I didn’t recognise how well Bangkok aggregated people until my last afternoon in it, which felt like turning a book’s final page. Claire and I were walking off an Iranian lunch, prepared by a taciturn man from Tehran. His blend of aubergine and whey, called kashk-e bodenjoon, made me impatient to move on, to sample the delicacies of Central Asia and the Middle East. The restaurant was on the same street as a temple dedicated to Mariamman, the South Indian goddess of rain and disease, and we started our walk there, with incense and Hindu chants reconfiguring our thoughts. Thai Buddhists imitated their Indian cousins well, taking arati with bent knees and cupped hands, while Brahmins served up platters of coconuts and marigolds indifferently, like petty bureaucrats completing a chore. The priests, with hairy chests left bare, were a mark of the community’s vitality, of the connection it maintained with India. In Saigon, at another temple dedicated to Mariamman, with the same statuary and gopuram, coated in the same vinyl paint, Claire and I had found a Brahmin’s Vietnamese widow officiating, assisted by beardless, half-caste sons.
We made our way from the Hindu temple to the river haphazardly, without a map, and stopped at the Assumption Cathedral, with its icons of “Maria and Bambino, Thai style” and its chapel dedicated to the Thai martyr, Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung. Pamphlets in English and Thai told the story of this “tireless missionary of the faith to his own people.” Born in 1895, Nicolas was ordained by Bangkok’s Portuguese bishop in 1926. Arrested in 1941 and accused “on false charges” of being an Allied spy, he was imprisoned and “deliberately infected with tuberculosis,” which killed him in 1944.
The French-built cathedral was as large as the basilicas of Europe. Electric fans hung low from its gilded ceiling and rows of Corinthian pillars ran down its aisles, supporting arches of charcoal and tangerine stone. Photography was forbidden, but tripods inside the cathedral had been roped off like gun placements. Services here were obviously broadcast on television, to Thailand’s 300,000 Roman Catholics.
Two blocks away, on the other side of the Mandarin Oriental, a prestigious Bangkok hotel with its pier on the Chao Phraya and a past full of distinguished guests, we found the Haroon Mosque, built by Indonesian migrants. It was down a shabby soi, where life was lived in public. Residents had spilled out into the alley, cluttering it with laundry, flags, songbirds, scooters, rusting trunks, garden chairs, umbrellas and seashells strung from eaves. Overhead, a tangle of telephone wires added to the soi’s feeling of disorganised intimacy, as if the road was a single family’s living room. The mosque itself was hidden from view until we were on top of it, looking at the entrance with its pile of shoes and the green onion dome behind it. Green is the colour of Islam because the Prophet Mohammed’s tribe flew a green flag, but in the deserts of Arabia, and in Iran and Pakistan, it is a dark, dull green – the colour of a hardy shrub. In Southeast Asia it is almost turquoise – the colour of a tropical sea.
Despite the heritage signboards and smiling people, Claire and I felt like intruders. We didn’t go into the mosque; instead, we drifted through a garden behind it, along a path cut between flower beds. It was only when we passed a mound of earth entirely covered by orange frangipanis, jasmine garlands and yellow petals in messy piles that we realised that we were walking through a cemetery. There were no headstones, just dozens of low burial mounds. Shrubs had taken root in old graves; limp flowers marked the resting places of anybody more recently deceased.
In another city the three buildings – cathedral, mosque, lavish hotel – might have seemed like rival outposts, competing for souls, but in Bangkok one community flowed easily if unexpectedly into the next. All three buildings were put up in the 19th century, within a few decades of each other, when the neighbourhood – called Bang Rak, “the Village of Love” – was the trading centre of a new Thai capital. I initially considered Bang Rak a product of its time, like Singapore, with its roots in European mercantilism, but the neighbourhood’s trade and diversity had all existed long before. When Bang Rak was taking shape in the middle of the 19th century, Bangkok was only just beginning to rise to the prominence of its predecessor, Ayutthaya, which had been destroyed utterly in 1767, by the Burmese.
