Philip Cornwel-Smith, editor of the Time Out Bangkok city guide, introduces us to his home: the laid-back city that smiles on contradictions
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.
Getting there Emirates flies daily to Bangkok from Dhs2,735 return (including tax). See www.emirates.com
Makeshift vendor stalls remain integral to Thai life. Colonising any spare space by pedal or paddle, motor or manpower, they congregate at already congested places, such as shopping strips, tourist haunts and the mouth of side streets. More than half of them are food stalls selling specific dishes at different times of day: doughnuts at breakfast, noodles at lunch, rolled dried squid after dark. Tell-tale bells, whistles and cries herald what’s coming: a tinkling bell for coconut ice-cream, clacks of chopsticks for cauldrons of noodle soup, or hoots on a horn for fruit.
Population 6,500,000, but with dramatic seasonal variations.
Area 1,010sq km
Where is it? Bangkok is built around an artificial royal island in the Chao Phraya River delta in central Thailand.
Climate Tropical monsoon, with the rains at their most severe in September and October. The city is the world’s hottest, its temperature averaging 27.8°C with 77 per cent humidity.
Ethnic mix Comprises Thai, Chinese, Lao, Malay, Mon and Indian ethnicities.
Major sights Grand Palace, Wat Pho, National Museum, Jim Thompson House, Wat Arun, Thonburi canals, Jatujak Weekend Market, Erawan Shrine, Vimarnmek Mansion, Khao San Road, Royal Barge Museum, Lumpini Park, Golden Mount.
Insiders’ tips Thailand Creative & Design Centre, Chao Mae Tubtim phallic shrine, Origin cultural programmes, Bang Kra Jao forest, Bangkok Sculpture Centre, any festival.
Where’s the buzz? Chinatown, Siam Square, Nana, Thonglor/Ekamai, Silom/Patpong, Banglamphu.
Number of motorcycle taxis 114,452
Number of street vendors More than a million.
World’s longest place name Krung Thep (City of Angels), the old name for Bangkok, is short for a 64-syllable name meaning ‘Great city of angels, the supreme repository of divine jewels, the great land unconquerable, the grand and foremost realm, the royal and delightful capital city of the nine noble gems, the highest regal dwelling and grand palace, the divine shelter and living place of the reincarnated spirits’. It’s transliterated as ‘Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit’.
Spoonfuls of sugar consumed 20 per person per day.
Most famous kathoey or ladyboy Nong Tum, who was also a champion Thai boxer during the late 1990s.
National sport Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, known for its brutal ‘full-contact’ rules. Matches can be bloody affairs.