Among the many things that surprise me about Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, is how nothing stops the world from visiting. I have been writing about Thailand regularly for nearly four decades and during that time almost every disaster you can imagine has happened: floods, tsunami, Covid, SARS, Bird Flu, coups, road closures, airport shut-downs and even bullet attacks on protesting students by armed soldiers in the streets.
And yet Thailand keeps going. It bounces back remarkably quickly and visitors just can’t seem to stay away.
Last week when I was there, the Thai papers complained that the country would not reach its hugely ambitious tourism target for the year because Chinese tourists had not yet returned in droves. And certainly, at the very top end of the luxury sector, you could tell that the usual July dip (it is monsoon there too) had happened: hotels and top restaurants were doing very well but were not at absolutely 100 percent occupancy.
But outside of those sectors, there was no evidence of a slowdown. At Bangkok airport, there were huge lines at Immigration though, because every counter was manned, they still managed to clear passengers relatively quickly. The shopping malls were all packed out and tourist-shoppers were buying away.
Thailand is much smaller than India (it is about the size of a single large-ish Indian state) but it has always got three to four times the number of tourists that India has ever managed.
I have always wondered why they do so much better than us. One obvious reason is the importance that all Thai governments, whether civilian or military, have traditionally attached to tourism. In India, tourism is a sideshow and rarely does the portfolio get the minister or the attention that it deserves. (To be fair, there have been some notable exceptions.)
In Thailand, it doesn’t really matter who the minister is; tourism is handled by the non-political Tourism Authority of Thailand(TAT), which is not only the best-run tourism body in all of Asia but performs better than any similar body I have come across anywhere in the world. (Dubai Tourism probably comes second.)
The reason why so many Indians visit Thailand (India is always among the top two or three countries from which tourists to Thailand originate) is because TAT has spent so long promoting the destination here. I have seen them in action for over two decades now and I marvel at their professionalism and enterprise. (Lest you think they had anything to do with my trip, let me make it clear that they did not pay for my visit. Given how often I go to Thailand, I imagine I would run though their media budget very quickly if they started paying for my tickets, hotels and meals!)
But despite TAT’s endeavours, there are obstacles when it comes to visiting Thailand. When my pal Chutintorn Sam Gongsakdi, a great friend of India, ran the Embassy, things were much easier. The Thais gave frequent travellers like me long-term, multi-entry visas (as say Singapore and all Western countries do). Now, they don’t go beyond six months. It is a bizarre policy: more work for the consular department at the Embassy and a hassle for visitors. Many people I know used to stop in Bangkok for a day or two or their way to other Asian destinations (Tokyo, Bali, Korea etc.). That has now become much more difficult.
And the only reason my passport runs out of pages so quickly is because every year I have to devote two pages to Thai visas. I can only assume that the current Ambassador is not aware of this curious policy. But I do wish they would go back to the sensible policies of old. It would mean less work for the Embassy and would increase the flow of affluent visitors to Thailand.
Then there is the problem with flights. At present Thai Airways has the most flights from Delhi but many of its seats are taken up by passengers who are only changing planes in Bangkok. Of our two premier carriers, Air India had withdrawn the Dreamliner it used to fly on the sector and replaced it with khatara old aircraft, the last time I travelled. And the Vistara fight is nearly as bad.
Between the embassy and the airlines, it is almost as though they are actually diverting passengers to Singapore or some other Asian destination. But, such is the attraction of Thailand that Indians go anyway.
One of the joys of Bangkok is that there is enough scope to make every visit seem different. This time I forsook my regular routine of staying in central Bangkok and going to the s tried and trusted restaurants. (Thai is one of the world’s great cuisines.) Instead, I stayed at the Peninsula on the other side of the Chao Praya river.
As you may know, the original Peninsula is in Hong Kong, where it is widely regarded as the city’s best and grandest hotel even though it is in Kowloon, on the other side of the bay from the island of Hong Kong. I remember that when the Bangkok Peninsula opened in 1998, I found it interesting that it had also chosen the other side — in this case, the river rather than the bay — looking across the water at the skyscrapers of modern Bangkok and of course, the stately old Oriental Hotel.
The Hong Kong Peninsula opened in 1928 and is built like a grand hotel of that period. The Bangkok Peninsula was built 70 years later so it is far more contemporary but it shares its Hong Kong parent’s capacity to provide great views. I first stayed there when it was new but I found this time that it had aged gracefully taking on a stately riverside elegance.
Living on the river gives you a different perspective on Bangkok. For a start, you use the Chao Phraya as your thoroughfare. The Peninsula offers free boat services to nearly any destination on the banks of the river (including the Skytrain station) so we got used to travelling in the luxurious wooden boats done up in traditional Thai style that the hotel maintains. They took us to the Icon Siam mall (where Alain Ducasse has a restaurant) and to different parts of historic Bangkok.
There has been, in recent years, an attempt to rediscover historical Bangkok. The Peninsula offers free Thonburi tours which take you to the magnificent Wat Arun temple and down the klongs (canals) lined on each side with old wooden houses.
It’s a very different Bangkok from the Bangkok of Sukhumvit Road which is where most Indian visitors base themselves (with the odd side trip to the Siam Paragon mall) and it is actually much closer to the real Thailand than Sukhumvit is. My tip to anyone going to Bangkok is: get out of Sukhumvit! There are many much nicer areas with wonderful hotels, restaurants and shops (Ploenchit, Sathorn etc) and if you want a relaxed holiday then nothing beats the river.
Not far from the Chao Praya is the Nusara restaurant. Nusara is run by Chef Ton who Indians will know from his frequent trips here. When Ton last cooked in Delhi as part of a Culinary Culture pop-up, I did an onstage interaction with him for an invited audience of foodies, food writers and hospitality professionals.
Ton is young and youthful in his manner and spoke honestly about the challenges of trying to do something different with one of the world’s oldest and greatest cuisines at Le Du, his flagship restaurant, at Nusara and at the other restaurants he was opening around Asia.
Shortly after our chat, Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants named Le Du as the best restaurant in Asia. Nusara came in at number three. Never before has a single chef got two restaurants into the Top three.
The original Nusara was charming and secluded. There was no signage, you had to find it hidden above a bar. Ton has now moved Nusara to another location nearby and this one is more elegant and more like what people expect a Michelin starred restaurant to be. The food is the same though: traditional Thai with beautiful presentation.
But what I loved most was the ambience. My window table looked out at the Wat Po temple and as Ton’s sommeliers poured Krug champagne (Ton is an ambassador for the brand), I looked out at the majesty of the temple silhouetted against the night sky and said to myself “this is what Bangkok is all about.”