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Bangkok: city of glittering temple spires, gargantuan mega-malls, and endless, maddening traffic. That might be how much of the world thinks of the Thai capital. But tread the soi less travelled, keep an eye out for the unfamiliar, and it becomes obvious that this is a most peculiar city.
Welcome to a city that serves up the strangest delicacies imaginable without batting an eye, hosts some of the most outré nightlife in the world, and boasts shrines to deities, some friskier than others. Every square inch of the land on which Bangkok stands is the territory of some spirit or other – invisible godfathers who must regularly be appeased. Many Bangkokians still protect themselves against misfortune by means of sacred spells bound to amulets, unusual specimens of nature or tattooed straight on the skin.
The full name of Bangkok – the longest of any place name in the world – pays tribute to the city’s status as the earthly abode of all manner of spirits and deities: “City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s behest.” Whoever named Los Angeles – that other city of angels and magnet for the strange – certainly didn’t have as many muses.
Some Bangkokians, native or not, may bristle at their city being characterized this way. One desiring the mundane can find life in Bangkok as ordinary as anywhere else in the world. And unusual, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. A magical tattoo to the uninitiated is a believer’s sensible precaution. One man’s bowl of bull’s genitalia is, for another, just tonight’s dinner.
This is an unapologetic guide to Bangkok’s peculiar side. Because we are all one-of-a-kind.
On the streets that line the shophouse rows that comprise so much Bangkokian real estate, there is little space to erect spirit houses. That doesn’t mean that the land on which these homes and businesses stand isn’t – like the rest of Thailand – inhabited by entities who must be shown the proper respect. Look closely and you’ll discover small trays of food and small glasses of water left by lampposts or resting on the sidewalks. These are not for the living.
Still, Bangkok is awash with shrines – from humble spirit houses in gardens to miniature palaces dedicated to more formidable beings, mighty Hindu deities like Ganesh and Shiva. These spirits, like Bangkokians themselves, are consummate dealmakers. Their power can be invoked by humans for gain in the real world. Whether you want to clinch that business deal or arrange a romantic liaison, spirits can be enlisted in your bid for success.
By the side of Khlong Saen Saep, on the grounds of the Swissotel Nai Lert Hotel on Wireless Road, is a shrine to Chao Mae Taptim, a female fertility spirit. It is familiarly known as the Penis Shrine. Women who are trying to conceive lay offerings here: wreaths of jasmine, incense and lotus buds. If Chao Mae Taptim grants their wish, the supplicant is in her debt – and the goddess must be repaid. Behold the shrine and one can guess this deity’s preferred method of payment: Stacked around the shrine are dozens of brightly colored wooden phalluses. And these members, sizable as they are, are dwarfed by a three-meter tall penis statue standing by the spirit house.
In the Northern suburbs of Bangkok, meanwhile, is a shrine to another spirit with a predilection for the racy. On Ruammit Phattana Road in Bang Khen is Chuchok Shrine, eponymously dedicated to a libidinous old man from Buddhist scripture. Devotees visit the shrine, which contains hundreds of statues of Chuchok, large and small, to ask for his help in achieving all manner of earthly goals. If the petitioner gets what he wants, he must return to the shrine to give this thao hua ngu (“naughty old man”) something he enjoys – namely, a dance show by a troupe of sexy, scantily clad “coyote dancers.” In Bangkok, the sacred and the profane are rarely far apart.
Bangkok’s temples, too, can tend to the peculiar. As with all Buddhist temples, the spiritual focus of Wat Pariwat – next to the BRT station of the same name – is its images of the Buddha himself. But the abbot here wanted to recognize that football, too, is a religion for much of the world’s population. And so, to the right of the Buddha, is a gold relief depicting old “Golden Balls” himself: David Beckham.
Every year for a day in October, Bangkok’s sizable Hindu community (and local Buddhists looking for luck) floods Thanon Pan in Silom district to celebrate the Hindu god Navratri. This cornucopia of sword swallowing, candle eating, and fire juggling is an odd feast for the eyes. In the evening, large processions of musicians and holy men parade down Silom and Sathorn Roads offering blessings to the crowds.
A couple hours south of Bangkok in an upscale beach hamlet on the Gulf of Thailand, polo players from around the world gather annually to imbibe gin ‘n’ tonics and engage themselves in the sport. Seems straightforward enough, except for the fact that they do this whilst riding on the backs of elephants. This version of the “Sport of Kings” actually originated in Nepal, but has developed into its most resplendent form in Hua Hin, where the Anantara Elephant Polo Tournament is held every year. Teams comprised of Kiwi rugby players, banking executives, and other remarkable personalities jostle for bragging rights at this peculiar pachyderm competition, with proceeds going to elephant rehab programs.
The good old days
For a more sinister form of strange, head to Siriraj Hospital on the Thonburi bank of the Chao Phraya. Here you will find the Siriraj Medical Museum – supposedly intended for educational purposes, in reality a nightmarish tour of the myriad ways that horror presents itself in human lives.
In the 1950s, a Chinese immigrant named Si Ouey murdered more than 30 children in the city. He was under the impression that eating their raw livers and hearts would make him immortal. Ironically, he has achieved a kind of immortality – his mummified cadaver is preserved in a glass case in the museum.
If Si Ouey’s wrinkled features and ghostly white eyeballs aren’t chilling enough, the museum also displays a collection of deceased infants – nine of them, preserved in formaldehyde. Each unfortunate baby failed to become a viable human being for a different developmental reason, all considerably gruesome. This is not a museum for the squeamish.
