Features & Images » Travel

Travel: The changing faces of Bangkok

The red shirts are fomenting political unrest but change is a constant in Thailand

by

comment

One of the wonders of travel is that you rarely see a place the same way twice. Returning to Bangkok after 15 years, I barely knew it. And while I sought out, or happened upon, different sights, ultimately everything changes (ourselves included).

On this recent trip, I checked into the unfortunately-named Pullman King Power ("King of Duty Free") hotel in the affluent north of the city.

At the time, thousands of "red-shirts" - backers of ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra - were hurling their blood at government buildings. And given that the country's tourism industry is on the opposite side of the political spectrum - "yellow shirts" to a man, with tour guides openly characterizing the "red shirts" as stupid peasants - the atmosphere out on the street had been ratcheted up a notch.

At the King Power hotel and shopping complex, a crucible of the tourism industry (and thus the yellow-shirts, the Thai king, economic power and the status quo), the under-belly of every arriving vehicle is scanned with an inspection mirror. And when, at the front door, I stepped into a taxi, a doorman quickly handed me a business card that noted my destination and the number of the taxi that I had gotten into (just in case).

Thailand has been branded as "the land of smiles" and locals, particularly on the tourism front, are usually pleasant and often lovely. But you're almost as likely to be accosted by a street tout who blatantly lies in an effort to divert you into a "factory" visit that will earn him a few Thai Baht, or get taken for a figurative "ride" by a cabbie.

On my earlier visit to Bangkok, I recall the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) with its extravagant display of gold and glitter. And, here at least, little has changed. The 95.5-hectare site is still an unabashed exercise in the extravagant decoration that holds so much sway here (and in other parts of the world).

For me (this time round), the most impressive sight was the Reclining Buddha, a 45-metre-long gold-leaf illustration of the moment of passing into Nirvana. "People think he's dead, but that's not so," said a guide. "He's just reclining before he passes away." Though absurdly gargantuan, the figure emits a simple power; interesting detail includes feet with (inevitably) giant toes inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

We travelled north to the ancient city of Ayutthaya, a collection of "Khmer-eque" temples or shrines built 400 or more years ago as part of the original Thai capital, and today a vast UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After Ayutthaya, we slipped into the Elephant Stay, a "working elephant village" involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of abandoned animals. I heard some grumbling among our small group about this Australian-run enterprise, but it was hard not to delight in the sight of infant elephants jostling for space in an over-crowded "bathtub."

Interesting though both were, more to my taste was the Jim Thompson House in downtown Bangkok. Here, in the late 1950s, Thompson, an American GI turned Asia-phile, assembled six traditional teak houses into an evocative stilted home on the river (klong) and filled it with stunning Asian art and antiques.

At the same time, he single-handedly revived the Muslim silk-weaving industry in the neighbouring byways along the klong. Today Jim Thompson Inc. raw silk scarves and other items (not cheap) are sold around the world.

A happy surprise - and located in the King Power complex - was a modern take on traditional Thai puppetry. With the king's backing, young actors and dancers formed a troupe called Aksra Hoon Lakorn Lek. And while the performers, all clad in black, deftly manoeuvre the giant hand-made puppets representing Thai mythological figures, they simultaneously perform small, repetitive footsteps in a dance that is mesmerizing. Theatre-goers I talked to were blown away by, in particular, the show's human element.

I returned to the famed Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, 100 kilometres west of Bangkok. And while the ride through the steamy klongs on the "longtail" boats was fun, I found the "market" now dominated by clothing and souvenir vendors. With the arrival of hoards of tourists, it seems that most of the water-borne produce sellers moved away.

Still looking for an older Bangkok, I taxied to Chinatown, where I seemed to recall smoky old-world lanes with soot-covered men hammering on metal. What I found on this visit was shop after shop selling heaps of cheap shoes, and stall after stall, with rack after rack, flogging almost valueless bling and glitter.

I watched a street vendor cut open a coconut for a passing tourist and another wrap tiny treats in green leaves. Noisy tuk-tuks whipped through the crowds to deliver yet more goods to the stalls.

Finally, and against the advice of a tourist guide (no reason was given) I took a taxi to Banglamphu, full of backpack hotels and rooming houses. No sooner had I arrived than I discovered the reason I'd been told to stay away. Here thousands of "red-shirts," in from the countryside for their protests, were living in a sea of tents and filling the streets.

By the time I left Thailand, the red-shirts had had some success - the prime minister had agreed to a face-to-face meeting. But of this I was sure: if I ever get back to Bangkok, the city will have changed yet again - at least in my own eyes.