I spent a few days in Bangkok on the way back from Myanmar to Japan. I could have flown direct, but it wasn’t much more expensive to stop off at Bangkok, and as well as knowing a few people there, I thought it would be an interesting contrast to the previous two weeks. I had spent all my time preparing myself for Myanmar, so that when I arrived in Bangkok I didn’t know what to expect. The city was so modern with highrises everywhere (interspersed with lovely little pockets of green) and the new Sky Train rivalled Tokyo’s transportation system.
It was coming up to the Queen’s 83rd birthday, so there was a lot of publicity celebrating it. I was aware that it’s a crime to criticise the monarchy in Thailand, but I didn’t know quite how serious it was. People, both Thais and foreigners can face up to 15 years in prison for defaming, insulting or threatening the King, Queen or the Heir. Even not showing due respect can result in a fine or jail time. I never went to the cinema while I was there, but if I had gone, I would have had to stand up with the rest of the cinema-goers while the royal anthem was played, because not doing so can potentially land you in trouble. Of course I wasn’t going to be talking about the royal family with anyone, and I didn’t know enough to criticize, but it was quite scary how serious a crime it is, especially when that lèse majesté law has been used by various Thai governments to stifle free speech. The monarchy has a really interesting history (and future), and I visited the Grand Palace that dates from 1782 when it was built for King Rama I.
I took the boat to the palace and it was a good way to experience a bit of the old Venice of the East. Our boat was passed out by colourful motorized gondolas, and there were some nice views of temples on the river, but there were also some shanty-like houses that reminded me of Myanmar, because of course there are many sides to any real city. The Grand Palace was crowded with tourists, but I was glad I was there by myself so I could take my time and wait for the occasional lull. The Pavilion of Regalia, Royal Decorations & Coins had an incredible trove of royal treasures. Although there were similarities in design with the treasures I saw in the National Museum in Yangon, the way they were displayed here, with photographs and videos of them being worn or used by members of the monarchy, left no doubt that these were the heritage of a living royal family.
The Grand Palace was really stunning with all its glittering gold and glass mosaics. Unfortunately the Temple of the Emerald Buddha was closed when I was there because the emerald (jade) Buddha statue was being prepared to change into his rainy season regalia. The Museum of the Emerald Buddha Temple was really interesting, because the ground floor contained a lot of architectural elements of different buildings in the Grand Palace complex that had been replaced at various times. There was an exhibit, though without much English explanation about how the buildings were restored. Upstairs there were many objets d’art that had been given as offerings to the Buddha, and the gold seasonal attire for the Emerald Buddha.
Somerset Maugham stayed in Bangkok during his travels from Burma to Vietnam in 1923, and although he didn’t visit the Grand Palace, here is his description of the exterior:
For some reason that I forget I had not been able to see the palace, but I did not regret it since it thus retained for me the faint air of mystery which of all the emotions is that which you can least find in Bangkok. It is surrounded by a great white wall, strangely crenellated, and the crenellations have the effect of a row of lotus buds. […] Towards evening the white wall becomes pink and translucent and then above it, the dusk shrouding their garishness with its own soft glamour, you see, higgledy-piggledy, the gay, fantastic and multicoloured roofs of the palace and the wats and the bright-hued tapering of the pagodas. You divine wide courtyards, with lovely gateways intricately decorated, in which officials of the court, in their sober but distinguished dress, are intent upon secret affairs; and you imagine walks lined with trim, clipped trees and temples sombre and magnificent, throne-halls rich with gold and precious stones and apartments, vaguely scented, dark and cool, in which lie in careless profusion the storied treasures of the East.
Somerset Maugham The Gentleman in the Parlour
After the Grand Palace I went to the nearby Wat Pho that has the famous reclining Buddha. Both the Grand Palace and Wat Pho had really beautiful murals on the walls. Along the wall behind the reclining Buddha are 108 bronze bowls where you are encouraged to drop a coin into each to bring your good luck. Unfortuately this had the opposite effect for one man, who was so intent on his coin-dropping that he stepped barefoot onto a wasp that was on the floor – a punishment I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Wat Pho is also famous for its traditional Thai massage school and it was wonderful to have the mild tension of sight-seeing stretched out of me.
Possibly my favourite place in Bangkok was the Jim Thompson House & Museum. Jim Thompson the person is fascinating. He was an architect before he joined the U.S. army and went to North Africa, Europe, Sri Lanka and Thailand. After leaving the army in 1946 he returned to Bangkok where he founded the Thai Silk Company and revitalized the silk industry, especially by bringing it to international prominence through commissions from the musical The King and I in 1951. He lived in Bangkok until his mysterious disappearance in 1967 in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. In 1976 the James H.W. Thompson Foundation was established to administer the house and museum.
In 1958 he began work on his house which combines six teak buildings from Bangkok and the old capital of Ayutthaya. These traditional Thai buildings are combined in a manner that also reflects Western sensibilities. The buildings are elevated one story above the ground in the traditional manner, the roof tiles were fired using a centuries-old design and the red paint on the exterior is a traditional preservative. Thompson built an entrance foyer with cool Italian black and white marble tiles from a 19th century Bangkok palace, placed the stairs inside the structure and connected the buildings with covered hallways. Other unique changes he made were to turn the interior window openings into niches for his art collection and use two Chinese mahjong tables as the dining table. He ammassed a sizeable collection of southeast-asian antiques which are on display in the house. The jungle-like garden hides and separates the house from the bustling cosmopolitan city just a few meters away.
As a museum it’s quite well run, though because it’s such a popular tourist attraction that I’m sure it gets very busy in the high season. You purchase a ticket at the entrance and then join a tour of the house – no shoes and no photos. The tour was really interesting, given by knowledgeble guides wearing Thompson Thai silk, who were happy to answer any extra questions. They also had tours available in french. At the front were some girls who demonstrated how silk was made, dyed and spun, and they performed traditional dances every hour. The cafe is really nice and faces the house, across a pond of carp.