Day 2, Bangkok: New art and old culture

Day two in the capital. We made up an itinerary for the day spontaneously, wanting to see more of the city but also take it easy and focus on eating a lot more street food and breathing a lot less exhaust fumes. Jonathan discovered that the Bangkok Art and Culture Center was right around the corner from our hostel and was showing an exhibition about LGBTQ in Thailand. A great opportunity to learn more about contemporary Thai society and see some of the most modern architecture in Bangkok. Also, admission is by donation only! Inside the large white building a spiral walkway and criss-crossing escalators took us to the light-flooded top floor. Passing art supply stores, a photography gallery and small coffee shops, we got an impression of hip, artsy Bangkok. Jonathan fit right in wearing a pair of glass-less brown-rimmed glasses a previous guest had left behind at our hostel.

The exhibition showcased LGBTQ artists working in painting, photography, video, writing and installations to portray their community’s struggle for self-expression and acceptance in Thailand. Despite the highly visible sex industry, including transvestite and transgender ladyboys, Thai society overall retains a much more conservative attitude towards same-sex couples and gender-nonconforming individuals.

After the Cultural Center, we took a peek at the beautiful garden at the Jim Thompson House, a mansion built by an American businessman in the 1950s and housing his personal art collection. We opted to not pay to go in but got a free Koi-feeding show as the restaurant staff through leftovers to the resident carp.

Finding an open street food stand at 3pm turned out to be difficult, to my surprise. But who could blame vendors for taking a siesta in these temperatures? We finally dropped into a street-front restaurant/home generously decorated with Buddhist devotional trinkets and black and white photos of what looked like the now elderly owner’s youthful wins at beauty pageants.

From the restaurant we could see Golden Mount Wat, our final stop for the day. And what a unique temple this is! A giant white fortress set on the top of a small mountain, a lush garden at its base. Climbing the shallow steps of the curved stone staircase leading to the top, we were sprayed by mist rising from freshly watered flowers on one side and plants set among rocks and statues on the other. Not just golden figurines of the Buddha and revered Thai monks, but an eclectic and, dare I say, comical assortment of animal statuettes as well: metal hens plunked down in a circle, a wooden parrot on a swing, cuddling monkeys and kissing flamingos. An a more sober note, a circle of statues depicts vultures tearing into the flesh of corpses that were too numerous to be cremated quickly enough during cholera epidemics in the 1800’s when the Wat became a central “collection point” for the disposal of the dead.

Continuing our ascent, loudspeakers broadcast what sounded like a priest’s chants and teaching. They had finished by the time we reached temple building which housed more golden buddhas and a conveniently located vending machine to satisfy ascending visitors’ cravings for a cool beverage while generating supplemental income for the wat. By this time, the sun was beginning to set and the top of the Mount afforded us fantastic views all across the city.

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