“There it was, spread out largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror…” Joseph Conrad, The Shadow Line
River of Kings
I had fully intended to arrive at the Palace by river that morning. But I was advised by the hotel concierge that there wasn’t really a convenient riverine approach anymore. At least, not since the turn of the 19th century when most of the grand canals in Bangkok had been filled in and replaced by more conventional motorways. Pity really. If there’s one thing I could never seem to get enough of in Bangkok, it was the river – Meinem Chao Phraya it’s called, “River of Kings.”
As a Singaporean, Bangkok has never been too far from my mind. There are two things one usually associates with it – shopping and sex. I’ve never been one for shopping, and so sex, I suppose, always loomed large in my general impression of the City of Angels. As a child accompanying my parents on arduous packaged tours to the city, I remember experiencing, with not a little bit of envy, those brassy revues performed by impossibly beautiful ladyboys with their sassy attitudes and over-the-top finery. And then as a young man going to Bangkok on business trips, I was always inevitably corralled, with my colleagues, into one of those ghastly “tiger shows” in Patpong, where no tigers are featured whatsoever. Bangkok seemed to me the epitome of bad taste – but fascinatingly, liberatingly so. There was nowhere else in Asia like it, and there still isn’t.
In all my previous trips to Bangkok, I had always inexplicably steered clear of the river and the much older parts of the city that occupy its banks. The river, ironically, seemed to me to be peripheral to the modern metropolis, which had long since outgrown its traditional boundaries to become the sprawling, skyscraping monster of a city it is today – the second largest city in Southeast Asia by size and population (Jakarta being number one by a longshot). And so it felt like I was visiting an entirely different city altogether when I arrived that morning, and took to the river for the very first time in my life.
In the early 1800s, Bangkok was a floating city bisected by canals, much like Venice and Amsterdam still are today. European visitors then hailed it as the Venice of the East, gleaming with golden temples, or wats, and quaint villages built entirely over the water. The Chao Phraya was the heart of that old city, linking it to the outside world, and bringing goods and people from all over that outside world to Siam. Today, the river still plays an important role in the cultural identity of the city – Floating Market anyone? – but it has long since lost its importance to international trade, except, perhaps for the hotel and tourism industry.
Siam, and Bangkok in particular, are important in the colonial history of Southeast Asia because nation and city never succumbed to Western Colonialism; because, in other words, there is no colonial history of the city, though the city came very close to having one. It was less than a century ago that French warships sailed up the Chao Phraya, intent on claiming Siam as their equivalent of British India. It took some deft foreign policy and significant territorial concessions on the part of the Siamese Monarch then – King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V of the Chakri Dynasty – for Bangkok to avoid being the capital of Indochine. The King himself we know well. We all met him when he was but a little boy, getting to know a very persistent Deborah Kerr in the 1954 Hollywood movie, The King and I. Educated in the Western tradition, he would prove to be a vanguard, modernizing his kingdom and playing British insecurities against French egocentrism so deftly that he managed to secure from both Great Powers a promise to ensure the independence and neutrality of his Kingdom.
That doesn’t mean Siam, or Thailand rather (the name means “Land of the Free Peoples”), has no relation whatsoever to colonialism in Southeast Asia. Make no mistake about it. While Thailand was never a colony, Siam was a colonising power, exerting its influence over Laos and Cambodia (which it conceded to French Indochina), and the primarily Malay Muslim region along the Kra Isthmus, of which the provinces of Kelantan, Trengganu, Perlis and Perak were conceded to British Malaya. A trip to Laos and Cambodia will reveal just how pervasive the Thai cultural influence was in that country – Lao, Cambodian and Thai are mutually intelligible, and their sacred and royal architectural styles are very similar.
At the same time, Siam, being independent of any colonial empire, paid host to Europeans from almost every creed and language. The Portuguese and Dutch were the first to arrive in the 1500s and stayed for more than four hundred years. Then there were the French in the 1600s, the Danish in the 1700s, the British in the 1800s, and finally the Americans, with their investment dollars, after World War II. The European Quarter of the city, replete with colonial period buildings in various European styles and states of disrepair, is known as Bang Rak. Today it forms part of the larger Silom district of the city, which itself is dotted with a surprising number of colonial-era mansions. One interesting aspect about the this entire area was that it was fluid racially. The Europeans lived alongside other immigrant races such as the Chinese (in particular), Hindus from Southern India, Malays from the Malay states and Java, as well as Lao, Cambodians and other races from the Siamese Empire. All these made Bangkok quite possibly the original cosmopolitan city in Southeast Asia.
The heart of this multi-cultural city, and the seat of the Siamese Empire, was the Grand Palace, occupying its own small island (Rattanakosin) at a strategic turn of the Chao Phraya. From this imperial heart, the rest of Bangkok radiates outwards in concentric circles, such that the Palace is always in view, but distant and unapproachable. That morning (to return to my initial narrative), I got to the Grand Palace early, by taxi, and managed to get tickets just before the hordes of tourists, mostly Chinese, appeared with their loudspeakers. Once inside the Palace Complex, I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of monuments, and the range of architectural styles. A vast temple complex in the Siamese traditional style was flanked by a palace compound that reminded one of Versailles in France, which sat beside yet another temple complex that adopted a sacred Chinese vernacular. All of these complexes were topped by the actual Palace itself, essentially a European building, crowned by a Siamese roof.
Here, in the Grand Palace complex, was the (hi)story of Thailand told in architecture: how its culture drew influence from two quintessentially Indian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism; how it prospered through the sheer hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese; how it had to modernize in a European fashion in order to hold its own against the Europeans; and finally, how its Kings were, if not the greatest, the shrewdest Kings in all of Asia. I could tell that my fellow tourists were similarly overwhelmed, not quite by epiphany, but rather from exhaustion and awe; which, I suppose, fulfilled the intention of the Kings who had the complex built in the first place.
Here, they seemed to say, is our great Kingdom, unparalleled in all the world! Bow down, mere mortal, and pay it obeisance!