There is one song that seems to always pop into my head whenever I think of Bangkok:
Well, when I finally arrived, and took a photo of the Robot Building, a friend also pointed out The Hangover (Part II), which, like Bangkok, at first I really didn’t like. Mind you, when I first watched The Hangover Part II I had never been to Bangkok and only knew about it from the song, and it was only after watching it a second time, after my first visit to the city, that a lot of the film suddenly started to make sense. Mind you, as I mentioned, like the film, the first time I visited Bangkok I hated it – it was dirty, smelly, with power cords going everywhere, chaotic streets, forever covered in smog, and people forever trying to rip you off. Furthermore my travel agent booked me at a hotel right in the middle of Nana Plaza, which is an infamous red light district, meaning that I couldn’t walk into a bar without a flock of girls crowding around me asking me to buy them a drink. Mind you, a friend did point out that if this was happening to me then I must be in hell.
Well, Bangkok is one of those cities that happens to grow on you. Ever since I left that first time on a plane back to Hong Kong a part of me wanted to return. The other thing was that when I was there I lost a copy of A Farewell to Arms (by Ernest Hemingway) and when I finally bought another copy I decided that I wasn’t going to read it again until I returned. Well, I did, and I have (and you can read my thoughts on the book on Goodreads). Oh, and that second time I decided that I wouldn’t leave it up to the travel agent to pick a hotel and I would pick the hotel myself, which I did. It ended up being a Holiday Inn, which was much more of a luxury hotel (though with the name ‘Holiday Inn’, the term luxury really doesn’t feel appropriate, but that was the case with this hotel). However, despite the politeness of the staff, it was an incredibly busy hotel, and check-in and check-out was an absolute pain in the neck considering that there were only two people at the counter.
The thing with Bangkok is that the city is alive – alive in a way that many of the Western Cities aren’t. Walk down any street and the sidewalk will be crammed full of stalls with people selling everything from lego to t-shirts, to dodgy electronic equipment, to certain types of toys which I’m sure you can work out what I am talking about. Not only that but you are forever being asked by one group of people if you want a taxi, massage, or whether they can accompany you (well, okay, that only occurs around Nana Plaza, but it is rather amusing when you are forever being propositioned by women).
Well, this brings me to one of the more famous markets in Bangkok, and that is Patpong Market. Basically it is a night market, but in a way it is much more than that. The street itself is rather narrow and despite that, in true Bangkok style, they manage to squeeze two rows of stalls into it. However, wander down either side and you will be approached multiple times by people asking you if you are interested in ping pong. I’m not really a sporting person, but when it comes it ping pong I am absolutely hopeless, so I politely declined. Anyway, friends have told me that it is probably not a good idea to go upstairs anyway. Mind you, there are plenty of bars downstairs, but they aren’t the type of bars that you normally go to for a drink, since they tend to have ladies swaying on a stage. There are more bars one street over, but the ladies, well, I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.
So, what is the best way to get around Bangkok? Honestly, a scooter, since you simply weave in and out of the traffic. Mind you, from what one taxi driver told me in Phuket, every day he sees a scooter accident, and every day, not surprisingly, it happens to be a tourist. The thing with Bangkok is that while there are traffic laws, you can get away with a lot more there than you do here in Australia. The rule of the road is that you are allowed to push and shove, and weave through the stationary cars to get as close to the front as possible, just don’t hit anybody while you are doing so. Needless to say traffic in Bangkok is absolutely horrendous, which is why I only ever catch a cab when I am going to and from the airport.
Anyway, here is a video of took at one of the intersections.
They do have public transport, but their buses, well, they don’t look all that comfortable. There is also the sky train and the MRT, but while they are cheap, they tend to be slow, crowded, and don’t really go all that far. The ticketing can be rather confusing as well, especially if you are unsure of which station to get off at. However, since our hotel was near one of the stations, we were able to get to some places, but not all. So, if you are game, the best way to get around town is by Tuk-Tuk. They are small, maneuverable, the drivers pretty much know the streets (which is surprising considering the chaotic mess that it seems to be), but they are also prone to over charge western tourists. However, I also suspect that the law of supply and demand works as well – no, not quite, more likely the law of ‘if you don’t want to pay my outrageous price, then you can walk’. However, what I will point out is that you can negotiate the price (which you can’t do in Phuket – such is the taxi-mafia), and you really shouldn’t be paying any more than B200 for a ride anyway.
