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Adventures in Asia, Part 9: Bangkok Redux

Ah, Bangkok. The full name is “Krungthep Mahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathani Burirom-udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amonphiman Awatansathit Sakkathattiya Witsanu Kamprasit”, which means something about angels and gems. Officially home to 6 million people, but unofficial estimates place it at twice that. Hottest major city in the world, and one of the most densely-populated. Bangkok was my entry to and exit from Southeast Asia, and the one place I spent a substantial amount of time on my own, after Janelle went home to Australia and before I met up with Tyler and Carla in Japan. At first I was overwhelmed by Bangkok. It’s a city of noise and chaos and crowds and hot, humid, polluted air. I really didn’t enjoy myself on arrival and was glad to hop on the train to Chiang Mai.

Bangkok pay phones
phones of Bangkok

By the time I returned, though, I was a somewhat more seasoned SEA traveller. I’d recovered from my initial culture shock, and after being in Hanoi and Saigon, Bangkok seemed positively first-world. There are sidewalks on which you can actually walk, and actual traffic laws that are often obeyed, and people don’t hassle while you’re walking down the street. At least, no more than in Vancouver.

I should also add, Bangkok is the easiest city I’ve ever been in for getting around. The skytrains and subways and river buses are interconnected, clearly labelled in English, and take you almost anywhere you want to go, or close enough that you can pay a taxi or tuk-tuk a buck or two to take you there. Most of the cab drivers are friendly and know enough English that you can communicate, though my attempts to pronounce the Thai names of places were usually cause for great amusement.

By the time I left, I’d spent over a week in Bangkok, all told, and was starting to feel pretty comfortable there. Even being alone in the city for several days didn’t bother me (aside from one time when I was riding through traffic on the back of a motorcycle taxi with no passport and wondering how long it would be until I was missed if I fell off). While I don’t think I would move there permanently, if I had a job that required me to spend, say, a year there, I would probably jump at it. It’s certainly not a city that will ever bore you.

Anyway, here’s my mini-travelogue of Bangkok.

Gigle or Nude Guy?
a lot of the stores have great, bizarre names

shopping district

The downtown shopping district is huge. Massive, seven-story department stores, each for a different, well-heeled demographic. And malls with endless tiny shops. Many of the little shops are identical but for the name — Siam Centre has about five shops selling just Converse sneakers and about twenty selling the exact same selection of knock off designer brand bags. But there are also plenty of unique shops selling, for instance, handmade tops or Thai-made Western gear. Patchwork cowboy hats! Yellow quick-draw holsters!

We also walked through the trendy teen shopping district. Little shops selling clothes and do-dads identified as “trendy”, “cute”, “sexy” and/or “lucky”. I’m not really sure how the last one fits into the consumerist experience, but I saw the phrase “trendy and lucky!” more than once.

guarding or lifting?
guardians of the green buddha wat

royal palace and green buddha wat

By the time I visited Bangkok’s Royal Palace and Green Buddha Wat, I had seen roughly umpteen wats and a fistful of palaces, and while they’re impressive and pretty cool, the differences are, shall we say not always obvious to my undiscerning and unappreciative eye. The palace is neat, but you can’t actually go in it, so you’re stuck wandering the grounds in the sticky heat with ten thousand other tourists. I didn’t stay all that long.

The highlight was actually in trying to get to and from there, since the best approach is by boat. The river is actually one of the fastest and most pleasant thoroughfares in Bangkok, with regular stops, interesting sights and a cool, if occasionally pungent, breeze off the water. You can also hire river taxis that ply the city’s many canals to dodge the diesel fumes and constant traffic jams.

Khao San Road
oh, hey, I’m a backpacker too

khao san road

Alex Garland (The Beach) wrote that Khao San Road is “a decompression chamber for those about to leave or enter Thailand; a halfway house between the East and the West.” And that’s about right. It’s Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto, a long row of guest houses, burger-and-beer joints, tattoo parlours and internet cafes. There are a few long-time travellers here to stock up on toilet paper and shaving cream at the Boots drugstores and 7-11s, but mostly it’s twenty-year-old hippies and hipsters with fresh tattoos and bootleg brand-name tee-shirts living the backpacker dream with the comforts and familiarity of home. The multinational crowd of Europeans, North Americans, Israelis and Aussies is utterly homogeneous. It’s a place that tries desperately to live up to its own stereotypes. I know I sound kind of down on Khao San, and I suppose I am, but it’s kind of fascinating, too. It’s the pure SEA backpacker experience, stripped of any specificity of place or culture, and I found it oddly attractive.


One night, Janelle and I visited Bangkok’s infamous red light district. From the stories I’d heard, I’d imagined it as an endless row of seedy bars and brothels. But it’s not. Oh, sure, it’s impressively seedy, but it’s really about three blocks long, and one is entirely geared toward Japanese salarymen, and one toward gay men. There’s a row of trendy restaurants at one end and a Starbucks at the other and between them about a hundred shady-looking dudes asking you “pussy show? ping-ping show?”, one after the other, while flashing menus of the shows available and their prices. I was kind of intrigued by the “woman boxing match”, but ultimately declined. But even these enterprising young men are far outnumbered by invitations to buy low-quality Diesel knock-offs from the vendors whose stalls line the streets.

As we left, we saw a tour group of about ten scared-looking Europeans creeping toward Patpong, camcorders at the ready. “Hey, mister,” we muttered. “Ping-pong show?”