The Bangkok Hustle (2/2)
At this point, we realized that we had been visiting temples and religious landmarks for three full days now, and it was time to indulge in that activity that travelers are always guilty of — shopping beyond their luggage capacity.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
As if we hadn’t had enough of people, we went to Chatuchak Market the next day. Chatuchak, or JJ Market, is the largest market in Thailand, with more than 8,000 stalls divided into 27 sections. It’s a sprawling, complicated spread of stalls selling anything you can think of — clothes, handcrafts, antiques, books, and gardening implements.
When travelers blog about Thailand, they always mention how cheap the shopping prices are. This may be true for someone living in an OECD country, but I’d say the prices in Chatuchak are essentially the same as in Divisoria.
That’s not to say that Chatuchak is a dump of counterfeit goods. In fact, there seems to be an effort to support local designers and tradesmen. While there were the usual wares like tees with THAILAND printed all over them, there were also a few booths that I think wouldn’t look amiss in posh fairs like Spectrum or St. James Bazaar.
In my opinion, Chatuchak is well worth going to for the handicrafts and the home decor section. You can get all the cheap clothes you want in any ukay-ukay market at home, but you won’t find the silk scarves and brass furnishings just anywhere. There are also handcarved soaps, traditional Thai toys, room scents, massage implements, and wood carvings.
Apart from the classic kitschy items like freezer magnets, precious stone earrings, and penis keychains, the handicraft section also has a few stalls for leather works. My sister and I were specifically looking forward to the relatively cheap leather goods, and we found one just as we were about to head back to our hotel. The leather shops in Chatuchak mostly use crocodile leather, but we spotted one stall (1 in 8,000!) whose owner used cow leather. We each bought a 12-inch satchel bag for ฿1,200.
Chatuchak measures about 112,000 square meters. It’s easy to get lost in, with nothing but occasional section labels to guide you. Unless you plan to spend your whole day in the market, it’s best to have a shortlist of sections that you plan to check out. Before going to the market, I had already resolved that I would visit the sections for antiques, handicrafts, books, and pet accessories, and nowhere else.
By noon, we were ready to go home, and so started our frazzled search for the exit. We were in Section 26: we entered the market through Section 6. Despite having a map of the basic layout, we still had a hard time retracing our steps. It took a lot of patience, and a lot of water breaks, and while the map helped in getting us as far as Section 7, it was Google who proved to be our ultimate assistant.
A Word on the Food: Fried Chicken Without Gravy???
Thai cuisine is generally spicy, but we managed to steer clear of this during the majority of our stay there. Apart from that one spicy dish we had to eat for lack of other options in Chatuchak, we decided not to challenge ourselves anymore.
What we did thrive on were the fruit smoothies. Thais seem obsessed with fruit smoothies and juices. In our first night in Bangkok, we had dinner in a weekend fair in MBK Center, and the first item we purchased was a ฿50-smoothie made from an entire mango. A walk along the other stalls revealed juices made from passionfruit, orange, and guava — in Chatuchak, we saw juices made from orange, coconut, and mango.
We loved the weekend MBK fair so much that we ate dinner there for the next two days. There was the staple steamed chicken with rice, which reminded me of Singapore, and pork roast with noodles, which reminded me of North Park. After a particularly tiring day, I ordered a huge serving of pad thai with red chicken and had to give up on it half way. I thought I was hungry enough to eat a horse, but I was cocky and God decided to punish me for my hubris.
We also went to the fastfood franchises to see if their flavors were any different. The McDonald’s burgers were essentially the same, as to be expected, but their ketchup came with three options — Tomato, American Ketchup, and Chili. American Ketchup has a more defined vinegar taste than Tomato, while Chili tastes exactly like the bottled versions in grocery stores.
The stark difference shows in KFC. Unlike its version in the Philippines, the KFC fried chicken in Thailand isn’t coated with the soft breading that distinguishes KFC fried chicken from other chicken. It tastes rather bland, and to top it all of, comes with ketchup. Gravy in Bangkok seems to be a non-existent concept.
MBK Center (and other malls)
The better part of our afternoons were spent exploring malls like MBK and Siam. MBK Center has 2,000 stores, restaurants, and service centers spread out over eight floors. It reminds me of a slightly more upscale 168 Mall with wider hallways. MBK has everything from souvenir shops to custom tailoring. If you’ve purchased Rabbit Cards for your train passes, you can also use up the credits in their MBK Food Island.
Siam Central, Siam Discovery, and and Siam Paragon are a network of malls catering to the higher end market. Think Rustan’s with three connected buildings. Siam Discovery recently won in the 2017 World Retail Awards for Store Design of the Year, and it really shows in their floor area. Even when compared with high-end malls in the Philippines, Siam Discovery seemed to have interior design on steroids. Do they expect us to shop or take pictures? It was a refreshing, if confusing, experience.
Bangkok Art and Culture Centre
We couldn’t miss going to the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre since it was only a few blocks away from our hotel. The BACC is a part-retail, part-exhibition, part-performance space designed to be a meeting place for artists to provide cultural programs to the community. True enough, when we went to the BACC, there was an ongoing concert of local artists with a small design fair at the side.
