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Friday, April 18, 2014

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Bangkok: the mystery endures

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Tea in Author’s Wing, Oriental Hotel, Bangkok

“It’s so modern!” exclaimed a friend after her first trip to Bangkok. Initial impressions of Thailand’s capital, with its sprawling population of seven million, shopping malls and famous traffic congestion can come as a shock to those expecting the unknowable East.

Yet Thailand remains a place of old traditions, where strangers say “Sawadee,” (Hello) and smile, hands upright in the wai position, palms pressed together, bowing slightly.

We chose our family-owned hotel, Aurum the River Place, for its nearness to Bangkok’s oldest thoroughfare, the Chao Praya River. Our mornings began outdoors, plotting the day’s adventures over the breakfast of our choice: western or Thai. At sunset we enjoyed entrancing views of the Khmer-style towers of Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) glowing golden on the river’s far shore.

As for mystery – it was all around us. As Lunar New Year celebrations continued throughout the city, we stumbled on street temples, breathed clouds of incense, jumped at the sound of bursting firecrackers, and joined the queue as an elderly monk splashed water on the faithful while ribbons of cash – offerings to the gods – wafted in the evening breeze.

One of Bangkok’s enduring mysteries is open year-round. On the last leg of our trip, we sampled midtown chic at the Vie Hotel, close to the well-known house of the famous CIA agent, Jim Thompson, who is credited with reviving the Thai silk industry in the decades after World War II.

Masterpieces of Buddhist statuary, Ming porcelain and sparkling Burmese embroideries make Thompson’s house a rare sanctuary in this city of high rises and swanky hotels. Tours of the canal-side teakwood structure (actually several houses joined together) attract those eager to glimpse life as it was lived by this legendary expatriate.

When we were told that Thompson disappeared in 1967, I overheard a woman whisper to her son that our guide must be delicately referring to his death. Yes and no. Thompson did disappear. He vanished into thin air during a holiday in the Malaysian highlands, but he has never been confirmed dead. No trace of him has ever been found. 

Thompson was one of the good guys; a Princeton grad who believed that democracy was a real possibility for emerging southeast Asian nations. After working for “Wild” Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) in the war, Thompson was posted to Bangkok, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

Travelling widely in the region, he fell in love with Thai and Lao cultures, and encouraged silk-weaving families to continue their dying art by founding a silk business that became a global phenomenon. When Thompson’s silks appeared in Vogue magazine or in popular Broadway plays like The King and I, the shimmering fabric seduced customers in the west while reviving its popularity in Thailand.

Over time, Thompson lost touch with Washington, driven by the Communist scare that led to his country’s growing military presence in Southeast Asia. No one knows what happened on the day Thompson vanished, despite several thorough investigations into his disappearance. One thing is certain: the Thompson legend lives on. Today, a charity for the blind benefits from the tourists who pay to visit his Bangkok house.

 “We, Thais, don’t like broken things,” observes our guide to the Thompson house, gesturing toward an imposing stone statue, minus an arm. “We believe they’re bad luck.” It’s as good a theory as any for the fate that befell Thompson. Yet the silk business he encouraged flourishes in grand shops such as the one in the courtyard of his house and in the boutique brand known as JT.

When Thompson was launching his silk business, the place to be seen in Bangkok was the lobby of the Oriental Hotel. The venerable Oriental lobby is brighter than it once was, and its past is lovingly showcased in the Author’s Wing, a sun-filled homage to guests Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward and Gore Vidal – all of whom have suites named for them.

Air-conditioned shops in the hotel and in an adjoining building showcase antiques, jewelry, silks and tribal weavings. The Oriental is still the best place in town for high tea (Asian or English style) or for a relaxing meal at sunset. Folks gather on the riverside terrace, gazing at the passing traffic: rice barges, water taxis, tourist crafts, and speedy long-tail boats, a scene unchanged in 40-odd years.

Other timeless attractions are the city’s glittering temples, known as wats. In the old commercial district near the river, we grew fond of Wat Po, a teaching centre associated with philosophy, literature, and the healing arts. Home to traditional Thai massage, a vigorous form of acupressure, Wat Po welcomes everyone to its massage clinic, where an aromatic massage makes for an inexpensive and soothing treat.

Wat Po – like so many major temples – is in fact a sprawling compound of monks’ residences, open plazas and dazzling art. Dating from the 17th century, its centrepiece is the Reclining Buddha, 45 metres long, whose mother-of-pearl feet portray the 108 auspicious signs of Buddhism. Bas-reliefs once functioned as medical teaching tools. A courtyard is dotted with larger-than-life statues, and foreigners are notable for their western-style hats. More than 80 rishi (hermit) figures demonstrate stress-relieving positions.

Massage was once an integral part of Thai family life, a letting-go of daily stress. In today’s metropolis, a riverboat ride offers another relaxing respite. At the River Pier, close to the Grand Palace, boats can be hired for river cruises that pass the spectacular gold-and-black collection of Royal Barges, still used by the King in his yearly Chao Praya river procession.

For centuries, Bangkok was a city of stilt houses on rivers and canals. Even today, riverside dwellers enjoy a range of services such as mail delivery, trash collection, banking and medical care, while their children take boats to and from school. Floating vendors sell groceries and ice cream on quiet klongs (canals) that seem a world away from city streets.

In recent years, urban planning has improved too, with a new expressway, a light rapid-transit system called Sky Train, and an 18-station subway route. Its first passenger was the king of Thailand. In the unlikely event that Thompson should return – despite the hopes of a few old acquaintances – he’d doubtless be astonished by today’s Bangkok. Yet he’d be pleased to know that the Thai silk company he founded – along with his priceless art collection – have survived, and that his own legend has been woven into the fabric of the city he loved.

If you go: Tourism Authority of Thailand, www.tourismthailand.org. For more on Jim Thompson, see The Ideal Man, by Joshua Kurkantzick, John Wiley & Sons.

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