Culture Shock in Bangkok

The South East Asia trip proper began in Bangkok, the central hub of the region- and my first full on Asian city. Before arriving, I’d heard much about the place, both good and bad, and I have to admit it was a baptism of fire…

Khao San Road by day/dusk/night

DSC_7783DSC_7788Khao San Road by day/dusk/night

I stayed on the legendary Khao San Road, the hectic and happening tourist mecca on the western side of the city. This place really is an indescribable experience- a network of streets almost fully geared up for the tourist trade, asleep until 1pm but awake to the early hours of the morning. Every second establishment is a bar, selling approximately 4 varieties of Thai beer, ambiguous buckets of spirits and a selection of cocktails for never more than £1.50 a beverage. Interspersed are chemists, convenience stores, tourist merchandise, food stalls (including copious novelty fried critters),and the odd nightclub. Granted, some of the bars on the side streets (Rambuttri road, especially) have some semblance of ambience, though you don’t come to this part of town for a classy night out- inescapably evidenced by the touts selling ping pong shows (with illustrative sound effects) to any man, woman or child passing slow enough…

Of course, I embraced the Khao San ethos and gave it two solid nights out, but I feel I’ve well and truly ticked off this part of the world by now! By far my favourite drinking experience was cocktails at the Sky Bar in the city centre- featured in The Hangover Pt II (to the pride of the tuk tuk drivers of Bangkok), the 63rd floor of The Dome has the world’s highest open air bar, some breathtaking views of the city, and a pretty classy live jazz soundtrack to boot. Cheers to that.

Bangkok from the Sky Bat

Bangkok from the Sky Bar

During the daytime, I visited a few of the city’s most popular tourist spots for an introduction to the city’s culture and history- though foreigner friendly public transport is pretty appalling around the key sites, they were well worth the trekking and tuk tuk fares. The most spectacular visit of all had to be the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha temple complex, a historic centre dating to the founding of modern Bangkok which encompassed a sprawling royal palace (now only used ceremonially) and a shrine holding the much contested jade Buddha figure which is the pride of the religious establishment. It took most of the day to lap around and absorb this place, with every one of the buildings intricately and exquisitely decorated, and we witnessed it both in sunshine and torrential showers. The photos can’t quite convey the spectacle…

The Grand Palace/Temple of the Emerald Buddha

DSC_7597DSC_7570The Grand Palace/Temple of the Emerald Buddha Complex

I also paid my dues to Wat Pho, a separate temple complex which housed more than a thousand Buddha images, a giant reclining Buddha maxing 160ft, and a Bodhi tree derived from Buddha’s original place of enlightenment in India. Certainly the temple of temples.

Wat Pho: Buddhas big, small and plentiful

DSC_7719Wat Pho: Buddhas big, small and plentiful

Market fodder- Pad Thai

Market fodder- Pad Thai

On the more earthly plane, I also dabbled in Thai capitalism at the Chatuchak complex, a maze of stalls representing the world’s largest weekend market, but managed to exercise true backpacking restraint in buying absolutely nothing. A personal victory, you could say. I instead spent my Baht snacking around Chinatown, and taking Thai massages to shelter from passing storms…

By far my favourite part of the Bangkok experience, however, was the cycle tour I took around the backstreets of the city. Started by an enigmatic Dutchman a few decades back, this company ( connects Bangkok visitors with two wheels and the sights and smells of the real city- winding alleyways, local markets, schools and temples, and skits across the currently bursting Chao Phraya river. On our tour, we were lucky enough to experience an elaborate local fete celebrating the birthday of the deceased Queen Mother- all cheery locals, fantastic food, and some very dodgy (but well received) devotional singing by a tone deaf middle aged man.

Co van Kessel cycle tour- royal jubilation and tonal violation

DSC_7873Co van Kessel cycle tour- royal jubilation and tonal violation

It was the rare moments of engagement with the locals that made the visit to Bangkok- one highlight being a 20 minute tuk tuk ride with possibly the most hilarious amateur comedian in the city. (I’m pretty sure my Dutch friends are still quoting him…) Unfortunately for the backpacker, the words ‘Khao San Road’ seem to translate in Bangkok Thai to something like ‘please, fleece me!’, though I know the city has a lot to offer beyond the first tourist façade… I’ll be back, and doing it somewhat differently next time.


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