A year had passed since I first landed in Bangkok, on an Air Asia flight from Calcutta. The toothpaste aroma of paan still clung to my nostrils, but from the moment I stepped off the aeroplane, Thailand’s capital seemed a place perfectly between Mumbai and Shanghai, just as Southeast Asia was between India and China. It was Indochina, a word of two parts I wanted to carefully dissect, as well as a place entirely its own, where looking too hard for imported traditions was a way of ignoring what was indigenous. Bangkok wasn’t sterile and strictly censored like Shanghai; its people went to temples just as earnestly as they got drunk. Kathoeys minced down busy roads and squealed in restaurants, inviting spectators, but locals barely noticed these members of the third sex. Bangkok didn’t wallow in decay and inertia either, like Mumbai. It was easy, clean and mostly honest – a Goldilocks city, Claire and I decided – and after two weeks we felt ready to stay. In a way we did, by coming back four times and staying for a total of five weeks.
Despite these visits, I didn’t ever feel I could write about the city. I was safe describing the water fights of Songkran or the Chinese immigrants on Yaowarat Road, because they were discrete places or occasions, isolated from my days in wider Bangkok, which I spent hopping on and off sky trains and river boats and taxis, looking for a coherent narrative. I started to think of the city like a badly edited compendium. It was short on space, written by too many people and divided into parts that did not discernibly begin or end. Its residents had scribbled in the margins, or washed away and scraped at words to clear a place for their own, and together they had authored a city like a palimpsest, where meaning was found accidentally, in interplay, as often as it was in isolated things.
Bangkok eluded me until I left it, without any plans to return, and took a two hour stop train to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya had been the Thai capital for more than four hundred years, with a population that peaked at almost a million people, placing it among the largest cities in the world, but it was now a just a modest town, with 50,000 residents, wide roads, 7-11s, townhouses in desperate need of paint and all the other trappings of Thai prosperity sprouting in its ruins.
We hired bicycles and visited the historical park, where the old capital’s waterways still traced the segments of a vanished life. Ayutthaya was established at the confluence of three rivers, on an island carved out of the region’s damp alluvium. It had once been crisscrossed by canals, but most of these had long since silted up or been intentionally filled in, to make way for boulevards too wide for the scooter traffic of a Southeast Asian county town. Like Cambodia’s old capital, Angkor, nothing remained of Ayutthaya’s secular life. Its markets, workshops, warehouses and homes had all been built with wood, which the jungle had long since devoured. The jungle had also tried to strangle and pick apart its temples, chedis and shrines, but they were harder work, and Ayutthaya’s religious architecture had survived 300 years of neglect surprisingly well. Most of the paint and plaster was long gone, leaving bare bricks – slim and red, with black mould growing on the mortar, like scurvy on receding gums – stacked in improbably supple shapes.
The island had been the old capital’s focal point, with a palace and a perimeter defended by walls, but at Ayutthaya’s edges land had been allocated to foreign communities. A Japanese village was marked on our map; opposite it, across the Chao Phraya, were the ruins of a Portuguese community. We cycled to these too, not sure if there was anything to see, but it was mid-afternoon and we had dripped sweat over mouldering temples long enough. A brochure for the Japanese village hinted at an air-conditioned exhibition hall, and air conditioning was a relief worth the risk.
The Japanese village was an exercise in Thai-Japanese rapprochement, set up to counterbalance a reminder of WWII nearby, at a bridge over the Mae Klong River. Nothing of the original settlement remained and admission to the exhibition hall, with its air-conditioning, was all our 50 baht entrance fee actually bought. It was still a worthwhile trip.
The exhibition’s focus was not just the Japanese community, but the whole constellation of people that had gathered in Ayutthaya. There were Southeast Asians from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, as well as Mon, who arrived periodically to take refuge from the Burmese. There were people from across the Islamic world, including Malaya, Cham, the Ottoman Empire, India and Persia. There were more than 10,000 Chinese along with representatives of all the trading nations of Europe – the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French foremost among them – as well as over a thousand émigrés from Japan, who were mostly Christians fleeing persecution under the Tokugawa shogunate. Almost all of these communities lived on Ayutthaya’s outskirts, separated from the island by the Chao Phraya or Pa Sak rivers, in settlements where they more or less governed themselves.
Ayutthaya was held together by trade. Its businessmen jostled for favour at court, but they mingled and intermarried too. A display referred to the influence of Persians on Thai art and it must have been at Ayutthaya that the word farang entered the Thai language. It was borrowed from Farsi’s farangi, which was itself a loanword, from the Arabic for Franks.
