Temples of Bangkok

Bangkok, the City of Angels, is home to an extraordinary array of Buddhist temples. Some, like the majestic Wat Pho, defy description, others are more workaday but no less impressive monuments to a religion that permeates daily life in the city. Walking around you’ll come across temples and shrines just about everywhere you go, and it’s common to see orange-robed monks going about their business.

There is no state religion in Thailand, but the monarch is required to practice Theravada Buddhism, consequently it is heavily centralised and integrated into the running of the state. Unsurprisingly, this is the dominant religion in the country, accounting for around 90-95 percent of the population.

Giant standing Buddha, Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Giant standing Buddha, Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Magnolias at Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Magnolias at Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple painting, Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple painting, Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Theravada Buddhists can trace their religious roots back to some of the very earliest Buddhist texts, the Pali Canon collection of scriptures, dating from 250 BC. The scriptures are carved into large stones in Myanmar, earning them the title of ‘World’s Largest Book’. Each one of the over 2000 ‘pages’ is over 1.5 metres high and 1 metre wide.

Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Intharawihan, Bangkok, Thailand

As practiced in Thailand, Theravada Buddhism seems a moderate and peaceful religion. It is worth remembering though that this it the same branch of Buddhism practiced in Sri Lanka, where it is the foundation for a vicious nationalism used by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists to justify violence and the persecution of the Tamil minority.

Prayer offerings outside a Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Prayer offerings outside a Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Dog day afternoon, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Dog day afternoon, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Strange chicken in a Buddhist temple garden, Bangkok, Thailand

Strange chicken in a Buddhist temple garden, Bangkok, Thailand

There are other forms of religion practiced in Thailand. Taoism is big in the Chinese community, and even I can tell the difference between a Chinese temple and a Thai temple. There is a sizeable Muslim minority in the south of Thailand, where it borders Malaysia. The area was conquered by Thailand at the end of the 18th Century and has always seen itself as separate from the rest of the country. The result has been a violent separatist insurgency since the 1960s.

Enter the dragon, Bangkok, Thailand

Enter the dragon, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

There is incredible diversity amongst Bangkok’s temples. Some are tiny and hidden away down narrow alleys far removed from traffic and tourists, others are part of enormous temple complexes that take several days to explore. Some are ancient, others glaringly modern; some contain the most remarkable golden statues, yet others have some of the most kitsch memorabilia known to humankind.

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinese temple, Thien Fah Foundation, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist monks, Bangkok, Thailand

Buddhist monks, Bangkok, Thailand

Prayer 'flags', Bangkok, Thailand

Prayer ‘flags’, Bangkok, Thailand

It’s definitely worth going to see some of the most famous temples, but part of the joy of Bangkok is coming across temples randomly as you walk around. Almost all are open during the day, most are welcoming and fun to explore.

Theatrical performance, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Theatrical performance, Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Shrine near the university, Bangkok, Thailand

Shrine near the university, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple kitsch, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple kitsch, Bangkok, Thailand

Scenes from Khao San

Bangkok is home to much that is bizarre. None more so than Khao San, the ubiquitous hang-out for multitudes of international travellers looking for a good time…and there are plenty of people promising to make sure you get a good time. I can live a long time before I need to see another old farang man clutching a bottle of Chang in one hand and a young Thai woman in the other.

Even discounting the sex tourism, there’s a lot not to love about the Khao San Road. Unless, that is, you enjoy being propositioned for sex shows, drugs, tuk-tuks, hand made suits, happy hours and fake sunglasses. There is a constant stream of purveyors of knock-off gear touting just about every commodity known to humankind.

Police, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Police, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Lights, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Lights, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

That said, I loved wandering the streets surrounding Khao San Road. There are good restaurants, fabulous street food, fun bars and people watching to rival anywhere in the world. The mix of people is extraordinary. This is truly a global hub for travellers, old and young, backpackers and package holiday makers alike. The easy going vibe keeps things way more relaxed than on the Khao San Road, and it’s easy to pass a night or two soaking up one of Asia’s most surreal experiences.

Street bar, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Street bar, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Bar hound, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Bar hound, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Street bar, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Street bar, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Thai boxing shorts, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Thai boxing shorts, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Souvenirs, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Souvenirs, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

The curse of Khao San

There are two Khao Sans. Khao San Road, where you go if you want to know what several hundred backpackers getting drunk in third rate bars, endlessly retelling tales of daring-do on the backpacker trail before self consciously eating grasshoppers on a stick, looks like. It’s also the place to be if fun for you is being persistently offered a handmade suit, a tuk-tuk, a ping-pong sex show or a selfie stick.

