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A Comedian’s “Best Of” in The Thai Capital

Bankok

Watching Tom Rhodes’ 1995 Comedy Central special Viva Vietnam just days after my 17th birthday instilled in me the need for international travel. While visiting Vietnam 10 years later, I often thought about Rhodes’ broadcast and, as he did in Viva Vietnam, the relationship I now shared with a land to which my father had been shipped to fight.

Having heard countless stories of Rhodes’ travels and interviews with comedians and characters over hundreds of episodes of Tom Rhodes Radio, one of my first actions upon being invited to return to Southeast Asia—Thailand, this time—was to tweet, “@_TomRhodes What’s your must-see/do in Bangkok?” His recommendations comprised much of the schedule for my final day in the tropical “city of angels.”

Rhodes Tip No. 1:

“Stay @ShanghaiMansion. Great street food in that area.”

It was only US$51 for a room at this boutique property/oasis in the middle of wildly active Chinatown. Granted a super-early check in (9:30 a.m.) allowed my explorations to commence immediately after an included hour-long foot massage that lulled me to sleep halfway through. I’d never thought an hour could be spent working just on my feet, but clearly it was needed. Small day bag in hand, I set out and would not return for 13 hours. (When I did return late in the evening, I found excellent spring rolls and dim sum from street vendors—about $4, total—that also satiated early morning munchies prior to a 5 a.m. airport departure.)

Rhodes Tip No. 2:

“Temple of the Golden Buddha is a short walk from  @ShanghaiMansion.”

A five-minute stroll from the hotel, just as the climate began to demand sweat from my pores, my shoes were off, my mind clear and I was kneeling in front of 7.5 tons of solid gold in the form of Buddha in this, the world’s largest Buddhist nation. I accepted a vial of water blessed by monks, watched as said monks tied sai sin ropes around the wrists of visitors, bought a Golden Buddha charm and headed back out onto the streets.

Crossing the streets in any part of Bangkok can be a feat of courage, but the general rule of following locals paid off—this time joining a small group of young Thai military recruits as they deftly dashed between moving vehicles. The subsequent hour of wandering through Chinatown revealed a unique side of the city during which I received two takrut amulets, though the language barrier prevented me from determining which varieties of protective or healing powers they’re designed to imbue (influence or luck in health, love or gambling).

Rhodes Tip No. 3:

“Take water taxi to Wat Po temple & get a traditional massage.”

Sweat pouring from my scalp, I reached the “Hop On, Hop Off” tourist boat and was able to relax for 10 minutes while cruising north-ish on the winding Chao Phraya River. Disembarking at the Tha Thien pier, the temple of Wat Pho (also Romanized as Wat Po) was mere steps away—past several dozen street vendors hawking souvenirs and the endemic and endearing elephant-print pants. As the sun beat down, I wove through the masses of visitors in a beeline to the massage buildings at Wat Pho.

This 16th-century temple complex, one of the oldest in Bangkok, is recognized as the nation’s first university and the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. Despite the entryway being full of waiting customers, I was on a bed within five minutes and the physical twisting and pushing began—an hour at peace as an expert in Thai body work fixed me in a room that can only be described as a warehouse of wellness.

That latter descriptor may not sound appealing—you are laying on one of perhaps 40 occupied beds in a single room—but for $12, the benefits and respite cannot be surpassed! (Rhodes later commented: “Bravo sir! You are a smart man to have done this. From Amsterdam to Bangkok, I salute you!”) Due to the scale of operations at Wat Pho (there’s a second building to soothe additional customers), groups could easily book simultaneous massages for dozens—this may be the only place in the world that can so seamlessly offer this group option with such professionalism and historic import.

A light afternoon rain cooled me off as I wandered through the 100-plus vibrant and mesmerizing structures and statues at Wat Pho. However, as the showers became more intense I ditched plans to visit the backpacker haven of Khaosan Road and took a taxi to Thailand’s oldest active stadium.

Rhodes Tip No. 4:

“Go see Thai boxing if you can.”

A seat front-row ringside ($58) at Rajadamnern Stadium places you in a mix of international visitors; locals opt for the second-level seating where gambling for the fights takes place in real time via verbal outbursts and hand gestures—a curious space dramatically separated from the lower level by a tall chain-link fence. But I couldn’t resist the once-in-a-lifetime ringside real estate that is simply inaccessible at U.S. sporting events. The intrigue and excitement during these Muay Thai fights (nine matches that night) was beyond that which I could have anticipated.

First, a Buddhist monk blessed the bell. Then, upon entering the ring, the fighters performed ram muay, a ritual movement/dance of reverence for their teachers and ancestors, as four musicians began playing the evening’s soundtrack about 20 feet behind me—I was to be sandwiched between the combat and the driving, hypnotic sound. The music (sarama) continues through every round of every match and the fighters’ footwork often syncs with the rhythm.

Yet, the sarama changes slightly as each match proceeds: the drumming gets faster, the bells louder and more demanding, the horns more chaotic. It’s a shift that is almost imperceptible to the uninitiated—think of the boiling frog parable.

Accordingly, the audience becomes more excitable with each passing moment and the volume from the gambling section increases exponentially, punctuated by collective rushes of “ooh” and “ahh.” The music is the pulse of the battle and your experience. (Rhodes later shared, “Woohoo! The music is key. One of the best things you can do in Bangkok. I like your style kid!”)

Conclusion

Now that I’m in the know, I cannot imagine ever visiting Bangkok without a night of action at Rajadamnern Stadium. As such, meetings held in Bangkok seeking to share truly genuine local culture would do well to include this as an evening outing. Ringside has 300 seats and there are another 200 seats at the slightly cheaper but still-exclusive club level, few of which are actually purchased before doors open. This is an outstanding opportunity for an up-close, action-packed group experience that includes, if you’re so inclined, a photo with the night’s champion. C’mon…how incredible is that?


About the Author

michael-pinchera
Michael Pinchera

Michael Pinchera is an award-winning writer and editor for The Meeting Professional as well as a speaker, technologist and contributor to business, academic and pop culture publications since 1997. Read more of his work at www.whatmemeworry.com.