Bangkok is certainly not one of the world’s most beautiful cities but it must qualify as one of the world’s most exciting. A city that is flat, low-lying, polluted and crowded is unlikely to win any beauty contests. But if you add some of the world’s most enterprising and attractive people, a flamboyant architectural style, a diverse economy and a natural love of life, you will end up with variety, excitement and, believe it or not, style. That is Bangkok today.
Bangkok, known to the Thais as “Krungthep” (City of Angles), was established in 1782 by King Rama 1 as the capital of Siam. Since then, it has developed into a city of some 10 million with an intriguing mixture of East and West, the traditional and the modern. The city has a number of traditional tourist attractions that every visitor must see but you also need to wander down some back streets to see life as many Thais know it. Traditional pastimes and attitudes are very much part of many people’s lives. Here are two contrasting suggestions for all visitors to the city.
I have been here at least six times and I never tire of the place. It really is something quite special. This was the home of Jim Thompson, an American architect who settled in Thailand after World War 11 and turned his energy to reinvigorating the Thai silk industry. His efforts were highly successful and in the process he made considerable profit. But he disappeared in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia under quite strange circumstances in 1967 and has never been seen since.
For his contribution to the development of the Thai Silk industry, Jim Thompson was awarded the Order of the White Elephant, a decoration bestowed upon foreigners for having rendered exceptional service to Thailand. Thompson’s success story in Thailand has become one of the most popular postwar legends of Asia.
Since his disappearance in 1967, little has changed in the home that was the ‘talk of the town’ and the ‘city’s most celebrated social center’. Even today, the charming Thai style house continues to be a key stop for visitors to Bangkok.
The house consists of a complex of six traditional Thai-style houses, teak structures that were purchased from several owners and brought to the present location from various parts of Thailand. Construction of the Thai house was completed in 1959.
The house is at the end of a narrow soi off Rama 1 Road (there is a sign post at this corner), in a small tranquil garden which is a world apart from Bangkok’s normal traffic and noise. The house is a great example of real tropical luxury. I would love to create such an atmosphere for myself. The house contains a splendid Asian art collection together with personal belongings from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and China. The garden and its several buildings are also worth some of your time.
Inspection of the house is only by guided tour and this lasts about 30 minutes. The guide tells you about the objects in the house and shows how Thompson was able to improve the traditional Thai architecture in several ways. Afterwards you can wander the garden by yourself and visit the shop and restaurant. Opening hours are 09:00 to 17:00 everyday with the last guided tour at 17.00. Admission is 100 Bt for adults and 50Bt for students. The address is 6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road.
This has been a Bangkok ‘must-see’ for years and it is still thriving. A few years ago a new air-conditioned high-rise building called JJ Plaza opened close by and although some stalls relocated there the old market is still operating and the adjacent Chatuchak Plaza still exists.
The scale of it is unbelievable. It covers 35 acres, contains more than 15 000 shops and stalls, and has over 200,000 visitors each weekend day. The range of products on sale is extensive, and includes household accessories, handicrafts, religious artifacts, art, antiques, live animals (which unfortunately are frequently caged in cruel conditions), books, music, clothes, food, plants and flowers etc.
Chatuchak has in theory been segregated into areas depending on the types of goods sold, and there are maps available for the market which detail the various sections. You’re as well to just forget them and just wander wherever takes your fancy, as it is an extremely disorientating place of many narrow alleys and trying to follow a map around can prove very frustrating.
Chatuchak always gets very hot and humid during the day, and it’s far from the most comfortable shopping experience but for most people the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Going early in the day when it is a bit cooler is recommended. When it becomes too much, head for the airconditioned JJ Plaza (but expect prices to be higher).
Bargaining is expected, if not mandatory, at Chatuchak and the prices are generally substantially cheaper than the shopping centers and street stalls on Silom and Sukhumvit. Chatuchak is a particularly good place to buy all sorts of Thai handicrafts, as there’s a huge range, and competition keeps the prices low. Be careful when buying antiques though, as a large majority of these are fake and telling the difference between the genuine and the copies can be extremely difficult. Genuine antiques require a permit to be taken out of the country.
The published opening hours for the market are from 9.00am to 6.00pm on Saturday and Sunday, though many of the stalls actually open sometime between 9 and 10 and close around sunset. Parts of Chatuchak open on Friday while JJ Plaza and Chatuchak Plaza are pretty much open every day.
The best way to get here is on the Skytrain to Mo Chit station which is only about five minutes walk away from the market or by underground to Kamphaeng Phet station which has an exit directly to the market. Take plenty of cash (but ATM’s are there), comfortable shoes, bag(s), a good sense of humour, and don’t forget to drink water.
Thought to Ponder
When reviewing her early years in Brooklyn, singing superstar Barbra Streisand said, “We were awfully poor, but we had a lot of things that money can’t buy — like unpaid bills.”
For more information on Thailand see Experience Thailand an ebook available at www.amazon.com/kindle then search Len Rutledge.