Not for nothing is this part of Bangkok referred to as a backpacker ‘ghetto’ – not a word with happy associations. I wouldn’t want to appear po-faced about backpackers or Khao San. I’ve been the former, and the latter isn’t any worse than other hell holes I’ve visited (yes Cancun, with your Señor Frogs Foam Party, I do mean you). Still, it’s hard to understand the appeal, its not like the booze is that cheap.

The horror, the horror, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

The horror, the horror, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Khao San Road is pretty seedy, and the seediness gained cult status when Alex Garland’s 1997 novel The Beach was published. The increasingly desperate story begins in Khao San Road, glamourising the unglamorous. At the end of the eponymous film, Leonardo de Caprio’s character receives an email saying, ‘Parallel Universe. Love, Françoise’. It refers to the beach of the title, but could equally refer to Khao San.

Good advice, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Good advice, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Beads, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Beads, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Street bar, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Street bar, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Strange then that Khao San Road should have once been known as a ‘religious road’ due to shops catering to Buddhist monks. You don’t see too many monks these days, and you’d probably want to double check their credentials if you did. Between the sex shows, the sex workers and the wasted Farang hoards it’s hard to imagine a time before massage parlours and knock-off sunglasses. Luckily there is more to this area…

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

The other Khao San exists in numerous side streets closer to the river. No one would claim this wasn’t touristy, but away from the maddening crowd you get a relaxed atmosphere, good food and a mix of people from across the globe who aren’t getting drunk before asking for a massage with a happy ending. I rather liked this other Khao San, it felt a bit like Shoreditch in London, just a lot warmer and with fewer beards.

Lights, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Lights, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Street bar, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Street bar, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

T-shirts, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

T-shirts, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Where the Khao San Road does bargain basement, the surrounding area has evolved into a vibrant and alternative scene that attracts almost as many young Thais as foreigners. There are hip bars, pop-up restaurants and trendy hotels. Even the massage parlours look half decent. The whole area has a very different feel to it, familiar and alien at the same time, which is presumably why it attracts so many people.

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Shoe repairs, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Shoe repairs, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Cat shrine, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Cat shrine, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit stall, Khao San, Bangkok, Thailand

There are still plenty of food stalls and a constant stream of people trying to sell you stuff. None more constant than the Akha women selling wooden frogs that make a croaking sound when rubbed with stick. That sound will live with me for an eternity. The Akha are one of Thailand’s northern hill tribes drawn to the city by the chance to earn a living. They quickly become a familiar part of the background noise in Khao San…and by familiar, I mean you can easily be offered twenty or thirty frogs in an evening.

Am I being unfair to Khao San? I don’t know, I guess people will just have to go and see for themselves.

Food and faith in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Bangkok has a sizeable Chinese community, one that can trace its roots back to before this city became the Thai capital. There was a thriving Chinese trading community here as early as the 16th Century; as trade grew between the two nations so did the number of ethnic Chinese living along the banks of the Chao Phraya River. So much so that I read somewhere that over half of all Thais living in Bangkok can trace their heritage back to Chinese settlers.

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Shop, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Shop, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

When the Thai capital was moved from Ayutthaya to Bangkok in 1782, the Chinese community was moved outside the city walls to the current location around Thanon Yaowarat. Here it flourished and became the capital’s economic powerhouse. The sheen may have been taken off the area by new shopping malls, but you can’t beat Chinatown for authenticity and vibrancy. Vegetarians may want to look away at this stage…

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Cafe, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Cafe, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Seafood, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Seafood, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Roasting chestnuts, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Roasting chestnuts, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

There is nothing more authentic than the food on offer in the markets of Chinatown. This is a foodie paradise, although I freely admit that some of the sights were the polar opposite of appetising. Basically, if it is edible you’ll find it in Chinatown. Absorbing the atmosphere, not to mention the smells, was endlessly fascinating and I could have spent several days wandering around observing the endless flow of humanity.

Cafe table, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Cafe table, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food stalls, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

It isn’t just food that draws people here though, dotted throughout the area are a number of Chinese temples that are small oases of tranquility amidst the pulsating surrounding streets. One of the most important Chinese temples is the lovely Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, located down a side street within a hidden courtyard. So strong is the incense that you can almost smell the temple before you see it.

