Bangkok: a digital tour by movie, meals, music and books | Bangkok holidays
F.New cities attack the senses as viscerally as Bangkok, from the kinetic cacophony of its street life to its aromatic herbal cures and the incendiary spice of food. Social distancing has only briefly held back the touch of Thai massage and the hustle and bustle of its markets. Juxtapositions terrify the eye, with designs often decided by fortune tellers or sacred colors. In the third smallest society in the world, wooden huts come up against dazzling towers with novel shapes.
The breakneck modernization has sparked tension between the cosmopolitan “Hi-So” (high society) and the underlying assets, while young reformers protest against the seniority system that enforces a hidden order behind apparent chaos. In the midst of the high-tech towers, a huge informal economy turns food stalls and makes street furniture from found materials. It’s fun and gripping to drive through the teeming center in motorcycle taxis, converted pickups or canal boats with a swiveling canvas roof that lowers under bridges.
Bangkok’s canal districts are still served by floating shops in the corner. Photo: Philip Cornwel-Smith
Author and composer SP Somtow called it in his book The Crow: Temple of Night a “city that is both futuristic and feudal, a city where the first and third worlds collided endlessly”. Others say this village big city is Blade Runner-esque.
Returning tourists will find the tangled alleys opened up by fresh routes. New high-speed trams connect neglected parts of the city and will hit the Trans-Asian network at the new Bang Sue Grand Station. Gold Line driverless trains run to the huge IconSiam shopping center on the riverside and on to Kudi Jeen, a 250-year-old neighborhood that was first settled by Persians and Portuguese, Hokkien Chinese and Mon from Myanmar. Paths lead to a waterfront café called My Grandparents’ House, which embodies the trend of rediscovering once-suppressed Chinese heritage.
London never got its garden bridge, but last year Bangkok opened the green SkyPark, which spans the Chao Praya from Kudi Jeen to Chinatown. The waves offer a view downstream, where skyscrapers stand on end like a hairbrush, and upstream to the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, and Wat Arun, the five-pointed symbol of the city. Bangkok’s temples are grained in colored glass and porcelain and quote Somerset Maugham in his 1935 travelogue The Gentleman in the Parlor: “Unlike anything in the world … and you can’t fit them into the scheme of things you know. It makes you laugh with joy that anything so fantastic could exist on this gloomy earth. “
The rejuvenated Khlong Ong Ang Canal. Photo: Peerapon Boonyakiat / SOPA Images / Rex
The SkyPark leads straight to the old Khlong Ong Ang moat, where markets have been cleared to build canal boardwalks lined with Instagram-ready murals of Sikhs, Muslims and Chinese Teochew traders. The country’s multi-ethnic past is being repackaged into a digestible “diverse” Thainess. But as William Warren warned in his 2012 portrait of the city of Bangkok, “the result of this successful assimilation has been the steady decline, practically the disappearance of everything that is purely Thai”.
Chinatown also gives up its secrets, while shophouses turn into galleries, bars and hostels. During the Chinese Vegetarian Festival, Bangkok Design Week and the regular Galleries Nights, crumbling stucco streets with engine parts attract hipsters. Siam’s first paved road, Charoenkrung Road, leads here into the Bangrak Creative District, an independent initiative of young city dwellers that bypasses the order of the state in order to make a virtue out of the diverse chaos.
Installation by the Thai artist P7 at last year’s Bangkok Art Biennale. Photo: Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty Images
Bangkok Vanguards pioneered this in the neighborhood. You can now join them via Zoom, either as a live streaming scooter ride or as a video tour narrated by the guide. From Khlong Ong Ang you meander with his community leader through the passages of Saphan Han and encounter a jewelry workshop, a Sala Pao dumpling stand and a shrine for their Teochiu deity Pun Tao Kong.
Across the moat from Saphan Han are the neighborhoods of Little India and Wang Burapha, the first Thai pop culture center. That story is told in one of the virtual exhibits at the irreverent Museum Siam, alongside those in the nearby Tha Tien market, as well as in the museum’s disrespectful take on nationalism, Decoding Thainess.
Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch’s porcelain tanks at the Bangkok Biennale.
Photo: Philip Cornwel-Smith
The Siam Museum hosted the latest Bangkok Art Biennale, one of the few biennials that took place last year. The pavilions can still be viewed online. Among the 82 artists from 35 countries, Anish Kapoor adapted a wax installation for the prayer hall of Wat Pho. The 31 Thai artists include Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch, whose porcelain tanks capture the fragility of power, Peerachai “Samer” Patanaporgchai, a homeless scholar whose graffiti made from elaborate paranoid diagrams is a familiar sight in the city center, and Charit Pusiri’s peepshow on life in Bangkok .
