On 1984 Murray Head wrote:
One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the God’s a she, (…)
I was ten at the time – far from imagining that I’d be visiting the town, over thirty years later. With more than 1.500 square kilometres, and a population around 8 million, there is plenty of “everything” for all tastes, so I guess everyone can find what he’s looking for, or a reason to confirm his fears.
Do I like Bangkok? Yes and no. Would I leave there? Probably not! Do I enjoy the visits? Usually, yes. Let me break that into pieces:
I have to confess that the first thing that comes to my mind, when I plan to return to Bangkok is food.
There, you can eat out every day, for years and never repeat a dish. Some, however, I like to repeat some of them. Can’t have enough of the long clawed shrimp, the spotted crabs, oysters, the Tom-Yam soup. T & K Seafood in Phadung Dao Rd. (Chinatown) is a must, though there are many comparable options around the area. Birds nest soup (and shark fin) are also available in the area. The first, I didn’t find tasty or appealing. The second, I didn’t try, for ethical reasons. Just imagining how many sharks must be slaughtered to provide fins for those restaurants, on a single day, is absolutely heart breaking.
A friend of mine, once told me that Thai people couldn’t hold their hunger for long. That’s probably why, specially during evenings, we can see street food everywhere in Bangkok – and I don’t remember actually eating in a spot where I didn’t truly like. It’s either regular, good, or outstanding!
On weekends, Taling Chan floating market (14 km away from the centre, accessible by train / taxi) is awesome for grilled fish, skewers, seafood, and sweets. You can also enjoy an afternoon boat ride around the channels and if not full enough, taste rice cooked inside a bamboo cane. I remember once asking for a frog Tom Yan, made at the moment (I couldn’t find the place now, if I wanted) and finding it absolutely outstanding.
Below: Taling Chang floating market:
Kao-San Road, the popular backpacker night party and meeting place, had also its share of street food, from fragrant pork meat, to many different curries, skewers, pad-thais (stir-fried rice noodles), Som Tam (green papaya salads) and everything in between. For insect tasting I really don’t recommend it, as they’re not fried on site, and mostly taste like “old frying pan”.
Below: Kao San Road and an insect stall.
“Insects on the Backyard” is the place to go, for a true experience, that’s beyond taste and smell. There, insects are not “the dish”, and are there to match the overall concept dish being presented. It is fine dining, not overly expensive, on a killer decoration, among a creatively designed park. Plus, the chef is a wonderful person, extremely competent, humble and talkative. (He even helped on providing us a taxi, and yes, taxis can be hard to get in there).
Below: some cellphone shots of the dishes I tried in “Insects ad the Backyard”.
Speaking in taxis, transport is one of the things I deeply dislike in Bangkok. Along the river, you have the public boats, inexpensive and frequent, despite sometimes being too crowded. The skytrain is clean and convenient, though expensive and not reaching most city areas. Then, there are the buses, if you can find where they stop and where they go. Google won’t help you much and everyone you ask will tell you something different – it’s that nerve wrecking cultural thing of not being able to say “I don’t know”. Not fast, not comfortable (in fact, they are funny for being so worn out), but really cheap, and can get you there. Bring small money and coins to make it change easy.
Taxis and tuk-tuk, despite essential, can be a nightmare. Meters seldom work (many are jammed), so you often have to negotiate. Some drivers won’t take you where you want to go, regardless of price, some will ask an exorbitance. A few of them are honest, lovely persons, but you never know…Maybe you have to stop 4 or 5 taxis to find a suitable one. My worst experience was in a Tuk-Tuk, coming from the Indonesian Embassy. In the middle of the way, the driver tried to re-negotiate the price, as there was traffic. I had never seen it anywhere in the world so I politely jumped off, and carried on walking.
The combination of unpredictable, heavy, traffic and dishonest drivers, can get you claustrophobic and drive you mad, in such an immense city.
Some years ago I had missed a Thai boxing event due to traffic. Last time I stayed in a place where I could walk to Rajadamnern stadium, so I managed to attend. I’m not a huge fan of the sport itself, but I find fighting sports, an easy way to get into a people’s mentality. The first lesson are the tickets themselves: Ringside seats cost 2000 Baht (over 55 €) and second class seats sell for 1500. These ones being higher, provide way better view than others. Locals can get upper seats for 200 or less, so you know you’re being ripped off. That’s how it works, in Thailand.
