Friday, May 17, 2013

How's the serenity?

If it were up to me, this is the position in which I would spend my entire life Bangkok holiday.  But there comes a point when you have to agree with Ferris Bueller and accept that "life moves pretty fast.  If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it".

And so it was that I booked myself on a private, half-day tour of Bangkok today.  I wasn't stupid about it though because I chose a company that would pick me up at my hotel, in an air-conditioned car, and shuttle me around, not requiring me to wait in any lines at temples and attractions.  Gold star for preparation.

When I came downstairs for breakfast it was already 4,000 degrees Celcius and about the same percentage humidity.  Continuing my theme of inappropriate dressing, I was wearing a black flowing skirt, and a hot pink tshirt.  Naturally when I entered the hotel restaurant this morning, there was about 30 Thai tour guides there too - all wearing hot pink tshirts, and either black skirts or pants.  Tremendously awkward. I piled up my plate with dragon fruit, papaya, watermelon and pineapple (all of which I have come to adore here) and I chose a quiet seat off to the side, to feast.

At 8:00am, my tour guide showed up.  A friendly, smiling lady of about 50 years of age, she showed me out to the car, driven by a younger guy of about 30 (her son, maybe?), and for a nanosecond I wondered if I should have told someone where I was going today.  Would I ever be seen again?  Would Liam Neeson come to save me?

But as the car door slammed, I realised it was too late to turn back and so I just settled in for the ride.  You can see a brief collection of my tour photos here.  Here's a heads up: I'm not actually in any of these photos.  I figure if you can imagine a fat, sweaty, red-faced swamp monster, you don't need a photo of one.

Our first stop was Wat Pho, a Buddhist temple and home to the truly impressive Reclining Buddha.  My guide (whose name I forgot almost the instant that she introduced herself) talked briefly about Buddha, and showed me statues of his different attitudes (see a description of them here).   I didn't know it at the time, but I was born on a Thursday, so if I were Buddhist I could offer particular prayers to the Meditating Buddha (Paang Nung Samadhi).  The description of my Thursday Buddha is:
Paang Nung Samadhi in a sitting pose is a reminder of the classic posture for meditation. The full lotus with both soles upward and visible, the hands resting in the lap, right above left with all fingers extended, palms upward. In this position, some meditators feel the body is receptive to energy entering through the top of the head and through the open palms.
You definitely need to look up your Buddha now.  And at Wat Pho, when you place your lit incense in front of your particular Buddha, and you offer up your prayers and bow three times, you then get to place three little pieces of gold leaf on the statue.  You can just put the gold leaf anywhere, or you can place it on the parts of the Buddha that correspond to any aches or pains you might be feeling.  Given the heat and humidity, I put my bits of gold leaf on the Buddha's forehead and eyes.  Once inside the temple, I was struck by the majesty of the Reclining Buddha, whose photo you can see at the top here.  The soles of his feet are inlaid with intricate carvings and mother of pearl.  Beautiful.  Oh and incidentally, Wat Pho is also known as the birthplace of Thai massage, and they offer a 7-day massage course here.  Even in the name of research I refused to slacken my no-touch policy, so if you want to know more about the touchy-feely stuff, you'll have to come to Bangkok yourself.

Back in the car, with the blessed air-con blasting, we defied death in Bangkok traffic and my guide pointed out Ministry buildings, Royal memorabilia, and various relics of old-school Thailand.

Before long we pulled up at The Grand Palace, which was built in 1782 and is not just a royal residence but also the site for the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  We spent much of our time walking around the exterior of the Palace and looking at the mural panels that depict the Ramayana, an epic that tells the story of Rama (an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu), whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravan, the king of what is now Sri Lanka.  The mural panels are all hand-painted and the imaginative characters, both human and mythical, explore human values, moral transformation, and universal harmony.  Yes, I read the pamphlet.

