Thailand is a land of choices

Published 10:20 pm Tuesday, March 6, 2018

My first news job — it was at a small Mississippi daily — lent me the privilege of working for excellent editors in a close-knit, friendly community. A good start, that.

The out-of-town owner, sometimes brusque but a pretty fair newsman, occasionally nettled our staff with his opinion columns written from abroad, which appeared to be thinly disguised efforts to write off his frequent international trips. The columns, mandated to run in all his newspaper properties, bore recurring themes: Foreign lands were dirty and soot-filled; their governments repressed their people; no place was as good as home. They didn’t inspire travel and even if they did, we only got one week of vacation.

I thought about those gloomy columns on my way back from Thailand last Sunday, where I spent 12 days with family. Most of that time was spent in Bangkok, a spectacular international place with twice the land mass of New York City and about as many people. Bangkok goes on forever.

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If I wanted to find Bangkok’s downsides, I was told, they were there to be plumbed. There’s a royal family and I’m no fan of kings, even benevolent ones. The military government can lean hard on free expression. There’s not a lot of baseball.

But Bangkok has boomed over the years, the beneficiary of international investment and industrious Thais. There’s an uneven energy that courses through its streets: For every lot cleared of sad housing or worn businesses, it seems, new and towering buildings emerge. Posh shopping areas — you can buy anything of any brand in this worldly and ambitious place — were around the corner from street vendors hawking food.

It’s a city of architects and engineers and bankers and diplomats.

Yet people sold fruit and stir-fried noodles or grilled pork on the street. Sidewalk vendors might pitch socks one day, sandals the next. Street markets set up shop at the local university two mornings a week and deals were everywhere: women’s clothing, shoes, T-shirts, sleep shorts. Some merchandise was suspicious, which only added to the sport. Everyone seems busy.

It’s a city of hucksters and sharks, plying their businesses alongside vendors of good faith. You decide which is which.

You could get a Thai massage or a Thai “massage” on the busy street where my son’s family lives. Turn left from his apartment house and you would find Grammy Place, home to the Thai recording industry. The India’s embassy is that way. So is Srinakharinwirot University, an urban campus with a graduate school and students who appeared to be unreasonably young.

Across the street is Baan Khanitha, which has served “authentic Thai cuisine” for 25 years and, by the plaques, has been rated best in the city. We ate there once; it lived up to its billing.

Turn right and find coffee shops and affordable diners, including one I dared not try: “Mad Cow Burgers.”

A few store fronts beyond is a mixed bag of establishments. You can catch a train or buy Thai silk or pick up a pharmacy prescription, all the while passing sex industry workers at sham massage parlors — all the way down the street to Soi Cowboy, a red light district a quarter-mile away.

Or, you can get a real massage from a plain, intrepid woman with large forearms who stands outside her shop, near Soi Cowboy, where her sign reads “Proper massage.”

Bangkok is a land of choices.

I didn’t find Thailand dirty or soot-filled or repressive. I found it glittering and vibrant, a tourist’s delight. We took the grandchildren to massive parks and children’s museums, we walked in safety at night, we rode a tuk tuk and went to Mass in Thai before dawn at an Assumption Cathedral chapel. I shopped and shopped.

Twelve days in Thailand left me convinced that I know little about Thailand — What can you know in 12 days? — except that Thai people everywhere treated us with uncommon courtesy and kindness in a jewel of a place. I know this much: I’d love to go back.

Ken Stickney is editor of the Port Arthur News.