Bangkok: a city with much expectation, which should of been its downfall. I made that mistake with Bali, such high hopes for somewhere which had been given so much hype as a paradise. Pegged as a highlight before my arrival, only to be thoroughly disappointed by the bleak mark of the tourist trade. Hordes of topless, beer-bellied, pink skinned, flip-flop flapping tourists parading the streets loudly extinguishing any sign of culture. That’s what I expected of Bangkok, I was wrong.
My journey from the airport to my hostel perfectly summarized my time and the vibe of Bangkok. I stepped onto the modern rail which ran from the airport into the city. As the rail and the surroundings would suggest, the power and development of this under anticipated nation is shown with its high-rise buildings and monstrous billboards advertising the finest Thai companies. All of which are scattered amongst the undeniable influence of nature as the tree-tops tip-toe above the roofs of houses and form a snug blanket of green linking the structures.
The skyline dropped me quite far from my final destination. A quick head-poke into the tourist information left me looking for a bus. Here is where we get the first of many interactions I’d have with a man selling something I didn’t want.
“Hey my friend, where you going?” he shouted as he walked away from a collection of mopeds and men seemingly waiting on something. The thought of getting on the back of a moped didn’t appeal to me. As much as I love riding a moped, I can’t stand the lack of control while riding on the back. I was curious what the price was.
“Khao San Road”
“I take you, 200 (£4)”
“Ahh naa, no thanks” The risk wasn’t worth the price.
“Naa, I’m okay, thank you”
I stood on the edge of the road watching taxi’s going by with no real attempt to grab one. Not that I’d believed the scooter drivers quote for a taxi, but it was reasonable to believe that it must be more expensive. As I looked around, on que the scooter man was there waving. Fuck it. “How much did you say 200?”
“Yes, Yes, 200”
“You can’t do it cheaper?”
“Okay, 150,000” that was easy I thought, as he turned around and pointed to a flimsy tarpaulin sign that said “To Khao San 150”…cheeky fuck tried to pull 50,000 over me.
Regardless, there’s no other way to get an adrenaline rushed authentic experience to enter the city centre, complete chaos. Hordes of vehicles of each shape and size bombing through the soaring heat, guiding me to where the party’s found. My scooter driver took his last opportunity to rip me off. He took advantage of me forgetting a very important rule; always have small change. I never got any for the 160 baht I gave him.
Khao San Road
When people think of Bangkok, they picture a hyperactive crazy party atmosphere, this is where it is. Other than the notorious red-light districts (where you’ll find the ping-pong shows and Go Go girls) in another part of town, this is where the party’s found. From one end of the street to the other you’ll find endless rows of vendors selling and advertising the exact same merch. There’s randomly scattered snack stalls offering everything from coconut ice cream to kebabs, along with the hopeful travelling merchant with his box of big emperor scorpions on a stick.
Along the road you’ll charge through an obstacle course of vendors and comission based salesmen who enthusiastically approach with an unfamiliar level of friendliness trying to sell tattoo’s, massages, suits and everything you don’t want.
As the sun goes down, the street transforms. The quiet before the storm dissipated as bars begin echoing their music throughout the neighbouring streets, each needing to be the loudest. The enthusiastic merchants switch from offering suits and tattoos to beer buckets, laughing gas and ping-pong shows (with an odd smootching/popping noise which can only feed your imagination). Each bar have their own hareem of women…loosely defined as women. The shovels for hands and a deeper voice as myself would disagree. It really is hard to tell.
So no, lady-boys aren’t really a stereotype to Bangkok as they are found everywhere. However it very much goes hand-in-hand with the tourist trap feel, where they’re conveniently located all along the street at night dressed in their finest high and tight dresses advertising bars.
Absolutely, Khao San Road is a complete tourist trap. Nothing in this street is truly authentic, its all to fit the needs of the simple minded tourist. However, if you go there knowing it’s a tourist trap, then there’s nothing wrong with observing. It’s quite entertaining sitting down and watch the world go by along the road.
The Grand Palace
Possibly the biggest and brightest attraction in Bangkok, The Grand Palace. The visit was almost over before it began. As I was walking to the entrance I impatiently waved off a man selling “shirts and pants, 100” bothering me before my spiritual experience. I was soon to find as I stood in my shorts and vest combo, that visiting the palace required you to be dressed respectfully i.e. long trousers and a t-shirt. I had to return to the 100 shirt and pants man with my tail between my legs.
A 50 baht ticket later and I was unleashed into the compound where all the monumentus structures stood. It truly stands up to the name with each immaculately detailed structure closely wedged next to each other into such a tight space. The palace itself is divided into four areas: the Outer Court, Middle Court, Inner Court and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
The first you’ll visist will arguably be the most specacular part of the Grand Palace; the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which holds the most detailed and emaculate structures on the grounds. One which stands out from a considerable distance is the giant golden chedi which dominate the area. Impressive it what it should be, as its said it houses an important treasure; the Buddha’s breast-plate.
Next to that you’ll find a pillard building names Phra Mondop, which was built as a shrine for the Buddha’s footprint. At the entrances at all 4 sides of the hall stands two golden statues (each of which are totally unique), which stand there as guardian angels.
Last but not least is seeing the Temple of the Emerald Buddha itself for all its glory. Unfortunately photos weren’t aloud to be taken, however the site of the extraordinary structure of the Buddha within is enough the humble the biggest non-believer.
After seeing this area, all that remains is the Middle and Outter Courts, as the Inner Palace Area; which makes up the majourity of the Grand Palace, is off-limits. Which makes sense as its still currently being used, as the armed guards would attest.
