Retro: Bangkok, Thailand

So nothing “new” to report about Turkey, other than we have our dates definitely-probably set.  It’s a bit tricky right now due to my current job situation – as a teacher, if we end up going on any kind of prolonged strike in Ontario, the trip may have to be shortened or (and I freaking hope not) completely axed. So we’ll see what happens at this point.

I’ve been contemplating doing some reposting of old notes I wrote on Facebook and adding my updated thoughts.  After having just spent an hour working on some special education documents and with today being a rainy day, I figured today would be a good day.

Park aerobics.  Like Bootcamps,
except nobody is trying to kill you.

So, with that in mind, we’re going back to 2009 to the Thai capital, Bangkok.  One of the craziest cities in the world, where the reward of the various sites might barely beat out the amount of nuttiness you have to put up with in the city.  This was part of a Southeast Asian trip, which started from Seoul, South Korea after my friend Jamie and I finished a month-long teaching assignment at Camp Korea, and went through Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, on to Angkor Wat before finishing up in Thailand.  Too short of a time in the region, to be sure, but sometimes you take what you can get.

You can actually get some nice Palace
shots if you’re patient enough to let
the crowd get out of the frame..

Bangkok is the defacto “hub” of any trip to Southeast Asia.  Most airlines run connectors through Suvarnabhumi airport to just about anywhere and fares are cheap and generally stay cheap, even if you have to book less than a day ahead of time.  None of the price gouging you see in Canada or Europe, from what I saw.  Obviously, being the hub city, you’re going to run into a lot of tourists in Bangkok.  Unfortunately, you tend to run into a lot of the worst, but we’ll get into that a bit later.

Our hotel was the Rambuttri (hehehe) Village Hotel, which I think used to be called the Rambuttri Inn, which I would assume was changed due to the fairly obvious jokes (and if you’re not getting it, you’re not trying hard enoug).  The hotel is located right near Khao San Road, which is Bangkok’s main tourist strip, and walking distance to most of the big sights in the city.  This has its advantages and disadvantages.  

The Ramayana Story.
Look it up.

An advantage, for instance, would be that we were able to walk to the Royal Palace in fairly short order and avoid the tuk tuk scams.  See, some of the tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok aren’t the most honest, to the point that we had one guy tell us that the Royal Palace was closed even though we could clearly see two entire tour buses unloading in front of the thing.  The day before, we had a different tuk tuk driver offer to take us on the “10 baht tour” of the city, where he basically would have dropped us off at a couple of temples that he randomly circled on the map before driving us to a store in the middle of nowhere, run by a buddy of his, where we’d basically have to buy something in order to get a ride back to Khao San.  Thank you, Lonely Planet, for the details of the scam.  However, if you’re going to get duped into thinking a driver is going to take you on a city tour for the equivalent of 25 cents, you may need to rethink traveling solo.

Unfortunately, scams like that abound in Bangkok and, frankly, I think it’s because it attracts the wrong type of tourist for what it offers.

Buddha digs vanity.

For instance, the Royal Palace.  Simply beautiful.  Giant golden stupas, the Emerald Buddha in a fantastically gilded shrine, gleaming statues, all sorts of beauty.  The Ramayan mural, which tells a story I can’t even begin to explain, featuring giant bird people and gods defending entire villages with their giant tongue, will blow your mind.   The giant reclining Buddha in the adjacent Wat Pho is awe inspiring and, from a sheer vanity point of view, gave me one of my favourite headshots ever.  You can pretty much spend the whole day there, in the midst of some crazy tourist stuff, but still be completely inspired and swept away by the beauty of the place.

Then you head back to Khao San Road.

For those of you who have been to the Caribbean, picture that.  Then make everybody drunker, substitute hair braiding for fake armband tattoos an dreadlock hats, add in a few shirtless dudes eating dinner in restaurants at night, throw a few more passed out in the gutter, make drugs more accessible and sell everything for cheaper.  Now have all of those people think that they’re having a real “cultural experience” by being there. 

It’s kind of like that.

People eating dinner shirtless at eleven o’clock at night. Loudmouthed shirtless guys being arrested in the hotel lobby. Old men wearing the shortest running shorts they could find. People having custom made Hugo Boss camouflage suits. D, Laird and me looked positively splendid in our normal shorts and t-shirts with everybody else running around looking like they just rolled over. There’s just a general behaviour from the average Bangkok tourist – loud, obnoxious, self-centred – which I really don’t dig at all. 

Sometimes, it rains a little.  Just a little.

I guess what bugs me the most about it is the fact that this isn’t some Caribbean resort town designed specifically for this type of thing.  This is a city of nine million people.  Put a shirt on.

Now, a lot of locals also feed into that as well. The touts here are much less annoying than at Angkor in terms of voice, but depending on where you walk, you’re being offered a tuk-tuk, suit or ping-pong show every five minutes. D was “targeted” especially, as he may physically have been the whitest white man in Bangkok at the moment. 

And I get why.  That custom Hugo Boss suit?  Hundred or so bucks depending on where you get it.  50 cent shrimp kabobs – good ones – sold on the side of the street.  Air conditioned, two bedroom room with pool access, about $25 dollars if you’re splurging.  It’s cheap and somebody here is going to have more money to burn than they would in Tokyo, London or New York. 

Wat Arun.

There is a lot of poverty, which leads to desperation, which leads to catering to the lowest common denominator, which leads to teenagers going home with eighty year old men because it can net more money than most legitimate jobs, even if you’re being controlled by a pimp.  We actually did go to Patpong, which is the Red Light District of Bangkok, and sat in one of the bars.  Honestly, most uncomfortable experience of my life.  Crowds of girls all over you, wanting you to buy them drinks, have a good time, which will eventually lead to you-know-what.  None of it legal, none of it being stopped.  Pretty sad.  I actually felt bad for going down to take it in as a spectacle, but also realized that, if I was a young, drunk, straight guy out of the country for the first time, I’m probably going to the back room with one of those girls.  If anybody in the country is thinking twice, you sure don’t see it.

All that said, none of it makes Bangkok a city not to see.  There’s Wat Arun across the river, which is stunning to behold.  The fully functioning City Shrine across from the Royal Palace.  The Golden Mount, way up on the hill, giving you panoramas over the city.  You NEED to go to Lumphini Stadium to see a Thai boxing match.  Even if you’re not into the fighting (which is intense and rough, but wasn’t nearly the bloodbath that Jean-Claude Van Damme would have you believe), the ceremony surrounding the matches make it worth it.  Watching an entire crowd go crazy between bouts as they bet on the various rounds is insane.  You’re not going to understand it, but you’re going to be entertained by it. 

And maybe that’s the best way to experience Bangkok.  I can come in with a certain amount of “White Privilege” and complain about the exploitation and the scams, but it’s not my city and I don’t know the plight that people face every single day.  Social change comes from within, not from me complaining about ills on a blog, and the people of Thailand will have to reach a point where they decide how they want to deal with their issues.  In the meantime, Bangkok is a physically and historically beautiful city, even if some of its visitors aren’t.  If you go anywhere in Southeast Asia, you’re going to end up there, so take a breath, bring some patience and enjoy. 

Just keep your shirt on during dinner.

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