We watch a lot of Hollywood movies, so we expected Bangkok to be a horribly seedy place with a dark underworld of illegal activity where sexual deviants and unnatural acts are performed on every corner. Instead, it was an amazing city with great food and nice people. Obviously, we were pretty disappointed.
Do we know how to pick vacation spots, or what?
Right after we’d booked our flights and hotels in Thailand, we learned about a series of recent protests in Bangkok. Understandably, we were a little nervous about this development since we had probably set off the “Arab Spring” revolution after visiting Egypt in late December of 2010. We worried that our presence in Thailand might, once again, trigger an eruption of civil unrest and political upheaval. Yet, as of this writing, that hasn’t happened.
Bangkok is big, hectic, and loud.
As the capital of Thailand, Bangkok is unsurprisingly huge like Cairo, Egypt with a similarly huge population of over eight million people, all of whom seem to constantly be on the road at the same time (but more about that later).
Downtown Bangkok is attractively littered with skyscrapers, people, and shopping malls. It was easy to see why the producers of The Hangover II chose the city for its second installment — Bangkok is essentially the Las Vegas of Asia. (Well, assuming you don’t count Macau. And, to be honest, we’re not even sure if Bangkok has gambling.) So maybe it’s more like the Cabo San Lucas of Asia — it’s on sort of a peninsula, the weather’s sunny and warm, and there are lots of activities to do as long as those activities are “drink too much,” “become obnoxiously loud,” and “get thrown out of bars.”
Bangkok is like a tropical paradise…if it were on meth.
Bangkok ranks among the world’s top tourist destinations and for very good reasons (least of which is their reputation for being “open-minded” about sexual morals). Travel + Leisure magazine — the publication for lazy people who hate staying home — even named Bangkok a “World’s Best City” so many times that the city is in their Hall Of Fame. To describe the pace of the city, T&L uses the word “bustle,” but I would’ve chosen “all-out pandemonium.”
Why? Glad you asked.
The traffic in Bangkok is effing insane.
At the best of times, driving in Bangkok is…“challenging.” When the city is on the verge of an uprising, driving is impossible. The Bangkok protests had an immediate and protracted impact on our trip: Namely, major road closures and massive detours throughout the city.
Now, road closures aren’t a huge inconvenience in most American cities, but in Bangkok — where highway traffic moves slower than a sloth with arthritis on a good day — the tiniest glitch reeks havoc in the whole system.
If you plan on riding, renting, or — gods forbid — driving a car in Bangkok, plan on bringing a gun to shoot yourself in the head with as well. Think I’m kidding? Consider this:
After taking a 4-hour guided city tour, we expected a twenty-minute ride back to our hotel. Instead, a single road closure backed up traffic all over the city, forcing our van to completely (and sloooowly) retrace its steps to find another route. That route involved driving to the river where we were expected to take a boat north to the tour office, at which time another driver would drive us to the Metro station where we could take the subway and then walk home. We arrived at our hotel…four hours later.
Why Bangkok traffic is effing insane.
Without a doubt, Bangkok is the worst traffic we’ve ever seen anywhere in the world (and we’ve been to Cairo where it’s completely out of control). In fact, traffic is so atrocious, it barely qualifies as traffic at all. Traffic implies movement and on Bangkok’s three-lane parking lots, there’s no movement to be had. Traffic doesn’t flow in Bangkok, it glaciates.
The culprit could be their liberal use of 3-lane, one-way boulevards. While somewhat attractive, they are traffic ugly. In order to travel in one direction, you must go in the opposite direction and then double back, not surprisingly doubling the length of your painfully slow trip (and doubling the cost, btw). We frequently drove past the exact same scenery twice because we seemed to always hailed cabs headed in the wrong direction.
Or maybe it’s the world’s worst traffic lights.
To make matters worse (if that’s possible), getting through Bangkok’s intersections take forever. Luckily, the traffic lights have timers that count down in seconds to tell you when the light will change. Now, this is a truly great idea…on the surface. In practice, it’s the cruelest of jokes — many of the timers count down from 200 seconds!
