A TALE OF TWO THAILANDS
Sky-top restaurants, sleek new hotels—seven years after the crash, Thailand is booming. Austin Bunn reports on the country's exhilarating, unsettling growth spurt.
by Austin Bunn
Departures Magazine, 2004
On the second floor of Bangkok’s outrageously busy Pantip Plaza Mall – in a riot of videogame demos, ringing cellphones, and computer gear bong-ing to life – a Buddhist monk wants my advice about an iBook. “Is this a good buy?” he asks, dressed in an indelibly Thai orange robe and sandals. When I register surprise (were monks even allowed to shop?), his face beams with delight. Buddhism teaches that the source of human suffering is our attachment to the impermanent, like Windows 1998 or those laptops with a nipple in the keyboard. Though Panthip Plaza is giant altar to the transient, an Everest of soon-to-be next month’s obsolescence, the problem isn’t buying, the monk explains to me. It’s attaching to what you own. “The pain comes from wanting to have, wanting to be,” he says, laying one hand on my arm and the other on his new, gleaming machine. “Also, don’t worry – it won’t have Internet.”
My first foray into the Bangkok, and I’d hit the center of Thailand’s beguiling contradiction: tradition hand in hand with tomorrowland. Seven years ago, Thailand had the dubious distinction of serving as the pin that popped the Asian economic bubble. A roaring real-estate market in the 1990s transformed Bangkok, christening new malls like Pantip at a fevered clip. When the baht went in freefall, developers abandoned their skyscrapers and block-long shopping districts, and for years the city remained littered with the remains of this boom-era arrogance, eerie concrete shells lined with exposed rebar like raw nerve-endings.
But Pantip, long surrounded by these husks, is now one just one of the anchors to the city’s audacious “crucible of construction,” a run of five-star hotels, condo complexes, 14-story shopping complexes, and a world-trade center in the Ploenchit and Ratchadamri Road area. The culture of the crash has come to an end. Conservative Prime Minister Thaksin Shinowatra, a former cop turned telecom tycoon, has helped usher the country to the highest-growth rates of South East Asia and re-ignited the stock market. The week I arrived, a luxury, outdoor restaurant named Sirocco opened on the vertiginous roof of a skyscraper left unoccupied since the crash. “It’s been six or seven years since there’s been anything in the building,” says Deepak Ohri, the general manager. “Now we’ve got a Mediterranean restaurant, a whiskey bar, a champagne bar and oyster bar all on the 63rd floor and we’re doing twice the business we thought.” Without question, Thailand’s reach is returning to its phenomenal grasp. Sirocco seemed to me the pinnacle of Thailand’s new soaring ambition: to overcome the failures of the past by embracing transience with possibility –- single malt and lamb served al fresco in the sky.
I’d come to Thailand on a reporting assignment –- and eager for a chance to visit my brother and his wife living next door in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Distances are relative. That’s a one-hour flight from Bangkok compared to 23 from my home city of New York.) But I found myself transfixed and distracted by Thailand’s many modern transformations, since none had managed to erase the country’s singular identity or cultural integrity. But where would this new upsurge of growth and development take them?
Historically, Thailand is the only country of its neighbors to never have been colonized, largely by skillfully negotiating treaties with both England and France and willfully westernizing. The country’s beloved kings learned English and how to drive on the wrong side of the road. They embraced foreign investment and experimentation. All along, Thailand has marketed its traditions well, almost too well. “Westerners come here looking for massage spas, smiling girls in silk wraps, and all the swoopy roofs on the houses,” Bangkok-based architect Scott Edwards told me. “And for the most part, Thailand has built up a ‘Thailand’ which is precisely what the tourists came to see.” But if Thailand exoticizes itself for tourism –- by far the country’s largest industry -- the country keeps the caricatures in check. “Last year, the police found a guy selling a DVD of The King and I and they threw him in jail,” my friend and Bangkok-resident Willi told me. “It’s considered insulting. And that was the Jodi Foster version!”
The 32-year old Edwards, then, is something of a provocateur in Bangkok, responsible for one of the city’s youngest, hottest, and least traditionally “Thai” night spots, the one-and-a-half year old Bed Supper Club. Bed is a hovering fuselage far from the hotels and tourist zone. Diners and cocktail-drinkers (typically, Bangkok’s young entrepreneurs and high-end travelers) lie on immaculate white beds while they survey the Barbarella-like interior. It’s a spectacular, Eero Saarinen-inflected environment that would be “impossible to build in North America,” says Francis, because of all the regulations stateside. Like a fire exit. It’s the same with Sirocco, whose low, translucent railing is the only thing between you and a 63 floor drop.
“We wanted to say to people that Bangkok architecture doesn’t have to be all self-referential,” explained Edwards. “We wanted to prove you didn’t need the swoopy roof.”
But even street-level Bangkok can make you dizzy. Taxi drivers, in the city’s unspeakable gridlock, rub their dashboard Buddhas for luck and jump the yellow line, driving into oncoming traffic. Because of this, I found myself drawn to Thailand’s least transient, most permanent, sea-level institutions: the national parks, specifically the stunning Similan Island chain 30 miles off Thailand’s west coast in the Andaman Sea. Inaccessible during the wet season -– when the waters are too rough to approach –- the Similans are ranked one of the top scuba-diving and snorkeling destinations in the world and offer a sanctuary from the stormy chop of citylife.
