“Thailand has something for everyone.” said the Indian Ambassador to Thailand with a hint of a smile on his face when
we went to see him at the Indian Embassy in Bangkok. I couldn’t agree more. Thailand is a country where you are one hundred percent guaranteed to have a great time. Whether it is culture, beaches, food, shopping, massages etc. it is all available and in abundance in this land of happiness. Someone has rightly said,
“If you got bored in Thailand, something is seriously wrong with you!”
After driving for 9 days through Myanmar, we finally entered Thailand and suddenly everything changed. I can never understand how does nature know that the country has changed? You draw one line on the border and on the other side of the line, the world is completely different. We said goodbye to Mr Tin in Myanmar and crossed Myanmar border into Thailand. On the other side of the border, it felt like a different world. Different faces, different buildings, different language, different trees, different flowers, different roads, different food, different smells, different everything else. All because we had crossed one line. We had kind of got comfortable driving in Myanmar under the watchful eye of Mr Tin so once we crossed the border and entered Thailand, for a few minutes we felt like something was missing. We realized that we had got used to an escort vehicle from which Mr Tin would keep giving us orders on the radio. But we were on our own now. Also, just before entering the border, our co-ordinator in Thailand sent me a message saying that he has got busy with some work and will not be able to receive us at the border.
“Tushar, sorry, I stuck in meeting, cannot come to border. Please call for anything important.” he sent this message
He was supposed to also bring a road map of Thailand for us at the border.
“So, Koko is not coming to receive us, we don’t have a GPS, we don’t have a road map, it is about to get dark and we need to drive around 100 km to Tak” I said to Sanjay.
We opened lonely planet and using a half page map of Thailand and also the inbuilt compass in our car, we somehow managed to get on the highway to our first night halt town called Tak. Is that the shortest name for a town?
“I have only seen roads like these in movies. It is so easy to drive here, everyone is so disciplined and the tarmac is so smooth. Look at the trucks, they are all driving in the slow lane in one line.” Sanjay looked amazed as he got a firsthand experience of driving on the silky tarmac of Thailand. We cruised along on the Thailand highways and in a couple of hours reached Tak. A small town, it was not so difficult to find out hotel. After eating enough rice over the last 9 days for lunch, dinner and sometimes for breakfast as well, we finally feasted on sandwiches and steak.
“I cannot believe Myanmar is only 100 km away. Life is so different here. ” I commented. Tak, though not a very exciting town, still looked very lively and starry compared to Myanmar. We were on a journey and it was only the beginning of many such variations of countries, culture, people and food.
The following day we headed towards Bangkok and though we managed to get on the correct highway without the help of a map, the concern in our minds was how to find the hotel in the concrete jungle of Bangkok. We continued driving towards Bangkok following the superbly placed sign boards after every few kilometres all along the highway. The idea was to do the entire journey using maps, but, did we have a map for Thailand? No! We knew the address of our hotel but had no idea how to get there. Overconfidence? Not at all! Oversight? Umm maybe! As we entered Bangkok, I started looking for sign boards for ‘Din Daeng’, the area in which our hotel was located. We spotted a sign board showing a straight arrow towards Din Daeng.
“There! There! it says Din Daeng straight. Follow it, follow it!” I literally shouted. Sanjay was behind the wheel and he started driving in the direction of the sign board. As we went deeper into Bangkok, the traffic increased and the maze of the innumerable flyovers and bridges also increased.
“Never lose sight of Din Daneg! let’s make sure we always go in the direction of Din Daeng!” We continued following the sign boards and after 30 minutes we reached Din Daeng. Now, we had to look for the street on which our hotel was located. We asked a few people for directions and within a couple of minutes found our street and to our own amazement, reached our hotel. High fives were given in the car. We felt very proud that we had managed to drive to our hotel in Bangkok without using either a GPS or even a road map.
“I think some divine power is guiding us. I cannot believe we managed to reach the hotel without taking a single wrong turn” Sanjay said.
Over the next couple of days in Bangkok, a lot of people came forward to help us, to meet us, to treat us and to guide us. It started with Mr Hemant Vasan, the representative of Jindal Stainless, one of the largest steel companies in India. My father put me in touch with him and once we told Hemant about what we were looking for, he left everything he was doing and took charge of arranging everything for us in Bangkok. He had been living in Bangkok for over 20 years, and almost became our local guardian.
“I am sending Virot to help you. He will guide you to whichever place you want to visit in Bangkok.” Hemant said to me on the phone. Virot, a smiling young Thai taxi driver sat in our car and took us first to ‘Mini India”. We visited the largest Gurudwara of Bangkok where we spoke to the ‘granthis’ who felt very happy and excited about our journey.
