When you arrive in Bangkok, you seem to have reached the three worlds of Buddhist cosmology. The world of materialism is the first you see, followed by a simple world, freed from the basic desires of the former and ending with the immaterial world, closer to Nirvana.
These three realms or planes of existence are called Trailokya and represent a post mortem universe. But the universe of Bangkok is full of life and sometimes irritating due to the multitude of senses it arouses from the first to the last breath that you take in this city.
The world of shopping malls and skyscrapers
Bangkok is a city with over 8 million people, and the heat is suffocating for those who are not used to the tropical climate of Thailand. The first sensation after I got off the plane was that of excessive sweating. This feeling has changed radically the moment I stepped into a closed space. Differences in temperature between outdoor air and air in malls, hotels or modern means of transport such as taxis or metro are striking. On the one hand, you can die of heat; on the other hand, you can freeze to death. So you always have to take some clothes with you, although it’s hard to bring even a handkerchief because of the damp atmosphere outside.
From the airport to the hotel I took a taxi. After long flight hours, dizzy and tired, I left the airport terminal where I was met by men in uniforms, who offered me a shuttle to the hotel. Obviously, I accepted with delight. To find out later, surprisingly (I wonder why so much surprise), that I paid at least three times more compared to other more resilient travellers who had the power to refuse the first bidders (about what taxis to take and how to order them, I will speak a little later).
Suspended motorways, business and shopping centres, hotels with rooftop pools, perfect for admiring the city while you cool off in the swimming pool, skyscrapers everywhere, Bangkok seemed to me like a vast mall. It was hard to imagine how this ultra-modern city was just a village two centuries ago.
Most hotels are located on the east side, in the highly urbanised commercial area of Bangkok. The old town is somewhat isolated on Rattanakosin Island, the only means of transport that have access to the area are cars and buses. However, although I was staying in the new part of the city, when I left the hotel and started walking down the street, heading for the subway, I found another world – a simple world that lived at the foot of the former.
The world of the simple
In the post mortem universe of Buddhist philosophy, Kamaloka – the world of material desires – can gradually ascend to Rupaloka – a world liberated from basic instincts, but still submissive to desires that it could not wholly discard.
I wonder if in Bangkok those who live in Kamaloka would really like to descend from the skyscrapers into the simple world or, on the contrary, those in Rupaloka would instead prefer to take the elevator to reach the big malls with large windows and mannequins dressed in luxury clothes.
Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t, but what is certain is that, when you wander the streets, every step of the way, you find garages converted into homes, with open-air kitchens, where three generations live together; or workshops, organised as an annexe to the house, where you can see the men in the family melting the iron. The trade in this lower ground city is made on the streets and not in shopping malls, so your senses are invaded by the multitude of smells that float in the air and come to you from the food that asks you to buy it.
Bangkok seems to be built on two levels – the upper one in which buildings scrape the sky and the lower one, which is only discovered by wandering the streets and looking at the ground. Taxi drivers are the only ones who have found the way out of the world below, that of odours, but only to get into the colder world of air conditioning.
As there are long distances between places, it’s hard to move around without a car. So, tourists are a quick way to make some money. Before getting into a taxi, don’t forget to negotiate the price first, because few drivers are willing to use the meter. Or, use the apps for Uber or Grab to avoid getting ripped off. And if you are in the street and need a taxi, you can go to a café or restaurant with Wi-Fi and order one online.
The world of temples
Bangkok’s historic centre is located on Rattanakosin Island, bordered to the west by the Chao Phraya River, and the east by several canals, so the subway does not have access in the area. After the conquest of Ayutthaya (the ancient capital) by the Burmese Empire in 1782, King Rama I decided to move the capital of the kingdom on this island. Bangkok has thus entered a period of economic growth and modernisation, and the Royal Palace, along with numerous temples, was built during this time.
