Bangkok – Long Read

The spirits that have gone before

A mass alms-giving ceremony in Bangkok during which 12,600 monks gathered to support 286 temples in Southern Thailand. There may be almost 40,000 temples in Thailand, of which some 30,000 are in active use, and Bangkok alone has 50 major ones.

Photo by Mark Fischer / Creative Commons

Bangkok – Long Read

The spirits that have gone before

Hello Bangkok, where a train, longtail boat or motorcycle taxi ride reveals the random nature of a city that grew with no urban master-plan. Ancient temples sit beside ultra-modern skyscrapers and traffic is almost permanently gridlocked. Amid the seeming chaos, people make a living where they can, living in the present, while paying respect to the spirits that have gone before.

Cattleya Jaruthavee
Cattleya Jaruthavee Photojournalist

“You are a very lucky lady,” says the wide-eyed, oddly calm Indian man who has just walked into my favorite downtown coffee shop. It takes me a second to realize I’ve seen him before. He and his fortune-telling counterparts usually congregate in Bangkok’s backpacker’s area where they make good business from island partygoers and hippy-esque youngsters. It seems their turf has expanded to the central business district, otherwise known as “Expat Ghetto”. Here, blond-haired families and Japanese businessmen live, work and eat side by side with Thai aristocrats in their multi-generational family homes under the shadows of looming condominium blocks.

I brush off his approach while I sip my coffee but it starts me thinking about the way these pseudo fortune-tellers are now targeting the wider English-speaking market. I guess it makes sense; everyone else in Bangkok is in touch with the spirit world. Just follow your nose.

The smell of burning incense fills the air everywhere you go in Bangkok, wafting through residential roads and cosmopolitan shopping arcades alike. It comes from the spirit houses you can see outside every house and building, no matter where you go among the modern city of gleaming skyscrapers, hi-tech Skytrain and seemingly out-of-control shopping frenzy. They are for the spirits of the land, for those who have come before. “A spirit house is a new home for the spirits displaced when a building is put up,” says my Thai friend Som. “It reassures people that the spirits are at rest, ensuring future peace and prosperity for those in the building, but also reminds people not to do anything that might offend them.”

The Emerald Buddha that Thais believe protects the city

The doll-house-size spirit houses – red and gold if the owner is Thai-Chinese but other lucky colors depending on the owner’s astrological chart – sit on pillars and are inhabited by small figurines or a Buddha statue. Their location is carefully chosen by a Brahman or a Buddhist monk to be as auspicious as possible, usually where it is easy for passers-by to make offerings of prayer, flowers or food. When it comes to building design, the placing of the spirit house trumps anything an architect might have planned.

For most visitors, Bangkok’s temples are seen as a more obvious sign of its spirituality. At Wat Phrakaew, inside the Grand Palace, I am always disoriented by the size but all paths eventually lead to the sacred Emerald Buddha that Thais believe protects the city. No photos are allowed and the temple guards are always verbally aggressive to those who ignore the signs pointing this out. I remember the pre digital days when a see-through plastic box in the middle of the hall would fill with whole rolls of film confiscated from those who tried to sneak a shot.

There is a calmer atmosphere at the outdoor shrines, where I light a few incense sticks and candles for the Buddha images. Ten minutes down the road is the 17th-century Wat Phra Chetuphon, famous for its massage school and large reclining Buddha. Foreigners still call it Wat Pho, a shortening of its former name, Wat Potoram. But as glorious as these temples are, I prefer my neighborhood ones where the monks go about their daily chores in tranquility, unaffected by tourists. My local temple is surrounded by orchards and canals and I sometimes see boat-people selling fruit or other food.

I like to go early for the chanting of the monks before they eat the offerings given to them on their morning walks. The leftovers are afterwards passed out to ordinary Thais, who believe they are auspicious. I light a few incense sticks and offer them to the three main Buddha images in the temple grounds, careful not to drop incense ash on my skin, a common accident. Then I pay my respects to the abbot before I leave.

I never tire of wandering its back streets

I was born in Bangkok to a British mother and Thai-Chinese father and, after university in the UK, moved back home to work as a documentary photographer and writer. Bangkok is a dream subject for my work, a never-ending sensory delight. I never tire of wandering its back streets, absorbing its sights, sounds and smells. Mixed in with that ever-present scent of incense are hunger-triggering smells such as barbecued meat on sticks and the sound of raw papaya salad being pounded in a clay pestle and mortar.

