The Thai written script is, for me, like a woman: graceful, elegant and wholly indecipherable. Fortunately for us as only-English-speaking folks, most of the signs in Bangkok have both the Thai and Latin-alphabet versions. These signs came in handy when Jessica and I spent a month in Thailand, using a small apartment just off of Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok as our base.
The capital of Thailand is a non-homogenized mixture of a dominating Buddhist presence, the religious fervor afforded the royal family, and the daily effort to stay alive, especially when crossing the chaotic streets of this other city that never sleeps. Motorbikes traverse every flat surface in the city and in whatever direction its rider considers to be in his best interest. These Evel Knievel wannabees zip in and out of sidewalk traffic, barely missing the poor folks just trying to navigate the hazardous conditions off the sidewalks themselves, and seem immune to the effects of traffic control devices like red lights. It is also the case that drivers in Thailand drive on the wrong (right) side of the road so the ubiquitous motorbikes seemingly come from all directions. Since it is our modus operandi to walk the places we visit, these dangers presented us with challenges, though nothing we couldn’t overcome.
After a few days in Bangkok, Jessica and I began to feel a bit more confident with our pedestrian survival skills. We walked for hours most days, passing dozens of shops selling cellophane-wrapped Buddhas, woodworking shops, high-end malls and sparkling temples with their stupa spires of gold piercing the sky. The visitation of one such temple, the Golden Mount of Wat Saket, required the climbing of hundreds of stairs but we were rewarded for the effort by taking part in a gong ringing ritual. Wat Intharawihan, a temple not far from the famous backpacker street Khao San Road, is the abode of a gleaming gold Buddha that stands nearly 100 feet tall.
Markets in and around Bangkok can provide hours of great entertainment as well as present you with opportunities to fill your luggage with all kinds of stuff. Floating markets are very popular with tourists and locals alike and they are visually stunning affairs. Long, thin boats over-loaded with flowers, vegetables, and fruits of all kinds and colors float along the canals while, on the banks street food hawkers stir-fry anything they can get their hands on. If you’re not a water person, try Chatuchak market, a maze of shops and stalls that requires a map to navigate. The place is huge and even has a section dedicated to the sale of live animals. After ten minutes of entering that part of the market and seeing dogs, birds, fish and sundry other fauna being purveyed in pretty nasty conditions, Jessica had had enough so we left to look for a Starbucks.
Bangkok Market Scenes
Flowers are an important motif in Bangkok life. Brightly-colored petals adorn temples, shrines and pictures of the King (and pictures of the King adorn everything). We walked through a flower market just south of Wat Pho where, street-after-street hosted shops where flowers large and small were turned into offerings and decorations. The impressions, both visual and olfactory, were well worth the inconvenience we experienced when we could not find a taxi to get us back to our apartment.
Temperatures were consistently in the high-30s C (high-90s F) so we tended to do long lunches in places with air conditioning. We ate sushi in a mall food court, Lebanese food in a restaurant on Sukhumvit Road, Indian food around the corner from our apartment and, occasionally, I would have a burger at a western place, though their version of a burger would not fool the palate of a red-blooded American. But the Thai food, like real Thai food, sent our taste buds to nirvana. The many curry options—sweet, not so sweet; hot, not so hot, mouth-searingly hot; creamy, not creamy—called upon us to try the many varieties just so that we could write this paragraph for you, our dear readers. Count on us to take one for the team.
On one particular day early in our stay in Bangkok, we retained the services of a local guide. His name was Seni. (It probably still is his name.) He and his driver picked us up at our apartment and drove us to the ferry dock on the Chao Phraya River, the main waterway in the city off of which branch seemingly hundreds of canals (klongs). Jessica and I, with Seni’s help, stepped gingerly into a sampan occupied only by a man who was our pilot and a small, shoeless child. Seni followed us aboard and the engine that would propel the long, narrow craft along the waterways roared into action.
As we cruised the river and some of its pungent canals, we were struck by the challenges faced by some of the Thai people who lived a barely-subsistent life. Old women in rickety, unriverworthy boats floated from tourist boat to tourist boat hucking cheap wares, fruit of questionable provenance and good luck charms. Men, both in boats and on shore, dipped lines into the murky water in the hope that an intellectually-weak fish would get caught on the end of it and provide a family with food for the day. The comparison with the folks we saw earlier in the day hanging out at Tiffany, Chanel, Valentino and other mall shops made our observations even more disquieting.
Our hour-long boat experience ended at a major temple complex on the opposite side of the river from central Bangkok. It is known as Wat Arun, wat being Thai for temple. It is also known as the Temple of Dawn though the view of it from across the river as the sun sets behind it is not to be missed. The most prominent feature of the temple is the golden prang or spire that dominates the surrounding structures, though even these lesser edifices are quite inspiring. Many of the multitude of buildings that make up the temple complex had been set upon by craftsmen who meticulously repaired and replaced tiles, bits of glass and pieces of ornately carved wood, ensuring that the holy site would not be permitted to fall into disrepair.
We ferried back across the river to visit Wat Pho, one of the oldest and most important Buddhist temples in Bangkok. Its claims to fame include the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand and a forty-six-foot reclining Buddha. We entered one of the many worship areas in the temple complex, and with Seni’s instructions on the protocol, we knelt and received the blessing of a Buddhist monk.
Immediately to the north of Wat Pho is the Grand Palace, former home of the King, now used for ceremonies of state. The buildings that comprise the Palace are grand and spectacular in design and execution, the results of over 200 years of evolution as each monarch put his mark on the complex. Featured at the Grand Palace is a temple called Wat Phra Kaew that houses the Emerald Buddha, a twenty-six-inch tall statue carved from a single piece of jade.
