Note: We didn't take any pictures of our airplane, or of Bangkok when we first arrived there; neither of us felt up to dealing with a camera before Sunday, our second full day in Thailand, when we were in Chiang Mai. So this section has no original pictures. I've googled up a few clip art images to enliven the page, but there's no picture gallery until the next section.
We traveled on a Thai Air flight direct from New York to Bangkok. The plane took off at about 11am on November 3, so we flew down from Boston on the previous afternoon and spent the night at a hotel close to Kennedy airport. Checking in for the flight, we were told that the airline was offering a promotional upgrade to "Premium Economy" for a charge of $200 per passenger each way, and when we learned that this meant slightly cushier seats — not as cushy as first class, which they call "Royal Silk," but with extra hip- and legroom — we decided to go for it. Other Premium Economy amenities included the privilege of eating the airline food, which in fairness we found a bit better than most, from real dishes instead of plastic ones, but that wasn't what motivated us to spend the money; it was the wider seats and extra legroom on a flight scheduled to last 17 hours.
As airplanes go, the Thai Airbus 340 was reasonably comfortable, considering that we weren't among the Royal Silk passengers. Everyone had a private screen in the back of the seat in front, and a variety of movies as well as audio and video programs were on offer, besides a GPS display showing where the plane was at any given moment. (There were also some video games, but I had no luck getting one started; after crashing the system twice I gave up.) Still, it was 17 hours spent mostly sitting in a fairly confined space (premium economy notwithstanding) with the constant roar of jet engines keeping us company. Thai Air hospitably kept us supplied with snacks, water, and fruit juice, and served us two dinners and a breakfast as well. We watched "Chinatown" together, coordinating our separate screens, and I read a Larry McMurtry novel. (Dorothea finds it impossible to read on an airplane, but I seem to be able to read anywhere.)
The plane followed a great-circle route that may not have passed directly over the North Pole, but certainly took us near it. We went straight up the Hudson valley, over Montreal and Ottawa and eventually Baffin Island, and without any obvious deviation from a straight line came down across Siberia, Mongolia, and the middle of China (passing near Chengdu), finally over Laos to northern Thailand and Bangkok.
Jayanto was waiting for us at the airport with a driver and van — these were the property and employee, respectively, of Khun ST, an architect who is a supporter of the international monastery, Wat Pa Nanachat, and its monks. She customarily makes an apartment that she owns available to monks from WPN when they come to Bangkok, and that's where Jayanto was staying at the moment. On his advice, we were heading for a Western hotel where he thought it would be advisable to spend our first night as we tried to get accustomed to the time and climate change.
We got our first experience of the notorious Bangkok traffic as we tried to make our way there — we had left New York on Thursday morning, but 17 hours later it was Friday night in Bangkok, and it took an hour or so to get to the Radisson (which Jayanto had suggested because it was relatively near the airport).
Once we got inside, however, we were treated like VIPs. Our bags vanished, and we were ushered up to a special business-class lobby on the 23rd floor, where we were seated at a table and given fruit drinks while all the paperwork formalities were taken care of; finally, they brought the form over for us to sign. We were then shown to a classy suite with a view overlooking the city — to be honest, a rather nondescript part of the city, since that's where the hotel is located, but the note of luxury was nevertheless struck. We weren't sure how we rated such treatment; surely it couldn't have been the $85 we paid for the night, or that Dorothea had made the reservation via the Internet — maybe it was because we walked in the door with a monk. Jayanto soon left in a cab for Khun ST's compound, where by arrangement someone would be waiting up to pay the fare. (His community follows conservative rules that prevent monks from carrying or even touching money.)
Having had little to no sleep on the plane, I slept the night through, despite the fact that my body clock was 180° out of phase with local time: 10am Eastern time is 10pm Bangkok time, and so on. Dorothea had a harder time, though she managed to get some sleep. The long, nearly sleepless flight helped us (in varying degrees) to adjust to the difference, and we also found that it was true, as we'd read and heard, that it's easier to adjust to the time change when traveling from West to East than the other way around. Although I was pretty well acclimated to the time difference after two or three days in Thailand (and D. a couple of days later), it was at least a week and a half after we got back before either of us felt quite right in head or body.
In the morning I opened the curtains and looked down onto the hotel parking lot. Like many of the large buildings we had passed the previous night, the hotel had a shrine in one corner of the lot. It's a Thai custom to put up a "spirit house" on a building lot to accommodate any earth or tree spirits who may have been displaced by the construction — a folk custom from the distant, pre-Buddhist past. Homes and humble buildings have small spirit houses, some plain and some very graceful, but the owners of elaborate buildings often build correspondingly elaborate spirit houses. The one in the picture I found gives the general idea, but the Radisson's was much bigger. It's customary for a spirit house to be decorated daily with flowers and symbolic food offerings, modest or lavish in proportion to the grandeur of the house, and I saw a hotel employee busily refreshing the offerings from a room service cart. It was no quickie job, either.
Jayanto's plan was for us to get out of Bangkok as soon as possible and go to Chiang Mai in the cooler north for a milder introduction to Thailand's steamy climate. November, when the rainy season has just ended, is the first of three relatively cool and dry months. "Relatively" needs to be stressed, of course — the country never gets much less hot or humid than the Dog Days here in Massachusetts. This November, as it happened, the weather continued hotter and more humid than usual — perhaps one of those gentle hints of global climate change, or perhaps just a random variation in the pattern.
Be that as it may, we ignored Bangkok for the moment, except for the traffic, which was impossible to ignore if one needed to go anywhere. In the early afternoon of our first day in Thailand, Khun ST's driver took us to the airport for the short flight to Chiang Mai.
This section last updated 3-5-2007