by Johnny Lucas

Not all of Thailand, but Definitely all Thai

The skyline looks like a collection of the world's largest stalagmites, orchids are selling for $1 for a large bunch, there's a man who will foretell your future and help you to become "the charmiest one", a forest of bright kites is soaring over the park, your taste buds think you're in Heaven you must be in Bangkok.

"City of Angels", Krung Thep, is the official Thai name for the capital. (Actually the full name is Krungthepmahanakhornbowornrattanakosinmahintarayuthayamahadilokpopnopparatratchathaniburiromudomratchhaniwetmahasathan, but let's be reasonable). Foreigners have persisted in sticking with Bangkok, the name of a small village which was near the site when this area of salt marsh was designated as the capital in 1782. Today, Bangkok is an international metropolis. But scratch the surface and you'll see that it's all built on ancient Thai traditions.

Jim Thompson's House provides a look at a house in the traditional Thai style. Jim Thompson was an American who popularized Thai silk throughout the world. He was Thailand's most notable foreign resident until he vanished in 1967 on a visit to Malaysia. His disappearance has never been solved, and his house, now open as a museum, sits on a quiet canal in Bangkok's bustle in absolutely move-in condition.

Very little in Bangkok is quiet. This city can easily be overwhelming. The noise, the sheer quantity of activity, the exhaust from the congested traffic, the unreadable alphabet, the unfamiliarity of just about everything can take its toll. By being a little careful with your time and not trying to "do" it all in a day, the strangeness of the environment will appear as a great sparkling newness on everything you discover in this "City of Angels".

Such as the Royal Palace, which is an absolute must see. If any cynic tells you that it's an over done tourist trap, you must not believe him. It's true that by Western standards the decoration may be excessive, but Western standards are irrelevant in Thailand. Every last corner, every doorway and window, every tree has been sculpted and ornamented, and then decorated some more. It makes Disneyland look plain and empty.

Just to the south of the Royal Palace is Wat Phra Jetuphon, more commonly known as Wat Po. It's not quite as well maintained or quite as important as the Royal Palace Complex, but miss it at your peril. This is the site of the famous and enormous (46 metres) reclining Buddha. It's also the hangout of a bevy of fortune tellers who will read your hand and provide you with guidance in life. This is where you'll find the fellow who will help you to become "the charmiest one", if that's what you need.

Wat Po is also the home of a massage school. Put the bad rumours you have heard about massages in Thailand out of your mind. This is a traditional Thai massage school, long associated with the monastery and the healing arts. For $7/ hr you'll get pressed and stretched in places which will send you back to your anatomy textbook to see if they really exist.

In the same area, just north of the Royal Palace, is Sanam Luang, a large open area and centre of non stop activities. "Park" is too lifeless a word for this dynamic open space.

By day, from mid February to late April, Sanam Luang is filled with kids of all ages flying kites. In early evening there's a flea market and in late evening, large woven mats are set out for family picnics. Vendors circulate throughout the park selling food (try the barbecued cuttlefish) in a sort of massive open air dim sum dinner. At any time you might find a group of young men practising a wicker ball kicking sport unique to Thailand.

Sanam Luang is the site of Royal Cremations, celebrations of the Kings's birthday, political meetings, and religious-official occasions such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in the spring.

Busses around Bangkok are extremely cheap (10c a ride) but whenever possible, the ferry that runs up and down the Chao Praya river is the preferred way to go. Although it costs 2 1/2 times as much as the bus, it's better than any other city tour.

Great and cheap shopping is everywhere. Each neighbourhood specializes in one or two products. The military paraphernalia district interlocks with the Buddha statue and temple furnishings district, this runs into the used camera area which is just one street over from where sign makers and name-tag makers are concentrated.

It sometimes seems that half of Thailand wears small metal name tags pinned to their shirts; bus drivers, doctors, travel agents all have them. A Thai friend, as a gesture to make me feel at home in Thailand, had one made for me which read, in Thai, "Johnny Lucas, Tourist". It was a big hit, and got me even more smiles than usual.

If you have saved a little energy for the cool of the evening, I recommend a look at Thai Boxing. This sport is so fast, so skilful, and so unique that you may forget that there are two men down there beating each other up. Before each match both contenders not only shake hands but they bow down in the traditional Buddhist prostration, facing the nearest temple.

Bangkok, City of High Rises, City of Traffic Jams, City of Shopping, City of Angels, is a major metropolis on the world stage. It is not all there is to Thailand any more than New York is all there is to America or Toronto is all there is to Canada. Bangkok is not all of Thailand, but it's all Thai.

When friends go to Bangkok on business or for conferences I beg them not to give in to the temptation to live only in "the air-conditioned cocoon". The Queen Sirikit Convention Centre, and the World Trade Centre, not to mention fleets of hotel cars, seem to be designed to make it possible to be in Bangkok and never see the city at all. It's true that Bangkok can be dirty, busy and noisy, the air-conditioned amenities make it possible to stay cool and always look crisp.

But the rest of Bangkok is teeming with life, most of which wears a smile. Beneath the thin gloss of internationalism, there's the solid core of the real Thailand.

The most important thing to know about Thai history is that Thailand is the one country in the region which was never colonized. Burma to the west was British, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the north and east were part of French Indo China, to the south the Netherlands had the Dutch East Indies in Malaysia and Indonesia, but Thailand was always Thailand. Even in modern Bangkok, it still is.

1135 words

index of stories

Publication history
Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 19, 1997