Bangkok’s tale of two cities
Thailand's most important and sacred temple is Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew, Temple of the Emerald Buddha. At dusk, it takes on an otherworldly glow.
T here are two Bangkoks. One is a timeless city of canals, floating flower markets, and temples; the other is a metropolis of high-rises, traffic jams, and 21st-century hustle. Plan to visit both during the 2012 RI Convention, 6-9 May.
More than 200 years ago, King Rama I dubbed Bangkok Krung Thep Mahanakhon, the City of Angels. Today, wander through the jasmine-scented lobbies of some of the city’s five-star hotels – where Thai hostesses, with hands delicately pressed together and heads slightly bowed, greet you with “ Sawsadee khrap/kha ” – and you might indeed think you’ve entered a Southeast Asian paradise. Or float down the Chao Phraya River at sunrise in a gondola, past the finger-like Khmer-style pagoda known as Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), and you’ll likely experience a similar sense of transcendence.
Of course, not everything about this metropolitan area of about 11 million people seems celestial. There are congested streets and ever-expanding sprawl. The weather is hot and humid, and hotter and more humid. What’s more, Bangkok’s seamy underbelly – centered in the red-light districts of Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza and immortalized in John Burdett’s evocative police procedurals, Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo , and Bangkok Haunts – is part of the fabric of the city. But for a different, more literary, perspective on Bangkok, try Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (a collection of beautifully crafted short stories about Thai life by a young Thai author who writes in English), and The Lotus Kingdom , the 1989 travel book by Alistair Shearer. They should be on any reading list before your trip.
Bangkok has a vibrancy and a cosmopolitan flavor akin to that of New York or Los Angeles, with all the pleasures that major cities have to offer: luxurious accommodations, pulsating night clubs, terrific shopping, and fine restaurants. (Be sure to make a reservation for Sunday brunch at the Sukhothai Hotel, famous for tables heaped with fresh seafood.) But beneath its Asian Tiger façade, Bangkok maintains the feel of a sprawling urban village, moving to its own timeless rhythms and steeped in tropical exoticism. Those steel-and-glass office towers and traffic-choked eight-lane avenues conceal alleys filled with gilded temples, or wats ; sinuous khlongs , or canals; and rickety wooden stands selling fruit and noodles. (The spicy noodles with shrimp are exceptional, sampled in the outdoor area just across from the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. But try different places; without question, the city boasts the best street food anywhere.)
City of contrasts
Now, this city of contrasts is getting ready to welcome an expected 30,000 Rotarians from around the world for the 103rd RI Convention. Noraseth Pathmanand, chair of the Host Organization Committee, offers his welcome to convention goers: “This convention is a first for Thai Rotarians, who will extend their hospitality to the international Rotary family in Bangkok, an intriguing mix of the modern and the ancient, with endless attractions, culture, and beauty. A majority of those in the host area – more than 5,000 – will be on hand to greet international guests at the airport.”
The event will unfold at the Impact Exhibition and Convention Center, one of Asia’s largest convention facilities. About a 30-minute ride from the city center, the venue offers modern amenities like the Royal Jubilee Ballroom, where special luncheons are planned.
For travel around the city itself, convention goers will find many public transportation options to be inexpensive, well run, air-conditioned, and easy to navigate. And, since more and more Thais speak some English, visitors shouldn’t be intimidated.
While you’re exploring, you might be surprised to learn that the city’s origins are relatively recent. It began as a sleepy trading post straddling the Chao Phraya River during the Ayutthaya kingdom, which lasted from 1350 to 1767. (The city’s familiar name comes from Bang Makok , referring to a village on a riverbank and the groves of wild olive trees growing there.) After Ayutthaya was sacked by Burmese invaders, King Taksin built a new capital. Years later, his successor, Rama I, moved the capital directly across the river – an area less prone to flooding – and Bangkok began to flourish.
With the arrival of cars in the 20th century, city planners began filling Bangkok’s khlongs and paving roads. The influx of American GIs during the Vietnam War kicked off a tourism explosion, and in the 1980s and 1990s, an Asian investment boom attracted hundreds of multinational corporations, transforming Bangkok into the financial, cultural, fashion, and entertainment hub of Southeast Asia.
