City #1 of 50 before 50: Bangkok
It is said that, after a crime is committed, the first 48 hours are the most critical in terms of trying to solve the case. This feels apt. I feel like if anything nefarious is going to happen in Bangkok, it will be within my first 48 hours there.
The sun is setting amongst some clouds as I exit the airport to find my Grab car (Grab is like Lyft/Uber for Thailand). My stomach rumbles slightly, not from want of food, but as it always does whenever I first get to a new place and realize that I cannot speak a word of the language. Not only that, but, while Thai is a gorgeous language to look at, I have not even a grasp of how to pronounce anything. At least with the romance languages, I may not know what I am saying, but my American mouth and brain can at least may any attempt at sounding out a word, no matter how much I butcher it.
It takes about 50 minutes for a $14 dollar ride to my hotel. The highways give way to narrower, noisier, busier streets spilling over with people, motor cycles, pink taxis (I love this) and tuk-tuks, which is the Thai version of a pedicab, but motorized.
It turns out that I’m staying on the Bourbon Street of Bangkok. That is to say the noisiest and one of the most touristy streets in the city. I both love and hate this. While I love that Khao San road is fairly central and within walking distance of many attractions, it’s also one long block of bars, restaurants, clubs, massage places, and souvenir shops. In other words, it’s backpacker mecca and likes to party until 3am, as I found out the first night while falling to sleep to the melodic thrum of a deep and never-ending bass beat.
Khao San Road is filthy, seedy, unkempt, and completely alive with flesh and neon and noise and vices just waiting to bubble up. It’s amazing. It’s a huge, crazy, nonstop block party – like Mardi Gras in New Orleans without floats and beads . Restaurant vendors call out, trying to entice foreign customers, sometimes shoving handmade boards in faces advertising beer, buckets of liquor and laughing gas. Makeshift food stands, which are little more than portable, rusted-out barbeque stands also clog the street with all kinds of made-as-you-wait pad thais, fried rice dishes, coconut ice creams and satays (meats on a stick).
I wander the street a couple of minutes before I hear an acoustic version of a Lady Gaga song wafting from a place whose ceiling is adorned with upside down umbrellas and falling twinkle lights. This will do for my first night. After procuring a local beer and spring rolls, I engage in one of my favorite activities: people watching.
There are the twenty-something backpackers straight from the airport sporting the standard-issues oversized backpack on their backs. There are the Chinese and Japanese with the selfie sticks. There are the empty-nest Western couples in khaki shorts and tropical prints, the kind of couples I imagine who decided to come to Thailand, at the suggestion of a therapist perhaps, to “spice things up” and “have an adventure.” There are the chain-smoking Europeans. Bangkok welcomes all, but it does not let you relax. You don’t come to Bangkok to relax. It puts every kind of vice and desire and freedom at your curious fingertips and let’s you decide your fate. It’s a 3D technicolored “choose your own adventure” book come to life.
The next morning, I walk the little over 1 mile to the Grand Palace, one of the “must dos.” Built in 1792, it was the private residence of the kings of Siam and Thailand until 1925, as well as the administrative center of the monarchy.
Situated on the riverfront of the Bangkok river, the compound stretches on forever and consists of a number of buildings, sprawling and picturesque courtyards made for the IG and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is noted as the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. Eye-popping and humbling, I spent a good 2 hours imaging a past life where I was the daughter of the king of Siam frolicking in the bonsai trees in the garden and drinking from petit, golden goblets. I was addressed as “Princess” and drifted to sleep in an insanely ornate four-poster bed. Who knows, maybe Anna Leonowens was even my governess.
The opulence and grandeur of the buildings when viewed from afar is hard to describe, but I noticed that, as I got up close to some of the mosaic-like hand-constructed structures, the effect was changed. I call it the Monet effect. Monet was a French impressionist painter. When viewed from a distance, his paintings are dreamy and romantic images of people and landscapes. Up close, the paintings sometimes look like a muddle of harried brush strokes. Only up close could I detect and appreciate the flaws of the imperfectly cut tiles and not-quite-symmetrical patterns. The flaws have always been and will always be there, but that doesn’t make the structure any less beautiful.
Early evening finds me back near my hotel where I grab a Singha beer and some fried rice before retiring early to sleep off some jet lag. I manage to drift in and out of sleep through the massive street party going on outside until it stops around 2:30 and I fall like a lead weight into a deep sleep.
