Bali was the perfect appetizer to Asia travel for us. Next we headed to Bangkok—the giant, juicy 20oz steak. Bangkok is total insanity. It's a city made for Barney Stinson. And we loved it!
Though Bangkok is not the city for everyone. In fact, both personal accounts from well-traveled friends, as well as respected travel blogs are a total mixed bag when it comes to Bangkok. Those who love it really love it. Those who don't, well, they have many good reasons not to. It's crowded, it's LOUD, it's smoggy, advertisements bombard you everywhere, the traffic is unreal, and for much of the year, it's excruciatingly HOT. The soaring natural temperatures are only compounded by all the body heat and building heat and vehicular heat, which is then snugly trapped by a hazy bubble of smog that permanently sits atop the city skyline. Yes, Bangkok is all of those things, and if that stuff grates on you, then you probably won't like Bangkok.
We certainly noticed those characteristics, and didn't exactly find them charming... but for us, they didn't obscure the grand shimmer of the city itself. Bangkok is a city of paradoxes. It's a mix of old and new; a city where one can explore the ancient splendor of temples and marvel at modern skyscrapers all in the same day. It's a place where you can get a $20 beer at the swankiest roofdeck bar, and then eat the most delicious, fresh dinner from a street vendor for about a buck. It's accessible and inaccessible, a city designed for tourism and packed with expats and travelers, but with hundreds of deep corners that feel totally out of reach for anyone not in-the-know. And it feels both familiar and exotic at the same time.
Red Light, Green Light
Our neighborhood choice for our Bangkok digs was Sukhumvit, known as social hub of the city, packed with bars, restaurants, and of course, the red light district. It was a colorful place to call home for a few days. By colorful, I mean loud. But it was also nice to be in the thick of it, despite the fact that our hotel faced a bar with live music, a surprisingly good house band that played an amusing mix of 80's hair band rock and 90's R&B slow jams. The first night, it was kind of entertaining! Even though the band felt like they were sitting at the foot of our bed, I'm not one to complain about live music, especially when the musicians can sing (which they really could.) But by night 4 of the exact.same.set, we felt like it was Groundhog Day and the joke was on us. How many times in one week can a person listen to a 10 minute rendition of Meatloaf's Paradise By the Dashboard Light and not go mad?
The other fun part about our neighborhood were the “spas” that were so obvious you just had to laugh. There was one particularly sketchy row tucked behind the convention center, where the women sat outside on stools in stilettos and short skirts, standing up only as a man walked by. I stumbled onto this row one night without Chris, while I was seeking an actual spa to get my legs waxed. I poked my head near a few until I realized that I was very much in the wrong place and none of these “spas” had any wax inside, unless it was for a very different kind of use. Later, Chris and I walked through this gauntlet together, and he said that it was 10 times as sketchy as the red light district in Amsterdam. So I guess, sadly, the reputation for Bangkok's thriving sex tourism does ring true for some. We also saw this evidenced by the scads of old white men out on “dates” in fancy bars with young, gorgeous Thai girls that they could never get in a million years without it being a transaction. Even though it skeeved me out, as an adult, I realize that it's two consenting adults and it happens everywhere in the world, not just Bangkok. Here, they're just a little more relaxed about what's going on.
We also experienced our first tuk-tuk ride, a ride in which every traffic signal was a green light! It's a fun, open-air way to see the city, and I'd do it again for short distances or smaller cities. But throttling down a crowded city street, weaving in and out of cars and buses, and going over a tall bridge at 50mph in (essentially) a friggin' cart on the back of a motorbike, well, it was terrifying at moments. But authentic Bangkok nonetheless!
