I’m writing a series of travel pieces, titled ‘The Great Escape’, on my recent holiday to South East Asia. The first stop was Bangkok. In this article I reflect on, among other things, Thailand’s lèse majesté laws, and the delicious street food that the city has to offer!
About an hour after landing at Suvarnabhumi Airport I found myself in a stationary taxi, at the head of a long queue of other stationary taxis waiting to get on to the expressway into the city. All of the traffic on the expressway itself had been stopped (in both directions).
“Ah, VIP’s” the driver said.
“Yes I think royals”
“Does this happen often?”
“Oh yes, all the time”
A few minutes of silence went by. Looking back on it this would have been the perfect opportunity to ask the driver for his thoughts on the Royals, on Thailand’s’ political environment, and probably on good places to eat. But I was tired, so the opportunity to gain a genuine insight into the country was lost. A motorcade flashed by and was gone in a matter of seconds. And so about half an hour after we had initially been stopped by a bored looking policeman, we were on our way again. Thus I was introduced to Bangkok: a bustling metropolis of skyscrapers, malls, markets, stately temples and not-so-stately tourists, of whom I would be one for the next few days or so.
My curiosity towards the incident on the highway left me when I exited the taxi and began the hunt for my hostel. After spending a bit of time wandering about some quiet back-streets just off Samsen Road (I wasn’t lost, I was…orienteering myself), I found it. The Oasis Hostel would become my watering hole for this brief stint. A small place, The Oasis is typical of the more “chilled-out” variety of backpackers, something of an antithesis to the party hostels frequented by the more outgoing among us. I was greeted by a small, well-kept courtyard and a gregarious Swiss/English lady pulling a late shift at the reception. I was shown to my quarters, hit the bed, and was asleep within seconds.
My first day in the city was spent wandering around aimlessly. I took a river boat down to Wat Pho, home of the Reclining Buddha. A stunning piece of craftsmanship, the giant statue is housed inside a large temple which is itself part of a larger complex. Despite the multitude of tourists wandering about it held a certain serenity to it, with trickling fountains and the smell of incense in the air. It was hard to believe that just beyond the temple walls was a hustling city. This would become a common theme throughout my stay in Bangkok – I needed only to turn a corner to find myself off a crowded street and in a tranquil garden, most usually part of some temple grounds. The Architecture at Wat Pho (and all of Bangkok’s other temples and palaces) is stunning and was one of my favourite aspects of the city. If that’s the kind of thing you like and you don’t mind a bit of a walk then the trip up to the Temple of the Golden Mount (Wat Saket) is well worth it, with spectacular views out over the city.
Wandering around the city you can tell that there is great reverence for the Royal Family, especially the King. Enormous images in their likeness can be seen all over the city. While this level of devotion did not at the time strike me as being particularly odd, it was only after I’d returned to Auckland that I discovered Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code. Located under the chapter of the Code dealing with “Offences Relating to the Security of the Kingdom” Section 112 is a “lèse majesté” law which sets out that, in essence, if you insult particular members of the Royal Family you can face imprisonment of between three to fifteen years. While I doubt that reverence for the Royal Family stems purely from fear, Section 112 is an important thread in the fabric of Thailand’s current legal/political environment.
Thailand’s lèse majesté laws have been on its statute books for decades, but there has been a recent up-trend in both the number of indictments and convictions under these laws – particularly since the military coup of 2014. While Thailand is not unique amongst nations in retaining these laws on its statute books, it has been attracting increasing amounts of attention over the past few years… This article demonstrates the width of interpretation that Thailand’s courts have so far been willing to give to Section 112, and this one shows the extent to which that interpretation may be widened. Previous convictions have been for positive acts of the accused – that is, they say or do something in contravention of the law. The recent case of the unfortunate cleaning lady, however, highlights the potential for Section 112 to be interpreted as a crime of omission – a failure to condemn another’s criticism of the monarchy.
Further to this, one of the features of the enforcement of lèse majesté in Thailand is that those who are indicted are brought before military courts, not the civil judiciary. Military judges are not typically known for their imagination, but it would seem that some are more than willing to perform some jurisprudential acrobatics – perhaps the next step would be to rule that anything short of constant adulation is, prima facie, a contravention of the Section. So it seems that had I followed through on my line of questing to the taxi driver, it’s doubtful he would have had anything negative to say.
But I digress. My second night in Bangkok, I knew what had to be done: No backpacker can say they’ve been to BKK until they’ve stumbled down Khaosan Road at some unholy hour of the night. Khaosan lived up to its expectations in my mind. I knew this as soon I came across the Irishman who’d passed out on the side of the road, one of his toes bleeding profusely. Luckily one of our troupe was a trained nurse from the Netherlands who took pity on the wretched soul. So, with the help of our very own Florence Nightingale we revived the bibulous Irishman from his Snow White slumber. When he came to, the poor chap was under the impression that he’d been transported to Belgium (I think the nurse’s accent threw him off). Without bothering to explain that the Netherlands and Belgium were in fact different countries and that we were currently situated in neither, we managed to locate some of his comrades and sent him on his merry way… Some people just can’t handle Bangkok. Anyway, Khaosan Road can be great fun, but then I guess I’m easy to please – the booze was cheap. And I don’t believe I can drink another drop of Chang in my life.
