The blurb of Tourism Authority of Thailand sells the country as “Amazing Thailand”. Thailand, indeed, amazes you. Endowed richly by nature and coupled with its cultural heritage the place offers all that makes an attractive destination. It has everything – beach tourism, adventure tourism, nature tourism, temple tourism and what have you. All those have been remarkably exploited to give tourists an unique experience. Welcoming as the Thais are one feels like going there over and over again.
That is precisely what my wife and I did late last year. I had been to Thailand in 1981 and 1982 and again with my wife in 2003. But we could not resist the temptation of going there again. An added attraction was my Thai friend for 30 years, and his beautiful family who, like all Thais, are very charming, hospitable and a delight to be with. Not interested in any kind of tourism, this time we just wanted to be there and spend some time with them.
Visiting Thailand after almost a decade we came across enormous changes – changes that, perhaps, cannot be wrought in India in the same length of time. Below is a brief description of all those changes and other significant features that attracted our attention.
This time the Air India plane landed at the spanking new Suvarnabhumi Airport located about 25 kilometres away from Bangkok. The Don Mueang international airport is still in use for domestic and regional flights but its inadequacy was being increasingly felt. Spread over around 8000-odd acres Suvarnabhumi is a massive airport that makes a passenger walk around a kilometre to have the entry formalities completed. Conceived about a decade and a half ago, its commissioning got delayed because of political and financial problems. All that is behind it now and it has become one of the busiest airports of Asia. A lovely Expressway links it to Bangkok. We, however, were taken beyond the metropolis by my friend to Nonthaburi, around 20 kilometres further west. Although we did not use it, there is a standard gauge high speed rail link with Bangkok that connects with its subway and sky-train systems.
I remembered Nonthaburi from our 2003 visit as a far-away suburb of Bangkok, removed from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. My friend had his house there and had shown us around. It was beyond Laksi that was in the outskirts of Bangkok and still developing with several institutions coming up in the area. The Asia-Pacific Postal Training Centre was located there. The place seemed to me to be of rustic type with traces of civic amenities reminiscent of our Indian towns. This time as we approached it we found a sea-change. Laksi was unrecognisable and no longer what it was. Peppered with institutions with their magnificent complexes it is no longer the ‘outback’ that it used to be. Many public authorities, including my friends’ Telecom Authority, have moved here to their expansive complexes from the crowded interiors of Bangkok. A huge, imaginative government complex too has come up accommodating most of the government offices in one monolith of a building with a beautiful facade. Its covered inner court is so massive that officials use segways to commute to its various parts.
If Laksi was unrecognisable Nonthaburi was no less. Situated on Chao Phraya River the place of about 250,000 has undergone a dramatic change in these nine years. It has shed its quiet sub-urban residential sleepy ambiance and has become a bustling town of massive malls, 24-hours convenience stores and street markets just as Bangkok. Only the mass transit systems of subway and skyways are yet to arrive. The work for them, however, is on and it will soon be closely linked with Bangkok. My friend continues to stay in his bungalow in the same lane which has since been upgraded with modern shopping, cafes and the ubiquitous street food joints. Nonthaburi has recently been designated as a “growth centre”.
Amazingly massive malls in Nonthaburi co-exist with small retailers, street markets that open for limited hours and street food outlets. Obviously foreign investment in retail has not caused the upheaval that the Indian politicians have been apprehensive of because of government’s decision on foreign direct investment in retail trade. In fact small traders operate from next to the malls or from in front of them. Even the omnipresent international chain of 24-hour convenience stores called “7-Eleven” have not had any effect on the small mom-and-pop type store. Obviously the market is big enough for everyone to do business in. The Indian fears clearly were largely exaggerated and politically motivated and has avoidably set the country back by a few years.
The Thais have taken to condos in a big way. All over one sees high-rise condominiums (condos for short) coming up. In fact, Laksi and Nonthaburi are dotted with condos. It is apparently good business as the large foreign expat population go for them. No wonder the rents have gone up and so have the land prices. Even the government has got into the act. Huge numbers of multi-storeyed condos have been built in a cluster for those who cannot afford to buy the fancy ones from builders – a very thoughtful step.
For an Indian going abroad from the country’s chaotic traffic in its cities the traffic in Nonthaburi, as in other towns, despite rising number of vehicles, appeared to be far more civilized. Yes, there are hold-ups but none would either break the traffic rules to get ahead or persistently honk like they do here. One just doesn’t hear car horns there. Bangkok was once known for its traffic chaos but, I guess, over time things have changed. What’s more, small cars are passé. People go for sedans and SUVs/MUVs, Toyota being the preferred make. Commuting is cheap as it is ethanol that is used and covering a kilometre in a Toyota Corolla takes just a Baht – Rupees 2/-. Amazing, isn’t it?
This time we travelled through towns and villages in the country. We travelled to far north-east to Sakon Nakhon, Saraburi in Central Thailand and Nakon Pathom in the east. Though each differs slightly from the other because of slight cultural differences yet the feature that stands out is exceedingly well-run villages and towns. Governance seems to be pretty strong and having been so over long years has made the people conform to the civic requirements. Whether it is a village or a town or even a crowded city one wouldn’t see disorder, filth and litter anywhere.
One wonders whether it is because of the adulation for the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his Queen, Somdej Phra Boromarajini, whose portraits in their regalia adorn every important place in every town, road and highway junctions, foot over-bridges, government buildings and so on. Virtually omnipresent, the Royal couple seems to be keenly looking and assessing all the goings-on in their Kingdom. Thais look up to them and hold them in the highest of esteem.