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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.