Bangkok: Sweat, Street Food, and Surviving a Tuk Tuk Ride
Bangkok wastes no time overwhelming all of your senses and rendering you speechless. As we stepped off the train platform and entered the city center for the first time, we were immediately assaulted by new sights, sounds, and smells. Street vendors cooked whole fish over open flames in little kiosks, car horns beeped, and the scent of curry mingled with exhaust fumes drifted in our faces. Motorcycles, buses, and tuk tuks whizzed past in patterns that seemed to have zero rhyme or reason. Stray dogs trotted along the sidewalks as people hawked jewelry, textiles, and other goods from roadside shops. We had entered an entirely new world.
Bangkok is Thailand’s capital, a city where eight million people officially live. According to some sources, the real number is more like fifteen million. It’s a place that’s both loved and hated by foreign visitors; while some embrace the chaos, others despise it. The city is home to both the tremendously wealthy and extremely poor. Glitzy mega malls stand alongside ancient temples and run-down apartment blocks.
Another defining characteristic of the city is its intense, oppressive heat. It was easily still in the low 90s the evening we arrived, despite it being after dark. Instead of cooling down when night falls here, it seems to get even hotter, as if the heat soaks into every street and building all day long then releases itself when the sun has disappeared. By the time we reached our hotel, just a 15 minute walk from the train station, we both looked like we had jumped fully clothed into a swimming pool. Still, Bangkok was seductive, its feverish energy drawing us in.
After a blissful night’s sleep in our air-conditioned hotel room, we set out to explore. We quickly learned that getting around here is an exercise in patience. (Using some of the world’s most sophisticated train systems in Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong over the past few weeks has spoiled us!) Since Bangkok’s roads are often gridlocked, the best options for getting from place to place are water taxis that shuttle passengers along Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river, as well as a limited train system.
We opted for the novelty of the water taxi on day one, deciding to head for the old part of the city and just roam. Our routine on the first day we arrive in each new locale has been to wander without an agenda and acquaint ourselves with the city’s food, street culture, and general layout. Riding a Bangkok water taxi is kind of like taking a spin on a vintage version of Splash Mountain at Disneyland. We were herded onto an old, flat wooden barge packed with both tourists and locals, then set off at break-neck speed along the river. Water splashed into the boat as fare collectors wobbled like tightrope walkers along the outer edges collecting everyone’s money.
We survived the thrilling (albeit white knuckle) ride and made a stop at Wat Saket, also known as the Golden Mount Temple. We climbed its winding steps just as a group of monks entered the complex. We watched in quiet fascination as the monks alternatively prayed and snapped photos of each other with their smartphones.
Next we enjoyed a delicious streetside lunch of $3 Vietnamese noodles, then continued on towards Khao San Road, Bangkok’s fabled backpacker district filled with cheap hostels, restaurants, and bars that cater to young tourists. (If you’ve seen the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, this is where the film begins). After being approached by an endless barrage of pushy street vendors trying to sell us everything from gemstones to suits, we quickly hustled out of the area. Khao San Road may have been an idyllic neighborhood at one point where young travelers could meet and connect with one another, but unfortunately it seems to have descended into a kitschy tourist trap (or maybe we’re just getting older 😉 ).
In Bangkok, we experienced many Southeast Asia “firsts” that we’ll forever look back upon with amusement. We got our first Thai massages, an experience that felt like a cross between a relaxing trip to the spa and a visit to a sadistic chiropractor. After washing our feet (this is how all massages begin in Thailand) and giving us loose shirts and pants to change into, our massage therapists started crawling on our backs and legs, using their elbows and knees to apply pressure to various points on our bodies.
