Travel Journal

Bangkok, Thailand, 2/1-2/4

(Thursday 10 February 2011) by Joanne Chang
I kept wondering if Bangkok is as crazy as everyone says it is. Most people I asked didn't care for it, but said it was something I had to see. And I did. Wow. Bangkok is crazy. An incredible mix of people, cultures, wats (temples), smells, foods, sex, markets and massive roads filled with cars, trucks, buses, tuk-tuks, motorbikes and bicycles parked haphazardly and weaving in and out of each other. I didn't see one accident in Bangkok, it's a miracle.

The neighborhoods are pretty distinct in Bangkok. I stay near Khao San Road, the backpackers' hood, which is super touristy but down-scale, filled with outdoor bars and restaurants, food carts, clothing stalls, and a ridiculous number of $5 massage places on quasi-pedestrian roads. In Bangkok terms, this could be described as "quaint". It reminds me of those festivals that happen in northern California in the summer -- young kids and old hippies chilling out, drinking coconut water, eating banana nutella crepes and trying to find the cheapest pad thai cart -- some as low as 20 bhat, or 65 cents. At night they hang out of the bars and drink beer or get a foot massage on lawn chairs on the sidewalk. Easy living.

Sidewalk dim sum...yum
Sidewalk dim sum...yum
Chinatown, on the other hand, is madness, and not only because it's Chinese New Year. The streets are filled with stalls of every kind, cars parked loading and unloading goods, while vehicles and people maneuver around each other in one big traffic-y mess. You need to be prepared to sustain this environment for an entire day, it's loud and dirty and crowded but colorful -- chaotic and amazingly so. If I thought Italy was intense, I had no idea. I walk around Chinatown eating street food at a steady pace -- the best mushroom soup I've ever had, little rice balls filled with sweet something, fresh mango and pineapple, dim-sum, a lucky pastry filled with sweet bean (on Chinese New Year!), and this warm, flaky, peanut-y, pastry-candy-cookie thing that tastes like homemade Butterfinger. Wow. I watch two men pounding and folding the peanut dough with big iron mallets and think it's too bad you can't make this at home.



CNY Celebration!
CNY Celebration!
On New Year's Day, I stand with thousands of Thai people at the CNY festival, waiting for the prince to drive by to take a picture at the temple. For over an hour we are lined on the side of the street in the hot sun, people fighting to get in front, to get a view. Tensions rising. Finally a procession of cars and motorbikes and a red mini-cooper drive by holding the prince and his dogs. They take the picture which we can't see, and turn around and leave - 5 minutes in total. I was disappointed. I thought for sure there would be some sort of parade. But cool to see how revered and respected the royal family is.

I didn't find Bangkok to be a dangerous city, but you have to watch out for scamming tuk-tuk drivers and others pretending to be passersby. I had about ten of them approach me, telling me I should go to this wat first because that one is closed (monks are meditating because it's CNY), or that he'll take me to these wats because they're free today! (because it's CNY). They're all just trying to take you to factories to get a commission. It was irritating and I ended up walking and boating everywhere until my feet had blisters at the end of day three going home from Patpong. I played hardball with a tuk-tuk to 50% his offer; he took me but wasn't pleased and I felt a little guilty for taking it out on him.

Temple, Wat Pho
Temple, Wat Pho
By the morning of Day 4 I'm ready to leave Bangkok. There's much I didn't see but I got a flavor of the city, it's sheer size, and the constant buzz that instills a certain energy, you can't help but want to be a part of it. I'm glad to have it behind me though, the rest of Thailand will be a much quieter experience. Onto the island of Kho Pha Ngan for fasting and detox.

 


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