Bangkok’s nightlife doesn’t consist solely of Khaosan Road; there are a lot of other crazy nightspots (i.e. Soi Cowboy). But if you’re looking for something a little more low-key the city has plenty to offer. Bangkok has a thriving jazz/blues scene – the King is a fan (and accomplished jazz musician himself) – so it seems that a lot of the city is too. A few minutes down the road from The Oasis is located Blues Bar on Samsen Road which, unsurprisingly, has regular live blues music. The bar is small with a great atmosphere and the night I went happened to have an excellent band. It made a welcome change from the insanity of Khaosan!
If you happen to be in Bangkok over a weekend, then the Chatuchak weekend markets are worth the visit. The morning after my night on Khaosan Road I’d successfully peeled my limp, haggard form from the bed to go see it and was not disappointed. This enormous, sprawling web of shops was like a city unto itself. I saw perhaps a half of what it had to offer in the couple of hours I spent wandering around. A great deal of the market is dedicated to what one would expect: clothes, jewelry etc. except on a really big scale. One of the cooler parts of the markets is the Art Zone, located in section seven. Artists set themselves up in little cubicles/containers presenting their craft and offering items for sale: Sculptures, paintings and calligraphy can all be found on display here. You can chat to the artists about the inspiration behind their pieces and even commission individual, personalised works.
While wandering around the markets, I came across a slogan on an umbrella imploring people not to purchase idols of the Buddha for the sake of decoration. I recalled seeing some similar signs at the Airport. I would probably be quite offended if swathes of ignorant foreigners used my most important religious figure as decoration with no understanding of the centuries of shared culture behind it. But then again as an atheist I suppose it would be dishonest of me to say I could empathise entirely. How it is enforced I am unsure: I never asked anyone how the Authorities would be able to determine that you’d purchased the statue for religious or decorative purposes…
Throughout my stay in the City I considered it necessary to seek out and consume sustenance, weakling that I am. Bangkok is a foodies’ paradise. You remember that scene in “When Harry met Sally?” (I know you do). Well watch out foodies that could be you. Bangkok is the kind of city were you can visit a top-notch restaurant for a meal prepared by a Michelin starred chef, then go out on to the street and, remaining peckish after delicious but insubstantial haute cuisine, pick up some street Pad Thai for the equivalent of a couple of dollars.
It’s this contrast that helps make Bangkok such an attractive city to travel too. Backpacking on a budget? There’s cheap accommodation, cheap (and delicious) food, and cheap shopping. Want to spend up big? There’s plush five star hotels, Michelin-starred chefs galore, and some very trendy shopping malls. It also highlights the economic divisions within the city. Tourists can get the best of both worlds, but many residents of the city have the choice of one. Anyway, here are some of the places I ate:
Regarded as one of the best Thai joints in the city, this small restaurant/bar served up unpretentious food made with fresh ingredients. Really can’t go wrong with that. I had lamb samosas with mint yogurt sauce to start, a red duck curry to follow and mango sticky rice w/durian ice cream to finish. This was my first experience with durian, and I must say that while it was enjoyable to try something new on the palate…it is certainly an acquired taste. They also do some excellent cocktails.
A grandiose wooden mansion surrounded by concrete buildings is the home of Hemingway’s, a popular drinking spot and eatery for Bangkok’s expat community. Nothing crazy fancy, but decent fair at a reasonable price. I had pan-fried snapper with a risotto of some sort. Tasty!
You can’t go wrong with street food in Bangkok – in terms of taste anyway, I guess you could get the shits. To help avoid that, just find the places that are popular. Order whatever they have that takes your fancy and you are unlikely to be disappointed. Some of the best street food I had was on Yaowarat Road, Bangkok’s Chinatown. This place is not to be missed during the evening. I felt like I’d be transported to Shanghai or Hong Kong, though I’ve never been to either of those places…or anywhere in China if I’m being honest. So really I just imagined that was what it would be like. Authentic Chinese experience? I have literally no idea, but great food there certainly was!
A lot of travellers will make Bangkok an “in-transit” city – one to stop in for a day or night before heading off to other destinations to see the “real Thailand”. While I can certainly understand the desire to seek a more authentic experience, Bangkok is not to be shrugged off as “just a big city filled with expats”. It’s not the idyllic beaches of the south or the tranquil mountains of the north, but it’s still Thailand in all of its crowded, hectic, loud, and overwhelming glory. I loved it.
The next stop on ‘The Great Escape’ is Siem Reap, Cambodia! But I will be returning to Bangkok to write about the madness of Songkran…