City of Angels
It is where the tuk-tuks run parallel to the sky trains and tiny food joints are as popular as Burger King. Experiencing Bangkok’s confluence of traditional and the contemporary, Hazel Jain comes away mesmerized
From the ancient to the modern, the visitor as a distant observer will find everything converging in Krung Thep (as the Thais call their capital, which means City of Angels), a shortened version of the official and very long tongue-twisting challenge.
As a city that welcomes almost as many tourists as Singapore and Malaysia combined, Bangkok continues to charm and fascinate foreigners. It is a point of intersection - of many things - replete with contradictions where two worlds merge and intermingle with each other. It goes beyond organized chaos; a place where everything has its own place.
Every destination has many layers to it and it is upon the traveler to explore and penetrate these various layers to reach and understand the core and soul of the place. But Bangkok, like the durian fruit it is famous for, is an acquired taste. At first sight, it might appear uninteresting, unsettling even. It is only when you try and intermingle with the sights and sounds around you, absorb and assimilate the flavor of Bangkok, that you begin to open up to it and perhaps even develop a bond.
It took me two trips, with an interval of almost three years, to warm up to the city. When I found myself in the Thai capital with four days to spare, I was determined to make the most of it. Having already visited some of the ‘must-see’ tourist spots - the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace, the floating market, the Golden Buddha, the Reclining Buddha, the snake farm, and Jim Thomson’s house, I decided to explore Bangkok from a different angle and get into the groove head-on.
As they say, one can’t be too far from food while in Bangkok. So I decided to have breakfast at the local wayside food stall, the clones of which dot the city like hoardings on Mumbai’s heritage buildings. But vegetarians usually get a raw (no pun intended) deal here and I decided to try Komala’s - a popular South Indian restaurant chain. But there were no visible signs of life within so I turned to good old McDonald’s - just one of the ways in which Bangkok is being invaded by the Western culture. Walking through Phloenchit road, a busy area that is home to five-star hotels, one can see humongous shopping malls and innumerable eating joints including Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, Subway, and Star Bucks.
The overall population in Bangkok is very young and getting increasingly hip. The American style of clothing is the fad and ‘smart casuals’ is the order of the day. Petite and pretty Thai women, who have never known the concept of bad hair days, can be seen walking daintily on the streets unconscious of the fact that they are responsible for the booming cosmetic industry. Apparently, women hugely outnumber men in Bangkok and have a high ratio to men at the workplace.
Traveling by local transport is your best bet to get a real and true picture of the place and Bangkok has several modes of transport - from motorbike taxis to autorickshaw-like tuk-tuks, buses (air-conditioned and ordinary), metered taxis, underground trains, and sky trains. The motorbike taxis are a little intimidating at first but they are very convenient and relatively cheap if you know how to bargain. With almost everything in Bangkok, the key is to bargain whether or not you know its real cost. I personally found the idea very interesting and I tried it on more than once occasion.
The trouble starts when the riders don’t know the destination. What’s worse is that they will never admit to it. So if you ever choose to try one of these, ensure that the rider knows the place. In any case, most Thais are innately honest and friendly and don’t have malicious intentions or any other agenda and the huge tourism industry that it sustains is proof of this. But beware of touts and strangers who offer unsolicited help.
It is a miracle that despite not being fluent in the English language, the city, and even the country, has continuously managed to attract so many foreigners. I was surprised to find that even the third generation locals find it hard to understand English. So it is fairly difficult to ask for directions, which is why it can get very frustrating for tourists to travel by bus.
Go-Go to Bangkok
Bangkok is famous for its nightlife, especially the Patpong area, which is the city’s go-go bar district. It is Sin City and can lead to a culture shock if one is not prepared. It has a burgeoning skin trade and many tourists come to Bangkok especially for the young and beautiful Thai women. Obviously, it is not safe to venture alone in this area. But it is a haven for those who are voyeuristically inclined and perhaps a reason why the literature on this spot doesn’t exceed beyond ten lines.
But Patpong has supposedly calmed down a bit over the years and it now has night market in addition to the bars. But one must avoid bars that offer ‘free’ shows as there are hidden charges and you may unknowingly run up a huge bill.
This is the part about Bangkok, and Thailand in general that I cannot fathom. It assimilates two diagonally different worlds within itself - one that is conceived from ancient history and based in tradition and culture very similar to our Indian culture, and the other catering to the night animals laced with sex and depravity. But perhaps the openness and the legalization of this industry that caters to the pleasure of the flesh is the reason why it still seems safe for women (and men) to walk on the streets without being assaulted.
Brimming With Bargains
Thailand is brimming with bargains, more so since the devaluation of the Thai baht in 1997. In my opinion, taking a once-a-year trip to Bangkok purely for shopping purposes makes a lot of sense. Everyone knows that the city is a great place to shop but the key is to go to the right places, especially if you have only a few days within Bangkok.
What is prominent is the abundance of shops and local markets here; the sheer quantity overwhelms the senses. Amongst the many to be explored are the wholesale fruit, vegetable and flower market at Pak Klong Talaat, the plant market at Thewes, the clothes market at Pratunam (next to Amari Watergate), the markets of Chinatown, the night market of Patpong, and of course Chatuchak every weekend.
Chatuchak market is an absolute must - not only for shopping but also to feel the energy, to see the different sights, and smell the different smells. The market area is humongous with more than 8,000 vendors selling everything under the sun and the narrow aisles are lined with food stalls serving Thai food the smell of which doesn’t disperse too well under the afternoon sun. But one must try the exotic fruits that Thailand is so famous for like Mangosteen, Durian, Rambutan, Langsat.
The market is open on weekends from 8 am to 8 pm and offers everything from Thai silk and other textiles, clothes, antiques (both fake and legit), jewelry, gems, art, shoes, artifacts, homeware, CDs, computer games, electronics, to things you don’t really need but can’t walk past because they’re so cheap with such good quality. Indira market and MBK are other hotspots for shoppers.
Patpong and San Luan are two-night markets that are open till the wee hours of the morning. The latter, I thought, was very much like Thamel in Nepal - the ambiance, the live bands with the music of different genres wafting through the warm air and intermingling with each other. The place is buzzing with tourists and locals and has many restaurants catering to different palates. I chose Bawarchi, a Punjabi and Mughlai joint that has Bollywood music outside in the gardens, and Jagjit Singh ghazals were sung live inside.
As a matter of fact, it’s easy not to feel too far away from home because both the Indian and Thai cultures have a lot in common and have similar spiritual inclinations. As I made my way to the airport on the surprisingly clear flyovers, I realized that, in the end, it is the imperfections of a place that make it unforgettable - a sign of a perfect holiday.