Bangkok caught me. This place has someting unexplainable, an interesting energy. Bangkok isn’t quite a beautiful city. It reminds me of an adolescent still looking for an identity to fit in. Her big buildings stick out awkwardly between the older, lower ones. Bangkok seems to have a tremendous envy to grow up, and in its enthusiasm Bangkok is wiping out a lot of itself in order to adapt to its new adulthood. The word “adulthood”, however, is misplaced: Bangkok is coming from a tremendously rich background of history and cultures, even though it only became the capital city in 1782. The Old City area (Rattanakosin), with the temples (Wats) and the Grand Palace, is where the old Thai culture has been preserved best in Bangkok.
Bangkok’s desire of modernity
I understand Bangkok’s desire to evolve, but the question is really if “westernising” is the right way (rather rethorical, I’d say). Bangkok feels a great pressure to do justice to its original name, the longest cityname in the world. Called Bangkok by foreigners and “Krung Thep” by the Thai people, the real name is actually Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit, meaning:
“The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated God, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.”
The huge skyscrapers do look like an attempt to stay ahead of the other capitals of the world, adopting the western concept of society without thinking twice. Slowly the traditional houses vanish and the skycrapers come along with thousands of new altars to apologize to the “local spirits”. Somehow they know they are making their ancestors angry, somehow they are aware they are altering the city’s original atmosphere too much.
Respect and friendliness
Yes, the city has changed but the people have not. That is probably exactly what makes the city so controversial and magical. Bangkok is definitely still the city of angels. The Thai people are one of the friendliest I’ve ever met and their constant smiles resemble that of a Buddha. Their culture is based on respect for one another and their “Wai” greeting (bringing your hands together like an “amen” while taking a bow) is one of the many signs of this. “Khob khun ka” (meaning thank you) followed by a wai is a nice way to show respect to the Thai people, and starting your “wai” first is even a sign of putting the other person above yourself. Bangkok, you can change your buildings but please let your people remain the same! I wish we could take more of this to the west. Here, everyone you meet is like a helpful friend, whereas in Europe there’s almost an avversion towards strangers. There, you got to earn someone’s friendliness, you got to earn their respect. In Thailand it is given for free, even in a big city like Bangkok.
Their friendliness is certainly a result of their mainly buddhist culture. Buddhism is making a way in our society too, but not exactly the way the Buddhist wanted. At the King’s Palace as well as the beautiful temple “Wat Pho”, I noticed stands protesting the western use of Buddha’s image. “Stop using Buddha as a decoration!” is written upon these stands and there are images illustrating Buddha on pillows, Buddha as plant jars, or simply Buddha as a little statue for the garden, all with a big cross. With horror they look at the Western trend that is turning the Elightened One into a mere object of decoration. Read more about this movement here.
However, the Thai are very eager to show how Buddhism actually should be. They welcome everyone in their lovely and colourful temples. I visited the “Wat Pho” myself, which is one of the more notorious temples of Bangkok and one of the few where you pay an entrance fee.
Visiting a temple is not comparable to visiting a church, the actual temple is just one part of the experience. “Wat” in fact, doesn’t just mean temple, but rather “temple complex”. Within the Wat Pho, you find other sacred buildings, the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School, the Buddhist monks’ residential quarters, and you can even find monks schooling young children in the gardens. I found it magical to walk around, even if there were a lot of visitors. In the temple you find the Reclining Buddha, a giant golden Buddha laying on his side, filling the entire temple with his body. Before entering the temple everyone needs to take of their shoes and dress properly, which means covering arms and legs. Inside the temple there are also amazing wall paintings depicting the story of Buddha.
Wander around in Bangkok
Of course the temples and the Grand Palace (King’s Palace) is worth the visit, although you need to dress properly if you don’t want to stand in the row for the free appropriate clothing. What I would recommend though, is just to wander around. I challenge you to get lost, you can’t! The Thai are amazing and always love to have a little chat with you and show you the way. I have had nice conversations with so many Thai and if I were able to speak their language it probably would’ve been a lot more. From the taxi drivers that even stop to let you take a photo, to the school girls interviewing me for a school assignment, to the rather insistent but helpful tuk tuk drivers. From people selling water and green coconuts to drink, an architect relaxing on the corner, to the Indian fortuneteller telling me I’m very lucky (although I think too much, he said), to the guy on the scooter that took both me and my friend to our hotel at the other side of the city. Really I can’t express enough how these people made me feel at ease. As Bangkok is called originally, it really is the happy city!
I also got the chance to meet some new locals, European people that decided to leave the old continent behind and move to this vibrant city. They told me they are captivated by this place and one of them came back even after having lived in other superb places in Asia. But Bangkok, this city strangely has the capacity to strike you, not with its beauty but rather with its energy. Or, maybe it’s the ancient spirits that keep this city authentic. Who knows!▪