…and the city don’t know what the city is getting…
If you’re at all a musical theater person (or if you spent any time dancing in the 1980s), then Murray Head will be singing in your ear the entire time you’re in this city. “One Night in Bangkok” is one of the curses that Westerners have placed on this town. But it does contain such deliciously ridiculous lines as “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine!” and “Tea, girls, warm and sweet. Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham Suite.” Oh, ABBA, what can’t you do?
When you go to Thailand, everyone says, “Oh, you’re going to Thailand? Where are you going? I mean, besides Bangkok? You really should go to Chiang Mai or Phuket or… anywhere else.” This town has something of a bum rap.
For the record, I love Bangkok. I think a city should have a bit of a seamy side. Otherwise… well, look at what Giuliani did to Times Square. It’s great for the crime rate, yes, and the area was hellacious in the ’70s and ’80s, but it feels like EPCOT now. Bangkok is all smiles. Even when they’re ripping you off. I appreciate that.
Or maybe it’s the monarchy. When I lived with two dear friends in San Francisco for a year, we decided that one of us—very peacey-lefty—represented Communism, one of us—very Ayn Rand—represented Capitalism. I represented Monarchy. I like a country with a royal family. It’s ridiculous, but it’s terrific. And the Thais looooove their king. Rama IX is everywhere. His face peers at you from every street corner and in front of every edifice. His face is on all the bills you put in your wallet and sit down on. Now that’s Love of Country.
Which brings us to one of the other curses that Westerners have imposed on this place: The King and I. Now, I love me some Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I never understood why the Thais hated it so vehemently. I mean… Yul Brynner! But Rama IV (King Mongkut) was a scholar, a monk and a warrior who kept Thailand free from foreign rule when every other southeast Asian nation was bending over for Papa Europe. To imply that the dominant influence on his life was Deborah Kerr in an oversized hoop skirt is… well, it’s presumptuous to say the least.
Things You’re Supposed to Do
in Bangkok, Part One: Palaces and Temples
Our first morning in Bangkok was spent doing what I imagine most tourists do on their first morning in Bangkok: seeing the big temples and palaces.
The King and I, even in Glorious Technicolor, does not prepare you for the Grand Palace and its surrounding temples in the least.
There seems to be absolutely nothing minimalist about the Thai aesthetic. More is more. Build a temple? Sure! But wouldn’t it be better if we tiled the entire thing in 24-carat gold? Knock yourself out. Jewel the whole thing up? Love it! How about some gold statues of half-human, half-animal creatures? Bring it on. And the style. Let’s toss Sri Lankan, Cambodian and Chinese into the mix, shall we? What the hell, it’s Tuesday!
When you visit the Grand Palace, everyone tells you, “Look out! There are scams everywhere! Chain yourself to your wallet! Don’t get in a taxi! Don’t buy from the vendors! Never trust anyone!” As the primary orchestrator of the trip, I took this to heart.
So as we entered the Grand Palace, I was on guard. I was going to trust no one. Especially anyone trying to sell me something. I was going to be an impregnable wall.
“Hi! Hi! You want tour? I make very good tour for you? Trust me! Trust me! Not a scam!”
And thus it was that we got a tour guide with the mellifluous name of Mr. Boonsong. (In fairness to myself, I wasn’t entirely Gracie Allen about it. He had an official badge and seemed to know the guards well.)
He was incredibly gracious and informative, and I’m not for a moment going to pretend that I absorbed every Rama he threw at me. More the better for you, Constant Reader.
Everything in the Palace and temple complex is… well, it’s Grand. I’ve visited a lot of palaces, and often you marvel just at the vastness of everything. Here, there is no vastness. The grounds are small. And the kings of Thailand have built UP, filling them to choking with glitz. This temple shows the influence of Ceylon. This huge replica of Angkor Wat (stuck in the middle of three other temples) shows Rama IV’s conquest of Cambodia. You get the picture.
No you don’t. You really don’t. Not until you’re there.
I can tell you this much: there apparently is no adequate Thai translation for, “Please, tourist lady, do not wear hideous clothing. It makes Lord Buddha want to puke and the King in His Wisdom has made it a punishable offense. Please present your Credit Card Hand to be chopped off.”
