Bangkok conjures up images of a bustling, chaotic city that is exotic and rich in culture. A city that assaults the senses and challenges the visitor to be open minded and try new things. Those ideas would be accurate. My visit only scratched the surface of experiencing Bangkok. I can only report on the interesting things I saw and did, knowing it was only a glimpse.
My visit to Thailand would last a full month, with only the first five days in Bangkok. Many say even five days is too much, but I knew that this would allow me enough time to explore a few different aspects of the city. We all look for different things for our holidays in terms of relaxation and cultural immersion.
When I travel, I have almost no interest in doing the things everyone else does. For many, Khaosan Road, Soi Cowboy, the backpacker hangouts and the bargirl party spots are not my thing. They are there, I know what they are, and I’m not interested, so why bother.
My interests are generally to meet friendly locals at my destination, experience the cultural sites, go to a cooking class, a jazz bar, an excellent restaurant or two, and meet beautiful women who are not prostitutes.
I actually decided to stay in Chinatown. It seemed a nice way to blend the urban chaos of two cultures and be saturated in a vibrant climate of hustle and bustle. I stayed at the Shanghai Mansion Bangkok, a lovely boutique hotel with a spa, bar and restaurant. My package included either a dinner or a one hour Thai massage each day. Because I was one person staying in a double occupancy, this meant I could potentially have two one hour massages each day. Insane right?
So my everyday sights and sounds outside my hotel were that of China. There were many sidewalk restaurants, and I noticed a concentration of Chinese tourists packing the tables. These must be a very worthy culinary hotspot for them. Eventually I would experience this.
I loved the atmosphere. There was an alleyway street market next to my hotel, as well as a fantastic high end Chinese restaurant called Chinatown Scala. Their dishes focused on crab and shark fin soup, and you could watch them cook through the windows right from the street.
Apparently it’s not cool anymore to photograph your food. This is a trend, but the savviest know that now that’s uncool, and it’s too cliché. Well I say screw that. I am not a “foodie,” or a food blogger, but I do look for good meals as an experience. And I’ll show my pictures.
Another factor in visiting a new city for the first time, especially one as seemingly chaotic as Bangkok is the fact that you don’t really know what to expect. You do not have your bearings, you do not know the atmosphere, the relative distances, or how anything works. I didn’t even know how to hire a tuk tuk, how it works, or what I should do. So I accepted the fact that on the first day or two, I wold make mistakes. Hopefully these would be low risk mistakes, and they were.
I asked the hotel the best way to get to the touristy area with The Grand Palace and Wat Pho. This was essentially, the best place to start, to get these high profile tourist sites out of the way on the first day. The got me a tuk tuk, and for 100 baht I was there. As the day progresses I would witness the tuk tuk games they seem to love playing on tourists. I had no idea, but everything was so cheap and it was my first day I didn’t mind a little nonsense, if it gave me a greater insight into the culture on day one.
Some hustler told me that The Grand Palace was actually closed for several hours due to a ceremony of some kind. Do I believe him? I have no idea. I was already walking in circles trying to find the front entrance, since the structure is walled in on all sides. So he recruits another tuk tuk driver to drive me around to a bunch of other temples until it reopens, for 100 baht.
“And he’ll drive me around to three other temples, and just wait, and then bring me back right here?”
Who knows. So we did that. We visited a temple in the middle of the city that was nothing to look at. It started to dawn on me. I get it, these are the small, boring temples, and 100 baht to them is a lot of money. It became even more clear in the next moments.
We stop at a shop, and the driver says I must go in and look around, and he will get gas – I think this is what he said, something to this effect. We stop and he holds my elbow and points to the front door of the tailor shop, a big store, the best one in town, and they’re having a sale. As I walk in I wonder just what the fuck is going on here?! I don’t need suit. So the guy in the store starts showing me a catalog of suits, can I interest you in a shirt? Maybe a tie? I start laughing to myself because this is not why I am in Thailand, what the fuck is going on? I walk back out, and the driver was still there. He had not gone to get gas, so I was wrong on some account.
I was getting irritated at this point. But here’s the thing: you cannot reason with tuk tuk drivers. They are a species of beast that cannot be understood or negotiated with rationally. I realized I had been swindled to some degree.
We went to another tailor shop. The lady I encountered at the entrance knew exactly what was happening. I did not know what was happening. And it was rather humorous when I walked in with absolutely no interest in shopping, with a look of befuddlement. She said “Just pay him off and walk away…”
“Ok yeah but I have no idea where I am, and I would have to hire someone else to take me back, so I may as well just stick it out with this guy and end up back at the Grand Palace.” I responded to her.
I was mostly laughing inside, because this was my very first day in Thailand – in Asia – and I had no idea how things worked, and so I somehow managed to go with the flow and let things play out until I was truly being scammed or something. I knew I was going to make a mistake or two. If all of this is costing me a learning curve and $3 (100 baht) on day one, I was ok with this.
Still, I almost got into an argument with the guy now because he tried taking me to yet another store. Is this how they make a living? Swindling tourists? So I definitely do not need a fucking suit, and take me back now, etc is what I started thinking. He didn’t care at all. I think with tuk tuk drivers, all rides lead to the tailor shop.
When we got back I handed him 100 baht and walked away. Fucking jerk. He didn’t even flinch and drove off. They do not care. I had another, more brief experiences with like this with a tuk tuk driver at a later location. And eventually I learned that indeed these tuk tuk drivers get some kind of credit for gasoline when they bring a passenger into a particular shop. Don’t know how that works.
I met Katy on Tinder. She was an American living and working in Bangkok. The first evening she invited me to a jazz club called Saxophone at the Victory Monument. This is what I enjoy, hanging out where other Thai’s hang out, just getting drinks and talking. And yeah, maybe there were other expats there, but not too many, and who cares. We visited a couple other spots and called it a night over beer and red wine.