Burgeoning, Bustling, Bristling – Bangkok

Since I had recently returned back to Chiang Mai from my visit to Malaysia and Vietnam, I hadn’t planned to take any more side trips until at least later this month. Unfortunately, I was at risk of losing Marriott points accrued when I was still traveling for work and had to add to them before the approaching deadline. I had spent two very hot days in Bangkok in September and admit that I was so uncomfortable with the weather that I didn’t see much of the city. Now, the hotel pool, that’s another story. So on a points-motivated impulse, I booked a cheap flight for BKK and flew down the last week of December. Luckily, I was able to confirm a couple of day tours while there and saw Thailand’s most frequently visited sites, as well as one that got me engaged in the enigmatic tale of an American who single-handedly saved the Thai silk trade.

The Grand Palace compound and Wat Phra Kaeo, also known as Temple of the Emerald Buddha, sit next to each other in a riverside area of central Bangkok. They are often reached via a boat trip along the enormous Chao Phraya River, itself a heavily travelled and highly polluted body of water that seems to churn wildly due to the amount of boat traffic and water currents.  The palace and temple were both built after King Rama I ascended the throne as the founder of the Chakri Dynasty in 1782 and have undergone several repairs and renovations over the years. As a “Royal” wat and residence, they are kept in immaculate condition, funded in part by fairly stiff admission pricing.

The tour boat traveled along the river, providing close-up and illuminating views of both the modern and ancient buildings, monuments and temples that are so much a part of Thailand’s major commercial port and capital.

First up was the complex of highly decorated and intricately adorned buildings and temples that make up Wat Phra Kaeo. It might be easy to fall back on the tired tourist mentality of, “Seen one temple, seen ’em all” that often accompanies a sightseer’s visual overload. But you’ll have to take my word for it that this has not been my experience here in Asia. Just when I think I can’t take one more wat (temple), I surprise myself by becoming spellbound once again by the detail, colors, design and statuary. If you’re interested in reading more about the temple and palace site, check this out: Facts – Grand Palace & Temple BKK.

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The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is not open to the public, but shots from the front door are available for photographs. Because it is not well lit or within easy range, my photo is a bit grainy. My apologies. The building itself and grounds, however, are as spectacular as one would imagine to house the divine figure that first surface in the 1400’s in Northern Thailand. Read more about it here: Facts – The Emerald Buddha.

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Many of the buildings in the complex are covered by thousands of pieces of colorful porcelain, hand painted and placed within intricate designs. The vivid colors have not been diminished by the intense sun or driving rains over the centuries which says volumes about the workmanship.

As I was told by the tour guide, this entire site is considered “Royal”, therefore the utmost dignity and discretion must take place for access. Vendors just outside the walls do a brisk business selling scarfs for women to cover their shoulders, while both men and women (myself included) find themselves buying the bain of the Thai tourist, “Elephant Pants”. These long cotton pants of various colors, usually with an elephant motif, are not flattering for anybody, much less when used to cover up the pair of bulky walking shorts put on that morning for sightseeing. Then, of course, there is the tradition of removing one’s shoes to enter a building, providing quite a fashionable view of baggy pants and bare feet slogging along the interior walkways. Another example of the required respect and piety is this sign, cautioning visitors to avoid improper ways to incorporate a Buddha statue or likeness. Although the photo of the Buddha planter or doggie bed may draw a smirk, it is all taken very seriously in part of the world and by Buddhists everywhere.

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I was not prepared to be so starstruck by Wat Pho, known as Temple of the Reclining Buddha. By this point in the complex tour, I was getting hot, tired and cranky and was more inclined to find some bottled water and a sandwich. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my impulses, as these photos surely support. The statue itself is huge and difficult to photograph, but there is a photo below of a model-sized, frame-fitting version that shows the entire form.

