Travel: The changing faces of Bangkok 

The red shirts are fomenting political unrest but change is a constant in Thailand


One of the wonders of travel is that you rarely see a place the same way twice. Returning to Bangkok after 15 years, I barely knew it. And while I sought out, or happened upon, different sights, ultimately everything changes (ourselves included).

On this recent trip, I checked into the unfortunately-named Pullman King Power ("King of Duty Free") hotel in the affluent north of the city.

At the time, thousands of "red-shirts" - backers of ousted Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra - were hurling their blood at government buildings. And given that the country's tourism industry is on the opposite side of the political spectrum - "yellow shirts" to a man, with tour guides openly characterizing the "red shirts" as stupid peasants - the atmosphere out on the street had been ratcheted up a notch.

At the King Power hotel and shopping complex, a crucible of the tourism industry (and thus the yellow-shirts, the Thai king, economic power and the status quo), the under-belly of every arriving vehicle is scanned with an inspection mirror. And when, at the front door, I stepped into a taxi, a doorman quickly handed me a business card that noted my destination and the number of the taxi that I had gotten into (just in case).

Thailand has been branded as "the land of smiles" and locals, particularly on the tourism front, are usually pleasant and often lovely. But you're almost as likely to be accosted by a street tout who blatantly lies in an effort to divert you into a "factory" visit that will earn him a few Thai Baht, or get taken for a figurative "ride" by a cabbie.

On my earlier visit to Bangkok, I recall the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) with its extravagant display of gold and glitter. And, here at least, little has changed. The 95.5-hectare site is still an unabashed exercise in the extravagant decoration that holds so much sway here (and in other parts of the world).

For me (this time round), the most impressive sight was the Reclining Buddha, a 45-metre-long gold-leaf illustration of the moment of passing into Nirvana. "People think he's dead, but that's not so," said a guide. "He's just reclining before he passes away." Though absurdly gargantuan, the figure emits a simple power; interesting detail includes feet with (inevitably) giant toes inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

We travelled north to the ancient city of Ayutthaya, a collection of "Khmer-eque" temples or shrines built 400 or more years ago as part of the original Thai capital, and today a vast UNESCO World Heritage Site.


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