I first arrived in Bangkok thirty seven years ago. I came and went many times over the years. I live there now, for how long I don’t know. For a time traveler like myself it has been a fantastic voyage of discovery. When I first got here I found a country that hadn’t been discovered by mass tourism. There wasn’t the infrastructure to support a tourist industry. Few high rise buildings had risen against the sweltering skyline and fewer ‘star class’ hotels were in existence. Only one notable hotel had the capacity to entertain the whims and wants of western visitors and that was the ancient Oriental Hotel in Bang Rak on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
The original hotel in it’s entirety did not survive a renovation, only a partial facade remains of the place that attracted many great writers such as Joesph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. Charoen Krung Road was the city center back then before the Silom business district arose from the maze of clap board shacks that had stood there before modernity took over. Charoen Krung was where the main post office stands, where we would communicate with the world before the days of email , internet and Skype. From the post office to the Sri Hualompong railway station was a pleasant walk along a shady khlong under the shade of leafy tree’s. Traffic was ….unusual. In the opposite direction I could walk down Rama IV Road to Lumphini Park past shop-houses and listen to the conversations of people going about their neo-rural existence in this quiet city. Back then you had to look in a few special places if you wanted to see another traveler, at any one time there would have only been a handful in town.
My time in Bangkok has been intermittent, I come and go for varying lengths of time. This pattern of involvement has allowed me to notice the development more profoundly than if I had become accustomed to something gradually come into being. Originally my line of sight was always focused at street level, because above the two and three story shop-house fronts there was nothing but blue sky. Thai society was much more traditional at the time. Women wore long demure skirts of homespun material down to their ankles and well tailored blouses that covered their arms to the wrist.
Thai fabric is woven into patterns that striate the horizontal hems with regular lines of subtle color highlit against a solid somber background usually blue or brown. The silk or cotton blouses usually involve faux lace work or ‘cut work’ as it is called in the industry. Every women whether Thai or Chinese, and the two societies were very separate back then, would cover her face with a thick layer of white paste to keep off the sun and to conform to the acknowledged color code. Sometimes they would scratch in a pattern of lines and swirls with their long fingernails. It was not unusual to see women at rest smoking the long thin dark rolled leaf cigars of black tobacco in the shops and kiosks.
Men on the other had only begun to shift into western style clothing but still primarily wore the checked sarong pleated in the front by an ingenious knot while wearing a loose fit shirt over top when at home , in the market or doing traditional work. Cab drivers to shop keepers would wear traditional clothes a majority of the time. The first thing that struck me was that men did not wear short pants, even young boys. The way I was dressed, coming from India, was entirely unacceptable and it was made quite apparent to me as I moved around the city. Thai society was far more conforming in those days . They obviously did not like outsiders bringing change and were not accustomed to having ‘farang’ in their midst. Aside from the loose fitting cotton draw string pajama pants that I had worn in India I didn’t own a pair of long pants. I wore shorts and Thai’s made their disapproval quite plain.
When in public it wasn’t uncommon to hear children making fun of my hairy exposed legs. They would hoot and make cheeky monkey sounds behind my back as I passed. I noticed that the Thai were obsessed with keeping every hair plucked away before it grew. It was a very common sight to see people of every age plucking at themselves with readily available wide headed tweezers and hand held mirrors to prick away any hairs that had sprouted during the night. This seemed to be a national past time, and quite amusing, if not a bit hypocritical.
This has now changed to the point where every man who isn’t working in a bank wears short pants, to a near degree of exclusivity. I’m glad that rigid custom changed because the daily temperatures in Bangkok haven’t, averaging ninety one degrees year round. I still wear shorts every day, I have a lot of company, and no more hooting monkey sounds from the kids. Another huge social faux pas was to cross ones legs while sitting. This was considered extremely rude. Apparently the root of all this is the Thai belief that the feet are dirty and should never be pointed in the direction of any other, even if there isn’t any other. I remember riding a bus and having a gentleman come over to me and tap my foot gently so that I would conform to local custom. It was not an aggressive gesture. More like the action of a concerned dog owner teaching his puppy to sit.
Bangkok has been described as a city of ‘flawed modernity’, this is substantially correct. They have rushed headlong into the twenty first century without completely making peace with the eighteenth. Much of the skyline is drawn over by sky scratching towers of glass and steel and bamboo and twine and mud brick covered over with swaths of lathe and mortar to make them look like real western style buildings as long as an earthquake or other calamity doesn’t hit and expose the basic flaws in construction materials and engineering. Thai planners have fallen in love with freeway flyovers, and like the improvements in transportation or not, the city has lost a certain ‘savoire faire’, that it will never recapture. Much of the city trades on it’s past reputation, that facade is wearing thin, we have got to recognize the Bangkok of 2012 for what it is.
Knowing what I do about what was here before I still catch an occasional fleeting glimpse of the past glory when Bangkok was the quiet city by the river. I’m not sure how a newcomer would see those things. The roar of this modern metropolis is deafening. The cacophony of the street life and the boom in population forces one to concentrate one foot in front of the other, so crowded are the sidewalks that daydreaming will only lead to calamity. People coming to Bangkok today are looking for different things, I recognize that when I speak to them.
What has been popularized is the shopping and the night life. The sleazy scene of hookers and foreign punters is actually on the wane and of no interest to the average Thai, or even long term resident for that matter, that’s strictly for the newbies whose lives have been abnormally sheltered. This industry is sucking off the notoriety of the past when Thailand’s two rest and recuperation centers for Vietnam soldiers was Bangkok’s Patpong Road and Pattaya where there was still a navy base, long since abandoned.
A rather fresh faced and naive foreign media also serves to perpetuate the sex industry myth. If this industry was flourishing in Vancouver or Seattle there would be the reporters on the front line waging the war against such a politically incorrect horror in the midst. Why they report on the sex industry in Thailand as if it’s ‘fun and normal’ here is only slightly illogical.
In 1975 there wasn’t a single shopping mall, buying anything was done at street level. Now the malls litter the landscape like dead flies after a room spray, there are hundreds of malls, many of world class proportions. They are ubiquitous and the selection is fiercely competitive, the products well priced compared to western shops. In fairness most westerners would have never stuck their noses into a traditional wet market anyway. Too hot , too stinky, way too alien for your average ‘boob from the burbs’. A wet market takes fresh food to a whole new level.
Many visitors are still coming after the possibility of a fantasy life as portrayed in the Leo de Caprio movie ‘The Beach’. The fact that this has never happened in Thailand hasn’t deterred the noble and spiritually starved western traveler to seek it out. Far be it from me to stop someone from wearing tie dye and getting a hair braid while they holiday in the sun. Spiritual experiences are where you find them, good luck with that quest on the tourist islands of Thailand.
Bangkok may have changed in many ways, but if you look hard enough and keep an open mind it can still offer many beautiful moments. I like the mod-cons that have been brought in. I can live in a modern condo with all the treats as opposed to staying in a run down hotel. I can ride the air conditioned Skytrain and not have it take three to four hours to cross the city by bus in the screaming heat. I have streaming video and can post my travel articles instantaneously instead of sending a telegram from the post office and waiting several weeks for a reply. I have accustomed myself to appreciate the art of popping in to an air conditioned mall to escape the blistering heat of the day. KFC makes a great soft ice cream cone and that is something you couldn’t get anywhere within a thousand miles thirty seven years ago.I still find the people as good hearted and gentle as they were when I first laid eyes on Thailand.
End of Part Two – The time traveler-Bangkok then and now. Look for Part Three of ‘The Time Traveler-Paradise Lost- the unfortunate unraveling of Bali