Following six months of travel through Europe earlier this year, we flew to Bangkok, our first destination in Southeast Asia. This was in early October. The heat, strong smells, and gritty, noisy chaos of the city was a shock to the system at first. Over time, we learned that the crowds, pavement kitchens, temples, and narrow, broken sidewalks of Bangkok would be repeated in most of the destinations we visited in Southeast Asia.
Income disparity in Bangkok
We stayed at a Sheraton on the banks of the Chao Phraya, the river that runs through Bangkok. Directly across the river we could see IconSiam, a new, upscale mall that features retailers including Cartier, Tiffany, and Luis Vuitton. IconSiam is as much or more about entertainment as it is shopping, with its indoor floating market and food stalls and its BMW motorcycle and auto dealership showing cars all around the mall’s second floor. In the weeks before Christmas, which is when we were there, IconSiam put on a light and water show every evening, lasting about 25 minutes. From our riverside room at the Sheraton, we had a front row seat.
But, walking less than a block from our hotel, one is squarely into Bangkok’s Chinatown, an area lacking the charm of Chinatowns we have known in New York and San Francisco. Bangkok Chinatown is a dirty area with no sidewalks, small mechanic shops, plentiful pavement kitchens, and down-in-the-heels buildings. If you wander into Chinatown, don’t count on hailing a cab – they rarely drive through in search of a fare. Such is the income disparity in Bangkok with huge changes across just a few blocks.
While we were in the city, we read news reports that the city is considering banning pavement kitchens. The reasons are both health concerns and a sense of wanting to clean up the city. However, the pavement kitchens serve a real need: much of the housing in Bangkok lacks kitchen facilities and, those who don’t have kitchens must rely on the pavement kitchen food for daily sustenance.
Jim Thompson House
On our first afternoon in Bangkok, we learned that, later on that day, there was a special event to take place: the King and Royal Family, along with part of the Royal Navy, was holding a flotilla on Chao Phraya near the Grand Palace. The staff at the hotel suggested that we go take a look, as this is a very infrequent event, possibly a once in a lifetime event. This one was for the new king, Rama X who recently succeeded his father, King Rama IX who died in 2016 and, with his reign of more than 70 years, was the longest reigning head of state in history. We briefly considered going, but were a little concerned not knowing how easy it would be to get around and what type of crowds we should expect. Our ‘plan B’ was to visit the Jim Thompson house, far from the river and the crowds watching the flotilla.
Jim Thompson was an American who moved to Thailand in 1948. As an investor in the Mandarin Palace Hotel, he and others traveled to Bangkok to renovate and operate the hotel, however Thompson ended up selling his shares to his business partners and, instead, took on the business of expanding the Thai Silk Company. The business was very successful and in its early days even had the opportunity to supply the silk to make costuming for the Broadway musical The King and I. Thompson’s friendship with Kenneth Landon, an American missionary, and his wife Margaret Landon, who authored the book, Anna and the King of Siam, upon which the musical was based, was instrumental in this opportunity.
Jim Thompson was also a trained architect and by 1958 when his fortunes had grown, he bought several small Thai houses along one of the city’s canals and converted them into a beautiful villa with lovely gardens. He furnished his home with a wonderful collection of local art and furnishings. Then, in 1967, only eight years after the house was completed, Jim Thompson went to Malaysia on holiday and disappeared. To this day, no one knows what happened to him, but the Thai Silk Company goes on, and his beautiful villa is open to the public. We had a delightful tour of this unusual and lovely house that Mr. Thompson built and decorated.
Palaces and Temples
When John and I were in Bangkok in October, we made our way around to the main sights in town: The Grand Palace of the Thai Royal Family and several of the largest and most iconic temples. The scale of these structures is massive. The Grand Palace is a whole complex of buildings that has a footprint of more than 2.3 million square feet. This time Mary was with us and, since we only had two days in town, we scheduled a half-day tour to zip through several of these sites at a rapid pace. Our tour guide was a small Thai woman named Mohm (pronounced “Mom”). She had a great sense of humor and ready laugh and she made the tour so much fun.
On our last day in Bangkok, we spent a few hours at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. At 35 acres, Chatuchak is truly overwhelming. It’s hard not to get lost in the aisles and aisles of market stalls selling a great variety of different goods with very little organization to the entire place. It’s not a place to shop and compare – if you find something that you want at Chatuchak, it’s best to buy it on the spot since finding your way back to that same stall won’t be easy. We had a great time window shopping household goods, art, tropical fish – you name it – and buying several pairs of the iconic Thai elephant pants.