One of the free galleries at the BACC showcased the digital collages of local artist Nakrob Moonmanas. The very first piece was a digital print of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, but by giving her a traditional Thai headdress, she becomes Sita, the female heroine in the epic Ramayana. A pair to this piece is a digital print of Millais’s “Ophelia”, with two additional characters in the form of Rama, Sita’s husband, and Lakhan, Rama’s brother.
Moonmanas’ exhibition is titled “Sacrifice”, as it takes famous paintings and images out of their context and uses them to portray Thai history and culture.
I don’t know if it was part of the artist’s intentions, but I love how the original European paintings essentially become stripped of their identity and instead come to serve another culture. It’s a subtle retaliation to the decades of cultural appropriation that has plagued Asian art and culture.
Westerners ink their skin with random Chinese symbols just because it looks cool. Scarlett Johansson plays an iconic Japanese character. At least in this room at the BACC, Jesus Christ becomes Gautama Buddha.
At the time of our visit, BACC also had exhibitions for traditional Thai art, contemporary weaving innovations, and design student theses.
Jim Thompson House
Jim Thompson is an American known to have revived the Thai silk weaving industry. He was born in 1906 in Delaware and decided to live permanently in Thailand after his stint in the military. Prior to Thompson’s attentions, silk weaving in Thailand was a long-neglected cottage industry, but Thompson devoted himself in reviving the craft, using his talent as a designer and textile colorist to create new colors and patterns.
Thompson promoted handwoven Thai silk in his visits to New York, and his efforts pulled off when a huge order came in to supply the material for the costumes in the premier of “The King and I” on Broadway.
Following his success, Thompson constructed his permanent residence in Bangkok by transporting traditional teak houses from different parts of Thailand and combining them to create his own residential complex. Thompson filled his home with cultural artifacts and art pieces. His house and collection gained such public renown that he opened his home to the public with the proceeds donated to charities and to projects for the preservation of Thai heritage.
Jim Thompson supposedly met his demise while on a visit to Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. He disappeared during his morning walk, and his body hasn’t been found since.
It’s a fascinating story, especially that bit in the end — until I realized that I’d heard it all before. I don’t know how I forgot, but two years ago, I did go to Malaysia, and I did go to the Cameron Highlands specifically. Jim Thompson was well-known there as well, but more as a figure clouded in mystery than the savior of Thai silk-weaving. I remember looking through the exhibits in the Boh Tea Center and seeing a black and white photo of this man with the mysterious death. Knowing his story now, going to his house and seeing where he slept, feels like I’ve reached the finish line of a race that I didn’t know I was running.
The guided tour of the Thompson House was like a crash course in traditional Thai architecture. Six teak houses were dismantled and brought to the present site to be part of Thompson’s residential complex. The houses were elevated a full story above the ground as a precaution for flooding, similar to how native houses are built in Ifugao as a precaution for rats. The red paint outside the walls contains a preservative often found on many old Thai buildings.
When we entered the actual house, we were asked to leave our shoes and belongings on a secured locker. Photos also weren’t allowed. Our guide Nipapat took us through the six buildings serving as pantry, living room, dining room, study, bedroom, and guestroom. Since nails were expensive, wooden pegs were used to secure the building together. During the rainy season, the wood of the house would absorb water and expand, and the pegs would adjust accordingly — a property that nails didn’t have.
Outside the buildings is a miniature house made of teak which serves as a spirit house. It is believed that when a house is built, the spirits residing in the site are disturbed. Spirit houses are made as an apology for displacing the spirits.
For our last day in Bangkok, we decided on a stress-free visit to Madame Tussauds. I think when people hear “Madame Tussauds”, they immediately think of Hollywood celebrity wax figures, but Tussauds also features a variety of personalities from politics, science, sports, music, and history.
Some notable figures in the Bangkok branch include Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Zedong, Princess Diana, Putin, the Obamas, Picasso, Einstein, Pavarotti, David Beckham, Yao Ming, Serena Williams, Jackie Chan, Captain America, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Brad Pitt, Wolverine, Hannibal Lecter, Katy Perry, Beyonce, Michael Jackson, One Direction, Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali, Mozart, Beethoven, Mark Zuckerberg, Queen Elizabeth, and Marie Tussaud herself.
There is also a healthy number of personalities from Asia like Jay Chou, Mario Maurer, Anggun, Hrithik Roshan, Tony Jaa, Dalai Lama, and Soekarno. Pacquiao wasn’t there, which is a surprise. I suppose the museum only features boxers with proper K.O.s.
I confess that I was looking forward to going to Tussauds in the off-chance that the wax figure of Colin Firth would be there. I breezed through the sections quickly in trying to look for him. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there, but at least I got a proper photo with Chris Evans.
There’s more to do in Tussauds than strike a pose. The museum is designed so that visitors are able to interact with the wax figures. I could do sit-ups on the bench beside Beckham, deliver a speech next to Obama, and shoot hoops with Yao Ming. My personal favorite is sitting in an airplane cabin with One Direction.
Bangkok is such an exuberant city, full of life and history and the winds of change — a true metropolis. Our short time there unexpectedly made me learn something about myself, that is, my unquestioning willingness to punch someone in the face if I know I’m being played. I don’t think I will miss the swindlers, but I will miss the mango smoothies.