In 2006 a coup by Thailand’s military toppled Thaksin, the current prime minister from his position. This was the first of many coups that would perpetually destabilise Thailand’s government. By 2010 tensions in the community between the red shirts – supporters of the deposed Thai prime minister and the Yellow shirts – Anti Thaksin groups, hit boiling point. The military stepped in as the Red-shirts protested then threw their own bottled blood onto the steps and gates of government house. A militia group known as the ‘black shirts’ emerged, sending the military retreating and leaving guns and equipment for the red shirts to seize.
Eventually the military stormed the red shirt barricades along with the police. But some disenfranchised police turned and began shooting at the soldiers. An Italian photographer was suspected to have been shot by a police officer, but the red shirts were falsely blamed for killing him with a grenade. The country teetered on civil war, as blood ran thick on the streets and the death toll rose and hospitals flooded with the inured.
The king supported the military and had close relationships with its generals. But despite this, stories emerged that as women and children members of the red-shirt camps fled the violence, the king opened the gates of his residence so that they could escape the bloodshed. Other stories imply the grand palace opened their gates for this as well, to allow people to escape to somewhere the military would never set foot in. However there is little documentation recording this having happened.
By the end of all of the violence, the government again faltered and the military suffer with deteriorating trust from the public. As Thai institutions of power faced their worst crises of confidence by public ever, the King of Thailand still remianed revered and loved. Respect for the king had never faltered.
The king passed away in late 2016. When Jane and I arrived in Bangkok they were at the end of a year long state of mourning for the deceased monarch. Giant billboards were around the city declared the people’s sorrow for the loss of their beloved king. Every shopping centre, hotel and public place had a painting or poster of the kind erected, which they surrounded with flowers. Many of the main roads had banners depicting the king, which they mounted into elaborate gold painted frames.
Jane and I organised a private tour of the Grand Palace and its temples. Our guide, a Chinese born buddhist also had deep respect for the passed king and spoke reverently about him. Our car dropped us onto a street near the palace and we continued on foot. A line snaked around the streets of Bangkok leading to the place that was several kilometres long. It was filled with people dressed in black, with some holding flowers, some pictures of the king. They had come to see his body and show their respect as they bid him farewell. His body had been accessible to visitors there for the past 8 months, yet this line reportedly was there every day. The entirety of Thailand’s 64 million residents were expected to visit him before he was cremated.
The line snaked through the sprawling grounds of the palace and entered a temple where the body was kept. We didn’t visit the king as we were tourists and were respectful of the mourning of the people coming to see him, but we did wander through many of the other temples on the grounds of the palace, the gardens and some of monastery buildings.
The bell shaped temples reportedly contain the remains of kings and family of yesterday-year. The grounds are littered with temples celebrating royals great and minor – with the greater royals relegated to the giant golden bell shaped temples, while the lesser ones are kept in the smaller bell shaped temples covered in glass end tile.
Bhuddist monks walked the grounds, but the gardens were mostly tended by professional gardeners that could be seen squatting along side of climbing plants, which the tended with great care.
The temples are astonishing; a blinding crash of gold and texture that is too much for the eye to take in. These structures tower well above us as they reach out to what was once believed by europeans to be the ‘firmament’. It isn’t a Thai belief, but as we progress we start to see europeans icons and cultural elements being used in much of the grand palace’s designs.
The glass and gold tiles numbering in the millions on these structures and reportedly need to be replaced every 10 years. The temples are lined by hundreds of buddha status, or gargoyle like figures, many of which are covered in gold leaf which occasionally needs refreshing as it wears down.
Inside the temples, the sight is no less opulent. Gold, glass and richly detailed fresco paintings surround towering shrines to buddha that are accompanied by the faithful praying in front of them. Many of these shrines are accompanied by a monk who offers prayers for an offering.
Note to self for the future: Wear shoes with no laces. Visiting these temples involves a lot of exercise from taking your shoes on and off, as you are forbidden to wear them into the temples.
It is impossible to cover in a single blog post everything we saw inside of the grand palace. Everything from ancient records of Thai massage, to the influence of Europes on the art, design and sometimes surprisingly the culture. The Thai people are a complex mixture of cultures and races, and it isn’t unusual to find Indian and European icons along side Chinese Buddha figures.
