Posted by: Anna | June 29, 2011

Bangkok, or sometimes you’re just not in the mood

I’ve said it before – travel is subjective. Talking to other travelers before we got to Bangkok, we heard it was fun. We heard it was crowded and dirty. We heard it was just another big city – nothing interesting. I didn’t know what to expect after so many conflicting reports.

Bangkok for us was a place we were never really in the mood to explore or fully experience. Traveling is mentally exhausting – mastering a new place every 3-7 days, sometimes faster – how to get around, find a place to stay, what to eat, how much stuff should cost, what to do, absorbing the history of a place, planning our time. My brain hurts sometimes. Unlike on vacation, where most people have been planning for weeks or months (or years), we are figuring it all out on the go. We often arrive at a place with little to no idea what we will do there. Sometimes we have time to read a chapter in the guidebook on the train or bus there, or to research a hotel in the town before, but not always.

When we got to Bangkok, we found a place to stay but then decided we didn’t like the location. It was too far from the sights and from public transportation. We then spent several hours in the rain exploring other options on Kho San Road (backpacker central) before deciding that we weren’t sure that was the area for us either. Back to the guesthouse to do more research online: we discovered a hostel that was centrally located and highly rated. We were facing a dilemma. Should we stay in a hostel, in a dorm, where we could meet other travelers easily and enjoy the social atmosphere, or in a private room in a guesthouse? The price was essentially the same. We had been staying in guesthouses in Laos and Thailand so far, so we opted for the dorm.

This process took an entire day. The next day was occupied with trying to figure out the rest of our plan for the trip. Where did we want to go? How long should we stay? We tried out at least three different itineraries and spent hours researching flights, weather, visas, budgets, etc. This took the better part of three days. We needed to know because if we are going to China or Indonesia, we need visas, and Bangkok is a good place to get them. But we had to have travel dates in order to get visas, so we needed a plan.

Interspersed with this intensive online research, we ate street food. We didn’t seek out the best – we just had what we stumbled upon. Much of it was decent or even good. Rarely was it anything amazing. So far, I have found Thai food disappointing. I expected it to be some of my favorite food on the whole trip. Vietnam and India had far more to offer, in my opinion. Of course, perhaps we’ve just been eating the wrong things, or at the wrong places. I am only getting a fleeting impression, really, as we move so quickly.

We spent seven days in Bangkok all together. We spent one day sightseeing. We spent the other six trip planning, resting, shopping, and yeah, well, I don’t really know what. Bangkok failed to enchant us initially, perhaps because of the first neighborhood we stayed or the rain, or the multitudes of travelers. Without the initial enchantment, and a lot of other stuff to do, we never really got motivated to fully see the city. Since one day of sightseeing doesn’t really yield enough for a blog post, I thought I’d share a few random thoughts on Bangkok.

We tried our first fresh coconut. Those of you who know us know that we HATE coconut. But fresh coconuts are everywhere, and they look so cool. We decided that we would give them a chance. Plus, this nice woman let us sit and eat our food from another street cart that didn’t have any tables at her table. She then practiced her very rudimentary English with us – pointing at our pineapple and saying, “pineapple?” It was really sweet. We felt like we should buy something, so we decided it was the perfect chance to try the coconut. It was okay, not as bad as most coconut stuff.

In Bangkok, we decided to take taxis instead of tuk-tuks. The tuk-tuks pretty much never use their meters, although they are supposed to have them, and the negotiated price is pretty much always a rip off. The taxis, if you just plop yourself inside and close the doors, will use their meter without a hassle. Taxis are cheap. Bangkok is either hot or raining this time of year, so the AC taxi is a little luxury that often costs less than the price we can negotiate a tuk tuk. However, if you tell the taxi driver before you get in where you want to go, he will name a price, then refuse to use the meter. I don’t understand this system. Get in – he’ll use the meter. Don’t get it – he’ll refuse to use the meter and refuse to take you if you won’t pay his inflated negotiated price. A weird system, but once you know the ropes, it works just fine.

Bangkok is absolutely full of prostitutes. Everywhere. Bars have “bar girls”, who are prostitutes. Bangkok has some famous red light districts, but even many regular bars are full of prostitutes. They hang out in the bar, waiting for customers to buy them drinks. First, you are supposed to buy a drink and talk to the older woman. You describe to her what you are looking for, and she introduces you to an appropriate girl. Then, if she suits you, you pay the “bar fee” and negotiate the price for the rest of the entertainment with the girl directly. This is so bizarre to me. And obviously, very sad. It’s pathetic to see men wandering around with young Thai girls. It’s sad that so many young girls support themselves and their families in this way, and that it is such an accepted part of life here. It just breaks my heart.

Thai people have got to be some of the nicest people on earth. Even in Bangkok, a huge city, people still generally give you a smile and often a joke when you interact with them. Locals will almost always try to help if you are lost or have a question. There is an easy-going-ness to the people, a cheerful, take it as it comes attitude.

Bangkok has these funny pop-up street bars. They are just a cart, like a food cart, on the sidewalk, surrounded by a few plastic tables. They sell drinks late into the night to patrons seated on the sidewalk at the tables. Some have bar girls. You can drink on the street here, and it’s not really a big deal. Random people will have a cooler on the side of the road full of cold water, beer, and cokes. There is seemingly no regulation on the sale of alcohol, and little cultural resistance to walking down the street drinking a beer. It seems to be just like drinking a coke. Like the rest of Asia, the big beer is the most common serving, although cans and normal bottles also exist.

There seemed to be two approaches to seeing Bangkok: the stay out partying until morning, sleep all day, repeat approach, or the go out for a little while, sleep, sightsee, repeat approach. Bangkok has interesting sights, including a huge weekend market full of everything under the sun and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Shopping in Bangkok could take you weeks. We visited three malls and countless little shops while we were there. I bought some new clothes – I am so sick of wearing the same stuff over and over. Tommy saw several movies after he hurt his back playing frisbee and needed a couple of days to recover. The movie theatres have a incredibly confusing array of options – different kinds of seats, different kinds of screens, all at different prices. Interestingly, when you see a movie, you always have an assigned seat. There are thirty minutes (!) of previews, followed by a video montage of the king accompanied the national anthem (or something like it – I’m not entirely sure). Everyone in the theatre stands to pay respect to the king before the movie. It seemed very odd, but I suppose it’s not all that different from playing the national anthem before a sporting event.

Bangkok epitomized our current mental place – one of lame apathy. I don’t know if we have been on the road too long, moving too fast, or just spending our time the wrong way, but we have declined in our enthusiasm to get out and experience the place we are. Or maybe it’s just that Bangkok isn’t our thing. Saigon and to a lesser extent Hanoi were really energizing, interesting big Asian cities. Bangkok, although easier, was less interesting. I’m ready to get my groove back in a new place.

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Responses

  1. Groove at the beach. Make that your next stop.

  2. I definitely think all the prostitutes would depress me too. It is so sad that it is so accepted for these young women to lead that kind of life. There is a whole political discussion in that about what you legalize and how we draw lines. But I won’t go there. The coconut looked good to me and the shopping sounds fun. But I cannot wait to see you in Australia and spoil you both a little!! I think you are due for that and it will energize you for the last bit of your trip.

  3. In complete disbelief you two tried coconut. Really, I think you are lying for some reason, possibly to win a bet.

    Traveling to fast. BKK is a city you two would normally dig. That said, it draws a lot of mixed opinions.

    Thais are famous for being very warm to tourists/foreigners. The make many decisions based on happiness (not money, career, etc) and really are extraordinarily happy as a people.

    Also, and most importantly, I am spreading the Casino word


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