Bangkok is a sprawling, bustling, and cosmopolitan metropolis. The city known to locals as "Krung Thep" is essentially the capital of Southeast Asia, and anyone traveling in the region will likely pass through here at least once. Bangkok can be anything to anyone. So, inspired by this kaleidoscope of a city, here are some random thoughts on Bangkok, Thailand, and the region in general.
|If taking taxis in Bangkok, you will get used to this view!|
- A staggering amount of traffic plies Bangkok's congested roads. At any time of day, cars and buses will spend 90% of their time idling their engine, trapped in gridlock.
- Before the recent construction of expressways and an inner-city rail system, traffic was apparently much worse. Getting from one place to another took hours. I've heard residents tell nightmare stories that make your grandparents' fanciful "walking two miles in the snow, uphill both ways" seem painless in comparison!
- In addition to packed roadways, Bangkok is just plain packed with people. Everywhere you go you must navigate crowds. Hop on the skytrain, you are surrounded. Visit the market, and the masses are unrelenting. Browse the air-conditioned shopping mall, and dodge the other shoppers. Walk down the sidewalk, and slowly slip your way through hordes of pedestrians while watching out for hurried motorbike drivers crazily going off-road. Accomplishing anything in this city is an exhausting experience.
- As far as this self-righteous American is concerned, every nation faces an important decision. Either drive on the RIGHT side of the road, or on the WRONG (left) side. My dear Thai friends, your country made the wrong decision. Upon arriving in Thailand, I enacted my lazy old habit of looking to the left, confirming no oncoming traffic and then taking a step into the road. And time and again, my life flashed before my eyes as I'd narrowly miss getting run over by traffic coming from the other direction. Now I know the real reason children are taught to always look both ways before crossing the street! In case you go to England, Thailand, or anywhere else where people drive on the wrong side of the road!
- One thing that Thais definitely got right was the food. Back in the US, I enjoyed going out for a dish of delicious Pad Thai at least twice a month. Well in Thailand, Pad Thai is served at dusty street vendors for a little over a dollar, and tastes far better than the far more expensive offerings at restaurants back home. I can afford to eat this for every meal!
|Oh Pad Thai, how I love thee so...|
- But I didn't find all Thai food mouthwatering in a good way. The first and last time I tried randomly pointing at an attractive food dish on the street and ordering it, my eyes swelled up and I screamed for a glass of cold water. If you love spicy food, you'll be in heaven here. As for me, the first thing I learned to say in Thai was "Mai Pet!" (No Spicy!)
- Speaking of hot and spicy, the notoriously muggy weather in Bangkok is capable of making you forget that snow ever existed. When I visited in April, the hottest month of the year, I could not bear to step out of my air-conditioned room before 4pm. Even at that hour, I would be covered in sweat in less than a minute of walking outside. I'll take a cloudy, rainy day over those conditions in a heartbeat.
|It was over 90° and very humid when I took this picture|
- Even on the hottest days, I saw locals on the streets covered head to toe in clothing. At first, I was dumbfounded as to what I was seeing. But then I discovered that many Thais (as well as others in Southeast Asia) are obsessed with having as white of skin as possible. To be dark-skinned denotes lower status, signaling that one performs back-breaking, low-paying work in the fields under a blinding sun. So, an entire industry exists here for skin-whitening. If that's not proof that the grass is always greener on the other side, I don't know what is. White Caucasians want to be tan, and tan Asians want to be white!
- Thailand has rapidly industrialized and its capital city definitely does not feel "third world". In a sense, Bangkok is not one of the more interesting places that I've visited because so much is westernized. The city's residents have embraced the consumerist lifestyle with abandon. McDonald's and Starbucks are abundant, and seemingly everyone is clutching a Blackberry or an iPhone.
- English is widely spoken and understood in Thailand, especially in places such as Bangkok where there are many foreign tourists. It's so easy to get by with my native tongue, that I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't bothered to learn hardly any Thai. I can't even count to ten... nung...soong...saam........hmmm....
- I look completely different than locals, tower over them in height, and obviously am not from these parts. Yet no one bothers to give me a second glance. People are so used to seeing farangs (literally translated: foreign devils) that I feel completely anonymous. I guess this should be no surprise, considering 15 million tourists visited Thailand last year, a quarter of the country's population!
- Nowhere in Bangkok are there more farangs than in Khao San Road, the epicenter of the Backpacker Universe. This area is filled with so many young foreigners that you might wonder if you have somehow crossed into another country. Hostels, bars, restaurants, and shops all cater to the tourist throngs. Loud music blasts all day and all night, when drunken Westerners stumble out of the discos to eat cheap thai food and drink cheap thai beer on the street.
|Khao San Road, Center of the Backpacker Universe|
- Khao San Road is where you will find a traveler of backpacker specific to Southeast Asia: the "Party Backpacker". These are typically Europeans in their early twenties who are much less interested in learning about local culture than they are in partying with other backpackers. Drinking on floating inner-tubes in Laos and attending a full-moon party on a Thai beach are the highlights of their trip.
