Few cities assail the senses as viscerally as Bangkok, from the kinetic cacophony of its road life to its fragrant natural cures and the incendiary spice of the meals. Social distancing has solely briefly withheld the contact of Thai therapeutic massage and the jostle of its markets. Juxtapositions startle the attention, with designs usually determined by fortune tellers or sacred colors. Timber shacks abut glitzy towers of novelty shapes on this planet’s third least equal society.
Breakneck modernisation has sparked tensions between the cosmopolitan “hi-so” (excessive society) and grassroots values, whereas younger reformers protest on the seniority system that enforces a hidden order behind the obvious chaos. Amid the hi-tech towers, an enormous casual economic system wheels meals stalls and makes road furnishings from discovered supplies. It’s each enjoyable and poignant to trip across the teeming centre on motorbike taxis, transformed pickup vehicles or canal boats with a hinged canvas roof that lowers beneath bridges.

Bangkok’s canal districts are nonetheless served by floating nook retailers. {Photograph}: Philip Cornwel-Smith
Creator and composer SP Somtow known as it a “metropolis each futuristic and feudalistic, a metropolis the place the primary and third worlds had been in limitless collision”, in his ebook The Crow: Temple of Evening. Others say this village-minded megalopolis is Blade Runner-esque.
Returning vacationers will discover its tangled laneways opened up by recent routes. New fast city railways hyperlink uncared for districts, and can meet the trans-Asian community on the new Bang Sue Grand station. Driverless Gold Line trains run to the large IconSiam riverside mall, and on to Kudi Jeen, a 250-year-old quarter first settled by Persians and Portuguese, Hokkien Chinese language and Mon folks from Myanmar. Paths result in a waterfront cafe named My Grandparents’ Home, embodying the development of rediscovering once-supressed Chinese language heritage.
London by no means obtained its backyard bridge, however Bangkok final yr opened the leafy SkyPark, spanning the Chao Praya river from Kudi Jeen to Chinatown. Its undulations afford views downstream, the place skyscrapers bristle like a hairbrush, and upstream to the Grand Palace, the temple of the reclining Buddha, and Wat Arun, town’s five-spired image. Mosaicked in particoloured glass and china, Bangkok’s temples are, to quote Somerset Maugham in his 1935 travelogue The Gentleman within the Parlour, “not like something on this planet … and you can’t match them into the scheme of issues you understand. It makes you chuckle with delight that something so incredible may exist on this sombre Earth.”

The rejuvenated Khlong Ong Ang canal. {Photograph}: Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Photographs/Rex
The SkyPark leads proper to the previous moat, Khlong Ong Ang, the place markets have been cleared to make canalside promenades lined with Instagram-ready murals of Sikhs, Muslims and Teochew Chinese language merchants. The nation’s multi-ethnic previous is being repackaged right into a digestible “numerous” Thainess. However as William Warren warned in his 2012 portrait of town, Bangkok, “the results of this profitable assimilation has been the regular decline, just about the disappearance, of something purely Thai”.
Chinatown, too, is relinquishing its mysteries as shophouses flip into galleries, bars and hostels. Crumbling stucco alleys strewn with engine elements draw hipsters in the course of the Chinese language Vegetarian Pageant, Bangkok Design Week and common Galleries Nights. Siam’s first paved road, Charoenkrung Street, arcs via right here into Bangrak Artistic District, an unbiased initiative by younger urbanites that bypasses the state’s orderliness to make a advantage of the numerous chaos.

Instalation by Thai artist P7 eventually yr’s Bangkok Artwork Biennale. {Photograph}: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Photographs
Bangkok Vanguards pioneered neighbourhood excursions right here. Now you can be part of them by way of Zoom, both as a live-streamed scooter journey or a video tour narrated by the information. From Khlong Ong Ang, you thread via the passages of Saphan Han with its group chief, encountering a jewelry workshop, a sala pao dumpling stall and a shrine to their Teochiu deity, Pun Tao Kong.
Throughout the moat from Saphan Han are the neighbourhoods of Little India and Wang Burapha, which was the primary Thai hub of popular culture. That historical past is advised in one of many digital exhibitions on the irreverent Museum Siam, viewable alongside ones of close by Tha Tien market plus the museum’s irreverent tackle nationalism, Decoding Thainess.

Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch’s porcelain tanks on the Bangkok Biennale.
{Photograph}: Philip Cornwel-Smith
Museum Siam was a venue for the latest Bangkok Artwork Biennale, one of many few biennials to go forward final yr. Its pavilions can nonetheless be toured on-line. Among the many 82 artists from 35 nations, Anish Kapoor tailored a wax set up for the prayer corridor of Wat Pho. The 31 Thai artists embrace Wasinburee Supanichvoraparch, whose porcelain tanks seize the fragility of energy, Peerachai “Samer” Patanaporgchai, a homeless savant whose graffiti of elaborate paranoid diagrams is a well-recognized sight throughout downtown, and Charit Pusiri’s peep present on Bangkok life.

