Published in Solano Magazine
It is dizzyingly hot. The sharp smell of new clothes, perfumes, rubber and strange food marry to form an intoxicating fume that hangs in the air like fog. Bangkok’s Chatuchuk weekend market is a vast labyrinth of more than 15,000 cell-like stalls. It buzzes with the combined voices of more than 200,000 shoppers. Their eyes scour the endless shops for bargains. Their hands tear through mountains of T-shirts, racks of knock-off jeans, piles of watches, lacquered dishes, rice-paper lamps, cell phones, compact disk players, everything imaginable. Merchants scream at the crowds through megaphones at a speed and pitch that makes me wonder if even the Thais can understand them. Food vendors deep fry, sauté, boil, peel and serve everything from cocoanuts to noodles to grasshoppers. The insanity sprawls across 35 acres of land. More than $750,000 will change hands in just under two days of operation. The Chatuchuk Market is the largest of its kind in the world, humanity’s best impression of a beehive.
The Chatuchuk Market is concentrated Thailand. The country is pungent, frenetic and fascinating. Bangkok is an intense, steaming metropolis. Sukhothai, Thailand’s first capital, is home to one of the highest concentrations of temple ruins in Southeast Asia. The surreal limestone formations and jungles of Krabi have inspired writers, filmmakers and travelers. The small island of Ko Pha-Ngan is a beach bums’ paradise, cheap and tropical. Tourism is Thailand’s number-one industry and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. In Thailand, $20 buys day’s food and a night’s lodging. The people are friendly, the accommodations are respectable and the food will make your taste buds regret growing up anywhere else.
As a matter of necessity, any trip to Thailand begins and ends in Bangkok. The megalopolis spreads like a gray fungus over nearly 600 square miles. It’s home to 10 million people, 500,000 stray dogs and 80 percent of Thailand’s automobiles. This is where the country’s 95-percent growth rate is felt the most, where the city grows like cancer. Twelve hundred tons of trash is dumped into the streets and waterways every day. The city’s residents produce 5,400 tons, but only 4,200 are collected. During rush hour it takes less time to walk a mile than to drive a mile. Here only 6 percent of the surface area is devoted to streets, where in most cities it’s closer to 25. Here the sun sets in a blanket of smog a mile above the horizon. Here one in ten people have a respiratory illness and one in five live in illegal slums without electricity or running water.
Bangkok is overwhelming. It’s not a city for the faint of anything and getting acclimated takes a few days. Some can’t acclimate at all, hopping the first train north to Chiang Mai or the first plane south to Phuket. But Bangkok is not be dismissed. It’s the cultural, economic and religious epicenter of Thailand.
Many get acclimated on Ko-San Road. It’s knee-deep in other befuddled tourists and boasts the highest concentration of guesthouses and travel agencies in the city. Ko-San provides a dose of things to come, a series of inoculations to steel you against the ills of the city. The first shot is climatic and its side effects can be found on the dashboard of any car in Thailand. Vehicles here have only two climate settings, “cold” and “colder.” Thailand is hot. It is on the same latitude as Panama, the Sahara Desert and Hawaii. The average temperature in Bangkok is 90 degrees, year round. The average humidity is 90 percent.
The next round of shots is sonic. Merchants, guesthouse runners and taxi drivers mount an aural assault, spitting propositions at anybody within range. This is Thai commerce, bold and unbridled. The effect is exhausting and most will seek refuge and some nourishment in a restaurant, where the final round of cultural vaccinations is served. Here the pepper is king. American Thai food is notoriously spicy, but the heat behind it all, the tiny Thai pepper or phrik khii nuu, literally “mouse-dropping pepper,” can only reach its full potential in Thai soil. The pepper is put into virtually every dish served in the kingdom. Naam plaa phrik, Thai peppers swimming in thin, salty fish sauce, is on every table. Pat Thai noodles, Thai salad, red and green curry and an infinite variety of noodle and soup dishes can be found everywhere. Roasted scorpions and deep-fried chicken livers are only slightly harder to find. In Bangkok, food is the only thing that’s more plentiful than smog. Thailand is fertile. Some parts of the country get as much as 60 inches of rain a year and the growing season is continuous. This is a land where fresh-squeezed mandarin orange juice is cheaper than Sunny Delight. Every day, an unimaginable quantity of fresh vegetables and fruit are hauled in and piled on tables and stalls along the city’s streets. The selection is staggering. There are oranges, mangoes, pineapples, bananas and coconuts. There’s also sweet, melon-sized jactfruit armored in spiky green skin, fist-sized mangosteens protected by violet husks, hairy brown rambutans, bumpy green sugar apples and the sweet-tart wax jambu, a nearly perfect impersonation of the bell pepper. All can be purchased for next to nothing. A meal in Thailand can be had for under $3.
