”The essence of Bangkok lies beneath the surface and its physical appearance.” Composer/pianist Pang Vongtaradon
The clichés surrounding big cities always have a kernel of truth. But to let stereotype define the home of millions of people, pick any major metropolis you like on the globe, and I think you’ll understand why, to me, hyperbole and sweeping generalizations are cynical or boring, or both. Jumping to conclusions is not great exercise.
I never thought I’d understand Bangkok. At first it is only big and only confusing. There is the cliché of constant tropical heat. Then, and what is often a visual deal breaker for many first time visitors, there is the ever present brutalist transit system. Street level exhaust fumes are epic. Bangkok is a city where crossing the street resembles a pedestrian level version of ten lanes of a freeway in Los Angeles or an afternoon stroll in the Lincoln Tunnel.
And I just fell in love. How?
A little introduction to my blossoming love affair with Bangkok is in order. Jan and I have just arrived in our second home in Việt Nam for a two month residency spanning late February, March and April, with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Before setting up shop in our charming French Quarter apartment, we took the opportunity to visit new music neighbors in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, getting the word out about the many exciting concerts and new collaborations with Hong Kong and Manila going on here in Hà Nội during my next residency. Thanks to introductions from Vũ Nhật Tân, Phạm Trường Sơn and Lương Huệ Trinh we’ve met many new composer friends in the island city-state of Singapore, as well as in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand.
“Jeff, when you go to Bangkok, always approach my home from the water.”
I’ve been lucky the last thirty years to have the same barber at home in Los Angeles, her nickname is Polly and she’s from Bangkok. Her admonition to me about her hometown (she was born in the Chinatown District) shaped my search for a skeleton key to unlock the puzzle of Bangkok. And of course the mighty Chao Praya River is the obvious place to start. My favorite urban waterway on the globe, the Chao Praya is to Bangkok what the Seine is to Paris.
And though it is true that Bangkok’s biggest tourist hits are easily adjacent to the many boats going up and down the Chao Praya, this in and of itself was not enough to bring me around to falling in love with Bangkok. But then, like all love stories, something unexpected and magical happened.
The Jim Thompson House deserves its place on a must see list in Bangkok. A former OSS operative in Southeast Asia during World War II, Thompson arrived on scene in Thailand at the end of the war, and was friends with American missionaries Kenneth and Margaret Landon. Margaret Landon wrote Anna and the King of Siam. You can see where this is headed. Thompson organized investors at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for a silk venture. Now take a guess as to who designed the costumes for the King and I on Broadway and the 1956 20th Century Fox film (which is banned in Thailand, by the way, for its disrespectful representation of their King). From then on the Jim Thompson Company was truly healthy, wealthy and wise.
And in one of the great mysteries of Southeast Asia, at age 61 Thompson disappears without a trace in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia during the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, never to be seen again. Float your own conspiracy theory.
It is easy to access the Jim Thompson House from the Bangkok Transit System (BTS) Skytrain end station at National Stadium. But as we were walking around, Jan and I heard the whoosh of waves and putputput of long boat motors. As we were walking out of the house tour, we had a cinematic preview, our first sighting, of a Bangkok khlong, or canal. We’d researched the khlongs but couldn’t place how to access them or how they functioned. Instead of going back the way we came on the BTS, we turned toward the khlong. Sure enough, there was a pedestrian walkway, up and down and down and up, a wonderful magical side canal.
And that’s how I started to fall in love with Bangkok.
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.
That’s the full name of Bangkok, the longest title to any city on earth. All Thai names seem grand and are proudly multi-syllabic, but no worries as everyone goes by an endearing nickname. You can also forever retire your Götterdämmerung-like jokes about long words in German. Thai has you more than defeated with that preoccupation!
So it would seem that both Bangkok and Los Angeles are the City of Angels. French actress Marion Cotillard certainly thought so about my home town in her acceptance speech when she won the Academy Award in 2007. But in Bangkok, you are at a whole other angelic level.
Most easily reached from the canal boat, Wat Saket, or the Golden Mount Temple, is the highest Buddhist structure in the city, and capped by a golden stupa with a relic of Buddha himself. There are 344 steps up to the top and upon arrival you are greeted by a heavenly ringing of endless wind chimes, deep gongs and flags blowing in the wind. And unlike my hometown of angels, here four apsaras eternally watch over Bangkok’s North South East and West directions. You simply hop off your canal boat, walk over a bridge on a quiet street and voilà, you’ve reached an icon of the city most tourists can’t locate.
No city I have experienced has the dramatic contrasts of Bangkok. With abrupt cinematic editing, you will go from crossing a ten lane street to a peacefully perfumed Thai massage spa, from gas fumes to lemongrass. From the tropical heat you’ll often get cooling breezes that lift the humidity and make the city feel like the Hawaiian Islands. From a brutalist cityscapes you’ll find, instantaneously, a peaceful and mind-blowing Buddhist temple. And this pattern is everywhere, once you know how to look for the Thai spirit. Not to mention the extraordinary balance of Thai food, described by one friend as “Spicy – with class!”
But it was the quiet waterways of Bangkok that made me understand the place. As I got to know more and more of them, the atmospheric floating markets, as I spent more time on the Chao Praya River or viewed it from above, took more canal boat trips, made a stop at the Mandarin Oriental and the Authors’ Lounge, the puzzle of Bangkok unlocked itself. A true home city started to emerge, and I knew we’d found a way to demolish the simple cliché that Bangkok is annoyingly this or that (insert a gripe).
But the real secret of the city?
The Thai themselves. They make these contrasts comprehensible. The world has given them another cliché – The Land of Smiles. And it’s those smiles that in fact I fell in love with, a quiet non-confrontational populace that understand the yin and yang of their city. My idea of Hell would be Bangkok with only angry Westerners in the place.
It’s been a gift to listen to our Bangkok friends and come to accept that the legendary Venice of Italy has now become, at least for Jan and me, the Bangkok of Europe.
I’ll return with a few more posts about the floating markets and the grand places of the Chao Praya River.
Best, best, best,