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After all the gold leaf, intricate detail and stunning statuary of the temples, we finally moved on to the Grand Palace. Chakri Maha Prasat is the largest and most famous structure on the palace grounds and was built by King Rama V in 1882 as his own residence. It’s a combination of Thai and Western architecture, with the top part pure Thai with tapering spires and tiered sloping roofs, and the lower parts, designed by a British architect, are in the Imperial Victorian style. The palace is no longer used as the official residence of the royal family, but serves as a site for royal celebrations and, in part, as accommodations for visiting dignitaries and heads of state.

In all honesty, I had never heard of Jim Thompson, so when the tour guide recommended that we see his Bangkok home, I was slightly nonplussed. After asking that inevitable reactive question of , “Why?”, I was told in no uncertain terms that I might find it interesting. Having (finally) eaten lunch and rehydrated, something described as “interesting” was enough for me to concur. Mr. Thompson has become somewhat of a mythical, as well as historic, celebrity in Thailand  and throughout Asia. The son of wealthy parents, he was born in one of America’s smallest states, Delaware. Indulging in a variety of passions and interests early in life, he somehow became involved with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. While serving with them, he was sent to Thailand right after the Japanese surrendered in World War II. After returning to civilian life, he stayed in Bangkok and developed an interest in Thai silk (that’s some segue in interests, don’t you think?) and soon thereafter founded a silk company with a $25,000 investment and income from the sale of minority shares to his wealthy friends.

Thompson’s silks became so well known that they were featured in the original Broadway production of The King and I. Massive success followed, elevating both Thompson’s income and prestige, as well as that of the entire Thai silk industry which had been long in decline.

Jim Thompson loved beautiful things. With his new wealth, he decided to build a Thai-style home using portions of six older houses found in various parts of the kingdom. In addition to supervising the construction of the compound, Thompson assisted in designing the landscaping and water features and filling the home with important Thai antiques. Of course, yards of silk fabric were also used in the interiors to showcase his newfound love of the industry.

Having already achieved celebrity status internationally and befriending members of the Thai royal family, Thompson’s reputation transcended into mythical levels when, in 1967 he vanished without a trace while vacationing in the tea-growing region of Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. Check out more of Mr. Thompson’s life and career here: Facts – Jim Thompson and here Facts – Jim Thompson Designer.

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As part of the grounds tour, there was a demonstration of silk weaving, showing the process of retrieving the silk threads from the worm casing, as well as the coloration process for the silk itself. Because this unique fabric has increasingly been replaced with both natural and manmade options, it is easy to forget how beautiful it can be for both apparel and decorative uses. And as one staff person pointed out, it’s much more durable than it looks.

Following Thompson’s death, representatives of his estate and members of the Thai government and royal family stepped in to ensure that his silk enterprise did not vanish as a result of his disappearance. Today, the newly formed company is thriving, with an international presence via retail stores, restaurants, silk-based clothing, fabric design and other enterprises. For more info his legacy, read about it here: Facts – Thompson Legacy.

Bangkok is a tough nut to crack. Like many of the Asian cities, it is undeniably overpopulated, with a whopping 14 million people living in the Metropolitan area. Traffic is among the worst in the world, but the government has invested in mass transit options that have helped (minimally) to alleviate the glut. It’s fighting the urban woes of many industrialized late-bloomers, particularly in Asia, who have seen their major population centers spiral out of control, while the influx of international dollars, new residents (both legal and “il”) and industrial polluters continues to increase. One would hope that the economic priority will not rule out the human needs for quality of life, clean air and access to work, healthcare and commerce. The red flags have been raised and the concerns continue to be expressed both inside and outside the Kingdom.

Ancient Bangkok, however, is there for those who want a glimpse into the founding Ayutthaya Kingdom and the wonders of (and this is no joke…) Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. Also known as City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, Seat of the King, City of Royal Palaces, Home of Gods Incarnate, Erected by Vishvakarman at Indra’s Behest.

Hey, it takes a lot of words to describe a city this vast. For me, however, I’ll just stick with burgeoning, bustling, bristling – Bangkok.

Cheers!

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