The author’s plane touched down softly in Bangkok at nearly midnight. It was bound from Tokyo, Japan. He breathed a sigh of relief… This was where he and his wife, also a Sustainability student, would meet the rest of the CMC study group bound for Paro, Bhutan in little more than 2 days.
Despite being over 7 hours long, the on-time flight, on Japanese carrier ANA, had been relaxing due to the meticulous care Japanese routinely exhibit in all their endeavors, and the composed demeanor of Japanese travelers.
Having lived in Mexico, a developing nation, the author realized the 2,864 mile distance from Tokyo to Bangkok had not only been physical, but cultural as well.
Bangkok’s airport is a major Asian hub serving nearby countries including India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Chinese giant to the North. Despite this, and the airport’s massive modern structure, the author knew he had taken a step back in time…
This feeling was confirmed as he arrived at the immigration counter where in bold letters was a sign reading “No Tipping Officials”. Refreshingly, both immigration and customs representatives greeted him and his spouse with a smile, the procedure taking only minutes.
In contrast to the impeccable taxis with white-gloved drivers the couple had left in Japan, the cab in which they covered the 20 mile journey to their hotel on the shores of Bangkok’s main urban river, the Chao Phraya, was in much need of repair. The driver, however, smiled warmly when presented with a modest gratuity by US standards, and left the travelers at the door of their hotel in the Yai district, to begin exploring a city of approximately 12 million people, and an intriguing tapestry of mixed-neighborhoods (socio-economic), noted on their approach to the selected “base-camp”.
Thai currency is the Baht which is worth approximately 0.03 US dollars per 1 Baht, a fact that denotes high inflation rates within certain development moments of Thailand’s history, and is typical of global south nations that devalue their currencies to mitigate the costs of exterior Government debt. Interestingly, tradingeconomics.com, places Thailand’s current official inflation at 0.8% with a ten year maximum of 8.54%. Official rates are however often significantly lower than real rates indexed to generalized purchasing power.
Tangibly, the travelers quickly confirmed what had been read prior to the trip: Thailand is markedly inexpensive to individuals coming from hard currencies like the Euro, US Dollar, Japanese Yen, Swiss Franc, or even the increasingly significant Renminbi/Yuan (China).
With an ambitious pre-researched discovery agenda, and relatively little time available, the couple decided that in light of low prices, a private guide from an accredited agency might be the best way to maximize their Bangkok sojourn.
Thus began their adventure: Part 1 was an hour-long journey along tributaries of the Chao Phraya main waterway and transportation thoroughfare. On side canals, so numerous and complex that small dams had to be constructed to make them navigable vis-à-vis the main river, lavish homes sat in apparent harmony beside small temples and crumbling shacks whose wooden pillars protruding into the river, many having given way to dry-rot, making the structures lean perilously before hasty repairs gave them a modicum of stability at their newfound equilibrium points.
As in Venice, each canal serves as a service outlet. Trash was collected, goods delivered and people moved. It was a fascinating example of urban adaptation, and a troubling display of plastic and other discarded items, whose prelude the couple had noticed from their first contact with the main canal.
Once back on land, the travelers began discovering stunning monuments including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, celebrating the three seasons of Thailand (Summer, Rainy and Winter), an exterior view of the Royal Grand Palace (former royal residence, currently only used by the King on special festivities), the Wat Pho Reclining Buddha Temple, a vast indoor-space in which lies a 150 ft. long gilded Buddha statue preparing to be delivered by a definitive death to eternal peace after having attained enlightenment.
Though Thailand has no official religion, if one excludes the fact that the King must be Buddhist, approximately 95% of the population embraces Buddhism, Theravada being the predominant branch distinguished by its conservative views. With this premise, the author’s small group set out to discover the imposing Wat Arun temple, particular for acknowledging the significant influences of Hinduism in Thai’s expression of Buddhism. Concretely, the Wat Arun temple draws both inspiration and its name from the Hindu god Aruna, frequently personified as radiations of the rising sun.
Seeking to experience the culturally rich Yai district to its fullest in the short available time, another element incorporated in the visits was the Pakklong Taladd flower market, reputed to be the third largest in the world. An orderly and well displayed explosion of color (similar to more chaotic Latin-American markets of this genre). Here, the author noted a use of plastic bags and coverings so extensive, that its dissonance to the sustainability theme of the trip hurt his eyes.
Perhaps beyond the scope of this short piece, the travelers explored less traditional elements including Bangkok’s modern 980ft. cable-style Rama VIII Bridge, significant for two reasons; first the structure built between 1999 and 2002 to better communicate shores of the Chao Phraya river is a source of pride to locals. Second, it was a Chinese State construction enterprise that built the structure, evidently following many of the precepts set forth by Pier Luigi Nervi (Rome – Italy) in the 1960’s…
The author and his wife also had a chance to comment on the extravagance of the River City Shopping Complex at the Si Phraya pier. The modern complex with glittering lights features many of the most recognized apparel names in the world. High end shops, arts and prime antiques, complete the picture of a city where the affluent evidently have vast purchasing power, while their neighbors (remembering the mixed urban tapestry) have little. Another classic sign of developing nations and one more and more common in those nations more developed as well.
Complementary aspects of the exploration included sampling of local foods dominated by sticky and/or fried rices (an Asian staple), stir-fried vegetables of varied textures, types, and colors, pork & fish dishes, an abundance of tropical fruits, and curious desserts not compatible with the author’s Western palate.
The couple also experienced the “PG” version (not the only offering) of Thai baths & massages, discovering muscles neither knew they had. An intricate, ritualistic, 3+hour experience involving ingestion of cleansing/hydrating beverages, bathing, exfoliation, steaming, therapeutic massage and skin hydration oils – an experience the author highly recommends.
Bangkok, aside from being the nation’s capital and full of the cultural uniqueness herein described, is also a mecca of cheap drugs, rampant prostitution, and human trafficking. Fortunately, a bit of caution, and a selection of areas/hours where/when one might roam, are all that is required to ensure a safe trip among friendly residents eager to be welcoming.
In short, the author was fascinated by this enigmatic, colorful and complex country of which he and his spouse only had a chance to explore the very basics despite a meticulous pre-travel preparation to maximize exposure and understanding. They have vowed to return!