Before Bangkok began the Thai-dominated metropolitan mixing pot that it is, apparently it was the Chinese who had the settled it the furthest, and have been effectively ingrained in Thai society for the last 400 years. About 14% of Thai citizens are ethnic Chinese, and as many as 40% can claim some small piece of Chinese heritage. At least I read all this is my Lonely Planet guidebook and a Wikipedia article, so I thought it would be prudent to spend my last free day before classes begin by exploring Bangkok’s Chinatown for myself.
Sensory overload was the theme for the day, and I forced myself to trudge through the stalls for several hours experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of the area. Hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into alleyways not more than six or eight feet wide with stalls selling wares on either side led you to squeeze your way as politely as you could for around an hour, then abandoning all sense of propriety and just forge on by whatever means possible. I think I managed to blend in more after I turned that corner as well, as most others were doing the exact same thing.
Listing off all the things I saw for sale that were new to me would take at least a thousand words, but that assumes I knew what to call them. I passed stalls piled high with dried fish (of which I have experienced in soup and Pad Thai that I have ordered), clothing, toys, fruit (mango, papaya, pineapple, apple, strawberries, cherries, watermelon, cantaloupe, coconut, jackfruit, tamarinds, pomelos, and many others), and all sorts of watches, electronics, and other goods one might find at an upscale department store. That part all became a bit exhausting, although it goes without saying that I had some amazing food. I also had my first ride on a Tok Tok to get back home!
What was interesting about the experience to me, after stepping back and thinking about it, are the drastically different lives that young Thai people live. That’s not different from many cities around the globe, but what is so different here than anywhere I have been in America is the lack of gentrification. I walked the streets of Chinatown and saw young children playing in the dirty industrial construction sights of buildings that looked like they hadn’t seen a work crew for forty years. Kids as young as three or four, without shoes, would be playing with scrap rebar and throwing dust back and forth at each other as their mothers watched and spoke in the background. You could look to the opposite side of the street and see a Starbucks in part of a four-story mall filled with Thai teenagers whiling away the afternoon on their smartphones and socializing. You get a glimpse of the socioeconomic spectrum if you make a commitment to walking a fair distance, and there is something beautiful about that. There is no attempt to separate the classes and pretend the lower class does not exist as I observe in large cities in the West. These people, even if they are not what we in America would deem economically wealthy, make due with life and manage to live with each other in spite of it.
I hope I get the chance to learn more about this in some of my classes and hopefully through some discussions with Thai people over the course of the semester, because I find it rather fascinating.
This idea was highlighted during my trip home. I asked a Tok Tok driver to take me back to the neighborhood that I lived, with my backpack full of groceries. I have a map that came out of my guidebook which I use to point to places when I encounter cab drivers and the like that don’t understand my English jargon. He drove me to a back alley with a sign that read “National Museum of Royal Barges,” which is the landmark closest to my apartment on the somewhat rudimentary map. The museum is probably around a quarter mile from my apartment. The sign had an arrow pointing down a narrow a sidewalk with a canal on one side and a chest height fence around someone’s dwelling on the other side. The man and I exchanged smiles and money, and I headed down the narrow walkway.
These people living on the canal had such a unique life. Everywhere where there wasn’t a standing wooden home there was dense, green, stout, beautiful foliage with garbage strewn about the ground under it (there is a severe lack of garbage cans everywhere in Bangkok, which explains the large amounts of garbage you see on the ground in many places). These wooden homes look more like shacks, with rotted walls and ceilings leaving holes to see (and rain) through, and if there is any glass left in the windows it is probably broken. Many older women sat out on the pavement walkway speaking with each other in slow, quiet Thai and even there selling food from small stands. I have no idea how much foot traffic comes through there on a normal day, but it can’t be much. They all smile warmly at me as I walk quickly by, looking at their homes and way of life and trying not to impart my Western values on their untempered happiness. Dogs are lying out everywhere, sleeping in angles so odd that you worry they are dead until they lift their heads and look at you in the inquisitive way that dogs do when you pass by them.
When I reached the museum I decided to take a look inside, worried that I if I didn’t now I would let it fall victim to being so conveniently close to me that I would never actually do it, like many of the hikes through the Mission Mountains that seem imminently more enticing from Bangkok than they do from my parents home in Polson.
The museum held about seven regal, beautifully painted and designed 30-meter long barges. They were long and narrow, equipped to hold around 60 oarsmen with another two to steer and one to lead in front. There was a throne in the middle that was meant for whatever royalty (in this case it was often the King) and space for four body guards around him as well. All were to wear elaborate uniforms that were also on display. I think when I purchase a sailboat after I graduate college and fail to enter the malnourished job market I’ll also get someone to sew me costumes that look like that. I’ll post a picture soon. Squeezed in among the elaborate long barges were several old, rotten, brown pieces of barge. They were more like half a barge, and the signs explained in broken English that they had been blown up by bombs in WWII. While bombing a boat that didn’t even have an engine seemed absurd to me, these boats were of such an immense nature that I believe little short of a bomb would actually be able to sink them. I had never heard of any Thai involvement in WWII, so this prompted some research. Apparently back in 1941 the Japanese invaded a sovereign Thailand (Thailand is the sole nation in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized) because they wanted access to British controlled Burma and Malaysia. The Thais refused, and a struggle ensued. After several days of fighting the Thais surrendered to the Japanese and have them the access they wanted, allied with them for the duration of the war. The refusal of the Thai embassador in Washington D.C., however, to hand over the documents making that allegiance official led to the United States never actually declaring war on Thailand. I read that the decision of Japanese allegiance was not particularly popular with many Thais, and within a few years a well-organized resistance movement ousted the Japanese from the country completely towards the end of the war.
At the end of the day I once again had the energy to do little other than come home and collapse into a comfortable bed. The amount of knowledge and experiences that I am getting each day is refreshing, but also trying. I am finding myself ready to get out of Bangkok, and think I will shift my sights to finding a train station where I can buy a ticket to get out of town and perhaps do some backpacking or find a beach. That sounds downright beautiful.