[This post is the first part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]
Bangkok is a feast for the senses and a city of cities. I just scratched the surface and can only share my brief experience as one that made me want to go back. Bangkok was swept from a sleepy trade town to a scandalous city during the Viet Nam War (or, as they say in that end of the world, the American War) and has grown into a modern metropolis. It has architectural, cultural and culinary delights worth traveling for. For all its sites, the best way to experience it, in my humble opinion, was through its streets.
Streetside sightseeing is my preferred way to explore a city. By keeping away from the main tourist strips and diving into side streets (in Bangkok, the intricate Soi system), back alleys and the less-trodden parts. On these walks, you can discover the everyday grit and atmosphere that defines a city as much or more than its brightest monuments or minds. Plus, it totally free.
We arrived in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, spilling out of the BTS airport line and into the warm evening air. The streets were disorienting in so many ways. The traffic flows in the opposite direction. (We tried catching a bus and ended up crossing an intersection five times). The sidewalks are jammed with …life. The waxing and waning strips of asphalt theoretically separating pedestrian and vehicular life are vibrant. There’s commerce, there’s love, there’s children’s play, there’s poverty, there’s chess, there’s fighting, there’s drama, there’s worship, there’s fruit, there’s greenery, and of course, there’s food. Oh, the food!
Bangkok Street Ccuisine
The street food of Bangkok looks every bit as wild and appetizing as you might imagine. There are restaurants everywhere. I didn’t try my tender North-American belly with the urban food delights, though there were times I was so tempted (and other times, seriously turned off, though the worst Thai stands made the Cambodian ones seem sterile). When eating, the streets flow into the buildings and the buildings onto the streets. Kitchens sit on sidewalks letting their heat bellow into the masses of wires installed precariously, while patrons enjoy the cooling shelter of the restaurant. Every space can become a kitchen and a dining room in Bangkok.
The Seedy vs. The Safety
The streets can also be known for having a seedier side. Is it safe to wander the streets as a petite, unassuming female? You need to be smart and there can be risks, but in my brief experience, it was both lively and safe. I even ventured down what one might call a ‘ping-pong alley’ off Silom Road at night by myself. The key is the kindness and hospitality of the Thai people.
Before leaving Budapest, a friend who spent six months in Southeast Asia told me that although I had to be smart when traveling to Thailand and Cambodia, it’s a pretty safe place. “They’re Buddhists, after all!”, she reminded me. She was right. The feeling of grace and gratitude permeated the trip. The Thai people were so thankful, smiling and polite, it was a treat to encounter everyone.
It wasn’t that there was one particular moment or encounter of kindness. It was the overall feel of the place. Although the cultures (and climates!) are vastly different, I was reminded of being home in Canada. When I arrive in Canada after visiting certain countries (the United States and Israel come to mind), there’s a feeling of relief. When you walk off the plane, you feel a little less worried. Your every interaction isn’t guarded or worried, it’s easy and pleasant. That stress that hunches your shoulders up in alert-mode melts away. I found that same feeling of ease when traveling through Thailand. I wasn’t naive, but I was relaxed. Yes, I made my fair share of cultural faux-pas, but the Thai people were gracious, forgiving, and forever smiling.
I should emphasize that traveling in Bangkok and Southeast Asia is not without its criminal risks. There are a series of scams, and some of which are so well known, there are Wikipedia articles and TV shows about them. These are often confidence tricks – a scam played out after gaining the confidence of the mark. A shame, as it takes advantage of the general goodwill of the Thai people. Not all, but most of these scams can be avoided so long as you follow the common sense mantra: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t taint your trip trying to find the world’s best deal or the wildest night. Here are some other helpful tips for enjoying streetside sightseeing in Bangkok:
- Carry your purse or bag in the front, or have a backpack that’s impossible to easily open. My mini backpack was actually annoying to open with its folding fabric and one-sided zippered closure. But one woman’s annoyance is another woman’s security feature.
- Keep cash on you in different locations. Don’t have all your cash in one pocket or one purse.
- Keep photocopies of your passports on you, obviously, but this also was helpful to enter the Thai Royal Palace or other tourism security checkpoints when we left our passports locked in our hostel safe.
- Smile but keep moving away from unwanted attention, stay in crowds and brightly lit streets.
- If you’re not a gem dealer at home, don’t start in Thailand.
Bangkok is refined from the wilder days of the 1970’s, but it keeps its alluring mix of spice, scandal and sleek that makes the curious want to venture deeper. Thankfully, as it’s the travel hub of Southeast Asia, I plan to be back and to keep walking.
Off the Street Highlights
Beyond the streets, here are a few other Bangkok highlights: