Exotic Bangkok, a terrible beauty

September 19, 1993|By Jane Wooldridge | Jane Wooldridge,Knight-Ridder News Service

Those nasty rumors about Bangkok are true. The once-upon-a-paradise is now crowded and dirty. The smog gags, the traffic is ungodly. The Chao Phraya River is so full of filth it's amazing the bright little fantail taxi boats can zip about unharmed.

I still love it.

Where else can you hop on a river boat filled with saffron-robed monks, zoom about town in motorized tricycle tuk-tuk taxis, stumble across breathtakingly ornate temples and watch locals burning incense at a sidewalk shrine?

All this -- plus the world's finest hotels, an up-to-date airport readily accessible from nearly all major cities and some of the most interesting modern architecture anywhere.

And -- whether your budget is $400 per night or a mere $4 -- Bangkok is surprisingly tourist-friendly.

That was true when I first visited Bangkok five years ago, and remains so. Many other things have changed, however, and the signs of rapid metamorphosis are all around.

The canals -- called klongs -- that once earned the city the nickname of "Venice of the East" are disappearing in the crush of modern life. Construction sites blaze throughout the night in the rush to create striking new skyscrapers. The traffic has gotten so frightful that one entrepreneur has begun marketing portable urinals for those stuck in cars. The air is noticeably thicker. In a city where sex is openly for sale, AIDS is on the rise. The down side of progress -- plus the Persian Gulf war and last year's government coup -- have slowed the flow of tourists. Visitors began returning late last year, after the government settled, and about a half-million arrive each month.

For them, the effects of the coup are invisible, and the traffic and smog are simply inconveniences. This city of 5.5 million is just as exotic, just as cosmopolitan, just as fascinating as ever. The theme song from the Lloyd Webber mega-musical, "Chess," got it right: One night in Bangkok, and the world's your oyster.

Some visitors are in their own rush to grab the city's shopping bargains, sample Bangkok's luxuries and glance into her temples, then -- off to avoid the insanity of this place. Others stop off in Bangkok on the way to the more pristine regions of Thailand's jungled north or her beaches in the south, or to take advantage of Bangkok's position as the gateway to southern Asia and arrange a visa and cheap flight to Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos.

I am happy to languish here awhile. There's nothing in the world like roaring through Bangkok's streets in the back of a tuk-tuk; I forget the heat, the fumes and the noise, and feel free.

I can never spend too many quiet moments in Bangkok's orange-roofed temples; the colorfully robed monks are proof that I am somewhere truly exotic. I can spend hours wandering

through street markets, falling upon unexpected temples, hanging out at little riverside restaurants, munching on garlic crabs and sipping beer.

Beneath Bangkok's hell-for-leather craziness, I feel a curious serenity. Despite the scurry and rush, the people are surprisingly gentle. Thailand's leaders have always been adept at negotiating and have avoided being colonized -- or even much manipulated -- by Western powers. Too, Thailand is profoundly Buddhist -- many men spend some portion of their lives in a monastery -- and the tolerant spirit of that religion seeps into the place. As in most places, the religion is less popular with the younger generation, and that may partly account for the hard edge that was more obvious on this visit than on my last.

Though the religion here is Buddhist, the temples that dot the city -- many of them open to tourists -- incorporate art work and symbolism that bear influences of Brahmanism. The most magnificent is Wat Pra Keo, a fantastic collection of gold domes, spires and temples covered with intricate tile work and guarded by shimmering mythical figures. It is located within the massive compound of the Grand Palace, the official royal residence and the setting of the story of "The King and I."

Temple guide

The flash and glitter reflect a rich symbolism incomprehensible to the uninformed visitor, and it's well worth having a guide. The central pavilion here is home to the Emerald Buddha, a jade figure that is one of the most venerated Buddha statues in Thailand. On Sundays, Wat Pra Keo is filled with locals who come to make offerings of incense or flowers at altars around the temples.

One of my favorite temples is Wat Po, located within walking distance of the Grand Palace. Wat Po is the oldest of Bangkok's wats and home of the Reclining Buddha, a 120-foot-long statue finished in gold leaf that represents Buddha's transition to nirvana. The monastery here is the center of traditional Thai medicine, and the grounds include a massage institute where you can get a rub or learn to give one.

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