Back in the car, my guide asked if I wanted to go to buy some jewelry or get some clothes made.  I declined both offers, but she said it was good to relax and not be so rushed all the time. And so I found myself being stalked by a jewelry wholesaler, and a tailor wielding a tape measure and six pattern books, and I was getting more huffy by the minute.  This was not the tour I'd signed up for.  When I laid down the law with the shop owners, and told them I was not interested in shopping today, they all but threw me out of their stores.  It was pretty impressive.  But my guide quickly got the picture that I was not likely to be the very embodiment of serenity any time soon, and we set off again.

Our final stop was Sukhothai Traimit, or the Temple of the Golden Buddha, in Bangkok's Chinatown district.  You have to be a bit of a mountain goat to get to the top of the Temple - the steep steps out the front bake in the hot Bangkok sun.  Fortunately my tour guide bribed the security guard, who let us use the elevator.  I am not sure what the Buddha says about bribery.  Perhaps in 4,000 degree heat and humidity, even he can look the other way.  In any case, I had recovered from my huffiness and unwelcome jewelry/clothing side trip and happily rode the elevator to the top floor.   Before us serenely sat the world's largest Golden Buddha.  At 15 feet high and 12.5 feet in diameter, the statue weighs 5.5 tons and is over 700 years old.  It actually used to be covered in plaster, and the precious gold underneath was only discovered during building renovations when the outer plaster was chipped.  Classic!

It was actually really relaxing being in the final temple of the day but by the time we left and started weaving back to the hotel through stop-start traffic, it was almost 1pm and I was pretty much done.  The tour guide shared the back seat with me on the way back to the hotel and even though I liked her, I still half expected her to chloroform me.  Maybe I should stop watching movies.

When we got back to the hotel and I paid for the tour (plus a little extra), and I was really glad that I made the effort to get out and about today.  Plus I know that a lion (singha) is a good luck animal in Thailand, so I will enjoy the namesake beer all the more.  Now that's my kind of afternoon serenity.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Getting to know you, getting to feel free and easy

I've just finished a day and half of a big meeting at the UN Conference Centre in Bangkok.  As we were pulling into the driveway on Day 1, I panicked when I realised I hadn't brought my UN pass from New York with me.  Then just as quickly, I remembered I was actually here as a visitor, not as a staff member - and relief washed over me.  The Conference Centre was pretty quiet too; a distinct change from the bustling UN Headquarters building I've come to know well.  Sure there is plenty of traffic around the building outside, but then again there's plenty of traffic everywhere here.

My meeting was hosted by the Royal Thai Government and UN Economic & Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), with some support from our Government and from the World Bank.   I met some really lovely people over these last couple of days, and I got to work with a girl from our office who is based in Cambodia and who is so much fun.  She has been to a lot of UNESCAP meetings before and they run slightly differently to the ones I've attended in New York, so I relied on her expertise and pretty much rode her coat tails for two days.  I don't think she minded though, particularly not when I volunteered to draft the official report of our visit.  I figured that was only fair.

I am quite enjoying the hospitality of our hotel too - we're at The Royal Princess which is a terribly apt name, given the standard of accommodation I like.  The other meeting delegates are also staying here because we managed to get a group booking, and it's only about 10 minutes drive from the UN building so it is very convenient.  The buffet breakfast has been really nice too.  I didn't think I'd get organised enough to have time for breakfast every day (since I can never seem to manage it in New York), but I've been quite good at that too.  In fact, I have been awake at around 5am each morning, well before my alarm. It was just anxiety I guess.  Now that the meeting is over I'm sure I'll sleep like a baby, but I can't get too comfy because I'm doing tourist things all day Friday, and early Saturday morning, before my flight back to NYC on Saturday evening. No rest for the wicked.

Mind you, I almost didn't make it that far this afternoon.  I thought it would be good to find a Diet Coke salesman somewhere close to the hotel.  I can get Diet Coke in the hotel bar, but I just thought it might be good to get some fresh air or society, and go for a bit of a walk.  That said, there isn't much around here to see, and all the street signs are in Thai, which hardly helps.  But late the other day, I did spot a 711 around the corner from the hotel, and I knew they'd be able to hook me up with some fizzy goodness.

