If you, like me, have friends who took a year to ‘find themselves’ before university then the title “24 hours in Bangkok” may well conjure up some unfavourable images. In my head, Bangkok was a sin city of Ping Pong shows and Lady Boys, packed into seedy bars on the Khao San Road and best epitomised by scenes from ‘The Beach’. So as we planned our Christmas trip around Thailand, I was keen to keep our time there to a minimum: 24 hours to be precise.
Christmas Day on Koh Jum Island
We arrived from the beaches of the Andaman Sea and an incredibly chilled Christmas swinging from the hammocks of our beachside bungalows. Dumping our bags at the hostel, we set off in scorching heat to the Jim Thompson House. Not your average first port of call in the Thai capital, the museum houses the furniture and art collection of an American entrepreneur who mysteriously disappeared in the late 1960s. It’s an architectural and design gem with an excellent cafe to boot. Already, Bangkok was defying my expectations.
From there we hopped on the water bus and sped along an offshoot of the Chao Praya, for the princely sum of 5 pence, to arrive at the Grand Palace. There we were greeted by thousands of mourners, all in full black despite the glorious sunshine, paying their respects to the late King Bhumibol.
Mourners in a procession outside The Grand Palace, Bangkok.
It was a strangely humbling moment to see and a privileged glimpse into the depth of Thai cultural sentiment. Too often Thailand seems to be synonymous with Full Moon Parties, scamming Tuk Tuk drivers and Brits abroad. Watching the mourners felt like a peek behind the tourist facade and into a deeply rich nation imbibed by its history as one of few Southeast Asian countries not to fall under colonial control.
That evening we did, I admit, brave the Khao San Road and indulge in a bucket or two of G&Ts. The experience was far less heady than I had anticipated and a shadow of the iniquitous ‘Pub Street’ (Pham Ngu Lao) in Ho Chi Minh City.
Chaos on the Khao San Road
But the real highlight of my 24 hours was an early morning trip to MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the following day. With a flight looming, I set off in an Uber to the outskirts of Bangkok. Now, Bangkok traffic is perhaps best described as cacophonic. A discordant symphony of hot pink taxis, Tuk Tuks, songthaews and precarious bikes laden with street food all wind through the chaotic streets and creep slowly onto an eternally gridlocked toll road. The gallery is an enormous white structure set just off this highway and after forty minutes of horn honking and hair raising lane shifts, I was beginning to see my outing as a bit of a pilgrimage.
This feeling continued as I entered the gallery, its first visitor of the day, and encountered the vastness of its five floors. I wandered the gallery in complete awe. Much of the collection plays with Western tropes but much also exposes traditional Thai art forms. It’s a celebration of both artistic lineage and the mind-bending trends of cutting edge contemporary art. In one installation, you enter a dark corridor strewn with small lights that echo the night sky. By the time you’ve wrapped your head around the fact that the walls are actually velvet, you’re spat out into a perfectly white space - picture, if you can, one of those movie scenes where a character wakes up in a hospital bed, blinking to dizzying light. I stood there for five minutes, staring in all directions, before I realised I was in a something spherical, which turned out to be an egg. It’s as weird as it sounds and the experience is as extraordinary as the rest of the gallery.
Art work at MOCA Bangkok. From left to right, ‘The Passage Across the Universe’ (aka. the egg), ‘The Travelling of King Rama IX’ (1963) by Sathit Thimvattanabunthoeng, ‘Violin’ (2006) by Prateep Khochabua.
I rejoined the gang for our fifteenth Pad Thai of the week in an adorable restaurant hidden behind Pratunam market. From there it was time for the airport again and on to Chiang Mai for elephant bathing and temples galore.
Bangkok had surprised me. It remains a backpacker’s mecca and a place where anything goes but it is also burgeoning with millennial creativity. It took almost no effort to scratch beneath the gap year veneer and experience a dynamic Asian city, bursting with history and ready for the future.