By Sue Bedford - Photos by John Price
BANGKOK REDUX—IS THIS A RETURN TO THE SCENE OF MY CRIMES?
The metropolis’s awkwardly rapid growth is evident in its juxtapositions, which we encountered while cruising in a long-tail boat through the canals of the Chao Phraya River (once the city’s main thoroughfare). The banks are lined with wooden shacks teetering above the waterlilies and soot-streaked apartments with laundry flapping in the window cages—yet inland modern skyscrapers glimmer in the smog-yellowed sunlight. Despite being the Congo Basin of concrete jungles, the waterways are lush with tousled foliage that dips into the river like unkempt hair into soup.
One of Bangkok’s most incredible features is the Grand Palace (touristic as it may be). Like Bangkok itself, the Palace was not built all at once but over the course of 200 years, resulting heterogeneous structures and spaces. It conjures notions of a gingerbread house decorated by an overambitious kindergartener: the bejeweled walls sparkle like sugared gumdrops in a dazzling array of colour and pattern.
It was here that mourners for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej—who was king of Thailand for 70 years (the world’s longest-serving monarch) and died in October 2016, literally just days before we arrived—gathered in monochromatic throngs to grieve the monarch who, for many Thais, was a beloved father figure.
Almost as notorious (but for vastly different reasons) as the Grand Palace is Bangkok’s Khao San Road, the backpacker mecca of the planet. As Lena and I meandered through the drunken bustle flanked by massage parlors, tattoo shops, clothing vendors, food carts and bucket bars—named as such for the knockout cocktails served in plastic pails—we reminisced about our time as sozzled, stupid backpackers.
Then we sampled the seasoned mealworms and fried scorpion from a novelty stall, and realized perhaps those days aren’t as far behind us as we’d thought.
But while attractions like the Grand Palace and Khao San Road spice the city, its true flavour emerges from the shadowed alleyways of the amulet market where gang members buy lucky talismans; the red-and-yellow laneways of Chinatown where the street food is unparalleled; the rooftop bars where locals revel high above the glow and din. For many travellers, that first taste of Bangkok whets the appetite, and the voracious hunger that follows cannot be satiated by just a few days in this enigmatic metropolis.
It’s as if Bangkok is situated above an enormous wok. The steaming air is thick with scents both startling and nuanced. Palatable energy bubbles in the neon-lit marketplaces, simmers in the gold-leafed temples, and sizzles in the lipstick-smeared red-light district. As we explored the rich cityscape, our minds watered with anticipation and excitement.
Home to a staggering 14 million people in the Metropolitan Region, Bangkok is as diverse as it is chaotic. A population boom in the latter half of the 20th century resulted in a frenzied and jumbled expansion as well as traffic so atrocious it’s captivating—to tourists, anyway. Locals would probably use a harsher descriptor.
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