The broken shell of a church was visible just across the Chao Phraya, in what remained of the Portuguese village. Ayutthaya’s Japanese residents were mostly Catholics converted by the Portuguese saint Francis Xavier, whose corpse I had seen in Goa. The two communities, from opposite ends of the Old World, seemed difficult to reconcile, but at Ayutthaya, on foreign soil, they had enjoyed a kind of brotherhood. The Japanese must have crossed the river regularly, to attend church, and a woman born out of the interaction between the two peoples had – of all things – given Thai cuisine the gift of dessert.
Maria Guyomar de Pinha’s marriage decided her fate. The daughter of a Portuguese-Bengali from Goa and a Japanese Catholic, she wed a Greek opportunist named Constantine Phaulkon in 1682. Her husband gained the trust of the Thai king and rose, in time, to be his foremost advisor, negotiating with France on his behalf until 1688, when he was executed following a coup. Maria was enslaved in the royal kitchen, where she prepared Portuguese-derived angel hair and coconut custards well enough to win the new king’s favour. He put her in charge of his kitchens and her desserts, which have become a part of Thai cuisine, with Thai names, were among the last products of interchange in a fading golden age.
In a lane leading away from Haroon Mosque, a woman insisted Claire and I photograph her cat. I had stopped two children – a brother and sister dressed from head to toe in green, with a green prayer cap and a green headscarf, tightly wrapped. While I took their picture, the woman watched, with the cat lazing haughtily on her lap. When we passed, offering our sawadis, she pounced. The cat was picked up rudely and jostled into one position after another, until the woman was satisfied its eyes had met my camera’s lens. I didn’t know why she wanted these photos of her pet, which she would only ever see on our camera’s screen, but I obliged – after all, we had shown an interest in equally prosaic things, and the cat was indisputably Siamese.
Claire and I were both euphoric by now, after a week penned up in a guesthouse, hard at work. Our haphazard walk, aimed only at reaching a friend’s bar, had brought us into contact with Iran, India, Catholic Europe and Indonesia. When we passed a Thai wat, with a mirrorball Erawan on its pediment glinting gold and silver in a low-hanging sun, we dismissed it as ordinary and carried on into Chinatown, where Yaowarat Road ran through the neighbourhood’s low-grade, oil-stained industry like a wide fluorescent pipe.
The signs in traditional Chinese for goldsmiths and spare parts and “extraordinary tilapia fish starch” grew thicker, gradually crowding out the Thai. When we noticed a temple the size of a convenience store ahead of us, with ferocious guardians at its doors and dragons prowling its roof, we approached like collectors narrowing in on the final part of a complete set. Inside, tall sticks of incense were stacked against a wall, beneath emphatic price tags. There was nobody there to collect money, but who would make an offering with stolen incense? We poked around for a while, amazed as always by how small temples, with nothing to them but a shrine, were so common in the places where Chinese people had settled overseas. I had never seen them in the People’s Republic, in Shanghai or Hangzhou or Beijing, and it was only after I left the country that I realised what had been lost.
Outside again, we zigzagged along the curb, pressed between cars and pavement vendors, or took our chances down alleyways that normally led to dead ends. Our choice seven years ago of the name Old World Wandering has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because wandering is now how we connect with a place best, and on that afternoon we wandered for hours, until we thought ourselves well and truly lost. Only we weren’t: unintentionally, we had arrived at the first temple we ever visited in Bangkok.
There was a man sitting inside, on the wall-to-wall red carpeting. He was playing a game on his tablet computer and ignored us at first, while we studied the temple’s faded murals for a second time, trying to piece together the stages of Buddha’s life played out against a Southeast Asian backdrop. When we turned to go, the man stopped us. “Where ye from mate?” he asked me.
I told him, then I asked if he was from Bangkok.
“Naa, got a Thai restaurant in London. Lived there fer 15 years… My family comes from Pat-ta-yaa.”
His mellifluous pronunciation of Pattaya and Cockney-accented English were jarring together, like two flavours – lemongrass and rosemary, perhaps – that aren’t normally combined.
“I’m flying to Pat-ta-yaa tonight,” he continued. “Always spend one day in Bangkok when I come home, so I can visit this temple. Buddha here’s proper old – from Su-kho-thai. Makes me feel, ye know… at peace.”