Giving in to temptation, I buy a snack from a roadside stall. Just as I’m taking a bite of my meat and sticky rice, I hear the squeaky horn of another street vendor selling ice cream. A broom vendor, shouting out the attraction of his wares, follows. His cart so laden with a myriad of brooms and dusters of all types and sizes that I can barely see his face as he pedals through the hazy street.

Another hawker is offering glasses of refreshing red rosella juice, while his neighbor is selling Portuguese-influenced Thai desserts, a legacy of explorers who landed here in the early 16th century on their way to Australia. The Spanish went to China and left the churros-inspired fried bread, which the Chinese brought back to Thailand. I can eat around the world inside a block.

In Chinatown, I come to a tiny street known as Sam Pheng Lane which runs through five blocks of shops filled with everything from yarns and bolts of fabric to buttons with buyers from department stores and high end boutiques. Amid the crowds smoke Bangkok’s only Vespas – the stylish Italian scooters take the place of cheaper Chinese or Japanese brands here – rush-delivering stacks of buttons and other essential fashion supplies.

Food carts somehow manage not to spill pans of hot oil amid the crowded chaos. Chinese-Thai shop owners sit in the back of their shops, counting money while employees patiently sort through the stock for fussy customers. Bangkok’s hipsters stand out like a sore thumb with their black skinny jeans, thick rim glasses and customized T-shirts as they rummage for props to build the creations they will sell at Chatuchak weekend market.

Motorbike taxis are the only way through the endless traffic

“The rent keeps rising but our shop is the size of a shoebox,” says a young shop owner at Chatuchak, where you can find everything from clothing by young Thai designers to antique furniture. “Chinatown is a different story. Every shop has been there since the beginning of time and what they pay now is what they paid then.” A lot of business dealings here run on generations of trust so it difficult for a newcomer to break in.

Overhead, power poles and wires criss-cross the cityscape in an oddly charming way. Walking along the pavement, I have to keep ducking under wires while watching out for missing paving stones. I spot a man falling off his motorbike as he hits a car. He appears unhurt but also unwilling to pass up the chance of a payout. “What if my injuries surface tonight?” says the rider as he argues with the car driver. “Who the hell will pay for my medical bills?” The car has been stopped at a traffic light for several minutes.

A crowd of other motorcyclists crowd round the scene, soaking up the action and rooting for their poor companion against the wealthy car owner. Their bright numbered vests mark them as motorbike taxis drivers, or “motorsai”. Like ants, they bustle through the city, the only way to cut through the endless traffic jams or penetrate the narrow “sois” or lanes that are too narrow for taxis. Sois wind through the city in all sorts of shapes and lengths, a world apart where only motorsai can zoom in and out.

These lanes are a different world from that of the gleaming condominiums that have been sprouting up along the Skytrain and MTR routes. In the boom times, they were snapped up as investments to rent out to expatriates and supply struggled to meet demand. Now, many stand empty. During the recent devastating floods, their empty parking spaces filled with Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked by their owners high above the flooded streets. This world on high of angular steel and glass stands apart from the organic sois of older Bangkok.

Road plans took strange forms, as did the buildings

“Bangkok is by far the most developed capital city compared to neighbors such as Yangon, Phnom Penh or Vientiane – except that, thanks to the British and French, those others have all been blessed with logical road planning,” says architect Rungrabhi Bunnag. “Their roads and major buildings were all planned at the same time but not Bangkok’s.”

Bangkok used to be called “the Venice of the East” and the history books show river and canal life. Everything from fruit to live chickens was once sold from boats, until the canals were filled in to limit the spread of disease and make way for much-needed roads. But this underlying water world means road plans took strange forms, as did the buildings.

“People began settling along the river and, when the population grew, it spread everywhere. Bangkok’s soil is also very soft and made of silt,” says prizewinning urban architect Ekkaphon Puekpaiboon. “Before the advent of suitable technology, people used to build only where there was good soil, so structures popped up in random places. There was no visionary urban plan.”

This lack of planned infrastructure is the reason for Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams, which bolt-ons such as the Skytrain, or the subway, expressways and ring roads seem to have done nothing to ease. I often jump on one of the excellent trains to avoid a jam but, given Bangkok’s massive sprawl, there is rarely a station near where I want to go. With a taxi or motorbike ride at each end, a train ride is an expensive option and beyond the reach of most locals for everyday use. Those with no other choice use the public buses but everyone else prefers to drive.