No where is this more prevalent than at the temple of Wot Pho – the temple of the giant reclining Buddha. After we left the Grand Palace we headed here to see this mammoth structure. The temple has been built around the buddha to protect it over the years, and is just as opulent as every other temple in Bangkok.
The statue is truly awe inspiring, and is replete head to two with icons of Thai culture on what makes a perfect being. From spiral swirls on the prints of the hands and feet, to curly hair – which reportedly was a very lucky thing to have. Much to Jane’s amusement as she is well known for her incredible curly hair. The curly hair and facial features come from India.
The floor and structure around the base feature a lot of marble, edging in a distinctive European influence. But on the floor at the mid-section of this giant buddha is another statue of a much cheerier disposition.
Yes. A Chinese Buddha.
When we arrived, a group of Chinese women were situated near the statue, placing a prayer of their own to the buddha they recognise. Near here there were boxes with different labels for financial offerings for the different cultures, monks and buddhas. Whoever you are in Bangkok, there always seems to be something to accomodate your beliefs.
Bangkok is a city of temples that has meshed closely into its culture. There’s a expectation that every king will build at least one temple in his lifetime. The newly departed king’s personal project reflects much of the Chinese and European influence on Thai culture, along with the origin of buddhism in India. In pinnacle celebrates this with an awe inspiring interpretation of an iconic buddha made of no less than 5.5 tonnes of gold.
The Wat Traimit temple is situated at one end of Chinatown, and is adorned by layer upon layer of marble. The materials reflect many cathedrals across Europe while the shape has Chinese and Islamic influences that are bordered by bold Thai flourishes. most prominently in the gold cap of the building.
It is quite different to most temples in that it is bright and airy inside, with silk and marbled elephant tusks decorations around the room. In middle of all this sits the incredible gold Buddha.
While the temple itself was built from the 50’s onwards, the god buddha dates back much further and is believed to have been made some time in the 13th or 14th century; probably in India. For nearly 200 years before it was relocated to its new position it had been concealed underneath a layer of plaster to hide it. Why this happened is unknown.
The temple was made with the plaster coated statue in mind. Its likeness was just as beautiful as the gold statue underneath, but it appears that the gold statue had been so well hidden that living memory of it hadn’t been passed on and forgotten, and that the plaster surface was all there was of the statue . That is until they began moving it into place and a rope broke, cracking and flaking off a section of the plaster revealing the gold inside. Many buddhists in Thailand at the time regarded this to be a miracle occurrence. The plaster was carefully removed but kept, and the golden statue now sits in pride of place in the temple.
It’s the kind of place you walk around with your back firmly pulled to your front where you can watch everything that happens to it. The aisles snake through narrow spaces that for larger people like myself becomes hours of entertaining knock-overs of stock, while sellers plead a case for you to pay for the breakages on their delicate second-hand jeans.
It exceeded 30 something degrees when we arrived there and it only got hotter. I had been warned that the market can be a little confronting with some of the things they sell there, and that I should open mind about how people did things. But by about an hour of walking past jeans, antiques, jewellery, silver traders, shoe traders, Chinese fauxtiques and tourism knick-nacks that included a ‘shop like an Australian’ stall that had sharks teeth and ugg-boots – neither of which I have or will indignity myself to have in my own home, I only felt confronted by how damn de-hydrated I had become trying to walk around the disorganised chaos of Chatuchak.
I felt as though I was melting. Jane and I sat down for some lunch at a Thai street stall and bought some water and some Khao Khluk Kapi. The food was gone faster than I can breathe, and I can’t even remember what happened to the water. It was gone. Gone as though I had opened the bottle and it simply evaporated. I got another. The same thing happened.
The sun beat down on my slowly balding head as we walked back and forth along the main road through the place. I saw some incredible metal fans of an antique style that I loved, but couldn’t get home. That’s okay the seller says to me, there’s another stall near by the packs and sends overseas. Good rates, he informs me.
There’s soaps, Soaps, bags. armoured bags, brand t-shirts and sunglasses. Computer parts, lasers, tasers and other things that are banned in Australia. Not confronting. But a sign looms pointing to the animal area and rare books. I quietly wondered… maybe hoped there would be another sign pointing to bulls and china shops.