- Another type of visitor that frequents Bangkok and other spots in the region is the sex tourist. Usually older white males, they are seen in the company of much younger local woman whom they pick up in red-light districts such as Patpong and Soi Cowboy. I found this a bit shocking when I first got to Southeast Asia, but after a while I got so used to seeing it that it barely registers anymore.
|Soi Cowboy, famous Red-Light District in Bangkok|
- Something else which startled me at first but to which I've since become desensitized, is the ubiquitous presence of Ladyboys. For some reason beyond me, a large number of Thai males have decided that they would rather be female. Some simply dress up as women. Some have surgeries to enhance the deception. And some have so convincingly changed their sex that hardly anyone would suspect that they used to be men.
|Shwarma Shop near Soi Arab|
- The most charming street that I have found in Bangkok is in the Sukhumvit District. Technically its name is "Soi 3/1" but everyone knows it as "Soi Arab". Why is it that? Because it's filled with Arabs, of course! I come here to eat some amazing Lebanese food, smoke flavored tobacco out of a water-pipe, and reminisce about the time I spent living in Damascus, Syria.
- Right near Soi Arab is the site of the best medical care in Southeast Asia, Bumrungrad Hospital. Bumrungrad is quite a fascinating place to visit. It's like a little UN. People fly to Bangkok from all over Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, just to be treated here. All of the latest high-tech equipment is available on-site. The doctors have all trained at respected universities in Western Europe and North America, so the level of care is very high. But it's still amazingly cheap compared with the cost of medical treatment in the US. I had a long visit with a respected Orthopedic Surgeon, X-rays were taken, and the bill still came out to less than 85 dollars! Back home I'm sure I would have paid at least four times as much for the same service.
|Roadside Portrait of Thailand's King, Rama IX|
- Thai people genuinely love their King. And it's a good thing, because they are legally required to. Thais can be thrown in jail for fifteen years just for insulting the monarchy, the harshest such legislation anywhere in the world. So remember that when you pass yet another gigantic roadside portrait of His Majesty. And especially keep this in mind when you sit down in the cinema just as a movie is set to start, only to be told to stand and pay your respects to Him while a melodramatic clip hawking his greatness is shown!
- Most music that you will hear in Bangkok and Southeast Asia can be classified into three categories:
- Cheesy Pop Music
- Music that Sounds Like Karaoke
- Side Note: In Laos, that list can be shortened to the final two items. Karaoke is king in Thailand's Northeastern neighbor, and you won't go long before coming across someone clutching a plastic microphone and most likely singing off-key. (Question: if Laotians speak a tonal language, requiring precise pitch, why can so few locals hold a tune? Oh, the wonders of life...) The plastic microphone the singer is holding will have two, and only two vocal settings: 1. Echo, and 2. More Echo.
|Giant Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok|
- I've been through Bangkok six times, and spent a combined four weeks in the city. But in all that time, I've only spent one single afternoon as a dedicated tourist. There really isn't a lot to see in Bangkok that doesn't resemble something more impressive elsewhere in the region.
- If there's not much to see, why do I keep coming back? Convenience. Need to get to somewhere else in Asia or the world? Go through Bangkok, where you can find the best deals on buses, trains, and flights. Have to apply for a tourist visa before entering another country? Go to the consulate in Bangkok. Want to have more contact lenses made? Do it cheaply in Bangkok. Laptop power adapter died? No problem, find a replacement in Bangkok. How about some nice new clothes? Bangkok is the place! Anyone living in Southeast Asia who can afford it will regularly fly to Bangkok to go shopping.
- While nearly any Western product is available here, I ran into a frustrating quirk. I needed to purchase a new pair of size 11.5 hiking shoes, so I figured this task would be easy in Bangkok. Well, every respected brand was for sale in stores all over the city. But no one sold my size! I could buy size 11, size 12, even size 13, but no 11.5. Someone in some back office in some obscurely powerful position had decided that it was wholly unnecessary to import half sizes beyond size 10. I can imagine this unsympathetic, small-footed person rubbing his chin and thinking, "Those big-footed farang giants surely won't care, for sizes that big it's all the same!" If only I could locate this befuddled fool and convince him otherwise...
- Right smack in the center of downtown Bangkok is a monster block containing a plethora of gigantic, modern shopping malls, all stacked side by side. If you combined them into one, I'm pretty sure they would dwarf Rhode Island. The most famous of them all is called MBK, and is where you should go if you wish to browse an entire floor selling nothing but cheap iPhone covers and cell phone accessories!
- After spending time in underdeveloped areas, a visit to Bangkok can feel like a nice change of pace. But that feeling wears off quickly. Unrelenting traffic, constant noise, terrible air pollution, overwhelming crowding, and the general chaos of the city takes its toll. After three days of being in Bangkok, I start looking for an exit. When I've approached a week in the city, I'm nearly at my wit's end. "I...must...get out...of...Bangkok!!!" At these points I start dreaming of peaceful, palm-tree lined islands, with sandy beaches and not a car in sight...
Thankfully, in Thailand it's easy to turn this dream into reality. In less than a day's journey it's possible to be on some tropical island, drinking coconuts and feeling the warm breeze on your skin. And I can't think of a better way to wrap up my travels in Southeast Asia and to get ready for a new chapter. Signing off from my beach-front bungalow on the island of Ko Chang, Thailand...