Bangkok in December
“Do you smell that?” I asked Andy as we forged our way along a highly trafficked and obstacle-ridden sidewalk our first week in Bangkok, and in Southeast Asia as a whole. The smell was raw sewage, running in a gutter right below our feet.
Andy wiped his sweating brow with a hanky and agreed, “Bangkok smells like shit.”
“Literally. And half of it is ours.”
At this point in time, just several earthly rotations after touching down in Bangkok, meals plucked from street carts along Silom Road seemed to compete in a twisted race wherein street-cooked, styrofoam-packed foodstuffs competed with each other on who could exit the eater’s body and join the stinky river beneath the sidewalk in the least amount of time.
Can your gut handle this?
We were total newbies. Visibly scared, dehydrated, and pasty white, our collective appearance must have screamed “vulnerable!” to all of the scam artists lining the streets near the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and Khao San Road during the high season. After one incident involving a man in a NYC SWAT polo taking advantage of our trust in familiar security symbols and travel naiveté, we closed ourselves off to any Thai who expressed interest or curiosity in us.
So we marched sweatily in mid-day heat between the sites you’re supposed to see in Bangkok, only eschewing our Lonely Planet Encounter Bangkok guide for our street food meals and long talks with our fantastic hosts at Lullaby Inn.
We thought we had made a huge mistake in moving to Thailand based on our experiences in the first week. Luckily, everything got easier as soon as we landed in Chiang Mai.
Bangkok in July
Today? I kind of heart BKK.
Having gotten the tourist sites over and done with, we can appreciate Bangkok for what it is to the millions who live there: a hot, sprawling, multi-dimensional, modern metropolis with international flare and great food.
An escalator in Bangkok’s clean, modern public transportation system.
Now, we approach Bangkok as a sort of get-away from Southeast Asia. We apply no set of travel rules to our time here in terms of searching for authenticity or understanding the culture. We still stay in Silom, but now the street food doesn’t bother our well-seasoned guts. When the sun’s gone down we wander the streets in search of micro-brewed beer and observe the city’s seedy after hours underbelly and the expat men who love it. We’re tan, confident, and somewhat conversational as we navigate the streets, meaning we’re more likely to chat with locals than attract the scammers. Most importantly, perhaps, we do not attempt to do anything during the heat of the day.
Pete beats the heat with a bag of Pepsi bought from an electronic store.
The hours between 11:00 AM and 5:00 PM are reserved for travel by Bangkok’s air-conditioned sky trains to air-conditioned destinations. And by “air-conditioned destinations” I mean malls.
Malls as in those homogenous, terrible institutions full of Gaps and Claires’ and horrible Chinese food and pubescent kids. Malls as those things I used to avoid in favor of “recycled fashion” (note: barf) and independently-owned stores (note: not barf).
You see, the malls in Bangkok are sublime; they’re effulgent, sparkling white institutions with frigid internal temperatures and gloriously clean restrooms stocked with all the soap and toilet paper you can imagine. While I’m not a big shopper (I don’t have a job!), I am a big fan of washing my hands with soap and observing others wash their own hands with soap after using the toilet. I’m also a big fan of drinking hot coffee in a sweater. In a Bangkok mall? I can do that.
This grilled banana is not from the mall, but you could very well find one there!
In practical terms, the malls are a good halfway point between our morning street food adventures along Silom Road and our nightly adventures around Sukhumvit, as the malls surround the rail station connecting the two metro lines. Also, if I need any article of clothing, Bangkok’s mall sales are the best bet for me to find something that fits (i.e. was designed for a western body) that doesn’t break the bank.
As a bonus, the malls across Thailand tend not to be the food wastelands that they are in the states. The food courts sometimes rent stalls to independent restaurants, lending a Singapore Hawker Center vibe to the whole eating experience. The top floor of MBK has some of the best stewed pork knuckle in Bangkok, while the basement of Terminal 21 has a delicious and affordable Japanese BBQ.
To make peace with Bangkok, we had to be honest with ourselves. After a few days in the city on our first go, we knew walking around in the heat and going to the tourist sites was not working for us. In fact, I wrote a whole “Day of Rest” post in December that was evidence of my discomfort and will to change that. I think I failed, as I was trying to embrace the tourist path and the sites despite them making me totally miserable.
A water monitor in Lumphini Park right before sunset.
Here are the tips I would give a weary traveler in Bangkok today:
Realize that the major sites are often open air and very hot during the day. The temples, the palace, the park–all of these are going to be hot as hell during the afternoon, even in the “winter.” Do them as early as you possibly can in the morning. I would also recommend only seeing one major attraction in a given day.
Use public transit as much as possible. Negotiating with tuk-tuks and begging cab drivers to use the meter in english can get exhausting fast. If you can get somewhere by the subway or sky train, you should probably do that. Most of the major tourist sites are off this network, as a concession to independent tuk-tuks and cabs benefitting from the tourism.
Realize you are in a huge, international, modern city. More often than not, if you try to seek ‘authentic Thai culture” in Bangkok, you’re going to be eating expensive pad thai on the floor in a room full of foreigners. Save the quest for silk, bamboo, and quaint embroidered triangular pillows for your trips out of the city.
Food courts have street food, too. If street food is giving you trouble in the digestive department, you can get many of the same dishes and treats in the food courts in the malls, where hygiene standards may be better. I have no idea if this is actually true, but the malls are some of the only places that have soap on hand reliably, which has to count for something. For the record, I endorse eating street food even if it might make you sick. You’re probably going to get diarrhea anyway, so you might as well eat cheaply and deliciously.
It’s okay to seek western comforts. Bangkok is truly international and diverse, and like many large cities, it gains strength from its immigrant communities, including western expats. You can get great pizza, huevos rancheros, crepes, and burgers in Bangkok, whereas other locales might serve something with the same name that is entirely unrecognizable. Get it out of your system here, and eat fried rice in Laos.
Visit Bangkok last on your tour of Southeast Asia. The city is hot, humid, over-stimulating, and contains folks who will try to take advantage of your naivety. Start in Chiang Mai, Singapore, or on Thailand’s coast to get accustomed to the culture and pace of life, and go from there. You’ll surely appreciate Bangkok after weeks of backpacking through Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar (Burma).