A world away from the sleepy seclusion of Phuket’s beachside retreats, Bangkok is a city always in motion, for better or for worse. “Go with the flow” is perfect advice for the Thai capital: fail to do so and you’ll most likely be overwhelmed by its relentless intensity. But if you can find a way to see past the noise and the grime, the scammers and the tourist tat, you’ll find a fast-evolving megalopolis that can stir and excite the senses like few cities can.
Certainly, Bangkok is not an easy place for the virgin traveller. From the airport taxi drivers that pretend to get lost in the middle of the city’s most popular tourist districts, to the illicit tour guides that will harry and hound you outside all the major sights, it can feel like there are people out to make a quick buck from you at every turn. But one learns quickly to either play or ignore the con men - and we were thankful to find that they weren’t (on the whole) physically intimidating like some we've encounter in less inviting parts of the world.
If there’s one factor that makes the city ongoing hard work, it’s the heat, which is omnipresent and incessant, and can make exploring the temples – where legs and arms are required to be fully covered – rather uncomfortable. Relief of a kind comes often in the form of rainstorms, but the downpours are usually so torrential that it’s almost impossible to continue exploring in them, and we spent much of our short time in Bangkok dashing into the nearest bar or café for shelter (and secretly reveling in another excuse for a snack).
As is typical in South East Asia, life in Bangkok is lived on the streets. It’s what gives the city its manic energy, but also the thing that feels most alien for western travellers. In the busiest areas, you can find yourself wading through thick throngs of localers, who usually act as if oblivious to the strangers in their midst. The smell of food permeates everywhere. On every major street you’ll find a dozen or more stalls cooking and selling stuff to be snacked or gorged on, while mobile merchants (usually women) walk up and down carrying obscenely heavy basket-loads of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Nervous of picking up bugs that might wreak havoc with constitutions weaned on western standards of hygiene, we chose early on to avoid the street food ourselves, but it was still fascinating to watch it being prepared, cooked and eaten by the locals, for whom this style of al fresco feasting appeared to be as normal as fish ‘n’ chips in front of the TV. Inevitably, it was the weird stuff that most firmly gripped our attention. Insect eating would play a larger role later on our tour, but it was in Bangkok that we saw the first time scorpions and spiders being deep-fried and sold for snacks – a sight every bit as can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it gruesome as you’d imagine.
On our maiden walk through the backpacker mecca that is Rue Ram Buttri, it quickly became clear that Bangkok is just as geared up for western tourists as Phuket and its surrounding islands. But where the Andaman’s beach resorts promise rest and relaxation in settings of pristine luxury, Bangkok tries to entice its holidaymakers with more earthly temptations. The sheer volume of shops and stalls peddling what appear to be exactly the same range of knock-off clothes, accessories and souvenirs is staggering, and you wonder how some of these outlets make any money at all, when a sale is almost entirely dependent on the vendor offering the cheapest price. I suppose not all tourists can be bothered to haggle, and certainly there seemed to be little desire among the travellers we encountered to hold out for more unique items outside the capital. How else can one explain the near-ubiquity of elephant-patterned stretchy pants, which were the legwear of choice of almost every female backpacker of a certain age?
We were also amazed by the pervasiveness of English, which seemed like it was the city’s unofficial second language, at least in the tourist areas. Restaurant signs and menus were almost always in our native tongue, which was of course rather useful for us, but did make some of our experiences feel rather inauthentic.
If street food is not your bag, then don’t worry - you can’t go hungry in Bangkok. Once you’ve got your attire sorted (and admittedly, in that sort of humidity, those elephant pants are bloody comfortable,) the next thing you’ll almost certainly pine for as the heat and energy-sapping crowds take their toll is an ice-cold drink and plate of grub. Almost everywhere you look on the Rue Ram Buttri, there are cafes and bars and restaurants (with many blurring the distinctions between the three) purveying cold beers and hunger-busting food at prices so low you’d think it was some sort of joke. Picking out the good ones can be challenge – menus are generic, with Thai stuff (noodles, curries, deep fried everything) rubbing shoulders with select western items (burgers, pizza, though no pork pies sadly). But if you head to where the biggest crowds are, you don’t often go wrong.
Of course, eating and drinking aren’t all Bangkok has to offer. Walking the streets is always my favourite way of orientating myself in a new city, and we spent many hours blissfully (if stickily) wandering around the maze-like cobbled avenues, poking our heads into hidden temples, noseying at the locals hanging from their apartment windows, and being constantly amazed by the dizzying amount of electrical wiring on display. Honestly, some of the streets are so enmeshed with cables that you’d think they’d been invaded by giant black silk weaving spiders. (Note also the delights being advertised on the 'Sale' board below - if there's one thing Bangkok isn't, it's prudish.)
The temples of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho are always near the top of the travel guides’ ‘Things to see in Bangkok’ lists and it wasn’t hard to see why. Emerging from the warren of streets around Rue Ram Buttri, we strolled through the enormous Sanam Luang park (which is shaped like an ancient Roman sporting arena and encircled by roaring traffic-jammed highways) to the outer walls of the Grand Palace, where we raised a wry smile at the line of ‘Tourist Police’ vans trying to keep the bootleggers in check.
From the street, you could see little more than the tips of the buildings within, but as we stepped through the gates and into the complex, it became quickly apparent we were about to experience something very special. Before Bangkok, Windsor Castle and Versailles were my two most vivid reference points for palaces, but Thailand’s equivalent provided a whole new dimension.
The overriding impression of this 18th century mini-city was one of almost bawdy opulence. But it was hard not to be won over by the sheer scale and splendor of the place, with dozens of exquisitely designed buildings and temples vying for the title of ‘most grand’. For me, it was the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, with its gilded honeycomb roof and needlepoint spire standing out as a glittering beacon even amid such abundant lavishness.
While the manifold structures within the guarded walls of the Grand Palace were breathtaking from a distance, carving a wondrous skyline of multi-hued rooftops and rococo towers, it was up close that the true extent of the designers’ achievements was revealed. The detail on the building’s facades, many incorporating countless thousands of tiny coloured and gilded tiles arranged in the most intricate patterns, was on a scale I’d never seen, and it all looked as polished and pristine as it must have done the day it was completed.
The temple interiors were no less opulent, and whatever your religious persuasions, the custom of removing shoes and sitting in quiet contemplation beneath the grandly ornamented ceilings and Buddha statues felt entirely appropriate.
The only thing that perhaps took some of the joy from our visit to the Grand Palace was the sheer volume of tourists present, but this is a blight that afflicts many an ancient wonder in the modern world, and as direct contributors to it, it would be hypocritical to complain.
Despite the feeling of battery-caged hens continuing in the nearby Wat Pho - a separate complex of temples to the Grand Palace, but one no less worthy of a visit - little could detract from the awesome spectacle of the sight’s enormous reclining Buddha. 15 metres high and 43 metres long, the horizontal statue was awesome in size and detail, and with only a narrow, tightly angled path surrounding it inside its hosting temple, photographing it in its entire glory was almost impossible.
48 hours in Bangkok was barely enough to scratch the surface of this dense and complex city, but it did give us our first real taste of South East Asia after the largely sanitized versions we’d encountered in Phuket and Ko Phi Phi. Away from the tourist areas we found a way of life that was altogether alien to our privileged eyes, but for all the dirt and hardship on display in some of the city’s poorer areas, there was an unmistakable joie de vivre in the way the locals behaved and interacted. And while we suffered from the same weariness and occasional frustrations that must affect all foreigners who come here, we left with the surety that one day we’d be back.