“You will find Bangkok a lot like older parts of New Delhi,” the guy at the travel agency had told me while booking my trip to Thailand. Later, I discovered that he was right. On a warm October afternoon many moons ago, I arrived at the Suvarnabhumi Airport by a flight from Singapore.
It took me very little time to discover the Indian connection which Siam (modern day Thailand) still upholds. The names of roads, localities, and palaces are merely Thai versions of ancient Sanskrit language. The streets and avenues are spic and span; the entire city is dotted with numberless temples with their characteristic combination of triangular eves and tapering pinnacles not forgetting the basic shades of hues–white gold and rust.
Like all ancient or medieval cities, the Thai capital is located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, which has an amazing network of canals and waterways. Not surprising that boats were an efficient means of public transport in earlier times. Having checked into the hotel, and learning that the remainder of the day was free, I ambled out on my own, to discover bits and pieces of the city by myself. The guide-cum-escort, who met us at the airport had warned us about pickpocketing and theft, which was rampant in the city.
Accordingly, I ventured out after having deposited my passport and bulk of cash in safe custody at the hotel. The neighbourhoods and residential areas through which I passed were congested, resembling the lanes and bye-lanes of Karol Bagh, Pusa Road, and Paharganj areas of Apnaa Dilli.
That Bangkok is a street food paradise was amply evident. Every few metres one finds pushcarts selling a wide variety of eatables. However, unlike Delhi’s streets, there is no litter to be found anywhere. All discarded utensils or cutlery are neatly popped into spacious bins nearby. Also, I could not spot any mongrels lurking around the food carts or for that matter cows or buffaloes, which form commonest street barriers in the Indian capital.
I had to majorly face language problem since the folks on the street appeared to know nothing but Thai. To make matters worse the signages on the streets refuse to be bilingual, prominently displaying only the Thai alphabets, whose spiral, convoluted shapes reminded me of jalebis (without malice towards anyone). It is an uphill task to find my way around. However, people are downright honest, when it comes to buying or selling stuff. I was pleased to find that the salesmen at shops or department stores tendered me the correct change when they could have easily duped me.
Things to See
The following morning it was time for a sightseeing of Bangkok’s two major attractions, the palaces, and temples. The most outstanding of them all is the Grand Palace Complex situated in the famed Rattanakosin royal district. Built in traditional Thai architectural style, interpolated with European designs, it used to be the erstwhile official home for the rulers of Siam. The incumbent monarch still uses the Grand Palace for certain very special and ceremonial occasions. This is why the complex is very well maintained. Amazing that despite advancement and modernity the royalty are the most venerated members of Thai society even today. The oft-visited parts of the palace are the Royal Funeral Hall and the Royal Coronation Hall. In a lighter vein, I was amused to note how in Thai lingua franca R is pronounced as L and vice versa. Not surprisingly our guide kept describing the Lawyer palace of king Lama (Royal Palace of King Rama)! Yes, you have heard it right. In bygone ages, when Hinduism held sway over the country there was a series of kings named Rama I, II, III in that order.
Incidentally, Buddhism remains the official religion of Thailand, as 93% of the total population follows the Theravada school of Buddhism. Interestingly, next to the royalty, Buddhist bhikshus (monks) enjoy prominence in society. There are Wats (Buddhist shrines) galore in and around Bangkok. First and foremost, at the Grand Palace complex stands the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Carved out of a single piece of Jade, and measuring only45 centimetres, the idol is considered one of the most sacred religious icons of Thailand.
The Emerald Buddha’s shrine is very ornately decorated, with its roof tiles soaring upwards into the azure sky above. Equally famous is Wat Traimit, the temple of the Golden Buddha. This has a three-metre tall Buddha statue, made of pure gold and weighs 5.5 tons. One must not miss out on the splendid Wat Pho, the temple of the Reclining Buddha. The majestic statue is 46 metres long and15 metres high and covered with glittering gold flakes. The temple complex also has four chapel housing 394 idols of Lord Buddha seated in lotus position (padmasana). There exists a dress code for all tourists: do not expose shoulders or the skin above your knees.
Other Places of Interest
Located close to the Grand Palace complex Bangkok’s National Museum is a must see. Built in1872 the grand edifice was originally the abode of King Rama I’s viceroy, Prince Wang Na. In 1874 King Rama V converted it into a museum. The museum is a virtual treasure trove, vividly re-creating Siam’s rich, resplendent past. On display are artifacts, weaponry, gems and precious stones, musks, puppets, ceramics, textiles, and lots more. While in Bangkok pay a visit to the Gems Gallery, rated as the world’s largest jewellery and gems centre. You can get some high-quality stuff at reasonable prices.
To get a proper feel of the city, ramble through the marketplaces of Bangkok, where the makeshift stalls almost burst their seams with fresh vegetables an exciting array of tropical fruits – mango, jackfruit, papaya, guava, pineapple, durian, rambutan and more. Also, I was awestruck by the profusion of lotus flowers and buds on sale in the vicinity of the temples. Our national flower enjoying such prestige overseas! Tourist must visit Bangkok’s numerous floating markets to sample fresh fruits veggies and local cuisine.
Bangkok’s Sukhumvit area is a hotspot for nightlife and adult entertainment.
Beware of Traffic Jams
While travelling in Bangkok, it is highly advisable to start early with ample time on your hands, to be able to reach your destination in time. The city is notorious for its chaotic traffic and jams! On the final day, en route to the airport, my taxi was caught in one such traffic snarl and I almost missed my flight!
©Ruchira Adhikari Ghosh
Photos by Dr. Prithvijit Debnath
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