The garden at Suvarnabhumi

18 02 2014

The view of the garden oustide the passenger terminal building of Bangkok’s futuristic looking Suvarnabhumi Airport at sunset on 17 Feb 2014 that does perhaps resemble a scene from a sci-fi movie.

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Growing up too soon in Bangkok?

17 09 2013

A very young child “minding” a food stall at a market found along the busy Asok Montri Road (photograph taken in October 2011).

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The golden glow of the Golden Land

6 05 2013

Suvarnabhumi Airport is probably one the the few airports in the world to which I don’t mind getting in early to catch a flight out. Besides the array of quite affordable food that is available at the terminal building, there is also the wonderful architecture of the terminal building to marvel at, particularly when the westward facing end of Concourse F catches the light of the setting sun. Bathed in the glow of sunset, the concourse of the airport, the name of which in Sanskrit translates to “Golden Land”,  does literally turn into a golden visual treat. The terminal building was designed by German born American architect Helmut Jahn and was completed in September 2006.

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A walk down a street of contrasts and contradictions

10 01 2012

Bangkok is a city that I never seem to tire of. The opportunity to wander through its ever so lively streets is something I always find hard to resist. The streets offer a wealth of opportunity for photography and for people watching, and where there I never fail to find something that does catch my eye. The streets, particularly of the new Bangkok, are also one where the contrasts and contradictions that is Bangkok becomes very apparent. It is on the streets where traditional street trades thrive next to the towering blocks of offices and glittering shopping malls, where McDonalds and Starbucks have become as much a part of the landscape as the pushcarts that once dominated the streets, and where a flow of Hijab clad women can be seen streaming past symbols of a trade Bangkok is all too well known for.

A walk or even being stuck in traffic allows a peek into the world of contrasts and contradictions that is Bangkok.

An interesting stretch with a wealth of contrasts and contradictions is a two and a half kilometre one in new Bangkok that I recently took a stroll through from the much venerated Erawan Shrine at the corner of Ratchadamri and Phloen Chit Roads, to first of a series of the many Sois that turn off Sukhumvit Road – lanes that are always waiting to be discovered. It is a walk that I had done almost three decades ago, one that sans the shade provided by the Bangkok Skytrain’s elevated track and the towering blocks that have since sprouted up seemed to be down a very different avenue. What is apparent today are the open arms with which the city and its people, still rich in tradition, have welcomed the new world with – with the unmistakable signs of Christmas dressing up much of the new world I could see in the lead up to what is a western festival.

Signs of the times. A close-up of a Christmas tree at one of the many new malls along the stretch with symbols perhaps of what Christmas has become all about in much of the Asia that has chosen to embrace it.

A group of high school students outside one of the newest shopping malls along Sukhumvit Road, Terminal 21, seen through Christmas and New Year decorations. As with much of the world - the new world finds ready acceptance with the young.

A young daughter of a street food vendor enjoys a meal from a food vendor of the new world, as her mother prepares to welcome her first customers of the day.

The draw of street fare is still there despite the arrival of the new fare found in more comfortable premises.

Grilled fish on display at a street food stall. Street food does still have its place, being a choice for many for its affordability even as McDonalds and air-conditioned foodcourts have set themselves firmly in place.

Despite the new clothes that now adorn the area, the worn out clothes that it wore when I first walked down the street is still very visible. For some reason, the clinical new world is one that seems to hold the grimy old world in a tight embrace, taking it with it on the journey into the new world that is to come. There is no doubt that Bangkok, more than any other South-East Asian capital, has ample room in its quest for modernity for the traditions it was built upon, both religious and cultural. Despite the signs of a Christian feast all around – the city is still one where its traditional religious observances and practices are very much intertwined with daily life. The Erawan Shrine at the start of the walk is one where this can be observed as steady streams of devotees to Phra Phrom kneeling to make offerings in the incense filled air at each of the Hindu deity’s four faces outnumber the flow of gawking tourists the shrine also attracts.

A steady stream of devotees make offerings through the day at the Erawan Shrine.

