Hundreds of cars, buses, tuk-tuks and bicycles rushed past me as I stood bewildered in the middle of a busy thru-fair in the middle of a daunting metropolis. The sky was painted an angry red as the sun set in the distance, leaving behind a heavy moist heat, hanging amongst the afternoon smog that had been kicked up throughout the day. As my sweat started to build up to cool down my panic, I finally managed to hop into a cab to the centre of town with a guy I had just met off the plane called Matt. We’d both just jumped off a flight from Kolkatta in India – the dusty, dirty, poverished streets now replaced by beautifully clean sweeping boulevards. The hydro-powered cab we hailed down was a heavily supped-up Honda best compared with the the Gran Turismo series on the Sony Playstation. As we were dropped off at our destination, the excitement all of a sudden changed to a more defensive despair. The streets were packed full of tuk-tuks (the 3-wheeled motorcycle taxis I previously mentioned in Amritsar, India) whizzing around the hordes of tanned guys in sleeveless t-shirts, holding a beer in one hand and a bronzed girl in the other. Above head height, fluorescent lights would glow in the dark, many signs decorating the sky to try and beckon people inside. Food stalls would line up down the side streets in between tens of bars and restaurants. The locals wouldn’t give you an inch, attacking you with a mix of bad souvenirs ranging from croaking frogs to t-shirts and glow-sticks. Loud cheers and wolf whistles could be heard in the distance amongst the heavy background music beats. This was Bangkok – where East Greets the West.Owing to many of my friends’ commentary of Bangkok from their visits, my perceptions of the city were slightly tarnished before I arrived. Many would remark that Bangkok was far removed from the rest of Thailand, a dystopian city hidden amid the lush green paradise that surrounded it. The first couple of hours of life here had already affirmed those portrayals and my biggest fears. But, to some extent, for all the negativity associated with the city, it’s understandable why it is the way it is. Bangkok is the primary city where tourists travel to in order to venture round Thailand and the rest of South-East Asia. It’s a city at somewhat of a crossroads, one that’s been twisted over the years in the face of increasing tourism and the influx of riches from all over the world. It’s a city in paradise, far away from home, where westerners and Europeans in particular can come to experience escapism – for many, a chance to abandon everything and start again, or simply to leave behind their normal lives for a short period of time. Thailand started to take advantage of tourism back in the 70s as long distance flights became a reality with the arrival of the Boeing 747s, but really started to emerge as a travel destination in the mid-to-late 90s as barriers to entry were further reduced due to increased political stability. Since then, tourism has become one of the major powers behind Thailand’s economic growth. Unfortunately, the obsession with money seems to have poisoned many people of Bangkok, removing them from their previous peaceful existences, a city whose luxuries now come at a cost to all. From the outside, those that stay here seem to thrive on these indulgences. The site and nature of the majority of what goes on here can unfortunately be compared to the most disconcerting pieces of history as a white Caucasian; but, in amongst it all, I was determined to defy all critics and find some hidden treasures amongst the tourist chaos that ensued. As with many travellers, I settled down in the central Thanon Khao San Road area. Here, the small intricate streets are lined with the main tourist bars, restaurants and clubs. It is an area desolate of any real local life, a place where many Thais would come to coax westerners into investing in gems, alcohol or prostitution. The whole area replicated a stereotypical Euro-pop styled resort. So far, a lot of what I say may seem negative, but it does have its attractions and does fulfill some needs – it’s a place to let your hair down and have fun, a place to forget about the bad weather and stress of home. A place to indulge cheaply. But it just seems to be a strange place to do it. Or, it is a place that has unluckily been converted into this crossroads, a type of huge Terminal where people stay briefly in order to get in or out of the country. And whilst you’re there, you can’t help but join in the melee. Whether you are there to experience the delights of the rest of Thailand or neighbouring countries, you also can’t help experience Bangkok’s raw attractions. The couple of days I was there saw me enjoy the treasures it has to offer, whilst dipping into the late night partying in the streets, meeting and drinking with all kinds of people, each with their own objectives and destinies. Aside from the bars, massage parlours would invite passers-by to a cheap alternative activity. Food stalls would also fill the streets day and night with amazingly cheap local delicacies; so cheap that you couldn’t help but buy a plateful every couple of hours or so. Other stalls would serve up the cockroaches and insects as an alternative attraction.
But Bangkok isn’t simply lost to this world of decadence. Escaping the perimeters of the Khoa San Road also dishes up some delights which serve up a brief introduction as to what’s to come in the rest of the country. Upon wandering the streets of Bangkok in the day, I managed to stray across countless temples. One was the city’s most famous and most striking – the Grand Palace, which is located to the South of the Khoa San Road bordering the Chao Phraya River. The architecture is simply stunning, the saturated blue, yellow and red colours some of the most perfect examples of Thai construction. The Grand Palace still to this day remains central to the Thai religion and was the official residence to the Kings of Siam until 1925. Many temples and palaces throughout the country exhibit the same characteristics, with the reclining Buddha also a prominent feature.
On the outskirts of the centre of Bangkok, I had a chance to visit the Soi 3 area of Baan Silom, a place where you could find escapism in the tranquil backstreets of a local Thai neighbourhood, one of many that were built up around the canals of the city. It was here that I had a chance to take a breath of fresh air and browse around the local boutiques offering all kinds of electronics, textiles, food and sweets. The streets were typically paved in concrete, the small two-storey blocks lining the sides making you feel slightly taller than normal. Above your head, the complicated danger of the electric and telephone lines would criss-cross the street chaotically. Scooters would zoom by frantically. Cyclists would instead calmly pass you by. Within the tiny thin stretches of the canal streets, startled locals would greet you with warmth, unfazed by your intrusion. The beautiful canals would be lined with vibrant saturated colours of hand-built housing, pulled together to beat away the seasonal monsoons and harsh sunlight.
Other housing would lay crumpled in defeat.
A brief pause in one of the smaller village squares would see me tuck into some Pad Thai cooked from the porch of a local’s house. The children and villagers would all gather round for a simple welcoming and discussion.
Moving on round the corner, a huge local marketplace stood selling everything from raw fish and chopped-up butcher meat, to watches, sweets and clothing. Hot food stalls would also cook up some fresh meat skewers or fried fish. Others would serve up tasty soups and noodles. I was actually so engrossed by it; I hardly even picked up my camera, which was a rare occurrence.
As I ventured back into the Khao San Road ready for my final night before leaving Bangkok, I realised that I had learned something very important at an early stage – much can be gained even from the most uninviting of places – you just have to go out and look for it…
Further Reading on Bangkok
Bangkok Tourist Guide
Grand Palace Bangkok
Bangkok Cuisine – CNN’s Guide to the Best Street Food
More Photography :
“The Thailand Collection” by Antematters