In part 1 of his Bangkok explorations, Surendra focuses on the contrasts in parts of the city that he and Amrapali recently visited, with stunning photographs highlighting his keen observations.
It did not make much sense to our minds, but we needed a break and a fresh perspective. Before the long winter set in, my partner, Amrapali, and I wanted to get away from feeling hemmed in by mountains and contracted by the cold of the Japanese Alps. But it was not just physical. Amrapali wanted to get away from the ‘heads-down, work hard, soldier on and sacrifice’ ethos of Japan. Known as ganbaru, this is what we had been marinating in for two years, without a break. Although we started out with plans to go rural, we were already fortunate to live in a very silent valley, surrounded by farmland. For contrast, we opted for a city break and chose the much warmer climes and more easy-going atmosphere of Thailand, with which Amrapali was familiar. Some research, several changes of plan and the attraction of cheap flights led us, surprisingly, to part of the business district of Bangkok. The area where we stayed, Silom, was reputed to be relatively quiet, less crowded and only just off centre.
Our eighth (top) floor, rented apartment overlooked a small patch of green, with trees and birds and, possibly, a reticulated python or two on the ground. These reptiles still inhabit this city and did exist in the former swamp upon which it was built. As we explored the surrounding terrain, this break became, for me, about taking pictures but not of snakes. Growing up in congested East London, after becoming a sannyasin, I headed for the hills. Later, my photography followed suit and was mostly about nature. Suddenly, on this trip, I was alive to urban buzz and divergence and there were fewer more bustling and diversified places than Bangkok. True, there are similar scenes in rapidly developing cities all over the world. What was astonishing in Silom was the variety crammed into such a small zone. All of the pictures shown here were taken within a square kilometre, walkable from where we stayed. In some ways, they could represent a microcosm of the variety in city life anywhere on the planet.
Just around the corner from us, was a row of wooden shops. They were built about a hundred years ago and were common before urban development accelerated. Made from timber boards with accommodation and shuttered windows above, they must have looked increasingly out of place as the high-rises took over. Now, they looked incongruous. Close by was a hairdresser with an ageing placard depicting once colourful hairstyles that had gradually faded in the sun, as they simultaneously faded from fashion. A ten-minute walk brought me to another old and shuttered building, this time cement-faced. An abandoned residence, with added graffiti and corrugated iron, it stood in splendid isolation. Surrounded on three sides by a large, levelled construction site, I wondered how long it would be before this one remaining, original structure disappeared forever.
Scraping the sky
Although Bangkok is already built up, there had been no sign of development abating. Cranes pierced the horizon in all directions. High-rise office buildings and hotels towered over the whole city. In Silom, they dwarfed streets that suddenly became crowded with office workers on breaks. Many stretches of pavement hosted transient cafés with awnings that were set up and dismantled a couple of times a day. Using plastic bowls and cutlery, they catered for the suited waves that gushed from the offices and then stopped, waiting patiently to get their temporary seats.
Still within Silom, latest award-winning architecture encroached on the decaying, red-light subdistrict of Patpong. At night, this also became a rapidly-assembled and then disassembled market for fake designer goods. During the day? More temporary food stalls were set up and quickly taken down: first for breakfast and then lunch. Here and there, I managed to get in with my camera when the area was deserted for a few hours. Easily overwhelmed close to bustle, I am not quick enough to successfully do people shots on the streets. Instead, I followed my inclinations, slowly setting up a tripod, fiddling with the composition and giving the action a miss. The empty backdrops, upon which this busy theatre of life was being enacted, became my focus.
Above the nightclubs of Patpong were dilapidated lodgings that could not manage without the ubiquitous air conditioners that served all floors. Perched amidst pipes and cables on what were balconies of sorts, these machines helped to dry the scant laundry which the residents had hung next to them. Forlorn, without illumination during the day, signs dangled in front of these upper floors. They advertised the activities of the bars that, at night, glowed gaudily below. One alleyway had been uniquely festooned with pennants. In exceptionally primary colours, they belonged more in a regatta than here. Elsewhere in Patpong, daylight colour was desaturated and came sparingly: in intermittent splashes, on canvases of dusty and crumbled grey, with dabs of black or white. Taking photographs felt like capturing instant paintings or checking out locations for a film noir.
