The in-flight announcements about the impending landing and arrival requirements at Bangkok woke me up. There was no time for a bed coffee. With summer timing in force the time difference between India and Bangkok is 2 hours. The new Suvarnabhumi International Airport is not very exciting. It is a large facility no doubt with live orchids and quite a bit of greenery within the airport. However, one does not get the feeling of it being special. On disembarking from the flight I headed for the ‘On Arrival Visa’ section. A ‘morning walk’, albeit on travelators deposited me at a desk peopled by a couple of cheerful youngsters. Upon ascertaining that the visa would have to be paid for in local currency I submitted myself for a complete rip off at the airport currency changers. The premium is as high as 50% for exchanging Indian currency. After that was done what ensued was a horrendous wait of over two hours for issue of the visa. Wherever you are bound for in Thailand one has to obtain visa and immigration clearance in Bangkok. I soon realised that the delay was caused by a combination of less counters, lack of documentation and understanding by the arriving passengers. The Fast Track counter did brisk business, where one has to pay 20% more than the 1000 THB for the normal counters. I was short of the local currency and I had time on my hands; so I decided to wait it out. The queues had only Indians, in groups and otherwise. What irks you the most is the ‘Indianness’ of wanting to be the first in the queue even when you have arrived late. And, such attitude is not the preserve of brash youngsters, even senior citizens display this – is it because they feel that there is so much more to be done and there is not that much time left for it to be done in! After a patience and energy sapping wait of over two hours I presented myself before a young lady officer of the Thai Immigration. I presented all the documents required and waited for the necessary stampings on the passport. Instead the Officer passed me on to another as she was stumped and we could not communicate clearly with each other. Fortunately, I got my visa done soon with immigration clearance.
Another long trek took me to the transfer counter for Chiang Mai. I was in for a major panic when I discovered the loss of my travel kit with foreign exchange after the security check in. I ran out of the security enclosure in complete panic. Fortunately, the immigration officer stopped me and handed over the pouch; I had left it at her counter on the way for security check after completing the immigration formalities. With the anxiety of the loss and the relief of retrieval behind me I waited another couple of hours for the flight to Chiang Mai.
The flight was a short hop of over an hour – the distance from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is nearly 800 kms by road. Chiang Mai looked absolutely gorgeous from the air – a green valley surrounded by mountains. Large tracts of agricultural farms, virtually manicured and geometrically laid out, was a visual treat. Later I could connect the visual pictures of these farms with the lovely fruits and vegetables I consumed and the brilliant array of flowers that were so much part of the venues of the three days of various ceremonies connected with the wedding. High rise buildings were not part of the landscape – the city grows horizontally rather than vertically. The majority of houses have terracotta tiled sloping roofs and the blocks are well arranged. The misty mountains lend their magic to the city. While collecting the baggage i noticed a team that welcomed wedding guests at the airport. Spectrum Events was in charge of all the arrangements for transport, accommodation, venue preparation, etc. They were very efficient at the airport, assisted by a group from Bellary. I was assigned a room at the Le Meridien and a transport allocated to take me there. The Hotel was just about 20 minutes from the airport. Another team comprising of Modi’s employees and Spectrum handled everything from specially erected booths that made the guests instantly comfortable.
After checking in and unpacking I was eager to schedule the next three days. I took the assistance of the Spectrum team at the Hotel. They drew up a two day schedule to visit the places I had shortlisted from the bits and pieces I picked up from the Internet. The beauty of the schedule was that I could cover the places I intended to visit and yet attend all the wedding related events; the entertainment related events had to be carefully chosen from. I sought the advice of the Spectrum team to go for a Thai massage before the evening program at the Shangri-La Hotel. With a naughty smile and a wink one of them asked me what kind of massage I wanted to go for. They seemed relieved when I told them that I had the traditional one in mind. They suggested a few places, but I had to get some local currency first. The poor rate offered for the INR came as a bit of a shock; against the official rate of 0.67, what was on offer was just 0.58. The USD was better treated and hence I exchanged that for the Thai Baht.