The experience was a bit intense for us first-timers–I asked my masseuse to stop when she began aggressively cracking all of my fingers and toes–but we walked out of the spa feeling loose and disjointed, in the best way! The whole experience cost only about $7 per person. Massage spas in Thailand are everywhere and are very casual; appointments are only necessary at the most high-end ones, such as those in five star hotels. Otherwise, you can just walk into a spa and expect to be laying on a massage table within five minutes. There are even pop-up spas at most outdoor markets, where you can recline on a chaise lounge surrounded by strangers and get a neck, shoulder, or scalp rub.
Another favorite Southeast Asia “first” we experienced in Bangkok was our inaugural tuk tuk ride. Tuk tuks are three-wheeled motorized taxis, also known as auto rickshaws, and are a popular mode of transportation in this part of the world. Many drivers trick out their tuk tuks with special add-ons like stereo systems and neon lights to attract more business. We took our ride on a Friday night when we were too sweaty and tired to walk from our hotel to a dinner establishment down on the riverfront.
Although our driver offered to take us to some, shall we say, more unsavory places than a fried chicken restaurant, he ultimately agreed to bring us to our location of choice. After haggling with him a bit and agreeing on a price for the ride (tuk tuks don’t have meters like regular taxis; settling on a price with your driver is part of the experience), we set off down one of Bangkok’s many six-lane mega roads. Although it was later in the evening, the road was still jammed with traffic, so much so that our driver decided the optimal way to get us to our destination was by pulling into the (slightly less jammed) oncoming lanes and dodging vehicles going in the other direction. This whole experience may sound insane (it was), but it was also exhilarating. We eventually arrived unscathed at the restaurant, and our driver zipped away in search of his next customers. Tuk tuks may not be the safest mode of transportation in Thailand, but they’re certainly efficient!
If we had to choose one defining feature of Bangkok that stands out to us, however, it would without question be its food. The street food scene is unparalleled, and the number of options at affordable prices is astounding. A flavorful, freshly cooked meal for two with beer can easily be found for $10 or less. Feasting on grilled fish and pad thai at night markets while your sweaty t-shirt sticks to your back is a Bangkok experience that shouldn’t be missed. We also ate plenty of other staples, including banana and vanilla-filled sweet pancakes, chicken and pork curry (we ate the best curry of our lives sitting on stools in an alley in Bangkok’s Chinatown), spicy noodle dishes, and fried prawns. We also made drinking coconut water directly from the coconut a daily ritual. Coconut water and other fresh fruit juices are available for sale on practically every corner.
One item that proved difficult to find, however, was flip flops for our big American feet! Mike and I each only packed two pairs of shoes, one casual sneaker (our trusty Allbirds, for inquiring minds) and one more durable sneaker (Merrell hiking shoes for me; Altama shoes for Mike), and planned to buy cheap flip flops when we arrived in Thailand. It took some serious searching before we found them, though–larger shoe sizes aren’t that common here. We spent several days fruitlessly browsing every store and market stall that we passed, and finally found our sizes in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The staff at the family-run shop where I bought my pair couldn’t have been kinder–they willingly dug through a bunch of boxes in the back until they found my size in the color I requested.
As I waited, one of the women in the family struck up a conversation with me, asking curiously where I was from and if I had visited Thailand before. As we chatted, she told me about her son, a college student who’s studying in New York. Her pride was evident as she described his academic accomplishments and the family’s hopes for him. As an American citizen, it’s pretty easy to feel down these days about the current political and social climate in the United States; seeing a Thai family’s belief in the opportunities that America offers gave me a refreshed perspective. For the first time on our trip, I felt like I understood, just a bit, what it is like to look at the United States from the outside in, rather than the inside out.
Ultimately, Bangkok both exhausted and delighted us. Mike said it best when he compared Bangkok to an onion–every day you’re there, you peel back another layer of awesomeness. You can easily walk down a block you visited the day prior and notice a new shop, street vendor, or kiosk that you could have sworn didn’t exist just 24 hours before. We’re getting excited, though, to slow down and embrace a more relaxed pace in our next destination–the city of Chiang Mai in the mountainous north of the country. Until next time, sawasdee from Thailand!