This Easter holiday, Ross and I decided to avoid the lack of bars open on Good Friday and embarked on our first trip to South East Asia. Five days in a city of 11 million people should be hectic, but in fact it was one of the most relaxing holidays I’ve been on, not least because none of it was planned. It’s the first time I’ve gone anywhere without concocting the ‘Itinerary from Hell’ beforehand, and it lead to a week that felt like three. Without trying to get all Lonely Planet on you, here are some moments from our trip that stood out as must-do’s for the future.
1. If You Can’t Change It, Ignore It
Anyone who knows me (that’s all of you) knows I don’t unwind easily. Peace is not like a river in my household. I have short nails from biting them, I’m going grey, and there’s a track worn in the carpet from pacing like a Sun Bear (that’s Ross, not me). ‘Spiritual enlightenment’ is a really good gin and tonic as far as I’m concerned. The cheapest, fastest and easiest way to head to the city from the airport in Bangkok is taxi. And the first thing that’s noticeable as you’re screaming along the freeway sans seatbelt, apart from trucks with 6 people hanging on for dear life in the back of them, is that everyone takes traffic jams like a normal, everyday occurrence. When you get stuck in a jam, you turn off the engine and read the paper until it’s time to go. Would that happen in Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne? No chance. Would we wait patiently in line for food, or train tickets, or buses? Not likely. And getting on a Skytrain, packed like sardines and not complaining: well, read the newspaper today about transport in your city and you tell me: bet there’s a column about how bad it is. The difference between Bangkok and a lot of western cities I’ve travelled to is that they expect it: it’s normal. They know they’re a congested city. They know that things don’t happen when they should; and they don’t complain. Granted, they may get in a bit more trouble than us for speaking up and whinging, but a lot of it stems from the fact that the majority of citizens (try 96%) are Buddhists, who aren’t known for tantrums in supermarket aisles over the quality of the sandwiches (which I witnessed in Adelaide 3 weeks ago). It’s a city that’s motto is ‘Smile’. And they do – a lot. The poverty is unbelievable. People live in shacks that leak, piled on top of each other like broken boxes alongside abandoned rail tracks or polluted canals, or in apartment blocks that bear the tell tale signs of lead and sulphur poisoning; but they complain less than the tired woman in the post office back home, and there’s less road rage than there is here on a Saturday morning. It was a lesson: chill out.
On top of all the smiling, Bangkok has the most beautiful collection of Buddhist temples, scattered all over the city. In the grimiest, dirtiest neighbourhood, follow a saffron monk and you’re bound to find whitewashed beauty around the corner. What with the chanting, and the high walls, and the fact most of them are set in quiet gardens on large blocks, the noise and rush of Bangkok seems to just melt away into the background and you can appreciate where the calm in the craziness comes from. It’s a nice side to the city that wasn’t expected
2. Death March Til You Drop
Walking around a city like Bangkok is admittedly a bit of a mission. Thai’s don’t walk; they pay 10 baht to hop on the back of a bike or scooter and get driven to the end of the road. It’s not necessarily lazy, it’s just a way of life: it’s hot, it’s grimy, and it’s faster and nice to just get driven somewhere. We thought we’d attempt to walk, regardless of the difficulty. Was it difficult? Yes, and no. It was 28 degrees at 7am most days, climbing to 40 with high humidity for a start. The most obvious point was the fact we stuck out like sore thumbs as tourists and kept getting stopped by people thinking we were looking for a taxi or either mad or lost and needed help. Amazingly, everyone who stopped us was an English teacher or language student who had a friend with a tailor who made excellent suits! Didn’t fall for it. Nu-uh.
