Three Nights in Bangkok (Bangkok, Thailand)

Khao San Road is the kind of place you hear stories about for weeks before you arrive.  I first heard echoes of this tiny backpacker’s enclave over a month ago in Singapore.  For backpackers, it’s understood: when you go to Bangkok, you stay on Khao San Road at least once.  After weeks of hype I was anxious to experience Khao San Road for myself.

Khao San Road is a short promenade brimming with cheap guesthouses, bamboo tattoo parlors, raging bars, tailor shops and alfresco restaurants packed with tables and chairs positioned to face the street.  Farangs (foreigners) sit at these tables in groups, sipping Chang beer and watching the mass of people pass through the street like a massive churning river.


The street is thronged with people from around the world, all passing through Bangkok on some segment of their own journey.  Many paths cross here – over the course of four days I rendezvoused with virtually every person I have met since Singapore.  I even bumped into a nice girl I had met while riding camels across the Thar Desert in India last October.  Random?  Not so much.  Everyone comes here for a reason.

Aside from people, the street is brimming with vendors selling virtually everything you could imagine.  It is hemmed in by semi-permanent stalls offering hundreds of t-shirts, skirts, sunglasses, handbags, books,  AC adaptors, headphones, knock-off iPods, MP3 downloads, pirated CDs, DVDs, and computer programs, canvas paintings, framed photographs of stone Buddhas, wooden Buddha carvings, obscene wooden figures, hand-carved ashtrays, souvenir opium pipes, bus tickets, sunscreen, aloe-vera, beer, water, pizza, falafel, watermelon, pineapple, pens, pencils, and other types of bric-a-brac.  Everything is fake, cheap,  and tempting to buy.

In the middle of the street, local Thais push wheeled carts through the crowds, cooking up pad thai, fried rice, Issan food, mangoes with sticky rice and coconut milk, and all sorts of bugs.

And I mean really gnarly bugs.  Worms, cockroaches, crickets, unclassifiable insects, and scorpions, just to name a few.  I have eaten many of them and they taste pretty good, though it will probably be a while before you see a recipe for roasted scorpion in Sunset magazine.

Khao San was sensory overload.  Each establishment competes for your bhat by cranking up their music as loud as possible.  If you close your eyes, you can hear rock, hip-hop, Thai music, Bob Marley, reggaeton, electronica, jazz, chill-out music, and funk all at once.  After island hopping for through paradise for three weeks, it was a rough transition to such chaos.

But Khao San Road is not representative of Bangkok, which can be both better and worse than Khao San.

We arrived in Bangkok by train, dropped our bags at a hostel and took off to see some Thai culture.  Within minutes of leaving Khao San Road we escaped the thumping music and lost ourselves in the quiet side streets of Bangkok.  Modern-day houses are mixed with traditional architecture and the skyline is accented by the distinctive roofs of Buddhist wats, whose A-frame roofs curve up at either end like the horns of a bull.  Multicolored Buddhist stupas (conical spires) pierce the sky and gold leaf accents many of the wats and palaces.

We explored the Grand Palace, the former residence of the royal family.  Thailand was ruled by kings for hundreds of years, first by the Khmers of modern day Cambodia and later by three successive Thai dynasties, the third of which is still rules from Bangkok.  Bangkok is the third historical capital of Thailand, established in 1782.  Though remains a kingdom, real political power has been alternating between representative democracy and military rule since Thailand’s first peaceful coup in 1932.

On our first day in Bangkok, we witnessed this fluctuation in power first hand.  The streets were flooded with protestors wearing red shirts in support of the former Prime Minister, PM Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist PM who was ousted by the army in a peaceful coup in 2006.  The military is currently running the country, and there seems to be a strict political divide between Thais – the rural (and poor) Thais support the former PM, and the middle class urbanites in Bangkok were happy to see him exiled from Thailand.  The demonstrations were peaceful in nature, but it was interesting to see politics first-hand.  Another example of how travel is the best teacher.

We explored a few of Bangkok’s Buddhist wats, including the ones that house the famous “Emerald Buddha” and the massive “Reclining Buddha.”  Buddhist monks walk the streets dressed in their simple orange robes and often sit next to you on the bus, mixing a dash of flavor into your day with every encounter.  Monks are highly respected, and though we greeted the monks with bowed heads and hands raised respectfully in prayer, the Thais approached the monks on their knees and prostrated themselves at the monk’s feet.  It is highly disrespectful to point one’s feet at a monk (or at anyone, for that matter) and it is prohibited to point your feet at an image of the Buddha.  Feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body, so shoes are taken off before you enter buildings (because Thais traditionally eat their meals on the floor, which is kept clean by removing the shoes).

