Culture shock in Bangkok

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Bangkok… where shall I start? We departed Düsseldorf with 3 half-empty bags, expecting the heat, anticipating the change, and as nervous as ever. After a 10 hour plane ride (plane rides are plane rides, there’s nothing new) we arrived in the airport. The beautiful Thai signs were everywhere, but well-suited to tourists, as everything was also in English. Our first taxi was really interesting. First off, they drive on the right side in Thailand. Even though I now know, I still look into every car and am surprised that no one is driving; I guess my eyes haven’t caught up yet. Our taxi man had 4 Buddha statues, of which we would see many more, and a golden dragon in the front. On the ceiling he had foreign currencies taped and on the wind-shield wiper there were many amulets hanging from those suction-cups. While we were waiting for the light to turn green, he bought a little ring of flowers, prayed, hung it around a buddha, then stepped on the gas. People really incorporate religion into day-to-day life.

One thing can not be argued about Bangkok – it’s dirty. Trash is everywhere, the river is dark-grey, the houses look like they’re about to fall apart sometimes and are stained black in places with water damage and dirt. However, the people smile as they sell delicious food from their vendor carts or shorten people’s pants with their old sewing machines. On one street we smelled fish sauce, then flowers, then garbage, then incense, and then more.

Our neighborhood, the Khaosan Road, is known for backpacking. We stayed along a canal on a walkway lower than the regular street, shaded with trees and a little mysterious. Because it’s so hot people leave their house wide open, and I purposefully don’t say door, because there isn’t really a door, just an open wall. Some are completely empty with a little bed and a campfire with a wok and a rug and some are full of old boxes and stuff piled everywhere, which are used as low walls. In these small neighborhoods everyone knows each other, they hang out in front and smile. Even though we may question how they live, they seem content. Buddhism believes in reincarnation, that in your next life you will be a step higher in society.

The actual Khaosan Road and streets around or off of it we explored at night, where we usually chose a spot to eat. There are lights everywhere, pop music playing from different restaurants, and people busy either selling, buying, pushing or staring. It is very alive. Little carts are selling food from massive woks, the street is crowded with one clothing stall after another. You can get a massage, have your hair turned into dreadlocks, eat fruits you’ve never even heard of, and buy an entire wardrobe in one block. To get away from this chaos, we often took little side roads or alleys and passed pretty much the same on a smaller, quieter scale.

The little roads off the main ones are always interesting wherever you are in Bangkok. You are faced with less traffic, smaller walkways, a more private feel, and the people; you see where the locals live and make money and hang out and where the little ones play around. There’s much more greenery and it’s always a mystery as to where the alley will lead.

On our first day we explored and quickly met the nearest temple, one with many locals. Temples usually come in a compound, walls enclosing the temple itself, the statues, and other buildings to meet in. We took off our shoes, stepped over the raised golden threshold (stepping on it is bad luck), walked across the squishy carpet, and sat on our feet. The gold Buddha was beautiful; it was raised over the flowers and offerings, sticks of burning incense and smaller other Buddhas while looking over us all, making sure we were ok. In this temple I always felt very empty, it’s quiet, the only sound is the hum of the fans, the cozy carpet was just vacuumed, my feet rest comfortably under me; it’s peaceful.

We went shopping in a massive mall center, where the different malls were connected by bridges that spanned over the highway. At first we could only stare; the sheer size of everything is overwhelming. The MBK was a little like an indoor market, little cramped stalls everywhere selling everything and as you look down the aisle, it doesn’t stop. Other ones, like the Center Siam or Siam Paragon were more upscale and too expensive, so we stuck to the MBK and bought long, light pants for the evenings.

Some other tourist attractions we saw:

The Grand Palace – The Grand Palace consisted of an outer, middle, and inner building, which no one but the royal family is allowed to visit. A tour guide offered us a good deal so we took her and she showed us the palace. It’s a good thing she did because otherwise we would have been completely lost. Not only lost in the orientation, but now we could also appreciate what different symbols or statues stood for. We learned about the religion and legends we will now be able to recognize. People here take their King seriously. He is printed on almost all of the money, signs everywhere say Long Live the King (leftover from a huge celebration for his 84th birthday), and huge portraits of him are everywhere around the city! The airport has a timeline in pictures of his life on the side of the building and everywhere life-size pictures show him doing everything from playing the piano to greeting an important person. He is a big part of the day-to-day life here.

