Welcome to Thailand: Bangkok
To the adventure, with these words of thine,
That to my first intent I have returned…
Thus said I to him; and when he had moved,
I entered on the deep and savage way.
–Inferno: Canto II
When you imagine the Asian “megatropolis”- overpopulation, shanty structures, street food, feral dogs, perpetual traffic, honking, hundreds of scooters, and mounds of rubbish- you’ve unwittingly formulated a very accurate mental image of Bangkok. And, a fantastical creation of the imagination would be a great way to think of Bangkok. It was one of the most inexplicable events of our lives. Bangkok is somehow both a very specific place and something far beyond a geographical location. It transcends anything physical, a soup of culture, atmosphere, and architecture that is then paradoxically transubstantiated into an unidentifiable “thing.” Bourdain might say it is an indescribable sum of it’s many diverse occupants, but that wouldn’t quite capture Bangkok as event. Bangkok would be Bangkok regardless of who comes and goes. It is a place that may make it’s inhabitants as much as it’s inhabitants make it. If this is confusing, we apologize, but that’s Bangkok. The only further explanations I can give, are to speak it in terms of matter: Bangkok is simultaneously two states- both gaseous and solid. Or, in terms of drugs: in Bangkok, even a sober person experiences synesthesia, as if on LSD, hearing the color and seeing the sounds, only to be plunged into the deafening cacophony of sensory stimulation, dropped into the many textured folds, shoved down the rabbit hole.
Thursday morning, eat the cake we did and the two day trip got “curiouser and curiouser.” As soon as we stepped out of the door, “LUCKY BUDHA!” “WHERE YOU GO?” “PATPONG, PATPONG.” An assault worthy of Caesar: Cry! Havoc, and let slip the tuk tuk drivers. Men selling a service with all they had, fighting for your business because their lives did depend on it, is quite the intimidating first impression. Since we hadn’t yet learned “mai ow” (don’t want), we were constantly muttering ineffective “No, thank you’s” for hours, until driven to treating the tuk tuk drivers like in-obedient dogs: repeated “NO!”s, with outstretched index finger and frightfully aggressive, alpha dog tone.
After wandering, wide eyed, for a while, we came upon breakfast. A corner, set back and bounded by three stands and the surrounding buildings. The dining area, furnished with crude wooden tables and plastic stools and covered by umbrellas, tenting, and bits of ribbed aluminum, was packed with local residents feasting on a variety of of delicious looking dishes: fried eggs, rices, chicken, chilis, stir fries of liver, tongue, cheek, different curries, noodles, and fish ball soup. For a whopping 20 baht (roughly 50 cents) I was given a hodge podge of offerings judiciously chosen by the tandem of index finger and eye. Cengiz walked away with what appeared to be chicken, mussels, and lots of bamboo shoots and procured two ice cold Pepsis (glass bottled) to wash the meal down. It was a pairing worthy of a master sommelier. This meal would not only serve as a fantastic beginning to the Bangkok experience, but the tamest moment of the next two days.
Though our plans extended no further than wandering around, sampling various street foods, the fates had other plans. A trip to the Department of Immigration was the second stop and was the most demoralizing moment of the trip. The office is the largest of several cavernous buildings residing in a government complex 20km from downtown Bangkok. The cab ride out there provided us with a better understanding of how massive the city actually was. Though we drove for a solid 30 min, we could barely tell we had moved away from the city center. The road leading to our destination was full of stop and go traffic and street food stands still lined the streets. To say the government complex was scary would be putting it mildly; it was construction on par with Nazi dreams of grandeur. The central building was a military base, of which Cengiz could only take 3 pictures (he was closely guarded by one of the rifle wielding sentries). Immigration was a 4 floored complex that surrounded a central lobby roughly the size of two parallel football fields. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say the building was about the size of an NFL stadium. The purpose of our visit was to change my tourist visa into a Non-Immigrant B visa, so that I could legally work in the country. I was quickly ushered through the initial lines and found myself in front on an officer remarkably fast. It seems things were looking up. Unfortunately, when presented with my immaculately kept, separated, and collated papers, the immigration officer rejected me faster than I could pull out a pen. Apparently, the papers that would probably have gotten me an NIB visa in the states, were about half of what was required here in the motherland. I licked my wounds over an Iced Tea on the cab ride home, but did not have long to sulk. I knew I would be back soon enough, with whatever papers were necessary to get legal, so we turned out attention to experiencing the city.
After being let off at the city zoo, we resumed our exploration. The first order of business was getting into the palace. Unfortunately, we went to the wrong palace. Instead of the gold encrusted “Grand Palace,” we made it to “Chitralada Palace,” the literal residence of the king and center of political activity in Thailand. We thought it was odd there were no picturesque, towering spires, but who were we to question the palace? Though we were intimidated by the second set of camouflaged, armed guards, we tried to look as local as possible and confidently stroll in. This was not allowed… We weren’t deported, so let’s just leave it at that.
