A conference-wallah in tourist-friendly Thailand (Postcard from Bangkok)

The Delhi-Bangkok Thai Airways flight was predictably jam-packed with Indian tourists and newlyweds on their honeymoon in the main. I was the odd conference-wallah. The mood in the aircraft was noisy and cheerful with various requests for seat changes and stowing over-sized bags being dealt with by the Thai cabin crew with patience and a smile.

Bangkok is a relatively short flight – just four hours – and the fact that Indians are issued visa-on-arrival is a bonus.
The procedure for getting this stamp on the passport is relatively easy and swift. Thailand has recognized tourism as a major revenue source and the tourist is made to feel welcome in that distinctively pleasant and courteous Thai manner. For those who plan to avail of this facility, do remember to take two passport size photographs and carry 1,000 baht (the local currency) in cash. And if you do not have the photos with you, a digital camera booth is available where Indian rupees are accepted. 500 INR for four photographs – all done in a few minutes.
“Oh yaar – hotel ka naam kya hai?” is a familiar refrain as eager young Indians fill up the visa form and embark upon their Bangkok holiday. “Enjoy life without wife” is the parting-line.
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Bankok’s shortened Thai name is Krung Thep Maha Nakhon and this translates as: “City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.” The links with the subcontinent and Hindu mythology are abundant.
The relative cleanliness of Bangkok and the contrast with cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata was a point of animated discussion among the Indian participants. Was it religion or culture or some deeply embedded social DNA that makes urban India one of the filthiest and grubby global destinations?
The cruise down the Chao Prayah River in a river-boat was self-evident. For all its teeming 14 million plus citizens and flood-prone geology, Bangkok has bee able to nurture its river in a far more effective manner than the average Indian counterpart. The Yamuna in Delhi is dying and both state and society are oblivious. With far less by way of historical sites and holiday locales that would attract the visitor – Thailand has fine-tuned tourism as a major industry. Today Bangkok is ranked after London and Paris as the third most popular tourist destination for the discerning holiday seeker.
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But the local view is not so rosy. Are democracies blighted? Thailand and India may share a deep sense of cynicism about their political culture. My visit coincided with the run-up to the elections for the governor of Bangkok that pitted the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties against each other. The average voter is despondent and this bleak mood was captured by a local columnist in the Bangkok Post in an anguished manner: “I wonder if the angels have fled Krungthep (Thai word for Bangkok), or if they still watching us metastasise…like a tree, or like cancer…I’m a devout leper in this city of lost angels, praying to have a fine pope and a good doctor take care of me.”
The letters column in the local newspapers echo familiar litany: taxi drivers who refuse to use meters; unbridled pollution on the beaches; the growing incidence of prostitution and drugs…the list is long. My Thai interlocutors shared their dismay that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the photogenic sister of exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra does not appear to inspire the kind of confidence that citizens would like to associate with this high office and soon the corruption stories tumble. But India still evokes empathetic interest though the sub-text about China and its profile in the region is palpable.
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The two-day conference we attended was put together by the indefatigable Harry Dhaul who heads the Independent Power Producers Association of India (IPPAI) and the issues covered were clearly critical to all of Asia. Sustainable, affordable and environmentally compatible energy supply is the key determinant to global prosperity – and hence security – and the entire spectrum was covered – from hydrocarbons and hydel to solar and nuclear. The vision of an energy trapeze that linked the Caucasus to Sydney was tantalizing but remains elusive given the short-term political compulsions that drive the global market. Will pipelines ever run through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran?
The post 2014 Af-Pak scenario and the geo-politics of energy were avidly discussed. My takeaway was the pilot project of converting urban waste and garbage into energy, unveiled by Datta Roy of Development Environenergy. State governments, mega city councils and small town municipalities should explore this idea with vigour. Here is a mini win-win scenario – clean urbanscapes and small amounts of energy as a spin-off.
Post-script: Ashok Das Gupta revealed how horse manure from the Kolkata Race Club could be converted into a viable supply of energy. Is bovine dung and human excreta a possibility?
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Post dinner outside the Anantara Riverside Resort. A taxi driver sidles up. “3,000 baht for Thai massage. My taxi take you and bring back. One hour.” I demur. Out comes the I Pad. “See picture….choose….”
(20-03-2013- C Uday Bhaskar is a Senior Fellow at the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected])