Whatever you’ve heard about Bangkok is probably accurate. It is truly a hedonist’s paradise like no other place on Earth, at least that I’ve visited. For all the tittering about Amsterdam’s visible prostitution, the streets of Bangkok make the Dutch canals look like the halls of a convent. Las Vegas is perhaps worse, but the strip in Vegas doesn’t attempt to be a real place, while Bangkok is one of the biggest, more cosmopolitan cities on the Asian continent and the capital of a large, prosperous country.
For the purposes of my trip, Bangkok was fighting a losing battle on two fronts, having the impossible task of immediately following Bhutan and being the sixth big Asian city on my itinerary. As much as I tried, I just couldn’t fall in love with the Thai capital and left wondering how so many people do.
I was surprised by how modern and developed the infrastructure in Bangkok is, but it’s a city that doesn’t quite seem to know what it’s doing. The older, more authentic parts of town are few and far between, and the new areas mainly ape the aspirational chicness of places like Tokyo and Seoul.
What frustrated me about Bangkok was just that, its seeming lack of authenticity beyond its trademark sinfulness, which I’ll get to in a minute. On one side of town you have Siam, a shopping Mecca. The triumvirate of enormous shopping malls felt very imitative of malls in Japan and Korea, and indeed “Korean” and “Tokyo” appear to be code words for luxury and high-quality.
Sleek Western restaurants, European designers, glossy Korean cosmetic stores, and funky Japanese gadgetry shops fill three absolutely gigantic shopping centers and to their credit, the Thais have outdone their Asian neighbors in scale and luxury with this area, but absolutely nothing about it is uniquely Thai. This area is not definitely not for tourists, as evidenced by the fashionable Thai crowd sashaying past store windows and sipping wine in air-conditioned courtyards, but these malls could be anywhere in Asia.
On the other side of the problem, old Bangkok is incredibly difficult to find. This is a criticism that could be leveled against any big city anywhere, but in many other cities in Asia, the history of the city was almost hidden in plain sight, tucked down alleyways that told a lot about a place’s past if you just took the time to find them. In Bangkok, I don’t know where this exists. A smattering of street markets are great for sampling local fare and seeing the less high-brow, non-skanky side of Bangkok society, but this is just another side of the modern city.
The non-commercialized part of Bangkok can briefly be found in the canals of Thonburi, the area across the river from the main part of Bangkok accessed by long boat. Bamboo houses delicately balanced on creaking stilts above the water (some of which have given way) in no way feel like the clogged, modern center of the city, and for a moment, the experience is transportive, though soon you’ll find yourself back on the Chao Phraya River with a Starbucks on one bank and a riverfront highway on the other.
Like any big city, Bangkok is full of mostly very nice people and a small selection of hustlers who will try to rip you off at every turn, but I found the prevalence of swindling here to be particularly annoying in tandem with a wacko public transportation system.
Bangkok has an underground subway system and an elevated train system, both of which are great, except they cover a laughably small portion of the city. It would be like if the New York subway only went from 81st street to 23rd on the West Side, or if the L consisted of only the green line. If you have the audacity to want to venture outside this area, prepare to be scammed. Cabbies will either turn off the meter mid-way through the journey, pretend to not have change, or negotiate an outrageous price with you upfront that you’ll know is crazy, but have to accept because basically everyone else will do the same thing. I also had several cabbies refuse to take me to the other side of Bangkok, and while I appreciated their upfront honesty, it didn’t make the whole process any less frustrating.
I, perhaps falsely, fancy myself a shrewd enough traveler to be able to avoid any and all scams, but in Bangkok, it seemed damn near impossible. When it comes down to it, this is not going to empty your pockets. Even for a cab ride that was at least 300 percent what it should have been, I only paid about $6 for a ride across town, so it’s not so much about the money as the principle. No matter how much someone rips you off, you’ll still be paying far, far less than you would for a cab probably anywhere else on earth.
I was mainly mad at myself for tacitly allowing these guys to scam me so horribly and even though I was fully aware that I’d allowed this situation to happen, it still soured my experience with the whole city and it makes you feel unwelcome, even though the vast majority of the people in Bangkok are very friendly and helpful to tourists.
I didn’t even deal with tuk tuk drivers, both because I don’t have a death wish and because they have a reputation for being even worse than cab drivers.
As for sightseeing, I was left a little underwhelmed, not because the sights themselves are unimpressive, but because it’s impossible to really see them. The Grand Palace, the sightseeing highlight of the city, is in remarkably good condition given its location in the middle of Bangkok, but it’s impossible to admire it. Of course there are crowds, but the primary problem is how architecturally crowded the complex itself is.
The Palace was first built in the late 18th century as the official residence of the king, though it is now only used for ceremonial functions, and includes several temples and royal apartments.