Bangkok is paradise for pepper-fueled sightseers and the best way to get to the sights is in a tuk-tuk. The tuk-tuk is the product of vehicular crossbreeding, offspring of the covered wagon and the Vespa. The breed is named for the sound of their compact, powerful two-stroke engines. They seat three (six in a pinch) and provide the quickest short-range transportation in the city. Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist and it shows in traffic. Thai drivers—especially tuk-tuk drivers—are calm in the face of chaos, deftly and suicidally dodging schools of scooters and lumbering trucks.
From Ko-San, a tuk-tuk can slice through Bangkok’s traffic to two of Bangkok’s most visited monuments, Wat Po and the Royal palace, in just under 10 minutes. Wat Po is the oldest and largest temple complex in the city. It was built in the 16th century and is home to a 150-foot-long golden reclining Buddha. The temple is a maze of multi-colored spires (called chedi) set among gardens filled with statuaries. The place is packed with thousands of gold-plated Buddha statues and hundreds of paintings depicting the man’s life. Here visitors can get blessed by Buddhist monks, but everyone must remove their shoes before entering any building.
King Rama I began building Thailand’s Royal Palace in 1783. Since then it’s been “improved” by half a dozen kings. The end result is bizarre slurry of architecture. Here you’ll find swooping, colorful Thai roofs, Victorian gingerbread trim, Swiss chalets and even Italian Renaissance style marble statues all within spitting distance of one another. There are more than 100 buildings within the 233-acre grounds.
Sukhothai, the first capitol of Thailand, is six hours north of Bangkok by bus. The road stretches across low plains filled with parched rice patties and shantytowns. Here corrugated steel and bamboo are the building materials of choice. Trash seems to grow along the roadside, the new Thai flora.
Modern Sukhothai is indistinguishable, a node in Thailand’s network of suburbs. Its buildings are monochromatic, its streets dusty and crowded. Seven hundred years ago, however, it was the center of Thai culture, religion and government. It was founded in 1238 by two Thai princes, who united the kingdoms and provinces between Laos and Malaysia by preaching cooperation. Old Sukhothai, all 45 square kilometers of it, is now the country’s most visited historical park. The ancient city was fortified by three walls and two moats. The walls have crumbled and the moats have drained, but the remains of 70 temples and buildings still stand. It’s impossible to see them all on foot, so rent a bicycle.
Inside the park, Buddha is everywhere. He stands among temples, lounges under shady glens and looks out across tranquil ponds. One statue, enclosed in a huge echo chamber, has a hollow space behind its navel. Monks climbed into the space to teach Buddhist principles. From the townspeople’s viewpoint, Buddha himself gave rousing orations about the eightfold path to Nirvana. The practice was later frowned upon and discontinued, but tour guides are still happy to tell the story.
The largest temple in Sukhothai is Wat Mahathat. The temple was built in the 13th century and contains 198 chedi within its 650-foot long walls. At one time, the chedi were smooth and the temple walls were extravagantly painted. Now much of the plaster has fallen away, revealing the rough bricks and all but a few of the paintings have been worn away or stolen.
Krabi and Ko Pha-ngan
From a height of nearly 2,000 feet, Krabi is unreal. A nearly endless expanse of green fields marches to one horizon. The other is cluttered with towering, lumpy limestone formations, the product of a gigantic Jell-O mold set down on molten stone. The foreground is equally spectacular, filled with a 100-foot Buddha statue protected by a pair of five-headed snakes. This landscape makes people doubt the authenticity of your photos.
