Above: Rush hour on Phayathai Road.
Bangkok may be synonymous with political rallies and sit-ins these days, but scratch the surface, and you’ll still find one of Asia’s most compelling—and affordable—destinations.
By John Langenheim
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang
Eve sits poised, sipping a Cosmopolitan. A coterie of impeccably turned out gay men occupy the couches opposite, faces shining, whispering secret outrages to one another. It’s after 3 a.m. and I’m fading fast, but my host, the proprietor of hip-hop club Bar Bar on Silom Soi 4, looks as fresh as the proverbial daisy. Then again, Eve (a.k.a. Patisya Thongsri) did win the crown at Miss Thailand World 1994, so looking good is probably second nature. I, on the other hand, am ruing the jug of luminous green Kamikaze I drained an hour ago amid the crush of dancers at the Tapas Room Club, another of Bangkok’s mainstay nightspots. At this point, I’m just trying to stay upright—which seems as handy a metaphor as any for the Thai capital these days.
It goes without saying that Thailand has been experiencing some serious upheavals of late. Here’s the potted version of recent political events: In September 2006, the country’s first military coup in 15 years—albeit a bloodless one—brought an end to the divisive rule of elected prime minister and former telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. It was the culmination of months of political wrangling marked by anti-Thaksin rallies in Bangkok organized by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD, popularly known as the Yellow Shirts). The junta remained in power for more than a year, though it stated from the outset its intention to swiftly establish a new democratically elected government. While the international community lamented what pundits described as “a step backward for democracy,” many Thais had a different take.
“It was the most welcome coup in Thai history,” says artist and social activist Manit Sriwanichpoom. “I’m against coups, but when this one happened, I understood why.” That sentiment is echoed by nearly everyone I meet in the capital. Thaksin’s debt-relief and health care programs had made him wildly popular in the Thai countryside, but to most middle- and upper-class Bangkokians, his name was a byword for corruption and abuse of power. One local friend of mine wryly describes his ousting as a “fun coup,” recalling kids climbing on tanks and people giving roses to soldiers. “I don’t think anyone was all that freaked out,” he says.
Of course, the crisis did not end with the general election of December 2007. With Thaksin in exile and his Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”) party disbanded by the junta, the deposed leader’s supporters regrouped as the People’s Power Party (PPP). They promptly won the election, much to the chagrin of the military and the PAD. Demonstrations started up again with renewed vigor—as did counterprotests by the pro-Thaksin National United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD, or the Red Shirts). Over the course of a year, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was forced out of office (his side job as the host of a TV cooking show was deemed a conflict of interest by the Constitutional Court of Thailand), as was his successor, Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat (on corruption charges). But it was the PAD’s sensational weeklong occupation of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport that tipped the scale. In its wake, the PPP was dissolved, paving the way for the election last December of a coalition government led by democrat Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s third prime minister in a year.
Thaksin, however, continued to stir up his supporters from abroad, and on April 13, 2009, a Red Shirt rally in Bangkok escalated into the worst rioting the capital has seen in a long time. The violence, thankfully, was short-lived, and the city has been relatively quiet ever since.
As political imbroglios go, this one would have had even Machiavelli’s head spinning. Indeed, after extricating myself from Bar Bar, my own head is spinning as I sit amid the 4 a.m. detritus on Silom’s main drag, staring blearily at my bowl of noodles (“obligatory after a night of heavy drinking,” Eve declares). And yet, as the heat of the spice begins to work its magic, I manage to summon one clear conviction: that Bangkok is still surely among the most vibrant cities in the region.
It’s precisely 42 degrees Celsius and I’m standing on one foot, legs and arms intertwined, back arched, rivulets of sweat bursting from every pore. Thirty or so other students, most of them Thais, are in the same predicament. Our mic’ed up instructor directs us with the machine-gun delivery of an auctioneer. “Don’t wipe the sweat, sweat is good, heat is good, the pain kills the pain.”