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

I never really know how to react in a Buddhist temple, they are frequently a bizarre mixture of calm piety and fairground burlesque which I struggle to reconcile. At Wat Mangkon Kamalawat it was the gaudy statues of the Four Heavenly Kings that greet you inside the entrance that disoriented me; get beyond that though and the temple is a peaceful place where people, young and old, make their devotions.

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Founded in 1871, Wat Mangkon Kamalawat translates as Dragon Lotus Temple and is built in classic Chinese style (not that I can tell the difference) with a couple of dragons on the roof. This is the most important Chinese temple in Bangkok and is at the centre of celebrations for Chinese New Year. It has a constant flow of worshippers, outside the courtyard numerous shops sell incense, candles, flowers, fruit and other offerings.

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Stepping back in time, Bangkok’s Chinatown

Emerging onto the traffic clogged Thanon Yaowarat after several hours of wandering through Bangkok’s Chinatown, I felt a peculiar mix of exhilaration and exhaustion. The whole experience was a little overwhelming: fascinating, disorienting and disconcerting at the same time. Even at a few weeks distance I retain intense and vivid memories of it. Provided your schedule is flexible walking around Chinatown is a joyful experience.

Chinatown is an undiluted, full-on sensory assault. Wherever you look there is a dizzying amount of activity going on, and try as you might it’s impossible not to get lost amongst the narrow lanes and alleys. Rather than fight the inevitable, it is probably best to surrender yourself to the experience, put the map away and embrace being lost.

Dried fish, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Dried fish, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Street in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Street in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Spices, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Spices, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

All humanity seems to be crammed into the maze-like warren of streets that comprise Chinatown. Streets are packed with people buying and selling, eating and drinking, chatting and praying at the numerous incense infused temples that are hidden down alleyways. To add an element of danger motorbikes and even cars squeeze through the throngs of people on streets barely wide enough to accommodate them.

Dried squid, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Dried squid, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Dried squid, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Dried squid, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit juice stall, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Fruit juice stall, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Mushrooms, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Mushrooms, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

As with much else in Bangkok, Chinatown is all about the food. I had a breakfast of fresh fruit juice and barbecued pork rice cakes at a street stall; later I found a small restaurant that did delicious jiaozi, baozi and shumai dim sum. Everywhere I turned there was food being cooked and eaten, but it is the stalls selling fish, meat, fruit, vegetables and all manner of herbs and spices that catch the eye and fill the nostrils.

Food cart, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Food cart, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Shoes, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Shoes, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Street in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Street in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

There were definitely sights and smells I wish I hadn’t experienced, seeing various bits of animals on sale for food or medicine rank high on the list. I know it happens, but I still find it a bit of a shock to see shark fins for sale. That you can still find these things is an indication that Chinatown today is as authentic as it was a hundred or even two hundred years ago. I didn’t see rhino horn or tiger parts but I imagine they can be found.

Shark fins, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Shark fins, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Dried fish, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Dried fish, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Chinatown remains one of Bangkok’s few neighbourhoods that hasn’t as yet been gentrified; or blighted by the type of urban development that has seen many of the city’s historic areas swept away, to be replaced by high rise buildings and modern shopping malls. Yet the relentless pace of Bangkok’s growth and development make this a very real threat – another anodyne shopping mall is just what the world needs.

Shops, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Shops, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Traditional Chinense medecine, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Traditional Chinense medecine, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Street in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Street in Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

It would be a crying shame if the raw, unadulterated nature of the district, not to mention many livelihoods, were to be destroyed just so a few well connected developers can make a killing on the property market. The sights, sounds and smells of Chinatown will live with me for a long time, it would be unforgivable if others weren’t able to enjoy that same experience in future.

Thanon Yaowarat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Thanon Yaowarat, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand

Flower power at Pak Khlong Talat

My second visit to Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok’s largest wholesale flower market, started much the same way my first visit began, a bizarre encounter with Bangkok’s sex industry. This time though it was well after midnight and I stupidly decided that, rather than try to explain to a cab driver where I wanted go, it would be easier to walk to the market. What would travel be without an occasional brush with the underbelly of the country you’re visiting?