Any outdoor activity sends chills up spines

The heat and humidity mean Bangkok has no walking culture. That’s made evident by the state of the sidewalks which are far from foot- friendly, especially in the high heels Thai women love to wear. And in a country where white skin is valued – women wear SPF 50 sunblock even to sit in an air conditioned office because “there’s always the window light” – any outdoor activity sends chills up spines.

Still, an exception can always be made for shopping. “I want that latest Louis Vuitton so badly,” says a young woman into her mobile phone as she stands outside Dean & Deluca in the central business district. Bangkok’s brand name stores have boomed in recent years as the way young people dress has changed radically. “Thai society has always been rather hierarchical,” says a social activist. “Children have had to receive adult approval even into their 30s. It’s a culture that runs on respect for your elders, even in a work-place. It is only in the last few years that youngsters have started to take the initiative and build up their own sub- culture.”

The result has been a sudden growth in concept stores and art-based courses at universities encouraging students to be creative rather than following the desires of their parents to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. But this fashion facelift has not been confined to the shopping district.

“We call it ‘Korean Fever’,” says Som. She is talking about the rise of immaculately groomed women with identical faces. “Those who can afford it are running off to Korea for plastic surgery and coming back with Korean-styled Barbie eyes and noses. It’s rather worrying that we are beginning to lose sight of Thai faces.” Bangkok is plastered with adverts for $300 nose jobs and it seems every Thai wants a pointed nose.

Korean and Japanese pop bands have taken over Thai youth culture

“There was an obsession with wanting to look Western in the 1980s and 1990s due to the rise of mixed-race kids as a result of the Vietnam War,” she says. “But, lately, Korean and Japanese pop bands have taken over Thai youth culture, heavily influencing trends. Thailand’s education system relies heavily on rote learning and challenging a teacher with a simple question is considered rude. There is no cultivation of self-identity and conformity is encouraged, which gives rise to frequent trend obsessions.”

Before America, Korea and Japan, Bangkok was heavily influenced by China and I see this in the older Bangkok, where Chinatown fuses with the old flower market and the Grand Palace area. Preserved shophouses have beautifully painted shutters and eateries have been in the same families for nearly a century. As I enter a restaurant, I am greeted by parents wearing traditional tailor made outfits, while their offspring wear surfer shorts or Chanel-inspired fashion. I look out for an older Chinese uncle or auntie actually being the one cooking and frying the noodles: always a sign the food is going to be epic. From business practices to facial features, the Chinese influence on Bangkok runs deep but its biggest effect has been on Thai food.

“I keep coming back for the cuisine,” says Minn, a Burmese-American friend. “There is nothing like Bangkok for the quality. And it’s such an easy lifestyle and a lot cheaper to eat a five-star hotel Sunday brunch. What I do hate is the gap between rich and poor and the fact ‘high society’ actually call themselves ‘hi-so’ and look down on those who do not carry an aristocratic or famous last name. It’s so materialistic here, it drives me nuts.”

No homes can be built above four floors high

To escape the city’s superficiality, I escape to Bang Kra Jao island in the middle of the Chao Phraya River. It is a 15-minute ferry ride from the city center and a 20-minute drive. Its high density vegetation is a rare sight in Bangkok and has seen it nicknamed the “city’s lung”. I enjoy cycling around, hopping from the local food market to homes where the owners have set a table out front to sell home-made old-school desserts, wrapped in banana or pandan leaves. The island has been declared protected and no homes can be built above four floors high. It is the perfect place to spend Sunday afternoons without having to drive out of town.

Wherever I go in Bangkok, I am always drawn to the river. The Chao Phraya’s length, width and varying landscape explain why people started settling along it to begin with. It is wide enough for ships to sail through yet the number of canals that run off the main river make it possible for anyone to have a peaceful waterside home. On my way home on a longtail boat – sit at the very back or right upfront to escape the spray – I see Thai temples, Christian churches, mosques, Chinese temples and old colonial homes which have now been converted into boutique hotels, all standing side-by-side.

Old Chinese rice mills, owned by some of Thailand’s first rice merchants, have become restaurants or are being torn down to make way for high rises. I pass under a soaring modern bridge, designed with a traditional lotus flower pinnacle on top, across which commuters stream to the suburbs every working day.

One of the quirks here is this need to take several different modes of transportation for any journey just to avoid being stuck in traffic jams. A hop on the Skytrain, a boat across the river and then a quick motorbike ride is a typical day. But what I love about Bangkok is that there is really no such thing as typical day. Only the fortune tellers can claim to know what tomorrow may bring.