Landing at Suvarnabhum, Bangkok’s international airport, was a shock, in more ways than one. We’d left Thousand Oaks, Calif., a leafy and prosperous northern suburb of Los Angeles, at 6 o’clock Monday morning to be driven by a friend clear across the vast metropolitan area to LAX, the international airport south of the city. We arrived in Bangkok around midnight Tuesday night, including a two-hour layover in Tokyo. Crossing the International Dateline, we’d lost an entire day.
Even at midnight, Bangkok’s main airport w
as crowded, the shops and money changers open, and the security and passport counters humming. This airport has a capacity of 45 million passengers a year but served 52 million last year with 71 million expected this year. It is handling more than 800 flights daily but was designed to serve only 600. Last year, all 86 of its airlines got together to tell the government the airport would be dangerous if it continued to grow, and begged the government to ban any expansion, even their own. The government refused. It argued that if the airport operated at peak capacity every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it could handle 300 million passengers a year. The airlines retorted that was impossible. But the government knew it didn’t have to listen, and so did not.
Only in Thailand would a privately owned industry beg the government for more regulation and the government refuse; after all, this is Asia’s last military dictatorship, imposed in 2014 on a vivacious and vicious capitalist system that was in turn imposed on an incredibly popular 1,200-year-old Buddhist monarchy.
Before leaving the airport, we did the first two chores we undertook in every country: changing a few dollars into Thai Baht (at the typically poor airport rate) and buying a SIM card to activate our American cell phone, which almost immediately proved its worth by getting us out of trouble. More about that in a moment.
Although we arrived in the middle of the night, Bangkok was hot, almost as hot as at noon due to the oppressive and unrelenting humidity. The air felt like it weighed a ton, enervating, pressing us down. This is the hottest big city in the world.
The airport is 15 miles from the center of Bangkok. Travelers are warned to allow two hours to reach the airport due to the dense snarl of traffic. A columnist for the daily Bangkok Post described being stalled at almost a standstill in a traffic jam for an hour—at 10 o’clock at night—before she finally gave up and walked a couple of miles to her destination.
We were lucky, however; we made it to the neighborhood of our lodging in only 40 minutes. Although we ordinarily don’t make reservations, we have started doing so for our first night in a new country. Arriving at midnight, after two days of travel, in a place you don’t know, where you can’t speak the language or even read the signs, with no idea where you are going, is not fun. So before we left home, we used one of our favorite websites, Airbnb, to find a house where a Thai family rented out a few rooms, in a quiet residential neighborhood.
It was so far off the normal tourist track that the taxi driver could not find the soi, the alley, where the house was located. My wife, who had put the number into her phone before we left California, finally called our host, then handed the phone over to the driver for directions to the house. When we eventually found it, we were welcomed with friendly smiles despite the unseemly hour and immediately sank into a long and deep sleep.
The next day we launched ourselves into the big city—and it is big, with 5.8 million people in the core and 20 million in the metropolitan area—more than in the New York City tristate region. Those 5.8 million residents own 6.3 million vehicles, a majority of them motorcycles. The traffic is so bad that the city tragically paved over most of its beautiful canals.
The canals were Bangkok, which was once called the Venice of the East. It was founded in the 18th century as a city of canals, and it remained so until about 30 years ago when rampant development remade the handsome medieval city into the kind of confused and unintegrated international hodgepodge it is today.
Thailand—a gentle country ruled by a military dictatorship, a spiritual people in the ecstatic embrace of consumerism—is at war with itself. It’s not just the tens of thousands of red shirts and yellow shirts who brought the country to the verge of civil war two years ago. The military dictatorship is at war with pacific Buddhism. The huge, mostly ugly but occasionally beautiful capital is at war with the otherwise tranquil countryside. The new rich are at war with the farmers of the Northeast who still make the paddies verdant. The westernized middle class is at war with the traditional villages where life focuses on Buddhist wats with their placid parks and gardens. And the overwhelming, often overweening ethnic Thai majority is at war with minority peoples on the fringes, many of whom trekked across the mountains from an uneasy Myanmar, a Communist Laos or a genocidal Cambodia.
