For twenty-six years Bangkok has been a city of my dreams, the most exotic place I'd ever experienced. Ed and I with Jesse, 8, and Psyche, 4, had arrived from Tokyo after midnight, and taxied through nearly deserted streets to the Royal Orchid Sheraton, where we were graciously greeted with wet towels and orchids, and ushered into a large luxurious room with soft carpets and a full wall of glass overlooking the Phraya Chao. I awoke at dawn a few hours later, and sat on the floor looking out as the rest of the family slept, mesmerized by the early morning traffic on the river that threaded its way past temples and amazing roof lines several stories below, I went downstairs and walked outside among trees and gardens, all the way to the edge of the old Mandarin Oriental Hotel, arrested by the sight or orchids sprouting from hollows in the big old trees.
Back in the room, the electricity suddenly went out. We ended up walking down the 15 or 20 or 30 flights of stairs, some on the outside, some dark on the inside of the building. The lobby was lit by candlelight, and eventually a few dim lights powered by a generator. Surely power would be back on soon.
Outside on the river, we found ferry boats that took us across and back, then we engaged a man with a small boat to take us along back waters and to the floating market that was pretty much over by the time we got there. We bought some tiny sugar bananas, the first I'd ever eaten. People, including naked children, living in ramshackle wooden houses on stilts bathed, washed clothing and dishes, and brushed their teeth in the brown river water.
Back at the hotel: still no power, so we took another ferry to the Grand Palace. On the way we walked through a market where we bought delicious rambutans. Suddenly it started to rain, and we were besieged by people selling bamboo and waxed paper umbrellas. First one: $4, second one 2, and third one, one. We kept at least one of them for years.
The Royal Palace dazzled me! I could have stayed forever. There were only a few people there. But we got a rickshaw ride back to the ferry and back to the hotel. Still no power. Out to lunch in a fancy shopping center nearby, then back to the hotel again. Ed decided we couldn't risk staying there and making our plane to Australia the next morning if there was no power, so, with the help of hotel staff the kids and I trekked up the many flights of stairs to retrieve our luggage, and we headed to the airport in late afternoon gridlock traffic, to a very boring hotel. We sat in traffic with no air-conditioning for so long, Psyche climbed onto the driver's lap. He missed his kids.
Alas,upon our return, Bangkok has not been so magical. The fancy hotels are gated and there is no walking along the river from one to another. The streets around were dingier than I remembered, and filled with shops selling jewelry and fabrics to tourists.
The ferry on the river was much the same, however, but everywhere was much built up with tall flashy buildings. The Market near the Royal Palace was much diminished, but the palace itself still dazzled. However, there was not just a handful of tourists, but thousands. We had a sudden rainstorm, too, but we were already inside the palace grounds. Later, near Wat Pho I saw one man hawking a bamboo umbrella. I was tempted to buy one for old time's sake, but hurried on. There were a few tuk-tuk drivers, but almost no bicycle rickshaws.
We walked in neighborhoods nearby that felt more like the smaller, friendlier city I remembered, and found, among other things a display of old typewriters in the window of a repair shop. We had a nice late lunch in a little place that had no name or menu in a western alphabet, so I have no idea of its name, but it was clean and the walls covered with photos of what must have been friends and family. We were the only ones there for a short time, and I looked up to see almost the entire staff of half a dozen people sitting watching us. We then walked back toward the ferry along the Royal Field and along a street described as the Champs d'Elysees of Bangkok. I think not!
So, Bangkok in reality, is no longer that romantic place that has occupied a special place in my dreams, but I suspect, like so many times and places, the new and old will continue to share space in my memories.
Now in Hanoi! What cognitive dissonance! This charming, ramshackle old city comes close to what I'd imagined an old city in Asia would be. I cannot yet hold all the horrific images and memories of the Vietnam War and its impact on my young life (and on the lives of my contemporaries), together with the altogether different place I see before my eyes: French patisseries, street-side markets full of flowers and vegetables; and backpackers far too young to know much about the war, toting copies of their Lonely Planet guidebooks, of which I'm hoping to find a copy. Here we are, two old honeymooners upgraded to the honeymoon room at the Hanoi Guesthouse, right across the street from Handspan Travel, with whom we depart in the morning for Halong Bay and two nights aboard a junk.
Linnea and Kent (napping when we should be exploring, but now there's an afternoon rain -- and when have we ever scored a honeymoon bed strewn with rose petals? Although we did carefully collect them to not make a mess.)