How Bangkok proved me wrong

I’ll just be honest, I wasn’t super keen to go to Bangkok. I usually prefer to steer clear of the tourist-oriented places and the perception I had of Bangkok as a cringey, tourist mecca was practically my worst nightmare. However, to get to Myanmar from Melbourne it was far cheaper for me to fly to Bangkok and then get the next cheapest flight to Mandalay and so that’s what I did. It meant that I had five days in Bangkok, five whole days… how was I going to fill five whole days in the city? Of course, the most visited city in the world definitely changed my mind and I left feeling like I might just almost like the city.

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Temple of the Emerald Buddha

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You read that right, Bangkok was the world’s most visited city in 2017 and I could tell from the moment I arrived that it was a city very well accustomed to tourism. I was staying a few blocks back from the infamous Khao San Road or basically Bangkok’s Vegas strip with McDonalds, countless bars and restaurants, massage parlours, a comedy club and souvenir stalls. Of course, I had to walk down the road just once to say that I had been there, but I cringed at the sight of it and all the tourists with ‘Same Same But Different’ singlets and downing beer and cocktails until the early morning.

It’s a large metropolis and, in my usual style of avoiding all forms of taxi services, I averaged 15 kilometres per day walking around the city for the five days I was there. I covered most of the major sights, which are mostly temples but I have to admit they were very impressive. I was lucky enough to walk up to the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha on the King’s Birthday. Unbeknownst to me that meant of course that the palace was going to be closed at 12pm and at 11.55am I walked up to its gate to enter. I walked straight in and I saw a sign that said “Palace Closed at 12pm” and I thought, ‘That would be right.’ A security woman was standing there and she said, “Go, go, it actually closes at 1pm, last entrance at 12pm, you have one hour, it’s enough.” So I bought my ticket, they closed the gate behind me and I had one hour to exit out the other side. It meant I practically had the spectacular complex almost to myself, compared to the usual half an hour wait in line that I heard later on is pretty standard.

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My favourite day, however, was when I went to the Chinatown area of the city. It’s main strip, Yaowarat Road is full of the common large neon signs and red lanterns that accompanies Chinatowns in other major cities of the world. However, the alleyways leading off this road were full of market stalls selling anything from shark fins to fluffy teddy bears. One lane in particular called Sampeng Lane Market is intensely crowded and full of shops selling anything that you could ever ask for. However, I preferred the smaller alleyways where the locals liked to shop and there were more interesting things like spices, seafood and other things that I had no idea exactly what I was looking at. At dusk, the alleyways started to close down and the street food vendors poured out onto Yaowarat Road. It’s one of the most famous and most visited street food markets in Asia for whoever is brave enough to try what’s on offer.

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Another few blocks back towards the city centre is the pak khlong market or flower market which operates around the clock and is busiest in the hours around midnight when the best flowers are up for sale. I didn’t sacrifice any sleep for it but wondering through it in the middle of the day was interesting enough to see the women weaving the flowers together to make lanyards and the brightly coloured flowers wrapped in bunches of 50 and 100 in newspaper. Across the road the market continues into a wholesale fruit and vegetable market and, although I visited during the quiet period once again, it was beautiful to watch the vendors clearing out their stock, taking a nap, watching a television set up at their stall, cleaning the remnants of the busier hours and having a chat with each other. I literally spent hours walking around the market areas until my feet were well and truly numb and although I didn’t raise my camera too often to disturb the locals it was such a fun place to photograph.

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For my final day in Bangkok I decided to take myself on a day trip outside of the urban area. I had seen photos of a market (yes, another market), which is situated on top of a railway and when every few hours the train comes rolling through the vendors have to pack everything up and wait for it to pass. I discovered that this was called Maeklong Market and I needed to go and see it. After a bit of research, I took a city bus early in the morning from Democracy Monument out to Sai Tai Mai or the Southern Bus Terminal where I was able to jump on a bus leaving straight away to the town of Maeklong. I knew that the train passed through the market eight times a day and I was hoping to arrive in time for the 11.10am arrival and 11.30am departure to give myself two chances to see the train.

