Dear and Faithful Readers,
My apologies for the lack of a blog for a day. If you have seen The Hangover 2, you will know the effect that Bangkok has on its visitors!
Bangkok is such a sensory overload that I know I will never do it justice. We stayed at the Malaysia Hotel near a lot of the very active areas of the city, and just across from Lumphini Park and Muay-Thai stadium. The staff all know Chris, and so it was like Old Home Week! We had several delicious meals in the hotel’s 24 hour cafe, and the cuisine really is hot! Even for me.
The food in the restaurants we ate in was often a mixture of Thai and Western offerings, with both very well prepared. Our last lunch with our driver and Chris’ old friend Tony was in his favorite steak house. Tony had steak, Chris has a triple grill including broiled ostrich, and I had a delightful dish of prawns in a peanutty Thai sauce.
Unlike Australia, where the export beer Fosters is nowhere to be seen, the familiar Thai beers Singha and Chang are ever-present in bars and restaurants. A cold beer tastes very gook in the 90+ F degree heat and humidity.
During the day and a half, we moved slowly, got massages, and visited a magnificent Chinese-style Buddhist Temple, Wat Traimit in the heart of the city. On the second floor, a museum of the history of Chinese immigration and settlement in Thailand is very well presented in sight, sound and signage.
Heading up to the 4th floor, we reached the sanctuary of this Temple of the Golden Buddha. The central figure is a 10 foot tall, 5.5 ton solid gold image of the Buddha sitting. Both tourists and the faithful were in quiet peace in this holy place.
From there, we took a hour+ boat ride up and down the Chao Phraya River through central Bangkok. This was the best and most refreshing way to see the innumerable Temples, Churches and Mosques, along with government and military installations, and a strange juxtaposition of mansions, middle class homes and corrugated tin shanties.
We had a short stop at MBK Mall, an 8-floor gigantic shopping mall in a modern building that also houses a bowling alley, a hotel and across the street, a Muay-Thai stadium. It is like about 5 Gallerias all in one.
On the night we stayed over in Bangkok, Chris took me to the Night Market, a bustling area with hawker stalls, stores, restaurants and clubs. It is wall-to-wall people, in the sultry heat and humidity in the area defined by Silom Road.
Since this is a family-friendly blog, I will not go into detail about the nature of the entertainment venues along this district’s streets. Suffice it to say that in many of the world’s religions, I would be struck blind for what I saw when peeking in the crowded doorways. If you can imagine SF’s Broadway joints mixed with New Orlleans’ Bourbon Street, and all on steroids, you might get close to the energy and feel of the place. The Thais do like to party.
Luckily, he knows some calmer venues in the area, and we were able to have a beer with more of his friends made over the years, sitting in the narrow, neon-lit lanes.
Traffic is unrelenting at almost all hours, and there are few stop lights or pedestrian crossings. You just have to dodge across the street and avoid getting hit by cars, scooters and Took-Tooks.
We had one wild ride in a Took-Took, a three-wheeled motorized contraption. The usual ones are very clean, but this was an exception, and the elderly driver a mad-man. He wove through traffic, wormed his was between cars, but delivered us safely to the hotel, and then hugged both of us. He, like so many people here, called me “Papa,” Ah well, once the Paterfamilias, always the Paterfamilias!
My reflection after a day is that the Thais obviously love life, enjoy their fun, and are very, very religious. Religion, especially Buddhism is inextricably woven into the fabric of society. They are also held together by their sincere and obvious devotion to their Constitutional Monarch, King Rama IX, who, having reigned since 1950, is the world’s longest ruling monarch.
The King’s portrait is everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, in front of practically every institution. The reverence in which the people hold the King is deep and clearly genuine. From everything I can tell, he has been a good and fair King, and helped his nation come into the 21st century, benefitting Thais of every ethnicity and religion.
Thailand (“Land of the Free”) has been guided by this dynasty since its foundation in 1782 and the establishment of Bangkok as the capital. Humans have inhabited the area for some 20,000 years, and in the 10th Century CE, there are records of migrations from South China, and the union of the two Thai Kingdoms into one. Beginning in the 16th Century, the Burmese occupied Thailand briefly twice, and were permanently expelled by Rama I by 1769. Since then Thailand has never been colonized, and only occupied briefly by the Japanese in WWII.
Beginning with Rama IV in the mid 19th Century and continuing ever since, Thailand has progressively transformed itself into a modern state, taking what it deemed useful from the West. Today it is a functioning democracy–with tensions between social classes inflamed by a previous PM who is now, luckily, in exile, but who continues to foment problems from abroad. The King keeps it all together and moving forward.
Thailand joined the Allies in WWI and is strongly identified with the Free World. It has good relations with China, and a firm friendship and relationship with the United States.
So here we have a nation with plenty of Western influence. What makes it different from Singapore?
I suspect the answer is stated in the title of this blog posting. The Thais are neither Children of Alexander, nor Heirs of Rome. Here’s what I mean:
Arguably, much of the word west of the Ganges to the Pacific Coast of North America is in one way or another either a descendent of, or (Persia and Northern India) deeply affected changed by Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic Empire (as later extended westward by Rome, and then Western Europe). Exceptions can be found, but I am generalizing (Egypt, of course is always the exception. Although deeply hellenized, it also maintains its Pharaonic legacy.)
Secondly, most of the areas that were part of the Roman Empire see themselves as Heirs of the Roman Empire. Why else would nation after nation have the Eagle–in one form or another–as its symbol, use the Fasces as a symbol of strength through unity, and construct their government buildings in the Roman style?
The other parts of the British Empire–former or current–such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore (which was founded as a British Trading Colony) also inherited this legacy, and embraced it.
Thailand is not part of this. It is its own nation, adopting what it wishes from the heirs of Alexander and Rome, but remaining itself. I sense that here. It is different. In the common SE Asian saying “Same, same…but different!”
I will be fascinated to see how the French colonial period affected Vietnam. We know all too well the tragic 20th Century history of the USA’s involvement here, and we’ll talk about that during our time in Vietnam.
So see what you think about this thesis.
Briefly, today was a Sea Day, with relaxation as the by-word. There was another round of Bingo, and a very wet Songkran party in the afternoon.
Songkran is the Thai New Year and Water Festival held in mid-April. For several days, the entire country shoots one another with water-pistols, and otherwise soaks everyone else. We held our (early) version of this poolside, and good fun was had by all. Chris had picked up some high-powered water shooters and the ceremonial clay for our faces, and so we took part in the soaking and being soaked.
The evening concluded with a classic meal at The Olympic Restaurant, a faithful re-creation of a dining room from The Olympic Liner (and its sister ship, The Titanic).
Tomorrow, we venture further into unknown territory, as we explore Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
… Sorry for the brevity and typos: Sent from remote on the phone.