Bangkok, ‘City of Angels’ in South East Asia.

As one of the most visited cities in the World, Bangkok carries the occasional bad press in its milieu of praise. The congestion that follows over eleven million inhabitants alongside the notoriety of the red light district can often cast a bad impression on Thailand’s capital. However no City is perfect, Bangkok as a rapidly modernised City seems to have had its faults spotlighted as any ‘overnight sensation’ would have. Bangkok’s faults however, are indeed minor and in no way taint your experiences during a holiday. Thailand boasts the wonderful dichotomy of possessing an immersive sense of tradition and a cosmopolitan spirit.

Bangkok

Bangkok found its origins as a small village on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River before receiving the Royal decree of being chosen to become Siam (Thailand’s then name) by the King Taksin in the late 18th Century, thus becoming named ‘Thonburi’. Thonburi was to change also as it was moved to the Eastern side of the Chao Phraya by King Rama I in 1782.

The adjustment was cemented with the adoption of the new name; ‘Krung Thep’, the ‘City of Angels’, it was with celestial blessing, the little riverbank village transformed into the most prolific city of South East Asia.

At that time Krung Thep was arguably a floating City, and remarkably people lived on bamboo rafts along the river, a water mass punctuated with the sights of floating vendors selling fruit and vegetables. The only stone structures built on land were the temples and palaces that still serve as destinations in the modern day pilgrimage throughout the City. It is following the globalisation of the 19th Century and the need for economic growth following the Second World War that some canals began to metamorphose into roads; the City grew out of the banks of the river and flourished on land, a concrete jungle and a sanctuary of Thai Culture. Now the effects of Bangkok’s industrialisation is evident, as evident as the perennial culture that has survived every incarnation of the City and I will discuss with reference to particular destinations in this article.

Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun)

Temple of Dawn

The Temple of Dawn is believed to receive its name from the magnificent views of the sunrise over the Chao Phraya River experienced at the pinnacle of its tremendous tower. An accolade that is echoed in its official name, Wat Arun, as a reference to the Hindu god Aruna, whom is considered to exist as a personification of the Rising Sun. As a Buddhist Temple, Wat Arun once enshrined the famed Emerald Buddha statue which has since been moved to the temple of Wat Phra Kaew, also in Bangkok.

What is most striking about the Temple is the central prang, the colossal tower which is encrusted with iridescent porcelain and sculpted in a pagoda fashion.

The effect is almost as if the Temple is an extension of dawn itself, receiving the light from both the sun and night time illuminations, the prang gleams as a beacon that dominates the Bangkok horizon.

The prang also compliments its four surrounding smaller prang, that of which are decorated seashells, imbuing the structure with a reference to the river that brought life to Bangkok during its beginnings, the Chao Phraya.

The Temple of the Dawn, although quintessentially Thai in its ornate decoration is a medley of a variety of cultures. On top of the central prang, which itself is a reference to Mount Meru in Hindu mythology is a further reference to a secondary religion apparent in the Buddhist Temple. As a vestige of Indian influence, the trident shape suggesting the Trident of Shiva, the Hindu deity of destruction and an incarnation of Brahma. Furthermore, adorning the base of the prang are instances of Chinese soldiers and animals, this is fitting as once you’ve climbed atop the 250 foot tower, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of the sublime that very much transcends locality or nation.

Temple of Dawn detail

Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre

The Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre was established in 1933 as a cinema and so may not look particularly royal from its exterior, but the performances it houses are an ideal way to engage with the superb heritage that Thailand has to offer. Demonstrative of classical Thai dance, what you’ll find will an insight to the traditions that permeate the City of Bangkok in an entertaining manner. Often prefixing their performances with a short video that provides a guide to the significance of the particular dance gestures and themes, and providing an LED display of English Captions, the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre ensures that its visitors are well equipped to enjoy the performances that reflect Thailand’s individual culture.

Thai dance

Classical Thai dance is a sight to behold, it juxtaposes narrative that of which often reflects Thai history and mythology with a movement that is both restrained and dynamic. The performance is enhanced by opulent costume, wherein gilded crowns not only adds a sense of characterization but alludes to the stunning series of pagoda-structured temples throughout the City.

Snake Farm (Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute)

Snake Farm

The genesis of the institute is a melancholy one, yet its purpose is one that brings both heath and enjoyment to many. The Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute, was created interestingly, not in honour of a Queen, but the Princess Banlusirisam. The Princess sadly died from a rabies infection, a tragedy that inspired her lamenting father, King Rama VI to open a rabies vaccination centre in 1912 and soon gained the name the ‘Pasteur Institute’ after Louis Pasteur, whom discovered the vaccination. In the early 1920s, the king moved the Institute into his private property on the Rama IV Road, and with a monarchical setting, adopted a monarchical name, the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute after the King’s mother, continuing to provide vaccinations to rabies and additionally smallpox.

But the Institute is not just one with a medical purpose, also known as the ‘Snake Farm’, the centre includes the snakes that entangle the ‘medical staff’ of the figurative Caduceus, a ubiquitous symbol of medicine. The centre does indeed manufacture anti-venom that cures lethal bites but with the angle of doing so in a way that provides a spectacle to visitors. A popular tourist attraction, displays of snake milking and daring handling of pythons coincide with a contained collection of some of the most venomous snakes in the world such as the King Cobra and a variety of Viper species. In this sense, the institute seems to astutely summarize Bangkok, both indicative of a degree of exoticism but provides a beneficial service/ experience to the World.

With a bounty of temples, palaces, and canals, the City threaded with the architecture of a uniquely Thai brand of Buddhism is popular for good cause and any preconceptions shouldn’t mar your decision to travel there, as with any City, caution should be employed in as equal measure of conviviality. Ultimately, Bangkok, in its eclectic heritage, ode to the River that gave its life and adherence to the conveniences of modernity provides all that is needed in a holiday destination. However, a trip to the ‘City of Angels’ is wasted if spend wholly in realm of commercialism, Thailand truly has a culture that is all its own and should be appreciated on its own merits.