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.
Pattaya: Sex and the City
As Fire Island is to New York, Provincetown is to Boston, and Palm Springs is to Los Angeles, the bigger a city gets, the more people who want to get out of it. Bangkok is no exception: Pattaya is the getaway for concrete-weary city folks. Located two hours southeast of the city, Pattaya basks on the South China Sea and is billed as "Bangkok’s beach."
But no one actually swims at Pattaya, unless it’s at a pool - and mine at the Holiday Inn is made for sunset views. As the playground for Bangkokers, Pattaya’s waters are a traffic jam dumped into the ocean. To take the waters is to take your life into your hands, what with all the jet skis, banana boats, paragliders, tour yachts, floating restaurants and fishing cruises rocketing back and forth.
Although many an Asian metropolis (notably Seoul, Hong Kong and Beijing) have been called "cities of contradictions," Pattaya can easily be thought of as having a dual personality: by day, a brassy beach town; by night, a living, breathing porno movie.
I had also visited Pattaya 15 years ago; back then, it was a sultry little town built on the sex trade. It is now a sultry full-blown city built on the sex trade. At night, it’s all a porno flick. Walking Street, part of Beach Road and closed to cars, is an LED-drenched candy land of titty bars. Garish, gaudy and guilt-free, whatever you are looking for is here. For a price.
But if you find yourself on Walking Street, you’re missing its equally shocking gay equivalent: Boyztown, located right before the neon takes over, up Soi 13/4. Although its relative lack of wattage makes Boyztown seem demure compared to what the heteros are up to, make no mistake: This is Pattaya.
Gay clubs open to the street are safe, if wildly ribald. The real fun begins behind closed doors, in establishments like Happy Place and Copa. Both present two shows per night featuring casts of scantily clad or completely naked dancers. After each show, the guys line up in little white Speedos with numbered tags. Slip the number of your favorite to the concierge and - voilá! - he is fawning beside you, your new BFF until the drinks run out. One caveat, however: Don’t fall for the friendliness. In Thailand, every man on a stage is a "pro."
Ayutthaya: A City Out of Time
By contrast, my tour of Ayutthaya presents a city as different from Bangkok and Pattaya as one gets. Because it is in pieces.
"Ruins" usually connotes something ancient. But as a ruin, Ayutthaya is but a little over 200 years old. What was until 1767 a gleaming, glittering imperial capital for more than a thousand years today looks as if God had a seizure on it. Shrines lean perilously to one side. Palaces are unrecognizable. Statues of Buddha are shattered. Did a bomb go off?
Yes, as it turns out.
Built on an island protected on all sides by the Chao Phraya river, Ayutthaya grew into a millennium of greatness by being impregnable. That is, until an invading army from neighboring Burma arrived with a new technology: cannons.
During a Burmese raid, all 700 acres of Ayutthaya were destroyed. The Thai hastily moved the capital downriver to Thonburi and then again to Bangkok. What was left of Ayutthaya, when not raided for building materials, was left to nature. Wooden structures rotted away and, because the city rests on waterlogged ground, subsistence set in on a massive scale. While a modern town eventually took root, "old" Ayutthaya’s ruins make the Colosseum in Rome look like a fixer-upper.
Oddly enough, though, the glory still lingers. Remains speckle the landscape, sprouting incongruously from rice paddies and banana orchards. In the nearby Wat Mahathat stand three grand mortuary chedi of Ayutthaya kings that miraculously escaped the wrath of Burmese cannon fire. Whitewash dingy but still brilliant, the chedi are dignified reminders of when this city, and no other, was the center of Southeast Asia.
Bangkok is serviced by all major airlines. Several tours visit Ayutthaya daily, but a trip to Pattaya requires a car.
Top Thai Travel Tips
1. Learn to haggle. Street vendors sell some pretty cool kitsch, but never take the going price.
2. The Skytrain stops running at midnight, or even at 11:30 p.m. Get to where you want to go early or you risk getting stranded.
3. Despite the raunchy rep, Thailand is fairly conservative - not homophobic, just conservative. Visiting wats (temples) means dressing modestly: no bare legs or shoulders.
4. Scam alert: Swindlers await foreigners at major tourist sites. At all wats, you pay for your ticket deep within temple grounds, and don’t be surprised if tuk-tuks demand a higher fee because you are not Thai. Your hotel concierge will prove to be a godsend by finding you reputable tours and transport.