If The Evil That Men Do is more your educational cup of tea, head to the Corrections Museum in Romaneenart Park, site of the old Bangkok remand prison. Here, mannequins demonstrate the ingeniously sadistic torture methods once employed in Thai prisons to punish the wicked. Among them: a human-sized hollow ball of rattan, inlaid with sharp nails. Unfortunate prisoners would be forced inside this device. It was then used as a football by an elephant, unwitting in its collusion in this most vicious act of torture. Fortunately, conditions in Thai prisons have improved.
If you’d rather stay outdoors, take a walk to Wat Suthat, on Bamrung Mueang Road in Outer Rattanakosin, and pause to marvel at what looks like a 21-meter-tall doorway to nowhere. Meet the Giant Swing. Until the 1930s, an unusual Brahmin ceremony would take place here. Priests would sit on the swing, lunging back and forth in a bid to grab a purse of money positioned on top of a pole. To make things more interesting, they had to grab the bag with their teeth. It was the stuff of Japanese gameshows, really, but without the mat to catch those who fell. And fall they did. The ceremony was cancelled in the 1930s because people, alas, kept meeting their demise.
Behind Lumpini Park is a small shack that specializes in bull’s penis soup – a kao lao broth containing large, meaty slices of ox member. It’s believed that eating this delicacy will enhance your strength and sexual potency. Bangkokians in the know need not look far for that energy boost.
Perhaps something cerebral might be more intriguing. Samong Moo Thai Tham, on Phraeng Phuton Road, is famous for its pig’s brain soup. Meanwhile, on Thonglor Soi 13 is Kubpo Hanako, an izakaya that serves shirko – cod sperm. This most unusual of ingredients is cooked with a ponzu sauce until it becomes a creamy delight. At least, that’s what we’re told. The delicacy is only served in December – so get there soon, or it will be another year before you can sample this delicacy.
An exceptional eating experience sometimes isn’t a function of what you put in your mouth, but how it gets to your table. In most parts of the world, chickens are a flightless bird. Not in Bangkok – or not at the Ka-tron restaurant, anyway. Close to the Bitec centre on the Bangna-Trat Highway out in the East, this restaurant specializes in “flying chicken” – whole, fried birds launched from catapults and caught by waiters, riding on unicycles, with spikes on their heads. Seriously.
On the other side of Bangna-Trat is Royal Dragon, once the biggest restaurant in the world, and featuring wait staff dressed in Chinese costume flying about on roller skates. And zip lines. Alternatively, head to Ninja House Hero if you’d prefer to be served by masked ninjas. As is de rigeur in Bangkok theme restaurants, the ninjas dance. Of course they do.
But human wait staff is hardly curious. Even ninjas. Which is probably why the idea for the Hajime Robot Restaurant was brilliantly conceived. At this Japanese eatery your food is brought to your table not in the shaky grip of a bored-looking vocational college student, but via the steely, precision clutches of a robot. A dancing, samurai robot.
Exquisite company often lifts an experience from mediocrity. Now, let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine a llama covered in a fluffy down, much like cotton wool. Shrink the creature by about 50 percent. Make it a little more skittish and a lot less hardy when driven over mountain terrain. You have just imagined an alpaca. Now imagine enjoying Thai cuisine in the company of these delightful creatures – a whole petting zoo of them. You have just imagined Alpaca View, a sprawling and most peculiar outdoor eatery in Lat Phrao.
Peculiar watering holes
By this point, you’re probably ready for a tipple. Bangkok happens to be the perfect city in which to indulge a taste for the unusual – uncompromising on a taste for fine beverages too of course.
Amidst the city’s searing temperatures, there is one form of venue Bangkok does better than anywhere else: the rooftop bar. The Speakeasy at Soi Langsuan’s Hotel Muse is a perfect specimen. This exquisitely decorated lounge and bar pays tribute to the illicit drinking holes of Prohibition-era America. Think wood paneling, Chesterfields, and top-shelf spirits.
The freshly opened Ku De Ta, meanwhile, is a sprawling tribute to glamorous partying complete with stunning views of Sathorn district. This Bangkok outpost of the legendary Bali jet set institution is perfect for some refined evening shenanigans.
Finally, make your way to the Novotel on the corner of Silom Road. To the right of the hotel, look for a wooden door marked with Chinese characters and guarded by a couple of heavies. Enter and descend the stairs. You will find yourself in what looks like a small Chinese restaurant. A chalk sign announces the fare: bah mee moo daeng (egg noodles topped with red pork); por pia tod (crispy vegetable spring rolls); tom yam soup. But this is hardly your average hole in the wall. The ceiling holds a sea of glowing Chinese paper umbrellas, while the centerpiece of the room is a caged iguana.
Push through the black curtain to the left of the counter for the reveal. Styled as a bank vault converted into a 1920s Shanghai speakeasy, Maggie Choo’s is one of the city’s most original bars – even by the standards of its designer, Ashley Sutton, the nightlife magnate also responsible for Fat Gut’z and Iron Fairies. Expect a riotous atmosphere, a hip crowd and unusual cocktails. A live jazz band holds court, while pretty girls in qipao sit tittering on swings around the bar. Others are caged above the bar, unicorn horns protruding from their heads.
This is indeed an eccentric soiree to end a day in this most peculiar city.