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The Other Bangkok

Denise Mattia is a New York based freelance writer, photographer, and the American Correspondent to Scuba World Magazine in the United Kingdom. While she prefers the quest for marine denizens of any size and temperament, her curiosity is sometimes rewarded with great material on land as well. Denise recently visited Bangkok and found an intriguing part of the city she thinks might interest other JourneyWomen. She writes...

It would be worth going to Bangkok just to see its cloisters; then there are museums, galleries, theatres, restaurants and street pageants. Apart from the array of sights and activities the energetic metropolis presents, there's a Bangkok few visitors experience. But chance had an appointment with me the morning I took a private tour to one of its busiest districts, where an unprepossessing building and a few pieces of bread held the key to this undisclosed city.

Bangkok's market area...

Single file is the only way to navigate the tightly clustered troks (streets) of Bangkok's market sector. Sidewalks are showcases for produce, dry goods, fish, meat and clothing that are sold from narrow shops, and the endless parade of pedestrians competes for space with pushcarts, bicycles, motorcycles, and three-wheeled motorized tuc-tucs.

I walked behind my guide, Seree, as we crossed Thanon (avenue) Chakraphet, to the Indian neighborhood, where I momentarily slipped away from him, turned a corner and stopped in front of a building. A group of men standing on a porch at the entrance noticed me, smiled and indicated I should go in. Seree caught up and we entered.

Women in silk saris...

Inside the wide corridor, an enthusiastic group of women in elegant silk saris distributed platters of steaming vegetables and unleavened roti to the congregation of similarly attired women, and to men wearing turbans and long white shirts over white pantaloons. The servers dispatched their trays, gathered empties, and disappeared behind a door which, when opened, released a homey fragrance of onion and cilantro. I imagined a kitchen somewhere beyond.

We were led to an elevator...

No one paid us the slightest attention when we followed the diners into a great hall, where my attention was drawn to the large cloth covering a marble floor. Here, surrounded by woven baskets, women sat on the tarpaulin or on chairs, casually peeling and chopping green onions, string beans and cauliflower. I approached and made hand signs for permission to take photographs. Nodding in agreement, a few women posed, while others continued their tasks. When a man hurried toward us, I expected to be ushered out for intruding. Instead, he led us to an elevator at the rear of the hall, wrapped our heads in bandanas, signaled for us to remove our shoes and, indicating four, pointed to an elevator.

Oriental carpets, crystal chandaliers...

Crystal chandeliers augmented the natural light filtering in from thick, arched windows along the sides of the main gallery on the fourth floor. Oriental carpets flanked a gleaming center aisle of inlaid marble; a crowned sanctum and a shrine lay beyond. Within the rectangular cupola, defined only by brass stanchions topped by a suspended umbrella, kneeling men and women took turns reading aloud from tomes. Again, no one challenged our presence, even when I photographed the scene. I rejoined Seree near the elevator, but noticed the wide spiraling marble staircase and suggested we walk down.

Men rushed towards us...

We bypassed an open, unlit room off the landing on the third floor, descended to the second, and caught a glimpse of men lounging on pillows in the chamber there. They caught me peeking in, and suddenly rushed toward us, shouting and waving their arms. I ducked behind Seree. In some countries, women do not invade a man's private domain; I assumed this was the case and I had committed a major faux pas. After much conversation, Seree translated. They belonged to the Sikh sect and wanted me to take their picture. I'd misinterpreted their zeal for anger. Happy to oblige, I shot several frames, wishing I could have captured the ebullience of six robust men galloping toward me in the quiet stone stairwell.

Back at the first floor, an English-speaking member told us that this building was Sri Gurusingh Sabha, the second largest Sikh temple in the world (India boasts the largest), and that we had come during the celebration of the recitation of the Holy Scriptures.

Women worked their culinary magic...

In the simple, white-tiled communal kitchen, located below the great hall, I watched as women performed their routine, in anticipation of serving langar (meals) throughout the night. Some kneaded dough made of flour, water and finely chopped green herbs, or rolled dollops of the mixture into flat disks. A dozen more women circled two barrel-shaped open stoves and grilled the aromatic roti to a light golden brown. At the far side of the room, a giant wok of spiced ghee boiled on a burner. A plume of perfumed steam rose in the air when the creamy liquid was drizzled on the grills. It was easy to work up an appetite here, and difficult to conceal my curiosity about the roti's taste. I could have asked, but didn't need to. It's customary for Sikhs to share food, and we were each given a generous portion wrapped in napkins.

We left Sri Gurusingh Sabha and crossed Chakraphet. Suddenly Bangkok was more than an exotic Southeast Asian showplace; it was a city with a soul. Forever engraved in my mind were people of many origins and backgrounds living, working and making strangers feel at home in this big international neighborhood that's Bangkok. On the way to our next stop, I savored the delicious roti to the last morsel appreciating the bread and the city for its wonderful, diverse flavor.

More about Seiks in Thailand, great guides & culturally correct clothing...





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