Where does this grace come from?

Among the glass and concrete of Bangkok’s Suvarnmabhumi International Airport (about which there is unflattering post just below) is a massive installation of a scene from the Ramayana. It is noticeable for its size and glitter. It is even more striking for its grace.

This is something you notice in Thailand all the time – its innate sense of Grace. Whether it is in the movements of the dancers in the small temples that dot Bangkok,  in the folded hands ‘sawadee’ of the Guide who comes to pick one up at the aiport, of the lines that define the overhead concrete that carries the skytrains or the clean silhoutte of the little boat that carries you into the caves of Phang Nha, this is a country of consummate Grace and Aesthetics. I love it.

Beauty of form is something I miss a lot in today’s India. Our urban environs are cess-pits of ugliness and and even the minutest of aesthetics calls up cries of joy. But it was on a visit to Tanjavur some time ago that I discovered that India was not always like this. The 1000 year old Brihadeeswara temple there is an extraordinary creation of Grace embodied in a massive form. With a muti-tonne rock crowning its Gopuram, weight could easily have overcome Grace, but did not. The massive temple almost floats and this is architecture at its graceful best.

In fact, it is almost certain that India’s ancient civilisation had some influence on this grace that one notices in Thailand and in other parts of Indo-China. Of course, to give ourselves too much credit for this would be to miss out on the truth. The truth being that these people of the lands between India and China have somehow discovered and maintained a Grace that is one of the glories of human civilization.

Duty Free Scam at Bangkok airport

Since I am transiting again through Bangkok in the next few days, a friend of mine who lives in the region alerted me to a scam that has been reported from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport.

Evidently, sales people in some of the duty free shops are likely to unobtrusively slip in an item that you have not purchased, into your bag. As soon as you step out of the shop, the police are called in and you get ‘arrested’. The only way out of this apparently is to pay a hefty bribe all around.

I do not know whether this is true. But I guess it certainly pays to be watchful..



Travelocity India

Travelocity is coming through (and not just by buying up Indian companies) – looks like they have some of the better flight deals in the region. I recently found a Bangalore – Singapore return (economy of course) on Singapore Airlines for Rs 11,200. And a Bangkok return for 13,600. Both of which are better than the normal fares offered by m0st travel Agents.

So, if you have the time (or the necessity!) to do research f0r good flight deals, I suggest Travelocity India.


Immigration officials across the world are all sent to this common, secret school (run, I suspect by particularly virulent commissars of the ex-USSR) where they are taught the essential niceties of their job – a deeply suspicious look & the ability to never ever let the slightest smile (or even a suspicion thereof) escape on to one’s face, being the most important.

Two countries I have visited stand apart in this – Cyprus & Thailand.

The gate-keepers at the Larnaca airport smiled at me (giving me the heebeejeebies, since to the best of my prior knowledge these guys smile only when about to effect a cop) and – I kid you  not – asked about the weather back home.

The guys at Phuket were the best of the lot. Their interaction was as between mature adults. A smile breaking out of a ‘yeah, we know you are here only to have a good time and as soon as your money runs out, you will go away – but we gotta do this…’ look.

I have been to Saudi Arabia too, where I met the guys who took all the prizes at the commissar’s school.

Learning from Thailand’s tourism

We all know that Thailand has a pretty effective inbound tourism sector, clocking up about 3 times the number of foreign tourists we get (just to keep this stat in context, India has 6 times the land mass of Thailand and of course 20 times its population).

My recent trip to Phuket gave me some clues as to why this happens. The most important reason that I can see is that the Thai people are ‘naturals’ for tourism, with a warm & cheery disposition that makes an outisder welcome immediately. The second key reason is that the logistics of tourism involving the co.ordination of activities between multiple small actors works surprisingly smoothly in that country.

Let me take an example. We did a a one-day trip to Phang Nga, the place made famous by innumerable photos of awesome towering limestone rocks and sea caves. We booked this trip with a small tour operator just outside our hotel in the Karon beach area. ‘Tuk’, the smiling and cheerful young lady who ran the outfit spent enough time with us to go through all the options needed before consensus could be reached by an opinionated family of 4.  Then she made a call, confirmed availabilty and booked us for the trip. She said the cab to pick us would reach at 9 am the next morning.

It did. The cabbie picked up a couple of more small groups in a clean van and drove us over a neat expressway for about an hour to the pier from where we were to take a boat. At the pier we were met by ‘ying ying’ another smiling thai girl (so now you now why they get a real rep!) who was to be our guide on the boat trip. We got on to the boat and reached the caves where we were transferred to small canoes handled by young local lads. And then we were shifted to a small man-made island on stilts where we had lunch at a small restaurant. And so on..

Here is the notable thing. Tuk, the cabbie, ying-ying, the canoeists, the floating restautant – none of these people were officially a part of the company that operated the trip. However, every person performed their role to perfection and with complete predictability. We did not have to call or talk to anyone to co-ordinate anything. Imagine the same thing in India – the likelihood of one of these pieces not working seamlessly would have been very high.

I do not know how the Thais do this. But I do know one thing. If we can emulate this to even 50% of the efficiency of the Thais, we can substantially improve our tourism image.

Best Hotels by Travel + Leisure : Where is Aman?

Another ‘Best Of’ list. Travel + leisure magazine has announced the best of tourism for 2007. Included are the Best Hotels, Best Cities, Best Islands, Best Airlines, Best Cruises, Best Car-rentals, Best Tour Operators and so on.

The big Indian story of course is that the Oberoi Udaivilas comes in as the Best Hotel in the world. The really interesting news for the cognoscenti is the absence of any Aman Resort in the World’s top 100 list for 2007. Intrigued, I checked out the 2006 list – Amanpuri had come in at a low 72nd rank last year. Is this a reflection on the properties of Aman or on the readers of T+L?

Nok Nok Thailand

The Indians are coming! And far from circling the wagons, the Thais seem to be rolling out the red carpet.

India’s Free trade Agreement with Thailand is set to happen this year. Already, Thailand is among a bunch of neighbours that have instituted visa-on-arrival for Indians. And now, come the low-cost airlines. Nok Air the hitherto domestic Thai airline, has just gone international with the launch of its Bangalore-Bangkok flight. I did a random search for prices. In end July or early August a family of 4 can get return tickets from Bangalore to Bangkok at about Rs 39,000/-, which is lower cost than flying Bangalore – Delhi – Bangalore.

Given the broad parity in currency values, the low-cost of flights, the compelling prices of accommodation in various parts of Thailand & most importantly, the general tourist-friendliness of the place, I do expect the country to get a sustained increase in Indian tourist arrivals over the next few years.

Here is ad from Nok Air. Since it involves a puppy swallowing a credit card, I presume it is a good ad – cannot make out anything else, as it is in the Thai language.