As the sun peered over the tops of stained concrete buildings, the slowly waking city sounds accentuate my final morning in Bangkok; I’m not sure how to really sum up my short, but intense, experience in here. Morning markets, tuk tuk rides, palaces, temples, and even more importantly the people have made Bangkok a city that is larger than life.
Between the frantic pace, heat, traffic, and lack of personal space some may see these as reasons to quickly pass through, but for others it can be intoxicating.
This city is a curious blend of traditional East and modern West. Ramshackle buildings crouch next to exotic temples surrounded by beautiful gardens and the scent of burning incense and flower offerings; which are in turn overlooked by modern hotels and offices.
The chaos on the roads is something that needs to be experienced: tuk tuks, coupes and saloons, propane-powered trucks, and the ever-present scooter clog seemingly every artery and side street. They idle their engines and wait for a changing traffic light allowing the buildup of riders to reach massive proportions.
Interwoven in the modern mad rush traditional Thai life is never far away. Weaving among the nose-to-nose traffic saffron-robed monks are easily seen collecting alms and singing for thanks. While moments from the city center are whole communities built of silt houses by the river while earning a meager living utilizing skills that have not changed in centuries.
We started out early wandering through the stalls of the market closest to our hotel. The sights and sounds were dizzying and intoxicating: tuk tuks and scooters weaved their way through the throngs of people, produce, and freshly cooking food. The smells of frying fish balls, noodles boiling, satay on simple grills of a bucket and hot coals wafted past my nose pulling me in every direction at once.
We wandered through the stalls eyeing curries, rice dishes, noodles, pork, chicken feet, and fruits- first to fresh-squeezed tangerine juice, then mango and papaya slices eaten from plastic bags with long toothpicks.
The night prior we had met a tuk tuk driver named Kai, who would quickly become our guide and fixer. We met by our hotel a little before 10am with the intention of finding a traditional Thai breakfast. Hopping in the back we quickly maneuvered our way through morning traffic to a restaurant located inside of a residential building, but it was closed, as many shops open later in the morning.
Kai quickly made a phone call while we smoked cigarettes near a Buddhist shrine waiting for the owner, and no doubt a relative or friend, to open the restaurant. Within a few minutes we were seated and I had ordered boiled prawns in broth with rice. As with most Thai food, it is all about the condiments – this was no exception. I added pickled chilies, ground chilies, garlic, and fish sauce.
Back in the tuk tuk we took off heading towards the Grand Palace, opting for the scenic route to get a feel for the city.
A few observations:
The cabs are mostly a very ugly shade of neon pink. There are a large number of stray dogs that all seemed to look alike. Every vendor automatically gives you your purchase in a bag – food and drink. At first I couldn’t figure out why they would put drinks in cups in bags until I noticed everyone putting the bags on the handlebars of their scooters.
Traffic is no for the faint of heart. Every street is packed with tuk tuks, scooters, cars, vans, trucks, motorcycles, and a curious mix of moving things with engines. I saw a food cart that has been welded to a motorcycle and a push cart that has been modified to have a small engine where there would ordinarily be a foot pedal similar to a bicycle.
Everyone blindly takes lanes rarely using turn signals, the scooter all dart between the larger vehicles and will often cue up in packs at red lights. Many will kill their engines while waiting. There is little honking, noticeably low amount of road rage, and few if any arguments between drivers – everyone seems to let everyone go about their business more or less unfettered.
The pollution is intense. Huge plumes of exhaust are released while gas and propane-powered vehicles cue up at red lights. At first, I thought people were wearing hospital masks to prevent the spread of disease, but after sitting through what I can only describe as the equivalent of trying to inhale a Buick I can see the real reason.
There is little garbage in the streets though there is a curious lack of public garbage cans. The buildings are mostly concrete with ascetics that leaned on function over form. Everywhere there are beautiful and well kept shrines to the King. It was an intense shift to be in a place where everyone so passionately and openly loves their King as opposed to the extreme polarity found in the US.
Corruption is just as rampant as in any other large city. We were crossing an overpass in the tuk tuk, which apparently is not allowed, when we were pulled over by a police checkpoint. Our drive killed the engine, hopped out, immediately pulling out his wallet and 100 baht. A few moments later we were on our way.
Ultimately I feel that tourist attractions are a waste of time. Instead challenge yourself to find the places where the locals go – a place where a Thai might kick back a few Tigers with some friends after a long day of work.
We made the mistake of going to the Grand Palace where excessive cues traced outward past the gates spilling into the street. Enterprising Thais offering guided tours and military men with large guns kept us from entering anywhere but at the main entrance. Though the Palace was beautiful, we choose to keep moving.
Next we went to an open-air seafood restaurant where they had fresh seafood on ice available for you to pick and choose your cooking style. We opted for the red snapper cooked in red curry sauce with stir fried vegetables and oyster sauce. It was delicious. In Thailand it’s all about the condiments and this was no exception as there was an amazing chili sauce that perfectly accentuated the curry.
We ate and booked it back to the hotel for a quick siesta then it was onward to Bangkok nightlife.
We met back up with our tuk tuk driver Kai and found ourselves first at Shock 39, a nightclub in the heart of the red light district. Unfortunately we arrived before midnight and European backpackers populated the club. One with short shorts and a camera bag slung across both shoulders creating an X across his chest danced on the floor by himself while his partner chatted up a bar girl. The club started to liven up after midnight just as we were leaving to make our way to a late-night dinner.
Our driver took us to another seafood restaurant with the option to handpick your catch and cooking style. We grabbed green plastic baskets and loaded up on king crab, oysters, and prawns. We ate the oysters first, in the half-shell, with crispy fried onions, garlic, chili paste, and lime. The prawns were grilled and served with a fantastic sauce that was the perfect amount of spice and sweet. The king crab came whole leaving us to dive straight in crunching and splitting our way to the curry-infused crabmeat.
My final thoughts on Bangkok it is a city that needs to be seen to be believed. More than 300 cranes dot the skyline constantly building Bangkok higher while the centuries old temples keep it close to the ground.