Travel Diary: One Night in Bangkok
Alright, the title of this post is a little misleading (I actually spent four nights in Bangkok) but the song lyrics are what they are, so allow me to take some creative liberties. As you might have guessed, this post is about my time in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city and home to 8.5 million happy people. Was I one of them? The jury is still out.
When I first arrived in Southeast Asia I spent one night in Bangkok (ha! that one was actually true) and was left with a less-than-stellar impression. I chalked it up to jet lag, exhaustion, and the after-effects of 22 hours of travel, so after venturing through the rest of the country, I decided to give Bangkok another shot.
The city is a study in contrasts. Large opulent hotels take up residence next to old run down shacks. The ornately decorated Grand Palace, with its dizzying complex of gardens, halls, pavilions, and temples, sits within a few kilometres of the old wooden slat homes and littered alleys of the old city. High-end malls full of luxury designer boutiques like Cartier, Tod’s, Prada, and Chanel exist alongside roadside markets full of bargain goods.
One of the most interesting (and exhausting) experiences I had in the city was a visit to the bargain-hunter’s mecca, Chatuchak Market. For five hours I wandered the maze of stalls, where almost anything you can imagine is available to buy. Souvenirs, home décor, clothing (new and used), food, jewelry, hardware, even pets. If you can dream it, chances are you can find it at Chatuchak. Despite the amazing array of products, my shopping was stymied by a lack of available space in my backpack, so I limited myself to “window” shopping, coconut ice cream to battle the heat, and a well-deserved 30-minute foot massage for 150 baht (roughly $6). Heaven.
The following day, needing a reprieve from the unrelenting heat (a heat that makes sweat pour down your face and body until you think you’ll collapse from dehydration) I headed to the airy (and air-conditioned) space at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The five-storey modern building houses over 800 paintings and sculptures, ranging from dark and twisted, to bright and comical. Some of the most impressive pieces (certainly in terms of scale) were the three enormous paintings by Chalermchai Kositpipat (a tongue twister if ever there was one), depicting the Kingdoms of Heaven, Earth, and Hell. The temperature in Hell looked only nominally warmer than Bangkok.
There were two other sites in Bangkok that left a lasting impression on me. One was the Jim Thompson House, the former residence of the American architect / army veteran / businessman of the same name, who moved to Bangkok, revived the silk trade, and then mysteriously disappeared on a trekking adventure in Malaysia in 1967. The site is now a museum, where Thompson’s impressive collection of Asian antiques is dwarfed (both figuratively and literally) by the exceptional architectural design of the houses themselves. The six homes (which he acquired and relocated to create one master residence) are made almost entirely of teak, with the exception of a few checkerboard marble floors. The windows are wood frames with no glass, and look out onto lush gardens and a narrow canal. There was a sitting room, closed in on three sides only, allowing a hint of a breeze. If I closed my eyes, I could easily picture myself living in these stunning surroundings, but I think they frown upon tourists setting up shop in the house.
The other spot that left an impression was the Bangkok Flower Market (otherwise known as Pak Khlong Talat). On city blocks as far as the eye can see, vendors sell fresh flowers by the armful. Open 24 hours, the market is busiest between midnight and 4am, when retailers come to buy their product for the day. There were orchids and roses, marigolds and lotus flowers, jasmine and crownflowers. Heaps of flowers everywhere you turned, and for a steal! A huge bundle of roses for $4. Orchid stems for $1. You could fill your house with flowers for less than a tank of gas. These priorities make total sense to me.
Getting around the city was another example of odd contrasts. There are tuk tuks, the ubiquitous scooter-carriage hybrids that mesmerize tourists with their novelty and sheer fun factor. There is the public bus, that doesn’t come to a complete stop to pick up or drop off riders, it just sort of slows to a roll and people are expected to jump on and off, seniors included. And then there is the subway (MRT) and skytrain (BTS), both of which are super easy to navigate, but are oddly not physically connected, meaning that if, to arrive at your destination, you need to transfer from one line to the other, you’ll need to physically exit one station, walk to the other, and enter again. And the fare you pay on each system is for your route on that system only, but not necessarily for your end destination. Also, you’re charged by how far you’re going, not a flat fee. So in general maybe it’s not as simple as it seems, but I seemed to manage okay.
I’m pleased to say that my second visit to Bangkok was indeed better than the first, but despite a few enjoyable sights, the city still isn’t winning any prizes with me for favourite international destination. Overall I just find it noisy, crowded, dirty, and hot. It’s like being stuck in the concrete jungle of Toronto during a summer heat wave, where the humidity combines with the smog to form a kind of pollution paste that covers your body in the grit of the urban environs. At least now I know it wasn’t the result of a day of travel that did it. Turns out one night in Bangkok is probably enough.