The first time I saw Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport was in April 2009– a bird’s-eye view from the multi-layered-glass window of an airborne Boeing 777-200 of Singapore Airlines.
Having taken off from Singapore’s Changi Airport for a journey covering 878 miles (1413 kms), we had cruised over the Gulf of Thailand and once above Bang Phli district of Samut Prakan province in mainland Thailand, we flew past the new Bangkok airport before the airplane took a circle for the final approach for touchdown. Until the night of 27-28 September 2006, Don Muang Airport was the primary port of entry to Bangkok by air, a responsibility the new “airport of smiles” took over when Suvarnabhumi was officially opened on September 28.
Now back here once again in early January 2013 to catch our outbound flight to Singapore, the place was milling with people returning home after the New Year holidays.
Although the exterior architecture of Suvarnabhumi airport looked modern and high-tech, I could see that the starkness of the concrete, light-weight steel and clear and e-coated glass of the interior is rightfully neutralised by an indelible stamp of “Thainess”.
Constructed in accordance with the design of Nuremberg (Germany) born architect Helmut Jahn of Chicago based Murphy/Jahn Architects who won the design competition held by the Thai Government in 1994, the airport is truly a combination of transportation centre and shopping mall.
In order to create a building that required low energy but benefited from cutting edge state-of-the-art technology, the architects collaborated with two Stuttgart engineering firms, Werner Sobek Ingenieure (for structural issues) and Transsolar Energietechnik (for climate control). The result was a huge complex of functionally separate buildings, unified under a large roof trellis on steel support structures with exposed precast concrete elements.
Built as per innovative designs with new materials and systems of advanced technology, the airport has ample provision for future growth. The structures are protected from direct tropical sunlight while the interior climate is controlled with minimal air-changes.
Designated high traffic areas of the floor are provided with highly wear resistant finishes. In spite all this, the airport attracted the grievance of culture-conscious citizens who found the design devoid of the values and aesthetics that supports the Thai tradition and culture.
The Thai government, always engaged in shaping and promoting traditional art and “Thai culture”, soon swung into action.
The result was the formation of an expert committee drawn from the best of competent specialists in Thailand.
Aware that the salient features of traditional Thai architecture like sloping multi-tiered roofs, soaring towers and pointed spires, and so forth, is not suitable for large scale project like an airport terminal, the cultural leadership decided to create a symbiosis of Thai traditional flair and modernity by embellishing the interior of the structure.
A series of art representing the various aspects of Thai culture, history and landscapes, etc were set up inside the airport which was adeptly designed to let in lot of controlled daylight.
Huge statues of mythical figures and masked dance drama from Ramakien to mural works to classical oil paintings to Thai pavilions representing different styles of traditional houses, formed a pattern of cultural fabric that spread inside the airport.
(After the destruction of Ayutthaya (see picture above) by the Burmese in 1767, the Indian epic Ramayana was rewritten (not translated) in Thai format by Phraphutthayotfa Chulalok, King Rama I (1737-1809) calling it the Ramakien which unmistakably reflects local values.)
While the airport and those who pass through it are favoured to be under the protection of these mythical figures, these representations offer a last-minute aide-memoire of Thainess for the departing foreigner – whereas to the returning Thais, it is a welcoming reminder of their unique and engaging culture.
According to recent media reports, the airport is geared for its second-phase (which includes a new terminal and third runway) and also possibly a third-phase infrastructure development projects to boost its capacity.
Although some dark clouds are visible against these projects due to complaints from residents of the area not in favour of noise and pollution, this would hopefully be surmounted to the satisfaction of all concerned by the generally genial Thais who are renowned for their knowledge and practice of diplomacy.
Beyond the Immigration Control on the second floor in Terminal 2, at the bottom of the gently sloping white-tiled concourse area, we will finda huge centrepiece of art. Called “Churning of the Milk Ocean” (aka: Samudra Manthan) and designed by an artisan of Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts, it measures 21 metres long, 3 metres wide and 5.5 metres high.
It was reportedly funded by the Chairman of King Power, reputed to be the World’s Top Ten Travel Retailers, whose Duty Free outlets occupy an extensive area of retail space in this airport.
I was photographing this centrepiece and making notes from the official placard placed in front of it when a feminine voice suddenly greeted me.
A brunette in her late thirties, she was taller than I am, more broadly built. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, (Well, it is too hot outside to wear it down) and I could smell that special something which Coco Chanel once phrased “that unseen but unforgettable fashion accessory” – the perfume.