Walking did lead to pleasant surprises. Firstly, we couldn’t walk directly from our hotel to other areas without catching the Skytrain (overhead monorail) or Metro (underground), both of which put any train I’ve used in Australia, the UK or Paris to shame: they are so clean you could eat off them. And quiet, and prompt. And there’s always an Ovaltine or Pepsi ad with a catchy jingle playing on the electronic advertising screens to drive you nuts – I was still singing the tune to the donut ad for a week after we got back. We also saw into the ‘normal’, non-touristy side of the city by hitting the back streets. We found the tuk-tuk repair area, the sports store area (where we picked up a few local football team shirts – Phuket United better place well this season….), Lumphini Park, where the locals run every day, marching bands practice, dogs chase ducks in the heat and you can lift weight in an outdoor gym; both sides to Sukhumvit: the seedy, sex tourist end with lady boys and happy ending parlours; and the up-market, high rise end where the rich and famous live; and possibly the best find of the whole trip: The Banyan Tree, and Vertigo Bar. And outdoor cocktail and dining bar that sits a-top a 59 floor high rise in Lumphini, Vertigo offers customers 360 degree views of Bangkok while sipping cocktails decorated with Singapore orchids. As the sun sets, the city lights get brighter and you can really appreciate how busy and congested the streets really are and the river, which can be almost completely ignored on a trip to Bangkok suddenly becomes an integral form in the landscape.
3. Spicing Things Up
The chilli finally broke me in Bangkok. I’ve eaten a lot of hot food in my lifetime; I’ve practically grown up on hot Indian curries and spicy foods and there is no such thing as ‘too much chilli’. That is, not until you find yourself on the end of the hottest, spiciest, most potent sweet chilli sauce you’ve ever experienced. Oh, they do love to pack in the flavour and strengthen things up over there. The Red Bull is notorious, the beer is 6.5% (most western beer is about 4-5% alcohol content), and the chilli is FLAMING. The secret to weight loss was discovered in about 24 hours: eat lots of meals, eat little meals, eat them in 40 degree heat, and pack in the chilli. Ross and I decided before we left Australia to be really open minded and willing to try anything when it came to food. Considering most of the city eats from food carts on the side of the road, we weren’t really going to have to try hard. Some of the meals included: eggs Benedict, that had been grilled with the hollandaise sauce on; curry with shrimp and pork for breakfast; pancakes with banana and coconut (which I would almost fly back just to eat); giant oysters; various unidentified cured meat products on sticks; some sort of animal penis (also on sticks); a hamburger from the side of the road; crab balls that melted as soon as you ate them; noodles that kept burning, and burning, and burning; and a pork curry/soup combo meal that cost us all of 60 baht for two (about $2) with Singha’s collected from the 7-11 up the road on a scooter. Not a bad meal in sight!!!
4.Take Me Back To Chatuchak
I found my idea of heaven on earth in Chatuchak Markets. One of the largest markets in South East Asia, Chatuchak is an outer suburb of Bangkok and an absolute maze of goodies. Divided in sections, it’s like a giant, open mall, but full of bargain stuff and with all the smells and heat of a traditional market. There’s a section for just shoe vendors, the jewellery section (pearls, anyone?); The Chinese area, the young designer area (which has some pretty amazing stuff on show); rows of jeans, artwork, sculpture of Star Wars characters (I kid you not), pets (including squirrels), handbags, fresh food, elephant paraphernalia….. I could go on and on and on. We found a child prodigy glockenspiel player, a Thai cowboy, a karaoke section, advertising for Garnier which involved some pretty shoddy dance moves from the 90s and lots of sequins while throwing hair products around, and a Thai hippy busker that looked like he was a Nimbin local. When we got tired, we found more meat things on sticks, and cocktail bars with djs in a cowhide decked out interior. When all the tourists go home, the place gets taken over by the locals, and the fun starts again. Amazing. Didn’t want to leave – my favourite day in Bangkok, if just for the people watching and being able to experience a place like that, which was so different to what we know as our markets over here. FABULOUS
Bar of the month: The Vertigo and Moon Bar, The Banyan Tree Hotel, Lumphini, Bangkok
Drink of the Month: Orange Sunset. Mysterious gin based cocktail in Chatuchak markets. Very Strong. Very cheap.
If you’re planning a trip to Bangkok, or anywhere in Thailand in the future, check out the Lonely Planet guides for information and tips on local protocol and etiquette, as well as accommodation, sight-seeing etc. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thailand/bangkok