The first time I visited Bangkok, I had just turned 19. I was traveling with a classmate from Dartmouth after spending the summer and fall in Taiwan. I recall that we visited some of the famous temples, including Wat Prat Kaew and Wat Pho. I had just purchased a Pentax K-1000, my first serious camera, and I took many photos of the city and its people. With its fetid canals and slums, Bangkok had a rundown feel to it, but despite that, the people seemed pretty happy, and of course the orange saffron robes of the monks was a common and colorful site. I remember the sun—so intense that I found it difficult to adjust my camera and tended to overexpose my shots. Then we were on to Phuket and Ko Phi-phi island, where we spent a dreamy week snorkeling among the corral reefs and eating fresh catches of fish netted by the local islanders.
Given how beautiful Thailand is, it’s hard to believe that it took me nearly thirty years to return. My second trip to Thailand took place during my first round of recruiting for DKU in June. I had an amazing week there including visits to Chiang Mai and Phuket (see my previous post on my first Asia recruiting tour). However, my stay in Bangkok was limited to school visits which involved many hours sitting in a car in heavy traffic. I did get out one evening to a rooftop bar to catch up with a classmate from high school who happened to be in town, and met some fine folks connected to higher ed, but otherwise that visit was very uneventful.
The third time around, I had two days to explore the city. I arrived Thursday night Sept 7, and on Friday I had meetings, but I still had much of the afternoon and evening to explore. The weather was just as hot and humid as in Hanoi if not more so, but I sucked it up and headed out with my camera.
The first place I chose to visit was the Jim Thompson home, which folks had recommended to me during my previous visit to Bangkok. Located next to a canal not far from Siam Square, this is a charming old-style wooden Thai home. It had once belonged to an American, who lived in Thailand in the early 20th century, made a living in the silk industry and developed quite a reputation as a collector of ancient Southeast Asian art and artifacts.
In 1967, Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared while visiting Malaysia and to this day nobody knows for sure what happened to the man. His home was eventually turned into a tourist site and you can visit it and take a tour with a guide (no photos allowed inside) and see his amazing collection of Thai Buddhist artworks, as well as his rooms and the furniture and other decorations he painstakingly arranged for his home.
In the area near the the Renaissance Ratchaprasong Hotel where I stayed in midtown, a sky bridge over the main road connects several huge shopping malls, including the famed Siam Paragon. With its wonderful food court, the Paragon became my go-to dining place. After each visit to the food court (which inevitably ended with me devouring the irresistible mango and sticky rice dish), I would head upstairs to the Kinokuniya Book Store. I discovered that in addition to many books on Thailand (naturally), it features the best collection of Asia-related books I’d ever seen anywhere. There were full shelves devoted to each country in Southeast Asia, as well as an entire bookcase full of more general Southeast Asia books. Given my general ignorance of this part of the world and the deep curiosity that my travels here lately have sparked, by the end of my stay in Bangkok, I had greatly enhanced my own private collection of (non-East) Asia books, which will come in handy for researching my next trips to come. I'm even thinking of putting together a course on Asian societies and cultures, since there’s nothing like teaching a subject to force you to learn it.
Interspersed among the malls are eight shrines, handily marked on a map on the sky bridge. Keeping in step with my practice of documenting temple cultures in Asia, I visited four of them at night and shot a bunch of photos of the folks worshipping the idols. These included the Indra Shrine, Erawan Shrine, Trimurtri Shrine, and Ganesh Shrine.
The Erawan Shrine is probably the most famous one, as it features Thai dancers who will dance on a worshipper’s behalf—quite a site for the international tourist to behold.
The most enchanting shrine for me was the Trimurtri Shrine, since this is the god of love, and dozens of couples and single ladies were offering red roses and a sweet red drinks to the god, ostensibly while praying for the well-being of their relationships or success in finding the right mate.
On Friday evening, on the advice of one of the people I met that day, I took the sky train to the riverside, where I boarded a ferry for Asiatique, a market area downriver. The numerous stalls were full of kitschy clothing and other trinkets for the tourist trade, but they were still worth visiting for a short time (even though I failed to buy anything). But the sunset I got to witness over the river afterwards was absolutely stunning.