Few moments ago, I had seen her reading that placard. She greeted me politely with a wai, her head slightly bowed. I always liked a Wai – the gesture of respect performed with folded palms before the chest which has its origins in India.
Leaving my camera dangling on its sling, I smiled and returned her wai which she had performed with immaculate accuracy.
“Is this important?” Her smile flashed, beckoning at the centrepiece. No shilly-shallying – simple and straightforward.
To me, this sculptor is every bit as fascinating as the Tower of Gustave Eiffel or Dome of Filippo Brunelleschi.
I soon learned that it was my acute concentration and also as her knowledge about the sculpture’s association with my country which made Khun Mirella (name changed for reasons of privacy), a native of Barcelona, unable to resist the question.
I must admit, I was as curious as Mirella when I first saw this. There is something about it that draws the eye. I had pointedly checked on the story depicted in this decorative art inspired by religious devotion. With my Nikon in hand and some free time to spare, I wouldn’t have found a better chance to devout my attention to it though by this time of the day, the sunlight was a bit off to the back, obscuring the frontal features.
The tableau depicted an episode from the “Hindu Puranas” (Hindu literature). This legend takes many versions in different adaptations including a bass-relief at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The tableau showed a three-headed snake (Vasuki, aka Naga) coiled around a mountain (Mount Mandara) on which stood Lord Vishnu (Phra Narai/Witsanu in Thai) incarnated as a huge turtle (Kurma Avatar). The tail-end of the snake was held by a group of Devas (demigods depicted in human form) while the Asuras (Daityas, demons with demonic faces and coloured bodies) held Vasuki by the hood.
By pulling the serpent to both ends in a tug of war, the Devas and Asuras were churning the Ocean of Milk to extract the nectar of immortality (Amrita) sought by the two groups. This information is readily available on the placard.
For a detailed version, the scene depicting “the Vishnu Kurmavatara and the Churning of the Milk Ocean” saga is set in a time too long ago. While passing through Lord Indra’s kingdom, Sage Durvasa Muni chanced upon Indra, the king of Devas, who was travelling on the back of his white elephant Airavata and present Indra with a garland. Indra placed the garland on the trunk of his elephant which the animal simply threw away to the ground.
Having considered this a great disrespect to him, the Muni, supposed to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva and known for his short temper, cursed Indra, casting him down from dominion over the three worlds (Trailokya). Consequently, Indra and the Devas were bereft of all strength and fortune. Taking advantage of this weakness, the Asuras, with the help of Bali, gained control of the universe, defeating the weak Devas.
Accepting the advice of Lord Vishnu, the Devas formed an alliance with Asuras to jointly churn the Ocean of Milk and share between them the nectar (amrita) of immortality derived from the process. But Lord Vishnu had promised the Devas that he would ensure that only they would drink the amrita and obtain immortality to defeat the Asuras.
Using Mount Mandara as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the snake as the churning rope, the Asuras opted for the head-end of the snake while, once again according to Lord Vishnu’s advice, the Devas took hold of the tail-end since those at the hood are destined to be fumed by the poison emitted by Vasuki, the Emperor of Nagas.
During the process of the churning of the cosmic ocean for thousands of years, the Devas and Asuras pulled the snake’s body back and forth rotating the mountain.
At one stage, when the mountain began to sink, Lord Vishnu took his second incarnation in the form of a turtle to support the mountain on his back.
In addition to the deadly poison Halahal which Lord Shiva drank but was timely stopped from swallowing by Goddess Parvati; numerous opulent things were also produced by the churning, one of which was Dhanvantari (Heavenly Physician) carrying the pot of the nectar of immortality, Amrita.
After a bit of intrigue, Lord Vishnu, having taken the form of the beautiful femme fatale Mohini (the only female avatar of Lord Vishnu), helped Devas to acquire the Amrita and the Asuras are banished into the underworld.
Fast forward to my present location at Suvarnabhumi airport, Mirella had introduced herself as one of those rare and inevitable people, who can design their own clothes, use an electric drill and paint.
In 2008 when economic crisis hit Spain, her business had taken the slump. However, she had used considerable expertise and a modest budget to transform her daunting ladies-wear business into a thriving shop selling Chinese goods at reduced prices that was appealing to the cost-conscious Spanish customers. These inexpensive goods where imported from suppliers in China who were drawn to her to avail the low-cost gateway for their products to the European Union. As part of her annual “quick discussion” visits to China since 2009, it is her custom to take ten days break in Thailand on her return journey home.
