When I travel, I love to linger, find out stories, observe people: even in minor or apparently unattractive locations.
Sometimes I give up on visiting major sights for places that draw my curiosity. Could they be a fiasco? Sure! Yet, at times also a “must see” location can be disappointing.
On my trip to Thailand, Ayutthaya proved to be less attractive than I expected. By contrast, Bangkok, which many consider an average city, has many minor spots I loved. Here are five of my favorites.
Wat Mangkon Kamalawat
At first, it’s just a sound that draws my attention. Then the rhythmic movement of the woman who appears to be dancing on her knees. I see her from behind, in the main hall of Wat Mangkon Kamalawat.
This temple is an example of religious architecture with a touch of flamboyance. The Chatulokkaban, the guardian warriors in the large cases at the entrance of the viharn (the sermon hall), animal and floral motifs, and the statues of the Gods in the classical Chinese style coexist with the neon aureoles of the three Buddhas to whom the woman addresses her prayer.
Outside the temple, Bangkok’s China Town is vivid and pulsating. As you leave Yaowarat Road and its restaurants that serve shark fins soup and bird nests to wealthy customers, Charoen Krung Road looks neglected.
Intense traffic, stinking smog, blackened buildings. Just the red and gold signs on the stores seem to make the road shine of unexpected colors. But the area is so lively with local life that when you meet another westerner, it’s like seeing your face in a mirror after you’ve forgotten it.
Stores and markets with endless varieties of tea, spices, dried flowers and fruits whose sharp smell blends into that of pigeon shit and sewer. Down the street, hawkers sell low-cost technological junk, clumped in muddled and glittering piles. Women seats on plastic chairs while street beauticians remove their unwanted hairs by rolling twisted wire on their faces. Others enjoy a facial mask, unconcerned by the traffic that runs a few meters off.
Among the hustle and bustle, the Wat Mangkon Kamalawat is an oasis. The scent of flowers and incense pervades the air. A rhythmic sound breaks the silence. I’m approaching the woman. She whispers as she shakes a wooden cup filled with sticks that resemble a Mikado game: they’re Kau Cim, fortune sticks. If more than one falls, she shakes again. When a single stick falls, she gathers it and goes toward to a billboard where hundreds of notes are pinned. The number on the stick matches with a note, which is the answer to her request. The woman reads her number. Her face lights up. She smiles. The gods must have given her a good fortune.
Walking the Skywalk connecting Chit Lom and Siam BTS stations, a sudden scent of incense replaces the singular smell of Bangkok. Among an intricate twist of buildings, skyways, and roads, nestled between the Ratchaprasong intersection and a large luxury hotel, a God is here to protect a sacred and inauspicious place.
In 1956, where today is the Grand Hyatt Bangkok, the construction of the old Erawan Hotel began under a bad star. The workers refused to keep on the job because of a series of adversities and delays. The spirits needed to be appeased. A monk warned to erect a shrine in honor of Phra Phrom, the Thai name of Brahma.
The construction of the hotel went on without any further problem but a negative influence on this site, where once criminals were named and shamed, seems to have not completely disappeared.
In 2006 a mad man vandalized the statue of Brahma and some bystander beat the man to death.
In 2015 a bomb, whose responsibility and motive have never been fully verified, caused 20 deaths and 130 injured in what is considered the bloodiest attack in modern Thailand.
In 2016, a woman lost control of her car, crashed against the temple and wounded several people.
These episodes collide with the beauty and harmony you feel in the shrine that, despite its small size, is one of the most visited in the city.
At the entrance, street vendors, sell garlands and incense. The faithful leave flowers and pray to the four faces of Brahma.
You come here for grace received or to demand something.
Under his golden canopy, the Hindu God of Creation listens and, sometimes, grants.
At the end of the prayer, some faithful offer money and pray accompanied by a traditional Thai dance. The higher the bid, the more dancers you get, the more likely the God will hear your request.
Sri Maha Mariamman Temple
Every road in Bangkok has its contrasts and Silom Road is no exception. This long strip runs through one of the city’s most important financial districts. Futuristic skyscrapers, stores, and offices coexist with shacks precarious in their structure and hygiene. Remains of a large village surviving an uncontrolled urbanization.
You don’t hear the sound of a different language, you don’t see women wearing Sari, nor you smell spices.
The names of restaurants and shops are hints that I entered the second “Little India” in Bangkok and the building on my left is unmistakable evidence.
