PART 2: BANGKOK
Bangkok was the place I was most looking forward to on our trip. It was a place I'd been longing to see for years, a legendary Asian metropolis with incredible food that never sleeps.
We arrived after 11pm, exhausted after a 7-hour flight from Tokyo. David got stuck in the back while I was upgraded to economy plus. We call a taxi and negotiate a rate of 500 Baht ($15) to take us to the Sheraton hotel (the closest landmark to our Airbnb). There we meet our host Thomas. He’s a French guy who moved to Thailand 6 years ago, leaving behind a career in finance to pursue art and film production.
He has an awesome three-story building that looks like a warehouse with a big sliding metal door. On the first floor is a bar, stools, and working tuktuk (three-wheeled motor taxis seen all over Bangkok). The second floor: an art gallery and event space. The third floor: a loft apartment and our home for the next two nights. The decor is modern and beautiful, and most importantly the AC is strong. Upon hearing how much we paid for the taxi, Thomas laughs and informs us that we paid way too much. He warns us that drivers will scam tourists by offering a flat rate that’s way higher than they would pay by meter (which taxis are required to use). He said that the government has been cracking down on this, and even made some arrests, since so many tourists have complained.
The next morning, we got breakfast at the Coffee Club overlooking the Chao Phraya River. The water is so dirty it’s impossible to see through, full of trash and debris. After seeing that, we only brushed our teeth using bottled water. From there, we explored the 20-acre temple complex of Wat Pho, containing nearly 100 chedis (tower-like structures used for worship and meditation) and 1,000 buddhist images - one of the largest collections in the world. Wat Pho is also the site of Thailand’s first university and school of traditional medicine, massage, and yoga.
From there we saw the even larger and more opulent Grand Palace. Sitting on nearly 50 acres, visitors aren’t allowed in but we admired it from a distance. Now used mostly for ceremonial purposes (and some smaller government offices), the palace was once Thailand's seat of government and home to the king and royal family, as well as a center of religious activity.
At this point the 95-degree heat and humidity really started getting to us, so we hopped into a coffee shop where we met a Belgian KLM pilot on a layover. He recommended a few markets and areas we should check out. First up (and within walking distance) is the riverfront district of Tha Maharaj, which offers local food stands and shops with trinkets and Buddhist ceremonial objects.
From here we took a small river ferry (about $2) to an incredible restaurant recommended by Thomas called the Jam Factory for lunch. It was delightfully open, green and modern – a huge contrast to the world of chaos outside. And then the real adventure started – our Thai massages. It was raining and so hot and humid that a couple hours of indoor relaxation sounded like just what we needed. Based on a local recommendation, we took a cab across town and asked for two Thai massages. OMG – I didn't know my body could move in the ways the masseuse twisted it or endure the kind of pain I got from her walking on my back and kneading my skin. OUCHHH. 3 days later I was still sore.
Standing in the rain, we struggled to find a taxi at a reasonable rate (more on this later). Finally we got one and headed towards our Airbnb, stopping at a nearby bar recommended by Thomas to decompress. We struck up a conversation with the bartender who mentioned the bar was owned by a French guy… named Thomas. He failed to mention that. But we were so exhausted from the massage that we didn’t stay long. What was meant to be a brief stop at the Airbnb to change for dinner turned into a two hour nap. We woke up ravenous and given the late hour considered ordering delivery (yes, Uber Eats delivers everywhere). Instead, aware of the limited time we had in Bangkok, we decided to check out the famous Khaosan Road which has been described as the “center of the backpacking universe.”
On its surface, Khaosan Road looked like a lively, happening place with lights, music and street vendors, but after a few minutes there it looked more like a fabricated oasis for westerners embodying all sorts of stereotypes. Ads for adult shows, pickpockets, tattoo parlors, and massages being given on the street (surely not up to code), restaurants luring in customers with "The best pad thai in Thailand" (not something locals eat), and cheap drinks. Everywhere we walked were men (mostly white and long-haired) clearly under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, many sitting on the ground hunched over.
We grabbed some food at a decent looking place, which was horrible (flavored down, bland version of Thai food meant to make westerners feel more at ease). I asked the restaurant to take back David's dish (which he could barely eat). Expecting an argument, I was shocked to receive no pushback at all. Made me think that this must happen often enough that they’ve come to expect it.
Determined to get out of here, we walked to the end of Khaosan Road where spent what felt like an hour standing on a busy corner trying to get a ride home. We talked to at least 8 taxi drivers who refused to take us using their meters, all claiming their meter was broken (we saw one driver actually unplugging his meter as he pulled up). Perhaps sensing our desperation, each driver offered an even more ridiculous rate than the next – from 300 baht to 500 to 600 – before finally someone took pity on us and turned on his meter. The final cost? Around 200 baht. Back home, we packed for a morning flight out of Bangkok.
We deliberately limited our time in Bangkok to one day after hearing from friends that it was disappointing. Even that, I must say, was too long. Overall Bangkok was loud, dirty and full of washed out westerners looking for "a good time". It struck me as trying to be something that it's not – an ultra modern Asian metropolis suited for wealthy travelers instead of the unkempt, loud, hot, place that it was. For example, on our drive to the airport, we passed by a row of rundown, beaten up shacks just feet away from a glass-walled, 7-story Lamborghini. In all fairness, this is probably due westerners coming in and demanding Bangkok cater to their ideas of what an Asian tourism hub should be. Don't give in. Not cool, Bangkok.
Airbnb Listing: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2731981
Flights departing from Bangkok (do yourself a favor and find one to, well, anywhere): https://www.google.com/flights