We don’t make it to the animals. We get waylaid by souvenir shopping for our friends back home, only to be amused by the penis souvenir store. Well, I was amused. Jane ignored them in lady-like fashion as though the stall was a mere hole in the world that she could never see.
Then there were more soaps. But this time they were penises as well. If you’re going to have soaps, why not do Penises. And why not make an entire store that more or less specialises in penis soaps. Seems reasonable to me. Demand must be high for this stuff here.
Some time in the near future I for see that I’ll arrive home after work to find Jane having just read this blog post. She’ll be sitting on the lounge and will look at me sternly while she casually places her iPad down, and will say “Penises. You just had to post about the Penises, didn’t you”.
Anyway, moving on.
The day just kept getting hotter. The heat radiated off the metal of rusted and worn tin sheds overhead. We kept getting lost, but every time we ventured back into the main street through the market to re-orientate ourselves we were stung by the sun’s sharp burning rays. However at least there was a breeze here that pretended to cool you a little. After a few hours we’d had enough. We’d stopped for food an drinks several more times while exploring through the place, but I got tired of sweating. Perhaps visiting in the height of summer is a really bad idea.
Cooked, and satisfied that we’d seen enough, we headed back to the Taxi rank where we boarded a taxi driven by a Thai man that had a strange obsession with country music. While he wore the company polo shirt and shorts, he diverged from the uniform with a pair of cowboy boots. It struck me this was an odd choice in this heat, but he was in the air condition comfort at least. Well sort of. He never turned the air conditioning on. As we drove the 40 minutes back to the hotel (we had come here by train, taking about the same amount of time) he serenaded us as he sung along to the home-on-the-range style of cowboy country music twanging out of the speakers.
There’s something for everyone in Thailand.
Venice of the east.
As Thailands politics crumble and the country struggles with basic government, it seems to have become easier to just pretend climate change doesn’t happen. Unlike the conservative pundits in the USA that are happy to tell you the ‘science isn’t settled’ Bangkok is immediately impacted by climate change events. The city is sinking. Some parts of it are shifting downwards at a rate of almost 2 inches a year. As Monsoons become increasingly violent, and rain events more common, the city floods frequently.
As it stands the city is already aware that they need to build a sea wall to save it from the oncoming ocean rise. The cost is pegged by some as being as high as 10% of the Thailand’s GDP, Something a government that is increasingly struggling to stay economically balanced isn’t sure it can afford.
As the city floods more and more frequently, the complex series of canals that run through Bangkok to allow the water to run off is becoming more stressed, and more important to the population at the same time. Locks have been built into many of the canals to balance water flows during the heaviest periods of flooding, so that the commerce that occurs along and on these waterways can still be conducted. The canals are in effect main roads. You can catch water taxis to work down them, as well as take powered gondola rides through them to see the sights stylishly and at relatively high speed. Markets like the ‘wet market’ have sprung up allowing residents to shop, eat and socialise with their boats in markets that float in the middle of the canals. Many people’s houses back onto the canal and have small jetties that they launch boats off for their family. As do many businesses and churches. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a fast-food chain had set up a boat-thru window, but as it is the locals are happy ordering food from boats that travel up and down the canals with steamers cooking away in the bows of their craft.
From the water, houses and businesses seem to race past. Temples that are only accessible from the water surprise you as you pass them. it is a very different life at the waterside. As Bangkok sinks and floods, this way of moving around the city is becoming increasingly necessary.
Here’s a short video snippet from the footage I filmed as we toured one of the larger canals.
Descent into chaos.
Our friend invited us out for drinks late in the evening in a part of Bangkok known as Soi Cowboy. This Soi has become a hub for the many westerners, especially Bangkok’s gay community, to meet up and enjoy a few unregulated drinks. It is lined with bars that have stadium-teired-like seats out the front that span the short, 150 foot long road. The seats all face the street and some have small tables so you can sit and sip on a cool cocktail or 30 while you watch the parading drunks, tourists, Go-go dancers, or just the general ‘cock-show’ of boys strolling the street.
Films like ‘The Hangover part 2’ and ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ have been filmed here. It is named Soi Cowboy after an American bar owner that built one of the first bars there in the 1970s, who wore a cowboy hat everywhere around Bangkok.