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

At first it was fine, the streets were full of people and it felt pretty safe. Soon though I found myself on quiet, dark streets that were home to a low-grade version of Patpong’s more ‘glamorous’ sex trade. It was clear that there was a substantial drug trade as well, the relationship between drug addiction and selling sex was writ large. Conscious that I was lugging a camera with me I started to look for a cab…there were no cabs anywhere.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

The mood lightened a bit when I reached a street that was home to a number of transgender sex workers. A few people shouted ‘hello’ and I soon found myself on a big road a short distance from the flower market. Mentally reviewing my walk, it was obvious that I’d not been in any danger and that I’d witnessed a part of Bangkok life that largely goes unnoticed by tourists. These were clearly some of the most marginalised people in the city.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Still, after that little adventure it was reassuring to find myself on the outskirts of Pak Khlong Talat. You know you’re in the right area when, suddenly, you find yourself amongst trucks unloading huge bundles of flowers for porters to deliver to the hundreds of flower stalls in the market. I took their lead and followed the flowers deeper into the market.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Ice makers, Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Ice makers, Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Ice makers, Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Ice makers, Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

The market is close to a number of landmarks. It’s a short walk from the Memorial Bridge, close to both Wat Pho and Chinatown, although this didn’t stop me from struggling to find it, twice. Pak Khlong Talat means “market at the mouth of the canal”, and a market has existed here for several hundred years. It started life in the 18th Century as a floating market specialising in fish. The area probably smells a lot nicer now the fish have been displaced by flowers.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

The sights, sounds and smells (pretty good smells by Bangkok standards) of the market are amazing. I can’t share the sounds and smells, but I hope the sights are inspiration enough to visit if you find yourself in Bangkok…just make sure to take a taxi.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, a riot of colour and life

Every travel story should have an amusing anecdote of mishap, misunderstanding and misadventure in the pursuit of enlightenment. So it was with my visit to Pak Khlong Talat, Bangkok’s spellbinding flower market. I won’t go into detail but, badly pronounced, ‘Pak Khlong’ sounds a lot like ‘Patpong’, Bangkok’s notorious red light district.

I can only assume my attempts to mime a bunch of flowers didn’t improve the situation. It was a close escape, but the taxi driver eventually found the right ‘market’.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, ThailandPak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, ThailandPak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

In a city renowned for its wonderful markets, Pak Khlong Talat is alive with sound, movement and colour in a way few others can match. Vast numbers of colourful blooms make this an irresistible place for photographers and anyone who wants to watch a fundamental part of Thai life unfold before their eyes.

Flowers are hugely popular in Thailand, they’re used extensively in religious devotions at Buddhist temples and Bangkok has, literally, thousands of temples to create a demand that needs supplying. Symbols of good luck, flowers aren’t just reserved for temples, you see them pretty much everywhere you go.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

The market sprawls across a vast area, both indoors and out. As you walk around, dodging carts that whizz past loaded with flowers, stall after stall is piled high with colourful bouquets. Orchids, carnations, roses, lilies, jasmine, lotus buds and brilliant, bright orange marigold flowers. The marigolds are sewn together into garlands known as phuang malai, which adorn everything from tuk-tuks to shops to statues of the Buddha.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

The trick to visiting Pak Khlong Talat is to come late, and by late I mean after midnight, preferably after 2am. During the day the market sells fruit and vegetables, only transforming into the extraordinary flower market at night. Flowers arrive on trucks from early evening onwards, but the number of buyers and sellers builds throughout the night and into the morning. Freshness is important, so the later you buy the better.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

The whole market is buzzing with life, but thanks to the inhospitable time it is largely free of tourist groups that make visiting other places in Bangkok a challenge. People sew garlands and make flower baskets at stalls; porters push heavily laden carts loaded with boxes; others rush around with blocks of ice to keep the flowers fresh; and wherever you look there are vibrant colours.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

It is brilliant. I loved visiting so much that I decided to to go back a second time. Despite the time of day, I’m glad I did.

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Pak Khlong Talat, Night Flower Market, Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand’s democracy problem: it’s a King thing

I should be careful what I write. Free speech has strict limits in Thailand and criticising the nation’s monarch, intentionally or not, can have grave consequences. Thais love their 87 year old king, but those who hold dissenting views know only too well what can happen for expressing their opinions. Thailand’s draconian approach to freedom of expression has seen plenty of foreigners imprisoned as well.

I’d like to visit Thailand again, so the fate of others should be ample warning. Still, it is troubling when a nation has large photos of a figurehead in every public space. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a modern-day Big Brother, and there is more than a whiff of a cult of personality crossed with Animal Farm-style politics. The lèse majesté laws which protect the king and royal family from criticism serve to stifle debate and democratic development.