Cramped into a tight, corner plot on a main road was Wat Phra Si Maha Uma Devi, a temple in the South Indian tradition, developed in the state of Tamil Nadu. Probably taking the prize for gaudy, there was no monochrome here. This collection of small buildings had been aptly described as ‘a wild collision of colours, shapes and deities’. It was surrounded by the equally vivid stalls of garland sellers. Smells from surrounding Indian restaurants underscored this temple’s origins. To fully drive the association home, slightly distorted mantras blared loudly at passers-by through an array of outward-facing speakers. Across the busy dual carriageway, these loud chants managed to compete with the calls of women. In deep pink uniforms and vivid make-up, they sat expectantly in front of Thai massage parlours, assertively touting for business.
Walking south-east, I returned to Silom and then entered the adjacent, business-only, district of Sathorn. Here, embassies and brand-new skyscrapers prevailed. One among them, MahaNakhon, looked like it might have been in a process of self-destruction. This is Thailand’s tallest tower and gave the impression of a lofty Lego puzzle, coming apart in different places up its 314 metres. Cantilevered from the roof was a viewing platform with a solid glass floor. This enabled the brave-hearted to stand in glory above the city on ‘thin air’. Magnified through a telephoto lens from the ground below, they looked like ants. Street food was at a minimum in this area, replaced by restaurants with heavy tables and chairs that held their positions. The excess of glass (frequently blue), was supported by steel and polished concrete that sparkled in unison. These man-made elements had displaced nearly all wood in Sathorn… but there was an exception.
Deep down a small and quieter side road of Sathorn was the former home of one of Thailand’s prime ministers, in office during the 1970s. Now a museum, it was composed of ageing, traditional teak structures, that had been relocated from central Thailand and reassembled on site. The beautiful gardens which featured these buildings were full of tropical plants and incorporated water and statuary to good effect. Mr Kukrit had been a professor, writer and collector, with a passion for the arts and Eastern spiritual traditions. Away from the main roads, he had created a unique retreat with a rare, rural opulence, not encountered anywhere else in Bangkok.
The majestic ruins in Sukhothai from the era that bore this name and ended in the fourteenth century, held an abiding fascination for me. Modern Thai temples, with their gold that glitters, did not usually have much appeal. In Bangkok, I found another exception in Wat Hua Lamphong. Slap in the centre and next to the start of the busy overpass leaving the city to the east, for some reason, this temple was not high on the lists for tourists. Beautifully built and decorated with uncommon balance and restraint, this temple warranted a slideshow of its own, which will become Part 2 of this Bangkok exploration.
After a couple of weeks, we were glad to be leaving Bangkok. More tourists had been arriving and signs of Christmas were on the increase, with a proliferation of small, illuminated trees and staff at supermarkets who wore red hats or felt reindeer horns in the tropical heat. We were grateful to have immersed ourselves in a vibrant atmosphere for a while. We were equally happy to be leaving some elements that had invaded our senses: the strong, meaty smells of greasy food and occasional odours from sewers, suddenly swelling crowds and very noisy traffic. The congestion and pollution had eventually become too much for us. We were also leaving behind the stressful dare of stepping onto pedestrian crossings, unsure whether speeding drivers would stop… or not. Overall, however, we were very glad to have had this enlivening break.
Back in contrasting Japan, we could dismiss the annoyances here and appreciate, once again, this over-courteous, clean and efficient culture. After the uprooting of our routines, we could also celebrate the prevailing silence of our locale. Coping with the deepening cold became a challenge. But we were fortunate to have been eased in gently, with no snow for the first couple of weeks, even though blizzards had visited our neighbouring prefectures. Perhaps there is some truth in the saying that a change can be as good as a rest.
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