The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, February 16, 2003

Bangkok: The Orient’s most fabled city
Adarsh Batra

The mass transit system is a heavy dual track one
The mass transit system is a heavy dual track one

MANY first-time visitors to Bangkok have little idea of what they will actually encounter. Bangkok metropolis, accommodating around eight million residents, is a sophisticated, fast- growing and, on occasions, traffic-clogged city. Referred to as the City of Angels, Bangkok was once called the Venice of the East because of its many canals. Although many canals have been filled-in, taking away some of the city’s old-world charm, it is still one of the most intriguing places worth visiting in South-east Asia.

Bangkok, located at the centre of the country, is also an excellent stepping-off point for visiting other parts of Thailand. It covers an area of 1,600 sq km on both sides of the Chao Phraya River. Almost all major domestic and foreign companies are located in the capital, as are all government ministries and most of the country’s leading educational, sporting and cultural facilities.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. Since 1932, Thai Kings, including the present monarch, H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej have exercised their legislative powers through a national assembly, their executive powers through a cabinet headed by a Prime Minister, and their judicial powers through the law courts. Buddhism is the predominant religion in Thailand and approximately 95 per cent of the population is Buddhist. Muslims constitute around four per cent of the population and live mostly in the southern provinces bordering Malaysia. Most residents are ethnic Thais, with around 25 per cent of the city’s inhabitants being Chinese or of Chinese descent. The Chinese influence is strong, particularly in the business sector. The second-largest group is of Indian descent. The city is also home to illegal immigrants from Burma, Cambodia, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Bangkok’s population is predominantly young. Over half the residents are under 30. People of Bangkok are fun-loving and easy-going. The average temperatures rarely dip below 25°C during the city’s three seasons.

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The khlong serves as an alternative method of transportation
The khlong serves as an alternative method of transportation

In the past, Bangkok people commuted from one place to another by boat, and khlongs (canals) were the principal means of transport, both during wars and at times of peace. Canals were dug for transportation purposes, earning the city the unofficial title Venice of the Orient. Travelling by boat is no longer the principal mode of travel, nevertheless, canals still retain significant, historical value, as does the Maenam Chao Phraya that flows through Bangkok. Now, the khlong serves as an alternative method of transportation to avoid the heavy traffic on Bangkok’s roads. Public buses are plentiful and cheap.

Air-conditioned buses within Bangkok have minimum and maximum fares of 6 and 16 baht respectively. Bus numbers indicate routes. Buses can be uncomfortable and crowded especially during rush hours and will therefore have very little or no room for luggage. Taxis cruising the streets of Bangkok, and designated "taxi-meters" (show the sign taxi-meter on its roof) charge 35 baht for the first and approximately 5 baht added for the third kilometre. Then, the price per kilometre keeps on decreasing automatically. Passengers are required to pay a toll in case of using an expressway. Tuk-Tuk or three wheel taxis are quite popular among the tourists for short journeys inside Bangkok.

The rapid growth of Bangkok has severely strained its facilities and led to a number of serious problems. The city now has over a million registered motor vehicles and because of the limited road surface, traffic congestion is heavy in central areas. Bangkok has become one of the busiest cities in the world. Traffic congestion in the city is so great that the problem cannot be solved without diverting road users to other means of transport. To solve this problem, Bangkok’s skytrain has been serving the public since December 5, 1999. Designed and constructed according to international standards, the Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) is a heavy dual track elevated railway, powered by electric motors, and is fully controlled by computers. It can accommodate more than 50,000 passengers per hour per direction. Commuters in Bangkok can enjoy travelling on the country’s first underground rail system by July, 2003.

The architecture of the Vimanmek Palace is fascinating
The architecture of the Vimanmek Palace is fascinating

Bangkok’s major tourism attractions include the fabulous Wat Phra Kaeo (Emeral Buddha Chapel), a treasure house of Thai arts and houses the Emerald Buddha, Grand Palace complex; Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), whose spires are decorated with millions of multi-coloured porcelain fragments; Wat Pho (Temple of the reclining Buddha), contains a gigantic gold plated Reclining Buddha some 46 metres long and 15 metres high; Wat Saket (Golden Mount); Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple), all of these temples charge admission fees to cover restoration costs, admission to rest is free;