Wat Arun and Wat Pho:

Each Rama, or King, has his own sacred temple. Wat Pho and Wat Arun are 2 of the 9. Wat Arun’s prang, a tall spire only built in important religious places, is decorated entirely with broken china. Each flower is different! From far away it looks extremely detailed or painted, but in reality they only stuck random pieces of broken plates and cups to form cool patterns. I can imagine it was fun to build.

Wat Pho, the home of the reclining buddha, is a massive temple! We spent a lot of time going into the small temples around it until we finally followed the tour groups and found the reclining buddha. It’s a beautiful buddha and very, very big! Outside there was a place to worship the different buddha statues, each one representing a different day. People burned incense, lit candles, put big flowers into the vases, and you are supposed to pat gold leaf onto the buddha, or day, you were born on. For 20 Baht you could get a little offerings package which I thought was smart, with 3 incense sticks (they’re always in threes), a candle, a flower, and some gold leaf. I didn’t know which one was Saturday (although I do know that the reclining buddha is Tuesday), so I simply put gold leaf on a couple. Although I did like these temples, I still like our local one the best. For me the peacefulness and the little offerings and local atmosphere were the perfect image of Buddhism.

Other than that we explored, had our first foot massage, and took a little boat through the canals of Bangkok. More pictures will follow!

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8 responses »

  1. Wonderful wonderful!!!!! I can smell Bangkok while reading your post, Lillian!!! Are you still in a hotel or a place of your own???
    We had a nice Christmas with t Ariadne with friend and o Gunther and fam. Amstel and Zealand are grtting so big!!
    Celebrated Old/New with the usual lobster and champagne and 2012 is already 9 days old.
    Unseasonably warm here, in the 40’s and sunny. We are all wondering if we have to pay for this later on.
    Enjoy Bangkok and the people who are so genteel and at peace most of the time. Love to all, Oma/Opa.

    • We are now in a hotel in Ubud, Bali.
      I’m glad you had a great holiday (it was fun seeing everyone through FaceTime!).
      It is unreasonably raining here in Bali during rainy season! Glad it is good weather there!
      Love, Lillian and Co

  2. Lillian, Glad to hear you are adjusting well to the culture and appreciating different lifestyles and religions. There are many ways to be at peace. As an academic anthropologist, I am thrilled to hear that you not only recognize cultural differences, but you also do not judge the people for their uncleanliness or state of chaos. Enjoy this time and take it all in.
    Thank you for the calendar – Oma sent it out to me. FYI – this year coming up on Jan 23rd will be the year of the dragon. Time for me to wear something red all year.
    We had an uneventful holiday – quiet and no big celebrations. Quite a change from the norm. But work kept me busy and I start a new job in 2 weeks. Going to Chicago for training – your old stomping grounds.
    Please say hello to our family in Indonesia – Will you be able to see Oom Eric, Opa’s youngest brother? He just got married last year, Dec 2010. Have fun and tell everyone hello!
    Love, Tante Natasha, Oom Chris, and Jack too.
    PS – have you tried the durian yet? Let me know what you think! 🙂 Oma LOVES it!!

    • Thank you! It’s quite a change, but definitely not unwelcome.
      I’m not sure if we’ve tried durian yet. We’ve seen it everywhere and had something that could be it this morning, but maybe the locals call it by another name? We did visit a cocoa and coffee plantation and tried snake fruit off of one of the bushes. I’m sure we’ll try it soon!
      Congratulations and tell Oom Chris and Jack hello!
      Love, Lillian and Co.

  3. You are way too smart to fall for Tante Natasha’s trick…..
    Please give a little offering to your favorite temple from us. Let the year of the Dragon be a good one for all! Like Tante Natasha, it’s Maja’s year as well. She has to wear something red all year long (she made herself a little red bracelet from yarn). Take in all those sights and sounds and enjoy….and then write about them, so we can enjoy them through you 🙂 Kisses to all, love, Tante Anja

      • You would have known if you ate durian. It has a distinct odor. But it Is delicious. Green fruit size of small watermelon with dull spikes onthe outside. Inside divided in compartments with separate units consisting of a pit surrounded by white dicious meat. Happy eating. Depends on time of year if a specific fruit is available. Other delicious fruit: mangga of course, salak, manggistan, duku, zuurzak, the hairy fruit ( can not think of name) all yummy
        Did you encounter the bat cave where the sacred white cobra lives? Enjoy all the experiences. Love. Oma/opa.

      • We’ve seen durian before; it looks quite funny hanging off a small tree. It is rambutan (the hairy fruit) season here, and we love them!
        I’m not sure whether we are seeing the bat cave… I hope you are well! Love, Lillian and Co.

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