Resident dancers at rest at the Erawan Shrine. The dancers are engaged by devotees to Phra Phrom who have had their prayers answered.

A performance by the resident dancers of the Erawan Shrine.

Further down Phloen Chit Road, at the junction with Wireless or Witthayu Road, is a marker of a previous world that refuses to go away. One that takes us back to when much of the area was owned by Bangkok’s foremost real estate developer, Nai Lert. Resembling what many have referred to as a stone cannon stuck in the ground, a somewhat ungainly looking stump is the surviving one of six that Nai Lert had used to mark the boundaries of the land he owned (based on information at the British Embassy’s website) – part of which he sold to the British Government which had its embassy there until it was sold not too long ago to have a new shopping mall built. The marker now looks out-of-place in the shadows of the glass and steel that now threatens to engulf it.

The surviving "upturned cannon" that served as a marker to the boundaries of Nai Lert's property.

A set of flyovers appear towards the end of Phloen Chit Road – those of an Expressway doesn’t seem to have eased the crunch on the road that the flyovers now cast a huge shadow over. It is just beyond this that a railway level crossing marks where Phloen Chit Road ends and Sukhumvit Road begins. What greets the eye as one looks down the tracks is a scene typical of the railway lines in this part of the world – and one that reminds us of a Bangkok that the modernisation of the city hasn’t been able to shake off.

The new shopping malls sit side-by-side with the Bangkok that was more once more commonly seen. Food stalls squatting along the railway tracks where Ploen Chit Road meets Sukhumvit Road.

The many Sois off Sukhumvit Road that soon come up are a wonderful world to explore and where many more of Bangkok’s contradictions await discovery. Wandering through the lowest of the odd-numbered Sois, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up on the streets of the Middle East. Stepping back out into the main streets, one quickly realises that one’s feet are firmly planted in the City of Angels as one is quickly reminded of that side of Bangkok that the city is unfortunately infamous for.

The many Sois off Sukhumvit Road also offers many a tuk-tuk driver an opportunity to escape from Bangkok's traffic.

Besides Starbucks, the is a choice of the many watering holes for something a little stronger.

The short walk through the contrast the different worlds soon takes me to one of the latest developments on the stretch – Terminal 21 – one that promises to take the shopper on a retail journey to places far and wide. For me, it wasn’t the new mall which took me on a journey, but that two and a half kilometre walk that preceded my visit to the mall. It was a journey that perhaps started with a walk down from the docks of Klong Toey some three decades before and one that I still am taking through time, through space and through the many contrasts and contradictions of the fast changing world that I find in a city and in a part of that city that has never ceased to fascinate me.

Rambutans at a street vendor's stall off Sukhumvit Road. Beside the tourist oriented street vendors along Sukhumvit Road, there are many others that colour the streets which still cater to the local population.

Haggling with a street vegetable vendor.

The streets also offer many opportunities for people watching - a young lady in a contemplative mood seen through the maze of street food vendors.

A popcorn vendor pushing his cart down the sidewalk.

Pushing a different cart - a street vendor (smiling) helps an unfortunate motorist along Sukhumvit Road.

A dough fritter vendor at work.

Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe. A shopper seeks help from a sidewalk cobbler for a broken heel.

A shelter for that which provide shelter. Parasols of a street vendor rest resting against a telephone booth.

A column of motorcylists facing a very lengthy wait at a major intersection supporting themselves with the help of the kerb.





In search of angels in the City of Angels

24 04 2011

Bangkok, the City of Angels, is a city that has always managed to surprise me with a delightful find every time I have the time to wander around it. So it was to be on my last visit there recently, in which I was able to seek out not one, but two beautiful houses of worship, both Catholic, along the Chao Phraya River. The first, off Charoen Krung (New Road), which I understand is the first paved road in Thailand, is set amongst some delightful pieces of European style buildings in the old Farang Quarter of Bangkok, far, as it seemed to be; from the hustle and bustle that Bangkok has come to be associated with. The house of worship is the Assumption Cathedral, built in 1910 with an Romanesque fashioned red brick exterior with twin towers and a centre rose window, featuring an elaborately gorgeous Rococo style interior that is unusual as churches in this part of the world go.