Vimanmek Palace, favourite residence of King Chulalongkorn and the world’s largest golden teak building; the fabulous royal barges, with their exquisite carvings of mythical figures; the Pasteur Institute’s Snake Farm where poisonous snakes are fed daily and venom is "milked" from cobras and Kraits to make invaluable anti-snakebite serum; Jim Thompson’s (an American who came to Thailand at the end of World War II and revived the silk industry) House Museum which contains a superb collection of Asian objets d’art; Suan Pakkand Palace’s lacquer pavilion which is decorated with medieval gold leaf murals; the world’s largest Crocodile Farm; a 200-acre open air museum called the Ancient City; entertainment and recreational complexes such as Siam Water Park, Safari world, King Rama IX park and Dusit Zoo; unrivalled shopping opportunities for some of the world’s most admired handicrafts; exceptionally fine dining in gourmet restaurants featuring the world’s favourite cuisines; and a liberated, almost legendary nightlife.

Shopping is one of Bangkok’s major attraction. Bangkok has a number of good quality department store chains such as Central Department Store, Robinson, The Mall, The Emporium, Thai Daimaru, and Isetan. These are usually located in major shopping plazas or megamalls dotted around the city. Favourite purchases include Thai silks and cottons, modern and traditional jewellery featuring precious gemstones, leather goods, wood carvings, paintings, custom-tailored clothing. Department stores and a number of shops in Bangkok have fixed prices, but at most of the others bargaining is acceptable. There are no fixed rules, depending as it does on the bargainer’s skill and the shopkeeper’s mood. Thais admire good manners and a sense of humour and tend to be put off by loud voices and a loss of temper.

An overview of the city that combines the best of the East and West
An overview of the city that combines the best of the East and West

The capital has a wealth of entertainment places; restaurants, sport centres, golf courses, bowling alleys, horse racing tracks, boxing stadiums, museums, public and private parks, zoos, art galleries, theatres, concert halls, beer gardens, Karaoke clubs, discotheques, and night clubs, the city boasts a cornucopia of inexpensive restaurants featuring mouth-watering dishes from all regions of Thailand and international cuisine from just about everywhere in the world. Many gourmets of Thai food now rated in the world’s culinary top ten, considering Bangkok to be on a par with Hong Kong for gastronomic experiences. Open-air garden restaurants, and riverine restaurants, are more peaceful and are favoured in the evenings by most Bangkokians.

Seafood restaurants are also popular. They offer a wide choice of fresh ingredients charcoal grilled or broiled to individual requests. Coconut milk is a main ingredient of Thai cuisine, and all kind of curries is mixed with coconut milk.

Visitors to Thailand should include traditional Thai massage. The massage helps release blocked channels of energy and alleviates jet lag experienced by newly arrived travellers. Massages in Bangkok come in many variations, ranging from traditional massage to the ‘modern’ or ‘physical’ massages with lots of soap-suds and seductive body contact. Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest temple, is most renowned for its traditional massage. A massage here costs 90 baht per hour an hour or 150 baht per hour.

Bangkok boasts some of the most varied nightlife is Asia. Visiting ballet, operatic and folk dance troupes from Europe, the U.S., and various Asian countries frequently appear, and film festivals are held by foreign cultural organisations like the Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute, and the British Council. Discotheques with the latest gadgetry flash and throb to the beat of music played at top volume, while numerous clubs specialise in jazz or folk music.

Thai classical dance is considered one of the most graceful forms of artistic expression. Themes of the dance drama are based on the Ramayana and depict the fight between king Rama and demon king Ravana. Percussion instruments and Pi Phat, a type of woodwind accompanies the dance. Two of the most popular classical dances are the Khon, performed by men wearing ferocious masks, and the Lakhon, performed by women who play both male and female roles. Many hostels and restaurants in Bangkok offer a classical dance show with dinner.

It is not uncommon for foreign visitors to Bangkok to come across a group of Thais crowding around television sets at night watching the latest boxing match. Thai boxing, or Muay Thai, attracts the most attention of the Thai people. Apart from using their gloves, boxers are allowed to use their feet, legs, knees, elbows, shoulders, or any other part of the body, except the head, to overcome their opponent.

It is undeniably one of the world’s great cities, and travellers inevitably leave Bangkok with a wealth of impressions, opinions and stories to tell. More than anywhere else in the country, Bangkok express Thailand’s uncanny ability to blend the old with the new. This lends a thrilling sense of discovery to one’s sightseeing and adds an element of surprise when exploring what is the Orient’s most fabled city.