The hangover part II … ‘Bangkok in its most compulsive form’. Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon / AP
Bangkok’s reputation is most compulsive in The Hangover Part II, a bachelorette party that spawned hangover tours and the catchphrase “Bangkok has it now”. The best films about this city aren’t streamed, but Netflix has several popular dramas: Bangkok Traffic Love Story, which deals with contemporary customs; Hormones (2013-15), the first Thai series to tackle youth problems with provocative realism; and the time travel fantasy series Love Destiny (2018), which contrasts today’s affluent lifestyle with 17th-century courtiers and sets off a fad for wearing traditional attire to events.
The story of the spirit of Mae Nak from the 1840s, who sees her beloved husband go to war and later dies while giving birth in what is now the Phrakhanong neighborhood, has sparked countless films, from the gorgeous 1999 romance Nang Nak to the horror comedy 2013 Pee Mark Phrakhanong on her unhappy husband. In a documentary about the city’s visual culture, World In Motion: Bangkok, I take you through Nak’s shrine at Wat Mahabut.
Street food stand in Chinatown. Photo: Philip Cornwel-Smith
In her food blog She Simmers, Leela Punyaratabandhu analyzes how the TV series Love Destiny juxtaposed old and current recipes such as a dip for grilled fish. Her cookbook Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand explains the foreign influences on the hybrid cuisine and includes YouTube demonstrations. She reveals how a Thai prime minister added a dash of brandy while cooking his beef green curry. While other curries can get away with pre-made pastes, she insists that green curry paste is best made fresh by toasting the coriander seeds and cumin before grinding it with the herbs and shrimp paste.
But Bangkok’s most famous cooking class, which also triggered a book and YouTube clips starring Jamie Oliver, first became famous for its title: Cooking With Poo. Chef Saiyuud Diwong – nicknamed Poo (crab) – proudly stayed in the Khlong Toey slum where she grew up.
The first Michelin star for Thai food went to the Australian chef David Thompson at the Hotel Como in Bangkok, whose two cookbooks Thai Food and Thai Street Food are linked to a cultural context. The latter spawned a TV series (on Vimeo), some of which is set in Bangkok, and shows how to brown a Sino-Thai oyster omelet with pork fat and tapioca flour.
The acoustic equivalent of the exploding taste pockets in Thai cuisine is molam, the northeastern music introduced by migrants from the Thai and Lao hinterland since the 17th century. It is the music that is most played on the street, often by groups of blind musicians. Spotify broadcasts the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band, a supergroup of master players who mixed the plaintively confused vocals and bamboo khaen pipes with surf rock and Latin American rhythms that get everyone to indulge in its infectious beats.
Bangkok Pop feels bland by comparison, with copycat sounds, K-pop formulas, and tonal vocals that can sound wrong. Some Bangkok born artists earn fans overseas by singing in English. Phum Viphurit sings and fetches clinking melodies and one of Hugo Chakrabongses blues-rock ballads was covered by Beyoncé.
Thai rap ranges from the polished sound of Thaitanium on Mahanakorn and with Snoop Dogg on Wake Up (Bangkok City) to slum homeboys like 19Tyger rapping about Khlong Toey. Protest songs by the collective Rap Against Dictatorship changed Thai politics with 100 million YouTube views of the taboo-breaking abuse Prathet Ku Mee (What My Country’s Got).
Bangkok Noir (2011) gives a taste of Bangkok’s detective genre set in seedy areas like Soi Cowboy. “Noir in Bangkok happens fast,” notes its editor Christopher G Moore, who talks about how it’s fed by popular belief and news. “There is a new noir-like incident at every turn, such as the temple morgue, home to two thousand broken-off parties. Take a night stroll through some poor neighborhoods. Hear the soi dogs howl as the angry ghosts rush through the night, and watch that modern possessions don’t stop owners from making sacrifices to such ghosts. “
Leading literary expat Lawrence Osborne analyzes the ambiguity of outsiders in his travelogue Bangkok Days and the thriller The Glass Kingdom. “Bangkok is an institution for those who have fallen into amateurism,” he jokes. “Westerners choose Bangkok as a place to live precisely because they can never understand it.” And it’s no less of a mystery to Thai people.
Some local authors published in English are trying to clear the police gaps in national memory. In Bangkok Wakes to Rain, Pitchaya Sudbanthad traces a wooden house for centuries by converting it into a spa in a flooded future Bangkok, reminiscent of the city’s sensory hit. “A mother-of-pearl-eyed lottery seller, who notices passers-by footsteps and the clapping of flip-flops, calls out an open suitcase with laundry cards to anyone who asks for luck. Your nose always picks up the ash-gray smell in the air. “Like indie novelist Veeraporn Nitiprapha in The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, he uses metaphors to combat scandals that most are trying to forget. As Pitchaya dryly notes, “Not remembering doesn’t really work, does it?”
Philip Cornwel-Smith was the founding editor of Bangkok’s first listing magazine Metro and the Time Out City Guide to Bangkok. His latest book is Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses (River Books, £ 20)