On our way to the other palace, we were once again swept away by the wind. After strolling through the legendary backpacker haven of Koh Son road, we made some “friends.” They set us up with out first reasonably priced tuk tuk ride (5 baht a piece) to a boat launch unknown to most tourists. Yeah, can’t believe we fell for that either. The ride was through enough small, back alleys that the con was well played and we were let off in one of the coolest places we had been to yet. As we walked past two men Muay Thai training, we found a boat and bar that looked as forgotten as possible- we were thrilled. The con wasn’t too bad. We did, after all, have an entire longboat to ourselves to cruise the river and its canals, but 800 baht (just over 20 bucks a piece) was a lot to pay. Furthermore, though we paid for a loop of the canals, we only made it out one of the canals, and had to turn around. Seeing the same stretch of river twice isn’t amazing. But, we did get to boat by the “Grand Palace” (finally) and spend enough time on the water to soak in the breeze and sip cold beers we bought from a floating merchant (our two crewmen were also particularly happy to drift along the river with some alcoholic beverages we bought them). Seeing the housing built over the river and its aquatically comfortable inhabitants was great, a distinctly Asian experience, and a bit anachronistic in a city as tall as New York, sprawling as London, and neon as Vagas. Just as enjoyable was listening to the passing boats that trawled the river: some, like ours, were powered by chopped and screwed 1940s fighter engines but you could also hear the voices of massive 2 ton truck motors, and we even caught a glimpse of an engine who’s hood ornament was still attached to the remaining bits of radiator grill.
Our ride finished at “The Temple of the Dawn,” the ancient stone Wat across the river from the “Grand Palace.” A mosaic of color, like a stone Korean palace, it resembled more a Gaudi building more than the gold, orange, and red Wats that dot Thailand. The main pyramid was guarded by massive stone guards and surrounded by 4 towering spires. The stairs up were so steep, it required all 4 limbs to scale them. In fact, the whole atmosphere was intimidating- like an Aztec pyramid of sacrifice, not the serenity and smiles of Eastern religion. We spent a long time atop the Wat, soaking in the history, view of the city, and making sure Cengiz didn’t hyperventilate. On the way out, we couldn’t resist purchasing some Indulgences: for 100 baht, you too can experience the thrill of “freeing the birds” to garner good luck from Buddha.
The best part of the trip came next: a meandering walk through Bangkok’s riverside China Town. Here the mechanical mayhem of Bangkok congestion is replaced with a dazed mulling of the neighborhood’s inhabitants. Rickshaws and laden two wheeled dollies are transportation of choice, shirts are optional, and when the river over runs its banks (like when we were there) shoes are discouraged. The area is the epicenter of Bangkok’s street food, as there is a massively sized labor force crammed in here. Boxes labeled “made in China” are everywhere (sometimes even buttressing sandbag fortifications against the floods). As we walked we ate, and ate, and ate some more: various meets on sticks, fatty pork cuts steamed, fried, and roasted, spring roles, fried bananas, noodles, fruits, etc. The list is endless. Our favorite corner of China Town was easily the flower market. It seems inconceivable that something so cavernous could be “hidden” away, but when it is tucked behind rows of storefronts, weaving through alleys, often jutting over the river, bound by inconspicuous picket, wooden walls, roofed by the ever present waffled aluminum, umbrellas, plastic tarps, and at times garbage, it is anything but an obvious attraction. The indoor garden was a great break from the smell and speed of Bangkok, but the relief didn’t last long. Immediately after leaving it was gone, as we hopped on a tuk tuk to expedite our trip home. The speedy, open air, 3 seat scooters provide Six-Flags worthy amusement- the exact daily, mundane danger we came to Asia to experience.
As I write this, a week later, the rush of Bangkok is still lingers. To be frank, it is a city in which it seemed we were the only people not on massive amounts of amphetamines. Patpong, the party center and red light district, that we walked to that night is the most fitting representation of Bangkok as a whole. The streets are packed with merchants, tourists, and risqué young Thais, all commingling. Sex shows, strip clubs, and girlfriend bars are stacked on top each other as efficiently as the street food vendors. Women (and the infamous lady boys) lean over balconies or out of doorways, enticing the passerbys with high pitched offers that join the sounds of the merchants and tuk tuk drivers in a debauched harmony. Stereotypical “creepy old guys” actually are all over, draped in women, or peering from corners, but this seems only natural in the setting. More disturbing were the families sharing a “life experience,” 12 year old eyes wide and terrified. Only a few Height worthy hippies are about, as most are on Koh Son road, walking the overly trodden path of British gap year backpackers and Aussie adventurers.
The we didn’t find the cobra venom shots we were after, or ever get in the “Grand Palace,” I don’t know that we could have done Bangkok any better. There was no time to make concerted effort for anything, as it was much more accessible and enjoyable to go with the flow, stumbling upon things, and making decisions as they came. Had we not, we would have missed amazing foods, life endangering rides, and all the fantastic failures that have us on the way to being street smart farang.