The Hangover Half II … ‘Bangkok at its most compulsively lurid’. {Photograph}: Melinda Sue Gordon/AP
Bangkok’s repute is at its most compulsively lurid in The Hangover Half II, a bachelor occasion caper that spawned Hangover guided excursions and the catchphrase: “Bangkok has him now.” The perfect movies about this metropolis aren’t being streamed, however Netflix has a number of fashionable dramas: Bangkok Site visitors Love Story, which offers with modern mores; Hormones (2013-15), the primary Thai collection to deal with youth points with provocative realism; and time-travel fantasy collection Love Future (2018), which contrasts in the present day’s prosperous life-style with Seventeenth-century courtiers, sparking a fad for sporting conventional gown to occasions.
The 1840s story of the ghost of Mae Nak – who sees her beloved husbandsent off to conflict and later dies in childbirth in what’s now the Phrakhanong neighbourhood – has sparked numerous movies, from the splendid 1999 romance Nang Nak to the 2013 horror-comedy Pee Mark Phrakhanong, about her hapless husband. In a documentary on town’s visible tradition, World In Movement: Bangkok, I information you thru Nak’s shrine at Wat Mahabut.

Road meals stall in Chinatown. {Photograph}: Philip Cornwel-Smith
In her meals weblog She Simmers, Leela Punyaratabandhu dissects how the TV collection Love Future contrasted historic and present recipes, corresponding to a dip for grilled fish. Her cookbook Bangkok: Recipes and Tales from the Coronary heart of Thailand, explains the international influences upon its hybrid delicacies, and comes with YouTube demonstrations. She reveals how a Thai prime minister famously added a splash of brandy when cooking his inexperienced curry with beef. Whereas different curries can get away with pre-made pastes, she insists that inexperienced curry paste is greatest made recent, toasting the coriander seeds and cumin earlier than grinding with the herbs and shrimp paste.
However Bangkok’s most well-known cooking class, which additionally sparked a ebook and YouTube clips with Jamie Oliver, earned fame initially for its title: Cooking With Poo. Chef Saiyuud Diwong – nicknamed Poo (crab) – proudly stayed based mostly within the Khlong Toey slum the place she grew up.
The primary Michelin star for Thai meals went to Australian chef David Thompson at Bangkok’s Como lodge, whose two cookbooks, Thai Meals and Thai Road Meals, are laced with cultural context. The latter spawned a TV collection (on Vimeo), partly set in Bangkok, which demonstrates the right way to brown a Sino-Thai oyster omelette utilizing pork fats and tapioca flour.
Pay attention

The aural equal of the exploding flavour pockets in Thai delicacies is molam, the north-eastern music launched by migrants from the Thai and Laotian hinterlands because the Seventeenth century. It’s the music most busked on the streets, usually by teams of blind musicians. Spotify streams the Paradise Bangkok Molam Worldwide Band, a supergroup of grasp gamers who blended the plaintively warbled vocals and bamboo khaen pipes with surf rock and Latin rhythms that get anybody churning to its infectious beats.
Bangkok pop feels bland by comparability, with copycat sounds, Ok-pop formulation and tonal vocals that may sound off-key. But some Bangkok-born artists earn followers overseas by singing in English. Phum Viphurit sings fetching jangly tunes and certainly one of Hugo Chakrabongse’s blues-infused rock ballads has been lined by Beyoncé.

Thai rap ranges from the polished sound of Thaitanium on Mahanakorn and with Snoop Dogg on Wake Up (Bangkok Metropolis), to slum homeboys corresponding to 19Tyger rapping about Khlong Toey. Protest songs by the collective Rap Towards Dictatorship modified Thai politics, with a 100 million YouTube views of the taboo-shattering invective Prathet Ku Mee (What My Nation’s Received).

Bangkok Noir (2011) offers short-story tastes of Bangkok’s detective style set in seedy locales like Soi Cowboy. “Noir in Bangkok occurs quick,” notes its editor, Christopher G Moore, speaking of how it’s fed by people beliefs and the information. “At each flip there’s a new noir-like incident, such because the temple morgue discovered to include two thousand aborted foetuses. Take a late night time stroll via some poor neighbourhoods. Hear the soi canine howling because the offended ghosts launch themselves via the night time, and observe that fashionable possessions don’t cease the homeowners from making choices to such spirits.”

Main literary expat Lawrence Osborne dissects the anomaly of outsiders in his travelogue Bangkok Days and condominium-set thriller The Glass Kingdom. “Bangkok is an asylum for individuals who have lapsed into dilettantism,” he quips. “Westerners select Bangkok as a spot to dwell exactly as a result of they will by no means perceive it.” And it’s no much less of an enigma to Thais.

Some native authors printed in English attempt to unblock the policed blanks within the nationwide reminiscence. In Bangkok Wakes to Rain, Pitchaya Sudbanthad tracks a picket home over centuries by way of its conversion right into a spa to its destiny in a flooded future Bangkok, evoking town’s sensory hit. “A pearl-eyed lottery vendor, sensing passersby from footsteps and the clap of flip-flops, calls out of an opened case of clothes-pinned tickets to whoever craves luck. Her nostril picks up the ashen scent at all times within the air.” Like indie novellist Veeraporn Nitiprapha in The Blind Earthworm within the Labyrinth, he makes use of metaphor to deal with scandals that the majority attempt to neglect. As Pitchaya dryly notes: “The not remembering doesn’t actually work, does it?”
Philip Cornwel-Smith was the founding editor of Bangkok’s first listings journal, Metro, and the Time Out Metropolis Information to Bangkok. His newest ebook is Very Bangkok: Within the Metropolis of the Senses (River Books, £20)