20 June 2009


There is Bangkok, and then there are other places.

It is not quaint. It is not pretty, or scenic or charming – it is a raised middle finger spread out over a vast area of traffic choked streets, glass high rises, huge shopping malls and time stained buildings. This city crackles and hums and feels like something is happening – like culture and life and history are changing in monumental leaps as you sit and drink a Chang beer. For every girlie bar clogged Soi 22, there is a Soi 11 full of restaurants, shops and art – and political unrest abounds. Asia is changing. It is changing right here in Bangkok. 

It is not the sanitized, hand-washed, vapid Singapore, a city concerned with pulling on its Manolos and hitting the club for 40 dollar drinks; it is not the backwater colonial ruin of Phnom Penh, a city in which red-nosed expats drink the day away; it is also not the frenzied, incomprehensible madness of Tokyo; it is its own stew,  a mix of the old Buddhist Southeast, the new shiny Asia and the influence - but never colonization - of the West. It's a sticky blend that doesn't always exactly work but always comes close.

Forget the putrid backpacker petri dish of the Khao San Road – the party to end all, filled with buckets (Sangsom whiskey, redbull and coke, served with ice in a child's sand pail) beers and rave, a mating ground where inappropriately dressed party animals can size each other up and experience their first trip away from Mum, Dad and Western social mores. Most travelers in their twenties arrive here, take a tour of a few Wats, come back to this street, party the night away and then head to the islands or Laos in the morning – these are the same people who will exclaim with gusto that “Bangkok is an armpit” or “Bangkok is a shit place” while they fondle a Ko Samui bar girl's ass, fist bump and chug their Fosters.

But for a person who is fascinated by how cities change and grow and develop into something different while still retaining their sameness – Bangkok is a perfect specimen.
Low buildings signify older areas – turn of the century shophouse districts faded and worn, with wooden shuttered windows and roll-up garage door entrances. Peering in each reveals the business at hand – a mechanic, a flower seller, a tailor. Traffic groans and halts outside while people chat and drink tea, and tuk tuk drivers nap parked next to spirit houses jutting onto the sidewalk wherever a special consultant advised was auspicious. Toothless old ladies sell vegetables, canny businesswomen tend to tables of clothing and DVDs and people pray and light incense everywhere, with loud Thai music and talk radio blasting from tinny speakers. 

Some areas have a seventies vibe, a time when Western investment was high – wood paneled steak houses and dimly lit Irish pubs leading into other parts of town that have a New Westminster/E Hastings feel to the architecture – reminding me of my childhood when these areas were still shopping districts. Mid-century modern neon signs advertise dry cleaning, a Booterie (where one buys boots) and luncheonettes, and it all feels somehow retro, the kind of retro that I also associate with New York or Chicago 1961. Two doors down is a big Chinese jeweler, some noodle stalls, a woman carrying a yoke on her neck and a dodgy Thai hotel and you are back in Asia – I am addicted to this schism.

A robed monk on a skytrain escalator - ancient mixed with modern.

Part of the reason Bangkok is so exotic is that it's a shockingly multi-cultural place – to gaze at the departures/arrivals board at Suvarnabhumi Airport is to know wonder. Kazakhstan Air flying to Astana, Air Vladivostok to Yuzno-Sakhalinisk, Druk Air to Thimphu. Flights to Rangoon, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Tbilisi, San'a, Yerevan – imagination places. Theravada monks walk down the same streets as men in full Bedouin costume, women in African head wraps and brightly coloured dresses mingle with craggy British expats and Burmese refugees in lungyi. You'll see Sikh turbans and Muslim skullcaps, Jewish yarmulkes and Palestinian kaffias, Catholic nun's habits and abbaya from Abu Dhabi.

If you're hungry, Bangkok is always snacking - and they mean business. Sidewalk restaurants spill out onto the streets, steaming bowls of noodles ladled out to be slurped while still piping hot, red knuckles of pork sliced and served on top. Big greasy piles of fresh fried chicken and skewers of meat satay, fishballs and baby octopus are barbecued, fragrant smoke blackening the buildings and filling the air. An entire fish on a skewer, my favourite, is 30 cents. Walk past a school at 3pm and the array of yummy snacks sold from small tables for children (and adults) is astounding – along side all of the typical Thai favourites you'll find tiny little sushi rolls in plastic boxes, fresh octopus pastry balls cooked in cast iron moulds, deep fried chicken feet and wings, crepes shaped into Mickey and Pokemon, hot dog and Thai sausage stuffed pigs n' blankets and big cups of bubble tea to wash it down. Children here are not sheltered from real food.