There is a vast difference between the motorcycle culture of the US and the motorcycle culture here in Thailand. Sure, motorcycles are obviously modes of transport, but in the US, bikes are also considered a kind of status symbol and identity. In Thailand, motorcycles are 100% practicality and 0% testosterone. Their mission is simple: to get through the clogged traffic fast and with laser-like precision. The humble Thais would probably look at a pimped out American Harley and laugh in amusement. Practicality and simplicity rule when it comes to motorcycles here.
Grab is like the Uber and Favor of Thailand combined where you can hail a car or a bike, as well as order food to be delivered. I had used a Grab car to get from the airport (swift and easy), but I had not noticed the “Bike” option.
Since my destination was only a few miles away (not too far, but too far for me to walk in the heat), I opted for the “Bike” option and was soon whizzing through Bangkok on the back of a small Honda scooter. And these guys are good. Expertly adept at weaving in and out, these guys are the quickest way to get anywhere. They treat lanes more as a suggestion than rule, sometimes, and love to weave through cars stopped at a light so that they are in the front and among the first to hit the gas.
I summon a bike and, within minutes, am happily zipping in and out of chaotic traffic though the city. There seems to be an unwritten traffic agreement between motorcycles and cars here: if you’re in a car, just drive normally; the motorcycle will find the spaces to weave in and out. Like water flowing around rocks, the motorcycles will rush around you, but will keep flowing. Just drive.
Sorry, mom and dad, but if you’re flying solo, this is the best, quickest and most economical way to get around. It’s a way to feel a little bit cooler without going full biker chick. And speaking of biker chicks, some of the women here opt to ride side-saddle, perching one and a half butt cheeks on the seat behind the driver and barely bothering to hang on (in fact, they are usually holding something in one hand) as the driver zips along. And just when I thought that was badass, along comes a family of four on the same bike – 2 adults sandwiching 2 kids my nephew and nieces ages. All without helmets. This is just the way it is here.
But there’s more. Soon, along comes the motorcycle carrying a dog whose two front paws are perched on the handlebars right next to the driver, standing up on their hind legs. And loving every wind-swept moment.
While I might never be cool enough to ride side-saddle, there is sometime deliciously and soulfully free about riding on the back of a motorcycle in a foreign city driven by a guy whose name you do not know and speaks two words of English.
Hours 30 – 47 in bullet points
- Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho – the Mona Lisa of Bangkok – a gigantic golden statue of the Buddha resting on his right side, and said to have been his posture as he awaited death and about to enter the parinirvana (the “death after nirvanah”). Though this is a must see while in Bangkok, it is touristy. In a related note: I loath selfie sticks in public places.
- Squids, scorpions and other assorted bugs on sticks
- Full-sized crocodile being cooked rotisserie style and sliced like turkey
- Monks in a tuk-tuk
- Western dude in tank top on Khao San Road slyly tucking a bill into the top of a waitress as she sets down a yardstick-type device full of beer in front of him. She hurries to bow slightly enthusiastically a couple of times. I come to a full dead stop slack-jawed vacillating wildly between rage and befuddled amusement.
After a dinner of street satay and mango sticky rice, I follow the sounds of some live music and find myself in a second story bar overlooking Khao San Road. The drummer dangles a cigarette out of his mouth as he drums along to tunes like “Wonderwall” and “Take Me Home, Country Road.” It’s not long before a gent approaches asking if he can sit at empty place next to me. I motion for him to go right ahead.
His face appears to be Thai, though as soon as he speaks, it’s clear he was not raised Thailand. Turns out Colin is, indeed, of Thai background, but is also a full quarter Scottish and grew up in Scotland, which means it takes a few minutes to adjust to his charming brogue accent. He’s plays and teaches football (“real football, not American football”) and has a tattoo of the Thai flag on the back of his neck. We chat lightly for a bit. I learn he’s very anti-Brexit and just took a new job in Bangkok. He comes to the bar once a week for the music and sports a Rod Steward tee-shirt. A detail I don’t pick up on until the band starts playing “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” and he jumps up, yelling, “Ah, fuck yeah, Rod Stewart! He’s my favorite!”
And thus, with local Singha beer in hand, ends my first 48 hours in Bangkok.
Next: City # 2 – Ayutthaya