If you really want to see a place, go with a local, be it a professional tour guide or friend of a friend. If that local is a dear relative who also happens to be connected to the very highest levels of society, all the better. I was lucky enough to have just that experience on my first trip to Bangkok.
Growing up, I always knew her as my glamorous aunt from Canada. My Aunt Sopa was married to my Uncle Ken, an Englishman who had immigrated to Canada. But she was originally from Thailand. While she didn’t talk about it much, Aunty So was distantly related to the royal Thai dynasties.
Her ancestor, Sheikh Ahmad, originally came from Persia in 1602 to settle in Siam. He and his son, Chune, were appointed Ministers of the Crown. Aunty So’s direct forebears have since held positions in the court and government through the years. Among them was King Taksin (1767-1782) and His Excellency Chao Phraya Si Suriyawong, the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Siam. He was also the Kalahom or Regent at the beginning of the Fifth Reign and will perhaps be remembered as the Regent in Anna Leonowens “Anna and the King of Siam.” Her father also served as Minister of Finance in the Thai government, so you can see her connections were vast.
I grew up among the farming communities in the mountains of Wales. Whenever possible my aunt and uncle would visit us, along with their two children, and their heritage and accents made Canada seem so exotic and cosmopolitan to me. The gifts they’d bring were always unique and fantastic and nothing I would have seen in my own country. The time they brought me a genuine cowboy hat from the Calgary Stampede I was convinced they were rodeo riders.
Years later, I was lucky enough to take a VIP journey to Thailand with my Aunty So and Uncle Ken, my cousins and my parents. It was to be my aunt’s last big trip to Thailand, the distance to get there being so long. For me, a 22-year-old hotel-management student at the time, it presented the opportunity to explore a country and its top hotels and destinations in first-class style, bringing the standards described in my textbooks well and truly to light.
From the moment we stepped off our flight, we entered a different world by distance, culture and class. In addition to the well-known warmth of the Thais, our entry formalities were swiftly taken care of and we were off the plane and on our way in minutes. We felt like royalty ourselves.
Our first stop was the Royal Orchid Hotel. Everyone there was so immaculately dressed, friendly and totally oriented toward service, at levels which were above anything I had known or been taught. Orchids were everywhere; the hotel was opulent in every way. I thought I would like to work at a hotel like that.
My awe was matched by my sister’s relief. At the time, she was on a year’s round-the-world-travel on a shoestring and had timed her travels to coincide with us there. She had just come from sharing a $5 hut in Ko Samui, an island off the coast of Thailand, so the hotel was especially welcome for her. It had running water for one thing.
While in Bangkok, we were accompanied by a private guide, who must have been given clear instruction to make sure we saw every place of note but who also clearly took immense pride in what she was showing and explaining to us. This became a theme of our trip in that everyone was so proud to show their country and its wonders. We went through the massive Grand Palace, the official residence of the Kings of Thailand since the 18th century. We saw the temples of the Reclining Buddha, Emerald Buddha and Golden Buddha, one more incredible than the next. I understand the current King doesn’t reside there but the Palace is still used for many royal rituals and rightly so, it’s simply stunning.
Our exhaustive tour of Bangkok included more earthly surroundings, too. We gingerly walked through the floating markets of Bangkok (thronged with tourists, so visit before breakfast when the locals are more likely to be there), the crocodile farm, the snake farm, silkworm farm and silk factory, jade workshops and rosewood carpentry shops. We bought many things that are now cherished family mementos.
To be a tourist is also to eat new things. We ate all sorts of new food that we had never heard of before including thousand-year-old eggs (presumably an acquired taste . . .), duck legs (the lower portion involving feet and webbing) and jellyfish, which, in the dish I had, was weirdly crunchy. I may not have loved every dish, but I loved the experiences and remember the hot-and-sour soup as the best thing I had ever tasted in my life.
My family ties led us to visit my aunt’s brother, an aging general who had served in the Thai army. In his house, a lovely Colonial-era structure, my family and I were fascinated to observe the customs and traditions of respect that have lasted through time.
Respecting social hierarchy is very important in Thai culture. Given the status of my aunt, the household staff followed strict protocol. No one could enter the room with their heads above the height of hers. This led to some tricky situations as my aunt was a petite lady. We were seated upon cushions on the floor which meant that whenever someone entered the room, they had to come in on their knees.
Bangkok is a bustling, energizing city with an active nightlife; we made sure to tour the fun spots, too. Patpong is Bangkok’s entertainment and bargaining area. Some local ladies tried to ‘make friends’ with my Dad and me but we were whisked away by the protective members of our group!
We also rode tuk-tuks, colorful three-wheeler cabs, and felt as if we were risking our lives as we raced through the busy city streets.
After a few days, I was sorry to leave Bangkok, but we were off to see other parts of the country. We headed north to Chiang Mai and rode elephants through the dense jungle. The guides were a lot of fun and let us try ‘driving’ sitting on the elephants head.
From Chiang Mai, we visited the Akha mountain tribe, which at that time was a very primitive settlement in a remote part of the jungle. They weren’t used to westerners and my sister’s blond hair interested them greatly. People could not help but look at her, particularly the children that gathered around.
Next, we were off to Phuket, which routinely appears on travel magazine lists of the world’s top beaches. I would not disagree. After all the hectic sightseeing and touring, it was fantastic to spend some relaxing time on the beach, with great expanses of white sand and rolling ocean all around.
At our hotel a baby elephant would come walking around the pool with its keeper and squirt water from its trunk on people lazing nearby. Could that elephant have been the inspiration behind the poolside Evian misting stewards of today?
I’ve been back to Thailand several times since then and have always felt immediately welcome. Whenever I’m there, I can’t help but think of my first trip to Thailand and my worldly Aunty So and Uncle Ken.
In many ways I credit their visits to Wales as inspiring my interest in a travel career. As a college student, my visit to Bangkok showed me hospitality in action. Today, that trip makes me think about my own role as an uncle. I have five nephews, and I wonder if perhaps in some small way I’ve become that uncle who comes to visit from far-away lands.
It makes me think how much I would love to show them some of the places I have gotten to know. I look forward to paying it forward, albeit minus the royal touch.