Huge images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Huge images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

I thought this royal devotion benign, but in reality it’s sinister. Imagine this: a man is accused of insulting the king, he insists he’s innocent, there are no witnesses but he’s imprisoned anyway. It sounds like Orwell’s 1984 but it happened for real in 2013. In 2014 the editor of a news website was imprisoned for an article published five years earlier in 2009. He was originally sentenced to 10 years but got half that for pleading guilty.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand

King Bhumibol Adulyadej t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Poster of Queen Sirikit, Bangkok, Thailand

Poster of Queen Sirikit, Bangkok, Thailand

In 2007 a Swiss national was sentenced to 10 years for defacing a poster of the king; in 2009 an Australian was sentenced to 3 years after self publishing a book considered insulting to the monarchy, the book sold seven copies; the same year a British national fled the country rather than face trial after criticising the 2006 military coup; in 2011 an American was jailed for posting pages online from a book critical of the King. The list goes on.

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

It’s no surprise then that Thailand is currently run by a military junta that seized power, with the blessing of the king, from an elected government in 2014. The coup came in the wake of pro-military and anti-government protests calling for reform. The military continue to run the country under martial law and dozens of people remain in prison on jumped up charges.

Throughout his six decade-long reign, King Bhumibol Adulyadej has witnessed twenty military coups or attempted coups by an army that is profoundly monarchist. Throughout these turbulent times the King has been seen as a stabilising force. It’s true to say that he’s had a unifying effect, helping explain the number of images of him that you see everywhere.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand

King Bhumibol Adulyadej t-shirts, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

There are plenty who would argue that the king himself, while respected and loved, has been a major cause of the depressing failure of democracy. Most coups against democratically elected governments have been carried out in his name. Such is the reverence for the King that his role is rarely questioned, but he has never criticised the use of military power against his own people.

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

Images of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the Queen, Bangkok, Thailand

The fragile stability this brings may be about to end. The King has been ill for several months, forcing him to miss a number of important public occasions. Many Thais and foreign observers fear that when he dies the thin barrier to violent societal upheaval may be shattered. Protests will likely be met with military repression, and Thai democracy will take another giant step backwards.

With no sense of irony, a few days ago the military-controlled legislature banned the former Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, from holding political office for five years. Simultaneously, they launched a criminal investigation into her time in office. That beach holiday suddenly seems less appealing…

A walk through the streets of Bangkok

There is a Welsh village, famous, in Britain at least, for having the longest name in the British Isles. In total Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch* (try saying that after a drink) has 58 letters in its name, and is a sign writers worst nightmare. That, however, fades to insignificance against the full name for Bangkok which, quite frankly, is just showing off.

Giant rabbit on the street, Bangkok, Thailand

Giant rabbit on the street, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple flowers, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple flowers, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit**, as Bangkok is known to almost no one, comes in at a whopping 168 characters. Thais tend to use a shortened version of the official name; no one calls it Bangkok, that is unless they’re talking to a foreigner

The name refers to Bangkok as ‘the great city’, ‘the happy city’, ‘the grand capital of the world’ and ‘the residence of the Emerald Buddha’, which gives at least a glimpse of the grandeur with which Bangkok was conceived by its early rulers. The modern city, despite the ugly skyscrapers, air pollution and constant traffic jams, still lives up to the hype.

Tourist trinkets, Bangkok, Thailand

Tourist trinkets, Bangkok, Thailand

Street shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Street shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

Boats on the Chao Phraya, Bangkok, Thailand

Boats on the Chao Phraya, Bangkok, Thailand

Plenty of people don’t like Bangkok, or at least not enough to hang around for more than a day or two before heading to the beach or into the hills. I can understand that. It isn’t a city that tries very hard to win you over; but walk the streets for a few days and the city reveals itself a little. Life is concentrated in the streets and it is there you have to head if you want to get under Bangkok’s skin. From street level, the city is utterly and endlessly fascinating.

Temple flowers, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple flowers, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Boats on the Chao Phraya, Bangkok, Thailand

Boats on the Chao Phraya, Bangkok, Thailand

The only problem with walking the streets – besides the air pollution – is the heat. I was regularly in meltdown and sweating so much that I actually came to appreciate the fact that there is a branch of the 7-Eleven convenience store franchise on just about every street. Apart from providing cold drinks and ice cream, the 7-Elevens are probably the most ferociously air conditioned buildings in Bangkok.

