How does one navigate the seediest of big cities with a conservative family?
By Ghausia Rashid Salam
As the youngest in my family, I knew better than to hope for family vacations after both my sisters got married. So when my eldest sister Buzzy asked if I wanted to go to Bangkok with her while her husband was away on business, my response was, “Sure, why not?” And that was how I wound up on an airplane with my nephew to my left, my niece on my right – there had been a lot of fighting to decide who got to sit next to Auntie Ghausia – and really bad airplane food before me.
Another excellent stop for economic shoppers like me is Platinum Mall, where you buy one item for retail price, but three items cost wholesale prices. What it lacks in designer/knockoffs items, it makes up for in rock bottom prices, and was easier to navigate than MBK as well. As for the infamous weekend market, Chatuchak… well, after spending so much time in MBK, I wasn’t very impressed at all. It’s a good place to shop if you’re looking for furniture or home décor. If you love animals, you’ll go mad with joy at the pet section, filled with tiny yipping dogs and big, fluffy kittens and cats (which I restrained myself from grabbing and running away with).
If you’re looking for upscale designer stores, Siam Paragon and Siam Center are the places for you. They’re glamorous, spacious, and filled with outlets for every single designer name you can name. Of course, you do need deep pockets to shop there, which is why the only thing of interest for me at Siam Paragon was Ocean World. I wasn’t initially interested in going there, as the concept of life under the sea creeps me out, but it truly is a fascinating experience. There were these adorable otters that made me miss my cats back home, and oddly enough, a number of alarmingly large spiders. I found myself thinking of my environmentalist, animal-loving friends back home more than once too. Ocean World is not just a place for children, at all.
For a vacation spot that’s famous for its sex tourism first and shopping second, Bangkok has more than just Ocean World for family-friendly fun. There’s also Siam Discovery, home to Madame Tussaud’s, where I took several embarrassing photos with a wax Hugh Jackman, and where my mother was introduced to a wax Johnny Depp as “my TV boyfriend!” To her credit, my mom simply rolled her eyes, took a photo of me hugging Johnny, and told me I needed a boyfriend. There were also statues of Pavarotti, Einstein, a bunch of people who are famous because they built buildings. Aside from a loud Auntie Ghausia obnoxiously yelling, “Hey kid, whatcha doing, signing off on more drones to murder more innocent people, or trying to bomb Syria?” at her nephew when he posed at wax Obama’s “desk” pretending to sign papers, it was interesting to get a first look at a number of famous Thai singers and actors, as well as sports personalities such as Pawina Thongsuk, the Thai weightlifter who won an Olympic gold medal in 2004. You can pose next to her statue holding up fake weights, which I did, all the while roaring, “This is what a feminist looks like!” (My ten-year-old nephew responded with, “Stop it Aunt Ghausia, you promised not to be weird and embarrassing.”)
Our third “family” stop was at Dream World, where I looked right into the face of death and lived to tell the tale. I’d been a sickly child, so I’d never had the opportunity to go on amusement park rides on other vacations. Therefore when I spotted a ride called The Hurricane at Dream World, I immediately insisted on riding it, while my nephew declared me insane. Seriously, as someone who’s struggled with suicidal tendencies for a long time, I’ve had a morbid affection for violent death. But there’s something about hanging upside down, shrieking at the top of your lungs while your father tells you not to be so noisy beside you, that changes everything. While you’re half convinced you’ll die and spend a long time seeing your life flash before your eyes, that’s when you decide violent deaths suck. As genuinely traumatizing as that experience was, the rest of Dream World made up for it. The lovely thing about amusement parks is that they’re filled with attractions for all ages, so even if children are too young for some rides, they can pose with the Cheetos Cheetah, or the love benches, or the gnomes and pixies in their toadstool homes for all sorts of photographic mementos. Of course, if you’re an overgrown woman-child, you can also pose among the toadstools and fulfill a lifelong dream of existing in the magical worlds of Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. There’s also the Giant’s House, a 4-D theatre, Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and various park rides and roller-coasters.
