It was the first time I saw a grandmother casually sitting on back a motorbike, unfettered by the daredevil drivers on both sides. It was the place where I witnessed my sister having a mini-meltdown (for very understandable reasons) in the streets as Thai people stopped and stared.
It was Bangkok, the place that people love to hate. It even took Nomadic Matt a few years to appreciate it. People complain about its filth, grime and the absurdity of Khaosan Road (think of trashy Las Vegas, with overstimulating bright lights and sounds; but instead of strip clubs there are ping pong shows and sketchy massages).
Despite the typical drawbacks of a major metropolis, I loved being a tourist in Bangkok. Starting and ending my trip there, this city was a gentile introduction to Thailand (I say gentle, meaning, not causing terrible culture shock) and a perfect location to close my Thai experience.
A place of great diversity and endless food options, I could find there what I liked most about each of the places I had gone. Silom Soi 20 (more on that road here) was the best breakfast food stall stand crawl I’ve ever been on, Thip Samai‘s pad thai will put all others to shame for the rest of my life and no other restaurant will ever compare to the educational benefits of Cabbages and Condoms.
Easy to transit through the city, public transportation was efficient and if it didn’t make sense to take it, tuk tuks and taxis were plentiful and relatively cheap (just make sure your tuk tuk driver doesn’t try to take you to his friend’s “gem shop“). Yes, traffic is bad. But as a tourist, it’s not common for you to be in a rush. It’s easy to be patient, and besides, there is so much to look at and take in that waiting in traffic isn’t an ounce boring.
I experienced significantly less instances of being offered goods or services (think: nothing compared to Hanoi or Hoi An) and I experienced no street harassment. I like visiting places where it’s easy to feel like you’re living your normal life. Or, rather, it’s nice to be in a place where so many people are going about their daily lives that it doesn’t feel superficially created.
It’s convenient, and sometimes you just want to easily find headphones or a neck pillow for your flight home (sometimes you just want Malaria medication!). The numerous markets are great places for learning about the diversity of Bangkok’s residents and simultaneously picking up gifts for people back home. Vendors patiently listen to your butchered Thai and strangers let you make faces at their children. No matter where Jennifer and I ended up-whether that be in a shopping mall watching in-line skating, by the river seeing a local capoeira group play or wondering what happened to Jim Thompson– it was a meaningful experience.
By the way, The Jim Thompson House was a great introduction to learning about Thai architecture. They even have a shuttle taking you from the main street to the Soi where the museum is located. It’s not actually that far, but what’s more fun than an electronic tuk tuk? Especially when the driver is racing down the side street barely classifiable as one lane, bumping to EDM while middle aged French and German tourists hold on for dear life.
Everyone who visits Bangkok (which, backpacking through Southeast Asia is…everyone) seems to have their favorite hostels. Everyone believes the one they stayed at was the best. If that tells you anything, it’s that there is no shortage of great, cheap accommodations in the city. I stayed at Niras Bankoc Cultural Hostel, close to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho (great massages!). The second time, I relaxed on the practically double bed bunks at Siamaze (it was also the perfect hostel to get sick at). Siamaze is further from tourist attractions, but close to the Skytrain, and had excellent tom yum soup ($1/bowl) a few feet away and adorable coffee shops nearby.
During both of my stays, talking to people on the street was easy and people looked out for us. One tuk tuk driver even gave us tips on how to save money on transportation and how to spot one of his cheating colleagues. We (don’t judge us here) found ourselves at a Starbucks at the MBK Shopping Center near the National Stadium, and Jennifer quickly made friends with the employees. They asked us to complete a customer satisfaction survey (“You give me 7, highest rating,” one of them told me with a wink). One thing led to another, and soon they were taking selfies.
I didn’t even get to see everything I could of. I didn’t even do one third of the things I had set out to do (getting sick puts a damper on exploration). There seemed to be a huge cultural scene, with various art galleries and community centers. It’s a place that has so much variety and personality. You’re a tourist, but you don’t feel like you’re made to look at locals like zoo animals.
When we were at the airport, about to leave for Hanoi, I looked at an American trans woman chugging a beer, throwing her passport at the horrified Air Asia employee and screaming to a European tourist “GET BACK IN LINE, ASSHOLE,” and thought, this is a place where literally anything can happen. It’s a place I felt I could melt into. Kind of like I could melt into that sticky rice with mango. Yummy.
Things I didn’t do in Bangkok: Go to a ping pong show, go to Soi Cowboy, see Muay Thai. No particular reason. Or was there?
Featured photo taken in Bangkok.