Bangkok in Review: Part III

As diverse a city as there is in the world, Bangkok embraces the full spectrum of influences that reside within. With that diversity, however, comes a wide range of the human experience. Everything from subliminal joys to soul crushing lows can be experienced or observed in this intriguing city. Today we take a look at the people of Bangkok, and the duality of spirituality.

Victory Monument

Victory Monument

Most of our interactions with the people of Bangkok were casual. We didn’t interact with many people outside of those we met on the streets, we didn’t delve too deep into the nightlife, and we didn’t have day-long meditation sessions with practicing monks.

Monks at the Grand Palace. Pretty popular for a bunch of pimply teenagers.

Monks at the Grand Palace. Pretty popular for a bunch of pimply teenagers.

What we did get to see was more than enough to get an idea of the heart of such an eclectic city. Bangkok stands alone in Thailand as the country’s lone metropolis, and most of it’s resources are focused there. Most of the locals are Thai, but there are many people of Vietnamese, Malay, Chinese descent, as well as a healthy expat population.

As we talked about earlier, the vast majority of the locals you meet will be on the streets, and generally they will be trying to sell you something. Hawkers, is what they call them. Many of these merchants operate illegally, with only a small percentage of them having permits to do what they do. The rest of them operate on a first-come-first-serve basis, as in the first person to a particular street corner claims that territory. Most of them sell the same thing you can find anywhere else, but a few will have something truly one-of-a-kind, hard to find.

Just a few of the goods you can find on an street in Bangkok.

Just a few of the goods you can find on any street in Bangkok.

Bangkok is home to almost 50% of the entire nation’s service industry, another example of how the city stands alone as it’s country’s crown jewel. Among those in the service industry (I’m assuming), are the ladies (and gents) working the massage parlors. These shops are just as pervasive as hawkers, as every 25 feet you will hear, “Massage? Massage?” in a Thai accent from ladies with placards that show their prices. We’ll talk more about these in the “nightlife” review.

With all of these low-skilled workers in the streets, you can easily become desensitized to who they are, instead seeing them as an unwanted business opportunity. I won’t pretend that I was able to get an intimate look at their lives beyond the hawker stand, or even “befriend” any of them. However, I did get a peek at the living accommodations of someone on this level, as evidenced in the video below:

You can’t see a whole lot from the video, but it strikes at the heart of Bangkok’s gap of inequality. The “houses” shown here are no more than single rooms where families of four, five or more will cram their entire worlds into, packed into long rows like this one just off the main street at the Amulet Market. The path was no more than four feet wide, cluttered with junk, signs, and wet clothes hung up to dry. Peering briefly into some rooms showed me that most people on this level live with almost nothing material to their name. Their beds are bunked, and I’m sure many children have to share sleeping space. Bangkok is a city of extreme inequality, and to have people live like this only a few hundred feet from glamorous high-rise riverside condos is just a small example. Perhaps the only constant I saw decorating the interior of their homes and many other public areas were pictures of this man:

Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX.

King Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty of Thailand, having been in power since 1946 is currently the world’s longest serving head of state, and the longest tenured ruler of Thailand. He assumed the throne under auspicious circumstances when his older brother, who was next in line for the throne, was mysteriously shot. During his tenure, he has seen many coups, constitution changes, and even a transition to a constitutional democracy in the 1990s. While Rama IX has made strides to modernize his country and improve transparency, it seems he still struggles with the idea of loosening the monarchy’s grip on absolute power. The King is legally considered inviolable or lèse majesté, and any offense to the King’s dignity is punishable with 3-15 years of prison. In 2005, Bhumibol broke rule and invited public criticisms, which naturally led to thousands of arrests. Nevertheless, he is held in supreme regard among many Thai because of his omnipresent popularity, not necessarily a result of his untouchable status. While the loyalty is genuine, I believe this is a sign of a public that is not well informed, and one that doesn’t care to be.

A local Thai man spins pure silk at the Jim Thompson house.

A local Thai man spins pure silk at the Jim Thompson house.

While many of Bangkok’s residents hold Rama IX in the same light usually reserved for deities, they also practice Buddhisim to the same degree, holding up Buddha as the only entity that surpasses the King. As we saw in the temples of Wat Pho and the Grand Palace, Buddhist structures are elegantly constructed, encrusted with gold, mother-of-pearl inlays and other gemstones. In fact, when viewing anything Buddhist, you can easily be overwhelmed by the gaudy opulence of a given structure. Literally every square inch of surface on most temples is blanketed in mortal wealth. This is said, of course, to be a sign of respect and sacrifice to the gods, as hopefully they reward us with spiritual enlightenment in exchange for our measly goods. Another example of this duality appears at Wat Pho, as there is a Thai massage schools nestled in with the Buddhist temples and chedis.