Temple Chao Phraya, Bangkok, Thailand

Temple Chao Phraya, Bangkok, Thailand

Houses by canal, Bangkok, Thailand

Houses by canal, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Walking around I found myself going from incredible market, to stunning temple, to canal-sides lined with wooden houses and streets lined with food carts. The contrast between the old and the new is striking, perhaps most obviously when you take a river taxi down the broad Chao Phraya river. On the river it’s possible to get some perspective on the city; from here towering modern skyscrapers share the cityscape with ancient temples.

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Shoes in China Town, Bangkok, Thailand

Shoes in China Town, Bangkok, Thailand

The Chao Phraya flows for 372 km from the border with Myanmar and Laos to the Gulf of Thailand, passing through the middle of Bangkok. The river has always been a major form of transport – one mercifully free of traffic jams – and is a good way to navigate from one part of the city to another. No need to take a tour, the many river taxis and ferries provide a cheap way of staying afloat.

Offerings in Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Offerings in Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

 


*The English translation of the Welsh is ‘St Mary’s church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the fierce whirlpool and the church of St Tysilio of the red cave’, or something along those lines.

**The approximate English translation is, ‘City of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) 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’. Not a language to leave a superlative unused.

Bangkok, a city of savage beauty

Dirty. Smelly. Crowded. Polluted. Chaotic. All words that apply equally to Bangkok, yet this is a wonderful, mesmerising city. There is more life lived amongst these pulsating city streets in one day than in most other places in a year. All humanity – its best and worst qualities – is openly on display in one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities. Counterintuitive it may be, but it is possible to feel attraction and revulsion simultaneously as you walk through the streets of Bangkok.

Boats on the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok, Thailand

Boats on the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok, Thailand

Food being cooked at a street stall, Bangkok, Thailand

Food being cooked at a street stall, Bangkok, Thailand

Massive Buddha, Bangkok, Thailand

Massive Buddha, Bangkok, Thailand

It was a short work trip, but I can’t describe the joy at leaving the frozen European winter behind for a few days. That was until I stepped off the plane into 34ºC of heat. When I left Schiphol Airport the temperature in the Netherlands was a balmy 2ºC; the heat, humidity and jet lag hit me like a brick wall for the next 48 hours.

A street bar in the Khao San area, Bangkok, Thailand

A street bar in the Khao San area, Bangkok, Thailand

Lights, Bangkok, Thailand

Lights, Bangkok, Thailand

A vibrant mix of old and new, and despite a persistent (and deserved) reputation for the sex trade, Bangkok is a cultural paradise of palaces and temples. More than anything else though, the city that sits on the Gulf of Thailand is a giant market. There are markets all over the city, selling just about every commodity known to humankind, but a stroll down any street brings you face to face with people selling things. Food stalls are everywhere.

Modern advertising, Bangkok, Thailand

Modern advertising, Bangkok, Thailand

Typical houses by a canal, Bangkok, Thailand

Typical houses by a canal, Bangkok, Thailand

Street stall in China Town, Bangkok, Thailand

Street stall in China Town, Bangkok, Thailand

Food is perhaps the defining thing about a visit to this city and Bangkok street food is reason enough to get on the plane. Thai food is delicious – salty, spicy and crammed full of fresh herbs and spices. This might explain why Thais never seem to stop eating. Walk down any street and there will be several street stalls selling food – some of which it would take a braver soul than I to sample.

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

Flower inside a Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

Flower inside a Buddhist temple, Bangkok, Thailand

I’ve been to Bangkok once before, in the early-1990s, and have fond memories of wandering the streets and absorbing the larger than life atmosphere. This time I was in Bangkok for work and spent most of my time in air conditioned rooms of one sort or another; for a whole week I only got glimpses of the city from the back of a car or out of a window.

Shoe repairs, Bangkok, Thailand

Shoe repairs, Bangkok, Thailand

That is no way to experience this city. There is life on every corner and the streets demand to be explored on foot to absorb the sights, sounds and smells…fair warning, the smells can be pretty disturbing. Luckily I had three days free at the end of the work trip to do some exploration. Donning my flip flops and a spirit of culinary adventure I headed out…

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

Street food, Bangkok, Thailand

The problem with three days in Bangkok is deciding what to see and which areas to visit. There are so many possibilities and I wanted to explore them all. By the time I got back to my hotel each night I was exhausted. That is Bangkok, exhilarating but exhausting. After all, I defy anyone not to fall in love with a city that has a giant elephant sculpture as a traffic island.

Elephant roundabout, Bangkok, Thailand

Elephant roundabout, Bangkok, Thailand