Thailand has a democratic form of government, but the monarchy is the symbol and soul of the nation. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, who came to the throne in 1946, is the country’s most revered figure. But democracy here remains volatile, and political unrest erupts periodically. There was a military coup in 2006, and last year’s battle between anti- and pro-government protesters took over downtown Bangkok for two months. The city has been stable since then, though, and the two sides appear to be working out their differences. They share a pride in their country’s achievements over the last two decades, as well as an eagerness to share them with visitors.
You can learn more about Bangkok’s history by starting your tour in the riverside Phra Nakhon district, where Rama IX’s predecessors lived until the beginning of the 20th century, when the royal residence was moved to Chitralada Palace, at the edge of the city. The complex of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, with golden stupas (Buddhist monuments that house relics) and traditional Thai villas, was built in 1782 and is famous for the Emerald Buddha, a revered image carved from a single block of jade more than half a millennium ago. Nearby stands Wat Pho, another vast temple complex filled with sculptures, murals and, in its main pavilion, a 150-foot-long, 49-foot-high reclining Buddha made of brick and cement covered with gold leaf.
From here, a brisk walk brings you to Bangkok’s fascinating Flower Market, a labyrinth of arcades and street bazaars that stretches for at least a mile. You can find everything from elaborate funeral wreaths and exotic Thai produce – like the dragon fruit, a purplish orb with flame-red spikes – to the sangatan , a plastic pail brimming with an odd mix of donations for Buddhist monks, including Carnation milk, a toothbrush, coffee, soup, Lux soap, and tomato sauce.
Brave the city traffic to venture farther inland, to a couple of attractions that capture the charm of old Bangkok. An excellent urban getaway is the Jim Thompson House, designed and built by an American serviceman turned silk merchant who made a fortune in Thailand before disappearing in the jungle highlands of Malaysia in 1967. Thompson’s residence – six traditional teakwood houses backed up against a khlong and packed with Thai art and antiques – is both an architectural marvel and a quiet retreat from the noise and smog of the city. Another urban oasis is the Vimanmek Mansion in the Dusit district, the former royal residence of King Rama V. Fashioned out of golden teakwood without the use of a single nail, this elegant villa – like the Thompson house – is packed with art and antique furniture, most of it dating from the late 1700s. If you’ve got the time, visit the floating market of Damnoen Saduak, where travelers usually outnumber vendors, but where the splashes of color and tastes of a fast-disappearing way of life are worth a stop.
The best place to find unspoiled traces of old Bangkok is across the river in Thonburi, the pre-Bangkok capital founded by King Taksin. (The district was merged into greater Bangkok three decades ago.) Hire a canopied wooden longboat for US$75 an hour and, with a guide, cross the muddy, olive-colored river. As the skipper revs up his diesel engine – pirated from a World War II-era Japanese truck – and turns upstream, you’ll pass the rusting tin roofs of Bangkok’s Chinatown, the largest in Asia outside China itself.
Once the boat docks on a pier choked with water hyacinths, you can wander through blissfully tranquil, nearly tourist-free streets. You’ll walk past bakeries, tailors, and shrines that testify to the quarter’s heterogeneous waves of immigrants, including the Church of Santa Cruz, a remnant of a vanished Portuguese community, and an old Chinese temple filled with porcelain dragons, Buddha statues, silk tapestries, and stone lanterns. At the water’s edge, you’ll find a kick-boxing ring enclosed in a wire mesh cage, with photos of stars who made the big time in Thailand’s national sport. You can catch kick-boxing matches most evenings at the two main arenas in Bangkok, Rajadumnen Stadium and Lumpini Stadium.
Climb back into the boat and cruise up Thonburi’s main khlong, marking the original course of the Chao Phraya River, before it was diverted by King Rama I. Here is a rare surviving corner of the Venice of the East, a side of the city that few tourists ever see. Mile after mile of teakwood houses perch on pilings extending down into the murky green water, surrounded by dense gardens. Behind groves of banyan trees rise magnificent wats, many with golden stupas and intricate tile roofs that sweep sharply upward into thin gilded phoenixes, symbols of reincarnation. Depending on the time of day, you might see schoolchildren in sparkling white shirts and blue shorts cavorting on the piers in front of the wats and diving into the placid water. At moments like these, Bangkok does indeed feel like a City of Angels.
Register for the convention by 1 December for special pricing.