Bangkok and Chiang Mai
Thai airways doesn't, by my first impressions, have much going for it. Their aircraft look elderly, changing the timing slightly on the "fully flexible" ticket inexplicably took about the same amount of time as earning the fare, and the little LCD screens on the back of the seats, which I enjoyed when I flew from Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific ten years ago, were missing. They served tiny thimbles of wine with dinner, and their logo looks like a diagram of some fallopian tubes.
However, all is forgiven because the hosties have nice smiles and are genuinely friendly. You might expect a smile from an air stewardess, not that you always get one, but my experience so far is that Thais always smile back. There seems an almost complete lack of grumpiness in this country, perhaps even enough to cancel out the demeanour of most London workers and create an overall neutral world karma.
We bumped into a Thai nurse who helped us cross the road (not straightforward in Bangkok), then cheerfully suggested a sightseeing itinerary for the day. On the way to the Grand Palace, an old Thai man stopped us in the street, asked where we were going, and pointed out that we'd need to change as shorts and T-shirts weren't allowed inside the temples. On the hot and smelly Tuk-tuk "Bangkok near-death experience" theme park ride back to the hotel, we passed at high speed through some dark satanic sweatshop backstreets. In a brief moment of calm, the tuk-tuk stopped and I smiled through a window-hole at a Thai lady steam-ironing in the paralysing heat and semi-darkness of some horrendous workshop. She smiled back. Not the sort of smile you may get once a year on the Tube on an unbearably hot day from a fellow suffering passenger, but a smile like a child who has just unwrapped their favourite present on Christmas day. Waiters, bell-boys, taxi-drivers, travel agents, even the men and women whose jobs are to sit in boats full of fruit so that the tourists who outnumber them fifty to one can take their photographs have all seemed genuinely cheerful.
Yesterday we went on a coach trip to the floating market and rose garden. It featured, in vague order of amusingness, a Bangkok chick-boy tour guide who tried to teach us songs (with actions) about elephants and snakes; crocodile, elephant and snake exploitation factories which would have made the average animal rights campaigner's head explode and a Thai cultural extravaganza which was how a school nativity play would be if it featured elephants and kick-boxing. Food of unbelievable disgustingness was thrown in, although just about everything else was an extra. The guides were predictably cheerful and smiley, unphased that they were enjoying it more than the customers. I still can't get that awful loop of music they played over and over during the elephant mutilation ceremony out of my head. I think I'll leave coach tours until I'm too old to walk properly. Hopefully by then scientists will have isolated Thai cheerfulness and it can be included in pill form as part of all package day trips.
We've now left Bangkok and arrived in Chiang Mai, which seems lovely. Haven't had much chance to explore yet but the locals seem friendlier than ever, food is even more of a bargain, the air is clear and there are more temples and golden Buddhas than you could shake an incense stick at. There is a water festival going on over the next few days, as part of which a man has just lit a home-made hot-air baloon latern and launched it from the wall opposite where I'm sitting. Not sure what happens when it comes back down. Tomorrow we're going on a camping trek thing to sleep in tents and watch some poor people.