When you’re on a short business trip, even if it is to the world’s most touristy hotspots, you get little time, if any at all, to explore all those wonderful places you see on other people’s Instagram. Instead of the beaches, the yummy exotic food and the buzzy bazaars, you’re holed up all day in a windowless boardroom that could be anywhere on earth, munching on snacks that could be from any takeaway on earth. So, no pretty pictures to go with this story.
But then as good old P&O Shipping’s tag line used to say in the old days, ‘Getting there is half the fun’. You meet so many interesting people along the way, have such great conversations and notice so many curious little things that those tiny experiences can well be strung into a travel tale that you might want to tell whoever that’d care to lend you an ear. My four-day trip to Thailand and Singapore last week was one such.
As our Singapore-Bangkok flight began its descent, the delightfully garrulous flight attendant who’d strapped herself on to her seat in front of my colleague and me across the exit gangway started a lively conversation: “Whereabouts are you gentlemen from?”
“Auckland, New Zealand.”
“Business or pleasure to Bangkok?”
“Business – to Pattaya.”
“Business? In Pattaya?” she asked in utter disbelief, a classic Tui billboard ‘Yeah Right’ expression writ large on her face.
“Yea. Just for a day to meet our business partner.” A smirk, a tilt of the head and a twinkly glance from the corner of her eye. More Yeah Right!
“Have fun, gentlemen,” she said waving us out of the plane with more of that ‘Nice try, boys’ expression.
The taste of India follows you everywhere...
We owed her no clarification, but as we exited the air bridge my colleague and I quietly resolved to include some fun stuff during our next trip here. Just to be true to Bangkok and Pattaya. And to ourselves, of course!
It’s well known that India’s Hindu culture had spread far and wide in Southeast Asia in ancient times. Today you still see elements of it everywhere in Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Bangkok’s airport is called Suvarnabhumi (Sanskrit for ‘golden land’) and has a beautifully elaborate sculpture of the Hindu story of the world’s creation, the ‘churning of the ocean’, as its centerpiece. As you drive from Bangkok to Pattaya, you see those influences everywhere – in the names of towns, shops, streets...
But then there’s a new, 21st century wave from India that is washing up on the shores of these countries. In the smallest of non-descript towns in Thailand one sees restaurants named ‘Namaste India’ and ‘Bollywood’. In Pattaya, we spotted a travel agency oddly named ‘Harry Potter Travel’ followed by ‘Mera Bharat Mahan’ emblazoned on its sign in Hindi! And, yes, there are signs in Gurumukhi and Tamil as well.
That’s a sure sign of Indians splurging on travel as the country’s growing economy powers more and more people into the good life. In the 2000s, we had Mandarin signs overrunning touristy places as nouveau riche Chinese took to the skies, selfie sticks in tow, travelling the world in large groups. Today it is the turn of the Indian, signaled by Hindi signs everywhere including in hotel rooms of even starred properties.
Our lovely host drove us for a quick lunch to a beautiful golf club in the town of Sriracha, which no surprises for guessing, lent its name to the world-famous sauce that magically transforms any bland dish into palate-tickling nirvana. The fare was marvellously flavourful, needing no aid from the legendary Sriracha but what hit me most was the sauces that were served by the waitstaff: Heinz and Maggi. No Sriracha. The sacrilege!
But then again, there’s that great Hindi saying that goes ‘Ghar ki murgi daal barabar’. So Sriracha is probably no big deal in its eponymous place of birth.
And, oh yes, in Pattaya we had the most invigoratingly therapeutic Ayurvedic body massage in a most tastefully designed spa. The ingredients of the potions were all Ayurvedic, with their Sanskrit names and their elaborate explanations and time-tested curative properties. Some of more of ancient India in action in modern-day Southeast Asia.
So, we did relax a bit after all. I’ll tell that to the flight attendant, should I meet her again.
Yes, Bharat is Mahaan everywhere!