Although most Thais have some Chinese ancestors, and the Chinese minority is more integrated into the national culture than anywhere else in Asia (Chinatown is the liveliest district in Bangkok), the two countries have had an uneasy relationship. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Thailand are longstanding friends but today their governments are at odds, over everything from democracy to trade. Thailand is at peace with all its neighbors, but memories of fighting with all of them remain alive.
Like the country as a whole, the city of Bangkok is engaged in a kind of culture war with itself. The extensive network of kongs, the old canals, still winds through Thonburi, the original 18th-century settlement of Bangkok, while on the other side of the wide, muddy and placid Chao Phraya River, the canals have disappeared, replaced by the freeways and ever-expanding Skytrain and subways. The skyscraper office towers and international hotels look down on a river scene that sometimes seems a survivor of the 18th century. The elaborately decorated longtail boats and fishing craft from which Thais cast nets into the river ply the Chao Praya beside the huge barges lugging cargo between China, Indochina and the world. An American visitor to Bangkok who works in India remarked, “I live in Asia. This is like Europe.”
Only on extremely rare occasions do Thailand’s cultural wars take on a violent face. It did happen two months before our arrival when a bomb exploded near the capital’s tourist cynosure and most revered site, the Grand Palace, killing 20 and injuring 125. The opaque official investigation ended in arrests and “confessions,” but the real motives remain obscure; the most plausible speculation is that Uighur refugees from China were retaliating for Thailand having sent hundreds of their fellows back to China, where an unpleasant fate awaited them. (Thailand and China have an increasingly intimate commercial relationship, and Chinese tourists far outnumber all others.)
The only other serious violence is the periodic ethnic eruption in the area bordering Malaysia, a Muslim-dominated region a thousand miles south of the capital. Incidents there last year were blamed on al-Qaeda or a family feud or drug gangs. Take your pick, for no one really knows.
Wealth and modernization have not been unalloyed evils in Bangkok—far from it. There is no homelessness, no beggars and little visible dire poverty. Food is diverse, delicious, cheap and ubiquitously available at street stalls. Subways, elevated trains, long-distance rail, ferry boats and freeways give Bangkok a multitude of travel options, at least some of which actually are efficient and inexpensive. The city is clean, its streets nearly immaculate (with the notable exception of Khao San Road, Asia’s most infamous backpacker ghetto). This is a world city, the future of Asia, with much to be envied.
Bangkok’s top attraction is as the shopping mecca of Southeast Asia, with an encyclopedic catalog of dirt cheap, high-quality products in every field, from computers to eyeglasses to jewelry. Not being in a consumerist frame of mind, however, and leery of adding to the weight we would have to backpack for two months, we left Bangkok after four nights. We took a train (Thailand, like Vietnam, has an excellent rail system) some two hours to Ayutthaya, which turned out to be, in a curious way, a kind of twin to Bangkok. If Bangkok is Asia’s future, Ayutthaya is its past.
Ayutthaya ruled a vast and rich Thai empire for three centuries, until invading Burmese razed it and its rulers moved to Thonburi, where the god-kings essentially recreated their destroyed former capital, right down to the Grand Palace and the extensive network of canals.
Biking slowly around the hundreds of ruined or reconstructed stone monuments surrounded by miles of grassy meadows and leafy canals conjures up images of what Bangkok used to be a long time ago. The ruins, the most impressive in Thailand, date from when the country dominated all of Southeast Asia and its kings mounted on elephants led a hundred thousand troops into battle.
The resemblance of Ayutthaya to Bangkok is not just in its canals and buildings and enervating heat. Both were ruled by the same family of kings with the same melange of Buddhism with the absolute power of kings celebrated as deities. That ideology persisted all the way to the revolution of 1933, when the incompetence of the then ruler led to creation of a new constitution with the king reduced to a figurehead. Curiously, as a figurehead, the present king, the longest-ruling monarch in the world (he assumed the throne at the age of 19 and he recently celebrated his 85th birthday), has had more influence than most of his absolutist predecessors—a fine example of character dominating formal legalisms.
Having witnessed the past and the future neatly bracketed on the vast and rich central Thai plain, we were ready to explore the other Thailand, lush and poor, its high mountains inhabited by elephants and immigrants, and on its frontiers, leading us on to Laos, the mighty Mekong River, 10th longest in the world.