The early morning light catches the glass front of the Dusit Thani Hotel, reflecting the images of other tall building around it. A luxury hotel that has been around for many years, this hotel is close to the financial district in Bangkok and a popular place for tourists and business people to stay. From this angle, it could be any hotel in any large city, but there is something that will let you know that we are in Asia and, in particular, in Thailand. On one corner of the property – and, in this case, right by the entrance of the hotel property – is an ornate and lavish Spirit House. That Spirit House, built by the owner of the hotel to keep the spirits happy (and away from the hotel itself), is probably photographed more often than the hotel itself. Inside the Spirit House is a small image of a standing Buddha.
Gifts to the spirits are left at the Spirit House. They come in many different forms. Flowers and incense are the most common gifts. Spirit Houses can be found – in some form – on almost every commercial property in Thailand. They are part of the culture and tradition, deeply rooted in the beliefs of the society. The other major aspect of Thai life is Theravada Buddhism, which has been a major part of this culture for hundreds of years. The intermingling of the two belief systems often results in an image of Buddha appearing inside a Spirit House, even though Buddha himself never wished to be worshiped by his followers.
Looking at this tranquil scene in the early light of morning, it is difficult to believe that one of the busiest intersections in town lies in front of the hotel. However, as I climbed the steps to the Skytrain platform above, I found the perfect place to look down at the early morning traffic. (Yes, they drive on the left side of the road here.) In this photo, you can see the row of motorcycles that always seems to magically appear at the front of the stopped traffic at any signal light. There is a pickup truck on the overpass over the intersection. At least, he won’t have to stop for the traffic light. On the far left, above the overpass, you can see the elevated rail for the Skytrain. I am told that it goes all the way to the airport now, so that busy professionals can take the train to catch their flights, bypassing all the traffic.
One change I have noticed in Bangkok is the significant reduction in air pollution and noise pollution. There are no black plumes of diesel fumes, and automobiles only use their horns when necessary and not to announce their path through the traffic, as in the past. Even the tuk-tuk engines are not as loud as they used to be. Traffic is still bad – even worse than I remember – but not as chaotic as it once was.
One thing that has not changed is the vendors who serve the early morning commuters. There are no vendors in the Skytrain stations, so the vendors are on the sidewalk below the station. As you can see, this woman had a strategic spot below the stairs and close to the public telephone booth. When I asked whether I could take a photo, she not only said yes, but posed for me as well. She is serving satay – meat marinated in a special sauce and roasted on sticks over hot coals. That’s an easy and tasty snack to grab and eat on the way to work. Other vendors (in thumbnails below) offered tiny, bite-sized pancakes, coffee and other beverages, fruit, or flowers (for the spirit houses, the boss, or the girlfriend). Yet, amazingly, the streets stay fairly clean and the vendors maintain space on the sidewalk for pedestrian traffic. If you head out early enough, you can see the garbage trucks picking up yesterday’s trash before the day begins. Even with all that cleanliness, I didn’t think my body was ready for street food yet, so I stopped in the TOPS grocery store at Central to get the pomelo (like a huge, juicy sweet grapefruit) that we had for breakfast. Bon appetit!