TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
... AND WAR
Travel industry publicist Geoffrey Weill takes us through his time in Bangkok.
As Americans and Europeans start jetting around the world again after more than two years of the mightiest pandemic since the Spanish Flu, we’ve come to believe that even though, yes, there’s still a lot of Covid-19 out there, we’re getting pretty much back to normal.
But then your Turkish Airlines Airbus A330-300 – with every seat filled – lands at
Bangkok’s massive Suvarnabhumi Airport. You taxi for what seems like forever to the gate, and rumble past dozens of purple and gold Thai Airways aircraft. Their engine intakes are sealed with circular red discs to keep out wind and dust. Giant double-decker Airbus A380’s and massive Boeing 777’s are parked so close to each other they couldn’t maneuver out of line even if they wanted to. Some of the colors on their tail planes are fading: the rich royal purple is washed-out lilac, the gold is just dull primrose. And then it hits you. These planes aren’t going anywhere. They haven’t flown for more than 24 months. And their return to the skies isn’t likely to be for many more months. Perhaps longer.
Yes, Europeans, and we in the Western Hemisphere, are racing to back to the airport eager to go flying again. But the Australians and New Zealanders, who in 2019 filled so many of those Thai aircraft, are only now tentatively back to taking trips. And, the millions of Japanese and Chinese who would normally be whizzing on these and hundreds of other airlines’ jets to or via Bangkok, to Phuket, to Koh Samui, and more, are still locked down in their homelands. And then there is yet another significant batch of travelers that aren’t coming to Bangkok or pretty much anywhere right now. And it has nothing to do with Covid. The Russians aren’t coming. The Russians aren’t coming.
A week before I left New York, I completed the online Thai entry application, uploading my passport information page, my Covid-19 vaccination certificate, giving details of when I would be staying where. Within hours, an amiable email bounced into my inbox along with the all-important QR code that confirmed I was approved for entry. Once my plane had found its gate, the vastness of the terminal at Suvarnabhumi airport was magnified by its uncharacteristic emptiness. It took just minutes to negotiate the immigration line. The bemasked clerk didn’t even need to glance at my carefully printed-out QR code: it was up there on his flat screen the minute he swept my passport through its groove. Another screen recorded my fingerprints. Then my thumb prints. A camera recorded my face –“remove glasses, remove mask.” My stamped passport was returned to me, and by the time I reached the carousel my bags were happily cruising along the conveyor belt.
There is something seductively gracious about how Thais greet each other…and you. The joined palms pointed upwards, and the bow of the head, shout a silent and humble welcome. The handsome young man in a suit holding an iPad with my name, bowed and palm pointed. He relieved me of my baggage trolley, whispered into a phone, and escorted me to a waiting limousine. The greeting was mirrored by the driver. And by me. Within seconds my luggage was stowed and the greeter raised his palms again, and bowed as we drove off.
4PM is not the ideal time to arrive in Bangkok. The expressways were as clogged as the George Washington Bridge after a Yankees game. But I didn’t care. Bangkok’s wealth of new skyscrapers are interestingly shaped. The advertising billboards are appealing. The Thai script is beautiful to behold, if completely undecipherable. Eventually, we veered off the expressway on to boulevards, then avenues, then small side streets. And then, a slow left turn past a sentry box, a salute, and into the driveway of the Siam Hotel.
Bangkok is known for its wealth of glorious hotels. The most fabled, of course, is the Oriental, with its memories of Somerset Maugham, and its longtime legendary, now, retired general manager, Kurt Wachtveitl. But for me, and for my particular need for visual and sensual perfection, the Siam Hotel has to be among the most exquisite hostelries on earth. Designed by Bangkok-based American, Bill Bensley, it is a unique amalgam of extreme calm, extreme modernity, and extreme nostalgia. It’s like an Aman on steroids, without the braggadocio. I was greeted (palms-together-upward, head bow) by my butler, Gup, who wafted me past the lobby’s stripey chairs. Past the giant water-covered marble mountain beneath a glass roof four stories high. Past the hotel’s irresistibly quirky antique shop. Past lotus ponds. Past splendid art deco chairs and couches that seem just right, without a trace of camp. Past original framed travel posters echoing the era when Pan American really was the “world’s most experienced airline.” Past an imposing antique pharmacy cabinet delicately splattered with Thai caligraphy. And then outside, and down gentle marble steps, to a palm-lined lane that leads to Bangkok’s main artery, the Chao Phraya River. Gup led me past the jetty where guests relaxing in more stripey chairs were sipping cocktails. Then past the black and blue infinity pool, and round a quiet corner to my room.
My room? No. A “pool villa,” fashioned along the lines of a turn-of-the-20th-century southeast Asian shop-house. Gup passed the key card over a small light, and ancient, 12-foot-high doors clicked opened to reveal wicker chairs and palm fronds in a courtyard open to the sky. A giant indoor black marble plunge pool constantly gurgled with flowing water. We passed through a second series of French doors into the bedroom. Bedroom? More appropriately an airconditioned, glossy, black-enameled throne-room with 16-foot-ceilings. The bed is up four steps and piled with crisp, white, ready-for-your-head pillows, not the usual mass of silk cushions that must be messily discarded in order to slide in between the sheets. The couch abutted a coffee table with a bowl of mandarins, mangosteens and lychees; the requisite plate, cutlery and fiercely starched napkin awaited. Gup bade me sign a form – which of course I didn’t read, but which gave me leave to luxuriate in this splendor. We moved on to the study that faces an indoor garden; the dressing room; the luggage room; and then the bathroom – an acre of white subway tiles with black grout, sinks, lamps hanging from swags of black silk, a bath tub for seven, a separate shower, a separate toilet, all presented with a design flair that has Edward VII meeting Noël Coward. I was to be here for three nights. I wished it were three months.
