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Don’t let the epic scale and craziness of Thailand’s capital spook you. These insider tips will make for easier understanding and enjoyment of one of the world’s most thrilling cities
Bangkok can be a bewildering beast, even for those of us who have spent several years in the place. The megalopolis is huge and getting even larger. Nearly 10 million souls call the city home at present and that number is projected to get significantly higher in years to come. Finding clarity amidst this maelstrom can be a challenge, but uncovering the many layers of this rollercoaster ride of a city is a huge part of its appeal.
Monarchy plays a hugely significant role in Thai society. And nowhere is Thailand’s more recent royal history more on view than in Bangkok. The city’s array of palaces, and royally-significant museums and attractions pay homage to the beloved monarchy. Put simply, you can’t understand Bangkok (and Thailand) without visiting important regal landmarks like the Grand Palace and Dusit Palace. While we are far from immune to the charms of these big-name attractions, we highly recommend a visit to the Kingdom of the Arts – or Silp Pandin in Thai –which is filled with a dazzling collection of the Kingdom’s treasures. Museum masterpieces include the Busabok and Kong Thrones, a gold and silver replica of the Mongkol Suban Royal Barge, auspicious works depicting Lord Buddha’s footprints, and other precious royal artefacts ornamented with diamonds, gems and golden lacquers.
Thais (especially older ones) tend to be highly superstitious people. In Bangkok, manifestations of these beliefs can be seen everywhere. Shrines around the city are littered with bottles of strawberry Fanta – believed to be a favourite beverage for ghosts. Numbers are also believed to be highly significant. Thais often pay millions of baht for a lucky telephone number, while fortune tellers need to be consulted before picking a wedding date. One Thai superstition that visitors can investigate for themselves is the obsession with lucky amulets. Wearers believe that the small trinkets – supposedly blessed by Buddhist monks – can generate enough positive energy to bring them everything from good luck to true love, to wild sex and hard cash. Bangkok’s main amulet market is located near Phra Chan Road in the historic old city, with stallholders laying out a bewildering selection of the energized trinkets. Amulets come in many styles and shapes, and are made of metal, wood, bone or plaster. They can also include coloured dust from a temple’s bricks, human hair and even droplets of blood.
Spend enough time in Bangkok and you’ll find that many of the city’s quirks quickly become commonplace. Transgender beauties, motorcycle taxi drivers who use sidewalks as highways and monks crossing paths with bedraggled revellers in the early hours of the morning are all part of the daily fabric in the Thai capital. Nevertheless, there is plenty that is truly bizarre in the city.
To see something both appalling and amazing, check out the work of artist and baker Kittiwat Unarrom who bakes unsettlingly realistic bread sculptures of human body parts. He works his macabre magic at his family’s bakery 100km outside Bangkok in the town of Ratchaburi, but his loaves are exhibited regularly in galleries in the city.
At Siriraj Hospital on the banks of the Chao Phraya River is a collection of medical surgery tools, mummified bodies of people with terrible disabilities or serial killers in a gory exhibition.