For the unsuspecting traveler, especially if he does not know other major Asian capitals, the first impression of Bangkok will always be overwhelming. At night, if you go up to the Sky Train, the metropolitan train that runs through a mountain range of huge skyscrapers and phosphorescent towers, you will feel that you have fallen among the frames of Blade Runner, in the midst of that chaotic and gloomy glow of neon lightning and light commercials. At any moment, a replicant, a car floating above, a Buddhist monk, or any of the extras who would make unforgettable recreation of Philip K. Dick’s nightmare.
However, by day, the temples are thousands of years old, dotted with rainbows and the houses are raised on wooden piles that suddenly take us centuries ago, at the same time that Thailand shook the yoke of the Khmer empire, suffered the Burmese invasion and resisted British colonialism from the Malay frontier. In a few places in the world the past and the future, East and West, live in a contrast so marked and at the same time as harmonious, as day and night.
The sullen parallelepipeds of the ultramodern buildings next to the pointed pinnacles of the palaces; The overwhelming pollution (which in some areas turns into mist and almost requires the protection of a mask) next to the Lumpini Park green; The spectacular luxury of the huge commercial blocks in rude competition with the traditional street markets. Everything in Bangkok breathes life and movement, noise and smoke, darkness and color, chaos in the mathematical sense of the term: order within disorder, disorder within order.
And in a few places that careful incoherence jumps out of sight as well as into the Great Royal Palace in Bangkok, a seemingly unconnected cluster of multi-colored pagodas, huge golden pepper shakers and colossal construction. Its heart, the Emerald Temple, guarded the small figure of a buddha that contrasts with the gigantic golden Buddha of Wat Pho, very close to the Grand Palace, a languid statue lying 43 meters in length.
For the Westerner, the feeling of being a mere faceless stranger is accentuated among the crowds of Asians who accompany you on your visit: except for some Australians, Germans or Europeans, eyes wide open, and you start to really distinguish between Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Indonesian.
Perhaps the most characteristic monument in Bangkok is Wat Arun, a fabulous 80-meter pyramid tower on the banks of Chao Phraya. After the ritual climb, which offers a panoramic view of the city, what the body asks for is a walk along the river. From the pier of Sapham Taksim, the barge slides between majestic hotels and the great temples of the tourist area and then enters through the locks in a water maze where the attentive photographer can take home unforgettable snapshots: houses supported by pilasters , Lush vegetation and even, if one is attentive, huge lizards scurrying through the stones.
There are many means of transport in Bangkok, but the novice traveler should not fail to try two: the barge and the tuk-tuk, those small motorbikes where you must first haggle and then commend yourself to the vertigo of crossing the traffic jams that saturate the city at any time of day. It’s the best way to get to Khao San Road, the mythical backpackers’ street that today explodes with restaurants and commercial places.
Like many other large cities, Bangkok is strictly infinite, but no approach to the city would be complete without a dip in the Patpong, the night market full of fakes, discothèques and party halls not recommended, and the spectacular Chinatown, a Chinatown Hallucinating that is like a city within the city, with entire streets dedicated exclusively to a single activity, whether shoes, toys, hardware stores or motorcycles.
Bangkok may be the best gateway to the Far East. In any corner, before a grandiose temple or sitting in a café, you’ll understand that says that Asia is the future of the world.