The last time I was in Bangkok was 1997, and since then they’ve built a shiny new airport and sky-train, both fairly immediate indications that the Bangkok of today is a far more modern place than hazy recollection and warped memory would suggest. The lengthy and confusing bus journey to an outlying youth hostel in ’97 was replaced by a quick, easy sky-train and taxi combo. This saw us slipping past glinting glass and steel tower blocks (apart from the top half of one, 20 odd stories of which was covered in a “Singha Beer partners Manchester United” vinyl) until we reached Khao San road. Of the much publicised flooding, there was no evidence between the airport and Khao San bar a few sand-bagged shop doorways, although it wouldn’t take too long to begin to see a little more than sand bags.
Some describe Thanon Khao San (Khao San Road) as just another tourist ghetto, with no authenticity and little merit for the arriving visitor, but at least one look is essential in our opinion. Lined with knock-off DVD sellers, street hawkers, bars, restaurants, and travel agents, it may not be authentic, but then in a 21st Century capital city where even Palaces and Temples have been restored to within an inch of their lives, what is?
What Khao San may lack in authenticity, it certainly makes up for in vibrancy, and unlike other streets in this mold (such as Delhi’s Pahara Ganj) all the selling is done in a fairly half hearted and good natured fashion. After wandering just far enough from Khao San to slow the pace slightly, we found and checked in to a guesthouse whose rooms struck enough of a balance between cost and cleanliness (unexciting would be a fair description) and hit the streets to get a bit of a feel for the area and find important things like food and beer.
Slightly light headed after a quick Chang in the guest house restaurant (at a pokey 6.4% abv, you know when you’ve had one) we wandered through narrow streets where waiting tuk tuk drivers hung about to offer their services (“ten baht, anywhere, ten baht”…righto), and where skewers of spicy satay chicken smoked and sizzled over hot coals, scents mingling with those of the street to create an aroma that’s unmistakably Thai. What actually set the smell memory twitching from my first visit to Bangkok was not just the combination of all the street smells; cooking food, motorbike exhaust, incense, and garbage bags gently cooking in the evening heat, but the TCP like disinfectant they use here, rising to the top of the nasal spectrum and setting Eau d’Bankock apart from anywhere else we’ve been in Asia.
Anyone that’s read these posts will know by now that food features high on the agenda for any destination choice, and on any day in fact. Thailand is no exception, and I’m pleased to report that our first meal was no let-down, the hot, sweet, sour, and salty balance of green curry, massaman curry, and green papaya salad a totally winning combination.
With only two full days in Bangkok before flying south and west of the capital to Krabi, we shook off our Changovers and walked an hour or so through the city, through a park where tamarind pods cracked underfoot, to reach the collection of temples known as Wat Pho. Ignoring the ‘helpful’ strangers who advised us that the temple was in fact closed, we stepped inside the perimeter walls and began to wander through Buddha lined courtyards, giant stone warriors, and red roofed temple buildings. While ornately carved and brightly coloured in the Thai tradition, the temples gleamed with fresh paint, gilding, and tiles, their appearance belying their true age. The highlight of Wat Pho is the famous reclining Buddha…it’s benign and strangely androgynous face propped up on a giant elbow, appearing to contemplate either the meaning of life, or his / her enormous feet and pearl inlaid toes, resting some 46 meters away at the far end of the temple building.
With ambitions of visiting the warren of alleys of Bangkok’s Chinatown, we made our way towards the river to hop on a boat heading south. Perhaps inevitably it was here we found the first signs of the flooding, where sandbags diverted swiftly flowing river overflow towards drains, and we had to wade out through a foot or so of water to reach the jetty. Having made the wade at two consecutive piers, we found out that the boat service had actually been suspended for two weeks due to the height and speed of the water. The stalls clustered around the piers appeared fairly non-plussed about the whole situation however, and seemed to be doing good trade in grilled and fried goods to the local population. After a spot more wading down riverside streets we decided to call it a day on our sight-seeing attempts, and returned to dry land to head back to the Banglamphu district in which both Khao San road and our guest house was located.
Over a drink that night we met up with an old school friend who currently lives and works in one of Bangkok’s northern suburbs, who confirmed just how severely some parts have been affected. The first two metres of his apartment block is below water and he’s expecting not to be able to return for at least another 2-3 weeks. By all accounts the dispossession has been much greater in other areas, both of the city and in northern Thailand. The nearest thing we came to losing in the water was a flip flop, so we should count ourselves lucky really.
A spot of internet and twitter research that evening showed that the reality in Bangkok right now is that much beyond the CBD and main tourist areas near to Khao San are either flooded or difficult to get to, so the most we mustered for our next day was a walk to see the second giant Buddha, this one a slightly more diminutive but still an impressive 43 metres tall. Unless I’m greatly mistaken, the temple buildings and marble courtyard surrounding this one weren’t there when I last came, so after admiring its size I took the chance to grumble about how it wasn’t like this when I was a boy.
With little appetite to visit the business district, we whiled away the remainder of our time in Bangkok wandering, eating, and just enjoying watching the comings and goings of the streets; the fresh faces of the gap-year first timers, and the deep deep tans, dreadlocks, and tats of the long timers.
The Bangkok of today seems considerably more modern and less crazy than when I was one of the fresh faced first timers, and whether that’s perspective or reality is difficult to say. Whatever the case, from our limited experience over a couple of days, it’s a fun, relaxed, easy capital city to visit, where the people are friendly, the food great, and just enough of that Asian vibe (heat, smells, and sights) to keep the relative blandness of some modern cities at bay. With another swift and easy ride back out to the airport the following morning, it was aurevoir Bangkok hello palm-fringed beaches of the Andaman coastline.