ThailandTour 3: Bangkok
The Thai general Taksin organized a guerilla campaign against the Burmese which eventually led to driving them out. He relocated the capitol to Bangkok and subdued the various petty Thai kingdoms, including yet another independent Chiagmai, to reunite Thailand. Taksin himself went crazy eventually, thinking himself a god. He fell prey to a coup, the first of many to occur in Thai history, led by another general, Chakkri. The Chakkri dynasty continues to reign to this day. Legend has it that the dynasty will only produce eight kings (and there are chedi for each at the national capital). Though the kings no longer enjoy political power, they retain an enormous popular following. During the time of my first visit, the king essentially deposed both the leader of a military coup and the leader of the student oppositon by summoning them to his office and telling them to quit. Much of the remainder of Thai history entails their efforts to resist colonialism on all fronts. The Thai make much of the fact that they never fell prey to colonial rule. Actually, the prominent powers, the British in Burma, the French in Vietnam, could simply never decide exactly who would own Thailand. However, I must credit the Thai for exploiting their own weakness in order to survive. These skills stood them in good stead in the Twentieth Century. The Thai only sort-of avoided World War II. Under intense Japanese pressure, they essentially aided the Japanese, then rulers of Vietnam. In the seventies, they aided another prominent colonial power, the US, in its war with North Vietnam, making considerable financial gains along the way. I must mention here the "Thai economic miracle." As late as 1980, many doubted Thailand would survive. The Vietnamese enemy stood at the borders in Cambodia and Laos with modern Russian equipment. Meanwhile, the Thai suffered under various military coups, and the Thai army seemed far more suited to overthrowing the government than to fighting the Vietnamese. Twenty-five years later, this all seems a bit fantastic. The Thai enjoy a much improved standard of living (despite the Asian depression of 1998-2000) and have a respectable democracy, in contrast to Vietnam. One could far more easily imagine Thailand buying out Vietnam than Vietnam invading Thailand.
Buddha preached two doctrines, an earlier and later, in his lifetime, often called the "Lesser" and the "Greater." I reject these terms since they tend to make the first sound worse the second. I call them, instead, "Southern Buddhism" and "Northern" since this roughly describes the countries of adoption. The Thai inherited Southern Buddhism from the Mons, who, in turn, learned it from Sri Lankan and South Indian traders. Southern Buddhism emphasizes the right way of living and contemplation. In many ways, Southern Buddhism is tougher on the individual and requires more intellectual committment whereas Northern Buddhism tends to emphasize personal salavation and belief. Thailand shares Southern Buddhism with Laos and (oddly enough) Burma. Southern Buddhism emphasizes the importance of the sangha, the monasteries. Most Thai men will enter a Buddhist monastery for several periods in their life. When they do so, they give up their entire other life, wives, families, children, possessions, and retreat. The sangha teaches young men their values and their tradition. Older men often use the sangha as a kind of mental retreat and means of regrouping. Commonly farmers will go to the monastery after they plant their crops. Politicians might go after a session ends. A man, though, might even go midway through an important business deal. In the monastery, though, all have equal ranks and possessions (except the clerical leaders). Monks, new and old, enjoy great respect in Thai society. One of the great Thai kings, Mongkut, spend most of his life in a monastery.
At the time of The King and I Bangkok enjoyed a reputation as an exotic, pleasant city with canals and a population little touched by the West. Things change, and changed even from my first visit, in 1992, to my last in 1998. Basically, everyone in Thailand seems to want to live in Bangkok. In a city with no mass transit and relatively low building height, that means sprawling suburbs and massive traffic. People don't live in the streets as in Manila, but sometimes it appears that they do when one nevers sees the streets empty or uncrowded. Add to this the vast "entertainment" industry of the city, and you have the seeds of a very unpleasant place. In another part of the world, this might lead to high crime and bloodshed. The Thai, however, believe very highly in good manners and tolerance. As a result, they make Bangkok seem tolerable, even livable. Further, Bangkok simply lies at the new center of Southeast Asia. Since the Thai have at least tolerable relations with every nation in the region, you can get a visa and fly anywhere. As a result, every real Asian traveler spends at least some time in Bangkok. Who knows, you might even enjoy it, provided you view it with all of the Buddhist tolerance and good manners of a Thai. I first visited Bangkok in 1990. In 2012 I visited again after many years absence. The city, especially the tourist district, is somewhat different than images.
Related tours: Back to Thai Tour # 2: Central Thailand
Forward to Tour # 1: Changmai and the North
Onward to Laos
Read The Thin Red Line.
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