My favorite part of the trip was definitely the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha tour. You cannot wear sleeveless or short-sleeved dresses if you take this tour, and your legs must be covered as well. I had packed a loose, baggy pair of trousers for this very trip in fact, but for anyone who doesn’t do any research before going on vacation, there are plenty of street vendors selling/renting shawls or sarongs. We had a lovely, chatty tour guide who told us about the country’s history, its first female Prime Minister, and how the King’s birthday is a national holiday. To my arrogant amusement, as he showed us around the Grand Palace, he kept explaining what the murals on the walls meant, whereas I’d found the images familiar, and when he mentioned Ravana and Rama, immediately knew it to be from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The mural was gorgeous, and if you’re familiar with Hindu mythology, there’s an additional aspect of enjoyment since you actually know what you’re looking at. My favorite part has to be the statues standing everywhere. There were statues of Ravana, of his demons, and my personal favourite were the gold-plated statues of the animals found in Buddhist heaven: a man’s torso on a rooster’s body & a lion-man hybrid, with coloured gems sparkling in the brilliant sunlight. The Emerald Buddha itself was quite unimpressive; the freethinker in me was amused to see that small statue high up in the temple, with so many people praying to it, but I like that the Thai share their religious culture with others, as compared to the jealously guarded Kaaba or Medina. We also got a glimpse into the life of the monarchy, with ceremonial thrones and even ceremonial beds on display for the public!
The night markets exist everywhere, including one right in front of our hotel. The good part about Bangkok is that you can always find something to buy, so even though we didn’t expect to shop there, I wound up buying shoes, and we stumbled upon a man selling beautiful paintings dusted with gold, shimmering in the light. There were more dildo stalls than I’d care to see, to my chagrin I have to say. At one point, I was buying seeds for cherry tomatoes and birds-eye chili peppers, while my parents wandered off. Later, I found out that the man selling me seeds was also a pimp, and was quarreling with a client over the asking price for his prostitute. The client meanwhile, jabbed furiously at his own eyebrows, indicating that the prostitute had bushy eyebrows and thus wasn’t worth a steep price. The hilarity is that I had absolutely no idea what was going on right in front of me, so absorbed was I in dreams of cherry tomatoes and basil growing in our vegetable garden.
The one aspect I sadly missed out on was the food. Because I was with my Muslim family, I had to go along with their rules, and they refuse to eat chicken which has not been slaughtered in the Islamic way. Since I would often skip an afternoon meal, I lived off the delicious mouth-watering okra curry served in our hotel. While family vacations are fun, I really think Bangkok is a place to visit with friends, because it offer a certain degree of freedom which you don’t have when you’re minding your parents’ sensibilities.
While I had initially been worried about my niece and nephew coming to the hub of the sex industry in Thailand, I was pleasantly surprised that there was so much for them to do! If you’re in Bangkok, the best place for children isn’t Dream World, its Central Mall, where each floor represents a different country, complete with restaurants serving the native cuisines in each. However, unless you’re going to eat out a lot or plan to check out the night life, four or five days is more than long enough for a trip, as we found ourselves vaguely bored by the last day of our trip.
As fun as Bangkok is, there’s an eerie sense of artifice beneath all the glitz and glamour. If all of Thailand is so successful, why do so many people work multiple jobs? Why is it a crime to criticize the king? What is the rest of the countryside like, and what sort of lifestyle do the people have? And as a sex-critical feminist, why does the sex industry exist? It seemed, at times, too much of a mirage, an elaborate lie told to tourists to keep them coming back, instead of learning “the truth” (whatever that may be). I suspect that Thailand, like Pakistan, has many names, many faces, and that sense of eerie mystery is what I remember the most from my vacation.
Ghausia Rashid Salam is a Junior Articles Editor for the magazine.