Bangkok: Where Today's Thailand Meets Old Siam

Posted: October 25, 1987

BANGKOK — Is it Thailand or Siam?

It's Thailand, of course. Has been for almost a half-century. All the maps and atlases call this country Thailand now.

But does Siam still exist here, if only intangibly? Do the old ways linger, living with the new, tradition with trend, or has Siam vanished - gobbled up by progress and westernization?

And what are the differences, anyway?

Thailand is a fact; Siam is a mood. Thailand is a geopolitical certainty; Siam is an image in the traveler's mind, perhaps evoking scenes from The King and I. Thailand is an agrarian nation of 198,000 square miles and about 50 million people, between Laos and Burma; Siam is . . . well, you may not know exactly what Siam is, but you'll know it when you see it.

Here in Thailand, can you still go in search of Siam?

The answer is yes. Even in this modern capital, with its rush-hour gridlock, computer stores and high-rise condos, Siam still exists. Everywhere here, Thailand and Siam rub shoulders, often incongruously.

On the streets, teenagers carry boom boxes, and hawkers sell fake Izod shirts for $2 (U.S.). That's Thailand. Strolling past them are somber monks in sandals and orange robes and old women carrying woven reed baskets at the ends of long, limber poles balanced on their shoulders. In the baskets are fish, eggs, vegetables, rice. That's Siam.

In the phone book, on the page of "frequently called numbers," are listings for the renovated international airport and a "night-soil collection service."

When you go in search of Siam, choose as your base camp one of the hotels on the wide, winding Chao Phraya River: the Oriental or Royal Orchid Sheraton, the Swan, Shangri-La or Menam.

In your room, you'll find a color TV and a mini-bar. That's Thailand. In the lobby, a young Thai in leggings and livery holds aloft a slate with a guest's name chalked on it - silent paging. Bells on the slate tinkle as he walks. That's Siam.

Get up early and look out your window. Watch the rising sun, like a broom, sweep the shadows away. See it gild the spires of the hundreds of wats (temples), making a golden pincushion of the Bangkok skyline.

The Chao Phraya River is the heart of the city. It begins to beat at dawn as tugs and tour boats, sleek long-tailed boats and squat rice boats, commuter ''buses" and barges dart in all directions. There is no attempt to hide the haves from the have-nots, to separate the new from the old: Next to a luxury hotel or an ornate temple, shanties at the river's edge lean on their last legs, collapsing into the water.

Nowhere is Siam more visible than along the klongs - the canals that once earned Bangkok the title of "Venice of the East." The canals and the river still serve as the city's second streets. After all, water travel is faster, more fun, and there are fewer potholes.


Go down to the river at your hotel and take a boat tour to the Thonburi floating market, which is not really floating and not much of a market. It is a bit staged and tourist-oriented - mostly souvenirs and Cokes. That's Thailand. But it's well worth the trip. Because to get there, you pass along the river and the klongs and directly from Thailand to Siam.

Over here, an old woman in a wooden boat is paddling against the wash of the speedy long-tailed boats, with their huge diesel engines. In her boat, she cradles a big metal canister of ice cream - a floating Good Humor lady. Over there, women paddle along selling fruits - mangosteen, durian, papaya, guava.

The houses along the canals are modest at best. Not much paint on them, perhaps no doors. Water laps at their pilings relentlessly. During the monsoon season, when the water rises above the plank floors, residents simply take off their shoes and life goes on, barefoot.

The roofs of the shanties bristle with TV antennas. That's Thailand. Their front porches are the canal itself. You see the inhabitants bathe in it, wash dishes and clothes in it, use it for travel and recreation. That's Siam.


Along the canals are floating filling stations that keep the motorized water traffic moving. That's Thailand. You'll also see spirit houses: birdhouse-size replicas of wats that are draped with flowers and religious

icons and may even contain the remains of a homeowner's ancestors. That's Siam.

While on the canals, stop at the huge shed that houses the royal barges. Each barge is arrow-thin: 100 feet long, 6 feet wide, made of teak and painstakingly detailed. They require a crew of 50 oarsmen. Once used for war, they are now used only for ceremony. That, too, is Siam.

When you go in search of Siam, you'll find that Bangkok has more than 400 wats, many as old as the city itself. The most famous of them - and their English translations - are:

WAT PHRA KAEO. In the same walled compound with the Grand Palace is Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Acres of temples and pavilions, monuments and mythical beasts. Here even seeing is not believing: The architecture is otherworldly. It startles. It stuns. It is art deco gone mad, gingerbread run amok. A Disneyland of detail. And everywhere enough gold and porcelain, gold and teak, gold and mother of pearl to make even the late Liberace green with envy.

