Bangkok

Bangkok

December 8, 2019 4 By Lane

Khao San

“It’s Bangkok, bayybee! Yelled the enthusiastic young Brit as she danced aggressively to the whomping bass of the bar, flailing around and air-punching to the beat. The rest of us hunched and clustered, struggling to make conversation over the clamor, occasionally bobbing left and right when a good song came on.

Down the stepped tiers of the open air bar, the notorious Khao San road writhed like a a hatchery pond at feeding time. Tourists of every age, race, and persuasion jostled their way down the greasy street. Some with the intensity of a regular customer commuting to their favorite dive; some sipping from buckets, chomping on dried scorpions or tarantulas, and admiring every vendor shack with the same ten shirts and poofy pants as all the rest; and yet others hurrying through with a tight grip on their partner’s belt, wide eyed and horrified at the scene before them.

Walking through the street feels like a combination club, concert, and zoo. A Thai cover band plays American rock hits as a man shoves a paper ad board in your face, shouting, “Ping pong show! Best ping pong show!” and making a popping, sucking sound with his lips. Traditional Thai food street vendors cook alongside massage parlors, bookstores, clothing stalls, and food carts grilling crocodile meat.

On the street parallel to Khao San, cafes, restaurants, and street food carts occupy every available inch, making it my favorite place to go for a cheap, delicious dinner.

Same Same, but Different

During my almost two weeks in Bangkok, I stayed at three hostels. The first was a state of the art hostel with great facilities, beautiful buildings, and a large courtyard and bar. Strangely, despite the fact that there were around ten dorms that sold out every night, around 90% of the people staying there were Dutch. Must have been one of those word-of-mouth things.

My second hostel was fun, and I met some nice people there but when they left I decided to move since I didn’t much care for their facilities. When I arrived at my third and more hastily chosen hostel, my first thought was, “Oh no, this one is not going to be good.” In my stubbornness, I had pre-booked five nights. A sterile looking place, it’s three attractive features were a quaint rooftop bar, free breakfast, and a very low price tag. When I arrived, the common room was totally empty; always a bad sign.

Thankfully though, I was wrong. When I came down for breakfast the next morning, a chipper British guy in his mid 30’s wearing a full Nike running outfit complete with the white baseball cap wished me a good morning while the Thai employees sang along to Bruno Mars playing from the stereo. It turned out to be one of those fun times when the personality and kindness of a couple outgoing people is enough to bring together a disparate range of characters and raise the level of social interaction just a couple of essential notches.

I also met the owner of the hostel and bar. He told us about how this hostel was a passion project for him. He’d bought it while co-running another business. Since then, he’d spent as much time as he could at the hostel and he noticed that lots of guests liked to hang out and chat on the then-dilapidated rooftop. It became a dream of his to turn it into a trendy bar and chill space, but there was never enough money.

In the end, he persevered and built the bar with the help of volunteers and people who were staying at the hostel and saw a way for them to help. He made most everything himself including the tables, chairs, and bar which he made from an old bank of lockers left unused by the previous owner of the hostel.

What’s That Smell?

I enjoyed playing a little game with myself when I went walking through the streets of Bangkok. I call it: Name That Smell. The tropical heat and humidity mixes with rotting fruit, spilled alcohol, polluted canal bilge, the ever present smog, and overflowing trash bins to paint the cloying foundation of the olfactory experience that is Bangkok.

Billowing over this fetid foundation, the greasy hot waft of meat grilling on skewers over rose gilded coals; the splash of rice noodles, spices, and vegetables in the oil bath of portable electronic woks; and the sharp sweetness of freshly cut herbs, chilies, and watery greens spill forth from food carts. Each cart is surrounded by an archipelago of squat tables and bright plastic stools where Thais and tourists alike sit, mouths watering, awaiting their meal.

These and many other unidentifiable (perhaps best they stay that way) smells tie my memories of Bangkok together; a unique signature that is written into the subconscious memory of the nose.

Markets

One of the main tourist attractions in Bangkok for people seeking a “cultural experience” is its collection of floating markets. In 1782, the capital of Siam moved from Ayuthaya to the city of Bangkok, 40km south and strategically located between a long bend in the Chao Phraya River and an impassable delta known descriptively as the Sea of Mud.

Until the popularization of the automobile in the early twentieth century, canals were the highways and streets of Bangkok. The floating markets were then simply markets that happened to be, like everything else, on the water. Today, almost nothing of the traditional floating neighborhoods still exists. A system of locks was installed in 1916 to control the water level in the city and since then, most of the canals have been filled in to make roads.

I visited one of the weekend floating markets that still operates in the Thonburi district, a half hour taxi ride from the city center. I had heard good things about this one and it came recommended by a volunteer at my hostel. However after visiting this one, I think it is a prime example of an unfortunate case of “local culture” tourism.

At the end of the street, I enter the solid ground half of the market. Vendors are selling jewelry, clothes, fruit smoothies, and a number of traditional foods and desserts. They banter and laugh with each other as they serve customers, frying tiny “pancake” tacos or scooping out bowls of rice pudding. At the far end, a large arching gate marks the entrance to the floating market.

