From Mud to Sky in Bangkok
January 1, 1970
by Haydée Moreau
Some love it. Some hate it. But what it is sure is that your first impression of Bangkok can quickly change, unexpectedly. The capital of Thailand is iridescent. You can look at it from the top of a skyscraper or from a boat moving among the canals. You can visit it under the blinding light of the tropical sun, or through the curtains of the gleaming night. Every time you will see not one, but many Bangkoks.
When I arrived in Bangkok, the first thing I noticed was the chaos of its big streets. In the shadow of the relatively modern monuments and temples, I saw a dusty city, overcrowded, full of coloured vehicles and backpackers chilling out. I was not sure I could have liked it. However, I soon discovered that there is not a single way to understand the city. There is a Bangkok of common Thai people and a Bangkok of tourists and expats. There is the Bangkok daughter of western economical investments and a Bangkok of luxurious parties on the rooftops of sky bars. All these different facets at first seem very different from each other but are actually deeply connected. Only by looking through this connection is it possible to catch the real spirit of Bangkok.
The traditional Thailand, to be found behind the chaos of the modern city and the noises of the various colourful vehicles, is mainly represented by the Royal Palace and by the 400 Buddhist temples (wats) disseminated around the city.
I did not have the chance to visit the Royal Palace because it was closed for a week in mourning of the death of the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His death was announced the day I arrived in the city and it was followed by crowds of Thai people dressed in black walking towards the Old City. Actually for a year voices were circulating in Thailand that the king was already dead and the event being kept hidden because of the climate of political instability. Indeed, the crown prince has never been very popular and the military junta currently ruling the country has been facing a certain political opposition, as displayed by the terrorist attacks happened in Thailand during the past years.
The most famous temples are probably the ones of Wat Pho and Wat Arun, together with Wat Saket – known as the mountain temple – and Wat Phra Kaew – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, placed inside the area of the Royal Palace.
The temple I liked the most was Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It is an area comprised of many little temples built in different periods by several Thai sovereigns. The most ancient structure is dated to 1700 and its beauty is mainly due to the attention to detail in the decorations and to the presence in the external courtyards of fine ancient statues of Buddha, collected through the years to celebrate the prosperity of the Thai Kingdom. However, the main attraction is the giant statue of the reclining Buddha 46 metres long, 15 metres tall, covered in gold with the feet and the eyes decorated in mother-of-pearl, inspired by an Indian statue.
The guide, hired by negotiating the price as always in South East Asia, gave us little information in regards to the Buddhist vision of life as a circle and the theory of the reincarnation. The highest aspiration of Thai people to reach perfection in emptiness but the removal of every passion seems difficult to achieve in a country so full of noise and chaos,where modernity has totally overtaken every aspect of daily life.
Wat Pho is also a famous to be the home of an important school of the traditional Thai massage. This art actually originates from ancient healing techniques and combines acupressure, Indian Ayurvedic principles, and assisted yoga postures. It is possible to book a massage in the temple area, but countless spots of Thai massages can be found around the city for a lower price.
Getting out of Wat Pho, I reached in few minutes the temple of Wat Arun by crossing the Chao Phraya River on a public boat for only 4 baht. Before, I stopped to eat a Pad Thai in a tiny restaurant in front of Wat Pho called Thai Wang. One of the most popular Thai street food dish, Pad Thai is a stir-fried rice noodles with egg, sea food, tofu and soy bean sprouts, that can be dressed with lime, nuts and red chilli pepper.
Discovering the real traditional face of Bangkok also means exploring the city’s myriad of tiny canals (klongs), where people live in shanties made of metal sheets, surrounded by dust and mud. The same Bangkok appears in the several markets of food, clothes, handcrafts, amulets, and flowers, such as the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market and the market of Chatuchak, or walking through the characteristic streets of Chinatown, the traditional Chinese quarter full of markets, Chinese stores and cash-for-gold shops.
The simple and poor life of common people, living at the borders of the canals and selling tropical fruits and flower wreaths in the markets, strongly contrasts with the Bangkok visible from the top of the skyscrapers or through the windows of the shopping malls and western fast food chains. These huge buildings are always present in the background of every narrow street and tiny canal and have become a peculiar mark of Bangkok.
Bangkok from its Skyscrapers Bars
The tallest building is Baiyoke Tower II, where – from the 84 floor – I had a view of the whole city on a revolving platform for the price of 400 baht, inclusive of one drink at the roof top bar. But to enjoy better drinks and party in more glamourous venues, it seems better to visit other sky bars, among which the most famous is certainly the Lebua State Tower, at least after the success of the Hollywoodian movie the Hangover II.
Even though skyscrapers surely have a certain charm in the moonlight, I personally prefer other options to enjoy the evening in Bangkok. The city is full of surprises and the Saxophone pub is one of those. There it is possible to have great live jazz music, good Thai traditional food and amazing beers served in sax-shaped pitchers!
Expats in love with Bangkok
If you think that jazz and skyscraper sounds very western, you have to consider that expats love Bangkok and have always done so. During the ’50s, an American businessman – Jim Thompson – became famous for helping to revitalise the Thai silk industry and for his visceral love for Bangkok, which lead him to build a wooden house on a klong following the Thai architectonical tradition. He disappeared in Malaysia mysteriously, but his house has been transformed into a museum and it is possible to visit it.
The deep love of expats for this city is visible also walking across Khao San Road. This street and the surrounding areas have been always known as the backpacker’s quarter. They are full of party hostels, bars, restaurants, shops and stands of every kind of saleable good. The first day I arrived in Bangkok, I hated this touristic quarter, but on the last day I found myself walking through Rambuttri Road, just parallel to Khao San, and I kind of enjoyed my last Singha beer, watching at the chaotic and coloured life of that area. Bangkok is also made of this.
Whether you like or dislike it, Bangkok is full of personality and the impressive images collected in the city will not easily leave your mind once back home.