The gorgeous Rococo style interior of the Assumption Cathedral.

The rose window see from the interior.

The Romanesque red brick exterior of the cathedral.

Another view of the Rococo interior of the Cathedral.

Stained glass panels inside the Cathedral.

Around the square where the Cathedral is are some other wonderful examples of European style architecture, the Venetian style East Asiatic Company building by the river being one, complete with a Venetian style skyway. Another notable building is the Renaissance style Catholic Centre, also by the river, from which I chanced upon the Archbishop Emeritus of Bangkok, Michael Michai Cardinal Kitbunchu emerging. The area around the Cathedral also contains the Assumption College, the Assumption Convent, the Catholic Mission and several other buildings.

The East Asiatic Company building as seen from the river.

The East Asiatic Company building as seen from the side.

Arches along the building's side.

A skyway between buildings.

The Renaissance style Catholic Centre by the river.

Chanced upon His Grace, Michael Michai Cardinal Kitbunchu, Archbishop Emeritus of Bangkok emerging from the Catholic Centre.

The Assumption Convent.

From the area where the Cathedral is, I continued further north along the river. This took me past the Central Post Office and about a kilometre up Charoen Krung, I came to the Neo Gothic style Holy Rosary Church, referred to locally as Wat Kalawar, after the Thai word for Calvary. The church had its origins in the Portuguese who settled in Bangkok, and was built originally in the late 1700s, and one that was rebuilt at the end of the 1800s, and now catering to the Vietnamese and Cambodian community. The church’s interior has been wonderfully restored over the years and features a gilded ceiling and some magnificent Romanesque stained glass. Certainly, the search for angels in the City of Angels, was one that yielded not just a few angels, but some gems of churches in a city that is perhaps better known for its beautiful Buddhist temples, gems that on the evidence of what I had seen, are some of the best to be found in South East Asia.

I continued north up Charoen Krung ...

... past the Central Post Office ...

... coming to another Catholic church by the river, the Holy Rosary Church, built originally by the Portuguese.

The façade of the Holy Rosary Church.

Where, I did find an angel, in the form of a holy water font.

The interior of the church.

Another view of the interior.

The church features some wonderful Romanesque style stained glass panels.





Wonderland and the thrill of Bangkok

6 01 2011

I guess the school of thrills for me was the roller coaster of the wonderful Wonderland Amusement Park in Singapore, back in my wonderful childhood in the Singapore of the 1970s. Then, Wonderland was the world to me and the roller coaster was where I spent most of my time at whenever I succeeded in pestering my mother to take me there. Wonderland offered no end of fun, and besides the roller coaster, I could also remember the kiddie train that went round a track and the Ovaltine cups that span around – ones which could be made to spin faster by turning a wheel in the centre of the cup (which I did very often, much to my younger sister’s discomfort).

A photo in the National Archives collection of Wonderland under construction in 1969 (source: National Archives of Singapore's online catalogue).

A view of Wonderland in 1970 with the tracks of my favourite roller coaster (source: National Archives of Singapore's online catalogue).

The park had opened in 1969, just in time for me to have the many thrills and spills as I sought as a primary school boy. It was a time when interest in the “Worlds” of Singapore was waning and Singapore needed a new amusement park to bring fun to its children. The park, built on reclaimed land that had once been part of the old Kallang Airport, in its time hosted many corporate events as well, probably being one of the first places which saw family days being held in Singapore. It was a place that I enjoyed until I guess I outgrew the rides as I entered secondary school in the early 1980s and it was after this, in 1984, that an accident occurred in which planes fell off a merry-go-round injuring 16 people – the first accident in my memory what had been 15 years of accident free operation up to that point in time. I can’t quite remember when and what had shut the park, but based on newspaper archives, the park closed in 1988 to make way for the large open air carpark meant to serve the Kallang Indoor Stadium, a car park which is still with us today, bearing nothing to remind us of the good old amusement park.