Just around the corner from Le Meridien is the ‘Le Best’ massage parlour. There was a long list of services advertised by the parlour. They had a promotion offer of foot, leg, neck and shoulder massage for 180 THB. I decided to try that out and walked in to a hall where a few customers were being massaged and many chairs were empty. A lady was assigned to me and I was asked to sit on a chair where my feet were thoroughly washed first. Then over the next one hour I was given an excellent massage that relaxed the ‘tough’ muscles and prompted me to decide on the same routine for the next three days too. It was then time to get back and get dressed for the ‘Thai Carnival’ and the many programs (including gaming and games of chances) that had been arranged from 7 pm at the Shangri-La Hotel. Before I left for the program I asked at the special counter where I could procure a local sim card from. Immediately I was given one with 105 THB worth of calls on it! All that would be necessary for the guests while in Thailand had been factored in.
I felt a bit guilty when I walked in to the Hotel at 7.15 pm, as it was a quarter hour later than what the invite mentioned. There was still a fairly large gathering at the High Tea counters and none to be seen near the Poolside, where the first function was to be held. I had completely forgotten the fact that the Indian Standard Time would be sacrosanct, even in Thailand, I walked around some and then decided to partake of the High Tea. There was a small offering of Thai eats while the Indian foods were predominant and all foods were vegetarian. The chat counter worked overtime.
A massive dose of rain ruined the most fascinating arrangements done in the open air. There was a fair amount of discussion on whether the program should be conducted inside the Hotel, more so because the Met Department forecast a 40% chance of further rain. However, by 9 pm it was decided to start the program at the Poolside. When I walked to the venue I found a man dressed like an entertainer. When I asked him what his repertoire was he told me that he could capture a silhouette merely by a few cuts of a scissor on a piece of paper. I asked if I was too complex a subject to start his evening! What he achieved in a few moments was nothing short of astounding. After he had finished, a lady who was passing by made a few positive comments and I could not resist asking if the comments were directed at me or the artist. I suppose she did not mean it at all when she said it was meant for both!
The program finally kicked off with the ‘Thai Carnival’ that showcased Chiang Mai handicrafts and the Lanna foods. The guests were asked to choose whatever handicrafts they liked as a souvenir. The perfumed flower candles, perfumed flower soap in a wooded dish, hand-painted wood pulp umbrella, hand-painted fan, coconut tree leaf hat, jasmine garland and handmade stone and gem jewellery were all on display. The candle making and the painting of fans and umbrellas attracted the attention of most of the guests. Another artist specialised in caricatures and I got mine done in the woven hat. The Lanna food spread was a stunning array of the most incredible vegetable preparations. I started with the delicious sugarcane juice and worked my way up noodles, rice, sattays, various dips and grills. I gorged on every fruit that was in sight. The Dragon Fruit was a discovery.
With the stomach looked after I settled down to the happenings at the Poolside. The couple looked absolutely stunning as they were brought into public view in a boat rowed by a traditionally dressed Thai oarsman. The floating of candles in the pool followed, which was meant to wish the couple. The music, the singing and the juggling acts all complemented the lovely evening. Personally I was disappointed by the two MCs. Through it all I had a couple of drinks and my head began to swim – a combination of exhaustion and the heady festivities. After a helping of a local recipe of the most delectable coconut soufflé, the fireworks and the display of gas powered air borne lanterns I decided to call it a day. The Le Meridien is a short walk from the Shangri-La Hotel. On the way I sampled a few things on offer in the ‘Night Bazaar’, which was listed as a ‘must see’ in the Chiang Mai itinerary. The wood carvings and the ceramic work of Chiang Mai are famous. I short listed a few items to buy when I have the time to bargain. Back in the room I found a huge hamper of eats and beverages; no effort had been spared to take care of the guests.