I’ll wait a moment for that to sink in.
Yep, you read that right. You’re stopped at a traffic light for over THREE. FULL. MINUTES. But wait, that’s only in ONE direction! If you miss the light, you might have to sit there for EIGHTEEN minutes! It’s essentially a countdown to suicide. One time, we were in a cab that got stopped at such a light and our 60+ year old driver put his head down on the steering wheel and sighed audibly as if his soul were leaving his body and, finally, happily, that damnable cab.
Car travel is to be avoided at all cost. No, seriously.
While driving in a Bangkok cab is an exercise in anger management, getting a cab is an exercise in futility. One fine morning, we awoke to find that the subway had “broken down.” Not wishing to press for more of an explanation, we tried to hail a cab from our hotel. Now, in most countries, cabs line up at all hours outside hotels for the chance to fleece …I mean, transport foreigners around. But not here. Not in Bangkok. We waited so long for a cab that, in the meantime, the city fixed the subway. That’s right, government workers with no incentive to be speedy FIXED a subway in less time than it took us to hail a cab. Amazing.
Mass transit is the only way to go…well, anywhere.
To cut down on road usage (too late!), the city of Bangkok built three rapid transit systems: The BTS SkyTrain, an above-ground, monorail type thing; the underground MRT, a typical underground subway type thing; and the Airport Rail Link which…um, we never found.
Unlike the city’s taxi cabs, the BTS SkyTrain is clean and efficient with an air-conditioning system that was, from all appearances, nuclear-powered. Stepping onto the BTS (or the MRT, for that matter) was like stepping into the frozen Heart of the Island from the TV series “LOST.” Outside, it was a delightfully humid 85ºF while inside it was freaking Verkhoyansk (ugh, just Google it). Not surprisingly, both systems were perpetually crowded. But compared to driving, it was by far the faster option.
The SkyTrain ticketing process could be better, though. This is roughly how it worked: You’d go to the ticket kiosk and tell the person in the booth where you wanted to go. They’d quote an amount and you paid it to them. They’d then hand you ~42 coins to put into a machine behind you — that’s the machine that actually gives you the ticket. Once you get the ticket, you stick it in the turnstile and pass through like on most mass transit. The process here is hardly intuitive, but after driving on Bangkok streets, you’re powerfully motivated to figure it out because, at least on mass transit, you’d “transit.”
…Unless you want to do some sightseeing.
For reasons we couldn’t fathom, the BTS/MTR won’t take you anywhere near the touristy parts of town. Most of the things the average tourist wants to see in Bangkok — temples, hookers, and whatnot — require some additional form of transportation. Being jammed in a subway car freezing your cajones off was always preferable to sweating them off in the backseat of an overheated and motionless taxi. But for a quintessentially Thai experience, there were other less conventional transit alternatives, too.
One method of getting around that we opted not to choose was riding an elephant. Not because we’re opposed to the mistreatment of animals (which we are), nor because tourists occasionally die riding them, but because I’d already done it years ago in America at a Renaissance Faire (hey, don’t judge me), and I still have the rash.
So, WTF is a tuk-tuk?
The tuk-tuk isn’t a transit option that you voluntarily choose (unless you’re James Blunt), it’s one you end up in when you finally give up trying to hail a cab. This open-air “vehicle” seems harmless enough, but it has a few downsides. First, you can’t roll up any windows (it has none), so you spend your entire trip breathing the toxic fumes pumped out by all of Bangkok’s two-stroke motorcycles and emission-uncontrolled automobiles.
Another downside is the ride — calling it harsh is like calling the Pope Catholic. There’s no actual suspension and you’re sitting on metal seats so, you know…ouch. Last, but not least, there’s the involuntary detours. The tuk-tuk driver’s get paid extra to take you to stores you probably don’t want to visit — touristy shops where hawkers try to sell you stuff. Our very pleasant driver took us to a clothing store and jewelry store where we proceeded to purchase custom-tailored clothes that we didn’t really need (but that fit really well). If you have trouble saying no to salespeople, stick to mass transit. If mass transit doesn’t go where you want to go, you have one more option.
