DURING my recent trip to Manila I decided to take a side trip to Bangkok in Thailandafter two close friends, Amin and William who were already there, kept insistingthat I come visit them.
My Filipino host Aris, who also happens to be a travel agent, arranged my reservations, giving me a choice of Philippine Airlines and Thai Airways. The PAL fare was $10 more expensive but the departure times going and coming back were both better than Thai’s. So PAL it was.
I was excited to see both Amin and William as I had not seen both of them since 2001. Amin used to live in Jeddah, but was now exporting Egyptian marble to Thailand and China, while William was Korean and about to start teaching in Australia.
Driving to the airport in a taxi from Makati I saw all of the fallen branches torn from the many trees in Forbes Park by Typhoon Mileyno piled up alongside the road in neat piles. Nearing PAL’s Millennium Terminal we passed the gleaming Terminal 3 of NAIA, which despite having been ready three years ago to be used by the public, stills sits empty, the victim of corruption and a government wrangle with the contractor that built it. The Philippine government now says it will start operating in early 2007. I will believe it once I see it happen.
Modern and resplendent in glass and white marble, PAL’s Millennium Terminal was a great change from the decrepit and moldy Terminal 1 of NAIA that I had flown in through. After checking in quickly and clearing immigration I saw a plaque that said the terminal was a gift from the Japanese government to the people of the Philippines. Even though it was finished in 1997, I fly so little on PAL that it took me nearly ten years to use it.
The flight to Bangkok was only one third full, so there was plenty of room to stretch out. I had not forgotten how PAL, like most US airlines, does not fire its flight attendants once they reach 27 years of age, unlike most Asian airlines who want to keep their staff looking fresh and young. I find out from my chubby and motherly looking attendant sitting right in front of me that PAL stopped flying to Saudi Arabia last year because of what she claims is a clause in the contract of all Filipinos deployed to Saudi that says they have to fly on Saudi Arabian Airlines. I find that hard to believe, given that PAL has stopped flying to all of its European and Mideast destinations in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. In any event, the airline is now doing better and is planning on getting new aircraft and once again fly to Europe and the Middle East.
We land at Bangkok’s newSuvarnabhumi airport that just opened a few weeks before. I walk through miles of concrete corridors until I reach the immigration counters. Several flights have arrived at once, so it takes me around 30 minutes to clear immigration, and by then my suitcase is also just arriving on the baggage claim belt.
Amin and William look the same when I meet them, a little older, but basically the same. We are whisked back to Amin’s hotel in a rented Volvo that comes with a matching driver. I see not a single tank of soldier on the streets of Bangkok despite a military coup that just took place a few weeks before. It seems the soldiers were recalled to their barracks, depriving me of the chance to report back unrest to my journalist friends in Manila who had seemed excited at the prospect of me going to a country under martial law.
The next day I go shopping with Amin in one of Bangkok’s many large shopping malls. We stop in an opticians and I end up buying a pair of Porsche Design glasses that I really like even though they cost 8,000 baht. Amin teases the saleslady mercilessly over the price, but she jokingly goes along. He later teases another saleslady who is trying to get him to buy a pair of fake Diesel jeans. He manages to get her so riled up that she’s practically shouting at us in the end, and I have to admonish Amin to stop teasing the woman.
Amin thinks it is great fun to provoke the usually peaceful Buddhist Thais to the point of angry outbursts. I find it less funny and have to keep telling him to cut it out, though I wish he would have done it more when I ask one woman in a luggage shop to show me a fake Louis Vuitton bag that she initially will only show me in a catalogue.
“Are you sure you’re going to buy it?!” she asks me.
“No, I have to see and feel it first,” I say, indignant that someone would want me to buy something like a leather bag before touching and feeling it.
She then pulled out a horrid bag from a large suitcase where the shop was hiding all of its fake LV bags.
“Sorry no. I don’t want it,” I said to the visibly upset woman after she insisted on a horrible price for it.
But don’t be upset for this woman. Thailand is positively crawling with foreign tourists who seem more than happy to pay the inflated prices that Thais quote them because no doubt when converted into euros and dollars they don’t seem so steep. But Amin is a cunning shopper as he knows much of the designer knock-offs are mass produced in China for rock bottom prices. Walking along the streets with its night vendors he warns me to not pay more than 1/10th of any price initially quoted. Fake designer wallets, watches and pens are in abundance as well as piratedDVDs and CDs.
“Sex movies, sir!” is said to us repeatedly by young male vendors holding up little cardboard signs with the same words written on them in case we don’t get it the first time. Despite prostitution being legal, and an abundance of go-go bars for both straight and gay men, selling sex movies here must still be illegal. If say yes, they take you across the street to a back alley restaurant/house where they let you choose the titles you like. At 50 baht a pop, it’s pretty cheap.
Thais are very friendly and peaceful, though I still cannot get used to sound of their language. I meet several of Amin’s friends when we go to DJ Station, a disco where we dance the night away to Beyonce after having watched a funny in-house drag show. Although all bars are supposed to close at 2 a.m. as part of the Thai government’s efforts to make Thailand a more family-friendly destination (gag me, please!) William’s cute Indian friend Amit takes use to an after-hours club where he swears we will see mostly people from DJ Station who weren’t able to score any take home dates.
After walking for 15 minutes and getting slightly lost, true enough we find the after-hours club full of people we had seen earlier at DJ Station. Only here everyone looks drunker and higher than ever. By 3:30 a.m. I suggest we go home as I’m knackered and finding it hard to stay awake.
At the end of my Thai sojourn I find myself walking through kilometers of overpricedduty free shops at Suvarnabhumi airport just to get to the gate where my flight is departing from, no doubt a well-planned ploy to try and get passengers to part with hard-earned cash to help pay for the construction of the airport.