Published for TALK Magazine in September 2010
It was nearly six months ago that Bangkok found itself playing host to Thailand’s scariest urban conflict in over 30 years. Each night, people from around the world tuned in to hear about an escalating protest in a country not known for its violence. A country so dependent on foreign tourism and its public image that Thailand’s government decided to swiftly put an end to the month-long standoff. Like deciding to rip off a band-aid covering a not-yet healed wound, Thailand’s recent history of political struggle suggests we haven’t seen the last of the whole red shirt/yellow shirt conflict. But Bangkok, the country’s ever-resilient capital has maintained her composure throughout, and has emerged smiling politely as always.
Bangkok’s ‘States’ of Emergency
While yes, the initial days of Bangkok’s ‘State of Emergency’ were rather heady and intense; the climate quickly cooled in the capital while the state of emergency has remained in place. Workers can be seen carelessly chatting on the skytrain and vendors frying up a late-day snacks in the financial district as digital billboards advertise public warnings that feel a million miles away. Foreign embassies have a habit of issuing daunting travel advisories when a state of emergency is called pretty much anywhere in the world and the fact that Thailand seems intent on keeping its state of emergency alive sparks doubts and conflicting expectations. Rest assured however, that business is back on in Bangkok.
A Wise Old Institution
If there’s a place foreigners could look to for some perspective on what Bangkok’s recent protests mean for the city’s history, it would be the Oriental Hotel (now, Mandarin Oriental), an old bird of a residence nestled along the Chao Phraya River, still going strong after 134 years of operation. Established back in 1876, the Oriental has laid witness to two world wars, the overthrowing, and reinstatement of Thailand’s monarchy and a handful of military Coup D’Etats. She certainly seems to have weathered these events well, standing prouder than ever as one of Bangkok’s very most luxurious hotels. The ever stormy and dark political writer, Joseph Conrad visited the hotel back in 1888 when he was acting commander of the ship the Otago. It was his first and only visit to Bangkok, as well as his first and only seagoing command.
Thai’s take their food seriously, and nowhere is that better reflected than in Bangkok, a city home to each and every example of Thailand’s culinary landscape. Most food worth eating in Bangkok isn’t expensive, and if you find yourself paying more than 30 dollars for a meal for two, you should be strongly asking yourself why. It was in fact the Chinese who introduced streetside eating to Bangkok, and Yaowarat Rd. is where you’ll still find old classic stir-frys paired alongside bowls of pork-pepper soup and barbequed seafood. If you’re in Bhanglamphu district for lunch, don’t think twice about popping into the Nang Loeng market for some Thai curry and rice. Austin Bush (austinbushphotography.com), a local food-writer and photographer reckons Nang Loeng market (Th. Nakhorn Sawan) is home to Bangkok’s best green curry. If the local definition of spice and hygiene is too much to handle, don’t leave without taking a few sweets for later. Thai’s and Bangkokians in particular are mad about sweets and eat them with fervor at just about any special occasion. The cakes at Nang Loeng are sweet, yes, but display savory elements as well, a palm sugar/coconut steamed cake topped with fried shallots, the most prominent example of this phenomena. Another food market worthy of mention is the Or Tor Kor Market (last station, BTS). The market offers up a plethora of barbequed meats, curries, soups, fruit and sweets 7 days a week. Make your way over to the right side of the building where there are food court tables and chairs set up to satiate those who can’t wait to take their food home with them. For a late night snack that doesn’t involve the area around backpacker and all-around fake hippie hangout street Khao Sarn Rd., check out one of the many stalls beneath the Ratchathewi BTS station. Labeled by locals as ‘eastern Thai cuisine,’ the food here is fresh and full of flavour. Look from side to side and see what the other tables are ordering then follow suit. Cross your fingers for a grilled beef salad – smoked strips of beef tossed in a lime and oil dressing with shallots, mint leaves and a bevy of other herbs. The papaya salad is ubiquitous at these little eateries, and vendors slice and mix their salads by hand using a large wooden mortar and pestle. Motion that you’d like less or more sweet, sour or salty and they’ll be more than happy to tailor your order. After all, this is what’s expected of people in this food forward city – an element happily unaffected with the recent political turmoil.
If there ever were a city defined by a river, it would be Bangkok. Chao Phraya, or ‘River of Kings’ snakes its way down from the central plains and into the Gulf of Thailand, passing directly though Bangkok, ‘City of Kings.’ A sizable portion of Bangkok’s population uses the river’s transit system, the Chao Phraya Express to commute from home to work everyday, ensuring that this most regal of rivers remains as important to Bangkok today as it did hundreds of years ago. Visitors shouldn’t be timid about using this surprisingly efficient mode of transportation to get around and do some monument spotting. Traversing the river is a great way to do a bit of fast-paced temple gazing as well. Start at the Oriental Pier and work your way north up the river passing Wat Muang Khae nestled behind high-rise apartment complexes and Wat Arun further up before getting a full frontal view of the imposing Grand Palace and the Bang Ao Mosque further upriver. The river transit system would have been one of the only usable forms of transit during the spring crisis as much of the BTS system was forcibly shut down. Longtime city residents would have had to reconnect with a river that gave the city life all those years ago.