They’ve crammed so much into such a small space that there’s no room to gain any perspective on anything, because by the time you’ve turned around, you’ve run into another golden Buddha or a royal chamber. Additionally, because there are huge walls around the palaces and temples, you can’t view them from a distance either, as any time you’re on the street, all you can see is the tip of a golden spire and a giant stucco wall.
Wat Pho, a popular temple in Bangkok, suffers from the same problem of having just too much stuff. Inside is an enormous reclining Buddha, one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world, but you can’t see it because it’s hidden behind so many pillars and the building is so tiny that it’s impossible to stand anywhere and see the whole thing.
For the best sightseeing in Bangkok, you have to get out of Bangkok. Ayutthaya, about an hour north of the city, was the capital of Thailand for 400 years until 1767, when, thanks to a Burmese invasion, the city was destroyed and abandoned. Though the place is now almost entire in ruins, the flourishing greenery creeping alongside the crumbling walls of 500-year-old temples is a beautiful and peaceful way to get a glimpse of old Thailand without the fear of being run over by a tuk tuk when you take a step backward.
Another spot outside the city to get a taste of the real Thailand is in the markets west of Bangkok. The Maeklong Railway Market is truly nuts. The fresh produce market is in no way extraordinary save for its location clustered along the train tracks. Unfortunately due to maintenance, the route no longer passes through the station, but you can see here where the tracks are relative to the vendors.
When the train comes through, everyone simply pulls back their umbrellas a few feet and continues to work while the train (slowly) glides past the baskets of food into the station.
Nearby is the famous Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, a fairly self-explanatory thing with vendors paddling along canals with their wares. With things like fresh fruit and t-shirts, this doesn’t seem so crazy, but the people selling soup, ice cream, and cooked items from their tiny boats are truly impressive.
Realizing the proliferation of tourists, many of the market vendors have begun selling the usual tourist junk, but the atmosphere still feels remarkably authentic and the food is as real as it comes, and utterly delicious.
Strangely, the Thai rulers themselves have historically done a good job of preventing you from seeing traditional Thai architecture because of their love of European design. The Chakri Maha Prasat, the central court in the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, was built by the king in 1882 and looks like someone slapped a Thai-style roof on top of Buckingham Palace.
Similarly, the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, the summer palace complex in Auyutthaya that has been restored by several kings over the last few centuries, is about the least Thai thing I’ve ever seen.
This is as much a part of Thai history as the glittering stupas and elaborate Buddhist temples, but it’s odd to come all the way to Thailand to see imitation European architecture.
Bangkok is, um, eclectic in the sense that there are multiple red light districts and many neighborhoods in which to find bad bars, naked women, and a wonderfully diverse array of crap to buy.
Patpong is not particularly coy about its booming sex business, and its general sleaziness is augmented by the junk-filled night market jammed in the street between various bars of questionable taste. There seems to be an informal contest between the bar names and the stuff you can buy on the streets as to which is more ridiculous.
For sale you’ll find the usual tourist offerings and the ubiquitous elephant-print pants sold absolutely everywhere in Bangkok, but some of my favorite items included a keychain made to look like a BMW 5 series fob, a selection of strong pornography both digital and in print, a variety of dildos, and Valium and Cialis sold by a guy who’d set up shop with a folding table and a black duffle bag. I also saw someone offering to make fake I.D.’s for any U.S. state with a selection of fake passports on offer as well, a business the languid policeman posted nearby apparently took no issue with.
As for the bar names, Super Pussy and The Pink Panther, which included a demure silhouette of a naked woman on all fours on the sign, put up a strong showing, but this is easily my favorite.
The name of this place cracked me up so much that I almost went in as a joke, except I was being reverse pickpocketed by a promoter from the club across the street who was busy shoving free drink coupons into my bag while I was taking the picture, so I took that as my cue to leave. To make things even stranger, there was a very nice Starbucks across the street from The Pink Panther where a group of older women sat drinking coffee late on a Friday night while women in bikinis slumped in their chairs underneath neon signs mere steps away.
At the end of the day, I don’t know that Bangkok is so much worse than anywhere else in terms of the kind of shady shit that goes on, but unlike most cities, it makes absolutely no attempt to hide it and proudly parades its depravity for all to see. This is, of course, something of a show for tourists, but not entirely.
Because there is such a surplus of options, “go-go bars,” as they are allegedly called, make no attempt to hide the goods from the public. I’m sure you could tell me exactly where to find a strip club near your house because the exterior advertisements are usually not very discreet, but what’s inside is strictly hidden behind blacked out windows and three sets of doors, for legal reasons if nothing else, but there’s a sense of exclusivity, too.
