Friday, May 1, 2009

A Passage to India and Thailand

Riverboat in Alleppey, an hour’s drive from Cochin.
Text and photographs by Christopher Mason

In early April I traveled to Cochin,
the ancient spice capital of India, to witness the launch of the five-star Dream hotel. Extravagant flourishes at the opening party made the average New York gala seem like plain vanilla: Shackled elephants with gilded headdresses stood sentinel at the gate; bare-chested tribal drummers beat an ear-splitting welcome; a phalanx of handsome youths held ceremonial parasols; and beautiful girls in saris tossed rose petals and jasmine blossoms at our feet.
Elephants and youths with ceremonial parasols stood sentinel at the opening of the Dream Hotel in Cochin on April 5.
The 151-room hotel is a beacon of white modernity amid the technicolor bustle of Cochin, a thriving port city in the southwestern state of Kerala. It is the first property in India developed by Sant Singh Chatwal, the red-turbaned impresario whose company, Hampshire Hotels & Resorts, controls a dozen hotels in New York.

Like the Dream hotel on West 55th Street in Manhattan and Dream Bangkok in Thailand, it is part of an expanding empire of slick boutique hotels under the purview of his son Vikram Chatwal, a former Bollywood actor and international playboy. (Bill Clinton was among the guests at Vikram's week-long wedding in 2006 to Priya Sachdev, a former model, but the marriage is said to be on the rocks. The G tattooed on his arm is a tribute to his former sweetheart Gisele Bundchen.)
Vibrant exteriors in Fort Cochin, the old part of the city.
Jade Jagger and Naomi Campbell were rumored to be heading to Cochin for the opening, along with a cavalcade of Mumbai socialites fresh from the recent festivities of Mumbai fashion week. None of the glittering celebrities showed up and Vikram was curiously absent from ribbon-cutting opening ceremony. Speculation ran rife: Had he overslept? Was he busy rereading the Kama Sutra? Entertaining an admirer in the presidential suite? No explanation was offered, but he seemed in a buoyant mood when he appeared in the hotel's retro disco two hours later, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, dispensing vodka shots to a group of cheering friends.

Freshly prepared fish, with piquant spices, was being served on the rooftop terrace, and the liquor was flowing, so it hardly seemed to matter that the hotel was not quite ready for prime-time viewing by the hundreds of guests who had ventured to Cochin for its debut. The electricity supply was intermittent, plunging revelers into darkness several times during the festivities. But the service was attentive and the hotel's Thai restaurant, Ayela, superb.

The following morning I took a taxi to Fort Cochin, the old part of the city, to visit St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India, where the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama was buried in 1524. (His remains were subsequently moved to Lisbon.) I also went to see the town's exquisite 16th-century Paradesi synagogue, which is famous for its blue-and-white hand-painted Chinese floor tiles and a profusion (I counted 44) of Belgian chandeliers.
Left, St. Francis Church, where Vasco Da Gama was buried. Right, entrance to a Hindu temple.
The weathered exterior of the Paradesi synagogue. (Photography is forbidden inside.)
Cochin is known for its great spice market and its teeming bazaar of fabric and antique shops. I picked up a shocking pink silk scarf for myself - in anticipation of fall - and a clutch of presents for friends.
Street vendors and stores in Fort Cochin.
I had an excellent lunch at Brunton Boatyard, a hotel overlooking the water in Fort Cochin, where I ordered a delicately spiced red vegetable curry that was one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.
Delectable vegetable curry at Brunton Boatyard.
I spent a day gliding along the beautiful backwaters of Karela on a thatched riverboat, toward the picturesque town of Alleppey.
Boatmen in Alleppey.
Thatched barge in Alleppey.
After four wonderful days in India, I flew to Bangkok and stayed at the exuberantly modern and well-run Dream Bangkok hotel, which is handily located near the efficient Sky Train, an innovation that has helped to ease the famously awful traffic in the Thai capital.

Faded political poster on a tree trunk in Alleppey.
Protesters attempting to unseat Thailand’s current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva were planning to stage a rally near the Grand Palace on Wednesday, April 8, so friends urged me to visit the site the day before.

I avoided the political agitation but it felt surreal reading daily reports of an imminent revolution and anticipated bloodshed in the streets.

While I was in Bangkok, Abhisit’s motorcade was attacked by a stone-throwing mob baying for the return of the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a military coup while visiting New York in 2006.

Thaksin now lives in self-imposed exile, avoiding a two-year prison sentence imposed by the Thai Supreme Court on charges of conflict of interest and abuse of power. (A state of emergency was declared in Bangkok on April 12, the day I left, and was lifted on April 24.)
Red-shirt protestors on their way to a political rally to try unseat the Prime Minister.
I was mesmerized by the exotic beauty of the Grand Palace, a series of gilded temples and other structures started in 1782 during the reign of King Rama I. The palace served as the official residence of the kings of Thailand until 1946, when the present king’s brother, Prince Ananda Mahidol Mahidol, was found shot dead in his bedroom at the Grand Palace. King Rama IX, who is venerated by the Thai people, prefers to live in the less formal Chitralada Palace.
The magnificent roof ornaments at the Grand Palace are said to represent eagles.
Winged kinnari (left and far right) and golden chedi, center, stand guard at the Grand Palace.
Mythological guards, and a more contemporary version, at the Grand Palace.
Gnashing tiles, formal courtyard, topiary and a lotus blossom at the Grand Palace.
Shadows at the Grand Palace.
One of the highlights of my trip to Bangkok was a visit to the famous house of Jim Thompson, the American businessman who single-handedly revived the Thai cottage industry of silk weaving and turned it into a thriving international business before his mysterious disappearance in 1967.

Thompson, who graduated from Princeton, first visited Thailand while serving in the O.S.S., the forerunner to the C.I.A., during World War II. Enthralled by the kingdom, he decided to make a life for himself there, and began collecting Thai silk and objets d’art which he arranged to enchanting effect in a compound of traditional Thai houses overlooking a klong (canal).

Thompson stepped out for a stroll on Easter Sunday while visiting friends in Malaysia and never returned. The story of his disappearance took on a more sinister aspect when one of his sisters was found bludgeoned to death in America six months later.
Rickshaws are ubiquitous in Bangkok.
A Buddhist monk riding a riverboat; a garland of flowers adorns a stern.
While in Bangkok I had drinks with Bill Warren, the author of “Jim Thompson, the Unsolved Mystery.” Warren, a genial fellow and delightful raconteur whom some Thais regard as a living treasure, told me he believes that Thompson’s disappearance and his sister’s brutal slaying were unrelated. Her assailant was never captured but her son committed suicide, sparking suspicion that he may have killed his mother in a dispute over the disposition of his uncle’s will.

Conjecture continues over Thompson’s disappearance. If he left the house of his own volition, why would he, a heavy smoker, leave without taking his cigarettes? Was he kidnaped for ransom? If so, why was no ransom demanded? Was he abducted for reasons related to his former career as an American spy? Did he commit suicide? If so, why was his body never found? Many surmised that he was still alive. A friend claimed to have spotted him in Tahiti, and a prostitute claimed that his abductors transported him, drugged, to her brothel. Their claims were never substantiated.

Forty years later the mystery persists.
Jim Thompson’s house, Bangkok.

To view more photographs by Christopher Mason please visit: www.christopher-mason.com