Just when I was starting to think that cynicism had completely consumed my soul, regurgitated it and begun to chew on it like a slovenly desert camel, we arrive in Bangkok.
I love this place.
I’m sure spending the past two months in India (along with the fact that I’m coasting on the first real coffee buzz I’ve had since China) has something to do with my infatuation with Bangkok (and so far Thailand). Perhaps coming direct from China or the U.S. would have skewed my emotions — undoubtedly so. But I have to imagine that cleanliness, friendliness, creativity, amazing food, mind-blowing sights, and cheap and accessible bear, coffee and thai iced tea would have grabbed me and pulled me in even fresh off a plane from Paris.
Nevertheless, I’d highly recommend: If you want a real headtrip, spend seven weeks slumming it across India in cheap guesthouses and trains…and then get on a plane to Thailand.
Funny thing is, I really don’t think many of the same people visit these two countries, though they are but three hours flying distance apart. It’s become increasingly apparent as we spend more time in Bangkok that unless you’re an around-the-world tripper or got some time (and patience) on your hands, you’re going to generally fall into one of two categories: Hippie free spirit on a spiritual journey to discover life’s deeper meanings –or– frat boy on a spiritual journey to soak up some rays and chase some tail. I’m not saying of course that everyone who travels to India or Thailand falls into one of these two categories — this is simply our observation so far — and as we get deeper into Thailand, this may very well change (certainly heading north away from the beaches, I’d imagine).
One of the key reasons why I wonder whether the same people often travel to both India and Thailand is that the information we’ve read and heard regarding Bangkok, in particular, seems way off. The Lonely Planet Thailand book and others make Bangkok out to be this CRAZY scary filthy third-world metropolis where scammers, con-artists and hustlers are lurking behind every corner. Consequently, before we arrived in Bangkok I was fully expecting to arrive in the seedy underbelly of Asia not unlike the city depicted in the film Dark City. Granted, we’ve only ventured around Banglamphu and Chinatown, and as all cities I’m certain Bangkok’s got its share of no-go areas. But let me tell you, Banglamphu (the neighborhood containing Khaosan Road), is nothing short of fantastic.
Let me count the ways:
It’s really not that hot — Ok, yes it’s hot, but not unbearably hot. We’re still in the rainy season right now, but storms pass quickly with a fair amount of drama. Streets flood, but quickly dry. Yeah, it’s hot, but NOTHING like Shanghai or even Chennai in the summer time. In fact, I can recall quite a few days last August in Washington, DC in which it was absolutely unbearable. I’ve heard Bangkok gets hotter, but I’ve also heard that this is considered HOT now. Hey, we’re in the tropics, and I’m not cowering in our air-conditioned bedroom, so all is well.
It’s CLEAN! — Really clean, by major city standards. I can’t think of too many other global cities I’ve been to this clean. DC and Shanghai have more trash around their national monuments. The air is far more breathable than any big city I’ve visited in China, India, or Eastern Africa (even in the rainy season).
Traffic ain’t no thang — again, my perception might be skewed by just coming from India, but a lot of people make a big deal out of this one. It really isn’t. 1) There are working traffic lights and some even have walk signals for peds; 2) I’ve seen cars (with my own eyes) on more than one occasion actually SLOW down or even STOP for a pedestrian; 3) Sidewalks are wide in many areas and motor vehicles don’t use them!; 4) There’s a lot of activity and movement on busy roads as well as side roads, but no farm animals to dodge (I’m looking at you, Indian bovine and Chinese hogs), no animal crap to step over, no one operating a motor vehicle TRYING to run you down, and the decibel level is far less than the excruciatingly loud motorbike and rickshaw buzzing of Varanasi, Kolkata, or even Iquitos, Peru.
People are FRIENDLY — Yeah, we found some people to be nice in India, but in that understated head-wobbling sort of way where you don’t really know if they’re doing it because they want something in return or just because they feel obligated. People here, even in the big city, go out of their way to smile, explain things, help you. If someone doesn’t understand you, they actually try, or they apologize (not like in India or China where they stare at you blankly or wave you off with a look of agitation).
Did I mention, it’s clean??? — In India and China, even in the nicest restaurants it was a bonafide miracle if the washrooms had toilet paper and didn’t smell like a goat’s been decomposing for weeks in the fresh air vents. In Bangkok, everywhere we’ve visited has plentiful toilet paper and washrooms are immaculate. I even had a barista at a coffee shop run in ahead of me to the washroom (naturally, as in India I thought he was trying to cut in front me) to check to make sure that there was ample toilet tissue before I used it!!! I nearly passed out. SERIOUSLY.
The restaurants and bars are creative, inexpensive and all about ambience — India: A culture in which alcohol is tremendously taboo (and even illegal in many parts) yet one of the most openly unscrupulous and unethical I’ve ever experienced (especially when it comes to money); Thailand: Alcohol is openly consumed and people (perhaps with the obvious exception of touts) are courteous, respectful and honest. Even the touts are friendly and surprisingly human.
And here’s a final fun one. There’s a utility closet outside of our hostel room that the staff like to congregate around starting at 6am. We brought this to the attention of the friendly young lady at the front desk asking if it wouldn’t be too much to ask for them to keep the decibel level to a minimum until a bit later, and guess what? THEY DID. In China, we would have most certainly received the angry blank stare (regardless of English proficiency). In India, a faint smile and headshake (and absolutely no change).
Of course, these observations are subject to change, given that we’ve been in Thailand only a few days. But these are our initial perceptions. Needless to say, for the moment, we are very happy to be here. We quite like Bangkok. It strikes us as a surprisingly livable city, the first out of the last three months of travel that we could see ourselves living in. Not to even mention that some of the most amazing beaches in the world lay just beyond the southern horizon and the legendary cultural mecca of Chiang Mai lies a day’s journey to the north.
Our [Rough] Thailand Travel Itinerary
We’ve got 30 days in Thailand (by the way, no visa required for U.S. citizens — though you can get a 60 day visa prior to leaving the U.S. but the validity would have expired by the time we arrived here). U.S. citizens get 30 days if they arrive by air and 15 days arriving over a land border. Our understanding is that it’s fairly easy to get a small extension on the visa but costs around US$30. Alternatively, you can leave and come back in with little hassle, getting another 30 days. We’re looking to stay 30-45 days.
We’ll spend 4-5 days in Bangkok before taking the train down to Chumphon, where we’ll catch the overnight slow ferry to Koh Tao. We’ll be in Koh Tao about a week (just enough time for Lori to get scuba certified before the October rains hit the Gulf of Thailand) before potentially heading on to Kho Pha Ngon to catch the full moon party. Ahead of the rains, we’ll cross over to the west coast to spend some time in Phuket, Krabi and possibly Koh Phi Phi, then head back north with a brief stop in Bangkok before heading farther north to spend a week or so in Chiang Mai. Time permitting, we’d also like to spend some time in Chiang Rai before crossing the border into Laos for our slow boat trip down the Mekong to Vientiane.
We’re budgeting about US$1,200 for this leg of the journey (not including scuba certification) which equates to about US$40/day for the two of us. Given that this is what our daily budget ended up being in India and food and lodging seem to be cheaper here than India, we think we’ll come in quite a bit below budget. It really will depend on transport and sightseeing costs, but given that we are planning on moving about far less than in India (4-6 main locations over 30 days as opposed to 8-10 in India in the same time period) we think we’ll be in good shape.
Off to enjoy the sights of Bangkok. More to come soon!