Sunday, 2 March 2014

Best bits of Bangkok

Bangkok is a tough city to love. There's too much of it. It's too difficult to get around. It's too touristy. And it doesn't wake up till eleven o'clock in the morning - even the Dunkin' Donuts near Siam Square doesn't open for breakfast till ten-thirty - which is no good for a morning person, which I tend to be when I'm travelling.

And then many of the things I'd expected to like were rather disappointing. The Chao Mae Tuptim shrine with its phallic offerings is amusing but not very atmospheric. The Chao Praya River is wide and choppy and the waterfront is relatively unspectacular. Chinatown and Little India were tedious. The shopping malls around Siam Square were full of the kind of brands you get in any airport terminal, with price tags to match, and Chatuchak Market was far less interesting than I'd expected (though I did find a wonderful little street of paper merchants, where I got some sweet notebooks and fine marbled paper).

On the other hand....
  • The river taxis out along Khlong Saen Sap are great fun, speeding up the narrow canal and thrusting out a massive foamy wake as they go. Along the canal side an older, single-story, wooden-built Bangkok coexists with the skyscrapers in the background; caged birds hang from the eaves of some houses, roosters strut back yards. You catch glimpses as the boat rushes past. A hundred yards away there's a six-lane road choked with traffic, but you can't even hear it over the noise of boat engine and splashing water. I didn't have time to get to know the klongs of Thonburi... next time, I will.
  • Wat Saket was always going to be a favourite place of mine, given my love of pilgrimage mountains and hilltop sanctuaries, even though this hill is really no more than a slumped and overgrown stupa base (South East Asia Visions has a fascinating view of its previous dilapidated state). It's kitsch and yet charming, the way up screened by high bamboo and jungle creepers, with bodhisattvas posing elegantly in the shrubbery. At the top, you come out to the platform surrounding the golden chedi; and there below lies the whole of Bangkok - a low skyline punctuated to the west by the chedis of Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the other monasteries, and to the east by the skyscrapers of the new city, and right underneath, the geometrically disposed buildings of the Wat Saket monastery. Pilgrims offer money or incense to the many buddhas, or bash the hanging bells and gongs along the way - a temptation I did not resist.
  • I strolled out to Wat Mahathat in the early morning and found the amulet market in full swing. Even better, I found the wholesale market tucked away between the monastery and the river, part of it, I think, actually floating over the river; small shops around long thin courtyards or off shadowy alleyways, and only just opening for business, with that lazy feeling of a shopping district before anything starts happening. The world of the Thai amulet is a fascinating ecosystem, encapsulating everything from mass-market key-ring Buddhas to hand-carved, brass-inlaid willies (Thailand maintains a thriving phallic cult, as at the Chao Mae Tuptim shrine); collectors will inspect old amulets through a loupe (cheap, good jeweller's loupes are an absolute best buy here) and dicker for hours about the quality and price of the one they've got their eye on.
  • Surprisingly, some of the most interesting experiences I had were not far from Khao San Road. You don't have to go far off the main drag to get out of Backpackerville, Arizona and into the Thai existence. Early in the morning, nuns were preparing the monks' breakfasts at Wat Chanasongkram, the roofs of which I could see from my guesthouse; rice from a huge steamer, and stir fried greens, and a single fish split down the middle and splayed out. Inside the temple, a middle-aged man sat to read his newspaper. In Wat Borroniwet, a few minutes' walk further away, the gates were hung with the black and white of mourning, and worshippers filed into the hall where the three-months dead Supreme Patriarch sat within a golden urn, and bowed and prayed in unison; and I was handed a plate of fruit when I came out, and given a cup of sweet cold tea.
My souvenirs this time? Bargain bottles of Pelikan ink from a stationery shop in Chinatown, at a fifth of what they ought to cost, and a couple of Thai school exercise books, bound in stiff card with a dharma wheel printed on the cover. And, rather more expensively, a Thai hammered dulcimer, or khim, which I can now pronounce properly (it's an upward tone, which, Thai being a tonal language, is important), and which I am beginning to play with reasonable proficiency thanks to my friends in Chiang Mai and the wonderful resources of YouTube.

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