It was only a week ago that I spent a weekend in Bangkok: I call this a part of my guiltless ritual of self-indulgence. I fly off somewhere all by my sweet self so that I can call my own shots, not be pressured by appointments and with minimal internet accessibility to diminish my addiction for social networks.
I have not returned to Thailand for quite some time. There was always a reason not to go on a relatively short trip primarily because of work schedule. But since I had a lot of free time on hand --- and with a resolution that I will use my passport at least six times this year (I have already used it once by the end of February), then the Bangkok trip was all systems go.
And it was then that I realized a lot more things.
Actually, they were more of confirmation rather than downright realization. Considering how tourism has become such a major concern because of the kind of dollar booster the industry can serve an economy, it is not surprising that even in our country there is this mad scramble to find the right formula to entice foreigners to come visit the seven thousand islands.
But here is the catch ... and it is something that we all know (including the gods and demigods who run this government): the moment you step out of this country, you begin to see just how we have been so left behind. You don't have to go far: just enter our airport --- including the two new terminals --- and you realize we suck. And we suck big time.
Right at the point of departure you realize that there seems to be a divine chaos that rules the system of how we live ... or maybe we can all take that with a grain of salt and sigh of resignation and claim that this our very way of life. Filipinos have accepted that chaos is part of our existence as we conveniently brand this as our native spontaneity. Chill, they call it: just go with the flow. Going with the flow can also be interpreted as Bahala na si Batman.
That preference for non-rigidness includes the endless queues in paying for your travel tax (do you do it before or after checking in your luggage at the airline counter?), then paying for your airport tax (which to this very day I am still trying to figure out why we have to pay for the use of an airport that was already built with our taxes ... uh, I will let Mar Roxas and Kim Henares explain that because I am sure I will not understand it any way) then before going into security. Of course, I am unreasonably nitpicking.
I will not even comment on the design and treatment of restaurants and various commercial establishments in the pre-departure area ... or how the Duty Free shops look exceptionally tacky compared to their counterparts in foreign airports. I might just be accused on colonial thinking or bashing anything local because I have a fixation for Duty Free shops. Whatever. But any which way we look at it --- our airports are so far behind the design and operations procedure compared to say --- Hong Kong or Singapore.
Pero Hong Kong and Singapore naman yon! And so? Just because Pilipinas lang tayo, we do not have to have new airports that look like outlet stores in the suburban sticks, right? Whatever again.
Or I need not repeat with utmost urgency the way the oldest NAIA 1 looks like it is about to crumble since the whole place already smells like an old sandwich.
Yes, now that I am giving it particular thought I have always tried to figure out what made that building not only look dingy but feel dilapidated. It has got nothing to do with age because there are many older buildings, erected in the 1960s all over America and Europe which still look spiffy and have achieved a certain character representative of its era and design. There is a sense of historical significance to an old building that is well kept and maintained. NAIA 1 is neither well-kept or maintained. It was just allowed to be used and merely exists.
But honestly NAIA 1 looks and feels like a mother who bore far too many children than her womb can possibly handle. There is local term that is on the verge of being vulgar to describe that place: laspag. Ill-kept, seemingly unloved and not caring about how she looks, smells and appeals to people, this is the initial and final image that both foreigners and locals get the moment they land or leave our Island Republic. Uhm, so is it a wonder that it has been branded as one of the worst airports in the world?
How can you convince the world that it is more fun in the Philippines if they enter and exit through your dirty kitchen?
Ah, but then Korina's better half is already taking care of that, isn't he? Renovations are being done, complete with controversies which is so typical of the way we do things here. There is a lot of rattling to usher in some kind of fanfare for the great achievements we want to create. Anything done without a hint of a scandal or controversy will be largely glossed over, ignored and underrated. But let us not even go into that. Let Mar and his team do major surgery on NAIA 1 ... then we can start talking again.
I wanted to talk about Bangkok.
I wanted to share my nerve-shattering experience the moment I landed (on time on Flight 5J929 of CebuPac) at the Suvarnabhumi Airport at exact 8:30AM on a Thursday. (I will not even emphasize on the sheer size of Thailand's premiere airport because that become self-explanatory with what I have to unravel.) But then since I had not gone back to Bangkok for the longest time, I was not prepared for something that the viajeras from Manila have already known and come to accept: I have never seen so many people lined up for immigration in my entire life.
There were about ten windows operating at the Immigration to examine passports of incoming residents and foreign tourists that time in the morning. In front of them was about close to one thousand people. Yes, thereabouts.
What made matters even worse was that more planes were landing, unloading passengers to the immigration area until I had the strange feeling that this was on the set of The Ten Commandments and we were re-enacting the parting of the Red Sea except for a sad fact that there was no Moses in view.
