Thursday, July 07, 2005

Overwhelming and exotic Bangkok: Day 1

It was my privilege to show my parents Bangkok last week. After placidly sterile Singapore, the contrast with Bangkok was pretty stark. When we saw Jeff after we got back, he asked Mom and Dad to describe Bangkok in one word. "Overwhelming" was Mom's choice, "exotic" was Dad's.

Bangkok literally has hundreds of temples (wats), so for our morning outing on the first day we took a river taxi up to Wat Arun, or the Temple of the Dawn. I'd say the river taxi (or bus maybe a more apt description) gave us as much to see as the temple, because so much city life is bustling on the water and shores. That's not to say Wat Arun wasn't magnificent — it was.

Wat Arun is covered in ceramic mosaics, which is most impressive from afar. Viewed up close, the mosaics reveal themselves to be ordinary plates and dishes which I believe are donated by citizens for the temple's upkeep.

To view a Buddhist temple, people are asked to dress respectfully, meaning long sleeves and pants. But the heat and humidity in Bangkok was so intense, that after viewing Wat Arun, we had to shower again and change clothes before our next outing.

Our afternoon outing was to Jim Thompson's House. Jim Thompson was ex-CIA who settled in Bangkok after WWII. He's credited with reviving the Thai silk industry and for being host to the world's glitterati during the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, in 1967 he disappeared during a holiday to the Cameron Highlands and was never seen again. I'm glad my holiday to CH wasn't that exciting.

His house, though, lives on as a quiet oasis in the middle of Bangkok. Mr. Thompson managed to acquire and reassemble six traditional Thai houses into a compound. See, Thai houses are all rectangular with a framework and walls specifically designed to be disassembled and moved to new configurations. By American standards, the houses are quite small, which is probably why he found six houses necessary for his household. And his collection of antique Thai and Chinese paintings, statue, ceramics and furniture. We weren't allowed to take photos inside the house, only outside in the garden.

Jim Thompson kept to all the Thai customs, even down to performing a ceremony to locate the spirit house for the guardian spirit that watches over and blesses the home. As you can see, the daily offerings are still kept up, even though no one lives at the house anymore.

I'm practicing my Thai cooking now with the new Jim Thompson cookbook I bought. When Jeff and I get home, my next party will serve Thai food!