Massive clumps of wires suspend precariously above the city sidewalks. The incessant noise of small motor vehicles and tuk-tuks choke its streets, and the overwhelming and sometimes pungent odors waft through the thick, humid air of Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a bustling modern city with a spiritual flair. Every inch is filled with ornate golden temples with spiraling stupas, colorfully contrasting three-story buildings adorned with wires and tattered awnings, and dingy hostels with signs encouraging patrons not to bring prostitutes inside. Winding alleyways are packed with ready-to-buy and to-scale Buddha statues set to be shipped out at a moment’s notice, and mystical animal-human statues called Kinnaree, Dandima, and Apsara Siha are situated on almost every block.
Once night falls and Bangkok starts slowing down, Khaosan Road becomes a place roaring with shoulder-to-shoulder activity; effervescent crowds of ex-pats, drunks looking for a good time, fake monks looking for alms, and street vendors daring tourists to try grilled scorpions fill every possible inch for three blocks. Since I was not looking to get blackout drunk, hook up with a prostitute, drunkenly get a tattoo I would later regret, or do lines of cocaine, Khaosan was not my kind of place and became a section of town I mostly ignored. I instead filled my time by visiting museums, which luckily there are many.
The National Museum, the largest museum in Southeast Asia, confirmed my suspicion around Cambodia’s cultural interchange, precisely the ancient Khmer style, and Thailand. Lopburi art is the result of this fluid cultural interchange, with the styles being nearly identical. Furthermore, the ancient city of Ayutthaya, a few hours north of Bangkok, shares striking similarities to Khmer temples, like Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. In both Cambodia and Thailand, you will come across Buddha statues with a Naga looming over, sometimes referred to as “Buddha Sheltered by Naga’s Hood.” The Naga, called Mutcalin, coiled around Buddha to shelter him from the elements. Other exhibits include massive ceremonial carriages, textiles, weapons, architecture, art, sculptures, and ornate royal puppets called Hun Lek. The museum was a definite highlight of my experience here, and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Bangkok.
Just over the Chao Phraya River from the National Museum and located in a functioning hospital, the Siriraj Medical Museum is a grotesque display of medical misery that will shock even the most desensitized of us. Babies with two heads, shared organs, deformed in a womb, or drowned are placed in clear jars and displayed by the dozens. A giant 3ft wide testicle afflicted with elephantiasis was on my list of things I never wanted to see, but the museum, of course, had that too. Mummified rapist murderers stand on metal trays in telephone booths, severed limbs, and photos of lacerations, bomb victims, and car crashes are just some of the extra joys on display. Pushing the uncomfortableness even further, visitors can touch the arm of a 17-year-old girl donated to science and apparently also for amusement. Just in case you worked up an appetite from looking at all these wonderful things, there is a café you can visit as you exit.
Unlike the times I visited Cambodia, Vietnam, or Singapore, I arrived in Thailand during a tense political climate. A flurry of yellow-clad citizens consumed the heart of Bangkok during their first election in 5 years since a military coup d’état overthrew the Thai government in 2014. Thailand is ruled by a military Junta who swears allegiance to the Thai King. Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, known simply as Rama X, is a romantically struggled monarch with an uneasy amount of influence in politics through the Junta. The king’s name is quite a mouthful. Still, in Thai culture, a name holds more than just a superficial description but contains socio-religious context, aspirational qualities, and in the case of Rama X, reflects his authority, lineage, and blessings.
Defined as a royal color, adorning yellow displays loyalty to the Thai King. No party reflected that loyalty more than the military-backed Palang Pracharath Party, and under the watchful gaze of thousands of portraits of the king, displayed the utmost confidence in the election results. There is a definite big brother kind of display in Bangkok. Portraits depicting their monarch scatter the streets, universities, government buildings, and homes, ranging from pocket-sized portraits to being over 100ft tall. No matter the size, all are just high enough above the ground for the king to be looking down at everyone who passes by.
To go along with the military-based government, there is an uncomfortable fetishizing of military equipment, to the likes of what you might see in the United States. A considerable number of officer caps, military attire and ornamentation, and gun stores displaying hefty firearms in the open line the neighborhoods around government facilities. The military’s presence felt suffocating, so I am not surprised the results of the election were not physically contested, despite both sides claiming victory. Uniformed men and women, like sheepdogs, were guiding hundreds of people dressed in blue caps and yellow shirts into military vehicles and busses. At this point, I followed the massive group of around a thousand individuals for well over a mile before moving on with my day.
Thailand is far more than just Bangkok, so I decided to make a plan to leave the city for a day.
The next morning around 7am I headed off to the railway market in Maeklong and the floating market in the Ratchaburi province. The two destinations were around an hour and forty minutes away, halfway between Bangkok and the border of Myanmar. I arrived at the market a little before 9am when the train was supposed to pass through. Awnings and market stands bled out into the tracks selling a hearty selection of meat, fruit, and flowers. When the train was announced through a speaker system, with an impressive display of speed, all the awnings receded into the stands and produce was covered with blue tarps or brought in if it was too tall. The train’s width was almost exactly the width of the market, with only a centimeter to spare on either side. A minute later, a slow, red train adorned with a string of yellow flowers moved right through and shrouded the stands in shade. I stood inside one of the stands watching the hunk of metal fly by. The train was short, and within another minute of it passing, the market was back to the clustered way it was.
I set off to the floating market in the Ratchaburi province shortly after the train passed. The town, taking advantage of its unique lifestyle, has profited immensely off the substantial number of tourists it attracts. There are around three-hundred canals here, both providing essential transport for locals and for annoying tourists. I walked around a covered wooden walkway lining the perimeter of one of the main canals. Longboats, either crammed with tourists, or selling paintings, honey, or trinkets, drift through the canals, filling black and gray smoke into the void above with every rev of the longboat’s engine. I toured the canals on one of those longboats, which outside of the main trading area is lined with durian trees, stilt houses, and unfortunately garbage, which the canals do not do a decent job filtering out.
The remainder of my time in Thailand comprised of casually exploring the city, eating great food, and drinking strong coffee. There is plenty more to see on the outskirts of the city, but I will have to leave that for another time. The city continues to fascinate me, and I hope to visit it again to dive deeper into its complex culture.