Thailand, ft. some tigers and a little bit of history
In our many trips across India, my parents and I have been to a lot of places. But, until recently we had never been to a foreign country other than Nepal.1 One of the main reasons for this is that India offers many different experiences, and each of our trips exposed us to a new chapter of what a country with as old a history as India has to offer. With such a large and diverse country to explore we never really felt the need to spend a lot more money to go to a foreign land.2
Many people I know have been to south-east Asia, to cities like Bangkok and Singapore, and beachsides like Pattaya and Phuket. They brought back with them tales of wonderful malls, shopping districts, parties, discotheques etc. - none of which particularly appealed to our predilection towards places with historical significance. Personally, I had an image in my mind that Bangkok is just a place for people to shop and party in, and that’s that. The stories about tiger parks had a different allure because I thought it would be cool to be up close and personal with an actual living tiger.
I write in the past tense because we recently visited Bangkok some places in the vicinity, and both those opinions have now changed.
One natural question, given the above, is how we ended up in Bangkok in the first place, given our India-first strategy? The short answer is that I got the chance to do an internship in Hong Kong, and we decided to take a break in the middle and spend a few days in Thailand. Therefore, the Bangkok trip.
It was during the drive from the airport to the hotel that I first got to know that the allure of Bangkok wasn’t just in the modern parts of the city and the malls therein, but there’s an unfortunately less talked about old part of Bangkok with plenty of old royal constructions. But, ironically, we would come to these parts of the city last.
We first went to Pattaya, which is a couple of hours from Bangkok by car. The beach wasn’t the ‘best’ beach we have been to. Back in India, the beaches in Goa, for example, appealed more to my taste than the beach in Pattaya. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there’s a lot more sand in those beaches in Goa than the few metres we saw on display in Pattaya. Also, everywhere, even the islands that we visited by boat, was stuffed full of people - while restaurants lined the beach, people enjoying watersports dotted the water itself. There’s a lot of commercialisation in Goa too, but the sheer number of beaches there means that a little bit of searching can lead to a quieter, less frequented beach. Maybe we discovered those less populated beaches because we went to Goa more than once (even though we spent a lot of time on one such beach the first time too), and maybe had we spent more than just an afternoon in Pattaya we would have discovered some calmer spot, but the fact still stands that we didn’t.
The beaches aren’t the thing that I want to write about most, though.
Pattaya has a tiger park. And, as I mentioned earlier, that was something that I was looking forward to. The concept is pretty simple. There would be more than one reasonably docile tiger in an enclosed area, and visitors would be accompanied into the place by a trainer. Entering the space was preceded by something interesting - they make you sign a piece of paper that states that the park authorities would not be held responsible in the case of any mishap. There was also a safety briefing, during which we were asked not to make sudden movements or loud noises and not to touch the tiger’s head, things like that. The tigers were very docile - all of their growls and animosity seemed to be directed at other tigers, especially when one of them fancied a spot that another had occupied. There were a total of four medium sized tigers in the area that we entered, and the guide let us touch their backs, stroke their bellies, and even shake hands with one. The tigers didn’t really care for our presence at all, barely registering our presence.
At the moment, I thought it was an amazing experience. After all, how many chances does one get to witness such magnificent animals from up close?
On the journey back to Bangkok, when I reflected upon everything that I had seen that day, my views about the whole thing had changed drastically. The question that I asked myself was the following - what makes tigers so magnificent? Why did I keep my eyes skinned during my visits to national parks like the Sundarbans or Corbett, looking for one sight of the tiger? I vividly remember the visit to Corbett and the jungle safari during that. There was a dusty road that our jeep was following, and we happened to see what were clearly fresh pug marks. We followed those pug marks until the point that they disappeared into the jungle, and there was another jeep standing close by, claiming that they had seen the tiger move into the trees at that very spot. For nearly half an hour we waited with bated breath, but the tiger preferred to remain unseen. I sort of thought that I had seen a part of the orange body of the tiger, but how much of that was my imagination and will to see a tiger and how much was reality, I do not know.
