A Day In: Bangkok
Let the city be your guide
Hello and welcome to the 28th issue of Place! We were grateful for all of you who gave feedback that you enjoyed the “Day In” feature, so we decided to hop right back in with another edition of visual escapism — this time, a day in Bangkok. We’d love to host more of these photo series, so if you’d like to show us around your neighborhood, town or city, please reach out — we’d love to feature more destinations around the world.
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A day in Bangkok
Some places, no matter how visually stunning or culturally rich, get so bogged down with expectations that it becomes almost impossible for the destinations to live up to what we imagined them to be while sitting at home. Bangkok, I think, suffers from this a bit. Before I visited, I knew it mostly for its reputation as a party destination, even on the well-trod backpacker trails of Southeast Asia. When speaking to fellow travelers, they either felt let down that they didn’t have a “Hangover”-style wild night out, felt it was just a series of tourist traps or immediately fled the busy capital for the lush jungles of Chiang Mai or the islands off Phuket.
Both times I went to Bangkok, it wasn’t my final destination. It snuck its way into my travel plans for a handful of days due to its extensive international flight connections — first en route from a fellowship I was wrapping up in India to a family vacation in New Zealand, and a few years later as a stopover before a week-long trip to Bali with one of my best friends. In both instances it was a logistical “bonus” to the longer trip I had planned, so I went in with no expectations and few plans.
This, I think, is the best way to approach Bangkok, if you ever find yourself there. It’s so massive and layered, that inevitably it will confound any expectations. So it is better to just give up control to its vibrant streets, art-filled alleyways and centuries-old temples, and allow the city to lead the way.
I’ve stayed in a hostel near the infamous party strip on Khaosan Road with a slide from the second-floor dorms to the breakfast lounge, in a pod hotel in the busy commercial district Sukhumvit, as well as in a king-sized suite at a three-star hotel (courtesy of Emirates Airlines who took too long to process the transit visa I didn’t know I needed, causing me to miss my flight). Each provided a different experience, from small streets filled with food vendors, proximity to the gleaming megamalls and slick BTS Skytrain, to an infinity pool overlooking the sprawling city, respectively. But the key is that each had a vibrant neighborhood just out the front doors. This is a city that moves, so you may as well jump right in.
Street food stalls offer endless options for breakfast and snacks on the go, from the Thai breakfast staple khao tom (boiled rice with pork) to a simple egg omelette. I always crave sweets in the morning, so when I stayed in Sukhumvit I started my day with a big bag of mango slices with salt and chili pepper. Iced coffee is readily available — instant espresso mixed with sweet condensed milk served over ice in a tall takeaway cup, necessary in the year-round heat. Though I still think about the perfect iced cappuccino I had in a tiny craft shop the way to the Wat Phra Kaew, peering at the plastic-wrapped Buddha statues in the wholesale shop across the way.
Thailand is primarily Buddhist, and its religious identity is a tourist draw. However, there’s a complicated relationship between the iconography, particularly as Buddha statues regularly dot the decor of Western homes, and the actual practice of religion. While shops sell Buddha statues of every size, shape and posture around Bangkok, there are strict rules around taking images of Buddha out of the country and there are billboards posted around the city reminding tourists that it is frowned up on to purchase these idols.
However, a visit to Bangkok would not be complete without a morning wandering around its many temple complexes. There’s the ornately gold-trimmed Wat Phra Kaew in the grounds of the Grand Palace, the site of the venerated Emerald Buddha, an idol carved of a single block of jade. At Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn, the 70m prang is decorated with pieces of colored glass and Chinese porcelain. At Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a 46m-long golden Buddha lies forever on its side. The edge of the room is lined with 108 bronze bowls — referring to the 108 positive actions and symbols that helped lead Buddha to perfection — where you can drop coins for donations. It’s quiet, save for the plinking prayers of the devoted.
A few hours of wandering temple complexes will work up anyone’s appetite. Once again, Thailand’s street food comes to the rescue. The variety is endless, with blocks upon blocks of vendors tossing noodles in spicy-sweet sauces, frying fish in spitting oil, stirring vats of fragrant curries, grilling mouth-watering meat skewers. There are no real recommendations, other than to follow your nose and order whatever steaming dish is most enticing. And there’s always the tourist friendly 30-cent Pad Thai noodles, cooked fresh on a wok and eaten off foam plates while perched on bright plastic stools, watching the city go by.