I felt bad and good at the same time as I lined up surrounded by what looked like an international evacuation procedure of people of all shapes, sizes, languages and nationalities wanting to have their passports stamped so that they can have their Tom Yan overload. I felt bad because it was not a joke ... nor was it anything close to fun to be standing for almost two hours waiting in line.
Yet at the same time I felt good. I felt good because I realized that this kind of systematic chaos was not an exclusive property of Filipinos. Here I am in Thailand, and I feel like I am back in NAIA 3 all over again. Well, except for one major difference: I was standing in line in what looks like pandemonium because there are just too many tourists flying into Thailand every hour by the hour every single day. It was not because of sheer lack of manpower ---- but because their system could not handle the people traffic taking place.
Later I was to find out that the average number of tourists flying in and out of Suvarnabhumi Airport ranges from twenty to thirty thousand a day. That is not even during the peak season. The Filipino manager of the hotel I stayed in said that approximately fifteen million tourists come to Thailand each year. Fifteen million!!! OK, I am already flabbergasted thinking of all the dollars being exchanged by these tourists in all these currency changer booths strategically scattered all over major shopping malls as well as the busiest streets of the city.
I stayed in a modest hotel in Pratunam and saw the Thai economy at work: by some twist of fate, I landed in a hotel where the Filipino viajeras stay because we were right in the midst of the garment wholesalers. The experience of seeing the sheer volume of buyers purchasing garments to be shipped to their various countries stunned me --- not because I never realized the extent of the Thai garment industry ... but the life and activity of the business taking place. I suddenly understood where all those goods sold in bazaars and tiangges and stalls in Greenhills and even other shopping centers are sold.
When somebody asked me to describe the Bangkok I rediscovered last week, I said that it was like walking in Juan Luna Street leading to the malls of Divisoria. Fact: there was just an over-abundance of people. It had become a cosmopolis that overflows with people, traffic and crisscrossed walkways, buildings and railway routes. From the side streets where I stayed in Pratunam, I felt like I was on the set of Ridley Scott's iconic Blade Runner. But what was important was that Thailand was alive ---and the tourist industry is not only booming. It is exploding.
I would walk from my hotel, check out Shibuya at 9am, then go straight to Platinum Mall ... then proceed all the way to the Central Shopping Center where you had eight floors of high-end stores, culminating in two storeys of restaurants and movie houses. I would walk all the way to that small store across the President's Tower to get my Thai silk. I would take cab and spend the whole day in MBK Shopping Center. I would go out and have my share of slices of pineapple and durian sold by street vendors. Those are options open for anyone who goes there on an Eat, Pray, Shop sort of expedition.
Or if you want a taste of the real local life, you can go into little carinderias where you can have your serving of Tom Yan with two cups of rice for 90 Baht (which is approximately P125.00)or eat right there in the sidewalks where they have grilled catfish caked with rock salt. OK, enough: the experience has been well captured in the menu.
I spent three nights in Bangkok. I had my long walking tours and Thai food solo pig-outs. At the end of the trip I realized I spent more money on a weekend in Boracay than four days and three nights in Bangkok. And that included the shopping. I am still figuring out how that happened. For one thing, it is cheaper to fly in a promo ticket to Thailand than to take a flight to Caticlan. Then there is a matter of the hotel: if you are not all too picky and happy with simple comforts, a night in a Bangkok hotel can cost you a little less than P2000 which is not something you are going to get from any beachfront room or cottage in any of the stations of Boracay's long stretch.
It took me about an hour and fifteen minutes to have my passport stamped as I exited from Bangkok. Again there were long lines waiting at 7AM on a Sunday of tourists flying out of Thailand.
Then I landed in Manila and asked myself ... why can't we attract as much tourists considering that we have as much to offer? I am wrestling with my demons trying to explain that. We are, after all, an English-speaking country (an advantage, definitely), possess beautiful beaches and resorts (which the world has recognized and praised) and have the most beautiful, loving and smiling people. Hindi ba it is more fun in the Philippines?
Thailand has just recovered from a political turmoil and devastating natural disasters like floods that destroyed villages and threatened to barge into Bangkok. Those events happened in most recent memory. Yet Thailand is back into fighting form. That is because the government and the people seem to be one in getting their country back into shape and making sure that they remain competitive in the region.
Consider that even Vietnam with its numerous years of war is now back in the game.
And then there is us.
That is why leaving the country even for a short vacation can be somewhat unsettling. You shouldn't really compare. But maybe you cannot help it. And we all should. Just to knock some sense into us.