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Bangkok, headaches, markets, temples, Thailand, travel

Gridlok

02.04.10 | 7 Comments

Perhaps when you hear “Bangkok,” you think of sprawling, bustling urbanity. Perhaps you think of up-and-coming metropolitan glamour, of shopping and nightlife. Maybe you think of massages, culinary delights, criminal exchange rates, and sexual puns. That’s all fine. Let me tell you what you’ll really do if you come to Bangkok.

Lean in close; it’s a secret. Ready?

If you come to Bangkok, you will sit. In. Traffic.

z_light traffic

It doesn’t matter what time of day it is. It doesn’t matter if you’re just going round the bend for a quick pint or all the way out to the airport. You can take the bus or a taxi or a tuktuk. It doesn’t matter: if you are in Bangkok, you are stuck in traffic. And let me tell you, American rush hour is a high-speed car chase compared to motoring in Bangkok.

John and I arrived at the Bangkok airport at about 3 pm. We climbed into the taxi at 3:30. 22 kilometers and 500 baht later, we arrived at our hotel. What should have been a 300 baht, 30-ish minute tear into the city turned into 2 hours of idling in a taxi listening to greatest hits like YMCA, Play That Funky Music White Boy, and other modern tunes supplied by our driver to help pass the time.

They say that before the metro and the Sky Train (monorail) were built, Bangkok’s traffic was even worse, a situation that I believe could only exist if vehicles were actually stacked on top of each other.

But you probably want to know what one does in Bangkok when one is not stuck in traffic. I guess I owe that to you after my previous half-assed post, though in my defense, if I had written more, you probably would have skimmed through in boredom, because I didn’t have much of substance to say about Penang. Warm, sunny, beachy, tasty. I pretty much covered it.

But! Bangkok.

As navigating Bangkok is somewhat akin to watching water evaporate from a stockpot through the wrong end of a telescope, the first two days we spent more time than usual chillin’ close to home. There are, however, some things worth venturing out for. Like the Chatuchak weekend market.

z_chatuchak road

If you ever make it to Bangkok, be sure to be there over the weekend so that you can go to Chatuchak. It has the added bonus of being right on a metro stop, so traffic can be avoided.

The Chatuchak market sells everything. Literally. Do they have—Yes. Yes they do.

z_chatuchak fry

z_chatuchak lantern shop

And the aforementioned sinful exchange rate combined with astoundingly low prices will make those baht evaporate from your wallet as fast as you wish traffic went.

z_chatuchak garlic

It’s key to get to Chatuchak early—not only do you want to avoid accidentally groping half the crowd as you scoot past them in the incredibly narrow stall aisles (unless that’s your thing), but you also want to avoid the fierce midday heat.

z_chatuchak dude kid

Luckily, there is refuge to be taken in covered food courts. I got one of my favorites, spicy papaya salad: shredded green papaya, chili peppers, peanuts…

z_chatuchak papaya salad make

…all ground together, tossed with a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Sweet, spicy, sour, salty, and crunch. All in one. The Swiss Army knife of flavor.

z_chatuchak papaya salad

After an afternoon of naps and massages, we had to nourish ourselves with fried. Fried shrimp:

z_massage fried shrimp

Fried fish:

z_massage fried fish

Fried rice:

z_massage fried rice

Vegetables:

z_massage veggies

And, by far the winner, a thick, eggy, crab curry:

z_massage crab curry

I highly recommend staying in hostels when traveling. The word ‘hostel’ can evoke thought of grungy dorms, but plenty of hostels are anything but. We stayed at a place called Refill Now! that was quite a classy place. I like hostels because they’re cheap, but more importantly, you can meet fellow travelers. No one talks to each other in hotels. When you’re sharing a room with two to eight other international strangers, bonds form. Meet Johan (pronounced JOE-han), a Sri Lankan Swede, and Rich, a Canadian fisherman.

z_johan rich2

We all had dinner together at a street stall near the hostel. We started with some tom yam seafood soup…

z_street tomyam

…and a heavenly, unbelievably creamy, fluffy omelet.

z_street omlet

And then I was so busy eating I forgot to take pictures of the red curry and beef with vegetables. We also shared a bottle of Sangsom, Thai rum.

z_sangsom

This is why I stay in hostels:

z_johan songsam

But I made sure to get the donuts.

z_street donuts2

The next day, Johan came out with me and John. The hostel provided a free tuktuk ride to public transport. A tuktuk is like a large golf cart that runs on gas. See John:

z_john tuktuk

They can get stinky really quick, because you get to inhale all of Bangkok’s exhaust, but at least if you’re going to be stuck in traffic, you’ll pay far less for what you did in a straight-up taxi.

The hostel tuktuk took us to the water taxi station. Water taxis are ultra-cool.

z_water taxi2

Everyone crams together on a boat, and the taxi marms walk around the outer edges of the boat, taking tickets and fares.

z_water taxi marm2

We got off near all the temples and palaces on the west side of Bangkok, then rented another tuktuk.

z_tuktuk

Our driver first took us to the giant Buddha temple.

z_giant buddha2

Thai temples are fabulous: they’re filled with screaming yellows, purples, pinks, and blues, and they are very, very shiny.

z_jeweled wall

z_hands statue

z_peeling statue2

Given the architecture styles, I could best describe these places as “winged opulence.”

z_jeweled flames2

Next we went to another Buddhist temple, which was equally as reflective and luxurious.

z_buddha rows

z_talk to the hand

z_peeling hand

We told the driver where to take us next, but it turned out he had his own agenda. His English wasn’t great, and for a long time we were very confused, but it turned out that if he took us to certain places, certain retail places, that he would get free gas vouchers. So first he took us to a jewelry store. Then he took us to the wholesale jewelry expo.

Then, even though we told him explicitly that we wanted to go to Khao San road for some lunch, he insisted on taking us to a tailor, even though none of us wanted anything tailored. He seemed a bit irate when we didn’t buy anything. But we only paid him the equivalent of one US dollar for about two and a half hours of his time, so I guess I can only be a little bitter.

z_tuktuk driver

We were too tired and sun-drained to see the Grand Palace that afternoon, but we’ll spend another day or so in Bangkok on our way to Singapore to see what we didn’t. But that afternoon, John stayed at the hostel and Johan and I went to get some traditional Thai massages. To get there, we took the one way around traffic: we hired motorcycles.

The motorcycle drivers hire themselves out to drive people around, and since the motorcycles can weave through and around stopped traffic, they are highly time- and money-efficient. They are, unsurprisingly, extremely dangerous. We passed a motorcycle accident on the way to the massage. That really restored my confidence.

Soon enough, We found ourselves at the train station, waiting to catch our overnight train to Chiang Mai.

z_stn board

Bangkok was…fine. It’s a dense city filled with malls and Starbucks, and while I could say something similar about Shanghai, Bangkok is so frustrating and un-navigable that it’s a relief to get out. In a city like Shanghai, I always feel that I’m still in China, as international as the city is. But in Bangkok, if there weren’t Thai on all the signs, I would think I was in another modern, globalized urban purgatory.

z_bangkok city of life2

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