I made my way to the pedestrian crossing and waited.  And I waited.  I could see the 711 from where i stood.  It was so close, so tantalizingly close.  And yet, the traffic refused to stop for me.    There were short lulls in traffic where I could have made it at least halfway across the road, but I didn't have a hope in Hades of getting the full way over.  All of a sudden, out of nowhere, a Thai man appeared and reached into a bucket hanging off the street light pole next to me.  He pulled out a piece of wood with a coloured flag on the end.  He held the flag aloft with one hand and gingerly stepped out into traffic, daring the tuk-tuks and motorbikes to run him down.  With his back to the traffic, he reached out his other arm to me and began beckoning me across the street.  Nothing got lost in translation as I shuffled across the road spluttering praises at my hero.  When we were safely across, my traffic monitor neatly deposited the traffic flag in an empty bucket attached to the street light pole.  He put his hands together in a prayer position and bowed deeply to me.  I was too busy thanking effusively and clumsily that I neglected to return the gesture.  And before I could remedy it, he was gone.

Four cans of Diet Coke successfully purchased, I made my way back to the pedestrian crossing to return to the hotel.  Fortunately I could see a lady across the street, getting ready to march across the road.  She was clutching a coloured flag on a stick, waving it badly (and somewhat threateningly) at the cars as they sped by, so I knew she was well-versed in how to navigate busy Bangkok streets.  I waited until she had begun to forge a way across and I shuffled over with her.  Admittedly I did nearly get cleaned up by a rogue tuk-tuk, and then again by an ambulance coming the other direcction, but those near-misses were just that.

Safe in the air-conditioned comfort of my room, Diet Coke cans chilling in the minibar, I am a happy girl.  An early night ahead, and looking forward to my private half-day tour of Bangkok tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tropical discomfort

Jetlag woke me up at 4am and I immediately regretted not bringing my melatonin tablets to Bangkok with me.  I don't even remember how I found out about those magic pills, but they work wonders to counter the tossing-and-turning effects of jetlag and lull you back into a non-habit-forming dreamland.   Since I had neglected to pack them, I got myself out of bed and played around online for a while, before fatigue got the better of me and I crawled back into bed for a few more hours.  I got up in time for a conference call with work and then pulled myself together in time for breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

I seriously did not pack properly for this trip.  For one thing, it is so oppressively hot and humid here.  I think part of me always knew this would be the case, but I just didn't pack well enough for it.  For instance, why the hell didn't I bring any summer dresses with me?  And why did I think work pants and a Gap tank top would look good on me, after nearly 5 months of frigid New York temperatures?!  I should have faked tanned.

Let's face it, the Thai women who work in this hotel are stunning.  They have model-like bodies and their skin and hair don't show any signs of living in a humid environment.  How do they do this?!  How can I ride the elevator six floors to the lobby and look like I've crawled out of a South American jungle?!  There is no justice.  And the hotel staff are so lovely.  Their English is about as good as my Thai, but we are making do with hand gestures and lots of smiling.

My hotel is lovely though and I uploaded a couple of photos here (more to come).  The hotel pool looks great but of course I did not bring my bathers.  I haven't put them on in several years and I never even seriously considered packing them anyway.  I have a red two-piece bikini and even typing that made me laugh out loud.  Then again, the pool also has some closed-in cabanas, and a poolside snack and cocktail menu.  Now that's what I call incentives!

For the rest of today though I'm going to be preparing for the next two days of meetings.  My job is to write Australia's report of this meeting, and while that's a big responsibility for me, I fortunately have a couple of people on standby to proof-read it before it gets submitted.  It does of course mean I have to pay close attention and capture all the pertinent things that get discussed over the next two days.  Let's hope the Conference rooms air conditioner is fully operational, and we can find a Diet Coke vending machine before things get underway.  More news to follow.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A blonde in Bangkok

It's 9:38pm on a Monday evening and outside my hotel room, the air in Bangkok is deathly still.  Little wonder really; it's too hot and humid to move anyway.  I know this because I have taken refuge in my air-conditioned room, and I'm staring down into the hotel carpark, watching tourists come and go, fanning themselves with brochures they have obviously found in the lobby.

