Exotic Bangkok, a terrible beauty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Those nasty rumors about Bangkok are true. The once-upon-a-paradise is now crowded and dirty. The smog gags, the traffic is ungodly. The Chao Phraya River is so full of filth it's amazing the bright little fantail taxi boats can zip about unharmed.

I still love it.

Where else can you hop on a river boat filled with saffron-robed monks, zoom about town in motorized tricycle tuk-tuk taxis, stumble across breathtakingly ornate temples and watch locals burning incense at a sidewalk shrine?

All this -- plus the world's finest hotels, an up-to-date airport readily accessible from nearly all major cities and some of the most interesting modern architecture anywhere.

And -- whether your budget is $400 per night or a mere $4 -- Bangkok is surprisingly tourist-friendly.

That was true when I first visited Bangkok five years ago, and remains so. Many other things have changed, however, and the signs of rapid metamorphosis are all around.

The canals -- called klongs -- that once earned the city the nickname of "Venice of the East" are disappearing in the crush of modern life. Construction sites blaze throughout the night in the rush to create striking new skyscrapers. The traffic has gotten so frightful that one entrepreneur has begun marketing portable urinals for those stuck in cars. The air is noticeably thicker. In a city where sex is openly for sale, AIDS is on the rise. The down side of progress -- plus the Persian Gulf war and last year's government coup -- have slowed the flow of tourists. Visitors began returning late last year, after the government settled, and about a half-million arrive each month.

For them, the effects of the coup are invisible, and the traffic and smog are simply inconveniences. This city of 5.5 million is just as exotic, just as cosmopolitan, just as fascinating as ever. The theme song from the Lloyd Webber mega-musical, "Chess," got it right: One night in Bangkok, and the world's your oyster.

Some visitors are in their own rush to grab the city's shopping bargains, sample Bangkok's luxuries and glance into her temples, then -- off to avoid the insanity of this place. Others stop off in Bangkok on the way to the more pristine regions of Thailand's jungled north or her beaches in the south, or to take advantage of Bangkok's position as the gateway to southern Asia and arrange a visa and cheap flight to Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos.

I am happy to languish here awhile. There's nothing in the world like roaring through Bangkok's streets in the back of a tuk-tuk; I forget the heat, the fumes and the noise, and feel free.

I can never spend too many quiet moments in Bangkok's orange-roofed temples; the colorfully robed monks are proof that I am somewhere truly exotic. I can spend hours wandering

through street markets, falling upon unexpected temples, hanging out at little riverside restaurants, munching on garlic crabs and sipping beer.

Beneath Bangkok's hell-for-leather craziness, I feel a curious serenity. Despite the scurry and rush, the people are surprisingly gentle. Thailand's leaders have always been adept at negotiating and have avoided being colonized -- or even much manipulated -- by Western powers. Too, Thailand is profoundly Buddhist -- many men spend some portion of their lives in a monastery -- and the tolerant spirit of that religion seeps into the place. As in most places, the religion is less popular with the younger generation, and that may partly account for the hard edge that was more obvious on this visit than on my last.

Though the religion here is Buddhist, the temples that dot the city -- many of them open to tourists -- incorporate art work and symbolism that bear influences of Brahmanism. The most magnificent is Wat Pra Keo, a fantastic collection of gold domes, spires and temples covered with intricate tile work and guarded by shimmering mythical figures. It is located within the massive compound of the Grand Palace, the official royal residence and the setting of the story of "The King and I."

Temple guide

The flash and glitter reflect a rich symbolism incomprehensible to the uninformed visitor, and it's well worth having a guide. The central pavilion here is home to the Emerald Buddha, a jade figure that is one of the most venerated Buddha statues in Thailand. On Sundays, Wat Pra Keo is filled with locals who come to make offerings of incense or flowers at altars around the temples.

