Taste of Thai: Part I
5:30 am. Sukhamvit area of Bangkok. It is still dark and because I haven’t slept I have decided to take an early stroll down to Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s green zone of leisure in the midst of this giant Mexico City of South East Asia.
I haunt the streets virtually alone but a few high-heeled and mini-skirted ladies are still out finishing a night’s work and the ochre-robed monks are just beginning their begging rounds. Soon the early commuters arrive, sharply-dressed and walking briskly or racing on their motorbikes. I arrive at the park and it is already hopping with people doing one sort of activity or another, from martial arts and tai-chi to badminton and jogging. Some are wielding swords, practicing thrusts and jabs. One man is selling snake blood and bile.
Every city should have a park like this. Ponds with floating pink and purple lotus flowers, snaking canals, and landscaped flower beds dot the gorgeous green lawns.
Just outside the park the city quickly stretches and comes alive. By 6:30am the traffic is buzzing and by 7:00am there are traffic jams. I here I thought Nairobi traffic was hectic! Bangkok makes Nairobi look like a quaint little village. Bangkok is an awesome, vibrant city.
Bangkok–or Krung Thep, its official name–confirms for me some common stereotypes about Thailand: Shaved-head robed monks and golden Buddhas abound and the ornate curved roof architecture that is characteristic of Thai temples is found throughout the city. And yes, there are the prostitutes, perhaps more per capita than anywhere, or maybe it is just that prostitution is very much in the open with the infrastructure to support it.
“Bangkok is one of the safest cities in the world,” I was told by Dave the hostel owner. “It’s the Thai ladies that you have to watch out for.” Perhaps one should add the Thai lady-boys you occasionally see, with their net stockings and lip-stick.
But what surprised me was how contemporary the city is. Skyscrapers, mega malls, brand names, 7-11s on every block, subways, superfast multi-lane highways, and the new Skytrain criss-crossing above the sprawling streets below. The ultra-modern is seamlessly blended with traditional cultural elements. For example, elite business hotel chains display giant spirit houses or shrines in their courtyards or parking lots.
Want a more colorful way to explore? Bangkok has its old network of canals, with longboats zipping you to the other side of the city for 12 baht or 33 cents and without the traffic and its air pollution. I get tired of sucking diesel so I opted for a couple river-taxi rides. Plus you actually pass by real neighborhoods rather than just modern Bangkok’s concrete jungle.
Hindu influence permeates this Theravada Buddhist country. The brand new airport has a giant blue sculpture of Vishnu. It depicts a popular myth, that of the churning of the oceans for the nectar of immortality. The Thai version of the Hindu epic Ramayana (Ramakien) is painted in murals in Buddhist temple complexes. Brahma, the 4-armed Hindu god of creation is venerated by Buddhists downtown next to a fancy hotel. And Hindu priests still preside over royal ceremonies.
I was also surprised at the level of veneration to the king. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and while the king doesn’t call the shots, he does have veto power and is held in high esteem. He is given respect perhaps second only to the monks and the Buddha. There are laws against criticizing him or damaging the reputation of the royal family. His image is more ubiquitous than even Ataturk’s is in Turkey. You can’t hardly find a highway intersection, a hotel lobby, or store without his visage.
He even greets you at the cinema, where the audience stands up while the national anthem is played before the film begins. There are entire stores dedicated to selling portraits of the royal family, past and present. The current king, Bhumibol, was actually born in the United States, is an accomplished musician and a billionaire to boot, one of the richest men in the world. He looks like a mix between Harry Potter and George Bush to me–but don’t say this to Thais.
On the other side of the city from Lumphini Park is the Grand Palace complex. Going there is kind of like going to Topkapi palace in Istanbul. It is a huge tourist draw that showcases over a hundred unique buildings. After an exciting water-taxi ride and walking past the Democracy Monument (what does this mean after the military overthrew the elected president in September 2006?) and City Pillar shrine (which houses a shrine to the city’s guardians), I come across a massive complex of structures surrounded by a huge wall. I enjoyed this much more than Topkapi, maybe because of the wonderful weather and flowers that are in bloom but also because you can just wander the complex from temple to stupa and take it all in at your own pace, admiring wild sculptures and intricate murals depicting the Ramayana Epic or the Buddha’s past lives.
The complex houses the famous Emerald (really jade) Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Kaew), one of the most important images in all of Thailand. Half the people there were tourists and the other half were devotees. One man’s full time job seemed to be to make sure people didn’t point the soles of their feet towards the Buddha image when sitting, which is seen as deeply disrespectful. Next door to the Palace Complex is Wat Pho, with the famous Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It is the oldest and largest in Bangkok. Wat is the Thai term for Temple complex and usually includes monastery, scripture depository, and maybe a school and a chedi or stupa with relics underneath.
In addition to taking in Thai temples I am enjoying the wonderful Thai food. Delicious green and red curries and fried rice and pad thai with fresh lime and sprouts and noodles, pork necks, fish balls, dried duck, fried mackerel (have’t tried those last few, but they’re on all the menus). There aren’t as many vegetarians as I had presumed but it is easy enough. It is also easy to get great international food, especially Chinese, Indian, and Middle-Eastern/Lebanese. My taste buds are thanking me!
Just in case you wanted a tongue twister, here’s the full name of Bangkok:
Krungthep Mahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathani Burirom-udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amonphiman Awatansathit Sakkathattiya Witsanu Kamprasit, which means “The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukam.”