“Sawadeeka,” smiles the svelte Thai hostess as she folds her hands and bows deep, welcoming me to the breakfast floor of the plush Bangkok hotel. Her elegant silk gown swishes as she sashays past rows of tables to seat me poolside. She delicately unfolds a napkin and places it on my lap, and, after enquiring whether I prefer tea or coffee, exits with a bow and another flash of those dazzling whites.
Bangkok is many things to many people. It is a shopper’s paradise, strewn with megamalls stocked both with tony designer brands and cheap local ware. It is the gateway to Thailand as vacationers arrive, en famille, into the capital city and then make their way to budget friendly destinations like Pattaya, Phuket, Krabi and Koh Samui.
Bangkok is also Sin City. Visitors have long descended here to fulfil their every fantasy. Soapy massages, awesome threesomes, and happy endings…this is the land that wet dreams are made of. The Thais are, by nature, a conservative people but they are surprisingly liberal when it comes to sex. They do not ostracise fellow Thais who resort to selling their bodies to provide for their families. And they do not scoff at the scores of transgender ladyboys saving up for the operation that will enable them to transition from male to female.
Though the hotel that we are staying at is regarded as one of the finest in Bangkok, the breakfast tables are peppered with farangi or foreign men who have paid for the company of the Thai women that sit opposite them. Some pasty-faced males openly grope their consorts who giggle coyly and play out the stereotype of the shy, submissive Oriental girl. A few Indian men, accompanied by their wives, glare disparagingly at this public show of affection. Perhaps they are jealous, perhaps genuinely outraged. Their children run amuck, shouting, screaming, and hurling croissants at one another. Unmindful of the crowd, a besotted young Brit kisses his male companion full on the lips. A Gujarati lady, standing in queue behind them is scandalised and flees the scene, forsaking her waffles.
The hostess approaches, escorting an elderly American woman, wielding a walking stick, to the table next to mine. Her good-looking companion is a young Thai male. The couple bill and coo and the boy begins to rub the old woman’s thigh. As she delights in his ministrations, I smile and discreetly look away.
My wife and I have but two nights in Bangkok and we decide to make the most of it. On the first evening, we indulge in a twelve-course meal at Gaggan, whose eponymous owner-chef’s dalliance with molecular gastronomy under Chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli has produced delectable twists in desi cuisine. Chocolate flavours unexpectedly burst upon our palate as we pop what looks like a paani-puri. Kheema in a brioche and chicken tikka masala are served up with atypical aplomb. Chef Gaggan Anand is in attendance that evening and seeing us delight in the innovative cocktails that his chief mixologist Nacho has conjured up, he insists we try a couple more, made by pouring piping hot Darjeeling tea into a goblet of nitrogen frozen lemon sorbet. Chef Gaggan has garnered multiple awards and accolades and not without good reason. His is a fiercely original take on Indian comfort food and street-eats and the results are as appetising as they are surprising.
The next evening we dine at Nahm, regarded as the finest Thai restaurant in Bangkok and arguably the world. Chef David Thompson believes the traditional Thai meal is an exercise in balance, with the dynamic interplay of hot and sour, sweet and salty. He uses robustly flavoured ingredients—garlic, shrimp paste, chillies, lemongrass—and melds them together to create a sophisticated, subtle elegance in which every element is in perfect balance.
Once again, we are sated and woozily repair for a nightcap to the famed Sky Bar situated on the 63rd floor of the Lebua Towers. The view from this heaving nightspot is spectacular. The city sprawl twinkles below—a carpet of fairy lights. Pagodas, palaces, temples, tenements, condos, massage parlours, hotels, and brothels—all packed cheek by jowl, in chaotic yet congruent co-existence.
One night in Bangkok, so the song says, makes a hard man humble. But two nights can teach you a lot about life, love and living.