Since I wanted to visit the historic part of the city, I took the Skytrain and got to Saphan Taksin Station, located near the Sathorn Pier. From there, I headed for the ancient Bangkok, crossing the Chao Phraya River by boat. I left behind the modern city with tall glass towers, slowly approaching the monumental Wat Arun or the Temple of the Dawn, as it was named by the Burmese king, who ruled the country after the fall of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The central spire, Phra Prang, over 70 meters high, is the first thing in sight.
The temple is located on the western bank of the river, opposite the Rattanakosin Island. Legend has it that King Taksin passed by it at dawn on his way to Ayutthaya, and decided to change its name to Wat Chaeng, meaning the Temple of the Dawn. The crowning of King Rama II took place in this temple. He, in turn, changed its name to Wat Arun, a derivative of Aruna, the Hindu god of sunrise. Demon shaped statuettes guard the temple, while ceramic decorations of different colours enchant your eyes. After climbing the stairs of the pagoda, your effort is rewarded with the view of the city, which extends beyond the Chao Phraya River.
From Wat Arun, I crossed the river on Rattanakosin Island with one of the many ferries connecting the two shores. I headed impatiently for the Grand Palace, the Imperial residence of King Rama I. To enter the palace, which stretches over an area of about 22 hectares, both men and women must wear decent clothes, pants or skirts below the knee and a shirt to cover the shoulders. For traders, this is an opportunity to take advantage of the lack of clothing of over-heated tourists so that, close to the entrance to the palace, the street is full of stalls and shops selling scarves and pants.
The main attraction, once you get in, is Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. An enormous statue of almost 70 meters high, carved in jade stone and gold-plated, stands in the middle of the temple. The Buddha is presented in a posture of yoga meditation. The statue was housed for a while by the temple across the river, Wat Arun, but Rama I decided to relocate it after building the Royal Palace and a new temple. Even though today the palace is no longer used as a royal residence (Rama VIII was the last monarch who lived here until 1925), many official events and ceremonies are held annually, so in some buildings, entry is forbidden.
Leaving the Grand Palace, I headed for Wat Pho. The Temple of the Reclining Buddha was rebuilt by King Rama I on the site of another temple, which became his primary place of worship. Some of the king’s ashes are enshrined here. Later, the temple was expanded by Rama III and included a Thai school of medicine. It is considered the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, a system that combines acupressure with Ayurvedic therapies. Even today, Thai massage is taught and practised at the temple.
In addition to the 46-meter-long statue of the reclining Buddha, Wat Pho includes an extensive collection of Buddha images. But what seemed to me most impressive was the chedi yard; those spiral pagodas, decorated with pieces of embossed ceramics of various shapes and colours. Walking among chedis, like in a forest of spires, I had the feeling that I was in Arupaloka – the third world beyond; an abstract and formless world, but not because it has no meaning, but because, as you get closer to Nirvana, contours begin to lose their purpose.
The three worlds
For the people of Siam (the former name of Thailand), monarchy and religion are sacred. As you enter the country, you are notified by huge billboards that the Buddha is not for sale. It is forbidden to market large-sized statuettes, or figurines with only parts of the spiritual leader’s body, such as the head or arms. In case you have purchased such items, you risk losing your souvenirs on leaving the country. A tattoo with the image of the Buddha is also considered an offence, which will be punished by law.
The monarchy has the same privileged status. The king is regarded as a god, and insulting or even criticising the sovereign can lead to years of imprisonment. Following the coup d’état in 2014, carried out by the military forces supporting the monarchy, the lèse-majesté law has grown in importance, and acts of this kind are severely punished.
The worlds, like the streets of Bangkok, are not easy to cross. They are often tortuous, crowded, and tiring and force you to get out of your natural state of being and enter a road that you might want to bypass. But once you get there, you cannot stop at the edge. Like in a whirlwind, you are drawn inside and then thrown out. To what extent this crazy vortex will crush you or lift you, you will only know after entering the three worlds of Bangkok.