But the world’s not my oyster.
Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with this post because I don’t know how to summarize Bangkok. Not that I’m even remotely qualified to give an opinion about such a sprawling, chaotic city after only spending 3 days there, but that hasn’t stopped me before so why should it now?
Love and Hate
Because of its extremes, Bangkok seems designed to be loved or hated, yet I’m not sure which side to come out on. In Bangkok’s favor: incredible street food on almost every corner; an immaculate and useful public transportation system; and beautiful temples stashed throughout the city. To Bangkok’s detriment: stifling heat; dirt and trash everywhere; slums backing into luxury condos; and intense overcrowding. It’s not like there is a way to compare these one-to-one and even if you could it probably wouldn’t get you anywhere. The image we picked to accompany this post somewhat captures Bangkok’s contradictions, with the sprawling traffic, helter skelter power/phone lines, and beautiful temple in the background. Bangkok contains all of these positives and negatives – along with many that I’m sure we missed – and that made for a fascinating stay. But I’d still like to talk about a few of them a bit more.
Sitting on a Sidewalk, Eating Like a King
We were expecting cheap and delicious food in Thailand but the food we have had so far has just blown us away. The highlight has been the dinners we have had at the outdoor night markets. Street cart vendors congregate in alleys, near train stops, near malls, and generally near anywhere there are a ton of people who might be hungry (given Bangkok’s claustrophobic overcrowding, that would be nearly everywhere). On the recommendations of other travelers we visited one night market (Sukhumvit Soi 38) that was described as “an introduction to Thai street food” and liked it so much that we came back for seconds (well, it was convenient, too).
All four of the dishes we tried were excellent, with the best two being a duck soup recommended to us by a transplanted Chicagoan who recognized my Blackhawks hat and a crispy pork with noodles that we found on our own.
The food was great, but the best part may have been the desserts which were iced blended fruit drinks made using just ice, water, and fruit (some combination of kiwi, mango, and banana). Stands offering these drinks are everywhere, which is perfect because these drinks are a perfect way to cool down after sweating all day. I can already see how people could get used to having this kind of food available all the time.
A Polluted, Clothed Sauna
Sweet merciful crap is Bangkok hot. At night it’s a somewhat tolerable 85 with at least 80% humidity, but during the day…it’s much hotter. During our two full days in Bangkok we took the train from our neighborhood somewhat removed from Bangkok’s city center(s) and then walked around for about 7 hours. The positive about the constant heat is that nobody seems to mind if you’re a sweaty mess, which I certainly was. I felt like Mathew McConaughey in A Time to Kill looked, although unfortunately I didn’t look all that much like him.
Add to the heat a crush of people everywhere and trash virtually everywhere and you get some pretty foul smells. A frequent complaint we read about Bangkok is that it smells. Consider this complaint seconded.
Bangkok City Trains: Clean, Efficient, and Air-Conditioned
I can’t think of a transit system I’ve been more impressed by (D.C., New York, London, and Paris are its competitors). The trains are basically the opposite of the rest of Bangkok. You could practically eat off the floors of the cars and the stations, the system for buying tickets or tokens and determining which train to board couldn’t be more self-explanatory, and the cars are gloriously air conditioned. They’re still overcrowded so I guess it isn’t the exact opposite of Bangkok, but you get the idea.
Don’t Worry about that Slum Next Door, We Have Security
To some extent having very poor areas adjacent to very rich areas is a condition of all cities, but the contrast in Bangkok was particularly jarring. In one block you could have a shiny new luxury condo building fenced off from an alley/slum which led directly to a beautiful temple. Seeing this throughout the city was a constantly humbling and healthy reminder that amid Bangkok’s apparent wealth there were millions of people struggling to survive.
Versailles, Eat Your Heart Out
We took two tours while we were in Bangkok: one of the Grand Palace and one of Wat Pho (“wat” means temple). Both were beautiful, gaudy, interesting, colorful, and unlike anything either of us had seen before.
Wat Pho is the largest temple in Bangkok and contains a number of beautiful pagodas, hundreds of Buddha statues, and the spectacular Reclining Buddha.
It seemed like each inch of the temple grounds was designed to be more beautiful than the previous one, and while our photos were good they don’t do this temple justice. We also got the added treat of visiting the temple while a monk was leading a prayer, which made our visit more authentic and memorable.
Not to be outdone, the Grand Palace was probably even more spectacular if for no other reason than there was more of it.
While we wandered the grounds slack-jawed we searched our memories for other places we visited that approached the grandeur and over-the-top glamour of the Grand Palace and could only come up with the palace at Versailles. I hope these photos convey even some of this Palace that so impressed us.
Now, about that Large Elephant in the Corner
A few weeks ago there was a coup in Thailand and the military seized control of the government. I’m not going to write about it because hundreds of journalists beat me to it and have written more informed pieces than I could. I’m also not going to offer any opinions about it because criticizing the military regime is illegal in Thailand, even for foreigners.
We considered canceling the Thailand portion of the end of our adventure and reorganizing around other countries but ultimately decided to visit anyway after extensively researching the topic and getting advice from people who were on the ground or who had friends/relatives here. We have now been in Thailand for a week and unless you knew there was a coup you wouldn’t really notice anything different. It has been a complete non-factor for us and at no time have we felt uncomfortable or doubted our safety. Even the now-abbreviated curfew still in effect in Bangkok and Chiang Mai (the two cities we have visited so far) doesn’t impact us as midnight-4 a.m. isn’t exactly our peak time.
Short story long, it hasn’t been an issue for us and we don’t expect it to be one when we come back for the last week in July (and our last week of our adventure) in southern Thailand.