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THE WANDER YEAR

Chasing Down Big Macs in Bangkok

WEEK 15: THAILAND / The Wander Year, A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

May 21, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

BANGKOK, Thailand — I dislike fast food and malls. So why am I dragging Andrea to a McDonald's in the sprawling Siam Discovery Center shopping complex in downtown Bangkok?

I'm in search of America.

Prolonged travel can warp the sensibilities. Four months of strange menus and stranger sights have sent me scurrying for the familiar--even though the familiar is the stuff I usually detest.

We've flown from Nepal to Thailand, laying over for five days en route to Vietnam. Bangkok is the major hub for Southeast Asia, so we'll have other chances on our journey to tour the city's temples and palaces. That leaves this visit free for the pursuit of Chicken McNuggets, Ray-Bans and a bit of Hollywood schlock.

I sniff out the McDonald's near our hotel in the city center, down the road from Burger King, close to Dunkin' Donuts, around the corner from the Dairy Queen, next door to KFC. Before you can say "Super size it," I'm on the Mother of All Fast Food Binges.

Fast food in Thailand is genuinely fast, adding a touch of the unreal to my sorry endeavor. The cashiers hop from foot to foot like kids who need to use the bathroom, practically climbing over the counter to take your order. The food arrives before your change.

Junk-food joints anchor a four-block swath of mega-malls in the heart of Bangkok that appear to have rebounded from the Asian financial crisis. Young, prosperous-looking Thais chat on cell phones as they race from the Athlete's Foot to the Nike store to the Body Shop. When they stop to rest, there's no room at Starbucks to sit and sip my iced latte.

The gleaming high-rise malls are connected by a vast network of crisscrossing skywalks and escalators that keep people moving and shopping. "Visit Tomorrowland today," Andrea remarks.

After she buys a new pair of sunglasses and I cruise the video arcade, we duck into a multiscreen movie theater to catch "The Whole Nine Yards." In the dark, reclining in my plush, high-backed seat, I'm thinking, "This could be America"--until the audience is suddenly on its feet, paying homage to His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, king of Thailand, whose image flickers on the screen.

Bruce Willis, Coke, Levi's. . . . Has our culture taken over the world, or has the world taken over our culture? I ponder this further over a Big Mac.

A couple of days pass, and my weakness so disgusts me that I swear off malls and fast food for the rest of the journey. We celebrate my newfound willpower with breakfast at the Oriental, this city's famed five-star hotel. We dine on the terrace, along the Chao Phraya River. It's a lovely spot, and we have our choice of nine different fruit juices.

Still, something's wrong. The food just doesn't seem fast enough, even though it's a buffet.

The situation is hopeless; I suffer Whopper withdrawal. My butt's back at Burger King by noon.

NEXT WEEK: On to Vietnam.

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/travel/wander.

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