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Only one thing in Bangkok is certain: ambiguity. An indirect culture of ‘face’ creates layers that puzzle and dazzle. The Thai capital embodies royal cosmology, yet it sprawls out unplanned across central Thailand’s delta. Temples are but playgrounds of naughty renown. Exquisite crafts gleam amid piles of concrete and tile. In this montage of uniform and impromptu, Thais somehow move with a dancer’s grace, eat banquets for pennies and turn everything into a festival through sanuk – the urge, as they translate, ‘to fun’. Bangkok’s identity blurs. It was bestowed an auspicious name 64 Thai syllables long, shortened to Krung Thep (City of Angels), then Siam was decreed Thailand. Yet all those names remain in use. Krung Thep echoes the layout of the ancient city-state Ayutthaya. In 1972 it became a twin town with Siam’s intervening capital, Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River; Bangkok was left not with one sacred and geographic centre, but two.
The complications persist. Bangkok has grown multiple city centres, laid non-integrated transit lines, paved the canals that formerly made the Thai lifestyle amphibious – roving vendors echo that floating market character. Upon this diversity, official Thai-ness adds self-conscious propriety. It calls itself the ‘Land of Smiles’, but there’s a smile for every motivation: deference, defence, delight, disguise. In a hierarchy under the venerated King, everyone has their place, whatever their origin.
Only a little younger than the United States, Bangkok is Asia’s melting pot. Thais are mostly Buddhist, effectively Hindu, invariably animist — except when they’re Muslim. The old walled city displaced a Chinese enclave; today Sino-Thai form the majority. In the dense maze of lanes, ethnic villages persist: Lao, Mon, Malay, Indian, Portuguese. Foreigners still shape quarters: Japanese, Korean, Brit. Many Western expats never leave, relishing the tolerance and chance to reinvent themselves. Bangkok repeatedly adapts foreign fads, from Greco-Roman columns to the iconic tuk-tuk, which began as a Japanese motor-rickshaw.
With its headquarters at teen hub Siam Square, the pop culture makeover continues: ethnochic design, boutique hotels, hip bars, indy arts, brand-name malls, open-air restaurants atop skyscrapers. Still, even the hippest visitor yearns to taste the exotic, orientalist Bangkok of tabloid hype. Pull up a plastic stool to any pavement bar, temporarily pitched at Nana or Khao San Road. Sip from a bucket of Red Bull, then goggle the cliché parade: tuk-tuks, street food, ladyboys, fried insects, copycat watches, spirit houses, blind buskers, saffron-robed monks, numbered masseuses, elephants wandering by. It’s like being a character in a so-called ‘Bangkok Novel’.
Few cities spawn their own literary genre. But this City of Angels rivals LA for tales of private eyes, seething underbellies and re-imagined history. Some bemoan modernisation, but Thais flit between surface fashions, secure in their social creed: harmonious relationships trump abstract logic. Faced with jams, scams or disruption of plans, they sigh ‘mai pen rai’ – ‘never mind’. Decades of breakneck development and relentless hospitality have taken their toll, but have not compromised Bangkok’s essence. By embracing every onslaught so warmly, Bangkok remains charmingly, ambiguously Thai.
Emirates flies daily to Bangkok from Dhs2,735 return (including tax). See www.emirates.com
Where to stay
Bossotel Inn (+66-2-630-6120; www.bossotelinn.com)
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