We arrived in Bangkok the Saturday before last to 85 degree weather and about 90% humidity. After finding out that the bus that runs from the Airport had been permanently cancelled, we took a taxi to our lodging in Banglamphu neighborhood on Khao San Road.
Here is where we learned one of our first lessons on this trip: always see the room first. We had reserved a few nights at the D&D Inn, expecting that we would look around for somewhere else to move to after a few days. After declining to look at the room (in the interest of getting settled quicker), we were escorted to a room on the 6th floor with no window, mold on the shower curtain, and a drip from the overhead air conditioner (this drip created a ripe little ecosystem in our room). There was also no wifi (which our book had advertised as “a clincher”) and no electrical plugs (couldn’t charge our laptops or camera batteries for that matter).
Now of course, we knew there wouldn’t be a window-so that was one thing-and we were only paying $28 a night. I know many of you well seasoned travelers would be apalled at my snobbishness; “A private room for $28 (850Baht)-for two people! What a steal! Who cares if it smells like a drain pipe??”. It’s true, it’s a great deal. It also came with a pool and breakfast included, but here’s the thing folks, just 1 block up from Khao San Road was a lovely little hotel call “Sleep WithINN” and for the tune of $2 more, we viewed a quiet room in the back that had a clean shower, a window, many plugs, wifi, a highly advanced “no drip” air-con system. It put the D&D into a poor light.
I’ll be writing more about the lodging situation we found in a future post, but I’ll continue for now with more impressions about Bangkok in general.
I know Bangkok has a crazy reputation that I was skeptical of, but after arriving here, I can attest that parts of Bangkok live up to the legend. Bangkok is huge, 9 million people in one city (the entire country of Cambodia, just next door, has a population of 10 million people). Sprawling, kinetic and fast paced. There are people going at all hours of the day. Entire restaurants spring up and shut down within mere hours in the night. There is constantly bartering going on with sidewalk vendors, tuk-tuk drivers and bar promoters. Not every neighborhood is like this of course, but Khao San Road certainly is and I gather that most of Sukhemvit is as well.
Khao San Road is the self-appointed “backpackers” neighborhood. Where the rooms are cheap, the street food is $1 a plate and the party goes all night long. From what I gather, Khao San roughly translates to drunk 20 year old Brit/Aussie. These chaps are charming, with their shirtless swagger, buckets (literally) of beer and propensity to walk around Bangkok barefoot. It’s spot-on if you are looking for a mini Cancun; somewhere you can drink all night and lie in the sun by the pool all day for dollars a day. I have no problem with anyone looking to do that in Bangkok; this however, is not our scene.
The reason why people stay here is because it is cheap and it is near the major sights of Bangkok-the Grand Palace and Wat Pho (despite what a tuk-tuk driver tells you, or anyone on the street for that matter, these are a mere 15 minute walk away).
Side note: a Tuk-Tuk is an adorable 3 wheel moto-taxi. Something I would love to ride around in because of my pre-existing love of 3 wheel motor vehicles-but won’t be doing because the drivers are 10x more aggressive than the people at the carts in the Mall trying to sell you lotion or a flat iron; and the price is a complete rip-off. They are also known to be swindlers, telling you they’ll take you to your destination but stopping at some jewelery shop or workshop where they receive a commission in the hopes you’ll buy something. As soon as they see you, they accost you asking where you’re going, offering prices, asking your name, anything to get you to look at them. Unfortunately, you have to walk straight past them and not even acknowledge their presence. We all hate doing this to those poor souls working at the carts in the mall, but at least we can drown our sorrows in a Cinnabon. It a becomes a drag when you get this treatment at 8:00am in the morning and 9:00pm at night-to the same degree-every time you enter or exit your hotel.
The location is great for sightseeing, but for getting anywhere else in Bangkok, not that easy. The bus system is insane (there are over 500 bus lines, seriously, Thai’s can barely get a handle on it), the express river boast don’t get you east where most things are, and the Subway and SkyTrain don’t go there. Because Khao San is so self contained, Eric and I started to feel a bit claustrophobic and were under the illusion that all of Bangkok was like Khao San (it’s not). Our saving grace was going to the Vietnamese Embassy to arrange our visa.
Check out this great article on how to arrange a Vietnamese Visa in Bangkok.
After navigating the local canal boat to get us to the other end of town (at 100 feet away from the Pier a tuk-tuk driver tried to convince us we were miles away), we walked into a completely different Bangkok. One of air conditioned malls and every nations embassy, all on one road. No tuk-tuk drivers, no street vendors selling the same Bob Marley t-shirt you saw in Spain, none of it. Not that this is the “real” Bangkok, but at least it was different. It was a comfort.
On this side of town, people were nice, smiling, pleased you were visiting their shop and didn’t give you the evil eye and didn’t glare at you for ordering food from them. There was the occasional nice person in Khao San, but for the most part, people were just annoyed that we were there – and we weren’t even drunk and peeing in front of them! Before coming here we had read so many things about how nice Thai people were and how friendly and obliging they were (the land of smiles-think Hawaii), but this was not our initial experience. The general melancholy of the people of Bangkok was starting to get us down.
Luckily, I wrote to my friend Boramy about it, who had just come from visiting Bangkok, and she told me something that changed my outlook. “At least they’re genuine, and when you meet a nice Thai person, you know that it’s real”. You know what? That’s true! At least they are for real. It’s not the sugary sweetness of American customer service that I’m used to, but when someone goes out of they’re way, or smiles at me here, I know that they really are kind. We appreciate it more. And furthermore, these are big city people. I’ve lived in big cities for the past 7 years, not everyone is nice in the big city, that’s just city living. I get that.
After we left the confines of Banglamphu (the area Khao San Road is in) and did some sightseeing, things started looking up. We visited the Grand Palace, which houses the holiest site in all of Thailand, Wat Phra Kaeo (Wat means Buddhist temple complex).
The Bot, or heart of the compound, holds the Emerald Buddha. A small Buddha figure made of jade that in the 15th or 16th century had been housed in plaster, and was only discovered when a monk noticed the green of the jade peeking out from underneath the nose. It was stolen away to Laos for about 200 years and then brought back by Rama I-the founder of Bangkok.
The Wat complex is beautiful, with several points of interest and wonderful Siamese details on every building.
It’s kept in immaculate condition, with constant restoration going on. The murals are always being repainted (much like the Golden Gate Bridge) due to the humidity. The pristine nature of the place can throw you at first, but it the epitome of a Thai temple and is definitely worth seeing. Your admission also gives you access to the grounds, where you can see some of the former royal residences.
I’ll sign off on a positive note: street food! One of the highlights of Bangkok! For $2 we got a plate of delicious veggie pad thai/see-ew with egg and 3 veggie spring rolls. They basically have 4 mounds of types of noodles, pull a little from each pile, throw in some veggies and stir it up in the wok. We topped it off with an icy guava shake. Perfection! Our most expensive thai meal was $6 for the two of us, and that was at a sit down restaurant. If you could eat thai for days, then you could live on about $6 a day for 3 square meals of street food. Here’s us chowing down!
Off to Cambodia!