurship of the Thais (what can’t you carry on a motorcycle is the question, or maybe what can’t you sell from the back of a motorcycle is a better question). The cheap but amazing food sold by the street hawkers is just as plentiful as it always was and the outdoor very social life of the Thais has not diminished with development.
As we make plans to get back home to our lovely village and lovely friends (and cat!) I leave Bangkok amazed that I have now have fond memories going back 30 years. Whew. Where does the time go…