There is no shortage of things to see in Bangkok, some of them indescribable, but our visits to Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and the Grand Palace brought us to sites that are uniquely Bangkok and made us richer for the effort. Another of Bangkok’s sites is the Erawan Shrine.
On August 17, 2015, at 6:55 in the evening, a bomb exploded at a Hindu/Buddhist shrine in the heart of Bangkok’s shopping district. When the smoke had cleared and the dust had settled, twenty people were dead and 125 injured. Before the explosion, the shrine was a place where worshippers would come to receive blessings and make offerings. It was a place that Jessica and I visited on our first trip to Bangkok and we recognized it as an important spiritual site for those who came there hoping to take another step toward enlightenment. When we heard the news of the bombing, we mourned with them. A year later, when we returned to Erawan Shrine, we marveled at its recovery. It looked, with two exceptions, exactly as it had before the blast. The only differences were a security guard posted at the entrance to check visitors’ bags and a plaque memorializing those killed and injured on August 17, 2015.
The rise of Uber and Grab Taxi in Southeast Asia is in direct response to the normal ripping off of folks in need of transport by taxi drivers there. In Bangkok, drivers refuse to use the meter, routinely decline to take a passenger if the fare wants to go someplace “inconvenient,” and seize every opportunity to extort double or triple the meter rate from the foreign looking person for the privilege of riding in their taxi. They will also lie through their teeth and tell you that the place you want to go is closed on that particular day is closed. Then they will offer to take you somewhere else, usually a made-to-order suit place where they get a bounty from the shop owner. And don’t assume that just because tuk tuks look whimsical and the name even sounds cute that the drivers have any more scruples than the cabbies. Rider, beware.
One afternoon, as much to escape the oppressive heat of the day as to catch the latest Star Wars installment, we went to the movies. The theatre was the most modern and coddling we’ve ever seen. It was to watching a film what a private jet is to air travel. We didn’t have much of a chance to settle into the Lay-Z-Boy-like seats when we were told to rise in honor of the King of Thailand. I thought maybe he was coming in to catch the flick (It was Star Wars, after all.) and looked around for someone dressed like a king when, on the big screen, the very familiar face of the ruler of the country appeared and a five-minute homage reminded us all of his paternity, omnipotence and ability to bring forth rain. Apparently this tribute is presented prior to the showing of any commercial film in Thailand and I heard that it has received the Thai version of the Oscar in the “Best Film About How Really Awesome the King Is” category. In truth, Star Wars was better.
Prior to our visit to Bangkok, our experience with Thai massage was limited to walking past the dozens of Thai massage parlors in old-town Prague so we looked forward to actually having the treatments. And, as inexpensive as the services are in Bangkok, we were able to try several different places.
There are decisions to be made when one elects to have a massage in Bangkok, beginning with how much you want to spend. While a massage there is cheap relative to what you might pay in Europe or North America, the prices vary widely from, say, the equivalent of $US20 to $US70 for one hour. The facilities are reflective of the price with some places having nothing but a thin mattress on the floor for the recipient to lie on and a drape separating one bed from the one next to it. The more expensive places are more spa-like and offer showers and some modicum of privacy.
Another set of options for the would-be massagee is the range of “services” he/she is interested in. If you want a hot stone massage followed by an aromatherapy session, you are going to want a higher-end spa that offers a broader menu. Are you just interested in a basic therapeutic massage? Then one of the many massage parlors will suit the bill. If, on the other hand, you are looking to end your massage “happily,” just look for the places (and you won’t have to look very hard) with a half-dozen or so young girls dressed in outfits reminiscent of schoolgirl uniforms sitting at the entrances to their respective places of employment. Bangkok even offers “prostate massages.” I’ve had several of those, all provided by my primary care physician, and I wouldn’t recommend them, unless they come with a 28-day, dry-aged fillet and a good bottle of Bordeaux.
Jessica and I have very different desires when it comes to massage. Where I prefer a slow, gentle, relaxing experience, Jessica likes a deep tissue treatment along the lines of what they used to dish out at Abu Ghraib and thrills at the idea of multiple bruise sites that she gleefully explains away as caused by “nightly spousal beatings.” She had little difficulty finding therapists who were more than willing to abuse her for a couple of hours. Unfortunately for me, since the only Thai words I know are the ones for “thank you” and “hello,” I was utterly incapable of explaining to my masseuses that I wanted to remain an unfamiliar of pain. “Easy,” “soft,” “gentle,” “light,” I would say to each of them and they would each nod her head in understanding and then proceed to give me the massage equivalent of a waterboarding. I was subjected to all manner of mistreatment as elbows, knees, knuckles, some small dental tools and, I think at one point, a re-chargeable power drill plunged deep into parts of my body that, until the agony began, I had quite forgotten about.
As we left one establishment after I had received a particularly grueling hot oil massage, I asked Jessica how her Thai massage had been.
“It was great,” she said. “I had a few knots that were pretty deep but she found them and worked them out. How about yours?”
“Well, I have no hair left on my legs, I feel like someone has been sitting on my back–oh, wait, she was sitting on my back–and, I’m not quite sure where my spleen is, but I think she broke it. On several occasions I was going to tell her where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, who the second gunman on the grassy knoll was and how to create nuclear fusion, but she didn’t really care about that stuff. She just wanted to hurt me. Otherwise it was great.”
“You’re such a baby,” she said sympathetically.