I stumbled across an unexpected sensory experience this morning, the kind no guidebook or group tour can script. I was walking the bustling street of Bangkok’s Thanon Tanao, a street lined with traditional shophouses, most grouped by type – all the wedding dress tailors at one end, then the jewelry and silver shops, shoes, and so on, with a few restaurants thrown in here and there. Many shops were closed for the weekend, their metal gates or massive folding wood shutters padlocked shut, but plenty were open and catering to shoppers.
A massive traffic jam of tuk-tuks, taxis, and Chinese-Thais crowding the sidewalk suddenly pulled me away from window shopping and drew me into a smoky den of people, drumming, and swirling activity. I was standing in the midst of a Chinese Taoist shrine to the tiger spirit deity and Saturday morning shortly before Chinese New Years had drawn an influx of people to pray for success, prestige, and pregnancies in the year ahead.
People bought eggs, pork, rice, all manor of candles and paper goods to give as offerings. I watched as a daughter helped her elderly father light a paper certificate of a money offering, denomination 500 baht, the edges curling in the flame, then drop it into a massive bell-like vat. Almost everyone carried handfuls of lit incense, like smoky bouquets, as they made a rapid, almost panicked circuit around the interior of the shrine. In the corner, a couple of richly costumed dancers moved to the drum. I was standing in the corner, still as a stone, as if aware one little movement from me and I would be whisked irrevocably into the fray, a helpless participant in the human current.
Once the incense began to make me dizzy, I stumbled back out onto the street and found a nearby shophouse restaurant in which to recover. Like most Thai restaurants, this one specialized in one dish, a heaping plate of fried chicken with a special dipping sauce. My hands became sticky as I tore into the pieces, trying to pull every last morsel from the bits of bone. It was delicious.
In Bangkok, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid temples, so I wandered quite a few, each historic in its own right, some crowded with tourists, others quiet with the contemplation of locals. I prefer the local crowd, sitting inside the temple viharn beneath the massive Buddhas, gazing at the frescoes that adorn every inch of the walls. There are some fabulous murals in Bangkok’s temples, full of tiny cities, temples, rivers, mountains, and people. Each character, among the hundreds on any wall, seems unique, mother leading her child by the hand, the ferry boat drivers, the soldiers, all with their own individual expression amid the masses. It’s like a Where’s Waldo exercise as you allow your eyes to caress the paintings and soak in the minute details.
Getting around the city can be a challenge, especially in the older parts of the Bangkok where tiny winding alleys (soi) and buildings hugging the street choke up traffic. A couple of neighborhoods have narrow khlongs, or canals, that bisect them, houses lining the water, their laundry flapping outside in the breeze. The secret to dashing quickly out of the old city into the rest of Bangkok is the khlong. While the Chao Phraya express river buses are super useful if you happen to be near the river, in the depths of Banglamphu, the khlong taxi is the answer. I found a crowd of locals standing canalside just beneath the Golden Mount, a massive hilltop temple (really a temple built on top of the ruins of an older temple). When the river taxi pulled up, we all squeezed onto the long benches and the boat sped off down the canal. The fare collector tightroped the side of the boat as we moved, collecting each fare clinging to the side like a monkey. I was impressed – I would have been in the dirty canal with the first wave.
Within minutes I was disembarking and walking towards Siam Square, the heart of modern Bangkok’s shopping and entertainment. Massive malls soared on either side, cafes and boutiques beckon trendy locals into their air-conditioned confines. Within minutes, I was in an entirely different city.