By: Shams Irfan
As the airbus began to descend towards Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, a mélange of hues: green, neon, grey, blue and red, started to illuminate outside my window.
The first look of Bangkok city, still a few hundred feet below, was both fascinating and breathtaking.
I could see highways crisscross through vast green patches, visible from above like a perfect geometry, as if drawn by a perfectionist. Then, as the plane took a sharp right turn, a number of waterways, interspersed between skyscrapers, tall pagoda style buildings, partly hidden by green cover, became visible.
It was around 6 pm (local time) when we finally touched down.
Unlike New Delhi airport, the immigration was quick and hassle free. The word Srinagar on my passport meant nothing here, except, it was part of my identity. Nobody asked me what I do, or what I think of Kashmir, Pakistan and India.
I still recall how I tried to avoid the immigration officer at New Delhi airport who asked me bluntly, “Why do Kashmiris make trouble all the time and get themselves killed?”
I couldn’t help but wonder how conveniently he passed a judgment, without a hint of remorse in his voice. I said nothing and just gave him a look that I thought conveyed my disgust.
But Thailand was different. Here I was a free man, at least to speak my mind, and feel proud of my identity.
Once outside the airport, we took a bus for Pattaya city, our first destination in Thailand.
Without entering the Bangkok city, our driver, who wore a light blue uniform, drove through a network of beautiful roads, before taking the highway to Pattaya.
The highway, or the motorway as it is called here, reminded me of my travel from Lahore to Islamabad in Pakistan last year. In both cases, I kept looking out of the window, wondering when we will have similar infrastructure in Kashmir! But then my thoughts got shadowed by the bloody summer of 2016, and everything else took a backseat.
After 90 minutes drive we were finally in Pattaya city, around 148 kms from the capital Bangkok. As we got off the bus, we realized that we are still about a kilometer from our hotel. A new place, language barrier and a skeptic mind, made things worse as we failed to find a taxi.
Then one of our friends Rohail, a tech savvy banker, resorted to google for directions.
With phone in one hand, Rohail led us through busy roads, across a small market place, and down a dark alley, towards our hotel. It was quite a sight as we followed him like baby ducklings follow their mother. Only difference was the noise of strollers that we dragged along.
After quick showers, we set out to find something to eat, as the last meal we had was on Thai airways plane somewhere over Bay of Bengal.
It was quarter past midnight when we finally reached the market; but little did we know that our quest to find good food will leave us high and dry.
As we walked past eateries in Pattaya, we could see most of them offer ham (pork) as well, and it put us off instantly.
While planning our trip we had promised each other that we will try seafood, as it is both exotic and halal.
But even the thought of eating seafood at a restaurant serving ham, as most of the restaurants in Pattaya do, sounded a bad idea. For next half-an-hour, the four of us, moved from one restaurant to another asking for halal food.
Then all of a sudden, my cousin Gowher Bhat jumped with joy as he spotted a small Turkish national flag pasted on a shop front. Next to the flag was a rectangular sticker with halal inscribed on it in Arabic. Later we came to know that the sticker is issued by the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand (CICT), certifying that the eatery sells halal food.
As we relished shawarmas, the owner of the eatery told us that the halal sign is mandatory for all products and eateries that adhere to CICT norms.
It made our stay easy as almost every consumer product including milk, cream, juices, bread, chocolates, toothpaste, and even bottled water and eggs, had halal written on them.
Once the food issue was resolved, the next morning, we rented two scooties, and set out to explore the city.
These scooties became indispensible as they saved both time and money, and helped us navigate the city interactively.
It also helped us understand some basics about traffic rules, which we knew but never cared to follow. This ‘I don’t give a damn attitude’ left us poorer by a few hundred Baht (Thai currency), but rich in experience. The first challan was for taking the helmet off at a traffic signal; the second one, when we took a left turn thinking its free; and the third for riding with Kashmiri licenses’ instead of an international one.
Three challans later we were perfectly in sync with the local laws, as we observed how dedicatedly people follow traffic rules. Unlike Kashmir, nobody is in rush here.
There are dedicated lanes for both cyclists and scooties, and no car or bus drives in these lanes, no-matter how congested it is on the main road.
As we rode from one place to another, we realized how organized, tourist friendly, and diverse this country is.
The same evening google helped us trace Amir Restaurants, a halal food joint owned by a Malaysian family in south Pattaya. As we walked in, beautiful edifice of Toatilla mosque, located across the street, caught our attention.
After tasting a variety of delicacies including steamed fish, we decided to offer Magrib prayers at the mosque. But there was an issue; all of us were wearing shorts.
The manager of the restaurant, a beautiful girl in her mid-twenties, who saw us discuss our options said, ‘Don’t worry; they have robes for tourists at the mosque.’