While we were talking, I had noticed that apart from few tattoos of Chinese dragons, she had tiny diamonds on posts impaled through piercings in the crease of her left nose and under the lower lip. But it was her split tongue that held my attention.
Much later I couldn’t help thinking about the object behind this “signature make-up” she has created on her to “make my own imprint on life – my own inimitable style” It’s not that she would go to any length to be in fashion – it’s the quest for individuality! I am glad that she was receptive to my suggestion to mention about our encounter in one of my future posts.Thank you.
Mirella had done the tongue bifurcation (forking/splitting) during last year in England though she got the idea from a Dutchman she had met at the Chatuchak Weekend Market (aka. Jatujuk or J.J) of Bangkok. That was in 2009.
She had stayed at a hotel in Sukhumvit Soi 11, Bangkok’s expat hub for clubbing and dining. It was her first visit to Bangkok and she had hit the city hard and had lot of fun – a typical tourist experience.
Sukhumvit Soi and Chatuchak Market are not unfamiliar to us. Chatuchak Market is fun – a mammoth market covering an area of about 35 acres containing more than 15,000 shops and stalls.
It generates nearly 175,000 visitors on a market day, and an estimated 30 to 32 million Bhat per day.
A place where professional and amateur art-lovers and artists meet, the items on display consists of a vast array of art objects and antiques such as Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese porcelains; Khmer bronze and pottery; accessories; household items; cloths; leather goods; potted plants; pets such as dogs, cats, birds, aquarium fishes; native food, amongst other bric-a-brac.
Though the prices are marked in most cases, you are free to ask for a proper discount since the market follows the art of bargaining long practised in Asian countries including Thailand.
We had come across stalls in this market for tattoos where you will be fascinated by the various traditional and mythical designs available for decorating the body.
Once I had found a stall run by a team of Indian Mehndi artists offering traditional, modern, contemporary and retro Mehndi styles. But I don’t think such body modification as tongue-splitting is available there though at Chatuchak Market you could find practically anything.
Having had another closer look at the sculpture, Mirella had bid farewell and left for her boarding gate. Looking past the aircrafts parked on the tarmac of the parking bay, I could see that the sky was clear and cloudless – something I preferred when I fly.
As I sat in the air-conditioned commons sipping my iced drink, I saw Carina beckoning at me to join her at the Blue Elephant Duty Free.
The couple of bags in her hand were clear indication that she had found the special curry pastes and seasoning sauces we couldn’t find at the MBK (Maboonkrong) Shopping Mall yesterday.
That is the one good thing about Bangkok. Being a national treasure house and Thailand’s spiritual, cultural, political, commercial, educational centre where the “threads” to the past have not been cut, it is common knowledge that in Bangkok you are bound to come across that special something you have been looking for.
Amongst the Asian countries, Thailand has a long history of being the most “foreign friendly” country and had profited from this. So tall, so modern, so crowded, Bangkok is not an ancient city.
Krung Thep (City of Angels) was founded in 1782 in succession to the older city Ayutthaya by King Rama I, the first monarch of the present Chakri dynasty, and offers a multitude of something for everybody.
Be it glittering ancient-looking Buddhist temples, historic monuments, canal and river scenes, quaint charm of older districts, classical dance, Muay Thai (Thai boxing), vibrant nightlife, big shopping malls, street markets, the three wheeled open air TukTuk (Sam Lors), win motersai (motorcycle boys with numbered jackets), Thai massage, culinary delights – they are all there – just waiting around the corner. And all this being a bit “easy on the pocket” can be an appealing factor to foreigners.
But the most alluring of all this is the energy of Thai people, their sense of optimism, their penchant for feasting guests and their respect for friendships – clockwork of elements that will seize your admiration and hold onto you long after you have boarded your aircraft.
As I bid goodbye for now, I know I will also miss their instincts of politeness, introduced from early childhood – an integral aspect which had fascinated me and prompted me to visit this beautiful country year after year – quite happily. Until next time, Ciao, Jo
1.. Many thanks to the Director and staff of the International Public Relations Division, Tourism Authority of Thailand, New Phetchaburi Road, Bangkok for their kind and valuable assistance and photographs (two of which regarding “Ayutthaya” and “Traditional Thai Massage” are incorporated in this article) to support my posts about Thailand.
2.. Paintings of Sage Durvasa Muni, Lord Indra, Lord Vishnu are from Wikipedia: Public domain
Thai Phuang malai (Jasmine) Garlands: Symbol of respect and good luck
(All other photographs © JS-CS-Bianca Celine Diane-Andrea Lalis Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)