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A Pointillist portrait of Thailand’s buzzing capital


A picture paints a thousand words apparently. Well, I’m a writer, and words are my tool, but I am happy to run with the analogy. If Bangkok was a painting, it would be of the pointillist genre. Loved by some, hated by plenty (a recent conversation with a colleague: ‘So what should I do in Bangkok?’ ‘Get out. And fast.’ it is a diverse and deceptive city, dripping in dimensions, and honing in on only little dot is to miss out on the full vista.

It’s a place where smog and choking fumes fight blue skies, where local street stalls are favoured over McDonalds and Subway, where grand old palaces and temples, many built following the acension of new king Rama I in the 1782, where monks in orange garb wander freely down the streets (albeit in opposite directions to) where ping pong girls play, expats hang out in refined and expensive joints until late night merges into early morning at the alms giving begins. Where looking up leaves you confused and overwhelmed, and looking out and over exhilerated and dazzled.

Thai people refer to the city as Krung Thep, meaning ‘city of angels’, and whilst its celestial elements may seem straining to find, there is certainly a sense of the unconquerable to be found. The world’s most visited tourist destination, each visitor no doubt leaves having sampled a different combination of dots and seeing a different image.

The centre point for most travellers is the busy Khao San Road, a short street in Banglamphu where anything can be bought, everything is drunk, and something will always happen. Buckets of unknown cocktails, trollies of street food, counterfiet goods and local shows all compete, brashly and boldly, for the attention of tourists in this place where the party never stops. The Bangkok Bar offers cheap drinks and live music, and if you like art and views the Phra Nakorn bar could be a worse place to be.

Further out of the city and not at all frequented by tourists is the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. A seven story building filled with exhibitions and arty shops, it seems to be a place where the young gather to view and create art, literature, cinema and music based on topical concerns. My particular visit coincided with the Re Think exhibition, a gallery of multi media pieces exploring the changing world of consumption and sustainability. Bangkok is never more than one step from the surreal though, and an impromptu one man musical in a tape store that could only be described as bizarre, effeminate, and unexpected was a particular highlight, and welcome dot on the Bangkok painting.

Like much of Thailand, Bangkok is full of temples, and a sail down the Chao Phraya River offers the perfect chance to see their towering spires vying for skyline with the skyscrapers, reaching up for breath in this smoggy city. Ratanakosin is home to Wat Pho, a shambolic and scattered array of lavish structures, and a thriving centre for the Buddhist monks who live here, a basketball court, classrooms, and a sign offering ‘monk chat’ also to be found amongst the incense and history. The whole sense is one of peace, where things happen. Rather than still and statis it’s a calm and active ambience. Next to Wat Po is the Grand Palace, the ceremonial heart of the city, if no longer its geographic centre. Here the lavish architecture is preen and posed, and home to the holiest and most ravishing temple.

The waterways to the west have earned Bangkok the nickname ‘Venice of the East,’ in one of those unimaginative examples of sliding naming conventions. Thonburi can be wandered on foot or explored via the colourful and elegant longboat. Either way stop off at the market and visit the wonderful Royal Barge Musuem to watch in awe at the delicate restoration projects. Intricately gilded and lacquered all over, the fity metre long vessels are an impressive and imposing sight. If you have the luck to be in Bangkok for one of the royal barge processions it is a hypnotic spectacle as the boats glide serenely to the low rumble of a syncopated drum.

Pan back out a bit and head east again and you will find yourself in Chinatown. Soft and sumptous doughnuts in steaming ovens spill out on to the streets, an enticing snack or meal after wandering the bazaars, or needing a break from Pad Thai. Large open fronted shops filled with a plethora of wares are housed in colonial style architecture, and the myriad streets are easy places to get lost in. The area is home to another one of Bangkok’s famous temples, Wat Traimat where you can see The Golden Buddha, a three metre high five tonne gleaming statue carved in the thirteenth century, a proud and voluptuous being.

I’m still not sure that many people are sad to leave Bangkok. The choking fumes become oppressive and the disorientating but vast streets tough to traverse. But those that do get out fast and don’t explore some of the little dots, instead seeing the city as a disorientating blur are missing out on a vital and vibrant city, the little dots always shifting and flickering, each one a vital part of the painting that is Bangkok.

More by this author at www.andsoshethinks.co.uk and www.twitter.com/andsoshethinks.

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