I returned upriver and walked to the gigantic building that features the Sky Bar on its 64th floor, where I had the most expensive cocktail I can recall while watching the magnificent city skyline at night along with a few dozen mostly young European travelers. The drink I ordered was called What the Duck, and it had bourbon soaked in duck fat, which was carefully removed before serving. Smoky delicious, and well worth the 30 bucks I shelled out for the treat.
Afterwards, I headed over to Yaowarat Road by cab and found the Brown Sugar bar, which is reputed to be one of the best jazz clubs in town. It did not disappoint. The band was hot, and featured a great saxophonist and equally good jazz guitarist. Both musicians were Thai, as were the other band members. The only non-Thai member was an American named Warren, who I later found out hailed from North Carolina. He played trumpet and sang some tunes, as did a female singer who I spoke with after the session ended. They mostly played jazz standards going back to the 1930s. I took notes, so I can recall what they played: They started the session with Wayne Shorter’s “Yes and No,” then followed it with “Sunny Side of the Street,”, “Moon River,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Girl from Ipanema” (sung by Warren in Portuguese), and “Miss Jones.” It was a solid set, and they finished it off with a very funky rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” When I asked the female singer where they learned to play jazz, she told me they had all attended the Art University in Bangkok. I was very impressed that they had achieved such consummate skills without going abroad.
The following morning, I headed over to the historic section of town to tour the famed palace-temple complex known as Wat Phrat Kaew. I did not have a clear agenda in mind. I just knew that I wanted to see some of the sites. Upon reaching the entrance, I found it extremely crowded, confusing, and full of people dressed in black. I learned that these were mourners for the King, who passed away last year. There were also plenty of international tourists, mostly Chinese as usual, though with a smattering of other nationalities mixed in. While walking toward the entrance to the grand palace, I was approached by a small, older woman who appeared to be of Chinese heritage but obviously was Thai. She asked me in fluent English if I would like her to guide me through the palace and temple grounds.
I immediately took her up on the offer and we agreed on a price. She turned out to be a godsend, not only taking me through Wat Prat Kaew and explaining all the palaces, temples, and statues in great detail, but afterwards she offered to guide me for a boat tour of the canals followed by a tour of Wat Arun across the river and ending with Wat Pho and its famed golden Reclining Buddha.
The tour lasted several hours, and I paid her around 100 USD, with which she was very satisfied. Still I felt a bit cheap, given her skills in English and her knowledge, as well as thinking about how much I earn for my own tours of Shanghai in comparison. But I think these are the going rates, and both parties ended up very satisfied with the arrangement. It was great not only to have a knowledgeable guide, but also not to have to worry about any of the logistics of where to go, how to get tickets, etc.
The tour lasted all day, and given the heat and sunlight, I was pretty exhausted by the end of it. Not to mention sunburnt—I had not thought to apply sunscreen and even though I wore a hat, the sunlight reflected off the golden temples still found its way to my face and neck. Still, I soldiered on and took a quick tour of the national museum, which was slightly disappointing since most of it is now under renovations.
Nevertheless the main hall featuring Buddhist and Hindu statues made the entrance fee worthwhile. Moreover, I may have discovered the reason why Bangkok has such a fine native jazz scene. In one room were enormous photos of the King in his younger days playing saxophone with Benny Goodman. That could explain why jazz is so well supported in Thailand even today.
On Sunday, I was able to take one more walking tour before heading to the airport to catch my flight to Delhi. That morning I chose to explore the area around Yaowarat Road, Bangkok’s Chinatown. I started my tour at Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, a famed Chinese Buddhist temple with some eclectic influences.
I then wandered through a maze of alleyways and market streets, taking some photos of the food vendors and their wares.
Finally, I found myself at another famous temple, Wat Traimit, where I ascended the mountain-like structure to the top floor to view the golden buddha along with many local worshippers and Chinese tourists.
Saffron-robed monks wandered through the temple area. It was a fitting way to end my three days in Bangkok and to note the influence of Chinese culture on the city, though certainly not as strong as that in Hanoi. In Bangkok, Indian culture has a far more powerful and pervasive influence, though so does Khmer culture. Again, I found myself eager to dispel my ignorance of this country and learn more about its history and culture, and so it was back to Siam Paragon and Kinokuniya for a few final purchases and a final treat of mango-and-sticky rice before catching my flight to India.