Then there is the street food. You don’t have to go far to find a stall selling something or other by the side of the road. It is funny because there is an idea of street food in Australia as exemplified by the Mr Burger vans that appear around the place, however such is Australia that you will only find such stalls at specially dedicated markets or at certain festivals – you won’t find them randomly scattered about the inner city, as is the case with Bangkok – and they are literally everywhere, and once again they pretty much sell anything – including a decent meal.
This now brings me to Khao San road, a place that I had never heard of until I arrived in Thailand for the third time. Basically Khao San road is what they will call backpacker central, and it certainly shows it. At night the place becomes packed with tourists (and backpackers) and stalls line the sides of the street and there are a multitude of bars, and restaurants, to choose from. However, there is a slight difference, as I discovered in places like Phuket – the restaurants aren’t strictly Thai restaurants since part of the menu contains foods that are more European in style. In a way I probably wouldn’t call them authentic since the Thai dishes are those that are more palpable to European tastes. If you want real Thai food, duck down the allies, or look for places where the locals frequent. Mind you, I did buy some fries from a street stall and, well, they really weren’t all that good.
Bangkok has a river, and a pretty wide one at that – then again a lot of cities have rivers running through them, since rivers tend to make really good sights for setting up a city. Like many rivers, they have ferries, and of course the Bangkok ferries look like what you would expect a lot of ferries to look like. There are also a multitude of barges heading both up and down the river, and you can also grab a boat tour, which is what we did. Apparently Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East, though I wouldn’t go as far as agreeing with that statement. Sure, there are lots of channels cris crossing the cities, but not to the extent that Venice has. Also, these channels are actually more like open sewers, so you really don’t want to take people along them. However, one cool thing about the channel cruise was that you got to feed the fish, see a floating ‘market’ (which was an old lady in a boat selling souvenirs), and also some lizards basking in the sun, and then jumping into the river (our guide told us that they were crocodiles, but they looked more like monitor lizards – needless to say, swimming in the canals is probably not the wisest of things to do).
We also went to see the Grand Palace, which in a way is a little like Buckingham Palace, and a bit like the Forbidden city. We don’t actually get to go inside the palace, namely because firstly it is only for special state occasions, and nobody actually lives there. However you do get to see the temple, well sort of because not all of the places are open to the public. In fact the temple library is only opened once a year. However, you can go and have a look at the Emerald Buddha (which is actually made of Jade), and his clothes will change depending on the season. You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the temple, and the crowds are tremendous, though strangely 90% of them are Chinese. Not many Europeans visit the place, though our guide pointed out that it has something to do with a movie that was released in China about it.
One thing I should point out is how polite the Thai people can be, especially some of the security guards – seriously us Westerners could learn an awful lot from them. For instance, every train station and major shopping centre has a metal detector, and a security guard, at the entrance (probably something to do with the bombing at the Euwer shrine, which is in the heart of Bangkok’s shopping district), yet they are incredibly friendly and charming. For some reason, security guards in the Western world seem to have this idea that they need to look tough, and mean. Well, I’m not entirely sure about that – throwing one’s weight around doesn’t really win you all that many friends, and ends up making people resent you all that much more. While the police tend not to be as bad, I can somewhat understand why people look at security guards and, with a sneer, refer to them as ‘rent-a-cops’ or ‘police academy drop outs’.
Once again there is a lot more to write about Bangkok, though I noticed that a lot of the interesting things are outside the city. It does have its fair share of museums though, and some of the systems are incredibly old school. For instance on the State Railway trains the inspectors still clip the tickets, and announces the stations, and you have station masters who will ring the bell when people can cross. You do need to be careful though because those trains do come into the station awfully fast. Then again this is also a city that has a freeway exit that spills cars onto a level crossing. Also, the trains aren’t the most comfortable ones, particularly since airconditioning consists of fans in the ceiling.
So, would I go back – probably, particularly since I discovered that there are some awesome bars tucked away in the back streets. Move away from the lights and glamour that is Nana Plaza and Soi cowboy and you suddenly discover the hidden side of Bangkok, though having some attractive lady come up to you and start chatting to you (as long as you buy them a lady drink, though they probably want a little more than that). However, compared to some other places that I have visited, they are quite a lot less aggressive, and can be quite fun to talk to.