by Louis Bignami

POSH need not maximize expense, it just defines value. Thirty years of travel writing have convinced me that no European country offers Thailand's exotic impact, simply because the clues of common European culture and root language do not exist.

Bangkok Temple

photo credit: Louis Bignami


Nothing is as it seems. Kind, happy and tolerant Buddhist Thai who support monks and smilingly tolerate Bangkok traffic fill kickboxing stadiums nightly. Beautiful Thai women, who defer to men with a sensuous, hands together "wai," provide more female CEOs than anywhere else in Asia.

The beloved Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadey is legally a constitutional monarch with limited powers those in England, but through his decades of demonstrated concern for his subjects, he earned an ethical status strong enough to shut down a student revolution and a couple of coups. His 1999 birthday celebration was massive.

Sometimes, under the veneer of Western Culture in urban Bangkok it's hard to see the Thai cultural differences based on hierarchy and extended family. Zoning, or its lack, typifies Bangkok problems. Traffic is the worst in the world. You must even brush your teeth with bottled water. And, of course, the city is hot, humid, crowded, loud and an entirely wonderful place to be clueless.

The difficult Thai language compounds cultural "cluelessness". Words longer than those of Welsh villages or Hawaiian fish seem to use all 72 letters of the Thai alphabet, and a place or thing with only one name if as rare as a Thai frown. For example, Thais call their 600 square mile capital city - imagine LA sans freeways - "Krungthep*", the "City of Deities" or "Krung Thep* "City of Angles" depending on translation.

Linguistic challenges mount with Thai Kings, such as Mongkut's AKA Rama IV, and his son. Chulalongkom's AKA Rama Vl. Wats and streets sport two or more names as well.

*Krung Thep is just the short form. The long form is Krungthep Mahanakhon Bovorn Rattaanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Matailokpop Noparatratchatchani Burirom Udomratchaniveymahasathan Amornpiman Avatansthit Sakkathattiya-avisnukarmprasit. The Guinness Book of Records longest place name record holder.

Translations confuse Westerners who fail to realize that ?Yes? can mean "maybe," "I hope so," "probably not" or "no." Thais use either "kha" or "Khrab" to end most sentences as a measure of the speaker's respect for their listener. Unfortunately, both can translate as "yes".

For tolerant visitors the happy result of this is a sense of discovery of the exotic, the unusual and above all, of warmth, for the warmth of Thai manners exceeds that of the weather. Experienced travelers know, people, not things, make travel interesting. So if you like Mexico better than Canada, or Italy better than Germany, relax, wander, kick back and enjoy days that leave you plotting an early return.

Granted, nobody sees Bangkok in a month, much less three days. It takes four hours just to drive across town. So each day?s itinerary "suggests" a limited area. Bangkok overloads "check list tourism." Take your time. Meet the locals. Drink lots of liquid. Try to stay cool. Try to understand Thai humor that names a famous restaurant "Cabbages and Condoms."

Tolerable TransportGiven Bangkok traffic humor's helpful, but when possible cool it on a chartered boat or a river ferry -- the fastest, least expensive transport. (1 to 2 bahts to cross the river, 5 to 15 up or down) If you get "misplaced" you can always find the river and a ferry pier, and all ferry skippers know "Oriental," "Sheraton" and other riverfront lodgings.

Consider a taxi only if you get both the Thai address of your lodgings and that of your destination written on a slip of paper. Buses are inexpensive (2.5 to 5 bahts), sometimes air conditioned, always crowded and routes seem rather confusing, but this leads to discoveries if you do not mind detours.

Forget Tuk-Tuks, the three-wheel motorized beast except for very short trips AFTER you agree on the fare, and never, never ride in the "suicide" seat behind the driver of a motorcycle taxi which local's claim is "the only way to either get across town fast or break your knees."