Bangkok: spiritual home or hedonistic playground?

Sometimes I find, you will visit somewhere and whilst you appreciate its beauty and individuality, you feel as if you have experienced everything you want to and, as such, probably won’t return. I have felt this way about several countries or cities I have seen. I have encountered them, explored them, sampled the local food and moved on. After all, there is so much more of this dynamic world left to discover. One place where I feel I could go back to again and again is Thailand. Its capital city, Bangkok alone, is enough of an addictive drug to constantly draw you to the country time and time again. I think Bangkok can best be described as being like Marmite- you either love it or hate it. It’s loud, dirty, busy and smelly yet has a certain undeniable charm. As soon as you step out of the airport into the sweltering heat, the air fills you with anticipation and overwhelms you with excitement over the adventure you are just about to embark upon.
When I first visited Bangkok at 18, with a backpack and a couple of friends for company, it was the first place I had ever visited in Asia, and although before arriving I was a little apprehensive, I instantly loved it! Everything about the city buzzed; it was constantly alive. We first explored the markets and admittedly went a little wild. Before leaving home my backpack had been carefully packed and weighed, I had repeatedly walked around the house and up and down the stairs making sure my back could cope with the strain.
One night’s shopping in a Bangkok market though and all that was out the window! Several kilos were added to my baggage which stayed with me for the next 5 months and I am sure my back did suffer for it. Bangkok’s night markets are definitely a worthwhile experience in themselves. We first visited the numerous stalls up and down the famous backpacker’s row: Khao San Rd. I loved this street, filled with hostels, bars, food stands and stalls. Everything is neon, the music is loud, the drinks are cheap, the locals are friendly and it is not unusual to see a lady boy or two wandering around. In fact, lady boys are so common in Bangkok and indeed in the rest of Thailand, that bars and restaurants will often classify them as a different gender; ‘cocktails 50 baht for men, 30 baht for women, 40 baht for lady boys’. Some of these lady boys are so convincing, with better legs than most women, I have heard stories of men taking them home only to have a rather nasty shock!
The nightlife in this quirky city is like no-where else. Despite the fact that after the sun has gone down Bangkok goes crazy, it also has a religious side with some really stunning Buddhist temples. These are decorated in the most ornate and elaborate fashion and glisten in the sunlight. There are glass ornamentations of every colour and the most beautiful carvings and embellishments one can imagine. Wandering around these temples and the grounds are akin to wandering around some kind of fairytale land, where everything gleams with a royal golden glow. ‘Wat Phra Kaew’ is probably the most important temple in Bangkok, perhaps even in the whole of Thailand, and is in the grounds of the Grand Palace. Another stunning temple is ‘Wat Pho’ which houses a huge reclining Buddha.
What was truly shocking, however, was the massive divide between rich and poor. A couple of days into our trip we caught a boat down the Chao Phraya River, which winds its way through the centre of the city. On one side of the river are glorious temples and buildings, richly furnished and adorned yet just on the other side, people live in shacks and shanty hut communities. Small wooden houses jut out, hanging over and almost submitting to the river’s currents below, women and small children sit washing their clothes as the men travel up and down the river in long wooden boats stacked high with fruit, persuading us to buy a banana or some mangoes or, God-forbid, some durian (the smelliest fruit on the planet; so foul is its stench, in fact, many hotels in Thailand ban it).
Whilst I am sure that as obvious tourists we were undoubtedly charged double, perhaps even triple, for everything we brought in Thailand, everything was still extremely cheap, especially considering what we would pay back home. Even though we knew we were being robbed blind, there was a certain level of discomfort, especially after seeing these wooden shacks alongside the river, in really pushing for a good bargain. I think Alex Garland in his book ‘The Beach’, hits the nail on head when lead character Richard expresses his desire to get a decent deal, but also his unease with what he calls ‘haggling with poverty’.
This is what I think makes Bangkok so amazing; its diversity. On many levels Bangkok is a hugely significant city for Buddhism, home to the most important temple in Thailand. Yet as the sun sets, it becomes a hedonistic playground. There are buckets filled with cheap cocktails and every spirit in existence, parties, the infamous ping pong shows, lady boys and all night raves. The party-goers, returning home at 4am, pass the monks on their way to morning prayer. Devotion and frugality exist alongside indulgence and pleasure in its excess. The extravagance and beauty of the royal palace and temples literally lie across the river from shack homes, shortage, scarcity, deficiency and poverty.
These contradictions and juxtapositions are all what make Bangkok what it is- a truly vibrant and unforgettable city.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.