The King and I: Bangkok

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Shrine to King Rama IX

Earlier this month I made my third trip to Bangkok, Thailand, one of the great world cities. My three trips were always work related so I didn’t get much time to experience the city. My hotel had a beautiful view of the Chao Phraya river which runs through the heart of the city. It is mesmerizing to watch the many types of boats going up and down the river, from huge barges being pulled by tugboats, to lighted party cruise ships to tiny private boats. One could just sit and watch the river all day, which I basically did between meetings. I guess with traffic being so bad in the city, it is a fast way to get around.

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Durian salesman under the neon lights of Bangkok’s Chinatown

We did get away from the hotel one night and we walked down to Bangkok’s Chinatown. There were heaps of restaurants along Yaowarat Road which were started by immigrants from mainland China. They are in the style of classic “shop-house” which are three to four-story row houses with the business on the ground floor and living quarters above. They were not elegant; the restaurants were basically plastic chairs and tables, but judging by the large number of patrons, probably pretty good. Preparations were already underway for the Chinese New Year celebrations taking place on January 28 this year.

One could not help but notice the ubiquitous billboards and shrines for honoring the memory of the recently deceased King Rama IX. He was the world’s longest serving monarch with close to 70 years in power. I remember watching the King and I on television with my dad, so monarchy has played a role in Thailand for a long time. The king featured in the book and play was King Rama IV.  It seemed like the Thais are obsessed with King Rama IX as literally every building has some form of shrine. The pool workers at the hotel wore black ribbons on their uniforms. One said they wear them for the first 100 days after the king’s death, and there are 11 more days to go. The country is officially in a one-year period of mourning and his body will be ceremonially burnt in October. His son is scheduled to succeed him next January.

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View from my hotel of the Chao Phraya River

In reading about the departed king he seems to have been a good man and good leader. Thailand is somewhat of an economic success story and is growing at a pretty good rate. However, Thailand still has lots of poverty despite a booming tourism industry and I think there must be other reasons why he is so publicly and prolifically mourned. The country is under a military government since 2014 and there are some serious conflict between the upper class elites in Bangkok and the many poor of the rural north. I think King Rama IX was someone everyone liked and he helped keep the country together. I read one expert saying the the business community honors the king so much in order to keep the status quo and avoid a revolution of the majority poor. The king didn’t have much real power, although the family is super rich. The son, the soon to be King Rama X, is not as competent as his father was as royalty and I read where he spends most of his time living a lavish lifestyle abroad.It will be interesting to see if he can grow into the position and use the good will of his father to maintain peace in the country.

I am not sure when the military will be allowing elections again. They stepped in and took over because the opposition “red” party won over the traditionally ruling elite, “yellow” party. Why won’t the same thing happen in the next election? I would like to see the lives of the many poor of Thailand improve and it is my wish for them to maintain the economic growth and include more of the underclass in growth experienced in other areas of the economy.

Farewell to Bangkok and Lumphini Park

I am partial to big parks in urban areas. In all of the cities I have lived in or visited, I always make a point to spend some time in them. I guess being from a small town, I have a need for the green of nature, or at least, to get away from cement, steel and glass. My all time favorite is Kings Park in Perth, Australia. I used to run in there often, but that was before the internet, so no blog posts 😦 .

My final post from Bangkok is about Lumphini Park. We stayed in serviced apartments down the block from the park, so I went for a morning or evening run/walk four times. A prime attraction are the large monitor lizards (photo above). One was crossing the running trail and going into the lake and I saw another swimming in the lake. It was quite tame and easy to approach and photograph.

There is a 2.5 kilometer paved and marked path that circles the park. Both in the morning and evening, there were many people walking and running the path, although it didn’t feel crowded. The artificial lake offers some nice views of the central business district, much like in Central Park. Many older people were stretching or doing thai chi exercises. It was like a village inside a big city, dotted with shrines, outside restaurants and playgrounds. It is a great place to people watch.

View of the city from the Hangover II Hotel

I really enjoyed my week in the city. I wouldn’t want to live downtown where we were staying however. Traffic is a big problem as it limits ease of getting around. We were endlessly waiting at traffic lights with hundreds of motorcycles and scooters weaving in and out of traffic lanes. I would guess that air pollution is quite high. The infrastructure is falling apart, with electrical wires loose on every pole, a poor sewage treatment system resulting in a polluted Chao Phraya river and odors wafting up from the city streets and sidewalks.

My morning commute

The Thais do have beautiful smiles and positive attitudes. The temples and shrines of Therevada Buddhism are ornate blasts of color and give such an exotic feel to the city. The hustle and bustle of the people of Bangkok also is lively, giving the city a good vibe. We had some really good meals and there were lots of cafes to choose from. Thai cuisine’s focus on spices, jasmine rice and vegetables makes it one of my  favorite cuisines. We avoided the seedy sex trade sections of the city, but we did see groups of older men obviously there for that. They are also set up for tourism and so going to the muay thai boxing, taking a cooking lesson or riding an elephant is quite easy to organize. Tropical cities remind me of my first posting overseas, Barranquilla, Colombia and walking through the city brought back fond memories of my time there.

Chao Phraya River at night

I hope to explore more of the country on future visits as well as the rest of South East Asia.

One Week in Bangkok…

I am spending a week in Bangkok and am taking pleasure in getting to know better this busy, odiferous, sensual enriched massive tropical city. It is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, with over 16 million foreigners visiting each year. Buddhism, brought to the Thais in the fifth century and strengthened in the thirteenth century, gives the culture a welcoming openness. Combined with inexpensive standard of living, warm weather and nice beaches/forests (rapidly being lost however), I can see why so many people come here.

The video above shows a bit of the Chao Phraya River, which the city was founded in 1782, succeeding the ancient trading post of Ayutthaya. It has grown to over 14 million people since then. The Thais are a distinct ethnic group, with influences from the Khmer (Cambodia), Mon (Burma) and the Chinese among other groups.

My view from a tuk-tuk

Mainland Southeast Asia is one of the most fertile, biodiverse biomes on earth because of the high temperatures and high levels of rainfall. The modern countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have had their cultures shaped by this. I would guess there are probably many similarities among the populations and I hope to visit all of them sometime during my time in Asia. I especially want to see Angkor Wat, which was once one of the largest cities on earth.

The view of the CBD from the shores of an artificial lake in Lumpini Park.

We are staying near Lumpini Park and it is my favorite part of the city. At dusk and dawn, there are hundreds people jogging, walking, doing aerobics and practicing thai chi. It is a SE Asian version of Central Park. I run the 2.5 kilometer loop in the evenings to get some exercise after sitting and eating all day at the conferences. My least favorite part of Bangkok is the traffic. It is very noisy and the stop and go traffic, with motorcycles zipping by, even makes walking on the sidewalk risky. It really lowers one’s quality of life here. It makes getting around a logistical problem and forget about running/riding a bike here. The pollution levels alone would make it unhealthy, let alone safe from being struck by a vehicle.

This our typical view from the taxi each morning on the way to the conference.

 I hope to get some more blog posts out this week as I get to know more about this fascinating city.