This is my own amateur-spirituality-based-on-limited-knowledge voice talking here, but what connection to spiritual enlightenment have with wealth? Must we sacrifice our material goods in favor of spiritual well-being? If so, how much is enough? How do many Thais, being of modest means, make good with Buddha? What is the cost of entry at Nirvana? Is it 500 Baht to get in, like it is at the Grand Palace?

Photo Jan 29, 10 40 45 AM

Thai school children in uniform.

With a country so steeped in Bhuddist traditions, what am I to make of the close proximity of Buddha to acts that would surely make Buddha blush? Surely, many of the Thai who pray over burning candles and incense in front of their Buddha statue and Rama IX poster also go to work later in places like Soi Cowboy and Patpong. Is this an admission that while spiritual excellence is supreme, a Thai’s gotta do what a Thai’s gotta do to earn a Baht? Even if it means catering (in sometimes demeaning ways) to us light-skinned tourists? While it is said to be offensive to drop a paper Baht on the ground as the King’s face is on all of the currency, what does it say that that same Baht may be used for something far more secular than divine?

Again, I have never studied Buddhism in any meaningful way. A more informed mind might not be asking these questions. I will, from this point forward, make it a point to familiarize myself more with Buddhism, as it seems to be an intriguing practice, one that more closely aligns with my own personal beliefs than that of any western religion.

Next week we will take a look at the food of Bangkok (I promise), and the infamous nightlife scene.

Bangkok in Review: Part II

The lotus flower, which is said to represent divine beauty.

The lotus flower, which is said to represent divine beauty.

As diverse a city as there is in the world, Bangkok embraces the full spectrum of influences that reside within. With that diversity, however, comes a wide range of the human experience. Everything from subliminal joys to soul crushing lows can be experienced or observed in this intriguing city. Today we look at the Buddhist temples at Wat Pho and the adjacent Grand Palace.

Wat Pho

The Reclining Buddha

The Reclining Buddha

I had always known about the Reclining Buddha from playing a good amount of Street Fighter II back in the day. One of the characters, Sagat, was from Thailand, and his home stage was played in front of a giant reclining Buddha, so big it took up the entire screen. This Buddha, however, is very much the real thing.

Like being at the very front row at a movie.

Like being at the very front row at a movie.

One of the first temples near the entrance to Wat Pho, the Reclining Buddha is housed inside of a temple that appears giant from the outside, yet feels compact when inside, partly because of the sheer size of Reclining Buddha and the massive number of tourists you share what little space is left with. 15 meters (about 50 feet) high, and 43 meters (about 141 feet) long, and covered in solid gold, the image of the Reclining Buddha is larger than life.

Also worth noting is the incredibly intricate artwork on the walls, columns and pillars, all depicting different events and characters in Buddhist ideology. This art covers every available inch around the Buddha, and probably tells many more stories than I could imagine.

One of the many chedis, which contain the ashes of the Royal Family, and Buddha.

One of the many chedis, which contain the ashes of the Royal Family, and Buddha.

Wat Pho, which dates back to the 1700’s, encompasses much more than just a giant golden reclining Buddha, it’s campus covers a space nearly 15x that size. Temples, viharas (halls), a central bot, or shrine, and numerous chedis which are said to hold the ashes of the Royal Family and Buddha himself, are all painstakingly decorated with incredible detail. Images of lotus flowers, golden spires on roofs, and incredible Buddha shrines fill the halls and courtyards of Wat Pho, along with an actual working monastery.

Meditation under the banyan trees.

Meditation under the banyan trees.

Influences from trades with China are also evident, as many of the stone guardians at different entrances are Chinese, depicting powerful warriors, humorous philosophers, Chinese Buddhists, and Lions with a stone ball in their mouth that you can move. It represents an old Chinese belief that the stone ball represents the lion’s tongue. If you can touch a lion’s tongue, then you must be of quick hand, brave and cunning.

Phra Rabieng, halls of Buddha which surround the courtyard.

Phra Rabieng, halls of Buddha which surround the courtyard.

There are also several main halls that contain very exalted versions of Buddha, based in more spacious rooms with Buddha sitting on a three-tiered throne. There is large red carpeting in front of Buddha, with many taking their time to pray while in front of these images. The Buddha in the main hall contains the ashes of King Rama I.

Phra Uposatha, or Main Chapel, where the ashes of King Rama I are held.

Phra Uposatha, or Main Chapel, where the ashes of King Rama I are held.