One of the best places, both for street food and for the continuing afternoon adventures is the Chatuchak Weekend Market, about a twenty minute taxi ride north of the temples through the frenetic center of the Bangkok. It’s the largest outdoor market in Asia, with 15,000 vendors lining tiny branching side streets, called “sois.” It’s like a city within the city, with mini-neighborhoods devoted to different wares for tourists and locals alike. Turn left and there’s an acre of vintage clothing stalls, some with old t-shirts piled high and sold for cheap, others with curated hipster boutiques selling vintage Levis and leather jackets. Turn right and you’ll stumble upon Section 7, the art zone, with galleries featuring the works of up-and-coming artists who haven’t yet broken into the galleries in posher parts of the city. Shaded tables double as workshops between the narrow streets.
On my first visit, I got blissfully lost, finding myself in a corridor with vendors selling dinner plates, stumbling upon a street of stalls selling miniature ceramic animals, and turning again to find a row of pet shops with an adorable golden retriever puppy barking at me from behind the glass. I knew I needed to get out before I walked back to the hostel with a souvenir dog.
As the day eases into the late afternoon, it’s time to head back toward the center of the city, stopping by the Jim Thompson House, located along a canal where the water taxis cut deep wakes in the murky water, for a bit of a respite from the hectic pace of the city. Thompson was an American businessman who made his fortune exporting Thai silks, amassing a vast collection of Asian antiques housed across six teakwood houses. He mysteriously went missing while walking in the Malaysian highlands in 1967, kicking off an enormous search party that turned up no trace, leading to an array of theories that he was eaten by a tiger or kidnapped. His estate is now a museum with carefully maintained lush gardens, quiet and calm.
But the thrum of the city awaits. Outside of the house, there are plenty of motorbike taxis and tuk-tuks waiting to be your chariot. The tuk-tuks are an experience worth having, neon sleighs decked out in colorful lights and reclined vinyl seats. But I prefer the understated glamour of the motorbike taxis — I watched once as a beautiful Thai women in impossibly high heels hailed down an orange-vested driver with a tiny wave, hopped on side-saddle, took a sip of her bubble tea and flicked through her phone, not even looking up as the motorbike roared into rush hour traffic.
The evening is when the city amplifies — the street food stalls kick into high gear, the streets glow with twinkling lights, music pumps out from bars and clubs. There are a million different adventures to pursue. Perhaps a happy hour drink out of a parked campervan on the dizzying Khaosan Road, the roof removed with stools pulled up to a bar placed along the windows. Or give into one of the many street hawkers enticing you with a cheap massage, leading you up a narrow staircase to a large room packed with masseuses vigorously contorting weary muscles in a Thai-style massage. Once again, street food is a must — might I recommend a post dinner snack of mango sticky rice and a grilled scorpion? Thailand is way ahead of the west in realizing the nutritional benefits and snackable potential of flavored fried insects. Just eat the legs one by one to avoid the feeling that it is crawling into your mouth.
As the evening turns into night, some slink off to the infamous neon strip of Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok’s red light districts. Despite being a primarily Buddhist and conservative country, Thailand has a reputation as a sex tourism hotspot and it’s impossible to miss. Prostitution is illegal, but the laws are ambiguous and rarely followed, and there is a separate set of laws regulating adjacent services, such as go go bars and massage parlors, leaving sex work in a gray area. Given its prevalence, there has long been efforts to decriminalize sex work, allowing the largely female-dominated industry better protections and workers’ rights. But at this point it would be difficult to patronize these places without being sure that you’re not supporting exploitation.
Besides there are plenty of late night attractions. Stop by one of the hundreds of street stalls that spill out onto the road, and ask locals their suggestions for the best stir fry combinations. Ascend to one of the rooftop bars for overpriced fruity drinks, worth it for the views of the city with thousands of blinking lights sprawling in the distance.
One of the most memorable evenings I had in Bangkok was a night spent watching rounds of Muay Thai boxing at the legendary Rajadamnern Stadium. Steep benches surround the small ring like an ampitheater, but even from our cheap seats behind a metal fence we could see the intensity on the fighters’ sweat-drenched faces. For five rounds of three minutes each, the fighters punch, kick and dodge blows, their impossibly muscular bodies rippling with the effort. We sipped Singha beers out of takeaway cups with straws and slipped away around midnight, through the smoky hallways lit with neon purple signs. It was a bit mysterious, but all the more alluring. Expectations, forgotten.
-Karis Hustad is journalist based in London, usually covering debt, and co-editor of Place
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