The trouble with Bangkok, well, Thailand in general, is that the drinks a cheap and the mixes far more potent than most people are used to back in their home countries. After two jugs of mojitos the three of us were feeling the effects. I mean… Really feeling the effects. I contemplated crawling out of the Soi at that point, as when I stood up I found challenged by gravity. We left and headed to the Soi next over where a market was rocking and a lot seemed to be going on. A man approached us offering anything we wanted. We soon found ourselves dragged off the street into a building filled seedy rooms and stairways leading to dodgy strip clubs and other places that I was unsure of. A woman bowed in front of me, seemingly oblivious to my new wife next to me, and simulated oral sex without contact, then gestured me towards a dark corner where I could, only just, make out the shape of men being attended to by these women. I declined in embarrassment, but around us the show went on. Other women tourists that had strayed into here received the same treatment. A dollar from a woman no doubt being as good as a dollar from a man.
We headed back towards the stairs, as we did the woman that had appeared before me earlier screamed at me in frustration, having failed to lure me into the back rooms. I was too drunk to understand what was happening, but I just wanted to get out of there. A man promised a show with a woman that involved razor blades. Others barbed wire and ping-pong balls. I glanced inside and saw women shaking their hips while holding poles, all with fatigued expressions that they too wished to be anywhere but here. I felt a great deal of sorrow for them. I saw more women tourists around the pole dancers than men. But in the shadows of the other spaces, I was certain the balance was the other way.
Jane looked as impatient and uncomfortable as I felt. We left the stairway and headed back to the street in search of food. The cool night air hit me but I didn’t feel myself sober up. With the food options in this Soi being so poor we headed back around to Soi Cowboy. We plonked down in a German, requested the menus, then ordered. Beer came out and the conversation flowed. A group of American men sitting near us drunkenly besmirched every culture and person around them, and everyone within ear-shot became uncomfortable. They eventually got up and left, the friendly german owner of the bar both holding an expression of relief that they were leaving, at the same time warmly thanking them for their business and expressing a hope they’d return.
Fed, beered and slowly losing my mind at the expanding chaos growing in Soi Cowboy as the night rolled on, Jane and I decided that us ol’ fools needed to get back to the hotel and get some sleep. I could barely co-ordinate myself as I walked, so we approached a few taxis to get us back to the hotel. However, all of them were keen to take advantage of the ‘drunken Australians’, hiking up non-metered prices to extraordinary levels, gesturing at their watch that the illegal practice was okay at this time of day. It wasn’t, I know the Thai law when it comes to taxis, and no matter how drunk I was, my ‘super-tight-arse powers’ prevented me from giving in. “400 Bhat” I yelled incredulously. “Nah, piuss off”.
My friend leaned over and giggled “I usually pay whatever they ask”. But I wasn’t having any of it. Instead we hopped on the train, a short roll from the Soi and at the other end we caught the shuttle boat back to the hotel.
You can get everything you want in Bangkok. At a price, and sometimes you find you don’t actually want it.
The leaving of Bangkok
On the last day we caught a cab to our friends apartment and hung out for the afternoon. We ate Indian down a near-by Soi, then bought some Mangosteens – probably one of the most delicious fruits I ever ever eaten. From there we climbed to the top of his apartment complex and watched the sun go down.
Bangkok is everything and nothing that you expect. It gets under your finger-nails, floods your nostrils and catches in your sweat. It fills your eyes and holds your eyes open. It is chaos with little hint of order. It as beautiful and ugly. And yet… we promised our friend we’d return, having loved so much of it.
Back in the airport the ‘you’re not good enough to own these things’ shops still beckoned to us. We browsed but didn’t buy. I felt different. As I looked at the things I felt I wanted them less than ever. Something had changed. The experiences gained in Bangkok seemed to be worth more than any of the things these people stocked on the shelves. We got back onto the plane a little poorer financially, but a little richer in spirit. We returned to Queensland in Australia, then a few days later to Melbourne. I’d barely been back at work an hour before I found myself wondering…
… where to next.
The answer came within days as I sat listening to the song ‘Pompeii’ by the band Bastille. I had a vision. An idea. I jumped onto the skyscanner website and looked at what flights would work and when.