But while we are on the notion of respect, let me talk further about Thais’ relationship with their king.  As a citizen of a nation founded on anti-monarchism, I have been intrigued by the Thai’s unsurpassable respect for their King.  It is illegal to say anything bad about the king, and many people have been arrested for insulting the king (including the former PM Thaksin).  It is also illegal to step on the Thai currency because each bhat note has a picture of the king on it, and I already mentioned how dirty feet are considered.  Every shop has an image of the king and queen in it, and despite the suspension of democracy the military have not and will not make any attempt to usurp power from the king.  The king plays a paternal political role and has almost no involvement in the daily administration of the country.  But I digress; let me continue to tell my tale.

We saw the sights, we experienced the infamous Khao San road, and we mingled with our fellow backpackers.  But the best experience was when we put down our guidebook, walked through the backstreets to the city’s main river, and hopped on a river taxi.  Going nowhere in particular, we rode through the river for an hour, passing by barges, longtail boats, speedboats, skyscrapers, riverside wood shacks, side canals and bridges.  Often referred to as the Venice of the East, Bangkok is crisscrossed with canals.  The Thais are traditionally a riverine people and life is generally centered around the water and today Thais still build their houses on stilts even if they are miles from the water.   On the weekends a huge river market opens up for the locals to trade for tourists to observe, but we unfortunately missed it.

But we didn’t miss much else.  On our last night we were feeling restless and craving some Thai boxing, so we hailed a tuk tuk  and went to see a boxing match (a tuk tuk is a three-wheeled taxi with a motorcycle-style front wheel and an enclosed carriage for passengers – same as the Indian rickshaw, but Thais call it tuk tuk because that is the noise their loud motors emit; or as Thais would say, same same, but different).

Thai boxing is a unique martial art called muay thai, where fighters use their elbows, knees, and feet in addition to their fists.  Kicks to the face, elbows to the nose, and knees to the stomach spice up the boxing and make it quite a spectacle to observe.

The stadium was packed with people.  Wooden bleachers surrounded the arena on all sides, forming three terraces of seating and pouring down to the ringside.  We bought two of the cheapest tickets and sat made our way to the nosebleed seats.  Thais were standing on the benches watching the fight with rapt attention while screaming bets to one another, their hands stretched into the air with fingers indicating the size of their wager.  Groups of farangs were mixed into the crowd, observing both the boxers and the audience with equal attention.

After a few hours at the boxing arena we sought out a night market and eventually found our way back to Khao San Road.

Fast-paced during the day, Khao San Road becomes a beast by night.  The bars spit people into the streets and never seem to observe the curfew of 2 AM.  Tuk tuks honk their way through the crowds and motorcycles dart past you every few minutes.

After dodging a motorcycle, you turn around and bump into a lilliputian woman from one of hill tribes of Northern Thailand.  These women are about four feet eight inches tall and they walk the streets dressed in their traditional clothing and selling handicrafts from their tribes.   It is sad to see  them here amongst all these bars and drunken tourists; this chaotic environment is a world away from their tribal villages, yet they come to the streets of Bangkok to make a living.  I wonder how many years before their villages vanish entirely.

Next to the hill tribe women are the Thai men dragging baby elephants by a rope, the elephants’ eyes wild with terror as drunken tourists line up for photos.

And right when your eyes start adjusting to all this insanity, cute nine-year old girl pops out of the crowd and challenges you to games of Connect Four and rock-paper-scissors for a bets of 100 bhat.  Obviously you accept the challenge but surprisingly you lose each time.

After three nights of wading through the madness of Khao San Road with new friends from around the globe, Khao San Road began to feel more like a playground for twenty-somethings and less like a city in a foreign country.  Our days were spent exploring cultural sights and there was more culture here than in the southern islands, but it still felt like we had not gotten a true glimpse of Thai life.

We were mentally, physically and financially exhausted: Bangkok had thoroughly chewed us up and spit us out.

Weeks of wearing sandals had given us Hobbit feet, our nerves were frayed, our clothes stunk, Jay was covered in a mysterious red rash, I had been eaten alive by bed bugs, and we both agreed that some relaxation in rural tranquility was in order.

We woke up early the next morning and caught the first bus out of Bangkok.

Our next destination would fit the bill nicely: the small, riverside town of Kanchanaburi.

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