By MANOTE TRIPATHI
Quick initial assessment of Bangkok from Rajan Datar, who hosts BBC World’s popular travelogue series “Fast Track”: Thais have a fetish for cars.
His astuteness must be why they call it “Fast Track”.
After a week shooting an episode on Thailand for the show, Datar has decided we’re also friendly, liberal-minded and more tolerant of foreigners than our neighbours tend to be.
Datar says Thailand is a natural subject for his programme because tourism continues to surge here despite the global financial turmoil that has crippled the industry in Mexico, Spain and Greece.
An Oxford and London School of Economics graduate who is, conveniently enough, a travel nut, Datar initially had finance in focus while working on BBC2’s “The Money Programme”. He wrote and hosted more than 30 half-hour spots that admirers say breathed new life into the staid old “Beeb”.
Then he fronted “Rough Guide to the World”, Channel 4’s “People’s Parliament” and, back at BBC2, “The Net”, which covers the new communications media. And for two years he was a reporter on “Newsnight”, specialising in culture and social trends, while at the same time hosting the BBC World Service art-and-film programmes “The Strand” and “On Screen”.
Datar’s travelling days truly began while he was playing bass for the band Maroon Town, which played nearly a thousand concerts in 30 countries, while releasing five albums.
This is actually his second visit to Bangkok, for which his homework extended to the Lonely Planet guide and the online Nation and Bangkok Post.
The Thailand episode of “Fast Track”, which airs on September 1 and 2, takes Datar to Kanchanaburi and Pattaya as well as Bangkok, all affordable and controversial destinations for tourists. But he believes Thailand’s cultural and spiritual wealth needs to be better promoted.
“Thailand doesn’t need to struggle very hard to get tourists – people have been coming here for a long time – but I’ve found that people from the West are smarter about destinations these days, especially the young travellers. They know more about Thailand’s culture.
“And the West,” he says, “is at the end of the line for materialism now, with big banks and big companies caught in a major economic crisis. So Westerners are looking for some great spiritual experiences here in Asia, and Thailand in particular.”
Datar says the show has thus far taken him to 50 countries, but Bangkok is one of the cities that’s secured a special place in his heart. He loves the people. One of those who’ll appear in the Thailand episode is the tuk-tuk driver who whisked him around town and showed him a great time. Datar calls him “Mr Thailand”.
“He smiled at me and offered to take me for a ride. Despite his limited English we could get along and connect. Where else could you possibly ride in a tuk-tuk listening to Johnny Cash songs?
“Meeting people transforms your travel experience,” Datar says. “Regardless of their country or culture, people have similar concerns, worries and issues these days. There’s a universal sense of humour. I’ve derived much of my inspiration from meeting different people.”
He had a lengthy conversation with a monk at a Bangkok temple, learning a bit about the religious life, and in Kanchanaburi visited the so-called “Tiger Temple” to check on the big cats that are controversially housed there. He visited the Death Railway – and gazed toward Myanmar. He looks forward to visiting and believes more Thais should too, now that the country has opened up to tourism.
Datar tackles much else in Thailand. Some aspects are whimsical, like our fascination with K-pop and the backpacker phenomenon. Others are grave, such as over-development in the resort destinations and prostitution and paedophilia in Pattaya. He said he’s tried to tell both sides of the stories, but acknowledges he’d never be able to adequately encapsulate Thailand on the show.
“I can’t say I’ve ‘done’ Thailand, and I don’t think ‘Fast Track’ can be responsible for people’s perceptions of the country. Those perceptions are also shaped by 24-hours news as well as other sources.
“But we’ll offer a portrait of the country within the time frame we have. We mention four words about the [yellow shirts’ 2008] airport siege, for example.”
For his own part, what Datar takes away is the belief that Thailand has to correct its global image as merely a “backpackers’ destination”.
“It’s true that young people come to Thailand during their gap year between college and work and they love the full-moon parties. As long as these things are available, that image will persist. But people are smarter now too. There’s more to Thailand than just fun, fun, fun.”
When he’s not scouring a destination for information he can put on the show, you can usually find Datar on the beach, reading. He says he’ll never stop travelling, though.
“Travel is about learning who you are. It makes you a better person.”
n See what “Fast Track” found out about Thailand on the BBC on September 1 at 3.30am, 1.30pm and 6.30pm and on September 2 at 6.30am.