I arrived at Maeklong and had no idea that in actual fact the market had become a huge tourist attraction, especially with Chinese tourists who come to take a photo of the train passing through. The small market, which at one point was simply just a local market has now become a huge attraction with hundreds of tourists clogging the train track that runs through the middle of it. I still enjoyed watching the locals bargaining over freshly caught fish, sun dried fruit and the seasonal vegetables, however, when it came time for the train to come through it was utter chaos. Everyone ran to find a spot amongst the stalls to get a good photo and with the train slowly approaching it turned almost ruthless with lots of elbowing and shoving going on. I eventually found a spot crouched down inside someone’s stall but the experience of watching all the shades get pulled back and produce being rolled in was basically ruined by the amount of cameras and people leaning out onto the tracks.

I caught a pick up truck to the next town, Amphawa where there was a floating market along the canal. I stayed for lunch but I’d had enough of tourist markets and so I began my journey back to Bangkok. I went to the minibus station and a man issued me a ticket for the next departure in half an hour. I sat to wait and I watched as he genuinely offered help or information to any tourist walking by for no apparent reason other than he was just being friendly. There was even a Chinese family who seemed a little lost and spoke very limited English and he personally walked them over to the floating market to show them exactly where to go. He came back and sat down to eat his lunch of Pad Thai. He showed me as he tipped on a small sachet of chilli, a small sachet of sugar and a squeeze of lime and then mixed it all together. He passed me the chopsticks so that I could try and it was certainly delicious but too much chilli for my liking.

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I arrived back in Bangkok and I went to catch the same city bus to take me back into the city centre that I had in the morning. The driver was trying to tell me that the bus wouldn’t take me into the city and so I walked away feeling a little unsure of how I would get back. I couple of guys at the station stopped me and asked, “Where you go?” and not knowing exactly how to explain where I wanted to go I figured if I said, “Khao San Road” then they would know exactly where that was and I could walk from there. They pointed me to a bus stop and told me the bus number to catch. Five minutes later one of them came up to me and pointed on the other side of the road, probably thinking, ‘dumb tourist, the city is that way’. I was so grateful for his help and I jumped on to the bus thinking I would get back to my hostel before dark.

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The ticket man on the bus tried to explain to me with lots of sign language that the bus wouldn’t be going into the city either. All I could understand was “U-Turn” and I thought, ‘what is going on with these buses?’. He showed me on my map that the bus would only be going another two kilometres up the road and would turn around. Luckily a young girl sitting in front of me spoke English and said, “The roads are closed up ahead for the royal birthday.” Turns out the King likes his birthday celebrated over multiple days.

So I was let down on the edge of the freeway and I thought it was going to be a long walk into the city. A young guy on a motorbike stopped and said, “Where you go?”, and of course, when I said Khao San Road he knew where that was. So I jumped on with him and he drove me around all the closed roads and dropped me right at the start of the famous tourist road. I gave him some money as a thank you and I walked off in the opposite direction back to my hostel. If anything, the day showed me that the Thai people have to be some of the nicest I’ve met on my travels despite the large number of tourists they get. They went out of their way to help anyone looking a bit lost and I couldn’t remember the last time that I had so many local people help me or at least try to explain things to me all in one day. For someone like me who often despises the impact tourism has on a country and culture, it was nice to see that Thai people remain open, friendly and welcoming even after having 20 million foreigners visiting every year.

So my five days in Bangkok came to an end and I still could have kept myself entertained for a few more days, although I’m not sure how many more temples and markets I could have happily walked around. I have to admit I even thought it might have been nice to be able to explore a bit more of Thailand, a country not even on my radar as I had written it off as too overrun by tourists. So as a stopover city, Bangkok had been perfect and I left with a new perception of the metropolis. It’s still as tourist-oriented as you can get, but if you look in the right places you can still find the local culture and beautiful people that are far from lost amongst the tourist crowd.

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