On a brief trip to Bangkok and Pattaya, the author is reminded of many things he loves about Vietnam’s Southeast Asian neighbor.
I’ve been living in Vietnam now for nearly three years. I embrace the time I spend in Thailand.
Thailand is a kinder, gentler country, and its teeming capital, Bangkok, is a much more liveable metropolis than Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It takes only a few minutes on busy Sukhumvit Road to sense the greater respect for human beings.
Traffic actually stops at red lights to allow pedestrians to cross. Sidewalks (or footpaths, if you prefer) are maintained and kept free of parked motorbikes. A modern overhead railway system provides rapid and low-cost transportation from one end of the city to the other.
Thai food has more flavor and variety than Vietnamese, where noodles and rice are the everyday staples. In Bangkok in particular, the choice of international options is mind-boggling.
Bangkok’s appeal may be partially due to its much-longer exposure to tourism from abroad. As far back as the 1960s, American troops in Vietnam were taking rest-and-recuperation leaves in Thailand; unlike Vietnam, the Thais have not in recent generations been embroiled in wars that closed their borders to foreign visitors.
In some regards, Vietnam is still the Wild West. Especially in Ho Chi Minh City, traffic is out of control and pedestrians are non-persons. “Please” and “thank you,” even in translation, are not words often expressed. One can never be sure if one is being told the truth, or just some face-saving version thereof. Secrets hide deeper secrets. Government observers are well-placed.
The most memorable tourist attractions in Vietnamese cities are war remnants: armaments, prisons, battle sites. In Thailand, they are Buddhist temples.
Thai Buddhism honors the faith’s founder, the historical Buddha, as a teacher rather than a god. Vietnamese Buddhism, heavily influenced by centuries of Chinese influence, kowtows to Quan Am, the mythological goddess of mercy, often called the “Lady Buddha.” Like Vietnamese history, the scriptures have been rewritten.
For all my frustrations, I am employed in Vietnam now and for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, I will continue to make the occasional short, inexpensive flight west from Saigon.
A Return to Bangkok
My overriding reason to visit the Thai capital on this occasion — my first international trip since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020 — was to extend my business visa to continue teaching in Vietnam. Corporate misinformation and bungling have snarled the renewal of my working documents for months, and a letter of sponsorship enabled me to right things (at least through October) with a stop at the Embassy of Vietnam in Thailand.
I took full advantage. I’ve been visiting the city since 1976. I have a few friends here — people like Joe Cummings, who achieved almost legendary status during his many years as a Lonely Planet author. We go back over 30 years. These days he’s still writing for books and magazines, as well as being a CNN correspondent; but he’s become at least as well known as an actor (three features last year, one in the title role), composer and musician.
A couple of decades back, as a rock guitarist himself, Joe was the designated Thailand tour guide for the most famous Stone of them all, Mick Jagger. They have remained friends and confidants. I’ve been entrusted with a few stories. I am not privileged to share them.
But some were leaked during rounds of whiskey cocktails at the 29 Jazz Club, an outstanding jazz-and-blues bar that Keith Nolan manages in Sukhumvit Road’s Mermaid Hotel. I wish there were venues like this in Ho Chi Minh City, but my current city has precious few. When Keith, an Irish keyboardist who once had an enthusiastic following in Saigon, left Vietnam for Thailand some years ago, he left an empty space that longtime HCM expatriates still mourn.
29 Jazz has live music nightly, often headlining female vocalists. I caught two shows there, and another with Joe at Smalls, an aptly named Rive Gauche-style lounge in the Sathorn Road neighborhood. On the night of our visit, the music was innovative and avant-garde, but this is a venue where the Midnight Ramblers— Cummings’ popular Rolling Stones cover band — also performs.
An Afternoon at Wat Pho
This visit to Bangkok may have been my first in which I didn’t spend hours at the Grand Palace, one of the most iconic and spectacularly picturesque structures on the planet, dating from 1782. Its numerous buildings and carefully tended grounds cover 54 acres on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, and include Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Thailand’s most sacred place of worship.
Instead, I invested an afternoon just down the road from the Palace at the 17th-century Wat Pho. Famous for its great Reclining Buddha — 46 meters (151 feet) long, the gold-plated statue barely fits in its sheltering pavilion — Wat Pho also contains the country’s largest collection of Buddha images, more than 1,000 in all.
