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[547] Bangkok: A Cultural History – Maryvelma O’Neil


” Bangkok makes more sense as an attitude than as a form. This can be seen in the pattern of the dense, mixed-use communities where urban life is shaped. On a twenty-minute walk along Sukhumvit from Soi Thong Lor (Soi 55) to the Emporium Shopping Centre (Soi 24) you will see: Fried Grasshopper Vendor/Barber and Massage Parlour/Car Parts Store/Hainanese Noodle Vendor/Fruit Salad/7-11/Souvenir Shop/Buddhist Emporium/Open-Air Coiffeur/Turkish Baths and Brothel/Chinese Tailor/Art Gallery/School Uniform Store/Antique Dealer. Some of the city’s most luxurious hotels, elegant shopping malls, top-notch medical facilities and haute cuisine restaurants are wreathed by budget-built shop houses, slums and fetid canals. ” (Introduction, p.3)

There is no city like Bangkok. The Thai capital is a fascinating mixture of rich Siamese heritage and startling modernity, often ugly at the macrocosmic level but abounding in fragments of intense beauty. In Bangkok: A Cultural History, O’Neil takes readers on an engaging tour that reveals splendid heritage through literary and cultural perspectives. It focuses on the crucial elements that dictate the shaping forces of Bangkok, from its humble beginning as a floating town to the modern metropolis today: the monarchic power, the symbolic importance of water, the inveterate Buddhist beliefs, and the ethnic diversity.

The Thai belief in guardian spirits is a strong part of the national culture. Spirit houses called san phra phoom abound in Bangkok in all types and material. They propitiate and honour the guardian spirits (jao tii) of the land that have been displaced by construction works. (9: Erawan Shrine, p.128)

O’Neil’s account duly complements my experiences and evokes memories of my first impressions of the city: Bangkok teems with paradox. The juxtaposition of luxury and poverty in a city with no urban planning is both overwhelming and exotic. For the thoughtful observer Bangkok is an enigma, in a way that has been echoed in Lawrence Osbourne’s memoir, Bangkok Days (I read it recently, in Thailand!). Bangkok is a place of great physical presence and complexity. Osbourne says foreigners (Farang in Thai, a slightly pejorative term) could never get to the bottom of Thai culture because “Thainess” has absorbed Chinese, Indian, Khmer, Burmese, Malay, and western influences. Behind the discretion and omnipresent human warmth is an extraordinarily complex culture caught between the chasm of religious beliefs and desire for modernization.

Thai Buddhist temples are constructed as objects of veneration; the symbolism of each architectural feature is of spiritual importance. This was of little interest to Somerset Maugham when he visited Bangkok in 1923. He may even have had a touch of the Stendhal syndrome—a sense of disorientation and feeling of giddiness brought on by an extraordinarily beautiful masterpiece or a large concentration of art in a single place. (2: The Grand Palace, p.56-7)

My sentiment as well. I felt “wat-out” after looking at the glittering spires and chedis, paper-thin gold leaf flakes, golden pediments, glass mosaic, porcelain tiles and ceramic bits. Bangkok: A Cultural History draws on varied ranges of written resources by westerners and locals who evoke the sights, sounds, and smells that have always been part of Bangkok’s great hold on the imagination. This book is far more in-depth than a conventional guide book but less the rigidness of an academic history. The book puts into words how my initial sense of confusion and frustration soon developed into total fascination with the city, its peoples, and Thai culture. It nails the contradiction that has and will continue to define Bangkok: conspicuous consumption, widespread materialism, and sexual indulgence clash with the governing ethos of Buddhism. The pliable sense of morality and psyche, in which one often fails to distinguish reality from myth, is what sustains the allure.

248 pp. Oxford University Press. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


5 Responses

  1. I’d love this. I like all travel books and those that combine history, facts and trivia are the best.

    • This is one of the most thorough account on the cultural history of Bangkok. I wished I have had read the book when I made my first trip there 10 years ago. She gives you a historical background of how monarchy has roped in the country and its people, and explains how Thailand, which was never been colonized by any Western countries, balances its religious belief and the desire for modernization.

  2. This sounds like an amazing read, def picking it up as i’m planning to go to Bangkok sooner rather than later!

    • Bangkok surely exerts a romantic allure to foreigners. Although the congestion and hot weather might take a while to get used to, its offerings are plenty. You can go visit splendid temples and palaces, or get on the boat and tour the river.

  3. Thanks for any other magnificent article. The place else may
    just anybody get that kind of info in such an ideal method of writing?

    I’ve a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such information.

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