After a few days in forgettable Phuket, our plane lands roughly on the tarmac of Don Muang Airport, just north of Bangkok. Bumpy takeoffs and landings seem to be a theme with AirAsia, but when flights are just under twenty dollars, it’s tough to face the alternative slow bus crawl up the Thai peninsula.
It’s almost midnight but the city is bustling as our taxi swiftly drops us off at our hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 11, a trendy expat area seemingly designed for tourists. We’d read that Bangkok comes alive at night, and make note of the action lining the streets. Open-air bars with mediocre bands and sub par sound systems, food vendors, and pushy local men hawking everything from Gucci handbags to young Thai women (the latter of which is on display everywhere) line the sidewalks. Massage parlors are open until midnight and bars and dance clubs are full of scantily-clad girls ready to entertain and make money off of much older (almost always foreign) men. The next morning, while grabbing a cup of coffee we overhear two older Australian men, probably in their 60’s, discussing their previous evening with hired women. “She initially kissed me on the cheek” one guy says, “It’s crazy but I really think we had a connection.”
But for all its misgivings, we’re excited to be in Bangkok. With over eight million people (almost 13% of Thailand’s entire population) it’s the country’s political, economic, and cultural hub. Bangkok offers many of Thailand’s “bests.” It has the best food, best music, best art, and best shopping. Shopping, in particular, is serious business here. Within our first two days, we've walked past nearly ten shopping malls, many of which are massive. It’s part of Bangkok’s split personality, the new and fancy parading above the very old, traditional, and simple. We've seen this dichotomy of new versus old, modern versus traditional, in many other Southeast Asian cities, but Bangkok does it best, and on a much larger scale.
In Bangkok the King is well, King. His image can be found all over Thailand, but his presence is even stronger in the capital. The Grand Palace, home to the Royal family from the late 18th to early 20th century, is a sprawling complex set against the Chao Phraya River. It’s Thailand’s most significant landmark, holding the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, made entirely of jade. Next door, the Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho attracts an overflow of tourists. Both landmarks are remarkable and we visit the outside of each, but after nearly three months in Asia we’re more appreciative of the mundane, everyday occurrences of a city. So instead of joining the thousands of tourists shuffling through the palace in the stifling Bangkok heat, we take a ten minute walk across a small canal to grab some iced coffee. The surroundings quickly shift from regal to real, as we wander through skinny streets and alleyways that seem more reminiscent of old Siam than modern Bangkok. A few blocks further into the heart of the city and shopping plazas begin to emerge as the BTS (Bangkok Train System) carries commuters overhead.
After nearly four weeks in Thailand, we finally indulge in a $4 Thai massage (stalled due to a motorbike injury 10 days in). The experience is both awesome and painful at the same time. Multiple times throughout we exchange looks of fear that the massage therapist has likely dislocated a shoulder, knee or ankle. Thankfully we make it out unscathed, although when we’re still sore three days later, we question whether the massage made us feel better or worse.
We spend the next few days on our routine long walks, exploring much of the city by foot and subway. But our favorite Bangkok moments take place in Lumpini Park on the last day of our Asia adventure. Although it’s no Central Park (which it’s often compared with), Lumpini is a beautiful green oasis in the middle of constant chaos. Best of all, it has a small lake with paddle boats shaped like swans, which we (of course) have to try. We paddle around the large lake and look up at the Bangkok skyline. We agree that after three months of traveling through all of Asia, we must be feeling a little worn out if our favorite city moment happens on a lake in a swan boat.
Bangkok is more functional than any other place we’ve visited in Asia. The degree to which every possible human desire can be met is incredible. World class restaurants (including two of the world's 50 best restaurants), incredible street food, swanky condos, insane nightlife, sex (in pretty much every form), business, sports, parks...everything. But strangely, with all the modern amenities needed for a comfortable life, it seems much less endearing than so many other places in Asia. We decide that in order to truly understand all of the levels of Bangkok, a person would need much more than a few days.
With no time to spare, we’re leaving Thailand the day our 30 day visa expires and are heading to Europe; Rome specifically. The second continent on our trip around the world. We’re looking forward to the familiarity, but also to exploring many new places together.
Thank you, Asia, for the insightful experience; for showing that graciousness transcends culture and language and for reminding us to be open, experimental, and humble.