Though pop culture references Bangkok's more risqué side (the '80s song "One Night in Bangkok," and the recent film "Hangover 2," among them), a trip to Thailand's capital shows facets that are as multi-dimensional and culturally interesting as New York, Tel Aviv or Hong Kong.
Its appeal is also reflected in the fact that in 2009, it was ranked the second most expensive city in Southeast Asia, behind Singapore -- thanks to the high-tech and business booms of the 1980s and 1990s.
However, most savvy travelers will be delighted to know there are plenty of bargain-priced delights to be found (i.e., cross-town cab fares as inexpensive as bus fares in most U.S. cities; the plethora of night markets and bazaars; a U.S. dollar-friendly exchange rate) that counterbalance its most indulgence-worthy offerings and tourist traps.
It also has a small-but-bright Jewish presence. To get to Beth Elisheva, you wind your way through an expat-friendly neighborhood anchored with the upscale Emporium Shopping Complex, a verdant city park and several small residential streets. However, a Shabbat at this center is worth the journey-- and not only because of the interesting sights, sounds and smells encountered along the way. Though Rabbi Yosef Kantor and wife Nechama (a native of Los Angeles) conduct Friday-night services in a traditional Chabad setting, his sermons are colorful, accessible (as English-language prayers and anecdotes are inventively woven in) and welcoming, as are the regulars and visiting expats of the congregation.
Once I find the area efficiently via the city's SkyTrain, I trek through the park and down the lively pub, boutique and street-food lined avenue. Eli Savransky, who greets and leads me to the nearest air conditioning vent, engages me in conversation about how he came to Bangkok a decade ago from Tel Aviv to work in "diamonds, semi-precious stones and jewelry."
"What you'll like about our congregation is that everybody has a story, and Rabbi Kantor won't let you leave until you've shared yours and had an opportunity to hear everybody else's," says Savransky. "At dinner, you will witness a miracle, with all these strangers becoming family."
During the service, Kantor introduces herself to me, and then to other new "visiting" members, including Sandy Perlstein, who grew up in Philadelphia and resides in Washington, D.C., with her husband.
Conversation Spans the Globe Shabbat dinner, catered by the Kosher Place, includes several rich Middle Eastern sides, a Thai fish dish, a beef dish that reminds me of my maternal grandmother's "Chop Suey," and traditional roasted chicken. It sets the stage for a dialogue about the Jewish Bangkok experience that is at once local and international, intimate and global.
Kantor, prepping each diner to tell his or her story about how he/she ended up in Bangkok, reminds us that we all have a Jewish soul, regardless of how we worship. I venture across town to the Shangri-La Hotel, via a long but inexpensive cab ride, with a warm and fuzzy glow coming from within. I wake up the next morning, pondering the previous night's discussion about how all these random Jewish souls assembling keep the Jewish world flourishing, even in a predominately Buddhist area like Bangkok.
For Saturday morning services, I am referred to Even Chen, a formal Orthodox congregation a five-minute walk from my hotel room at Shangri-La, an ideal five-star property, with its plush suites, million-dollar views of the river, impeccable concierge and impressive pan-Asian breakfast and brunch buffet (which includes breakfast ice cream and yogurt with muesli and enormous chunks of fresh fruit).
Though not in the physical center of town, the Shangri-La Hotel is in walking distance from river cruises, water taxis and the SkyTrain, which puts the best of new/old Bangkok right at your feet.
Bangkok is indisputably one of Asia's great food cities. There are many memorable high-end restaurants and lounges that will expand one's notion of how elegant Thai cuisine can be. Though Thailand's most important historical venues (including the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Lumphini Park and the museums filling out the Rattanakosin Island and river districts), should not be missed, active temples along the way are worth visiting.