The Similan Marine Park is the definition of sustainable growth – there is none. Of the nine spectacular, verdant islands, only one, Koh Miang, has a ranger station, a restaurant, and about 20 simply appointed cabins with jaw-dropping views. A progressive leader for South East Asia, the Royal Forestry Department (Thailand’s environmental office) has already closed all but two of the islands to the public and has banned commercial fishing from the coral reefs that ring them. Thailand’s impressive conservation system outranks the U.S., with national parks comprising 13 percent of the country (compared to our 10.5 or Japan’s 6.5). The Similans, where the King’s youngest daughter keeps a “Royal Stay”, are the crown jewel.
But you have to get there first. Which means enduring through some of Thailand’s most unsettling, rampant development. The quiet fishing communities along the sea coast are now rushing over each other, Bangkok-style, to become world-class destinations on par with Phuket, Thailand’s resort-island to the south. Walking along the idyllic beach, every hotel I passed from Bang Niang to Khao Lak, the juncture point for speed-boats to the Similans, was in the midst of construction. “The bungalows here are five years old, the restaurant is three, the hotel is one, and your room…,” said the receptionist at my hotel, “was finished last month.”
After two frustrating days in wait, Similans came into view over the side of the speedboat, a line of ghostly hillocks arching above the powder-blue horizon. With over 20 scuba sites nested here, the islands were scattered with dive-boats along their rough, granite coasts. The western side of the Similans, facing the sea, offers plunging, underwater drop-offs for diving. The protected eastern edges are home to acres of bommie -- coral heads with clown fish hiding in the luminescent fingers (think Marlin in Finding Nemo), bannerfish that look like zebra-skin purses, and innumerable, restless sea life. The Great Barrier reef in Australia might offer more acreage, but the Similans cannot be beat for the peaceful, natural isolation.
What I never counted on was myself. Afloat in a rented scuba suit, I dove nine feet down and hovered, failing to equalize the pressure in my ears.
Could there be anything more transient –- or more poorly timed -– than a cold? The pressure felt like a rail spike heading for the back of my eyes. I tried a few times and succeeded only in giving myself a ferocious nose-bleed in my face mask.
Before I surfaced, I took another look down. Visibility through the water was 90 feet, the physical limit, and the sea floor looked unreal, another Bangkok bustling under the tide. I kept thinking detach, detach, detach, that “the path of suffering is wanting to scuba” but nothing could cut my disappointment. Kit, the lithe Thai divemaster on my scuba expedition boat, lifted me up on deck and grinned as I wrestled out of the suit. “Mai pen rai,” he said. “In Thai, that means ‘What can you do?’ You want to be in Thailand, you must learn this.” Then he added, “Also, you have blood in your eyebrow.”
Days later, my back seared to lobster from snorkeling, I made my way further south, to Krabi, a city right on the edge of expanding Thailand’s electricity grid and home to one of the country’s most famous temples, Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave). For generations, monks have climbed the 1272 steps -- 300 short of the Empire State Building -- to the shrine at the top the lime-stone karst, the backdrop for the temple. “Tomorrow, when the King Rama IX comes here,” my cab driver told me, “he lands on the top with a helicopter.” The queen had already arrived and spent her day consulting, at ground level, with the head monk. Akin to the President consulting with the Pope, the Royal visit had flooded the normally quiet temple with gawkers.
I escaped the fray by hovering near the Buddha, which at this point, no one seemed to notice. A single monk, clearly European, swept the marble floor. Thai wats, according to tradition, accept all who show up at their door. This new acolyte pointed to a handwritten sign that he’d taped to the rock face. “99% of life is suffering, 1% of life is living,” it read. He was proud of his Buddhism.
“Which part are we in right now?” I asked him.
“You guess,” he said.
That night, on a star-lit beach off the electricity grid, I would have put money down on the 1%. I sat on a mat rolled out on the sand surrounded by giant karsts, watched a fire show (juggling plus flame) and ate a simple, delicious Thai meal in a peacefulness I hadn’t found anywhere else in Thailand. Ton Sai Beach, accessible only at low-tide or by longtail boat, was a necklace of restaurants and bars, all running off generators. It wasn’t in the guidebooks and it wasn’t easy to find –- you had to know what to look for. Compared to Krabi, Ton Sai was the edge of the planet.
When I ran into the owner of the restaurant, a thirty-something Thai man with improbable dredlocks, I thanked him for the meal. He’d opened one restaurant 10 years ago on a popular nearby beach, but the tourist crush got to him and he opened this place as a kind of secret. But Thailand’s power-grid was finally extending to Ton Sai, he said. With electricity would come everything else that is his country’s future: speculators, investors, hotels, and tourists. “I don’t own this land, I’m just renting,” he said. “It’s the same with everything in Thailand. Enjoy it while it lasts.”