The City of Angels (À La Thailand)

Welcome to:

กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลก ภพนพรัตน์ ราชธานีบุรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์ มหาสถาน อมรพิมาน อวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะ วิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์

Pronounced “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit”

Which means “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn”

Also known as Bangkok.

After the Ayutthaya kingdom fell to the Burmese and the capital city was burned to the ground, the Siamese people regrouped a little farther down the Chao Phraya River. There, they founded a new capital first on the right bank and then finally on the more strategic left bank and began rebuilding their kingdom. And as you can tell from its official name, they seem to think quite highly of this capital.

In fact, Bangkok is a very important city in many ways. Not only is it the capital of Thailand, it is the most prominent so-called “primate city” in the world. A primate city is one that is disproportionately large and important within its country, and Bangkok is thirty-five times larger than the next largest Thai city! Bangkok is also the most important regional travel hub in Southeast Asia due to its central location. As such, I found myself passing through the city several times during my time in Southeast Asia.

Bangkok Skyline
Bangkok’s high-rise skyline sprawls across nearly the entire metropolis.

When I arrived in Bangkok for the first time, I found it to be rather overwhelming. With a total urban population of nearly fifteen million people, the city is enormous, and I initially found it difficult to get around. I was staying in a hostel in the neighborhood around the infamous Khao San Road. This area is known as a “backpacker ghetto”, and offers a large selection of accommodation, travel agents, and elephant pants, but is otherwise not very interesting, and is not well-connected by public transportation. On my subsequent visits to Bangkok, however, the city began to grow on me more. I took a shuttle boat down the choppy Chao Phraya to reach the main city center, and began by learning a little bit more about Thailand at the Museum Siam.

The Museum Siam offers a thought-provoking look at the Thai identity and the definition of “Thainess”. Essentially, and somewhat unsurprisingly, the conclusion is inconclusive – the identity of a nation cannot be precisely defined, and is constantly evolving. Nonetheless, there are three elements that generally form the basis of Thais’ perception of their country: nation, king, and religion. While this ideology may in some ways be imposed by the government – the country is currently controlled by a military junta – Thai people in general are devout followers of Theravada Buddhism, and they have a great respect for their king. In fact, the king’s image elaborately displayed in public spaces and intersections throughout the country, and is treated with respect just as the Buddha’s image is.

Ronald McDonald Wai
Showing respect to others is an important part of Thai culture; the bow (called a wai) and a variety of facial expressions and grammatical features are the common ways of showing respect.
Morning Alms in Bangkok
The morning almsgiving ritual — this woman has set aside a portion of food from her cart to offer to the monk on his morning round; in return, she receives a blessing from the monk (and some good karma).

The Grand Palace, on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, embodies all three “tenets of Thainess” explored by the Museum Siam. The enormous walled complex appears from the river as a forest of gleaming gold spires rising from numerous temples, pavilions, stupas, throne rooms, and royal apartments. It is the official residence of the monarchy, though the current King Rama X lives in the nearby Dusit Palace (I’m sure in part to avoid the masses of tourists who swarm the Grand Palace every day). Though the power of the king is rather weak due to the current military control of the country, the Grand Palace is still the primary venue for state events, particularly the reception of foreign dignitaries and royal ceremonies such as coronations. The compound also contains the most important temple in Thailand, which houses the Emerald Buddha, an image considered to be the protector of the nation.

Shuttle Boat in Bangkok, Thailand
Bouncing from bank to bank down the Chao Phraya River on the shuttle boat – not a bad commute!
Crowds at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand
The Grand Palace in Bangkok is one of the most visited attractions in Thailand. But, as soon as the daily rainstorm started, the crowds scurried for shelter, and I pulled out my poncho and had the place to myself!
Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand
Despite the crowds, I managed to find a good spot for a selfie!
Mural in the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand
A meticulously detailed mural depicting scenes from the Ramakien wraps around the wall surrounding the temple complex at the Grand Palace.
Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand
The brilliant Khmer-style Wat Arun adorns the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya River, as well as the reverse 10-baht coin.
Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand
Wat Pho, adjacent to the Grand Palace, is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bangkok and one of the most important in Thailand. Within the complex, there are dozens of stupas, hundreds of Buddha images (including a 46-meter long reclining Buddha), and even a school of Thai medicine and massage.

The historic area in the river bend surrounding the Grand Palace does not have quite the same charm as the old town of Chiang Mai – the big-city energy is unmistakable. However, this neighborhood contains many places to discover. Amid the historic buildings, picturesque canals criss-cross the city; these are the remnants of an obsolete system of defense and transportation that has since been replaced by a labyrinth of noisy roads and highways.

Near the riverbank, in the vast Pak Klong Talad flower market, buyers and sellers strike deals amid a sea of jasmine and marigold flowers destined to be strung into garlands and other Buddhist offerings. Elsewhere, narrow covered alleyways lined with market stalls weave between buildings away from the distraction of cars (though no alleyway is too crowded for a motorbike to weave through!).

Being such an important national hub, Bangkok is known for its excellent selection of food of all regions of the country, as well as of ethnic communities from other countries. Of course, I didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity and end up eating pad thai every day (though there’s nothing wrong with that!), so I joined a walking tour of the food offerings in the riverfront Bang Rak district.

Over the course of the morning, a guide with a pretty cool job helped me and a few other hungry tourists to stuff ourselves with pork dishes from the Chinese-Thai community, halal curries and rotis from the southern Thai regions, spicy salads from the northeastern Isaan province, extra-spicy tom yam goong (a local favorite), and plenty of street snacks, desserts, and tropical fruits along the way. By the time we were licking the last bit of pandan custard off our fingers, there was no way I could eat any more food, but even then I was ready to backtrack and order more!

Ratchada Night Market, Bangkok, Thailand
One of several large night markets in Bangkok, the Ratchada Night Market offers a variety of merchandise, such as clothes, jewelry, and gadgets, as well as food ranging from pad thai to entire fish rotating on skewers, and desserts such as coconut custard. The entire market is encircled by a ring of “shipping container bars”.

I arrived in Bankok for the third time, this time from Laos, with a little bit of nostalgia. This visit was not as much about seeing Bangkok as it was about regrouping and preparing for the journey to Europe. Yet, I had a day to spare, which I spent revisiting a few of my favorite places and discovering a few new things along the way. I picked up at European USB adapter of questionable quality for a good price at the vast Ratchada Night Market and roamed around the city eating all the food I knew I was about to miss.

I enjoyed one last rooftop Chang beer with a view of the bright Bangkok skyline, then a few hours of sleep and was soon on the back of a motorbike, with all my gear, heading to the airport for an early morning flight over the continent.

Canal in Bangkok, Thailand
Goodbye, Asia (for now…)!

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