I unpacked. I’m not one of those live-out-of-a-suitcase travelers. I have to place underwear in drawer A, shirts in B, and so on. Clothes in dry-cleaners’ plastic are hung on rods. My chic, navy leather, handmade Space Flamingos sponge bag must be emptied, its contents arranged next to the sink. The laptop was placed on the desk and plugged in. My assorted chargers were clicked into sockets. Only once my hotel room has been turned into my “home,” however temporary, can I fully relax. And my God, the Siam Hotel is pretty much as close to relaxation heaven as you can get.
There is nothing more life-affirming than a shower in a gorgeous bathroom after a long-long-long flight. And as I toweled myself dry it suddenly occurred to me that I was starving. I quickly dressed and strolled from my “villa” to the river shore, and the hotel restaurant that sits in a garden near the water’s edge. I was handed vast menus – one of western dishes, one of Thai. And a cocktail menu. As I munched and drank, I was greeted by Nick Downing, the general manager, whom I first met some five years ago. Nick is Australian, friendly, modest, charming, and he loves The Siam. But then who wouldn’t?
I spent two days in Bangkok in business meetings, visiting the royal barge dock, resisting my usual desire to shop till I drop, and drinking in the atmosphere of this paradise on the Chao Phraya. I first came to Bangkok when I was 21, and fifty years, and some dozen visits later, it continues to fascinate. My most haunting experience of Thailand was in the spring of 2005, when I accompanied columnist, Cindy Adams, who had been invited by her longtime friend, Queen Sirikit of Thailand (now the Queen Mother), to come see how the country was recovering from the ruinous tsunami of Christmas Day 2004. Her Majesty gave a lavish party for Cindy at the Royal Palace at Hua Hin. She and I were honored with a private audience with the Queen. We expressed our condolences on the loss of Her Majesty’s grandson in the massive waves, and we shared with her that we too had lost a dear friend in the tragedy: Anna Fitzgerald, beloved daughter of the founders of Kenya’s vaunted Angama Mara safari lodge.
Bangkok has changed massively since my first visit a half-century ago. There are giant expressways, a trillion skyscrapers, a monorail system designed to relieve the traffic clogs, yet hasn’t. Or maybe without the monorail the traffic mess would be even messier. But one thing that never seems to change is the simultaneously ominous yet appealing nighttime sleaziness of Patpong’s Silom Road. Since the 1950’s, everybody has been coming to visit, to gawk, to drink, to flirt, to witness the naughtiness, to make a friend for an hour or a night or a life. They all come: the young, the old, the in-the-middle; straight, bi, gay, trans, and a dozen more initials; couples, singles, groups; thousands of Thais, thousands of tourists. The bars overflow. The drag clubs overflow. The pole dancing emporia overflow. Yes, it’s seedy, but unlike the same kind of haunts worldwide, these seem not to portend personal menace…except for the horrifying tales of those swarms of tourists that once made (or perhaps still do make) a beeline for southeast Asia in search of sex with children or the enslaved. Perhaps it’s the Thais themselves that are the key to the laissez-fairness. Unbound by millennia of monotheism’s strictures and finger-wagging, the Thais don’t have our holier-than-thou sense of judgement. They welcome. They place their palms together pointed skyward, they bow, and anything goes.
For decades travelers have been coming to gaze at Bangkok’s parade of exquisite temples and palaces. But let’s face it, they also come to Thailand to shop, to have clothes tailor-made in 24 hours, to buy antiques or junk in floating markets, or gorgeous silks at the Jim Thompson House. The wealthy, Delaware-born Jim Thompson came to Thailand after his career with the OSS ended with VJ-Day. He invested in the Oriental Hotel, then invested in the revival of Thailand’s moribund post-war silk industry, a revival curiously boosted by his loaning priceless silk garments to be worn by the original Broadway cast of “The King and I” in 1951. He opened his treasure- and antique-filled home to the public in 1958 and ever since, tourists have been intent on buying Jim Thompson ties, dresses, sarongs, shorts, tablecloths, bed linens, all woven from the finest Thai silk. The disappearance of the recently married, 61-year-old Jim Thompson in Malaysia in 1967 has still never been explained. He is reputed to have clandestinely graduated from the OSS to the CIA, but then so have hundreds of people who haven’t ended up murdered, or gay-bashed, in the jungle, or god-knows-what. But his house and his luxurious products live on.
After Bangkok, I spent four days on the island on Koh Kut in the Gulf of Thailand (see the upcoming column), and then another night back in my perfectionist “villa” at The Siam. Finally departing Suvarnabhumi airport for my flight to Singapore, I did notice a major and rather sad change in what Thailand has to offer. Once, the jewel in the crown of shopping at Bangkok Airport was, of course, the elegant and spacious Jim Thompson store. That was then. Now, Jim Thompson’s airport store is pretty hard to find, a mere department tucked inside a cramped “Best of Thailand” trinket market. Jim Thompson’s unique sense of glamor and class and space and overarching Thai-ness has, as everywhere, been overshadowed by the brands. Suvarnabhumi’s airport’s inevitable Louis Vuitton store is now center-stage, immense enough for a lavish Bar Mitzvah. So is Gucci. So is Chanel. And Ferragamo. And Burberry. And Rolex. And Rimowa. Oh yes, and Starbucks. And Burger King.
I have a feeling all those brands’ stores are certainly not doing the land office business they did in 2019. But just as we, like MacArthur, have returned, so too will the Australians, the Japanese, and the Chinese. Bangkok will always be a major draw. I, for one, can’t wait to come back for more.