At the time of writing this, I haven’t seen a tiger in the wild. But I am pretty sure that tigers hold for me a fascination that a cat on the city street doesn’t - as the apex predator in the jungle, striking fear into the hearts of humans and animals alike.3 The large muscular body, easing unseen through the forest undergrowth, pursuing animals larger than itself and ending lives surgically - it is a fascination shaped as much by childhood fairy tales and ‘The Jungle Book’ as it is by documentaries on The National Geographic Channel and accounts by Jim Corbett.
This feeling is now damaged to a great extent by the fact that my hands have stroked one of their bellies in the tiger park. The fantastical ideas of mine are now mixed with the idea that tigers are just giant cats. It is like finding out that your greatest, bravest sporting hero is cowardly in real life. You are left questioning whether their prodigious skill at the sport that they play is more important to you than what kind of person they are. A similar question has been playing on my mind ever since - I know that the tigers I interacted with were raised that way and are but a pale shadow of what they are in the wild. All the same, in my mind the idea of a lone, ferocious creature dominating all it sees around in its own personal fiefdom has taken a beating after that particular experience.
I would ask someone who is reading this and who wants to visit such a place to think about what a tiger means to them before doing so. Sure, you will be able to shake hands with a tiger or feed a cub sitting on your lap. But do you really want to corrupt the mystical draw of a tiger forever? As for me, given another chance, I would probably not go.
Old Bangkok, anyone?
Okay, let’s break out of all that gloom now. The other highlight of my experiences in Thailand was the older part of Bangkok city.
Many Indian buildings have an architectural style that is a mish-mash of old Indian, Islamic and European influences, depending on which period they were built in. Often, the results are magnificent. Now, Thailand, in general, has a lot of Indian influence on its culture. Even though the dominant religion now is Buddhism, there are fingerprints of Hinduism all over the country’s history. The old capital of Thailand is called Ayutthaya, after Ayodhya which is revered in Hindu mythology as the birthplace of Lord Rama. We also saw old wall paintings in the temple complexes of Bangkok, which tell the story of the Ramayana. Also, it is thought that Theravada Buddhism was introduced into Thailand via the Gupta empire. This conclusion is supported by the similarity in the art styles of the Gupta empire and the old Thai empires. Even today, many old places have (to various degrees) Sanskrit sounding names. One extreme example of this is the name of the Bangkok airport - Suvarnabhumi.
All this Indian influence made me think about the time many years ago when empires in the south of India like the Cholas spread their influence all over south-east Asia. The result of this is not limited to Thailand only - the largest Hindu temple in the world is not located in India at all, but in Cambodia at Angkor Wat. It is perhaps a pity that we are not really taught much about the golden age of the South Indian empires in our school history classes - I am sure it would be a fascinating read!
But I digress. Something that we were taught in school-level History is how architecture was often used as a symbol of power by the rulers. The Taj Mahal, Red Fort and Jama Masjid were all built when the Mughal Empire was at its very peak, and there are examples all over India - Bijapur, Lucknow, Gwalior, even New Delhi are all examples that come to mind immediately. I could see the same in Bangkok too, and it was nowhere more prominent than in front of the gigantic reclining Buddha in the Wat Pho temple complex.
Let me end this with some quick observations/thoughts from my time in Bangkok.
Language is underrated I used to take for granted the ability to say something to the person in front of me, and for the person to understand what I am saying. In Bangkok I realised that language is hugely underrated, as anyone will realise when they go to a place where very few people speak their language. That being said, Google Translate, imperfect though it is, is a life-saver sometimes.
People in Bangkok care about traffic rules In Bangkok (and in Pattaya), people really follow traffic rules and respect lanes. One who doesn’t want to turn left doesn’t use the left-lane, period. Bikes stop to let people pass etc.
…but there are still terrible traffic jams We were unlucky enough to get back from one of our trips right in the middle of the Friday entertainment rush hour. That meant that we were stuck in a traffic jam for more than two and a half hours. Funny side note: we left the driver and the car and walked to the hotel after two and a half hours during which we had moved around 50m. We reached the hotel in 10 minutes.
As a side note, our visit to Nepal was before the earthquake that destroyed so many of the places that we had enjoyed during our last trip. ↩︎
The point here isn’t that going to foreign lands was worthless for us because there was nothing to see. It is that trips to various places in India were and continue to be very rewarding in all the ways that we wish for. ↩︎
How much of that has been replaced by humans striking fear into tiger hearts by hunting and killing them is another question entirely. ↩︎