Sukhothai was the Thai capital almost 150 years before Ayutthaya. It fell after a period of rivalry between the two cities, and Southeast Asian history is mostly the story of competing city-states like these, with overlapping spheres of interest. Even today, Bangkok is described as “the most primate city on earth” because it is forty times larger than Thailand’s second city, Udon Thani.
If the Buddha icon was in fact from Sukhothai, then it had probably been brought to Bangkok after the destruction of Ayutthaya. All over the region, cities fell, temples went to ruin, but Buddha icons were preserved. The most famous example of this is the Emerald Buddha, which is said to have been carved in India, out of green jade, before passing through Sri Lanka, Angkor, Ayutthaya, northern Thailand and Vientiane in Laos. It is now in Bangkok, within the Royal Palace, where it serves as a talisman of the Thai king.
We left the man from Pat-ta-yaa with his tablet computer, the Sukhothai Buddha’s soft lines and the ticktock of the two grandfather clocks that flanked it. Passing out of the gate at the other end of the temple compound, we were met by the canal that weaved its way through Chinatown without purpose. There were no boats on it anymore and only the people living in waterside shacks set on stilts had any use for the khlong, because it was a good place to dump sewerage and catch fish.
The khlongs had been Bangkok’s arteries and it was only over the last few decades that elevated roads, sky trains and a metro system reduced them to capillaries, connected to the oldest and most neglected urban tissue. Travellers of the 19th century loved to call Bangkok the Venice of the East, even if it was exactly what travellers of the 17th century had called Ayutthaya. I don’t normally like parallels like these, between the Orient and Occident. They distort the scale of Asian cities – Ayutthaya, for example, was home to five times as many people as Venice – and they are used too loosely. Seventeen places have been called the Venice of the East and another eleven the Paris of the East, but a comparison of Ayutthaya and Venice is still interesting in its way, especially if it includes Suzhou – another Venice of the East, this time in China.
People often lament the destruction of Asia’s physical past. City walls are bulldozed to make way for ring roads; Shanghai’s longtangs are torn down and replaced by tasteless apartment buildings; canals in Bangkok are filled in and turned into roads. All this strikes people as callous, short-sighted and greedy, because the future seems to have been robbed of its past, but there is a callousness in the preservation of places like Venice too. The Italian city-state, which was built on trade, savvy and occasional ruthlessness, has lost most of its residents to tourism and, with them, most of what made it tick. It is dead, and the struggle to preserve it is the same as the struggle to preserve a corpse.
Like Venice, Suzhou was a place made rich by waterborne trade, but it was larger, wealthier and more refined, as even Marco Polo – a Venetian – was forced to admit. Established in 514BCE, it rose to control the trade between north and south China, along the Grand Canal. It was the capital of the Wu kingdom until Qin Shi Huang unified China and it is still where the purest of Wu’s dialects is spoken. Suzhou has also stayed rich, with a GDP per capita surpassed by only one other city in China. It was not stuck in an estuary like Venice and when China’s economy started to take off in the early eighties, it led the way. Whenever money could be made, its history was pulled down and filled and commodified, and if Venice is a corpse, Suzhou is a merchant family, where generations of people and architecture might die, but wealth lives forever.
What, then, are Ayutthaya and Bangkok? Capitals and primate cities, clearly, but also places so similar that they seem individually insignificant, as if another Thai capital, with its canals and its cast of foreign peoples, would pop up quickly enough if Bangkok was ever destroyed. They are reincarnations, one of the other, with the same karma, and it is not buildings or money but Buddhist icons that people maintain, as if they are symbols of the Thai capital’s soul. Of course, none of this occurred to me in Bangkok. I had to wait for Ayutthaya, where the link would appear to me across a river, in the shape of a Portuguese church.
In Bangkok, the khlong was pointing us in the direction of the Chao Phraya, which we reached just before dusk. We followed an alley to a bar on stilts called Samsara, where we sat with a beer watching the plum-red sun set over purpling water. Samsara means the cycle of existence towards nirvana, which was about as much as you could ask for at the end of the day.
I began this post as a footnote to Bangkok Days, Lawrence Osborne’s evocative portrait of the Thai capital and the oddball farang that inhabit it. Osborne’s book is a collection of mostly short sketches cleverly woven together, which I thought echoed my own fragmentary understanding of Bangkok. For better or worse, I chose to leave Bangkok Days out in the end, but I’m grateful to Lawrence Osborne anyway, for making me feel at home among the Thai capital’s many bits and pieces.
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