Expensive Art & the Art of Cheap Food
Our relatively puritanical time in Bangkok was spent exploring, and trying to get a feel for the heartbeat of the city. We explored the old quarter, and photographed the stunning temples and impressive statues, like the ginormous Reclining Buddha. We glimpsed monks chanting and praying, strolled through the markets, and in the heat of the day, when it was too hot to walk around, we explored Bangkok's omnipresent mall scene—which puts American mall culture to shame! There are modern art installations, experiential activities, and food courts that would blow your mind. It's like a street food bonanza-meets-college dining hall. You get a “card” that you recharge and then can pop around to all these food stalls and try different things, where the most “expensive” dishes cost a whopping $3.50. We're not mall people, but when it's 100 degrees and blazing sunny, an air-conditioned mall is a great place to find a cool respite and grab some cheap lunch. Because of this, I have to admit it: I kind of love the Bangkok malls.
We also met up with my former roommate Cynthia who now lives in Bangkok, which was a great treat! She introduced us to an up-and-coming Bangkok neighborhood with a great street food scene. It was here we experienced the art of Thai street food two nights in a row. From skewers of fish balls to deep fried chicken to hot woks of tasty noodles, Bangkok brings street food to a whole new level. These mobile kitchens come out when the sun goes down, and really give the idea of fine dining a run for it's money. When a couple can feast for $4 total, AND bring our own brewskies to the party, why do I ever need to go to a restaurant again?
One of our highlights was a museum called the Jim Thompson House. It's a well-preserved ancient Thai home smack in the middle of the city, now a mini-museum of fine Thai art and artisanal wares. Jim Thompson was an American who fell in love with Thailand while serving as a US government spy (allegedly), and later made Bangkok his permanent home. He bought a complex of ancient Thai homes, restored them, and then moved them to Bangkok where it housed his massive Thai arts collection. But poor Jimmy Jim, he can't enjoy it any more, so it's now a museum for others to enjoy. What happened to Jimbo? He literally fell off the face of the earth in 1967 while visiting a friend in Malaysia. He went for a walk to a temple one morning, and was never heard from again. There was no body, no clues, nada... he just disappeared. But, since he's singlehandedly credited with creating the American appetite for Thai silk and reviving the cottage craft into a booming source of revenue, he has become a well-regarded western influencer in Thai history. Oh, and he's from Greenville, Delaware! HOLLA!
Water and Sky
Chris and I have a thing when we go to new cities... we like to see a city from the water, and from the sky. For the water view, we took local water taxi up the Chao Praya river. Though there are tourist boats for 150 baht (like $5), we nabbed spots on the local taxi boat for just 16 baht (pennies!). A thrill for budget tourists like us.
In order to see Bangkok from up high, we needed to take an un-budget-friendly route. We chose a roofdeck bar called Vertigo Moon Bar, set atop a trés chic hotel downtown. On our first go, we were stymied by a dress code that Chris unknowingly broke (no shorts, no open-toed shoes, despite the fact that it's 100 degrees outside?!) So we had drinks on their “casual” bar several floors below, which had a great view, but not “the” view. However, when fate and a sold-out train to Chiang Mai stranded us in Bangkok for one more day, we headed over to Vertigo one more time, this time dressed accordingly. This bar is hands-down one of the most spectacular urban rooftop bars we've ever seen. With 360-degree views of Bangkok and a roofdeck that's one of the highest in the city at 59 stories, you just can't beat it. It was totally worth $40 for two stupid drinks. We rationalized that we were eating for a pittance so could splurge on the eye candy.
While I can't imagine living in Bangkok, I'm so glad we went. Bangkok has been the one place that made my heart ache for NYC. I'm not sure whether it was that familiar indifference of big-city-dwellers, the true multicultural feel, or the pure crazy energy... but for the first time in our 4+ months on the road, I felt homesick not for people (because I miss people all the time), but for New York City itself. As I sat on the water taxi gliding up the Chao Praya river, I was in awe of the impressive eastern temples and transfixed by signs in the beautiful Thai written language that I couldn't understand...yet even immersed in a river of foreign (literally), I somehow found myself misty-eyed behind my sunglasses, feeling nostalgic for New York. How that happened, I'll never know. Another Bangkok paradox.