This is my first trip to Thailand, and I'm here for work - which is a lovely treat really, let's be honest.  I even got to fly business class, on Emirates - so you mustn't feel sorry for me.  Even in my jet-lagged state, when I feel like a human humidifier, I really did get spoilt rotten.

Sunday morning I was up early to make the final travel preparations.  I've only ever flown business class once before, and that was on QANTAS, and I have no recollection what I wore that day.  So I was struck with a bit of panic about how one is supposed to dress when one travels on Emirates business class.  I settled on a knee-length black jersey dress, with a long black jersey cardigan over the top, with a pair of black wedged heels.  On reflection, I probably looked like I was going to a funeral at 37,000 feet.  But at the time I felt it was appropriate.

The airline organised a chauffeur-driven car pickup for me at 8.20am and I was downstairs to greet it on time.  There was no traffic to JFK so our journey was a smooth one.  Even at the airport the crowds were down, which just meant I had the fast-track into the Emirates lounge to kill some time.  I've started reading "Cloud Atlas" and I kept one eyeball on that and the other on "Meet the Press", or some such current affairs show.  Before long we were boarding and I snuggled into my little capsule-seat on the upper deck of the A380.

Now I am well aware you've probably rolled your eyes a couple of times already.  I know how obnoxious this all sounds - chauffeured vehicles, airport lounges, business class tickets.  But this never, ever happens to me normally.  So when it does, I lap it up. Yes, I did have Veuve Clicquot the entire way to Dubai.  Yes, I did put the seat down to a mattress bed and watch a ridiculous number of movies back-to-back.  Yes, I did lay flat and sleep for at least 5 hours before overheating and waking up to the flight attendant staring at me to see if I needed more Veuve.  And I declined his offer, deciding instead to enjoy a glass in the bar.  On the plane.  In my black jersey ensemble, with bed hair to boot.

We arrived in Dubai about 90 minutes behind schedule, meaning I had to leg it through the transit lounge and pretty much run to the other end of the airport to make the connection.  But make it I did, and when I was finally on the airport bus to get to the plane, I got my first proper look at Dubai.  What a contrast to places I've seen so far.  Not as many date palms, for one thing.  Did I really expect Dubai to be all palm trees and oases?  Probably.  But Dubai (or the airport at least) had this haze over it - like a fine layer of ash or sand or something.  Not much green, not much activity.  Then again, I suppose it was still early in the day.

Boarding my flight to Bangkok, it wasn't until we got above Dubai that I really got to appreciate its sprawl.  I saw a couple of mosques with their pointy minarets, but so much of the city I could see was flat, low-slung, and seriously sprawling.  The hotels, shopping malls and fancy restaurants must be off the flight path I guess.  My flight attendant friend en route to Bangkok tried to ply me with a lot of Moet & Chandon, but I was wise to his scheme and fell asleep before it came to fruition.  That will teach him to mess with an old lady.  Moet and the last installment of the Twilight movie saga are the best sleeping pills you can find.

When we landed in Bangkok I made my way to immigration and believe it or not, actually ran into a lady I had met in March in New York.  We had worked together on the World Down Syndrome Day Conference, and blow me down if she's not here for the same meeting as me this week!  What a small world.  And we're staying at the same hotel, so we kept each other company waiting for our luggage and then we shared my hotel car (which was one hour late, but I will complain about that another time).  When we finally got checked in, the hotel treated us to a complimentary welcome drink that consisted of lemon juice, pineapple juice, and "green syrup" (which was not absinthe, although I was seeking something similarly potent).  I could have stayed on that barstool for hours but my black jersey outfit was beginning to feel like a second skin and I had started to repulse myself.  Bed time was declared.

And so my story ends where it began - in my air conditioned hotel room in Bangkok.  My meetings don't officially start until Wednesday, so I've got tomorrow to prepare (and I have a bit of that to do actually).  A complimentary fruit bowl in my hotel room suggests a healthy morning snack tomorrow, which should get me as far as the breakfast buffet in the lobby.  And I suspect that will be a welcome relief, because I think it's going to be 39C and 4,000% humidity.  All week.