Along one side of the canal, several floating sections of dock have been tied together to create a protected area where the long tail boats can moor out of the wake of other passing boats. Dining tables have been set up on these rafts. From their boats, women cook skewers of meat and vegetables and other common Thai street food dishes over small baskets of coals, handing them up to servers who then distribute the food to waiting customers. A few boats are selling fresh seafood including live eels. However, one cannot help but notice that the floating portion of the market is perhaps half the size of the conventional market, and even less lively. The women in the boats sit on the hard seat planks, their backs arched as they chop and stir. A quartet of musicians is scratching out a traditional tune on one of the docs, but they look as if they are falling asleep and their musicality reflects the same.

What I gathered from this floating market was that the only reason some of it is still floating is because that’s the only reason tourists still go there. If they could make the same amount of money on dry land, I think they would be doing so. The result is a half-assed preservation of a way of life that’s a century outdated in one of the technological and international powerhouses of modern Southeast Asia.

However, this is not to say that markets don’t have a place here. In fact, it seems that most people still buy their groceries from produce and seafood markets. These are typically well hidden in a maze of alleys and apartment blocks with no signage to find them. Since traditional thai food requires a wide variety of fresh and often wild plants, these markets are dazzling in the variety of their offerings.

One of my favorite places in Bangkok was the Pak Khlong Flower Market. Consisting of three city block-sized warehouse complexes, I entered from the one that is primarily a bulk produce market. I think it must be a distribution center for other, smaller markets and restaurants. Mounds of watermelons, coconuts, leafy greens, pineapples, peppers, and much more proliferated. Young boys wound through the crowds and piles on ancient bicycles with cargo boxes on the back and a constant stream of box trucks and pickups loaded and unloaded from the back streets.

Crossing the busy main avenue, I entered the flower building. As far as I could see, vendors stretched away down the center and sides of the warehouse selling bulk flowers, bouquets, decorative floral arrangements, flower wreaths, and sculptures of flowers that are used in many Buddhist ceremonies and celebrations.

The final warehouse seemed to be a combination of the first two plus some seafood stalls, little kitchens to feed the workers, and more miscellaneous items such as candles, herbs, and medicines.

What I liked most about this marketplace was that absolutely nothing of it was catering to tourists. I did see a couple other backpackers with cameras like myself wandering around and taking in the scene, but we were really just observers this time, not walking dollar signs. Accordingly, there was a distinct lack of cheap made-in-China trinkets or the clothes stands with the same five shirts that you can find at any other attraction in the city.

Last but not least is the famous Chatuchak Market. Located a half hour’s drive from the city center in a district packed with high rises and skyscrapers, Chatuchak is the unabashed convergence of souvenir gobbling tourism, low cost mass production, a surging Thai middle class, and a highly unregulated pet trade.

Our taxi driver dropped me and two girls from my hostel off at gate 28. I’d only met them five minutes before we left. I wanted to see the weekend market but couldn’t justify the price of the taxi ride for just one person, so I jumped at the chance to split one. Gate 28 was just a man-sized hole in a long patchwork wall of corrugated tin siding. Inside, corridors stretched away in three directions. We were in the fake designer clothing section. Hundreds of stalls where you can knockoffs of every major brands in addition to tourist economy staples such as wide brim straw hats, poofy elephant print pants, and Bangkok tank tops. You know, in case you forgot which city this is.

Arranged loosely in four long sections, the second was the domain of Chinese chintz. Here you could find shelves of incense, fake leather bags, wooden dildos, doggie jackets, smiling Buddhas, and much, much more.

In the third section and spilling into a dark corner at the edge of the market was the pet market. Near the light of the walking street were shiny stores with puppies and kittens, though some of their cages were simple steel lattice and clearly harmful to their paws. Further into the complex, I saw lots of monkeys, sugar gliders on display and tied to their cages with a string around their necks, and what was definitely a white fox in a cage so small it could not have stood up. Also being sold were hundreds of species of birds, fish, and reptiles.

The final section of the market was full of high class shops with sliding glass doors and air conditioning that sold jewelry, furniture, and lots of home decoration props. I can’t say that I really understood the point of so many home decoration stores, but I could still be traumatized from the ten thousand trips to Home Depot and Jerry’s during our own home decorating process.

Every Man’s Bangkok

What else to say about this notorious city? While it is a crazy, insane, vibrant place, if you take the time to get away from the main roads and attractions, you’ll find laidback and comfortable neighborhoods where carp splish and splash in the canals and where the Thais are quick with a smile and a wave to friends and foreigners alike.

It’s almost as if there’s a part of Bangkok to match every person’s preconception of it. Go to Khao San and find yourself dancing on a raised platform in front of hundreds of cocktail chugging Thais and tourists as lasers and smoke pour over the dance floor and the DJ communes with her computers like a shaman in trance. Go to the a Thai massage parlor… not THAT massage parlor. Make a culinary expedition to Chinatown for some of the best street food you’ll ever eat. Join a group of dudes going to the red light districts to be a fly on the wall at the epicenter of Southeast Asia’s sex work industry. Buy some fruit at a produce market for is almost certainly the “tourist price”. Wander the streets to witness the minutiae of how the local life and how the city has evolved with its role in the global economy.

Love it or hate it, that’s Bangkok, baby.