The mosques in Thailand are more like community centers with a host of facilities like internet, computers, gowns for tourists like us who are not properly dressed for prayers, medical kits, a standby ambulance, special ramps for specially abled people, a spacious waiting room with sofas, a separate sections for women, a room for kids etc.
The three days stay in Pattaya helped us understand what a tourist friendly place actually looks like.
As the plane descended for landing at Phuket airport, small islands popped up outside my window like a set of pearls.
I still cherish the moment when I saw sun melt into the vast ocean, as our plane took a final turn before landing.
After an hour’s drive we were finally at our hotel in Patong area, a beautiful beach side tourist hub known for seafood, surfing and loud music.
The next morning, at 7 am, we boarded a taxi, sent by the tour operator, for our trip to Phi Phi Islands.
After a fifteen minute quick lecture at the pier about what-to-do and what-not-to-do while in sea, we were put on a speed boat. It was my first ‘sea voyage’ and I must admit I was a bit nervous initially.
But the jolly hearted captain, his assistant nicknamed as banana man, and our ever smiling guide, made our journey both comfortable and a memorable one.
After 45 minutes ride through rough and calm, our captain took a sharp right, and then slowly cruised through two giant landmasses, to reach beautiful Maya Bay Island.
The water was so clear that one could see the sea bed, and hundreds of small colourful fishes that swam in it, without a care in the world.
Encouraged by my cousins Gowher and Sajad, who are both in advertising business and travel quite often, Rohail and I jumped into the water despite the fact we knew nothing about swimming. But the experience turned out to be a memorable one.
At our next stop, I put on the snorkeling gear including fins, which we rented at the pier, and jumped into the crystal clear water.
But with no swimming experience whatsoever it turned out to be a bad idea as I almost sank into neck-deep waters!
However, at Sajad’s insistence, Rohail and I decided to give it one more shot. But when I jumped, it felt like I was going down without a surface in sight. Instantly I shouted for help and Sajad, who was nearby, grabbed my hand and helped me get back on the boat.
With a bit of regret and disappointment, we zoomed off towards Phi Phi Island for buffet lunch. This Island is inhibited by native Muslims, we were told.
On our way back, we stopped at two more islands, both mesmerizing in their own right.
At 6 pm, after spending around eight hours in sea, we were back to Patong.
Next day, as we decided to explore Old Town Phuket on our own, we hired two scooties, and rode off.
I have made number of trips on beautiful Srinagar-Jammu highway in my reliable Ford hatchback; I have also trekked world’s highest motorable road, Khardung La in Ladakh, but the ride from Patong to Phuket Old Town, stands out by all proportions.
Connected by a scenic road that snakes through a small hillock, we had to accelerate our scooties to their limits to summit the height.
Once at top, one could see the beautiful Phuket town, its eye catching beaches, vast bazaars, and a few minarets, spread like a three-dimension map.
It took around 45 minutes to reach Thalang Road, a narrow street dotted with cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops, built more than a century ago in beautiful Sino-Portuguese architecture.
It was quite an experience to see how every shop and restaurant offers you high speed free internet, irrespective of the fact you make a purchase or not. The way Thai people treat their guests (read tourists) is worth emulating, especially for us as we often boost of our hospitality!
After spending three days in Phuket we flew back to Bangkok, our final destination in Thailand.
Unlike other parts of this country, Bangkok is mega metropolis. First day we spent in exploring its mega malls, bazaars, eateries, etc.
I clearly recall how an interesting entry in visitor’s book at Throne Hall in Dusit Palace transported me back to my homeland. The visitor, who had praised the architectural marvels of this royal palace, has concluded his entry by mentioning his residence as: Republic of Kashmir.
The same evening we went to China Town. As the name suggests, this was literally a piece of China in Thailand.
Next morning we drove for an hour to see the Floating Markets on the outskirts of Bangkok. It was almost like our own vegetable market in Dal Lake, but lot more maintained and clean. Every structure constructed on the banks was in sync with the nature.
As our motor boat made its way through the backwaters, we began to work out plans to restore Dal Lake’s to its former glory. However we also knew that we live in a different world, with altogether different sets of rules, and rulers.
Next evening, after dinner, as we were strolling through a market place, we stopped at a small sweets shop. The owner of the shop, a young man in his early twenties, introduced himself as Monzer Nhan from Damascus, Syria.
When we introduced ourselves as Kashmiris, he couldn’t help but smile at the irony. A few hugs and warm smiles later, we asked each other that uncomfortable but unavoidable question: how is situation back home?
He told us how he and his family fled Syria at the peak of conflict, and what it is like to live a refugee’s life. He also told us that he is glad to be alive despite living far away from his home. And when he asked us about Kashmir, all we could say was: we need each other’s prayers, brother.
That meeting ended our trip on a high note as we had explored Thailand the other way round!