Bangkok’s a big dirty city.
Some people see it as an unwelcome stop on their way to the Thai islands.
“You’ll get scammed!”, holidaymakers warn.
For the puritans, it’s a cesspit of ping-pong shows, massage parlours and hookers.
My sister thinks Bangkok’s only good for shopping.
People either love it or hate it.
But I found Bangkok very different to this.
And amongst the madness awaited a moment of great significance.
Food was my first Bangkok experience.
It was momentous.
I woke up jet-lagged and confused on my first morning in Bangkok. I left the hostel and turned down a busy lane.
Despite being early on Saturday morning, people were everywhere. Motorbikes snaked through the crowd – the rumbling exhausts nearly searing my leg as they passed.
Families were selling food on both sides of the lane. Each one offered variations of the Thai food I thought I knew from home. I looked at the dishes and was greeted by the strange and unfamiliar.
My stomach rumbled. Feeling pressure from a seller’s gaze, I took the plunge and chose a green curry.
Sitting down at a table, I noticed that I was the only foreigner in the vicinity. A Thai couple looked over at me and laughed.
I focused on my meal.
I like to pretend that I can handle spicy food. I was anxious about this though. Cautiously, I took a bite.
Fire exploded in my mouth. A wave of heat tore through my nostrils. My vision became a watery blur.
Adrenaline coursed through my body; the rush woke me up better than any coffee.
As the heat subsided, my taste buds recovered enough to appreciate the flavour.
Sharp Thai basil, pungent fish sauce, palm sugar and lemongrass revealed themselves. The rich coconut milk made me want to lick the bowl clean.
My tongue cried with pain and joy.
I wolfed it all down and looked at my empty plate with regret.
I’m clearly a fickle person.
One meal in Bangkok and I’d fallen in love.
After breakfast, I had a city to explore. I turned to my list of Bangkok sights.
Being cheap, paying for transport was out of the question. I started walking.
My path was through Silom, then up the Chao Phraya river. Beside the river, I found the first of many shrines I would see in Asia. Incense smoked in the breeze. I continued on, catching glimpses of hidden temples down alleyways.
Offices changed to hardware stores as the footpath turned black. Heavy machinery thronged in the background. Men fixed motorbikes while trucks unloaded building supplies.
This wasn’t tourist Bangkok.
I watched some locals digging a hole. This shouldn’t have been educational but it was. Mundane stuff was made novel by its foreign nuances.
As I walked, the buildings grew older. The footpath became crowded with people selling fruit and vegetables. Durian peered out menacingly. Chilies were stacked by the basket-load.
The amount of produce on display was staggering.
I ate some jackfruit and tried to regain my bearings.
Across the road was a flower market. I realised where I was: Chinatown.
Pak Khlong Talat is a famous flower market in Bangkok.
The fragrances and colours inside are almost overwhelming. It’s like a jungle. I explored it a little before the onset of hay fever drove me away.
Plus, I had other places to be.
My first stop in Bangkok was the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. At least it was meant to be. I was barred at the gates for not wearing long pants.
The queue for the free pants was a kilometre long and moving slowly. Screw that. On the street I’d seen some vendors selling pants. I went outside and started haggling.
The prices were extortionate and my haggling ability was useless. I thought there was no hope. Then a wave of panic struck the vendors. They frantically started packing up their wares. These guys were trading illegally — the police were coming.
The vendor was about to escape. I sensed an opportunity and lowballed him. Five minutes later, I was walking around the Grand Palace wearing a new pair of pants.
Entrance cost $20 but was worth it. The Grand Palace is impressive. Wat Phra Kaew is even better. Decked out in gold and jewels it dazzled when the sun (eventually) came out.
I spent a few hours wandering the complex and admiring the intricate murals. Neither the heat nor the crowds dampened my appreciation.
Next up was Wat Pho, more commonly known as the Giant Reclining Buddha. The statue is monstrous at 15 metres tall. It’s worth a look, but it’s not as impressive as what lies just across the river: Wat Arun.
Wat Arun is a tall temple that stands out on Bangkok’s skyline. It’s unique because you can climb up it. Climb is the keyword here. As I pulled myself up the steps, I felt like I was climbing a ladder. If you slipped, you’d probably die. It’s exciting and gives good views of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya river.
After a day of temple hopping, I decided it was now time to witness something much less wholesome.
Thailand’s sex industry is infamous and deserves condemnation. Selling sex isn’t what’s wrong – the despicable human-trafficking is the problem.
Curious to see Bangkok’s industry at work, I visited the red light districts of Patpong and Soi Cowboy.
Patpong is a night market in the Silom district. It sells the usual stuff – Chang singlets, Supreme caps, fake Ray-Bans.
It also sells sex.
Ringing the market are bars full of naked dancing-girls with understated names like “Pussy Collection”.
Hawkers stand outside, offering ping-pong shows and other services. It gets tiresome quickly.
As I walked around Patpong, a rain downpour started. Actually, it was more like a monsoon. The intensity quickly turned the street into a river. I sat down and waited for it to pass.
While I did this, a French girl approached me. “You have weed?” she asked. I didn’t, but told her that the guy selling the switch-blades and dildos was also dealing.
“Which one do you mean?”, she responded.
This was a reasonable question. As I looked around, I noticed that sex toys and weapons were as prolific as the rain.
Soi Cowboy is twisted in its own unique way. The street is saturated with garish neon signs, and the bars are Wild West themed. Scantily clad women stand outside the bars. Enticing is not how I’d describe them.
The punters who frequent Soi Cowboy need to be seen to be believed. Sad, balding, fat men sit with junkies and prostitutes. Prescription drugs and divorces haven’t worked.
It’s deeply unsettling and reveals Bangkok’s dark side.
You’ll want to wash the neon and grime off the moment you return to your accommodation.
Hustle and bustle
The sex industry is not Bangkok’s only downside.
Bangkok is polluted and dirty. Clean air is not a byword. The stagnant water in the canals made me gag.
The Chao Phraya river is clogged with rubbish and coated with oil. I heard a story about a guy who fell in the river on New Years Eve. He came out black.
It’s traumatic the first time you see a rat scurry through a restaurant as you eat.
The crowds and traffic might drive you crazy. The scammers, suit-sellers, and tuk-tuk drivers certainly will. You’ll be buffeted with requests to buy crap.
These aspects of Bangkok are tiring and draining. It’s therefore surprising that I found solace in one of Bangkok’s worst spots.
Khao San Road
Khao San Road is often dismissed as a backpacker ghetto.
I sat at table on the footpath, eating a scorpion and drinking a Chang beer.
I watched the scenes around me.
Knock-off Havianas for sale. Indian men pushing tailored-suits. Tattoo parlors every ten metres.
Singlet-clad Westerners strutting around, the first stop on their Contiki tour.
Billboards plastered the streets. A 24-hour Burger King was strategically positioned.
Backpacker culture at its worst.
This is exactly what Alex Garland was despairing about when he wrote The Beach. Idiotic Westerners ruining a place and corrupting the local culture.
But it was also a place of hope and expectation.
I thought about the hundreds of thousands of backpackers who must have passed through this spot since The Beach’s publication in 1996.
Everyone on their own personal voyages around Asia.
This was a historical site.
Khao San Road is the start of the book.
For better or for worse, it’s also the start of many journeys.
It’s a spot of pilgrimage.
This is Bangkok.
Have you been to Bangkok? What were your impressions? Leave a comment below