The Emerald Buddha is made of a single piece of jade 66 centimeters high. The king ceremoniously changes the statue's costume three times a year.

WAT ARUN. The Temple of Dawn is a compound of monks and golden Buddhas, of pigeons and sleeping dogs. Located on the river. The main prang (tower) is clad in millions of chips of Chinese porcelain. Twenty stories high with steep steps that would induce vertigo in a mountain goat.

WAT TRAIMIT. Houses a 5.5-ton solid-gold Buddha, the world's largest. At least 700 years old.

WAT PHO. Home of the 46-meter-long Reclining Buddha. There are many gates into the grounds of Wat Pho, all of them seemingly locked with a sign reading ''next gate please." There must be an old Buddhist lesson to be learned here somewhere. But finally you find an open gate, enter the temple grounds and locate the Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha is a proud deity with a skin condition - over the decades, its gold-leaf covering has begun to peel and flake. Donations for its restoration are accepted.

Elsewhere on the temple grounds, a woman has some caged birds. There is another sign: "Let these birds fly free. You will be happy and prosperous." You pay the woman, she releases a bird. Of course, after you leave, she recaptures the bird. These are homing pigeons of a sort - they do the homing, you are the pigeon.

An alternative to water travel in Bangkok are the tuk-tuks - the feisty, flatulent three-wheeled taxis that are seen everywhere, weaving their way through the thick traffic. There are almost five million people in this city, all of them, it seems, idling in front of you at a red light, so the open-air tuk-tuks are a good way to see the city. And inexpensive - even a long ride is less than $5 (U.S.).

You'll see that much construction is under way in Bangkok, from the airport to banks, freeways and high-rises. That's Thailand. Often, the scaffolding used on these projects is made of bamboo poles lashed together. That's Siam.

Take a tuk-tuk to Patpong - the district that was so popular with GIs on R& R during the Vietnam War. It remains a hectic Sodom of nightclubs and strip joints, massage parlors, restaurants and gift shops. And you'll see a Kentucky Fried Chicken or two.

Also in Patpong is the genteel Jim Thompson silk shop. Sit on its oft-swept front steps on Surawong Street, in the blessed shade of a tree, and take it all in: the grinding of gears and the Babel of foreign tongues, the smell of the spicy foods and the exhaust smoke, which, in the heat and humidity, slap you in the face like a barber's towel.

If you want to shop, your tuk-tuk driver may try to steer you - literally and figuratively - to a government store, where you can find bargains on silk, jewelry and native crafts. He may receive a commission for bringing you in. That's Thailand. But inside, you will see crafts workers making jewelry, bent over benches using simple hand tools, or weaving silk on wooden looms. That's Siam.

The narrow lanes are crammed with tiny shops and food stalls, and countless machine and parts shops that keep all these engines running. For Thailand will not walk into the 21st century. No, it will drive, lurching and double- clutching all the way.

Siam survives, too, in the traditional food. Hotel food is predictable. But the countless food stalls - often just a handcart or a few metal stools along a sidewalk - are full of surprises: noodles, rice, fish, fried morning glory, deep-fried sparrow. A menu can read like the plagues of Egypt: locust, frog.

The native food is good and inexpensive, even if the smells are strong and not always appetizing to the unaccustomed Western nose. And beware the hot seasonings - your tongue may not speak to you for days.

Thailand can be come-ons from good-time girls and amateur tour guides. But Siam can be meeting a stranger who will adopt - nay, abduct - you and insist on showing you his city. Your self-appointed good-will ambassador seems to know everyone. He commandeers a long-tailed boat and shows you the royal barges and a wat. He takes you along the residential canals, showing you the Siam that you might otherwise miss: women sorting and bunching lotus stalks to sell to local restaurants, a grocery that consists of little more than a cooler for drinks, a few cans of food and some cats and lizards on the wooden floor above the water.

He may buy you a soft drink, give you his address and ask for yours so that you can stay in touch. You keep waiting for the catch, for the angle.

It never comes. Just a fond embrace, a carefully enunciated "goodbye, my friend" and he is gone.

Old and new, tradition and trend. It will all be here in Thailand.

When you come in search of Siam.


For information, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand, 5 World Trade Center, Suite 2449, New York, N.Y. 10048, phone 212-432-0433, or 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1101, Los Angeles, Calif. 90010, phone 213-382-2353.

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