HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thai Tales 3/3 - Bangkok Dangerous (Part 1 of 2)

(30 baht =1 USD)
Bangkok. Few city names are as evocative. Images of the Far East and all things exotic spring to mind upon hearing it. My expectations for the city were largely based on two things: First, this quote from Anthony Bourdain, a far more skilled wordsmith than I'll ever be, in the Thailand episode of No Reservations - " Bangkok. It's a sensory kaleidoscope, for many an overloaded thrill ride of pleasure. Officially 8 million people, unofficially closer to 15 million. Most living cheek-by-jowl on streets, canals, corridors; something delicious seemingly everywhere. Confused, yes, but in Bangkok you don't care."

Second, the city's reputation as a modern-day Gomorrah, home to predatory sex tourists, go-go bars, massage parlors, "ladyboys" (a major Thai phenomenon that I don't feel like delving into), and infamous red-light districts like Soi Cowboy. My experience was somewhere in between those two.

After the lengthy trip up from Koh Tao, I checked into the Wild Orchid Villa and immediately went for an exploratory amble. Rambuttri and Kao San Rds., the center of Bangkok's backpacker circus, were seconds away, so I went there first. After doing some people watching I dove into the street food scene. First, there was rice with veggies and some unknown but delicious meat product. Next was a fruit juice, followed by an amazing banana pancake with egg, all for about 70 baht.

Crazy Kao San Rd.
I wandered towards the Royal District and stumbled upon an open-air night market along the way. There were tons of different things for sale, loads of street food, and sidewalk entertainment provided by a jazz/rock band made up of old Thai men playing drums, sax, an accordian, guitar, and bass. I meandered around the area for the better part of an hour and realized something: Here I was, walking around an unfamiliar megacity with an expensive camera strapped to my back, at night, and I didn't feel threatened once. In fact, more people said "Hello!" than looked at me funny. Southeast Asia just feels so safe. On my way back to the hotel I passed through the market again. The band was still going strong, now with the addition of a femal vocalist, and I even saw a Thai fellow wearing a Ty Detmer Philadelphia Eagles jersey. (That guy has fans everywhere!)

Once I got near Kao San tuk-tuk drivers started offering me rides to "ping-pong" shows. For those of you that think I'm talking about table tennis, let's just say that women in those shows use slightly different pieces of anatomy than their hands... I politely declined their offers and took in a bit more of the nightlife before turning in. I had an early morning date with the Vietnamese embassy.

My embassy business completed (This is part of an ongoing and increasingly frustrating visa saga that has been a major drag on my finances), I took a somewhat bonkers motorbike taxi ride back to the hotel. This gave me a chance to see central Bangkok for the first time, and it is incredibly modern: Skytrain lines snake in between mega malls and gleaming skyscrapers, and there is a freeway system that wouldn't look out of place in Houston. Moto drivers there have no qualms about weaving in and out of moving traffic, something that is technically illegal here in Vietnam, and I had to tuck in my knees several times as we just squeezed past trucks, buses, and other vehicles of all shapes and size.

I then visited Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, which is sometimes used by the Thai royalty. Both places are beautiful and impressive, but they are also completely overrun by hordes of tourists.

The Grand Palace

Amazing ornamentation.
Afterwards I explored a strange amulet market frequented by monks and people in dangerous professions that believe such talismans bring them luck. I also found a fascinating alley that offered a glimpse of what Bangkok looked like decades ago (well, except for the satellite dishes and TVs playing "Spongebob Squarepants"): rickety wooden boards ran in between very basic homes with cooking utensils, children's bicycles and laundry stacked out front. Cats ran up and down the wooden steps leading into the houses, some of which didn't have front doors, while the Chao Praya River lapped at the pillars holding everything up.
A narrow lane in the amulet market.

A fascinating glimpse of old Bangkok.

As cool as seeing all of this was, the overwhelming memory of my first full day in Bangkok is one of cheats. I knew from research that con artists are prevalent there, but I was not expecting it to be so bad. To start with, the taxi driver who took me to the embassy charged a flat 300 baht rate, which I thought was fair because the ride took place during morning rush hour and covered a pretty good distance. Since I thought that was the going rate I paid the moto driver 250 baht on the way back. Later, I noticed that the Lonely Planet book said that taxis should always use meters and shouldn't cost much more than 200 baht, while a moto ride shouldn't cost more than 100. Awesome.

Later, as I was walking to the Grand Palace and passing a bunch of pigeons, a woman came up and tried to give me three bags of corn to feed the birds. I said no and kept walking, but she threw the bags around my camera strap, ripping them open in the process. She then forced the feed into my hand, saying it was for "New Year's good luck!" Once the bags were empty she demanded 150 baht. I laughed in her face and tried to walk away, but she got right in front of me and grabbed me, pushing me back. I could've easily overpowered her, but the closest locals were all pulling the same scam and would've taken her side. The closest street was too busy to just bolt across, so I had no choice: I threw 150 baht at her and stormed off, righteously pissed.

I would honestly rather be robbed than conned; at least you know what a thief wants from the start. I had to parry away a few more cons later in the day as well; this time they were running the "Attraction X is closed" scam, which I had been warned about and knew to avoid. It works like this: someone will tell you a tourist attraction is closed and offer you a free, or very cheap, ride to another one, only to charge you a massive amount upon arrival. This sucked. 99% of Thais are genuinely nice and helpful, but I was already on the defensive, eyeing up anyone that offered to help. Bangkok is a fascinating place, but be careful: it will eat the naive and carefree alive.

After a frustrating day all I wanted to do was eat a good dinner and watch some live music. I had a delicious meal, but the music search almost ended in my death: I had read about a couple of venues near the hotel, but one had horrible music playing. While looking for the other I came within less than a second of getting smeared onto the street by a city bus. I went to bed shaken up and unhappy. After just two nights in Bangkok I was ready to get the hell out.

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