The event will start around 6:00 pm and finishes after 10:00, depending on how many K.O.s will happen in between.
All fights start with a “dance of respect”, though I find hard to get their code of ethics. After that, round one usually begins on a slow pace, as contenders evaluate each other. Eventually, one strike triggers some seconds of “real” fighting, usually towards the end. After each round, both winner and loser will probably raise their arms, proclaiming victory, which can be ridiculous. The second round is where most action takes place. If dominance is achieved by one of the fighters, the pace slows down as both will pretend to fight until the end. K.O.s are not so common.
On a fight between a Thai and a non-Thai, the foreigner, most likely needs to impose K.O, in order to win. Clear dominance is, often, not enough in the eyes of the judges. It beats me why foreign fighters subject themselves for such an unfairness, but that’s how it goes.
The fight itself is not a series of clean strikes, but includes minor blows, clinching, elbows… “Smartness” often plays a decisive role, over class and technical level. Crowds get emotional during fights, shouting and betting. I couldn’t really get involved – mostly observed the little tricks and the crowd – though I found it entertaining.
Below, the gallery from the Muay Thai event:
Over the 5 hours I spent in Rajadamnern, I tried to establish a bridge between Muay-Thai as a national sport, and Buddhism as a national religion. In fact, some of the men attending, carried Buddha amulets in necklaces. The key is, maybe, in Bangkok amulet market (30 Maha Rat Rd). There you can find, numerous Buddha effigies, among other deities, ancient coins, phallus, foetus (some looked too real), and small relics of would and even human hair.
Below: Amulet foetuses, at Bangkok Amulet Market. I believe they’re meant to be used in rituals similar to the Indonesian Tuyul or Toyol (spread in Java and Bali), where they’re supposed to capture the spirit of a still born, and force it to steal for its owner prosperity.
Undoubtedly, amulets are big business in there. Some can reach over 10.000.000 Baht. Counterfeiting happens quite a lot, and owners need to be extra cautious when sending them to goldsmiths to replace their encasings.
Buddha would be terrified that such worshiping is being done under his name. But then again, if one looks at the Emerald Buddha, in the nearby temple, it’s a similar phenomenon. People cannot take pictures, though I’ve seen monks doing it, and took one just for the sake of breaking the law.
In both cases, Buddha statues and amulets are being worshipped by some supposed mystical powers attributed to the objects, in a way to get prosperity and protection – not by Buddha’s teachings, which focus on acceptance and detachment (the absolute opposite).
Indeed, the temples are magnificent, beautiful and clean. However, they are not quiet, spiritual, praying grounds – some, like the reclining Buddha, promote the ritual of materialistic prosperity by throwing small coins into a series of metal bowls, so you have the constantly rattling sound of money.
Those are the contrasts that, for me, define Thailand: the magnificent temples used as a lucky charm; the Muay Thai fighters and the ladyboys; the devotion to a King that chose to live in Europe rather than in Thailand, surrounded by “wives” and concubines…
Speaking of those: Undoubtedly, Thailand is one of the countries with most beautiful women in the world. It’s also famous for prostitution. It’s common for mothers, in the Northern villages, to sell their daughters for that, and they will eventually return home at a later age and do the same with the next generation. Apart from a few roof-top bars, I found no disco or nightclub that was made for people to chill, dance and enjoy music. All were places for men to display their possessions and hook young ladies. I enjoy night life, clubbing, DJ culture and felt somehow frustrated not to find a place to go. Kao-San road improvised clubs ended up beeing the spots where I’ve seen people genuinely having fun.
So summarise it, comparing to other big cities in the World, I find Bangkok to be a fertile swamp: the river and the canals can be interesting to see, with some beautiful corners. The land is fertile, the women, beautiful, the monuments, majestic, the food, varied and exquisite. Nonetheless, it’s still a swamp. Energetically, I feel as drowning on mud. A mountain may be colder, inhospitable, poorer – however, it provides a solid ground.