Riding on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle.
To combat the ever-constant ‘go-nowhereness’ of traffic, Bangkok has empowered a fleet of purple (or was it pink?) “motorcycle taxis” to move anyone with a death-wish around town. It works like this: You raise your arm, a motorcycle pulls up, you sit on the back of said motorcycle, you wrap your arms around a total stranger, and you hold on for dear life. We didn’t avail ourselves of this sketchy option so we can’t say if it beats regular cabs (but it almost has to).
We ultimately found that the best solution was to take mass transit as far as possible and then — and only then — grab a cab, bus, van, motorcycle, or tuk-tuk to your final destination.
All the power lines are above ground.
As my wife can attest, I have a fascination with power lines and electric transfer stations: There’s just something weirdly industrial-looking and interesting about them. So for me, Bangkok was nirvana.
For reasons not entirely clear to me, all of the city’s power lines — instead of being buried underground and out of the way — were strung across telephone poles, out in public, where everyone could see them (and not everyone is as fascinated by the aesthetic as I am).
Now, granted, this approach does prevent the danger of anyone accidentally digging up a live power cable from out of the ground. But it introduces the danger of EVERYONE splicing into your wires and stealing power like it was cable TV. Oh, also, there’s the danger of being repeatedly electrocuted during frequent tropical lightning storms.
Stringing power lines above-ground would make sense if there was constant flooding in Bangkok (which apparently there is), but you’d think the city would at least try to hide them somehow. They could put them all in a bright pink tube (the Thai love pink for some reason), wrap them in flowers, or disguise them as climbing vines. (Note to self: call government of Thailand.)
But seriously, Bangkok is a tropical paradise.
Like any population-choked mega-city, Bangkok has its share of problems, but the city’s not without its charms. The weather is a sublime, subtropical bath of sun-drenched serenity and womb-like warmth. The frenzy and chaos of the city are nicely counter-balanced by it’s high humidity which wraps you up like a blanket and softly whispers, “What’s the rush?” in your ear like a lover with a weird blanket/confinement fetish.
Much of the city’s charm, however, comes from the people of Bangkok themselves — they are ridiculously friendly. And not in that fake way where they smile and then stab you in the back (metaphorically, I mean). No, the citizens of Bangkok were earnest smilers. Heck, even the scammers were pleasant! We got fleeced by a few con-artists, but just let them because they were so nice about it. (When the exchange rate is 30:1, it’s hard to get very upset about getting ripped off a little).
But what made Bangkok a paradise was the food.
Bangkok has a surprising amount of Thai restaurants.
Say what you will about their infrastructure, but there’s no denying that the Thai can freaking cook. Unlike most fancy European countries, where you sit down to eat a fine meal, Bangkok serves much of its best food while patrons are standing up — on the freaking sidewalk. The kind of food carts that serve hot dogs in America dish out amazingly tasty Thai cuisine in Bangkok. And it’s some of the cheapest food, as well.
Everywhere you go there are food-cart vendors making everything from fried pork balls to chicken satay to…well, a bunch of stuff neither of us couldn’t identify (though Amy said they were delicious…and maybe squid or possibly unicorn). While much of the food was spicy, almost all of it was smoky thanks to airborne pollutants from the passing traffic.
But not all the best food in Bangkok came from food-cart vendors. Some of it was served inside small, make-shift family restaurants. You can tell the family restaurants from the chain restaurant by the walls — if the restaurant has walls, it’s almost certainly a chain. But being adventurous travelers, we avoided the chain restaurants and patronized the local joints and food-carts instead.
Okay, enough dilly-dallying. Let’s talk temples.