In Bangkok, there’s no such practice. Doors stand wide open and the women themselves will actively recruit you to come inside, so if you’re into such entertainment, you can feel free to walk down the street and weigh all your options before settling on where you’d like to have a near-naked lady dance in front of you.
Initially, this is all kind of funny and a night of slack-jawed wandering through the streets of Bangkok’s sinfulness is genuinely a cultural experience, but it can become oppressive and inescapable. When you think, “But seriously, where can I get a drink at a normal bar?” the answer is not readily apparent.
I spent more than one night trying to find a decent bar and while they exist, they don’t have anything special to offer and most were hilariously empty compared to their raunchier neighbors where there was a pole on every table. In some ways, a nice cocktail bar or a no-frills pub anywhere isn’t much different from anywhere else, but Bangkok’s mid-level, non-sex-crazed drinking scene is seriously lacking in personality. You either come to see and be seen at a cool kids’ rooftop bar, or to hope no one saw you walk into a place called Super Pussy. The whole city is not entirely a debauched romp, but finding a different side of Bangkok after dark can be tough.
I have a perverse appreciation for one aspect of the culture at these bars and the way they treat customers. These people are equal-opportunity harassers and I was goaded with drink specials nearly as much as the men. Of course, there is a distinction between strip clubs and prostitution, and while I’m never going to defend either as non-exploitative practices in Bangkok, the strange silver-lining to emerge from this culture is an extremely high tolerance of sexual orientations. Transgender women in particular are a very accepted part of Bangkok culture and homosexuality is widely tolerated. That said, the legal status of gay couples is not completely sorted out, but by most of the world’s standards, and especially by Asian standards, the acceptance of homosexuality and transgender people in Bangkok is admirable.
The next stop on the trail of trashiness is Soi Cowboy, named for the sleaze-bag, cowboy-hat-wearing American who helped put Soi Cowboy on the map of bad taste in the 1970’s. This area was maybe the worst for reasons I can’t really articulate, but I couldn’t even find it very amusing in its lunacy. The whole street is filled with sneering foreign men posted up with pints of Thai beer on high-tops on the street, while armies of bikini-clad women wander around and appear to be doing nothing beyond titillating the group of 40-somethings nearby.
Soi Cowboy is just off Sukhumvit Road, a huge thoroughfare through the city with dozens of alleys (“soi” means side street) with various themes, with everything from sex shops, to Muslin businesses (sometimes on the same street), to bars that would be right at home in a Palm Springs strip mall. The main road is packed with vendors selling all kinds of junk, street food carts, and impromptu bars like this one.
Any list of things to do in Bangkok will surely include the notorious Khao San Road, known for its proliferation of backpackers and all things unsavory. I made my way to this part of town one night mainly because I felt I couldn’t leave Bangkok without seeing it for myself. When I got out of the cab, which I surely paid way too much for, I was confused. Here was a busy street with a few cheesy sidewalk cafes and some guitarists crooning bad Lynyrd Skynyrd covers while tourists drank 40 oz. pina coladas and ate pad Thai. Paper lanterns and strands of Christmas lights dangled from tree branches and awnings, and while the whole thing was touristy, it wasn’t deeply unpleasant.
But that’s because the scam artist cab driver had dropped me on the wrong street. Say what you will about Khao San Road, but it more than lives up to its reputation as the world capital of crap.
This is quite possibly the worst place on Earth that isn’t an active war zone. Everything about it is bad. The restaurants serve fare either adopted from a Chili’s menu or Thai food so bad that any Thai restaurant in your neighborhood could surely deliver more authentic pad see ew. Beer servings are measured in liters and doled out in enormous tubes begging to be utilized for a keg stand, and many tourists could not resist the siren call. The only Thai people on the entire street are the ones working in these godforsaken establishments, and the patrons are mostly American, mostly young, and entirely annoying.
This is such a sophomoric word, but the only way I can describe Khao San Road is lame. It’s like the milquetoast version of Bangkok. For all the grossness, at least Patpong and Soi Cowboy actually have an edge, with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll on every corner. Khao San Road is so desperate to seem wild and out of control that the whole thing is forced and utterly sanitized for the crowd of frat bros who don’t have the bravado to go across town and pay for a night of true sinfulness, opting instead to get henna tattoos and throw up on the sidewalk after too much weak beer.
Everyone loves Thailand, from functioning alcoholics, to college backpackers, to travelers from all over other parts of Asia. Any time I’ve met someone on my trip so far, local or foreign, they’ve consistently named Thailand as their favorite country in Asia. My time in Thailand is far from over, so I’ll reserve final judgment until I leave, but Bangkok left a lot to be desired. The general depravity of the whole place, fueled largely by tourists I realize, is funny for a while, but it’s hard to find much beyond that that’s not in a shopping mall.
I’ll post again about my time in northern Thailand before heading south to its famous beaches next week.