I think it’s fair to say, when people think of Bangkok they think of gogo bars, ladyboys, ping pong shows and wild nights out. While all those things are part of the city’s makeup, there is more to it.
Arriving on Tuesday after a 21 hour journey from Malaysia’s Langkawi, I realised this was my third visit to BKK.
The first two were within days of each other and were every bit the stereotypical BKK experience. With two of my best mates, I drank my weight in beer and SamSong rum and ate barbecued scorpions on the Khaosan Road; I got blinded by the neon lights of Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza and their thumping gogo bars; I sat, my smile turning to a cringe turning to a look of discomfort, at the back of a ping pong show and ladyboy bar; I feared a fleecing as we were driven by tuk tuk down dark, dirty and witness-less back alleys the wrong side of midnight; I clung onto the rocking longboat we’d been conned onto as it journeyed down the chaotic Chao Phraya river for a canal tour; I marvelled at the weapons on sale and bought knock-off snapbacks at MBK shopping centre; I’ve been dumbfounded by the bustling, colourful streets of China Town…
That was a different kind of trip. This time, having got the gogo out of my system, I’ve taken BKK slower. I’ve wandered it’s canals, got lost down backroads and braved dark alleyways in a bid to see the real, living side to the city.
I hadn’t planned to come, it’s sort of just happened. I decided to skip the “paradise” islands in the south that somewhat neighbour Langkawi. Partly because I’m not really a beach guy, partly because I’ve heard mixed things about the tourist tainted spots. Plus, the weather’s so-so.
Instead, I chose BKK as my stopover to the mountainous north – Chiang Mai and Pai – some 850 miles from Langkawi.
These past three days have taught me BKK is a city with a bad rap, one I’ve been guilty of giving it at times.
Yes, it’s dirty, polluted, hectic, loud and concrete – but none more so than other cities, like Indonesia’s Jakarta or Sri Lanka’s Colombo.
It’s also an enchanting city, full of character, friendly faces, pride and culture. It certainly has more going for it than other cities, like the aforementioned.
On my first full day, I visited the Grand Palace – a sight I missed last time (thanks to us falling for a tourist trap so classic even Lonely Planet mention it, but that’s another story). I’m not one for temples (and Bangkok is full of them) and the like, but it’s hard not to be impressed by it’s scale and colourful beauty.
I was also taken aback by the very unique circumstance that shrouds the Palace at the moment: national mourning, following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
For weeks, thousands have flocked to the Palace each day to pay their respects. Queues stretched for miles as people, dressed in black, waited patiently to enter the Palace. Free food and drink were even being dished out to appease the hours of waiting.
The King’s death has made a notable impact on the city; it’s sad. On every road, black and white bunting is hung and tall, proud photos of the King stand inside luscious golden frames. The Flower Market vendors have even taken it upon themselves to decorate the surrounding streets.
On my second night, I visited Patpong – a night bazaar flanked by gogo bars. Out of curiosity and no intention to sample their entertainment (honest!), I wandered down one of the neon lit streets, the likes you would’ve seen in The Hangover Part II or any red light district the world over.
Unlike before, when strippers would grab, hug and rub you to lure you into their seedy nightspots (that’s if you could hear them over the ear-hurtingly loud music), behaviour was calm and unintrusive. Workers sat on stalls outside clubs and you could hear them giggling as they waved; a new way to tempt you in. It was all very tame in comparison.
I had dinner down a side street and got chatting to Sopon, a driver for a “very rich lady”, who told me all of this was because of the King’s death. In fact, as we ate, the stall began packing up early; it wasn’t open until the late hours like it used to, out of respect. This diluted atmosphere isn’t just applicable to nightlife, either. Lewis, a BKK veteran staying at my hostel, commented how there’s fewer stalls on the streets, shops aren’t offering deals like they used to and Christmas decorations are confined to shopping malls and hotel lobbies when they would once also be throughout the city’s streets.
Street food is still every bit a part of BKK’s tapestry. Each road is full of vendors, selling everything from freshly cooked dishes (noodle soups, fried rice, curry… Take your pick) to barbecued meats-on-a-stick to fresh fruit to tea & coffee to deep fried desserts. I even noticed the early mornings draw stalls selling fresh, pre-made lunches for workers on their commutes.
If people aren’t commuting, be it by foot or on the city’s impressive public transport network, then it’s possible they’ll be out exercising. On the three mornings I’ve been here, I’ve ventured to Lumpini Park for a run. Not only have I been one of dozens of runners, but there’s also heaps of walkers and even more people enjoying a slow paced morning of tai chi – a unique sight in itself, as each individual moves in a controlled nature to music that’s been perfectly composed to control their speed. They follow it up with group breakfast picnics in the park.
Away from the glitzy shopping malls, glamorous temples and traffic jammed roads are endless labyrinths of back roads and alleys. They are largely passage ways between high rise blocks, with outlets at the bottom – from hairdressers to cafes to mechanic garages to general stores – and flats above.
Grubby, many are protected by iron gates and decorated with yesterday’s rubbish or clothes drying in the sticky heat. More often than not, you can turn a corner and see the dingy street brightened up by graffiti.
You can also get around the main districts via shuttle boats that take you up and down the canals. It’s something not many people, bar locals, seem to know about, is a cool, unique feature of the city’s transport network and a great way to see things from behind the scenes.
For all the mourning and back alleys, of course BKK still boasts busy spots to enjoy yourself. Last night, I enjoyed a couple of drinks atop Octave Rooftop Lounge & Bar. It’s one of BKK’s many nightspots and, I’m sure, the starting point for many who later venture not to it’s sleazy adult entertainment or tourist spots but to trendy clubs found throughout the city.
Last time I was in BKK, I did was most tourists do which is visit Sky Bar for a ‘Hangovertini’ (all made famous by the film). But, for me Octave is way better. For one, it has uninterrupted 360 degree views of the city.
I watched the sunset, transporting the city from light into darkness. Being so high, it’s hard not to feel a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle below.
BKK is fast paced. It has an odour that will leave you walking around the city with a scrunched up face. It has a constraining heat and a polluted air that sticks to your skin. Motorbikes roar by, buses screech to stops, cars beep their way through traffic jams.
People smile, help you, talk to you. Trendy cafes jump out among the bland concrete buildings next door. Luxurious shopping malls glisten opposite dirt stained office blocks. The Skytrain flies above, ferrying people around with precision, while people hurriedly roam the streets in that typical busy city style: headphones in, eyes on their smartphones, trainers to match their work suit…
BKK offers a lot – some nice things, some not so nice. I’m not claiming to have sampled everything it has to offer. There’s still plenty I’ve not seen, from it’s floating markets to museums to dodgy nightspots to watching muay thai, but I like to think I’ve sampled a fair share of what’s on offer and, in doing so, have come to realise BKK is a city worth raising a glass to.
Time for one more slow day for me – coffee shop hopping round two – before taking a night train tomorrow to Chiang Mai.