The merry-go-round of planes which also a favourite. An accident in 1984 in which planes fell off resulted in 16 injuries (source: National Archives of Singapore's online catalogue).

The Ovaltine cups were evil!

News on the Indoor Stadium's opening in 1989.

By that time, my idea of thrills had evolved and looking for something more than what Wonderland offered, I was soon to find that in Bangkok. It was in the year of the accident (and around the time of it) that while in the Thai capital, I came to hear of a water themed amusement park (possibly the first water themed park in South-East Asia and one that featured a wave pool), some 20 kilometres outside of Bangkok, Siam Park. The park, which had opened some 4 years before, featured a looping roller-coaster, the Loop-the-Loop, something that had been unheard of in this part of the world. Without knowing a word of Thai, I bravely set out on the public transport system (being on a shoestring) that carried me over the dusty streets out of Bangkok, and there I soon was, staring in awe at what was in fact South-East Asia’s very first looping roller coaster.

South-East Asia's first looping roller coaster at Siam Park, outside Bangkok, in 1984.

My first ride wasn’t actually the best of experiences. Getting into the prime front row seat, I was soon locked in by the safety bar and looking forward to what was surely going to be the ride of my life. In all the excitement, I had somehow forgotten (as well as not being reminded by the staff on hand) to remove my glasses and was soon caught up in the anticipation of the ride as the roller coaster rode up on end of the rail and prepared for its descent. Down it quickly went amidst a chorus of screams, up the loop, as I braced myself for what would be my first heads-down roller coaster experience. That feeling that came with the moment the world turned upside down I still remember very well, with my heart feeling as if it had fallen out of my chest. The moment that happened, I felt my glasses falling as well, and that being something that I would have been at a lost without (being shortsighted and not having a spare pair on me), I shot my arms out, managing to somehow grab my glasses out of the air, relying perhaps on the reflexes that my early days playing football as a goalkeeper had developed in me. I had several more rides on the roller coaster, taking a break from it only to have the occasional dip in the wave pool, during which I made it a point to remove my glasses, and it was only at closing time that I made my way back into Bangkok, tired from the thrills and glad to have survived my first ever looping experience.





The death of an icon in the City of Angels

17 11 2010

One of the sad things about the violent Red Shirt protests that occurred in May of this year, is the destruction of what had been an cinematic icon in Bangkok, the Siam Theatre. One of the few remaining single seat cinemas left in Bangkok, the Siam Theatre has stood in the Siam Square area since 1967 and has thus far, withstood the dramatic changes that the area has undergone in the four decades since. One of the more dramatic changes to area, the Skytrain (BTS) line and station which leaves much of the very busy Rama I Road in its shadow, in fact, provided a vantage point from which I was able, on a recent visit to Bangkok, to see the demolition of the burnt out shell of the former Siam Theatre and some of the surrounding shops for myself.

The view of the demolition of the buildings damaged during Red Shirt protests in May that included the iconic Siam Theatre.

I had first been acquainted with the area at the back end of 1984, during a stay that coincided with the release of Murray Head’s hit “One Night in Bangkok”. That stay, during which I spent not just a night, but some five and a half weeks in the City of Angels, gave me an opportunity to explore a city that I had only once before visited as a teenager in which I was not just to become acquainted with much of Central Bangkok, but with parts of Sukhumvit Road and the Klong Toei area.

How the area around Rama I Road and the former Siam Theatre had looked in 1992 before the BTS was built (source: http://www.2bangkok.com).

Siam Square had somehow seemed to be a centre of focus somehow, with me frequenting the shops and food stalls in the area on many occasions, once even being brave enough to catch a movie at Siam Theatre … one for which I would most remember for the audience scrambling to their feet at the image of the much revered King and Queen, as the National Anthem was played. On my more recent trips to the city, I have often visited the area – not recognising much of it as a result of the changes that have taken place, as well as for the Skytrain line which now dominates part of the area. What I was able to identify immediately on my previous visits was always the old Siam Theatre, which sadly is now only a memory.

A lady contemplates the changes taking place around Siam Square.

More of the demolition work in the area.