Around seven to eight months after marriage I had to travel to Thailand on a project assignment, in early 1994. This was my second trip abroad after London. The experience was very enriching, both professionally as well as personally.
The trip was all the more enjoyable since Anupam joined me for three weeks in Thailand. So unlike my London trip which was quiet and lonely, Thailand trip was full of exploration of new places, regular weekend sight-seeing trips, eating outs and even a short trip to Singapore.
Professionally it was a unique opportunity. Our company was working in partnership with an American MNC and a Japanese company and we were building a software for a bank in Thailand. So I got exposure to three different types of work culture. The Thai office of the American MNC was a small office with not many staff around. The Project Manager was a Thai gentleman educated in the US. There was a Japanese lady who worked as a translator. The atmosphere was easy going and friendly.
I was pleasantly surprised to see girls and women working in every sphere of the Thai society. Starting from bus conductors to shops to offices, everywhere women were in majority. I remember attending a customer meeting in the Bank. It was a big conference hall. A very senior bank official walked in along with her team. Her entire team was comprised of only women! On that day, in that conference room, only three men from our Indian company were sitting at one corner. The rest – at least 20 of them from the bank – were all women.
Thailand was not a democracy at that time. They still had the king as the head of the state. Every hotel, restaurant and public place had the picture of the King and Queen. The king was a scientist and was very popular. The birthdays of the King and the Queen are celebrated all over the country. Any derogatory statement about the royal family can land you up in the jail for 15 years.
The Thai society is a mixture of rich tradition and modernity. On one hand, you will see young guys and girls in completely western outfits. On the other hand, magnificent Buddha temples are all over the place.
Very few people on the road spoke English. At the work place, only the Project Manager and the Lift Man could converse in English. Our initial experience was quite amusing. Once, while coming back from the client site, we got into a cab. After some time we realized that we have got lost. In those days mobile phones were not there. We did not know how to find our way back. We got down at a market place. One of my colleagues had a smart idea. We found a book stall and kept waiting there. After a few minutes, a couple came in and started checking some English magazines. We immediately ran to them and started asking for directions. From next time onwards, we used to carry our address written in Thai by the secretary.
From the company, we were given an apartment. It was owned by a Sikh gentleman. He was a jeweller, doing business in precious stones. Later on we learnt that a huge population of Sikhs live in Thailand for generations. Most of them spoke fluent Thai.
There were interesting places to visit in and around Bangkok. Crocodile parks, Elephant shows, Snake Parks with dangerous snake shows can be witnessed at many places. The city is well connected by canals. Boat rides through canals are common. Some of the interesting places are floating market, Pataya beach and even Vishnu temples at the corner of the road where evening dance shows would take place. Malls and eateries like KFCs were new for us and so great places to visit. But the places I liked most were the Buddhist temples. They are royal and magnificent having extremely beautiful and intricate Thai architecture.
The one other place that touched my heart was the bridge over river Kwai. The railway tracks were along the river. The riverside had dense and green tropical forest and mangroves. It was a very beautiful spot, bright and lively place, crowded with tourists. But still, during the ride on the train, a strange feeling came over me. It took me back in time and I could visualize the scene from the war, of the war prisoners and their struggle.