You’ve got to love Bikram yoga. Bangkok seems to—there are at least 50 classes a week here, the first starting at 6:30 a.m., the last at 9 p.m. The system was developed in Los Angeles by the flamboyant, Kolkata-born yoga guru Bikram Choudhury, who now has franchise studios around the world. It’s an old story: ancient oriental arts, repackaged in the West and sold back to the East. And as this is the 21st century, we are going through our postures in a vast high-tech gym at Central World, the undisputed behemoth of Bangkok shopping malls. It takes me half an hour to even find the True Fitness gym; a golf buggy and GPS system would have helped.
The Siam area in central Bangkok is Thailand’s shopping mecca. Tired of Central World? Head to the opulent Siam Paragon, which opened in 2005 complete with a concert hall, a 14-screen multiplex, and what is reportedly the biggest aquarium in Southeast Asia. Or try your luck at Mahboonkrong (MBK), a legendary mid-end mall where, despite recent crackdowns on fakes, the global and shadow economies collide in a jumble of hundreds of shops and stalls. Or Gaysorn, or Siam Discovery, or Siam Center … everywhere is bustling with shoppers. Excuse me, but isn’t there an economic crisis going on? “You have to remember, Bangkok had its economic crisis in ’97,” Manit Sriwanichpoom tells me as we sip iced tea in his Kathmandu Photo Gallery off busy Silom Road. “The reaction here isn’t as intense as in America and Europe. We’re more laid back.”
Of course, Bangkok has not escaped the recessionary climes. But in a place of such kaleidoscopic commerce, it’s hard to reconcile the statistics (in July the Bank of Thailand forecast that the economy would contract by as much as 4.5 percent in 2009) with the experience on the ground. Or underground, or above ground, depending on how you travel: the city’s efficient SkyTrain and BTS subway systems have done much to lessen the effort it once took to get around town, whisking middle-class residents between office blocks and shopping malls in air-conditioned comfort. But while escaping Bangkok’s still-snarled traffic has its appeal, it’s the eternal life on the streets that makes this place unique. Nowhere else I know barrages the senses with such concentrated exuberance.
Take Chinatown, for example. Step down one of the narrow alleys off the neon-signed main drag of Yaowarat and you find yourself funneled along with a steady stream of humanity, past displays of toy dogs and decals and false, feathered eyelashes; past ironmongers and old-style apothecaries selling strange roots in burlap sacks and chestnuts cooked in a swirl of hot black sand; past wooden shophouses where old men sit in shadows counting chits.
Another classic destination is the Chatuchak Weekend Market, or “JJ” as the locals call it. Once a daunting taxi ride from central Bangkok, this sprawling warren of something like 9,000 stalls is now an easy walk from a SkyTrain station. You can find anything you want here, from vintage jeans and DIY designer gear to stone Buddhas, scrap-metal sculptures, furniture, rare books, and yes, even the kitchen sink. JJ is also defying the economic blues by opening on Fridays until midnight, in addition to its customary Saturday and Sunday hours. Beat the heat by going in the afternoon—and as the market starts shutting down, head to one of the little bars or eateries (Viva is particularly colorful) where locals and tourists congregate.
Or spend an afternoon exploring the klongs (canals) of Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River across from the old royal district of Rattanakosin. “I used to swim in the klongs as a kid,” my friend Poob tells me. “I grew up in Thonburi and my parents still live there, but I stopped going in the water a long time ago.”
Probably a wise decision—there are more than 10 million people living in Bangkok and wastewater treatment is rudimentary at best; much of the sewage ends up in the maze-like klongs. A boat ride, however, affords a glimpse into a centuries-old way of life that has been largely paved over on the other side of the river. Our longtail boat takes us past rickety houses set on stilts, kids leaping in unison from humpback bridges, rotund barges filled with commodities, floating food stalls, temples, and even a mailbox emerging surreally from the water.
“Bangkok is like a huge never-ending festival,” says Areeya Chumsai, another former Miss Thailand, now better known for her books and documentaries on social issues. “You can go anywhere 24 hours a day and there is something going on. And it’s safe, too.”