Cities are often defined by their skylines or landmarks, but if there was ever a city that screamed out to be defined by its experiences and its assault on the senses, it’s Bangkok.
A flat, chaotic spread of concrete encroaching on the surrounding rice fields and battling back Mother Nature’s constant advances, Bangkok doesn’t generally capture one’s imagination driving into town for the first time. But as soon as you step out from your air-conditioned vehicle into the electrifying atmosphere that envelops Bangkok, it grabs you and assaults your senses.
Wafts of sizzling seafood on charcoal braziers mingle with the scent of marigold garlands, the musk of composting foliage blends with the sweet aromas of the exotic fruit stalls, pungent canals are masked by the perfume of flowering jasmine and the essence of dried herbs and roots from Chinese medicine shops floats on wisps of incense smoke. A short walk down the street and you are immersed in a totally different cornucopia of smells.
The heat and humidity creeps across your skin, pulls on your hair. Atmospheric pressure fluctuations pop your ears during the monsoon season when heavy downpours blow in and occasionally flood the streets before the sun comes out and steams the city dry again. One can feel the pulsating crush of speeding overhead trains and the odd sensation as roads built on floodplains trampoline under your feet as overcrowded buses rumble past.
The roar of beast-like tuk tuks careening in and out of traffic wrestles with vendors’ cries as they compete to sell their wares. The distinctive pok-pok of mortars and pestles can be heard busily preparing fiery meals on seemingly every corner. One can catch church bells, calls to prayer and monks chanting all at the same time at certain spots in town. In the solitude of a temple ground, the city sounds are replaced with exotic tropical bird calls and chattering squirrels.
The blast of colours can take some getting used to. Taxis and tuk tuks are painted in clashing colour schemes to attract customers’ attention while the bright motifs painted on trucks and buses, described by some as postmodern mobile art, are purely aesthetic and whimsical. Buildings and homes are often painted in bright pinks, blues or kelly greens (to remind occupants of their childhood ricefields? Reflecting the spectrum of colourful fruit arranged at nearby stalls?). Being restrained in a Bangkok traffic jam has its positive side as it allows time to view the street theatrics. Entire families and the goggled pet dog whiz by on a single motorbike while bicycles piled high with furniture creak through traffic. The city is one big stage where the audience and players are interchangeable.
Thai food is prepared with a delicate balance of flavors and spices, usually including at least three and often more of the five major flavours: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and spicy. Bangkok is the melting pot of all the regional cuisines. Each region has its own unique fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices that characterise their dishes. A salivating walk through one of Bangkok’s myriad of markets provides an opportunity to taste an incredible range of flavours, some difficult to describe: a slice of sour green mango dipped in a mixture of salt, sugar and chilli; pickled vegetables accompanied by a condiment of tamarind paste with dried shrimp; tart banana flower blossoms stewed in coconut milk, palm sugar and chilli paste; sour fermented pork sausages with ginger, garlic and chilli. Yum.
Finally, Bangkok is a spiritual experience. Offerings of red Fanta and fresh fruit at shrines on every corner to appease the spirits may perplex the outside observer, but they are part of the unquestionable daily nature of the city’s reverent residents. Early mornings see lines of saffron robed monks walking through neighbourhoods receiving alms from locals. Amulets and sak yant tattoos are worn by many to protect themselves from harm or bad spirits. Listening to monks chanting at temples not only can be a pleasant experience, but provokes thoughtfulness and understanding. The beliefs of most Thais blend old world animism and more recent Buddhism, interestingly, not an exclusive religion. You just may leave Bangkok with some of your own beliefs rearranged.
What statues, towers, mountain peaks or opera houses Bangkok may lack in, is far made up for by its wealth of sensations.
Sensperience Bangkok soon, again, and often!