Wat Tham Seua (Tiger Cave Temple) is one of the most famous forest temples in Thailand. Here the monks lived in caves to escape the heat. At one point, they went absolutely mad and built a small temple on top of a 2,000-foot sheer limestone formation. Now 1,200 steps lead to the top, where exhausted travelers can get a view of Southern Thailand. Krabi lies across a shallow sea from Phuket, one of the most popular and crowded beach resort towns in Thailand. Where Phuket is expensive and crowded, Krabi is quiet with miles of hiking trails. From Wat Tham Seua a path leads into one of Krabi’s many national forests, crowded with towering trees supported by wide buttresses. The forest is smothering and silent, one of the few places the harsh equatorial sun cannot touch.
Krabi’s limestone formations, and those along the Andaman Coast, have been featured in the James Bond movie “The Man With the Golden Gun” and “The Beach.” Many rise thousands of feet out of the flat green waters of the Andaman Sea on absurdly thin legs, defying gravity.
Overnight buses ferry passengers from Krabi to the coastal town of Surat Thani and ferries ply the three miles of azure seas between Surat Thani and Ko Pha-Ngan, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand. For many, the island is the last stop on any trip to Thailand, a place to relax. The island has two towns, Hat Rin and Thong Sala. Hat Rin, on the eastern side of the island, is known for its full moon parties. Each month roughly 10,000 backpackers and locals gather on the beaches around Hat Rin to party. Their revelry is fueled by massive stereo systems and astounding amounts of alcohol. Thong Sala, to the west, is Hat Rin’s polar opposite. Tell a Thai you’re headed for Thong Sala and they’re likely to ask “Oh, to meditate?” In Thong Sala the sun doesn’t just set, it puts on a show, drowning in the placid waters of the gulf. Between Hat Rin and Thong Sala, the island rises to a jumble of forested hills that are sprinkled with waterfalls.
Ko Tao, a small island to the north of Ko Pha-Ngan, is a diver’s paradise. The waters off the eight-square-mile island are exceptionally clear and filled with sea life. Divers rave about the island’s vertical tunnel dives, great tubes of rock rising from the sea floor. If you don’t dive, this is the place to learn. Diving lessons on Ko Pha-Ngan or Ko Tao cost $350. That price includes a week’s worth of training and a diver’s certification. Many American diving schools charge twice that price.
The first Thai anyone really gets to know is the King. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world’s longest ruling monarch. The 76-year-old has sat on the throne since 1946, when he was 18. His picture is in every house, restaurant, hotel, business, train station, post office, food cart, taxicab and delivery truck in the country. His face is on every bill and coin. There are stands of billboards planted along every highway, huge family photo albums. He is depicted playing polo, ice hockey, saxophone, and even touring distant provinces of Thailand with a serious-looking camera. The people love him. They watch news footage of the royal family doing their chores. A photomontage of the king’s life is played before every movie.
While the king is revered and loved, he has little to do with the everyday operations of the government. The country is governed by an elected parliament and prime minister. When either has a dispute, however, they consult the king for advice.
Thailand: Things to Know
When to go
Thailand is coolest from November to March, when high temperatures range from 80 to 90 degrees. The moderate temperatures attract throngs of tourists. From April to June the heat thins out the crowds. In Southern Thailand temperatures remain in the 80’s throughout most of the year. April and October are the rainy months and flooding is commonplace.
One US dollar is worth 40 Thai baht. A Thai soda pop costs around 15 baht, a night’s lodging for two in a moderate guesthouse costs around 350 baht. American ATM and credit cards work in many Thai banks, which charge negligible fees for currency exchange.
Thai is the official language of Thailand. It has 44 consonants, 48 vowels and its own alphabet with 32 symbols. Syllables have five distinct tones, level, low, falling, high and rising. The word mai can mean “new,” “burn,” “wood,” “not?” or “not” depending on tone. Luckily, English is Thailand’s second unofficial language and many Thais know enough to help you out.
Thailand has an extensive and inexpensive rail network that can get you to and from every major city in the country. Royal Thai Airlines provides cheap ($80) flights for long-distance trips. Government and private bus companies serve the entire country. There are regular ferries to all of Thailand’s islands. Any travel agent in the country can book tickets for any mode of transport.