Here you’ll find the mighty Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat built for a King by a British man, who ended up making it a bit too Western for the taste of local royalty. They improved it by removing the previous roof and sticking one on with much more of a Thai flavour. Given the nickname of ‘Westerner with a Thai hat’.
The one thing I could not escape from my time in China was the horde of umbrella-wielding Chinese crowds pushing and shoving their way around the courtyard. Some of which, as I forgot might happen, were keen to get their photograph taken with me. They were stunned when I was able to interact with them in my basic Chinese.
The most notable structure at this site, and the very reason for my visit to Wat Pho was the magnificent reclining Buddha. Bangkok is unique for a city of its size that most of the things worth seeing are walking distance away from each other. This very temple is over the road from the Grand Palace compound, and stands as a true highlight on any Bangkok trip. It’s also said that this is where the traditional Thai massage was created, so worth a look. Much like the Grand Palace, the compound is large with plenty of spectacular structures to amaze and capture the imagination.
The highlight of the temple without doubt is the spectacular 15 meters tall and 46 metres long lazily reclining Buddha relaxing in solitude within the perfectly fitted temple Phra Vihara. The statue is supposed to represent the Buddha just before his death and rise to Nirvana, all with a smile on his face.
Due to the very design and size of the building, only glimpses of different sections of the mighty Buddha’s frame can be seen between the posts. Towards the end you can fully appreciate the miraculous size of this figure.
Even the Buddha’s mighty feet arne’t ignored, as they’re divided into panels and each decorated with pearls. Each individual panel has its own unique symbol significant to the Buddha.
At the back side of the Buddha, there was an enormously long line of 108 identical pots. Here you found visitors and monks alike dropping coins into each one in succession (coins provided for a donation), which aims to bring good fortune.
The site provided more than just the enormous Buddha. Around the compound there are a total of 99 chedis, each of varying colour, size and general fascination.
In and around the various buildings around the temple you’ll find other spectacular examples of the Buddha each with their own unique design and attention to detail.
I also had a unique experience of being able to say I had lunch in Wat Pho, the reason for which I’m still not clear about. In a courtyard towards the back there were gazebos lined all around with tables with food being prepared by various vendors. I walked by a few times gazing at the spectacular looking dishes being prepared, meats, ice creams, ice tea’s, full Thai selection of dishes, wondering if I’d be aloud to have some.
On another slow gazing very strong hinted saunter I caught the eye of one vendor who was waving me over who said “everything here is free”. Music to my god damn ears. I enjoyed my Thai red curry perfectly complimented with my fresh ice tea in the grounds of Wat Pho.
Possibly my favourite experience in my time in the streets of Bangkok. Besides Wot Pho, I walked into a very old fashioned looking dock, with accompanying “duty free” alleyway of vendors selling the same nick-nacks of elephants and figurine Buddha’s to find a port at the end.
There was a man who tried to sell a tour along the river quoted for 1,000 baht (Around £20) which I just had to laugh as he frustratingly pushed my arm towards the ports exit. However I did spot a sign that said “4 baht to Wat Arun”. At this point knowing that anything prefixed with “Wat” was worth a look. Particularly when its such a bargain and an opportunity to get on the river.
Constructed as a result of a sign from heaven given to a returning king from a successful battle with the Burmese, this temple nominates the rivers edge from miles around. We were dropped off at a peaceful little section of the river dotted with its own spectacular selection of Buddha’s and astonishing structures. Wat Arun had the benefit of escaping the hordes of tourists, with smaller clusters arriving and leaving the docks. It provides a much more peaceful environment to appreciate the surroundings
A short walk into the site and you find the Cluster of Prayer and Image Halls, where I had my own spiritual experience. Here the temple held one of the finest structures of the Buddha, and nothing less than a Buddhist monk praying along-side. He had a much less spiritual looking buddy leaning back against the wall just with his head, perfectly chilled. “Its okay to go to him. You can give him money.”
The monk was sat there. As someone approached and lay on their knees before him, on que he’d grab his incense dipped in water which is flicked over you as he prays. After, you give him your hand he skilfully ties a delicately woven piece of string around your wrist, and wishes you luck. I was happy to leave a donation for the experience.
Another clear tourist-trap. They’re not used by locals, unless the Thai people want to buy a decorative elephant, coconut ice cream and shot glasses. However just like Khao San, its obviously a novelty, but doesn’t mean you can’t experience it.
Just like you see in all the pictures and documentaries, a fleet of hand-rowed vessels clumsily bumping its way passed endless rows of keen vendors which drag your boat in with their mighty hooks, carelessly pushing you adrift when your interest has seemed to waver.
Sadly, the time on the boat wasn’t as much as I had anticipated, being no more than 30 minutes. The rest of the time was spent browsing the multitude of repetitive stalls across the sides of the waterways. which are all inter-linked.
Predictably along a tourist trap street you’ll find the selection of exotic animals for display, which are enthusiastically waved and presented to passing tourists. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hold a boa and an adorable loris.
If you happen to miss something you wanted along the river in make-shift stalls, no matter, as the endless amounts of vendors repeat themselves over and over again along the river, selling the exact same merchandise. Cool coconuts included.
The price also included a quick trip on a speedboat run by what looked like car engines protruding an enormous pole with a small blade at the end. This part lacked the colorful vendors and substituted untouched nature and local life along the river.
The tour and transportation to and from my hostel in all cost no more than £5, so it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.
Considering that I had quite low expectations of Bangkok, I was thoroughly and pleasantly surprised and completely fell for the city as well as the nation itself. In those 3 short days (although it only needed one) convinced me that Thailand would be a place in the future where I hope to send a considerable amount of time. The symbiosis with the nature which they so eloquently share existence with is beautiful, and the positive chaos and extremes in climates only makes it that more appealing.