Thailand: A Tale of Three Cities
Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit.
Translated, its ceremonial name begins with "City of Angels" and then manages to haul in immortals, palaces, nine sacred gems, the king Visvakarman, and the god Indra. I think the world will forgive me if I stick with "Bangkok."
Sociologists call the capital of Thailand a "primate city," meaning it completely dominates the country in terms of size, culture, economy, psyche and politics. From my perch at the über-boutique Pullman Bangkok Hotel G, I see a cityscape of towers and temples sprouting from either bank of the Chao Phraya river and racing out to the horizon in every direction.
I visited "BKK" 15 years ago. The only difference today is that there’s more of it: buildings are taller, superhighways more extensive, the elevated subway finally built. It is also my third swing through the city, so when I step out of the glittering Suvarnabhumi Airport, I am ready for the hypertropic humidity awaiting anyone who visits Bangkok at the height of the summer monsoon. I am also ready for the streets filled with cars that don’t move.
Bangkok: The Hypercity
Think Los Angeles traffic is bad? You haven’t seen gridlock until you’ve seen Bangkok. When is comes to congested streets, this is one "City of Angels" that far surpasses the other. Compared to other Asian cities that are centuries old, Bangkok is merely an infant: it is some 200 years old. And yet for all its modernity, never was there applied a smidgen of urban planning.
The city grew organically, evolving into a knotted squiggle of streets, boulevards and alleyways that clog on cue: Rush hour starts at 8 a.m. and lasts till 10 p.m. Well-situated hotels are a premium, and the Pullman, located just off the elevated subway (the "Skytrain") on Si Lom Road, positions it three easy transfers from the airport, a 10-minute walk to the gay clubs, and a 30-minute walk to some of the best sights in the city, starting with Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang, the Grand Palace.
Like the United Kingdom, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, but King Bhumibol Adulyadej wields a respect that leaves Queen Elizabeth II in the dust. His image is everywhere - walls, bridges, arches, taxis and key chains. An island of stability in the tumultuous world of Thai politics, the 85-year-old sovereign is so revered, the population finds it unthinkable to say anything critical of him ... literally. As a matter of law, Thailand practices lèse majesté, meaning it is forbidden to say anything bad, even in jest, about the royals (in public, that is).
But even His Majesty might find humor in describing Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace’s chapel, as what happens when a BeDazzler goes haywire. Every single surface scintillates, from gold-plated towers to temples emblazoned with mosaics of candy-colored mirrors. Even the murals are gilded. It’s a gigantic disco ball, and to say it’s a tourist draw is an understatement; hence my plans to visit midday. Never underestimate Thailand in summer, for where else can you wear SPF 50 and still get a tan? But the heat magically clears up crowds and, armed with several water bottles, I enjoy Wat Phra Kaew without pinballing between tours.
Pride of place belongs to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, whose airy inside is outdone by the massive luxury overdose of spangles and sparkles plastering the building’s exterior from top to bottom. Said Emerald Buddha, carved out of solid jade, depicts the Enlightened One in a tranquil yoga pose, and it is a national treasure: only the king may touch it. Worshipers line up daily, and visitors are advised (i.e., commanded) to remove shoes, never point their feet at the idol, and never take a photo of it.
Generations of kings have crammed into Wat Phra Kaew so many mortuary monuments, a library, adjunct temples, pavilions, a model of Angkor Wat, graceful kinnara statues and massive 15-foot yakshi guardians that there is no safe place to rest your eyes. It makes Wat Pho, a temple south of the palace, appear bland by comparison ... were it not for its 160-foot-long reclining Buddha covered in gold. Much more blissful is Wat Arun, a stately shrine set amid sculpted gardens across the river. A marvel of inlaid porcelain, Wat Arun gives a fantastic view of Bangkok, if you dare traverse the nearly perpendicular stairs.
While Bangkok is a diverse 21st-century city filled with five-star eateries, I skip them all. This is not to say that chefs at the Shangri-La Hotel or Mandarin will leave you wanting; but if you want "real" Thai food, head for the curb.
In the suburbs, street chefs are mobile, attaching their kitchens to motorcycle sidecars. In downtown Bangkok, they set up kiosks right on the sidewalk and sell some of the most authentic (and cheapest) food in the city. You cannot walk anywhere in Bangkok without nearly tripping over sidewalk vendors selling everything from food, clothes and electronics to velvet paintings depicting Buddha in neon pink. The feel is very "Blade Runner," with sidewalks as choked as the streets.
Bangkok at Night
Bangkok completely changes at night. The frenzy remains, but with the moon comes a voluptuousness not seen in the day. All streets in Bangkok, including Si Lom, are lined with soi, or short dead-end alleys. Three soi near Lumphini Park - labeled "2", "2/1" and "4" - make up throbbing gay hearts of the city, lined end-to-end with gay-only clubs, bars and massage parlors. While the bar scene starts to buzz around sunset, nightclubs don’t get going until after midnight.
Of the nightclubs, One Night Only on Soi 4 is a major pre-gaming hotspot. This most likely has something to do with the heavily muscled staff. Disco Disco on Soi 2 isn’t really a disco although they play a lot of disco, and it is packed with people dancing in spite of its lack of a dance floor.
As it was during my trip 15 years ago, the reigning nightlife spot in Bangkok remains DJ Station. With dancing on the first floor and cruising on the second and third, DJ Station boasts dirt-cheap drinks and drag shows that are full-on spectacles.