The old fable goes that “One night in Bangkok can change a man”. I can affirm that I spent a bit more than a month in the Thai capital and that I will never be the same.
Bangkok is gritty. Bangkok is crowded, fast and aggressive. While these stereotypes about the city of almost 15 million people is spot on, it is an oversimplification of what makes Bangkok what it is. Many travelers who bum around southeast Asia for months just as I did will tell you that Bangkok is one of their least favorite places. It’s too big, too dirty with a bad mindset. A city that sells sex for a premium, cheap goods and an unrealistic and even nihilistic look at what Southeast Asia is.
What I can say is that these people never were able to experience the Bangkok that I did, the local flavor that you just can’t find in an expat bar in Khaosan or at the floating market where it’s hard to find a local actually trying to buy goods there. Sorry my friends but you missed out on Bangkok, and it’s a damn shame.
Bangkok as I see it a city with a conflicted identity. It’s big, spread out and modern yet with a traditional mindset that you can find in every nook and cranny. It’s a city that has embraced the West and our economic values yet doesn’t care about the way we do what we do. They are Thai through and through and no amount of external pressure will change that. It’s hard to find any city in the world that welcomes tourists and Western culture so fervently yet doesn’t actually let them participate fully in their way of life. Thailand is too old, too complex and to unadulterated to be impacted. Its insulated with culture, with tradition, with an ingrained sense of self.
Every Thai person is born into a brotherhood, a sisterhood that you simply don’t have access to being a Westerner, which creates quite the experience being a foreigner there for an extended period of time. There is nothing more powerful than seeing every person in the country stop for 3 minutes just after the clock strike 6 pm to honor the national anthem, or to see hundreds of thousands of Thai people dress in black and converge on the Grand Palace to honor their late King. In Thailand you become a bystander, a viewer; and that is exactly how it should be.
You can get lost in Bangkok. It’s a city of vice, of cheap drinks and dark deeds done in dark places. While many expats make their journey to Thailand to get lost in that world, I chose to take my talents to the alleys, to the streets. Your senses become your guide, pushing you towards the good stuff tucked away in dark corners. The mere light of a street stand illuminating your way to pure bliss.
The clouds of steam of a pot bubbling away, the smell of lemongrass and roasted pork wafting through the air. You get lost in the cacophony of the city only to find clarity and peace sitting on a small plastic chair in some unknown street. The street vendor becoming your sherpa to good eats but also to understanding the city and its complexities.
Bangkok can be summed up by Tom Yum, probably it’s most famous soup. Tom Yum is the embodiment of the city. Spicy, sweet, rich and with unknown goodies hidden under the murky broth. Tom Yum punches you in the face, a true sensory overload. Each bowl crafted a bit differently than the next, each bite a painful yet satisfying experience. Tom Yum itself is a rich broth of soy, lemongrass and ginger, bolstered with Thai chilis and peanuts, finished with rice noodles and your omnipresent Thai condiments; Sugar, Fish Sauce, Vinegar and Crushed Red Chili Flakes.
Eating the soup becomes a religious experience, creating the same feeling that the city gives off when you walk around it it. It’s pungent, makes you sweat, cry; leaving you in a state of shock, confusion and pure satisfaction when it is all said and done. Tom Yum has become the physical part of Bangkok that every person can experience and there is no better place to do it than on the streets of the great city, with the locals giving you odd looks as you slurp down another bite.