Sunday, June 11, 2006

What We Saw

Sometimes, what makes a holiday memorable isn't what was on the itinerary per se but the incidental and the unplanned.

The 60th Anniversary of the King's Coronation

When we first realised that our trip would coincide with this occasion, we were a little concerned that our plans would be disrupted. We weren't so worried about tourist attractions being closed, sight-seeing not being our top priority, but what about the shops? Would it be crowded everywhere?

outside the JW Marriott

the pose King Bhumipol is best known for

That the city was in an excited state of preparation for the celebrations was obvious. From the many congratulatory billboards to the many people voluntarily dressed in yellow, the royal colour, it was a spontaneous outpouring of sentiment and support by the Thai people for their beloved king.

a sea of yellow

Little wonder too, as the Thai royal family, especially King Bhumipol and his eldest daughter Princess Maha Chakri, is well-known for its untiring work to improve the lot of the rural folk in Thailand, rather than for scandal. We were reminded of this by all-day coverage on Thai television, with old footage of the King getting all down and dirty on his visits to the provinces being shown in between the many ceremonies. As we were told during a live telecast of one of the ceremonies, the King upholds the ten principles of Buddhist kingship, so don't play play.

a word from the Crown Prince, at Siam Discovery Centre

Anyway, it was business as usual for the tourist industry. The closest we got to the royal celebrations was an encounter with some royal personnages of unknown ethnicity at Siam Paragon; we were ushered out of the way of the entourage, presumably one of the 25 royal families invited. Other than that, we did get to watch the fireworks that were held nightly at various focal points around the city, from Lumpini Park to the Chao Phraya river.

The most touching moment for me was the taking of the pledge of allegiance. We had not realised that this ceremony was on the cards. HM was at the gym while I was wandering around the neighbourhood with my camera. At one point, I popped into an internet cafe just to check my email. When I emerged, night had fallen and I noticed groups of people gathering on the pavements. At first, I thought perhaps the King's motorcade was going to pass by. Then I realised that some ceremony was being broadcast live; the volume of many a TV had been turned up loud and some businesses had even pushed their TVs out onto the streets.

outside one of Nana's bars

From bargirl to sous chef, to itinerant hawker, everyone had a candle in hand. Then, with hand over heart, they took the pledge in unison and burst out in song wholeheartedly. Presumably, they were singing songs that celebrated the Kingship and they did so with such enthusiasm that I felt vaguely ashamed of how Singaporeans sing the Singapore National Anthem.

outside the Landmark Hotel

In the end, the only anomaly we faced as a result of the occasion was on the morning we were due to leave. The government had issued an advisory for all tourists flying off that morning to leave for the airport four hours ahead of time, instead of the usual two hours. This was due to road closures resulting from the arrival of the royal guests. We duly left at 9 a.m., only to arrive at the airport 45 minutes later and find out that we would not be able to check in till 10.30 a.m. Duh...

The Atlanta Hotel

Years ago, when we last visited Bangkok, we had done it backpacker style. We had 21 days to spend in Thailand, and other than the capital city, Krabi and Phi Phi Island were on our itinerary. Hence we had had to stretch our budget.

Lonely Planet (that edition, not the current one) had devoted half a page to the Atlanta Hotel. The author had been charmed by the place. It was in the budget price range but apparently something quite different from the typical backpacker dorm, a real class act for its decor, history and swimming pool! The description was intriguing. (To find out more, check out the Atlanta Hotel's website.)

The hotel turned out to be surprisingly popular amongst the "independent traveller" crowd. When we returned from Krabi and Phi Phi, we had to wait for someone to check out before we could have a room. And, despite the run-down state of the rooms, we had a memorable stay. Since we were staying in the vicinity this time around, I could not resist re-visiting the Atlanta to capture a few shots for posterity.

But our first challenge in Bangkok then was locating the Atlanta. On our arrival in Bangkok, we had hopped onto an airport bus which deposited us along Th. Sukhumvit, a soi or two down. Bearing our heavy backpacks under the hot sun, we had made our way to Soi 2.

JW Marriott on the left, Ploenchit Centre on the right, and a long way to go...

We trudged our way all the way down the soi until we reached the end. It was a very long soi, flanked by residential properties and littered with dog faeces, but it was a very quiet soi. Right at the end, we were perplexed to find a church but no hotel, hostel, dormitory, nada.

what hotel, where hotel? is that a church?

On our right, there was what looked like an old school building.

can't be this, can it?

And then we spotted something which we had read about, something about an old Plymouth which the owner of the hotel still maintained and occasionally gave rides to the airport with.

what's that parked beneath?

A closer look at the building revealed that, voila, indeed we had come to the right place. There was no sign then to confirm that this was the Atlanta. (Indeed, the sign only came up the day after I took this photograph i.e. on this trip five years later!)

read the small print

I would have loved to have taken photographs of the interior but, if the closed door was any indication, the budget hotel had become even more exclusive. Otherwise, nothing else seemed to have changed. Time may have led to changes along the soi - the residential properties were slowly but surely giving way to commercial developments such as the Majestic Grande, the pavements were no longer decorated with dog poo - but the Atlanta has withstood the test of time.

Riding on the Skytrain

When we were in Bangkok the last time, the Skytrain had just been built. It was mostly used by tourists and there were few locals on board, possibly because the fares were a lot more expensive than that of the buses. This time round, the stations were chock a block with locals, especially during the morning and evening rush hour, and before and after the royal ceremonies. Interestingly enough, we noticed that inevitably there would be neat queues. Thailand is just so civilised. (HM's other observation is that the Thai people smell nicer than Singaporeans.)

can you beat that?!

even when no one is around...


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