Wednesday 8 February 2017

Picture Post 60, Bangkok - away from the tourists

I recently spent a few days in Bangkok on my way home from Myanmar. It was my first visit to the city since spending several months there in 2002. I had mixed feelings about returning. I love Thai food. I love Wat Arun - surely one of the most beautiful structures in the world. And I love the city's markets. However, I struggle with the searing heat and humidity, the traffic and occasional harassment from tedious touts who won't take no for an answer. With this in mind I decided not to stay in one of the major hotels in the central business district, choosing instead a tiny guest house in old Bangkok not far from the Royal Palace and to spend my time exploring this neighbourhood, much of it undiscovered by tourists.

Restored buildings, Thanon Rajadamnoen
Modernist building, Thanon Dinso
The Democracy Monument
The Royal Palace and the adjoining temple Wat Phra Kaeo attract many tourists but relatively view of them follow this with a stroll along the nearby elegant boulevard, Thanon Rajdamnoen. The Thanon is lined by modernist buildings from the 1930's, arranged in a series of blocks painted either white or pale yellow. At the end of each block there is a rotunda with recessed side elements all of which have either rounded or squared-off shades above the windows, showing some wonderful lines and angles. 

The Democracy Monument stands at the mid point, constructed in 1939 as a symbol of the 1932 revolution that resulted in a new constitution and system of government. The Monument was designed by Thai architect Maeo Aphaiyawong whilst the relief sculptures around the base of the monument were the work of Italian artist Corrado Ferroci. Ferroci later took Thai nationality, changing his name to Silpa Bhirasi and contributing significantly to the modernisation of the city. The panels feature highly stylised representations of the military whilst two of the four wings have fountains in the shape of a naga - a snake-like creature from both Buddhist and Hindu belief.

Rotunda and recessed elements, Thanon Rajadamnoen
Thanon Dinso  crosses the main boulevard at the Democracy Monument. The area ion the right hand side of the Thanon, walking away from the Royal Palcae, is home to some of the remaining klongs - the system of canals that once criss-crossed the city, most of which have now been covered or filled-in. The klongs are lined with wooden houses and strolling along the walkway we can get some idea of what the city was once like. There are also many stalls selling snacks and other items to local workers and to the occasional tourist. There are also many shop houses in this area, less decorative than those in Singapore but still affording a glimpse of old Bangkok. Many of the shop houses have now become completely residential but others retain the ground floor retail function, usually selling food with the family living upstairs. 

Living beside the klong
A view of the klong
In the shade by the klong
My guest house, the Bhuthorn in Phreang Bhuthorn is in a lovingly restored shop house complete with teak floors and stairs, antique furniture and decorative items as well as a tiny but delightful courtyard where breakfast and afternoon tea are served. In the afternoon, the options include delicious sticky rice with coconut milk and mango. Somehow I always manage to find places that have the best desserts! Phreang Bhuthorn is a very attractive square consisting of many restored shop houses some of which operate as small bars and cafes with outside seating giving the square a lively but pleasant atmosphere in the evenings. It is also a place where young people gather to play the traditional Thai ball game - Sepak Takraw, perhaps best described as a kind of "kick volleyball". The evening games sometimes attract small groups of spectators who come to envy this super fast game.

 The Bhuthorn courtyard
Restored shop house near the Golden Mount
Shop house with ground floor bakery
Shop houses in need of restoration
In Bangkok you are never far away from a temple. There are several in this area but perhaps the most spectacular (after Wat Phra Kaeo) is the Golden Mount, also known as Phu Kao Tong. Dating back to the nineteenth century, it was commissioned by King Rama lll and constructed from the ruined walls of the old capital city, Ayuthaya. Unfortunately the building collapsed and was abandoned for some fifty years until King Rama V had a new chedi built - the one we see today. The summit is approached via a winding footpath shaded by trees and vegetation. There are excellent views across the city from the steps and from the summit which has a prayer hall and roof top stupa. More shop houses can be found in the street at the foot of the Golden Mount, most of them in poorer condition than those in Phreang Bhuthorn but still attractive and several retain some of the original decorative features.

Figure at the summit of the Golden Mount
There are cafes and food stalls on most corners as well as small markets selling fruit, vegetables and cold drinks. I treated myself to half a kilo of delicious red chompoo - a fruit resembling a pear but with a taste closer to that of an apple, very refreshing in the Bangkok heat. Of course, if you want something more substantial or feel the need to return to the more noisy areas, Khao San Road is not very far away with its shops, bars and clubs catering mainly to the backpacker crowd. If you like that sort of thing.

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