One of my favorite temples is Wat Po, located within walking distance of the Grand Palace. Wat Po is the oldest of Bangkok's wats and home of the Reclining Buddha, a 120-foot-long statue finished in gold leaf that represents Buddha's transition to nirvana. The monastery here is the center of traditional Thai medicine, and the grounds include a massage institute where you can get a rub or learn to give one.

Wat Traimit, part of most city tours, is home to the Golden Buddha, a 9-foot-high statue of solid gold that weighs 5 1/2 tons. Wat Benjamabopit, also called the Marble Temple, draws its name from the white Carrara stone from which it is cut.

Not to be missed is Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, a stair-step tower covered in intricately fashioned colored ceramics that rises 250 feet above the river. The view from the top is terrific -- if you can stand to climb up the steep sides and have the nerve to look down.

Bangkok is also home to a temple of a different sort -- the traditional Thai house that belonged to silk mogul Jim Thompson before he mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron highlands of Malaysia in 1967. The house is now a museum, filled with rare antiques and memorabilia that belonged to Thompson. The silk business he founded runs a shop, but it is located far from the museum in a central shopping district on Surawong Road.

Shoppers' paradise

Which brings us to the subject of shopping. In Bangkok, you can't avoid it, nor will you want to.

If it's emeralds, sapphires or rubies you covet, Bangkok is surely the place to look for them, though you may want to think twice about buying so far from home, where you can't return the goods if they turn out to be less than promised. (And that does happen, as guidebooks warn.) Nearly every corner has a jewelry store; some will send a car to pick you up, and you can easily spend hours slipping on baubles and carrying on the congenial negotiations that are part of the joy of shopping here.

I am a handicrafts buff and delight in traditional Thai puppets, amulets, embroidery and musical instruments. All are available in tourist shops, but the bargains are found in street markets. The best of them for handicrafts -- and practically anything else you can think of, from pet fish to fish for dinner -- is the Weekend Market, a vast flea market on the city's edge near the airport. Another market, sprawled along sidewalks near the Grand Palace, specializes in amulets; here you can examine thousands of Buddha images, from small clay tiles priced at a few cents to antiques worth big bucks. It is illegal to take Buddha images out of Thailand, though no one seems to care much about the small, common ones.

Many streets are lined with vendors, who will sell you leather goods, pirated music cassettes, inexpensive ties and scarves, T-shirts and, sometimes, even designer knock-offs. A night market filled with such items has been set up in Patpong, a district that by day parades as a conservative business center and by night becomes Bangkok's famed sex district. The new night market allows less adventurous visitors to shop while surreptitiously watching the more adventurous check out goods of another sort.

Just about any sexual combination imaginable is available here. Note, however, that newspapers or guidebooks have written about young women who have been sold into the sex trade. And AIDS is clearly a risk: Official government records listed 803 reports of cases in July; rumor puts the figure higher.

For a more genteel side of the city, check out Bangkok's luxury hotels. famed for their service. Starting prices at most of them are $175 per night, though with the current glut of top-class rooms you may be able to negotiate a deal.

A remarkable thing about Bangkok is that moderate and budget travelers have as many options as those on expense accounts. For $25-$35 per night, you can get a clean, air-conditioned room with phone and maybe even a TV in a reasonably convenient location. For a mere $4-$10, you can stay in the world travelers' ghetto called Banglamphu, around Khao San Road, in a bare room with bath down the hall. Here you can stay for a few bucks, buy cheap clothes and cheap meals from sidewalk stalls and pick up inexpensive air tickets and visas to the rest of Asia.

But once here, you may not want to leave. Bangkok can be adventure enough.

IF YOU GO . . .

Resources: Two excellent guidebooks are the "Lonely Planet City Guide to Bangkok" (if you're going throughout Thailand, opt instead for the Lonely Planet's "Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit" and "Bangkok Handbook" from Asia Books, part of the Moon guide series. Both have a practical, tell-it-like-it-is orientation.

Information: Tourism Authority of Thailand, 5 World Trade Center, Suite 3443, New York, N.Y. 10048; (212) 432-0433.

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