The Grand Palace

Wat Phra Kaew. From left to right: Thra Sri Ratan Chedi, Phra Mondop (the library), Prasat Phra Thep Bidorn

Wat Phra Kaew. From left to right: Thra Sri Ratan Chedi, Phra Mondop (the library), Prasat Phra Thep Bidorn

Directly adjacent to Wat Pho is the Grand Palace, which is actually an enormous compound that makes the sizable campus of Wat Pho seem tiny in comparison. 4.5 meter (15 foot) high white walls surround the palace, with the entrances guarded by military with M-16’s. While the Palace hasn’t been used for residence of the King since 1925, it dates back to 1792 and the beginning of the Chakri dynasty.

Photo Jan 29, 2 22 33 PM

Photo Jan 29, 2 28 52 PM

Certainly a theme by this point, everything inside the walls of the compound is absolutely pristine and supremely manicured. The Outer Court includes a field which must have been a thousand square yards trimmed as neatly as a green at Augusta. Visitors must show respect to the hallowed ground they walk on by following a strict dress code. For me, that involved me putting on my lightest pair of denim, which felt like wrapping a burlap sack around my legs in the bright Thai sunlight.

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Phra Maha Monthian, the original prayer and residential house of the King.

Once inside the official tourist entrance gate, you are surrounded by giant temples with gold and glazed-tiled walls, and bright gold spires reaching 23 meters (75 feet) in the air. Most everything that can be covered in golden flakes, mother-of-pearl, or mosaic tiles is adorned with just that. The Thai architecture is dominant, of course, but influences from the Chinese, Japanese, and even Europeans is clear.

Incredible detail and color go into every inch of art around the Grand Palace.

Incredible detail and color go into every inch of art around the Grand Palace.

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or Wat Phra Kaew, may be the most prominent building, especially on entrance. This is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand, because it contains the statue of Emerald Buddha, a statue so revered that only the Thai king is allowed to touch it, and then just to change it’s golden cloak three times a year, depending on the season. The Emerald Buddha (carved of a single piece of jade) has many legends in and of itself, including that after being lost in Cambodia in 1434, it was recovered by chance two years later when lighting struck a Buddhist temple, which revealed the Emerald Buddha in a the remains of a damaged plaster one.

The Emerald Buddha, or as close as they would allow me to take a picture of it.

The Emerald Buddha, or as close as they would allow me to take a picture of it.

After seeing the Emerald Buddha, we went to see the main building of the Grand Palace, the Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat. This is the former residence of the King, flanked by a set of throne halls. Built by King Rama V in 1876, the bottom portion of the building is clearly Renaissance, but the roofs are purely Thai, with golden spires and green and orange tiles that match their surroundings. This can been seen as a symbol of Thai superiority over the West, or it can symbolize the internal struggles of Thai culture to adapt in a modern world.

The size and grandeur of both Wat Pho and the Grand Palace certainly covey a sense of royalty, divinity and superiority. Most everything you can see is covered in gold, emeralds, intricate mosaic tiles, and mother-of-pearl inlays. Every square inch is suitable for Kings, and fit for their court. The Buddhist identity is clearly synonymous with the Thai people, but the influences of the west can be seen even within their most prominent structure. The King of Siam played by Yul Brynner in the 1951 musical The King and I, which is banned in Thailand, makes a salient point that traditional Thai culture has had to navigate a twisted route to flourishing in a modern world.

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I know I said we’d talk a little about Thai food today, but I’ve got over 1,00 words on the temples alone. We’ll leave that for Monday!

Phra Thinang Dusit Maha Prasat, or the Royal Throne Hall. Used for King Rama IX's coronation in 1950, and still used for Royal funerals.

Phra Thinang Dusit Maha Prasat, or the Royal Throne Hall. Used for King Rama IX’s coronation in 1950, and still used for Royal funerals.

 

Bangkok in Review: Part I

Rama VIII Bridge, completed in 2002.

Rama VIII Bridge, completed in 2002.

As diverse a city as there is in the world, Bangkok embraces the full spectrum of influences that reside within. With that diversity, however, comes a wide range of the human experience. Everything from subliminal joys to soul crushing lows can be experienced or observed in this intriguing city. Today, we take a look at a walk down Bangkok streets, as well as getting around the city using various means of transportation.

Walking the Streets

Khaosan Road, the backpacker's district.

Khaosan Road, the backpacker’s district.

The streets of Bangkok are very similar to that of New York and other international cities, tightly packed and constantly in motion. People of many different cultures swirl around you moving in every direction. Making things more difficult are the endless rows of make-shift tables and displays where locals sell almost anything conceivable, knock-off goods, trinkets, sex toys, tasers, an of course, street food. For every booth selling fake Polo’s, Buddha figurines, or Viagra, there are an equal number of carts selling fried meat and insects on a stick. You can count on seeing someone eat a fried scorpion kabob within your first few hours of landing.

