“And you’re sure you want to go for five days?” asked the travel agent, his eyebrows creeping steadily skyward.
There it was, that same assumption we had come upon time and time again. Why would anyone who had already been to Bangkok choose to go back? And if so, was five days really necessary? Don’t get me wrong, I could understand his concern. Bangkok isn’t an easy place to love. For many people, it’s a place you pass through, not somewhere you choose to stay. A place to endure rather than enjoy.
“You’ll either love it or hate it,” friends had warned, and yet after first visiting the city in 2011, I found myself to be perched on the edge of a rather uncomfortable fence.
I first experienced Bangkok as a student. Worn down by the prospect of our impending dissertations, my friend and I decided to break up our honours years at university by spending the summer teaching in and travelling across Thailand. Bangkok became a bit of a hub for us, the perfect place to break up our travels between the mountains in the north and the islands of the south. Because we were rarely in the city for longer than a day, we stuck to the well-trod paths of other backpackers, spending most of our time in and around the infamous Khao San Road. This is perhaps where we went wrong.
This city, with its colourful history and melting pot of cultures, should have been so inspiring and yet I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. Khao San Road represented everything I hoped we wouldn’t find; bars filled with westerners, lured in by the promise of cheap cocktails and go-go dancers; market stalls awash with naff souvenirs and knock-off football shirts; the golden arches of McDonalds dominating the skyline. Petrol fumes billowed from the endless stream of Tuk Tuks and Songthaews, making the air thick and stale so that it clung to your skin, turning your feet grey by the end of the day.
Despite the swarms of tourists, the poverty could not be ignored. It was there in the gaps between restaurants, where whole families stood behind makeshift stalls. It was the indifferent looks shared by street vendors, as rats the size of guinea pigs wound their way through the streets. It was the young boy handing out flyers for ‘Ping Pong’ shows, too young to really understand their significance. It was the countless scams we came upon time and time again. It was the time we got robbed by pickpockets.
We certainly had good cause to dislike the city, yet something about it resonated with me. I came back with an itch – and not just from the bedbugs. ‘There has to be more to this place’, I kept telling myself. Two years later, I decided to put the matter to rest; with my boyfriend in tow, I decided to give Bangkok another chance, and so, after giving a mental middle finger to the travel agent, all that was left was to book the flights and hope for the best.
Determined to see another side to the city, we decided to stay out-with the usual backpacking scene and found a hotel in Sukhumvit. What struck me immediately was how much further our money stretched here. For 1500 Baht (about £8) a night, we were able to treat ourselves to a ‘superior executive suite’ in a pretty decent hotel. To put things into perspective, I paid the same for a twin room on Khao San Road which was above a bar, came without bedding and where we lived in constant fear that the ceiling fan might – in all seriousness – come flying off and chop us in half in the middle of the night.
The markets too were great. Gone were the overpriced trinkets and in their place was some of the best street food I’ve tried to date – from phad thai and kuay tiew to pineapple so fresh it makes your mouth tingle.
Just across the road from our hotel was a stop for the Skytrain. This quickly became my favourite method of transport. The Skytrain is a bit like a giant rollercoaster than winds its way through the city; at only 40 Baht (20p) a ride it’s incredible value, and well worth it for the experience alone. From above, you get an excellent perspective of the changing face of the city as ugly grey tower blocks compete for space with glistening, new skyscrapers, while silhouettes of cranes contrast starkly with the gold peaks of the Wats.
The modern face of Bangkok can be provoking at times, but there’s also a real sense of progression in the air. In terms of retail, the city is still lightyears behind Asian giants such as Tokyo and Singapore. That being said, there are still some pretty impressive shopping centres for those that like to splash the cash, as well as those that don’t. We spent quite a lot of time in and around the Siam centre, which has just about everything you could need, from techy gadget shops and designer clothing to art exhibitions, an aquarium and even a luxury cinema! We also discovered the weird and wonderful Terminal 22, a centre designed in the style of an airport, which takes you to a ‘different country’ on each level. Strange, but cool all the same.
The shopping centres are fascinating places and great for people watching, but I have to admit, the main draw is most definitely the food courts or hawker centres, as they are otherwise known. Here, you could try just about any cuisine from any part of the world, and though it was very affordable, the quality was also great. It was becoming harder and harder to believe we were actually in the same city that had left me so frustrated two years before.
Of course, we didn’t travel across the world just to check out the glitzy shopping centres. One of the places I was most keen to return to was the Grand Palace. Its garden, which is open to the public, is one of the most popular sites in Bangkok and with good cause. The stunning network of temples is both bewildering and beautiful at the same time. The buildings and sculptures are highly opulent, the intracacies of their design almost overwhelm the senses.
Bangkok is home to countless beautiful temples, the architecture and art of each giving a stark reminder of the importance of religion and tradition to the Thai people – something which can easily be forgotten in the crowded streets of Patpong and Soi Cowboy. Walking through the gardens, with the smell of incense trickling through the air, it’s easy to forget that you are in the middle of a sprawling urban metropolis.
Many of Bangkok’s temples can be found along the banks of the Chao Phraya river. The river is an important part of Bangkok’s economy, giving access to local fisherman, commuters and river busses; Bangkok even has a network of floating markets which can be visited as part of a day trip. It’s also surprisingly beautiful, and we spent many an afternoon sitting by the banks, simply watching the longtail boats come and go.
By our final day in the city, I was feeling more conflicted than ever. Our experience of Bangkok had been so different from the last, and yet I was also distinctly aware that we had been making a conscious effort to avoid certain areas. I had gone out with the intention of discovering more about the real Bangkok, and yet I began to wonder whether the Bangkok I had experienced two years before was any less real than the one I found now.
The truth is that Bangkok is flawed. Its stereotypes exist for a reason, and that reason is poverty. It’s a city of extremes and contradictions, of change and promise but also corruption. It’s a city where the rich and poor alike feed off the Western economy, but where Western values conflict so deeply with the country’s heritage and culture and in a world like that, you’ve got to wonder when something’s going to give. The scars are evident, from the deteriorating billboards to the backstreet brothels.
Despite this, I find myself drawn to Bangkok. There’s a surprising amount to love about the city; despite the urban decay, there are also places of great beauty. This paradigm was evident from the start of my journey, but never more so than on that final night, as we watched the sun set in Lumphini Park. It’s funny; the pollution in Bangkok is such that you can’t always see the sun, and yet we were distinctly aware of its presence by the reflections on the windows of the skyscrapers, changing from yellow to orange to pink, as though you were looking through the lens of a giant kaleidoscope. Somehow, as nature met modernity it was still lovely, and was one of the many lasting images that has stayed with me over the years.