Bangkok: City of Angels

by Henrylito D. Tacio

 

Have you been to Bangkok?  Well, I have been there four times already.  The first time was in the early 1990s when I attended training for Asian journalists convened by the regional office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  The second time was when the German Embassy in Manila requested me to be one of the Asian journalists to grace the exhibits of German technologies in the region.

In the last two years, I have been to Bangkok to serve as an editorial consultant for FAOs publication, In Search of Excellence: Exemplary Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific.

Bangkok is the capital and largest city of Thailand.  It is located in the central part of the country, on the Chao Phraya River near the Gulf of Thailand (Siam).  I was told that Bangkok is Thailand’s administrative, economic, and cultural center, and a major commercial and transportation center of Southeast Asia.
 
The Thais calls Bangkok as Krung Thep, which means City of Angels.  In the past, when the city still had numerous canals Europeans considered Bangkok as the Venice of the East.  One history record chronicled: Most of the city’s arteries were waterways, and people traveled more by boat than by horse-drawn or motorized carriage. Almost all major streets were either flanked with canals on both sides or were boulevards with canals running down the middle. By the 1970s most of the canals were gone and replaced by multilane roads.

Like Metro Manila, Bangkok suffers from many of the urban ills that beset other large cities. Many rural dwellers especially young men and women seeking employmenthave moved to Bangkok in recent years, and they have strained the city’s limited housing and public-health facilities.  Among the city’s other problems are traffic congestion, slums and crowded living conditions, chronic pollution, and prostitution.  Bangkoks urban sprawl is one of the horrors of modern world, commented one journalist.

Since the 1960s, high-rise buildings have been erected all over the city. Typical housing in the core of the city now consists of apartments on the second through fourth floors of a shophouse; the building’s only recreational space is the rooftop. In the suburbs, many people live in tiny houses on small plots of land that were built in massive developments. These areas are usually poorly served by public transportation. Dotted everywhere are the larger, taller buildings of banks and department stores.
 
Bangkok is an ugly city sprawling over low-lying land, commented All-Asia Travel Guide, which I consulted before visiting the city.  It has no obvious geographical center, but it has a lot of heart.  It is a friendly, vibrant place and, thus, visitors quickly brush aside the hassles and ugliness.
 
The most widely visited parts of Bangkok are its oldest quarters, beginning especially with the region at its center (dating from the 1780s). The royal Grand Palace, with its associated Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), is admired for its well-maintained 19th-century architecture. Nearby are many of the city’s oldest and most venerable Buddhist temples (wat).

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha, an amazing figure measuring 48 meters long and 15 meters high, symbolizes the passing of the Lord Buddha from this life into Nirvana.  The Temple of Dawn, on the banks of the river, is one of Bangkoks striking landmarks.  Parts of it are 90 meters high and are covered with fragments of porcelain and pottery.  

Also nearby is the enormous open field (Sanam Luang) where special royal ceremonies are held, including the cremations of royalty and the annual Ploughing Ceremony, which inaugurates the rice-planting season.

A wide, tree-lined boulevard, flanked with government buildings, runs northeast from the inner royal island to the old throne hall, now the seat of the national legislature. Nearby are Dusit Park, Dusit Zoo, and the spacious Chitladda Palace in which the king and his family reside.

Between the Grand Palace and the Chitladda Palace are many tourist attractions. These include the National Museum (1926), National Theater (1964), National Gallery (1984), Rajadamnoen Stadium (the preeminent venue of Thai kick-boxing), National Library (1926), and National Archives (1958).

Bangkok is the center of Thai culture and education. The city is the seat of six major universities: Chulalongkorn (founded in 1917); Thammasat (1933); Silpakorn (1943), for students of the fine arts; Kasetsat (1943), an agriculture school; Mahidol, a medical school; and the Asian Institute of Technology (1959).  Like the Asian Institute of Management in Manila, the latter also received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for international understanding.

If you want to know how Thailand became what it is today, do not miss the National Museum near the Grand Palace, which houses excellent collections on Thai art and archaeology.  The preeminent research and scholarly institution is the Siam Society (1904), which has an excellent, small library. The National Library and its municipal branches serve the capital’s students and scholars.

The Jim Thompson House is also worth a visit.  The owner, who disappeared in Malaysia more than two decades ago in circumstances never explained, revived the Thai silk industry after World War II, making Thai silk popular all over the world.  His enchanting home, perhaps the most beautiful house in Bangkok, was built from six old teak houses brought from upcountry.  It is filled with exquisite works of art from Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China.  The garden is an oasis of beauty and peace.  Thompsons original silk factories are across the klong (canals).

Bangkok markets provide a panorama of city life, as well as good shopping and eating.  The main shopping centers are around Silom, Suriwong, Sukhumvit roads and Siam Square.  For cut-price goods, the Banglumphu district near the Grand Palace and Pratunam Market are best.  Narai Phand, the government shop on Ratchadamri Road, offers Thai handicrafts.

The really good buys in Bangkok are traditional Thai articles in silk, cotton, silver and nielloware, lacquer and bronzeware, celadon and woodwork.  There are many antique shops, but genuine articles are rare and very expensive.  Some of the craftsmen making these articles ask dealers, Do you want your pieces present-day or antique?  They can do them one way as easily as the other.

Bangkok is also a treasure trove of gems, gold and silver. Rubies and sapphires are mined in this country and also imported from neighboring countries like Myanmar and Cambodia.  Myanmar sends its jade to Thai workshops, renowned for their gem carving skills.  You can buy every type of precious stone and metal in Bangkok, which has thousands of reputable retailers whose prices compare favorably with those in other countries.

Now, lets talk about food.  Thai food is a blend of five distinct tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot.  An extremely hot dish probably contains the yellow-orange phrik leung, the hottest of all chillies.  Thais say some chillies are mild, but few are safe to chew.  

The best introduction to Thai food is tom yum soup, the nearest thing to a Thai national dish.  It is a thin soup of prawn (shrimp), white fish or chicken, with vegetables, made sharp and hot with lemon grass, chillies and other herbs.  If you like it just as I liked it very much, you will like Thai food.

A typical meal, by the way, includes steamed rice, five or six dishes of soup, fish, a curry blended with coconut milk, vegetables and perhaps grilled dried beef or an omelet stuffed with pork.  Shrimp paste, fish sauce, tamarind sauce and other condiments are served on the side.

Although I have not experienced some problems when I went to Bangkok twice, the All-Asia Travel Guide has issued some so-called rip-offs. So if you will visit Bangkok soon or in the near future, it pays to know these precautions: 

* When leaving the airport, avoid touts who will offer to guide you around or simply offer to supply you with girl or boy.  And ignore men with dilapidated vehicles offering taxi services.

Be wary of the friendly fellows in city streets who claim to know where you can buy jewelry at the best price or offer other bargains.

Buy imported liquor only in the big supermarkets, not sidestreet shops, where the drink may have been diluted or completely substituted for a local product.

Be careful when visiting upstairs bars that stage dancing and other spectacles.  They may charge exorbitantly for the entertainment.  Men out for a night on the town should remember some of the most attractive women might not be what they seem.  Transvestites are numerous in Patpong and similar night-spot quarters.

Never accept food or drink from strangers on a long-distance bus.  Many tourists have lost money and other valuables after being drugged in that way.

Take care when crossing streets with busy traffic.  Cars often do not stop for people on pedestrian crossings.  It is safer to wait for a break in the traffic. — ### 

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