To be honest, arriving in Bangkok was a little jarring after our last six weeks winding our way slowly through Laos and northern Thailand. We hadn’t been in a big city since Ho Chi Minh, and it was more of a slap in the face than we were expecting. Bangkok is a busy, sprawling city and it definitely took us a couple of days to get our game faces back on and really get into it. Here’s our rundown on a week in the big smoke.
The good, the bad, and the ugly:
Malls – Our neighbourhood, Sukhumvit, was host to an amazing array of malls ranging from sleek upmarket set-ups housing all of the worlds best designers, to local malls selling knock-off iPhones and cosmetics. Some of the malls had aquariums, ice rinks, zoos and food courts with everything from terrible plastic looking meat skewers to Michelin-starred dumplings. Everything is air-conditioned, there are nice smells pumped through the air vents and an excellent selection of elevator music being played. I found the experience a bit more enjoyable than Singapore, where I always seem to walk into one mall only to emerge five hours later dazed and confused, and in a totally different neighbourhood from where I set off. You could burn some serious plastic on a shopping holiday in Bangkok.
Siriraj Medical Museum – We decided to branch out a little bit and take a break from the standard tourist attractions, so took ourselves up to Siriraj Hopsital and the Siriraj Medical Museum. We knew what we were getting ourselves in for (this is not a family attraction!), but were still pretty gobsmacked when we walked into the first exhibition and were confronted with dozens of babies and fetuses floating in jars. Most of the babies had some form of birth defect (insides on the outside, issues with brain development) and there were also a couple of sets of Siamese twins. The next exhibit upped the ante even more with displays of incredibly graphic autopsy photos and then jars full of limbs and vital organs demonstrating crush injuries, stab wounds, gunshot wounds etc. But, of all the things we saw, the things that will haunt me the longest were the picture from the parasitic display of a person with intestinal worms pouring out of their bum like spaghetti, and the display case housing the preserved scrotum of the man inflicted with elephantiasis. You weren’t allowed to take photos in the Museum, otherwise you’d be looking at that scrotum right now. The Museum would certainly not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you’ve got the stomach for it it’s a really interesting experience.
Khao San Road – Khao San Road is a little road with a big reputation. It’s the infamous backpacker hub of Bangkok made particularly famous by the very chaotic and seedy opening scenes of the movie, The Beach. We were staying quite far away from the area, but took the obligatory trip in to see it in all of its glory. It’s been almost ten years since I was last in Bangkok, but from what I could tell very little has changed on Khao San Road – there’s still plenty of cheap backpacker hostels and guesthouses, street carts serving up nasty Pad Thai, market stalls selling an array of tie dyed and elephant printed baggy pants and dozens of tourists wearing Singha and Full Moon Party singlets and looking a bit done in. It’s a little world all of its own, which is fun for an afternoon, but wouldn’t be my choice for any longer term stay in the city.
Getting around – Getting around in Bangkok can be an exercise in frustration. While half the city is well-connected with the sky train and metro system, the other half (including the tourist hub of Khao San Road) is serviced by river boats, public buses and not much else. It can make for a bloody long day of commuting trying to move across the city. One particularly trying day involved us catching two sky trains, two boats, one bus, one tuk tuk and one metro. Add to that impromptu thunder storms and rush hour madness, and some days you just want to stay local. There is, of course, the option to take a taxi, but Bangkok traffic is legendary and a two hour journey across town is more awkward silence/conversation than we could endure.
Chatuchak Market – The original plan was to visit Chatuchak Market on my Birthday – the logic being that I’d need to leverage the “it’s my Birthday card” when Campbell started to lose the plot. Chatuchak is massive (35 acres to be precise) and I knew that Campbell would have limited tolerance for the sweaty heaving labyrinth that would greet us when we arrived. In the end, the weather meant we had to defer until Sunday. The market was just as I remembered – huge, confusing, but heaps of fun. You can find almost anything there. The only downside to the whole experience was stumbling across the exotic animal section, which I’d really been hoping to avoid. There is an element of fascination to the whole thing (you certainly can’t walk into Animates and see albino snakes and ant eaters), but I found it really upsetting to see puppies, kittens, rabbits and mice crammed into cages with no room to move, and tropical fish, snakes and turtles sitting in plastic bags in the baking hot sun. Once I’d escaped that section, I spent ages poring through the aisles of antiques, handicrafts and original artworks (Campbell had already left to get a haircut and escape the madness). Campbell’s parting shot of “before you buy anything just think about where you’re going to put it at home” managed to snuff out any major shopping ambitions (good one, killjoy!), but it was still a great morning of mooching about.
Soi Cowboy – Soi Cowboy is an infamous red light area in Bangkok. It was just round the corner from where we had my Birthday dinner, so we decided to take a quick stroll through on our way home to satisfy our curiosity. Soi Cowboy would be 200 metres (at most), but every spare space is taken up with a go-go bar, or strip club of some description. The whole street is lit up with pink and red neon lights and beautiful girls loiter outside each bar teetering around on ice pick heels trying to entice men to come inside. It’s pretty grubby and you know damn well that the stuff happening on the street is tame compared to some of the stuff going on inside. One blog I read said that for your own safety you should assume that everything you touch in Soi Cowboy is covered in bodily fluids of some description. Great. Overall, it wasn’t really our bag. Campbell didn’t enjoy being eyed up like a walking pay cheque, and I’m just way too prudish to really enjoy that kind of scene.
Birthday dinner – We decided to take a break from Thai and splurge out on a nice bistro meal for my Birthday. Don’t get me wrong, the food here is awesome, but the thought of fancy meat and three veg was pretty appealing too. When my meal came out with a massive side of mashed potato I was in absolute heaven. This confirms my strongly held view that the humble spud is one of life’s greatest creations. Campbell didn’t fare so well with his risotto, but a couple of these beers seemed to take the edge off.
There were some notable omissions from our sight-seeing checklist – the Grand Palace, Wot Pho and Wot Arun probably being the obvious “must sees” on most travellers lists. I had visited most of these places before and Campbell’s enthusiasm for mores temples etc was at rock bottom. We decided to give them a miss, which left a fair amount of time to spend doing this:
We left Bangkok yesterday headed for Kanchanaburi. It was an interesting week, which saw us enjoy the city the longer we spent, but the more we restricted ourselves to exploring our own neighbourhood. If the last couple of months have taught us anything it’s that spending more time doing less seems to be a winner for enjoyable travel.