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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.