John Burdett reflects on Bangkok, Thailand

the-city-bankok-OV50-main
Bangkok is called Krung Thep by locals. Larry Dale Gordon / Getty Images

Bangkok is the name of the destination on the e-ticket, but when you spend time here you realize the locals call it Krung Thep. So Bangkok is the official name and Krung Thep is the local, folksy name, right? Wrong: it’s the other way around. So Bangkok must be the name arrogant foreigners decided to call it? Not exactly. Bangkok was what the original site was called, but there is a connection with Western aggression: it was the name of a fort built here by the French in the 1660s.

This is exactly the kind of double-double shuffle that Krung Thep (which means the City of Angels in Thai) forces on one at every turn. The people you see the most of—that is to say the street vendors, taxi drivers, shop assistants, hotel staff—these surely must be the real Bangkokians? Probably not; they are more likely to be country folk who have come to the big city to escape poverty. The younger ones might have arrived as recently as you did. The street vendors in particular are often farming folk who will return to their small holdings for the rice harvest, then again for the planting season—when such people talk about “my country,” as they often do, they mean the land called Isaan at the extreme northeast of Thailand, which was originally Laotian and where everyone speaks a dialect of that language to this day.

It goes on: what about those poor, poor girls who sell their bodies every night in those notorious red-light districts—they must be the daughters of those subsistence farmers? Very possibly, but these days they could also be ambitious young women studying for M.A.s in law or business studies, who find that the hours and remuneration of their temporary profession fit well with their career path. And, by the way, don’t expect them to be pathetic; generally they are dignified, charming girls who see their job as a bit of a joke, albeit a well-paid one. What most of them want is a farang (Western) husband, so, naturally, they come to work in the street where farang men congregate. The lucky ones transform into society hostesses in London, New York, Paris, L.A., more or less overnight.

In the end, you learn to love culture shock. When I first visited, decades ago, on R&R from an unbearably stressful job as a lawyer in Hong Kong, I decided immediately—along with a lot of others in my situation—that Thailand was the land of my dreams. I stayed in the old wing of the Oriental Hotel, which includes a cute little ballroom where Somerset Maugham once danced. One could sit on the terrace, half close one’s eyes in the balmy evening air, and imagine that the endless traffic on the river included a boat captained by Joseph Conrad. In the noisy, chaotic city, with its jumble of high-rise steel-and-glass boxes, rickety slums, fine houses with walled gardens, gated communities, smoking traffic jams, and endless cooked-food stalls, the river was my first, and for a while my only, point of reference. I knew that however lost I became in the sois (side streets) and sub sois, if I found a tuk-tuk to take me to the river, I could always jump on a great, roaring snake-head passenger boat to bring me “home” to the romantic, orchids-with-everything Oriental Hotel.

But which Krung Thep/Bangkok was I really in love with? The more I investigated, the more the city seemed to dissolve before my eyes. My clean-cut young guide telling me about the Emerald Buddha at the Grand Palace was surely one of those men one read about in the guide book who ordained as a Buddhist monk for three months in his early 20s? Actually, he was a Thai Hindu who worshiped at the great sprawling Sri Mariamman temple on Silom. When I probed a little further I realized that many of the places of worship, in which Bangkok abounds, were not Buddhist wats (temples) but mosques. In Chinatown there were Taoist temples where local Chinese came to rattle fortune sticks and beg for luck from a plump (and therefore lucky) alabaster Buddha. Still others were Christian churches.

To cope, I took up Buddhist meditation—my guru was a big-boned Englishman in saffron robes who had ordained in the spiritual heart of the city at Wat Po (where one can also learn the art of massage). “In the end, it all comes down to letting go,” he told me. He was right. Expecting to be wrong about most things most of the time brings, finally, the kind of humility that leads to peace. I think.

Join the Discussion