Thailand: The other side of the world

By on March 17, 2013

Street vendors in Bangkok. (Pat Morris photos)

Street vendors in Bangkok. (Pat and Rob Morris photos)

Towns on the Outer Banks will probably not be using Bangkok as a model for local land-use plans anytime soon.

At once cosmopolitan and chaotic, the city of 10 million in Southeast Asia is a relentless sprawl of high-rise business and commercial districts towering above gritty apartment buildings, government complexes, an occasional park and scores of temples.

People here who shudder at the prospect of a “carnival atmosphere” from one guy selling hot dogs in a parking lot would recoil at the streets of Thailand’s capital and largest city.

Vendors selling trinkets, fruits, drinks, clothing and native dishes cooked over open fires seem to fill practically every square foot of sidewalk. Canopies, umbrellas and corrugated steel awnings create steamy tunnels of commerce under frequent rain showers and the tropical sun.

Bangkok: A city of contrasts.

Bangkok: A city of contrasts.

An entire neighborhood is devoted to selling flowers, filling the streets with bright colors and exotic scents.

One thing the merchants have in common with the Outer Banks: They are entrepreneurs scratching out a living. Most are gracious and humble, even to someone who has no inkling of their language — virtues that sometimes get lost here in the seasonal frenzy.

Bangkok’s traffic makes it hard to complain about summers on the Outer Banks. Lanes are informal reference points, and the signals are longer than the light at the Milepost 10 Food Lion.

Motorbikes weave around cars and trucks, gathering in herds humming at the heads of lines at red lights. Two riders, the passengers sometimes young women sitting side-saddle, are common. But you often will see three aboard speeding through town. Later on our Thailand tour, I saw one carrying a family of four.

The Grand Palace in n Bangkok.

The Grand Palace in n Bangkok.

Shoes outside a temple.

Shoes outside a temple.

We headed to Thailand somewhat on a whim in late October, just before the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the high tourist season, which continues through the winter. The price was excellent, friends were heading there and it’s pretty much as far from home as you can get while remaining on the planet.

Our tour of Bangkok, the first leg of the journey, would have pleased the royal family, which was frequently invoked in compliance with local custom and law. Insulting the king or queen is a crime in Thailand.

But Buddha was clearly the main attraction. Temple complexes with gold Buddhas, sometimes the size of semis, leaped out in the otherwise monochromatic cityscape. We visited several of them, gleaming in whites, golds and blues with towering spires. No shoes in the temples, and visitors have to buy wraps if their legs or shoulders are exposed.

Gold-plated reclining Buddha in Bangkok is 50 yards long.

Gold-plated reclining Buddha in Bangkok is 50 yards long.

The story of Buddha and the philosophy surrounding him is fodder for another story or a Google search. But it is clear that he is the foundation of Thailand’s society even as the populace rushes through modern life on superhighways and elevated railways.

Our tour of Bangkok also took us along the Chao Phraya River and its adjoining canals, whose banks are mainly inhabited by poorer residents and merchants due to the frequent flooding. Those with the means install floodgates for protection. Otherwise, we were left to wonder how the ramshackle houses manage to survive.

From Bangkok, we headed north along highways that seemed to stretch forever through the steaming sprawl. But we finally reached the countryside, where we visited King Rama IV’s summer palace in a place called Bang Pa. Providing a relatively cool and green respite compared to the big city, it included greenery trimmed into life-size figures of animals, including elephants.

A monk catches 40 winks.

A monk catches 40 winks.

Continuing north, the road took us past rice paddies and into some of the areas hardest hit by flooding earlier in the year. Our destination was Ayutthaya, once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam and now the center of auto manufacturing. It was a microcosm of Bangkok, with plenty of traffic and the requisite motorbikes, some outfitted with homemade sidecars to carry cargo and an occasional passenger.

Unfortunately, I decided to take a break from the temple tour. This one, I later learned, offered a fascinating glimpse into the history of Siam and early Thailand. The city was burned by invaders from Burma in 1767. The town was dotted with the charred ruins of early temples and Buddha statues stripped of their heads by robbers.

Heading north through the countryside, we began to climb farther into the mountainous region. We were headed for the River Kwai and the bridge that inspired a movie based loosely on the barbaric history of the region in World War II.

Hellfire Pass.

Hellfire Pass.

We learned of the infamous Death Railway from Cambodia to Burma where more than 8,000 prisoners of war died while enslaved as its builders. The Hellfire Pass Museum told the story in great detail, but a walk down the railway’s right-of-way and through the pass put it in stark relief.

Carved through towering layers of rock, the path was named for the torches used by workers as they labored through the night. Strollers reverently walked through the quiet mountainside, which today masks the atrocities of an earlier time.

The bridge was somewhat unremarkable and anticlimactic. It looked like many other steel railway spans I would see when I lived in West Virginia. Surrounding it was a tourist trap heavy on costume jewelry vendors in shops with horribly misspelled signs.

A train ride to the bridge from our riverside lodgings was, well, slow. But an occasional break in the greenery pressing against the railway offered fine views of the river gorge. We learned that the crops looking like marijuana were actually tapioca.

Somewhere along the way, we rode elephants, too.

The bridge over the River Kwai.

The bridge over the River Kwai.

signThe last leg of our trip took us to Chiang Mai, a more sophisticated university town tending toward the chic side. The nightly street bazaar keeps the country’s second-largest city buzzing after dark, making for some interesting people-watching if browsing for bargain-basement crafts and clothing are not your thing.

We discovered on the second night of the bazaar that the exact same items would appear at several different stalls, leaving us to wonder if some huge factory grinds out inventory for Thai street vendors.

Even though we’re not much for nightlife these days, the city had a nice vibe and plenty of nightclubs for those younger and more adventurous. Storefronts offered a variety of massages, including a treatment using tiny, swarming fish to nibble the dead skin off your feet. I passed.

Our trip to a nearby mountaintop was much more relaxing for the soul. There, we visited the Wat Phra Doi Suthep, a cool and peaceful temple complex with spectacular views of the valley below. We got there early enough to beat the crowds, but the lurching cable car to the top was somewhat unnerving.

Along the Bangkok waterfront.

Along the Bangkok waterfront.

Looking back, we wished we had had time to visit the Thai coastline and islands, which might have offered a fairer comparison to the Outer Banks.

Whether we would return for that opportunity remains to be seen. Getting to Southeast Asia is grueling, with some 20 hours in the air and airport layovers in between. Our return included more than 11 hours in a packed trans-Pacific 747 that offered classy service from impeccably uniformed Chinese stewardesses but some frightful turbulence.

By comparison, the cross-country flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta, then to Norfolk, was a breeze, offering an eyeful of the continental United States under clear skies.

When the drive home took us across the Wright Memorial Bridge, there was a feeling that, yes, maybe we had been on another planet. In any case, it was, as always, good to be back home.

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