Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok is a giant. A 2000 census revealed a total number of inhabitants of 6,355,144 with a dazzling population density of 4,426 inhabitants in every square kilometer. In 2006, a study of the entire metropolitan area revealed a population of 9,930,634. That still only makes it the 22nd largest city in the world, but definitely one of the largest South-East Asian ones.

I had already visited Bangkok in 2003, but while there, never managed to get to the Royal Palace, which was closed. This time I did make it there. While the king’s birthday was on December 5th, and I went there around December 13th, festivities were still taking place.

And you’d wonder where they put all those temples, taking into account that a large part of the city actually consists of buddhist temples, regularly interrupted by a sign in respect of their royal family.  King Phra Chaoyuhua Bhumibol Adulyadej, generally referred to as Rama IX (reflecting the dynasty) or simply King Bhumibol has lead the country since 1946, when his brother was found dead in his bedroom.

While predominantly of a ceremonial nature, the king does have a significant impact on how Thailand is governed. Many believe him to have been a stabilizing force during the recent coup – by expressing his agreement with the actual events. Personally I am quite certain that he would have been unable to stop it, but his mere involvement enables such coup to be “stabilized” and make it less likely to involve violence.

Thai Buddhists are mainly of the Theravada school, which originates from Sri Lanka. Theravada is the oldest Buddhist school, numbering about 100 million Buddhists worldwide. It is also one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in the west. Theravada teaches “analysis”, meaning that insight must come from experience, critical investigation and reasoning instead of blind faith.  It however also pays great respect to the “wise”, people who have significant experience in the matter.

It identifies four different degrees of spiritual accomplishment: those that enter the stream, which got rid in previous lives of a number of issues and will not be reborn as animals anymore. Once-returners, that lessened lust and hatred, Non-returners, people that will achieve Nibbana (nirvana) upon rebirth and Arahants, people that achieved enlightenment.

One of the most popular modes of transport in Thailand is the tuk-tuk, the little cars you see pictured above. They’re used by tourists and locals alike, but are not the cheapest, best nor safest way to travel from one part of town to the other. They are widely subsidized by local tailors and jewelry stores: when you ask a tuk-tuk to be dropped off somewhere, it will usually take you there with two or three shopping stops. You pay hardly anything for the ride, but the shops give the tuk-tuks ‘fuel coupons’ which allow them to buy more fuel.

If you really want to get somewhere, you’ll have to pay them quite a bit more – more than a regular taxi, usually. Nevertheless, it’s fun to drive ‘m around Bangkok once if you have the chance. Prepare for a one-on-one with Bangkok smog.

During my two day stay in Bangkok, I visited the National Museum, which is truly impressive – it contains many older artefacts and provides visitors with a good grounding in the wide history of the Thai people. As one of the only countries in South East Asia not to have been fully invaded in recent years – perhaps except for a quite quarrel with the Japanese that was mainly resolved by Thailand declaring itself “partner” to Japan – many artefacts have been maintained and are on display. It also shows quite a bit of national pride – showing off how earlier Thai kings managed to safeguard their country against the Burmese and Cambodians; or at least reconquered occupied territories, and then some.

Ever heard of Jim Thompson ? He was an American born in 1906 in Greenville, Delaware, that went to work for the US government, more specifically for the OSS – Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. After his work as Bangkok station chief for that organization, he moved there and started a silk business. He became one of the best known Americans in Bangkok.

In 1959, Jim Thompson completed the building of a large Thai house, with influences from around the world (it even has a Belgian chandelier. Having lived there for a short time, he decided to open it up to the public for visits. However, in 1967, Jim Thompson set out for a jungle hike in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. He never returned. Many different explanations existed for his sudden disappearance, but it was never fully explained.

His house is now a public museum, and is definitely worth a visit while in Bangkok. In the picture above you can see a puppet show, part of a new ‘event’ the organization running the house, the James H.W. Thompson Foundation, is organizing – “Lost in the City”. It was the first time they gave the show a proofrun.

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