A fair Thai maiden and her irresistible siren song of fowl over charcoal


An elephant walked past me on the sidewalk today. He was just strolling down the street, looking kind of bored, like he was on his way to the 7-Eleven on the corner for a Slurpee, when our cab passed him.

"Did you see that?" I asked Sarah, who was busy looking out the opposite window at lines of old women skewering chickens on the sidewalk, sending unruly streams of smoke into the air.

"Do you smell that?" she asked. Hannah was tight on her lap, her head swiveling from one side of the car to the other like a spectator at a tennis match. Welcome to Bangkok, a city so big and loud and hungry and weird, it makes New York look like Paducah.

Exactly our sentiments when we arrived in Bangkok

We flew in today on Thai Airways, which is quite possibly the greatest airline in the world. I say this not because of its on-time record or legroom or customer service or anything like that. I say it because we were on a nine-hour flight from Sydney and whenever Hannah began crying, one of the incredibly hot Thai flight attendants held out her arms and we plopped our screaming child into them. At which point the pleasant woman would scurry up the aisle with Hannah and not return until she was calm and happy.

The Thai love them some babies. We had heard that strangers would want to touch and hold our child. Still, Sarah was uneasy with the unspoken arrangement on the plane. "I don’t like this," she said. "Where are they taking her?"

"It’s an airplane," I said. "It’s not like she’s going to disappear."

"What about that Jodie Foster movie?"

"They found the kid in the end, didn’t they?"

By the time dinner was served, a surprisingly fresh and tender red beef curry, we had no clue where our daughter was. And so long as she wasn’t flying the plane, we didn’t much care. She was always returned to us happier than she’d left, and we were able to watch three movies on the flight. Fastest nine hours of my life.

* * *

This guy has been guarding these sacred elephants for 77 years. He has not blinked since 1962.

But, the elephant. Turns out the Thai also love them some pachyderms. They’re a national symbol of power and peace, and Thailand’s history is full of tales like the one about the 17th century king who successfully trained 20,000 elephants for war, then promptly sacked Ayutthaya. There’s even an elephant on the flag of their royal navy, topped with something that looks a lot like a yarmulke. I suspect Thai people bawl their heads off when Dumbo goes to visit his imprisoned mother.

So if an elephant wants to stroll down an avenue in Bangkok at 11:30 on a Friday night, Thailand rolls out the red carpet like Jay-Z’s entourage just arrived in the VIP lounge.

This particular elephant might have been on his way to get some of that skewered chicken, which smelled so good we were already regretting our pact to avoid street food in fear of bird flu. The powerful virus struck this country not too long ago and caused a bunch of deaths. We’re in Thailand for nine days; can’t see how we’re possibly going to hold out.

At our hotel, the lush Lotus Novotel in one of the city’s many apparent centers, each impossibly gorgeous employee bowed to us so much I had to tell them to stop. We were on the 17th floor, with a gorgeous view of sparkly Bangkok. This room, which would go for $400 a night in Chicago easy, cost $60 when Sarah booked it online. She looked mighty proud of herself when we opened the door and saw the luxury awaiting us. Hannah’s crib was so large and cushy she was afraid of it. The Thai say that a marriage is like an elephant: The husband is the front legs, which choose the direction, and the wife the back legs, providing the power. The Thai obviously never met Sarah.