An intricate pattern of colors and Hindu deities adorn the Gopuram and the walls of the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple.
I take off my shoes. As soon as I get in, a bulky man with long dark mustaches glimpses a sandals-like shape in my drawstring backpack. He approaches me severely and says something I don’t understand, but the meaning is obvious. It’s not enough to take off your shoes: you must leave them out of the temple!
Many of the faithful are not Hindus. It is not the first time I see the intersection between Thai Buddhism and other forms of worship, but here is particularly noticeable. An Indian Brahman, dressed in white, receives offers, imparts blessings, and draws a bindi on the forehead of Thai faithful that pray, leave fruit, flowers, and money. I cross the threshold of the innermost part of the temple, where the deity resides. Nobody stops me, but a profound sense of the sacred makes me feel like an intruder. The visit lasts short, but the experience is intense.
Wat Pathum Wanaram
On the Skywalk overlooking the Chaloem Phao junction, the bustle covers any word. An old beggar yells in a microphone, forced to use a portable amplifier to get her voice heard.
The air is dense and damp. Carried from smoke swirls, a scent of spices rises from the sidewalk, where a vendor, with quick wrists movements, turns meat on the grill. Close to him, two white pillars mark the access to the Wat Pathum Wanaram, a Buddhist temple nestled between two shopping malls: the Central World and the Siam Paragon.
Until about 150 years ago, this place was only one of the many rice fields accessible only from the Khlong San Saep: a quiet place that seems to live again today, when you enter the temple. Protected by trees and a large garden, an almost magical silence surrounds the prayers hall. An elderly monk whispers to a woman: a seventy-nine-year-old wealthy lady; she wears jewels and stylish clothes.
«She lives in Switzerland», another woman tells me. Many Thai people I’ve met, like talking to foreigners. «She hasn’t been in Bangkok for many many years, and she’s come to pray in the temple she attended as a child».
The Vinaya Rule of Theravada Buddhism prescribes that a monk should not touch a woman with lustful intent. But lust can also result by small gestures, so monks completely avoid contact.
In Thailand, this observance is taken to the extreme. Women deposit offers to monks on a cloth. The rule does not forbid receiving the offer directly, but the fabric stresses “there is no contact”.
This tradition is so felt that sometimes you meet young monks terrified by bumping into a woman in a narrow street or a bus, even though she is the first to avoid them.
This old monk has a more relaxed attitude. He approaches the woman without fear, stretches his body toward her to create the bond that his role as a spiritual leader requires, but never touches her. He has the smile of an elderly man who knows about happiness. I don’t understand what they are saying, but the rhythm is like that of a story. A story about rice field on which King Rama IV built a temple, in a silence that too quickly became a city.
Chao Mae Tuptim Shrine
Long ago, I was walking around my hometown. I had just faced a steep rise when I noticed something. I stopped for a moment. I thought of a slight hallucination due to hyperoxygenation. I rubbed my eyes, but those “things” were still there. On the gateposts of a country house, there were two enormous phalli, placed before the courtyard as a symbol of goodwill and fertility.
Today, those phalli have been replaced by two garden gnomes, perhaps believed less offensive in a world where many symbols have lost their ancestral meaning, which is still alive in other cultures. Even in a modern and urbanized city like Bangkok.
Som Khit is an alley that crosses Phloen Chit Road between the homonymous BTS station and the Chit Lom station. A quiet road where the shadows take the greenish color of the leaves under the intense sunlight.
The luxurious condos along the street, overlook a smelly canal where food sellers wash away dirty dishes.
A bamboo fence closes the alley. As I go beyond the gate of the “Swiss Hotel”, behind the sentry box, a small patch of grass and rocks lies beside the Khlong San Saep.
Here, there are dozens of phalli: both small and big ones, realistic, stylized, made of wood, plaster, stone.
My first reaction is to smile, but this is a sacred place. Dresses hanging from trees, colored cloth offcuts, anthropomorphic statuettes and the phalli themselves are the offers that women leave with the prayer of getting pregnant.
A scent of incense flows from the spirit house that the businessman Nei Laert saved from the waters of the Khlong and placed here at the beginning of the twentieth century.
I rest for a moment in the shade of the large ficus where the pre-Buddhist spirit Chao Mae Tuptim still lives.
Only the water, lapping against the canal bank, and the rumbling engines of the long-tail boats remind me that this silent retreat is only a few minutes walk from the large shopping malls on Phetchaburi Road.