“We are also travellers like you. We go from one country to another for a few months, do prayers and gurbanis in the local gurudwaras and move on” one of the priests said.
“I have been to Gurudwaras in around 15 countries so far. I feel Indian people in foreign countries are more committed to visiting Gurudwaras. Most of them visit here on a Sunday, in addition to offering prayers, it is also a common meeting place for the community” one of the senior priests told us. We took their blessings and after seeing the various Indian food shops, saree shops, jewellery shops, music shops etc. we went to visit a school where Hemant had managed to get us some time with the Principle.
“I am of Indian origin but was born and brought up in Bangkok. I and a few other teachers felt that there was a need to start a school where we could teach Indian languages and culture in addition to Thai. We don’t restrict our students to only Indian culture, we want them to embrace all cultures but we also feel that it is important for children of Indian origin to at least know their native language and culture. So, we decided to start this school” said the Principle who is married to a Thai Indian and considers Thailand her home.
“Of course Thailand is my home. I have some relatives in India, but I love my life in Thailand and we are very happy here” she added.
Seeing the Indian, Chinese, Thai, African and some American kids playing together at Pioneer International School made it very clear that the school was surely following it’s ethos of embracing all cultures.
While Sanjay and I were driving, meeting with lots of people everyday, planning the days ahead, discussing vehicle performances, Prasad was working hard behind the scenes trying to capture every moment, every emotion, every meal, every sight, every road, every new face that said hello to us.
“Prasad, Prasad, are you sleeping?”
“Hmm? What? No, no, sorry just crashed for a minute” he would reply and become alert in the car.
Honestly, he is working the hardest amongst all of us. Sanjay and I get to share the driving, but Prasad has to do all his work on his own. Shooting the entire day which would start as early as 5 AM and go on till after dark, checking into a new hotel almost every night, charging at least 5 cameras, taking back up of all the days shooting, not only of the videos but of the photographs as well. To top it all, make a plan for the next days’ shoot, always remain awake in the car so that he doesn’t miss any interesting location. Not a man of many words, he keeps working silently in the background.
“Hi guys, I am Hemant.” A short, simple, smiling Indian, who we had never met, but only spoken on the phone a few times after reaching Bangkok greeted us with a warm smile. It didn’t feel like we were meeting him for the first time.
“I think it’s time to go pay a visit to the Indian Ambassador” he said looking at his watch. We had managed to get an appointment with the Indian Ambassador to Thailand. At the embassy, in addition to his senior officials, some reporters from Indian media were also present.
“Indian Embassy in every country would be glad to greet you and do whatever they can to help you”, one of the officials told us.
“Umm, can you help us get a road map of Thailand?” Sanjay said to him
“Oh, sure, wait a minute”. The official went and returned in a few minutes with a road book of Thailand
“Anything else?” he asked with a smile
“Ah, no, not for now. Thanks a lot, this is really great” we replied with a big smile.
As the Ambassador entered the big board room where Sanjay, Prasad, I, Hemant, media personnel and embassy officials were already sitting and chit chatting, we all got up to greet him.
The Ambassador had a very warm, jovial and pleasing personality.
“So, tell us about the Great Indian World Trip” he asked us with a smile
We sat in the board room for over one hour during which he listened to us curiously, kept asking questions about the route, discussed border issues between foreign countries, told us about the life of Indian people in Thailand, and also offered his help and assistance during our stay in Thailand
“People in Thailand are happy. Indian people in Thailand are also happy. It is easy for anyone with even a mediocre income to life here happily” he said to us
We left the embassy feeling very happy and proud. It was a great feeling to have met the ‘First Indian’ in Thailand who was such a warm, people’s person.
“You guys must be hungry. Let me take you for some real authentic Indian food now” Hemant said as we drove to an Indian restaurant called ‘Saras’
“Driving from India? All over the world? Here in my restaurant?” I overheard one man talking to Hemant while we waited at a table inside the restaurant”
“Let me introduce you to the owner of Saras” Hemant said.
He too was curious about our journey and felt very pleased and even honoured that we had come to eat in his restaurant.
“Indian people in Thailand are doing very well. In this area alone, at least 10 luxury hotels are owned by Indian people. We celebrate all festivals together and in fact, we celebrate them more religiously than they are celebrated in India also” Gaurav, owner of Saras said proudly
At the end of the meal, not only did he refuse to take money for the meal, he even packed a big bag full of Indian food, snacks and savouries for us.
“This is for the road. It will not go bad for a few days. Have a safe journey, you guys are making all of us proud” he said to us before we left.
In one day, we had met so many Indian people who seemed so happy and so willing to do whatever we wanted from them. It was a fantastic feeling to meet our own countrymen outside of India. We felt a connection with them, they felt a connection with us, we were strangers but the only thing that connected us, the only bond between us was our nation. We left Bangkok feeling very proud.