(Let’s pretend they’re not Americans, shall we? Let’s blame it on Australia.)
Anyway, all three of us just wandered around gawping like… well, like tourists. Sue us!
In addition to taking us around, Mr. Boonsong happily indulged us in picture-taking. “You want picture with Demon? Sure, sure, I make for you!”
Then, of course, he proceeded to tell us what the demons were all about.
It’s all to do with the Ramayana, apparently, the Hindu epic (wait, I thought This was all Buddhist?) in which Rama descends from heaven and… um… this… um, king decides to wage war on… um, this other guy and his army of demons, and there’s a monkey-guy and a guy with a lot of arms and… um…
Well, for us foreigners who are too dense, the Kings of Thailand were kind enough to paint the ENTIRE epic onto a wall for easy reference.
And it goes on.
As epics do.
(A note to anyone who may be scribbling The Next Big Religious Text: Keep it short. All we really need is the Golden Rule, right? So, may I suggest, in the vein of Bill and Ted, “Be excellent to each other.”)
I don’t want to stifle anyone’s creative urges. Throw in Monkey Gods if you want. Forget I said anything.
But back to Buddhism. The complex houses one of Thailand’s greatest treasures: The Emerald Buddha. That isn’t made of emerald. It’s actually made from one huge two-foot-tall piece of jade. Every season, the King dresses it in an outfit appropriate to that season. The Buddha has one suit for Summer, one for the Rainy season, and one for Winter.
I really don’t know why they stopped there. If I were the King, I’d have a Stewardess Buddha and a Malibu Fun Buddha and an Oscar Night Buddha…
But that’s probably why they haven’t made me King.
The Buddha sits atop a glorious mountain of gaudy wonders. I couldn’t find him at first, such was the splendor of his setting. Actually, he seemed quite small there on top of everything. Like he’s thinking, “Hey, remember me? The BUDDHA? I’m up here! Yoo-hoo!”
In my mind, the Emerald Buddha apparently sounds like Nathan Lane.
You have to remove your shoes to visit the temple, which we did, and you’re not allowed to take pictures. Apparently the Buddha is pap-shy. Instead… You guessed it! You can buy some on the way out.
You can, however, take a picture of this elephant:
So we did. Let’s say he’s the Buddha.
The actual Palace part of the complex is really quite grand. There’s one palace where the King is crowned, one where he lays in state for 100 days (ew) after he dies, and one where his ashes are kept.
Wait… What about the middle part… You know, his LIFE?
Well, he spends that in a different palace entirely. Go figure.
A short drive from the palace complex brings you to Wat Pho (temples are Wats in Thailand). Which inspires infantile jokes like “What Pho you bring me here?” and the like.
Wat Pho’s star attraction is the Reclining Buddha, one of three monumental Reclining Buddhas in the world. There is a temple entirely devoted to this statue, and, frankly… he looks cramped. I bet he has a crick in his neck.
Again, the picture doesn’t nearly give you a sense of scale. This Buddha is 46 meters long (meters, again). ENORMOUS! The photo on the left is three photos stitched together.
My favorite attribute of this Buddha is at the other end of the temple, though.
They’ve given him toeprints. HUGE, Buddha-sized toeprints. It’s the most goddamn cute thing I’ve ever seen on this planet.
So… on the way out, I think to myself, “A whole day of touring and I haven’t been fleeced! Good for me!”
Which is when the guy put the snake around my neck.
You know, as in “Here, put snake around neck, take picture!”
I mean, as tourist traps go, it’s about the dopiest one around and the easiest to dodge.
So I decided not to dodge it. I figured, let’s get the fleecing out of the way. I’ll pay for him to take the picture and I’ll spend a few more bucks than I wanted to. But I will already have been Taken in Bangkok, and I won’t need to be anymore.
I don’t mind being humbugged when I’m in on the humbug. Barnum, you know?
So, having been happily fleeced, it was off to dinner. I had heard of a little seafood restaurant on the river. One of those places that doesn’t have an actual adress—just an alleyway that you walk down hoping it doesn’t lead to an Opium Den. And I’ll be goddamned. There it was. Full of locals. No one spoke English. And it was the best Thai meal of our lives.
I get my kicks right AT the waistline, sunshine!