Bangkok: Introduction

  • © waterloo,

    © waterloo,


Bangkok between heaven and earth: on the rooftops of skyscrapers, top chefs create gourmet meals in the hippest restaurants, while down below mobile cooks fry up marinated meat on charcoal fires on the pavements. Bangkok between speed and leisure: a lightning fast underground train zooms through the city while a vegetable seller paddles from house to house on quiet canals.

Bangkok between bargains and luxury, parties and faith: you can get T-shirts for the price of a bottle of beer at the open air markets, while the glitzy shopping centres offer the latest designer handbags that cost more than a university professor earns in a month. International DJs play the latest tracks in the stylish clubs whilst monks sink deep into in meditation in the city's monasteries.

Welcome to contemporary Bangkok, a metropolis of contrasts! In other words, Bangkok is characterised by the interplay of constantly changing tensions. Especially since the beginning of the new millennium, change has been rapidly progressing as the city reaches for the stars. The apartment towers on the Chao Phraya River are becoming higher and higher, the shopping centres bigger and more elegant, and Bangkok is becoming trendier by the day. In the space of a few years, Thailand's capital city has become south east Asia's design and fashion stronghold. Thai fashion labels are conquering the international catwalks, and boutique hotels, with their individually decorated rooms, are attracting style-conscious globetrotters. Architects are designing futuristic high-rise buildings, like the Hotel Centara Grand that could be a backdrop for a fantasy film, with its sky-blue dome.

At first glance Bangkok is pure chaos

With its multiple-lane motorways cut through the cityscape, concrete buildings and traffic-jammed streets shape the scenery, Bangkok is not for the faint-hearted. Crowds stream between hawkers and fast food stalls on the pavements, and have to dodge the moped drivers who use the pavement as a shortcut. The Thais are used to the chaos. 'Mai pen rai', they say: 'it doesn't matter'. You will need to keep your cool to survive in Bangkok; your nerves will be tested. Perhaps you will have the same reaction as many other visitors have when they first visit the capital city: they immediately want to leave this mayhem, as it seems as if there is no part that they can retreat to. There is no actual centre, no clear differentiation between residential and business districts. Everything is everywhere and all at the same time! But any visitor to the city will soon find out that, despite its chaos, Bangkok is a city of happy people, a city of joy and smiles. And if you look behind the modern western façade, you will also discover that Bangkok is still full of exotic tradition.

Despite the confusion, this is a city of smiles

Dawn does not last long in the tropics, and as soon as the sun rises over the low horizon, the traffic jams begin. A taxi is stuck on a bridge over a khlong, the driver drums his thumb on the steering wheel in frustration. Then he pauses and smiles apologetically. He turns his eyes to the water, to an old woman in a wooden boat. She is paddling with short strokes, gliding effortlessly ahead. Now the driver is grinning.

By around 1900, there were about half a million people living in the capital of what was then Siam. Bangkok was already a large city, not a metropolis, but rather a collection of villages where artisans and their families lived. Rice mills and sawmills lined the Chao Phraya, Thailand's longest river, which flows straight through the centre of the metropolis. Most of the houses were made out of wood with only a few commercial and government buildings, temples and palaces built out of stone. That is why this young city only has a handful of private buildings that are hundred years or older. Even though the first car to rattle through Bangkok arrived as early as 1897, there were only a few stretches of paved road.

This was because the river and canals formed the most important traffic routes. This was not without danger, as crocodiles were still swimming in the Chao Phraya in 1900, and those who dared to catch one were given a reward by the local authorities. Early travellers from the West described Bangkok as the 'Venice of the East', a floating city where its children grew up with a paddle in their hands.

Many of the original canals have long since been filled in or changed into roads, but Thonburi still has a network of waterways. If you charter a boat yourself, leave the main thoroughfares and explore the areas that are too shallow for the tourist boats, you will be rewarded with the Bangkok of old. Palms cast their shadows on the shingle-covered stilt houses along the green banks; an old lady cooks rice on a stove, which looks like a perforated flowerpot, a vegetable vendor paddles a boat filled with baskets of garlic, chillies, tomatoes and cucumbers. On a jetty, a monk meditates in an orange-coloured robe. And a few metres away, children are splashing in the water. Even in fast-paced Bangkok there are still areas of peace and calm.

A lot has changed since 1782, when King Rama I moved the capital of Siam from Thonburi to the rather minor village of Bangkok on the other side of the Chao Phraya. He named the new capital Krung which means 'city of angels'. Even though Bangkok is the international name used, the Thais still call their capital by its nicer name. Today, the capital is by far the most important business centre in the country. Half of the country's gross domestic product is earned in the greater Bangkok area, and the city is a magnet for both job seekers and rural migrants. According to statistics, nearly eight million people live in the capital, but no one knows the exact number of inhabitants. This is because a large number come from the poor provinces, specifically from the drought-affected north-east, but continue to be registered as residents of their home towns.

And so Bangkok has continued to expand both on the ground and upwards with its skyscrapers. When the Hotel Dusit Thani was opened in 1970, its 23 floors made it giant on the city's skyline. At the time, the city's sceptics said that buildings should not go any higher, and pointed to research that claimed that the capital was sinking a little every year. Today, a forest of high-rise buildings looms over the smog of the city. The 88-floor Baiyoke Sky Hotel (309m/1010ft) is the highest building in Thailand, completely dwarfing the Dusit Thani.

Every morning an offering to the spirits

Bangkok is also the cultural and religious centre of Thailand. About 95 per cent of Thais are Buddhists and follow the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha. However, many still also believe in the spirit world, and to prevent the spirits from roaming about restlessly, a little house has to be built for them. Usually the house is no bigger than a birdhouse and stands on a pole in the garden, or in the entrance area or parking lot. Every morning without fail, this invisible neighbour will be given offerings; flowers, rice, a glass of water, incense. This spirituality controls everyday life in Bangkok just like the rush hour on the Menam Chao Phraya, one of the city's largest thoroughfares.

The scent of incense overlays the clouds of exhaust fumes

Visitors to Bangkok will soon smell the city's typical 'aroma' created by the fumes of buses, clattering tuk-tuks and countless cars and motorbikes. Traffic jams are the order of the day at the junction of the multi-laned main streets of Ploenchit, Rama I and Ratchadamri, where everything grinds to a halt. But high over the junction things are different, with the elevated electric railway line: the Skytrain. But even here, at this urban nightmare of a crossing, Bangkok is different from every other city with traffic problems. Here the smell of incense masks the clouds of exhaust fumes, and Thai classical music penetrates through the sounds of trilling whistles and car alarms. Even the graceful dancers in their glittering ceremonial costumes are not a figment of your imagination - they dance around the gilded statue of the Hindu god Brahma at the Erawan Shrine. The intersection shrine draws construction workers and bankers alike to worship, while barmaids kneel down next to housewives with lotus flowers in their folded hands.

Of course Bangkok has many attractions that are a must-see for tourists. However, to discover life in all its diversity you should mingle with the Thai people themselves. Dive into the noisy maze of the markets, and then catch your breath in a wat, one of the city's 400 monasteries. Visit one of the ostentatious shopping centres, then glide in a boat on a canal where time seems to stand still. It is these contrasts that make up the true Bangkok.

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