“Our experience reinforces the fact that we must be doing something right, yeah, we are crazy to be doing this journey, but just look at the love that we are getting from everyone. It is surely a journey we will remember for the rest of our lives” Sanjay said
“Absolutely right, also, I think soon we will start forgetting the names of all the people who appear out of the blue, help us, spend some time with us and then we have to say bye and move on” I added
The journey from Bangkok to Phuket was a breeze. Cruising along on the Thai highways was as smooth as silk. No potholes, no one honking, no traffic jams, no angry stares, no cutting of lanes, no animals or people trespassing the highways…it was the ideal drive. Just us, our car, music and the idea of driving to one of the most popular destinations in the world, Phuket. On way, we stopped at a road side ‘services’ for lunch, where women wearing traditional ‘hijab’ were serving food from behind the counter. I was curiously looking at the various sorts of meat displayed. When I asked them about the various dishes, in reply, all they did was whisper amongst themselves, look at me and giggle.
“Umm, am I that funny?” I asked Prasad who too was smiling
“Why are they all laughing at me?” I asked
Never mind, I mustered up some courage even though I was starting to feel embarrassed and asked them to put some chicken and rice on my plate.
On way to Phuket, we passed many small towns where we couldn’t help but notice lots of yellow flags displayed outside the shops. In one town, we found ourselves driving through a procession where a van ahead of us was firing up crackers and throwing them in the air. There were lots of people walking a bit aggressively as part of the procession and Prasad was a bit scared to record it.
“C’mon Karan, don’t be scared. Why dont you record it?” I asked him
“I don’t have a good feeling, that man is not looking very happy and he is a big guy!” Prasad quickly replied
It was a misty evening and we couldn’t really figure out what was going on. Around 20 cars going in a convoy with their flashers on, firing up crackers from a moving pick up truck, beating the drums…it was a bit surreal.
“Umm, I hope we have not got ourselves in some place where we shouldn’t be” Prasad said
“Let’s keep a distance from the procession and get out of this town” Sanjay commented
We left the town and a couple of hours later reached Phuket. Cool breeze, sound of the ocean, tattoo bars, massage parlours, karaoke clubs…it was a very different world compared to all the places we had driven through so far.
“Can we stay here a few extra days please?” I smiled and said to Sanjay as I absorbed the first wave of breeze all over my face.
“Done sir, done. I like this place already” Sanjay replied back
“I am Harry, so you guys are driving in a Fortuner? I also drive a Fortuner”, the 6 feet tall Sikh man from Phuket greeted us at the hotel. Hemant had asked Harry to help us during our stay in Phuket.
“I have lived in Phuket for 22 years. I came to visit some relatives and never went back. I love this place, it is paradise, it has given me a lot” Harry said smiling as we attacked the Thai Green Curry, Fish and Lobsters that he ordered for us in a traditional Thai restaurant. Over the next couple of days in Phuket, we got a fairly good idea of why Phuket is one of the favourite destinations for tourists from all over the world. It is a very calming, laid back, happy place. Not only do you feel very safe walking along the streets any time of the night, it is also a place where you could easily spend weeks doing nothing. Sanjay and Prasad took a dip in the crystal blue Andaman waters while I sipped coconut water and listened to rock music playing on the beach and watched people tie themselves on ropes and fly above the ocean while a motor boat pulled them.
Thailand never ceased to surprise us. After visited Bangkok and Phuket, while driving towards HatYai, a town near the Thai-Malaysian border, we spotted a restaurant on the highway called “Cabbages and Condoms”
“Wait, is that a restaurants’ name?” Prasad said
“Sure is, looks very interesting, lets’ check it out” I said
We parked and curiously went inside the restaurant.
“No other place in the world other than Thailand could have such a name for a restaurant” Sanjay said.
It really was a very interesting restaurant. The coasters had animated images of condoms with phrases like “No glove, no love” printed on them. A huge banner of a ‘cartoon condom’ greeted us as we entered the restaurant. To top it all, we were also offered free condoms when we paid the bill at the end of our meal.
“We encourage safe sex and we guarantee that our food will not make women pregnant!” said the waitress who served us.
The mutual feeling on leaving Thailand was one of happiness. It seemed like a laid back country where people work hard but party harder. Everyone here smiles, everyone here is willing to help, you will always be greeted with a “Swaadikaaaa” in a very typical nasal tone. But before you know it, you too will be returning the greeting. Be careful, it is easy to fall in love with Thailand, so make sure you visit the country with a return ticket or if you are the crazy kinds like us, with a visa for your onward country!