The Many Faces of Bangkok

My series of travel tales continues with Part 1 of our experiences in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. I’m jumping around a bit in terms of chronology: today I’m talking about my contradictory impressions of the city. Look for Part 2 (temples!) in two weeks…

A typical street scene outside the Grand Palace in central Bangkok

A typical street scene outside the Grand Palace in central Bangkok

After the obligatory beach vacation on Koh Samui, we rounded out our visit to Thailand by finally braving the metropolis of Bangkok. We’d heard that it was intense and that the driving was crazy (this from Malaysians), so we’d decided to leave it for last, after we’d acclimatized to the country.

Good decision — but we were still unprepared. Especially since we were coming from the quiet, laid-back beach, Bangkok hit us like a ton of bricks. The heat and humidity, the busy-ness, the traffic (and we thought Chiang Mai was bad!), the distinctive growl of the tuk-tuk engines, shanty homes crammed into odd places next to modern towers.

We took a commuter train into town from the airport, which was busy but not unmanageable. The train let us off some distance from our hotel, so we hopped into a taxi…whose driver promptly started trying very hard to sell us stuff – sightseeing tours, tailor services, even a visit to a crocodile farm. He was nice enough when we declined, but between that and the train, we were exhausted by the time we reached the hotel.

Longtail boat, so named because the engine sticks way out the back into the water.

Longtail boat, so named because the engine sticks way out the back into the water.

The hotel itself was air-conditioned, but the humid heat outside kept us tired and crabby the next day as we wandered around looking for a longtail boat cruise. The spirit of exploration is hard to keep up when you’re hot and frustrated and even the tourist information people don’t speak much English.

But…then we found the boat, and everything changed.

We took a one-hour longtail boat cruise through the canals of Thonburi, a town on the opposite side of the river from Bangkok proper. And…wow.

Thonburi canals 01

From a writerly (and photographic) perspective, the place is amazing. The labyrinth of narrow canals is lined with houses ranging from elegant old wooden homes (some boarded up) to makeshift shanty homes to the occasional colonial mansion to hippie-ish wooden cabins. There are industrial barges and docks. There’s a swamp full of rampant vegetation, where we saw a stork. There are ruins and abandoned houses. It’s a worldbuilder’s dream – and I’ve already started to mine it for stories.

Here are some of the many photos I took of Thonburi…

Thonburi garden

Notice the little house below the satellite dish? Thai tradition holds that this is a "spirit house", built for the spirits who lived there before humans occupied the space. Every building has one.

Notice the satellite dish and the little house below it? Thai tradition holds that this is a “spirit house”, built for the spirits who lived there before humans occupied the space. Every building has one.

Thonburi canals 02

Everything from mansions...

Everything from mansions… shacks

…to shacks

At the same time, there’s a strong tourist flavour to Thonburi. Our boat was met by an old lady paddling out in a canoe who smiled up from under her conical straw hat and tried to sell us souvenirs. (We bought a fan.)

Thonburi floating marketWe also visited the famous “floating market”, which was mostly on docks rather than boats, and also filled with tourists…though plenty of locals were shopping as well. There were lots of food stalls. In some, the cooking was done on boats and the selling happened on the docks, I suppose to save space.

Later on, we poked around the Khao San backpacker district – full of hippie clothing stores, backpacker hangouts, and of course backpackers. Yet the overall impression, there and in the rest of Bangkok, was a certain desperation to sell, sell, sell to the continuous stream of tourists that flows through the city. It’s not a comfortable feeling.

Harmonique restaurantOn another day, we swung by the embassy district to have lunch at a French/Thai fusion restaurant, Harmonique, recommended by our guidebook (The Rough Guide to Thailand). It was an excellent choice – we got to relax in a cool courtyard and eat baked fish and crab curry (yum!) for a reasonable price. We promptly decided to pay a lot more attention to guidebook restaurant recommendations in our next destination, India.

Later in our travels we caught part of Bangkok Dangerous, a dark action movie in which Nicolas Cage runs around Bangkok with guns. It was funny to see all the touristy locations pop up on cue, as if they were the predominant parts of the city. At one point Cage’s character falls in love with a Thai girl, and together they visit the floating market, the equally famous night market, a temple…Bangkok as a cliche version of itself. Though it was cool to see an Asian city being portrayed as noir.

I’ve got more to share from our adventures in Bangkok – lots of temple photos and our visit to the ruined city of Ayutthaya. Tune in for that in two weeks…


6 responses to “The Many Faces of Bangkok

  1. Catherine Johnson

    Thanks fir sharing this, Siri. My brother is moving there soon. I can’t imagine him there but he does like the food already. The heat sounds like you’d never get a day’s work done yikes.

  2. Catherine, glad I could give you a glimpse. I imagine your brother will be mostly in air-conditioned comfort…it’s a fascinating city anyway, and a great place to eat out!

  3. I loved Bangkok and Koh Samui. Thanks for these wonderful reminders. I especially remember eating the vegetable curries. Yummmm. The contrasts in Bangkok were striking: golden temples and tin shacks. Your pictures are wonderful, and I can’t wait to see more.

  4. Janice, thank you for the kind words! Glad my posts are reminding you of your travels.

  5. Would you advise a single girl to go on holiday there by herself?

  6. Sure! Use your regular street smarts — be aware of people around you, pay attention to your gut, avoid anything that looks dodgy to you, and don’t stay out late at night by yourself. If you do that, you should be fine! Thailand isn’t one of those countries where you can expect to be hassled by men just for being a white girl. Plus, if you’re hostelling, you’ll likely meet other travellers to hang out with anyway.

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