Still hungry? Western food is also abundant and really well done. Authentic Spanish tapas, Belgian brewhouses, chef driven fusion restaurants, small Tex Mex eateries, Italian delis – it would be possible to live here and never be homesick for your favourites. Not to mention all of the sushi – Bangkok is mad for Japan. Any sub category of Japanese cuisine is available here, as are their snack products, brands and chains. 

If you want to escape traditional Asia, high end luxury is everywhere - shopping malls that could rival those in LA, Vegas and Dubai, sparkling beacons of glitz at prices few can afford – yet people are shopping: D&G, Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs, Betsy Johnson, Shu Umera, Jurlique, Versace, Kate Spade, Vuitton – more brands than we have even in Vancouver. Extravagant restaurants and 5 star hotels fill not just one area of town, but many: Sukhumvit, Silom, Siam.

Sukhumvit is also the main expat area – a long stretch of road with small lanes (Soi) that run the gamut from debauched “Pussy Clubs” and ping pong shows to Little Arabia where the Middle Eastern embassies are located and in turn so are dozens of sheesha bars and falafel joints (how can 2 groups that eat EXACTLY the same food hate eachother so much?). Chic yet casual restaurants abound, as do about 20 Irish and British pubs (many holding pub quizzes – my favourite hobby). The Skytrain (no kidding) connects them all to the main hub of Siam Centre, whisking you past all of the heinous traffic in icy air conditioning. Sitting alongside the pretty high school tranny boys, the Thai/Western couples and the unimaginably stylish elite upper class, I feel like a wizened Bangkok expat – and I like it.

Is it dirty? Well, compared to the West, absolutely. Compared to China, India, Cambodia? Not on your life – it is a slick, sweet smelling gem. Is there poverty? Again – yes, there are huge slums, some quite near to affluent areas. But having lived in Mumbai, Bangkok's slums seem like condos – and there are way less people begging than in Vancouver or Toronto. Is it hot? Yes, but there is so much AC that you can always pop into one of the 5000 (no kidding) 7/11's and cool down for a few minutes, and on weekends hop on a 20 minute flight to the most beautiful beaches on the planet.

For me it is an eminently livable city. A city that feels cutting edge. A modern, multi faceted cosmopolis where I could sling on some local designers, mix n' match with some ripped up Tsubi jeans and a knock-off Birkin bag I bought at the Weekend Market and head for a martini in a world class lounge (or a beer at Cheap Charlies) where things are actually happening as easily as I could trawl the markets and barter for a dragonfruit. Where on the weekends I could flit to Hong Kong or Boracay or I could volunteer with the poor in the Klong Tooey slums. Where I could hang out with good ole' boy British expats and win pub quizzes on Thursday and attend art gallery openings and hip hop concerts on Friday. Where lunch costs 30 cents and is delicious and fresh and eaten on a plastic chair on the sidewalk with extra chilies, please. Where my tuk tuk driver can be listening to Pink and sporting a crazy hairdo but still stop to buy flowers to bless his dashboard Buddha. A place that no matter what will always remain mysterious, difficult and Thai

So next time someone tells you to “get out of Bangkok as quickly as you can and head South or North” look them in the eye and tell them to get their head out from their ass and actually look around. Leave the Khao San Road. Stop trying to cram Bangkok into what you want it to be and let it just be what it is. Because with or without you, that's exactly what it is going to do.


Sarah Lomax said...

Great read. Even though Andrew and I only spent a very short time there we loved it. I can't wait to go back and explore it some more.

Violet Dear said...

Thanks! It is a fun city. I love the laid back islands, but the expats here are....weird.

Peckish said...

Blogger directed me to your amazing blog and I've been reading backwards for the past hour or so... I need to remember to stop and tell you how wonderful your writing is - you give such tantalizing accounts of your travels I want to hop a plane right now.

Greg said...

Superb account, I wish I had written it!