We hadn’t come to Bangkok just to eat unidentifiable food and sit by our hotel pool (which wasn’t a bad Plan B). We came to experience the Thai culture a bit, and that meant visiting Buddhist Temples. So we took that BTS to the river where we expected to take a boat across to see the Grand Palace. Sadly, this was when we got hoodwinked by a friendly local who informed us that the Palace was closed for a holiday — it wasn’t. (Remember when I told you about this con earlier? Come on, pay attention!)
With the kindest, most smilingest face, our new friend “helpfully” directed us instead to a tuk-tuk driver who took us to Wat Benchamabophit (or the “Marble Buddha,” and Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). If you get to see these temples, then congratulations! You’re probably being scammed! (Though to be honest, it’s a pretty lame scam — worse case scenario, they take you to a few tourist traps. Oh, the horror!)
Over the next few days, we visited the Emerald Buddha which was nice and greenish, but no big deal if you’ve seen some of the other Buddhist temples. The crazy-huge Wat Pho, (or Reclining Buddha) is a “must-see.” Sizing in at 15m high and 43m long, the reclining Buddha is a massive gold figure seemingly posing for the swimsuit issue of Buddha Illustrated magazine. If you want to take a photo, bring a wide-angle lens! And if you want to keep that lens, hold on tight — the area is popular with pick-pockets, too.
Damn, Bangkok has a lot of temples.
After a few days of visiting Buddhist temples, we realized that most of them pretty much look the same. Typically, inside a very serene walled grounds, there’s a lot of topiary work and spired roofs that look like they were designed by someone hopped up on “the opium.”
Inside each temple, you’ll find a Buddha of some sort, frequently a gold one, just sort of chilling out in repose. Maybe with one hand extended. Maybe one sitting cross-legged. But always very peaceful and relaxing. In other words, the polar opposite of most Catholic churches.
Temples in Thailand lack the solemness, foreboding, and outright terror of your average Cathedral. Inside, you feel like you’re visiting a museum — you know you should be quiet, but you never feel as though your immortal soul is in any real danger. In fact, I never once felt judged for my misdeeds or human frailties. It was a very refreshing and welcome change of pace, and I hope it catches on with other religions. But I doubt it.
Wait, how did I not know there were hookers..?!
Our hotel was located in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok which is near a lot of shopping malls, but sadly nowhere near any of the sights most tourists would want to see (that stuff is all over by the Chao Phraya River, fyi). Still, this area is supposedly popular with tourists for some reason.
Apparently, that reason is prostitutes. We were told that the area was crawling with ladies of the evening, but only accidentally found them when we took a cab to dinner one night.
As with every Bangkok cab ride, we drove in one direction for half a mile then turned around and crawled back in the opposite direction (past our hotel again!) through an intersection, took a left and then drove 300 meters — without exaggeration, the trip took 45 minutes.
After dinner, we avoided taking a cab by walking back to our hotel on foot — it only took 10 minutes. On the way home, we took a detour into an alleyway between two major roads. The alley was blocked to traffic but aglow with neon lights and signs.
Both sides of the alley were lined with drinking establishments and youngish girls who looked like a street team for Axe Body Wash. Each bar had a theme, and girls dressed dressed in appropriate (yet highly inappropriate) outfits. Walking hand-in-hand with my wife, the “ladies” avoided us like we had the Bird Flu, but if you were an unattractive white male with a big gut and sexual inadequacy issues, this was the place for you!
Overall, here’s what I thought about Bangkok.
To be honest, I didn’t really love Bangkok but I’m pretty sure we just did it wrong. I think we were expecting something entirely different (something between Singapore and Bali). So we weren’t prepared for, and couldn’t fully take advantage of, all the city had to offer. In hindsight, we probably should’ve just done what a friend of mine later recommended: “Spend one or two days in Bangkok, then fly to Phuket to spend time on the islands off the coast.”
If you do spend time in Bangkok, don’t try to do too much, for two reasons: 1.) You’ll never be able to see it all in one trip anyway. And 2.) The #@$!%!ing traffic won’t let you.
The trip continued to the beaches of Phuket, Thailand »