Covering nearly 20 acres, the temple grounds are a relaxing place for a contemplative stroll. Within its walls are scores of building, including more than 100 finely carved chedis (shrines), the four most monumental (Phra Maha Chedi) containing particularly precious spiritual relics of Kings Rama I through IV.
Most memorable to me, besides the Reclining Buddha, is the ordination hall (Phra Ubosot) where Buddhist rituals are performed. Dedicated in 1791, it has at its heart a three-part pedestal of gold and crystal, topped with a gilded Buddha beneath a nine-tier umbrella. Removing my shoes outside the hall, I joined several dozen other visitors in offering well-wishes to the Buddha and to 18th-century King Rama I, whose ashes are beneath the pedestal.
Besides being a place of worship, Wat Pho is also the oldest center for public education in Thailand, teaching history, literature, religion and especially traditional medicine. The temple is also the birthplace of Thai massage, and students at its school of massage welcome patrons at very reasonable rates. In one of Wat Pho’s many small, whimsical rock gardens, I even discovered statues depicting yoga and massage.
Meanwhile, on the ‘Dark Side’
Temple massage, of course, is nonsexual. The same cannot be said about the bodywork offered at a majority of “spas” in Bangkok’s numerous bar districts, notably those off Sukhumvit Road.
As it happened, I had booked a hotel on Soi 20 Sukhumvit — the comfortable and contemporary Thee Hotel (US $44/night). I chose the location as close to Keith’s jazz club. But I did not linger in any of Bangkok’s so-called spas, despite my fascination with the “dark side” of a city.
There is plenty of wicked activity in the various side streets off Sukhumvit Road. Lanes like Soi Cowboy and Patpong Road offer temptations galore, but at a price not as innocent as first presented. Scantily clad women invite men to enjoy a beer for 80 to 100 Thai baht (that’s about US$2.50 to $3); but make no mistake, their job is selling drinks. Around the world, that’s where a bar’s profit margin lies.
The girls’ own watered-down “lady drinks” cost two to three times yours, and when other women join the conversation, your bill can quickly add up. Should you want to purchase your companion’s charms away from her bar, you’ll pay a little more. The going rate is now about 3,000 baht (US $80) for a “short time” (two hours or less), 5,000 baht (US $135) for a “long time,” which might mean all night. Streetwalkers are cheap (often only 1,000 baht) but dangerous; unlike the bar girls, they are not subject to weekly health checks nor to upholding the honor of their employer.
Freelance escorts — professional girlfriends, if you will — are often the best choice for a man who wants a female friend in Bangkok but doesn’t want a revolving door of partners. Many of these women are attractive, intelligent, and speak good English. As often as not, they are single mothers marketing their best assets to support families in country regions of Thailand. Indeed, some may be looking for a “golden ticket” (i.e., a husband with money). A weekly gift of 5,000 baht, plus meals and pocket money, is much less than the cost of a week of carousing.
I didn’t spend my entire Thai retreat in Bangkok. Three days in the Pattaya suburb of Jomtien Beach, 2½ hours by bus south of Sukhumvit Road’s Ekkamai station, landed me a one-bedroom suite in a time-share condo for only US$12 a night. Granted, the screams of young children in the Atlantis Resort’s central waterpark weren’t exactly what I had in mind, but at least the beach itself was only a short walk away.
I came to Jomtien to visit two more old friends, one male, one female. The woman, Opor, was my friend in the northern city of Chiang Mai on my last visit to Thailand, in late 2019. She now rolls sushi (and probably weed) at an open-air, off-the-beaten-track Japanese restaurant, Wazab. Its larger claim to fame is open sale of Rasta-brand Thai stick, “100% organic.” Indeed, I found cannabis widely available for sale throughout the beach area.
My other friend in Jomtien is John Faux, a retired British-American engineer of similar age to myself. We took daily Western-style breakfasts at Cheap Charlie’s and talked about John’s inclination to split his year between Thailand and central Mexico, as a vagabond on a monthly pension income. The cost of a comfortable US$300-a-month apartment here, 200 meters from a beach where vendors hawk spicy curries for $1 and fresh fruit juice for 50 cents, has a lot of appeal.
Hmm. Maybe I should just go back and move in next door to John.