Fresh(ish) seafood.

Fresh(ish) seafood.

Like NYC and any other international city, you will pass people of every different nationality waling on the streets in Bangkok. Within the span of a few blocks, you will almost certainly run into Germans, Chinese, Australians, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and even a few Americans.

A cold drink is as easy as stepping out your door.

A cold drink is as easy as stepping out your door.

Sky train on an average morning.

Sky train on an average morning.

The locals, who are all selling their various wares, from their street-side fold-out displays or their single-story ground level shop, tend to be very aggressive in their efforts for your attention. Constantly calling out in Thai or broken English, they know you have money that you want to spend and they want nothing more for you to spend it with them. Many will walk right into your path, ask you multiple times, and even grab your arm to get your attention. For me, it required a period of adjustment, as I’m used to at least acknowledging most people I see with a nod or something similar, but here that is an invitation to be solicited.

However, with so many people selling similar items is such a dense area, it keeps most sellers honest. If your fried fish isn’t as good as they guy’s half a block away, you’ll get put out pretty quick. Most of the street food is prepared in front of you, and as long as you use some common sense you should be OK sampling different foods. There are a great deal of options, and most of it is very affordable, so don’t be shy about trying new and unique foods.

Street food is a must in Bangkok.

Street food is a must in Bangkok.

As with any other city this size (8 million in the city limits), walking the streets has a certain element for risk. While we never saw anything alarming, such as a theft or physical violence, I had the feeling that the line between that world and the less desirable one is very thin. The feeling of being watched is a very pervasive one on the streets. Many locals see you as a business transaction (and know about enough English to conduct that process), and I was wary of stepping outside that boundary.

Transportation

Bangkok relieves heavily on a public transportation system that combines very traditional forms of travel, like canal boats, scooters and tuk tuks; to a very modern sky train and underground metro. With all the diversity and dynamics of the different forms of travel, navigating the city can be an adventure in and of itself.

Waiting for a ferry on the Chao Phraya River.

Waiting for a ferry on the Chao Phraya River.

The Sky Train looking at new construction at the Siam interchange.

The Sky Train looking at new construction at the Siam interchange.

Tuk tuks are perhaps the most common, but certainly the most notorious form of transportation.  More or less a motorized rickshaw, tuk tuks are famous for their novelty, aggressive operators, and wild rides. Drivers will solicit your on almost every corner, often needing to be told twice that their services are not needed. When you do want to use one, you must be very careful about where they take you and how much they charge as many weak-minded and naive customers will almost certainly get taken advantage of. It’s paramount that you set a specific destination and a set fare before stepping foot in a tuk tuk.

Once you’ve found a driver who agrees to terms, get ready for a bit of a thrill. Passengers used to the relatively conservative flow of traffic in suburban America are sure to have a few moments nervously holding their breath. Lanes are marked on the road, but act more as a suggestion rather than a hard-and-fast rule. Tuk-tuks, scooters and motorcycles weave in and around traffic, narrowly avoiding each other by inches. Sharing the road with much larger cars, trucks and buses, tuk tuk and scooter drivers will slip through any crack in the traffic, like water seeping through the cracks in the concrete. If you reach your destination safely, the feeling is not unlike that of getting off a rollercoaster.

Mopeds and Buddhist architecture at every intersection.

Mopeds and Buddhist architecture at every intersection.

Other forms of transportation we relied upon included the elevated sky train, underground metro, canal boats and river ferries. The sky train and metro are both relatively new, with most construction being completed in the past 15 years. The use of the sky train is comparable to the use of the subway in NYC, or the CTA in Chigago, as it is constantly packed, with peak hours being almost over-capacity. Paying for the fares is a bit different than most light rails, as a one-way ticket must be checked twice, once before boarding the train and once after exiting. This is because the fares vary between destinations, so if you try to catch an extra few stops on a lower price, you won’t be let out of the station. The best thing to do of course, is to buy the all-day pass.

Hua Lamphong Railway Station

Hua Lamphong Railway Station

Photo Feb 01, 2 01 14 PM

I also found that the ticketing system for the ferries and canal boats to be peculiar. Instead of purchasing a ticket before hand, you board the boat first, and then wait for an attendant to collect your fare. This is usually one person for 75 people, so you could go a few stops before even being approached. The prices were negligible, maybe 15-20 Bhat (less than a dollar) for a fare all the way up the Chao Phraya River. This was essential for us in getting to places like Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, and Khaosan Road. The ride also provides a very unique view of the city.

The canal and riverway system in crucial in Bangkok.

The canal and riverway system in crucial in Bangkok.

On Friday we’ll take a look at Bangkok’s Buddhist temple system, spirituality, and some good eattin’.