Friday 18 January 2019

Bangkok: Focus on the Small Stuff

Some years ago I won a prize in a Thai Airways travel writing competition with this article about Bangkok (I subsequently used the prize - a trip anywhere on the airline's network - to visit India). 

As the story is no longer available online, I'd like to share it here. Enjoy!

I don’t know what it is, but it’s big. I’m standing on the footpath in the Siam Square district of Bangkok, looking up at a towering white figure that’s not quite human.

The seated statue is pure white, with an elongated head, feet and fingers, and is staring into the traffic.

Dollar is an outlandish piece of street art on a busy Bangkok street, just metres from the endless flow and roar of motorbikes, buses and cars. According to the artist, the statue represents the stresses and pressures of modern society.

As I read these words on its base, I find myself nodding. Bangkok is definitely a lively city, exciting and vibrant at all hours of the day; especially here in the commercial centre, where gigantic shopping malls line busy roads, overshadowed by the Skytrain elevated railway.

But is it possible to discover a more contemplative side to the Thai capital? Having set out on foot through the humid morning haze from my hotel, I’m determined to give it a try.

Turning right into Soi Kasem San 2, there’s a remarkable contrast between the mega-malls behind me and the quiet laneway leading to Jim Thompson’s House, my destination at the end of the street.

This collection of traditional Thai timber houses, some of them centuries old, was linked together in 1959 to create a single sprawling home.

An American soldier during World War II, Thompson had then become a silk manufacturer, employing the traditional silk weavers of the Muslim district across the nearby canal.

Thompson was a great admirer of Thai traditions, so he filled his houses with beautiful antiques, including ancient statues of the Buddha, while adding Western elements such as chandeliers.

Then, in 1967, on a holiday in Malaysia, he mysteriously disappeared and was never heard of again. As a result, the house has become his legacy.

“Visitors enjoy the fact that it is not a museum, it’s someone’s home,” says Eric Booth, trustee of the James HW Thompson Foundation.

“We take care of it as if Jim was still living there. The young guides aren’t there to lecture, so our visitors are not overwhelmed by history.”

However, the knowledgeable Thais who lead the regular tours are happy to answer questions about Thompson’s superb eye for art and its placement.

“There are many important pieces, including the exceptional Dvaravati torso in the garden,” says Booth, referring to the partial Buddha statue that’s over a thousand years old.

“But what I really like is the mix of important pieces and everyday objects. The way he displayed them makes the house a wonderful place. After all, it is a home, not a museum!”

After the tour, I wander through the splendid tropical garden and admire the house from the outside. I decide it’s a charming and, more importantly, balanced home, a harmonious blend of natural and man-made objects, and of new and old.

I feel I could happily move in here, lounging on its daybeds and letting natural ventilation, shade and shutters cool me rather than relying on the dry artificiality of air-conditioning.

Leaving the grounds and walking west, I discover Garimmin & Sobereen, a small restaurant stretched along the path that borders the canal.

It’s decorated with potted tropical plants, and serves up freshly cooked food from its open-air kitchen. This is the real thing - straightforward Thai food served direct from pan to table.

My pad thai, a Thai standard, arrives bearing noodles, egg, crumbled peanuts and a dash of seafood. I add a sprinkle of chilli flakes from a jar in the middle of the table.

The effect is gratifyingly spicy and the meal is delicious - and all for a mere 30 baht (S$1.25). As I sit and eat, ferry boats loaded with tourists periodically zoom past, but I’m not in their world right now; I’m taking it slowly.

Finally, I step onto the footbridge that will take me across the Saem Saeb canal to Baan Krua, the district where Thompson’s weavers lived. From this vantage point, the jumble of shops and homes that make up the district are appealingly human-scale.

It’s peaceful and cool walking along its narrow but neatly-maintained pedestrian laneways, and it’s fascinating to encounter the small shops embedded in the buildings, serving residents’ diverse shopping needs.

I score a smile or two from the shopkeepers, and somewhere unseen I can hear children chatting and laughing.

Suddenly, walking east, I pop out of the perimeter of Baan Krua, back into the busy larger world of Bangkok.

I can feel my energy levels rising by the second, and I’m keen to enjoy all this bustling city has to offer; but I linger for a moment, wanting to hang on a little longer to the relaxed vibe of its back streets.

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