Seduced by a land of smiles
I HAD died and gone to heaven.
Pina colada in one hand, camera in the other, I sauntered in my high heels and little black lacy number around the narrow walkway behind the circular cocktail bar to drink in the breathtaking views.
In the cloud-covered darkness of the open-air gathering, my way was lit by the bar's neon glow, which rhythmically morphed from one colour to another. But this was no tacky disco.
This was a chic fairyland called Sky Bar on the 63rd floor of Lebua at State Tower in Bangrak, Bangkok.
Directly above us like a Grecian monument, The Dome dominated proceedings.
Golden-capped and housing Distil (64th) and Mezzaluna (65th floor) restaurants, the monolithic structure had us marvelling at the wonders of modern-day architecture and the logistics of building at such giddy heights.
Far below us, Friday night traffic chocked the motorways snaking into and out of the city.
In the background, an American singer and her band delivered smooth jazz for our entertainment.
But from where we stood, we were rock stars – soaking up the high life, basking in the richness of Thai hospitality, wishing the night would last forever.
Dress standards apply but you don't have to be staying at Lebua to enjoy the hospitality.
With lightning still sparking attention in the clouds, we decided to brave the threat of a shower and dine only steps away at Thailand's highest al fresco restaurant, Sirocco, serving fine Mediterranean cuisine by candlelight.
After savouring mouth-watering selections of beef carpaccio entrée and a superb lobster main course with trofie pasta, washed down with a Chilean sauvignon blanc, I was on top of the world.
Later, as I flopped on to the kingsize bed in my 55th floor suite with a riverside view, I thought of my arrival in Bangkok two days earlier and how wrong first impressions and preconceived ideas can be.
Thailand, with its 63million people, had never been on my tourist radar, even though I knew friends who returned year after year to the kingdom known as “the land of smiles”.
“The incident”, as Bangkok locals refer to the recent protests, also had made me tentative about taking up the offer to experience Thailand for the first time.
On a walking tour of the protest “hotspots”, smashed windows, structural damage and burnt trees and buildings – especially at the Zen lifestyle mall in the Central World Trade Centre in Ratchaprasong – are visible reminders of the recent ugly past.
But more prominent are the massive billboards, banners and signs that have since been erected, proclaiming, “Together we can”, in an effort to rebuild relationships.
And while my first impressions from our mini-bus from Suvarnabhumi International Airport was of another sprawling, Asian metropolis with a labyrinth of motorways, soaring towers and skyscrapers, I soon came to realise cosmopolitan Bangkok has many pieces to her puzzle. She is a vibrant, 24-hour city that happily marries old and new Thailand.
Her official name, Krung Thep, translates as “the city of angels” and the Thai people are not only beautiful but also friendly, polite, generous, and eager to please.
A smile goes a long way here. A respectful sawadee ka (for women) or krap (for men), slight bow of the head and wai (hands in prayer like a lotus flower) goes further. A korp kun ka “thank you” is even more greatly appreciated.
As a woman exploring on her own, I never felt frightened or threatened while walking through markets, down alleys and up main roads that seemingly never end.
A great majority of signs are in English as well as Thai to help tourists navigate their way, although being hopelessly lost can be surprisingly exhilarating.
Over five full days, I welcomed Bangkok into my heart and let my senses take me on a journey of discovery. The food, religion, quaint customs and traditions, great shopping, culture and folk art, the nightlife, the language, and even the seedier side of life at infamous areas such as Soi Nana make for a bountiful experience.
I've seen hotels that reach for the sky, countless market stalls and street vendors who never seem to sleep, exquisite high-fashion displays in department stores, and hard-working massage therapists who will soothe tired feet for an hour for less than the price of a burger back home.
The colourful spectacle of cut flowers, garlands and clever floral arrangements of the night Flower Market at Pakklong Talad was only surpassed by the sight of grown men attempting to swallow “snacks” of grasshopper, cricket, beetle, sea and bamboo worms (and one is still trying to dislodge a grasshopper leg from his teeth).
Local Thais nattering to one another in their own language as they sat at folding tables and chairs at a footpath food stall always brought a smile to my face, as did the skinny dogs lying asleep by the roadside in a square of shade in the 35C heat – unperturbed by daily life around them.
I have glimpsed the simple canal life on the khlongs, and haggled inexpertly but joyfully with stallholders for everything from handbags and T-shirts to silk cushion covers and miniature ornaments.
While chaotic traffic jams are an accepted part of life, beeping and road rage are as rare as raised voices in this gentle country.
I am in awe of the Thais' devotion to Buddhism in their majestic temples such as the Khmer-style Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and elegance of the Grand Palace grounds (covering 218,000 square metres, and built in 1782) with its renowned Emerald Buddha – carved from a single block of jade.
Their love of their king is endearing, with larger-than-life photographs plastered on walls and “long live the king” banners on dilapidated khlong verandas.
I have dined at tables rich in quintessentially Thai dishes fit for a queen on the river at Yok Yor Restaurant, in a railway carriage-style private room at Rosabieng Restaurant, at a funky Greyhound Café, at touristy River Side Plaza, and at a civic reception for 700 tourism VIPs at the Centara Grand Hotel ballroom.
While my digital camera worked overtime, the aromas of early morning food stalls presenting soups and curries and deep-fried everything, incense burning beside offerings in the temples, lemon grass and coriander by the spoonful, and sweet fragrances of massage oils permeating spa foyers will stay with me a long time, too.
I am convinced that the more you see Bangkok, the more you want to see. The longer you stay, the longer you want to stay. Like wine appreciation, getting to know Bangkok is an ongoing process, cultivated over time – taking note of the good and the bad, but overall enjoying a satisfying experience and wanting to taste more.
For a girl from big country-town Brisbane, this big city with its 10million people was intoxicating – and you can be drunk on her charms even without downing coconut-flavoured cocktails at a great height.
GOOD TO KNOW
The annual Amazing Thailand Grand Sale continues until August 15, offering visitors great bargain shopping.
How to get there:
From this Monday to October 30 this year, Thai Airways flies from Brisbane to Bangkok non-stop on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. The non-stop Bangkok to Brisbane flight is at 11.59pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Where to stay:
Lebua Hotels and Resorts State Tower, 1055 Silom Road, Bangrak, Bangkok.
Restaurants and bars include Tower Club Lounge on 52nd floor, Cafe Mozu (Lebanese, Indian, Italian, Thai for breakfast, lunch and supper, M floor), Breeze Asian and Ocean 52 Bar (51-52nd floor), Sirocco and Sky Bar (63rd floor), Distil (64th floor), Mezzaluna Italian (65th floor).
Rembrandt Hotel, 19 Sukhumvit Soi 18, Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok. . Includes 407 well-appointed rooms and suites in a central business, entertainment and shopping precinct, with nearby Skytrain and underground metro stations. An exclusive executive lounge for business travellers is joined by five award-winning restaurants including what is considered the best Indian cuisine in Bangkok at the rooftop Rang Mahal, plus da Vinci Italian, Senor Pico Mexican, Red Pepper Thai and The Café for meals, snacks and refreshments any time.
Who can help you:
Your local travel agent.
Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau: Siam Tower, 26th floor, 989 Rama I Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok.