Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sights, Sounds and Sun in Bangkok

Bangkok has quite the reputation worldwide.

While it continues to be the central metropolitan location in all of Southeast Asia, the business and transportation hub to all other locations in this region and the welcoming city for all tourists with their eyes on the beaches and islands, Bangkok retains its status as a bit of an enigma to the outside world. Sex trade and political instability continue to raise eyebrows in the Western world and keep Bangkok (and Thailand) on the edge of being considered a developed, reliable, trustworthy nation (as opposed to other Asian nations to the north).

What is Bangkok like for the temporary local, here now for over three months? This week’s ride on the Tuk-Tuk Talker explores this city further and provides a few insights for the tourist who spends more time here than just a layover.

While there are tourist sights to visit throughout the city, the kind of tourism is different than Western nations. Museums are not the focal point, the various temples are. History is not necessarily located on a wall in an air-conditioned quarantine, but might be a crumbling monument found in Bangkok or the former capital, Ayutthaya, to the north. The experience of this city is found in exploring the former Royal Palace and temple, cruising along the Chao Praya River downstream and stopping at a market for a local Thai-style lunch, then walking through Chinatown before the sun goes down and the revelry of the evening begins. One doesn’t necessarily come to Bangkok to complete a sightseeing checklist extraordinaire, but to experience Thai culture found in markets, districts and participating in the daily and nightly lives of the natives.

Parts of Bangkok are very rewarding and enjoyable for the tourist or temporary local. But you have to pick your spots and plan your route and location very carefully…by day, you may find yourself stuck in an unexpected traffic jam (the above ground transit system, BTS Sky Train, comes highly recommended and air-conditioned) and by night in an unexpected red-light district, which is unfortunately why so many foreigners venture to Bangkok in the first place.

Like so many cities, Bangkok can be broken down into smaller districts, which helps the new arrival to get oriented. The old city with the Grand Palace on the river, Chinatown, the seats of government and the shopping district are all the places where you will see the most farang (white foreigners usually from in order of quantity: Australia, America, Sweden, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, France).

One big attraction for the foreigner to Thailand and Southeast Asia is the price. Once you’ve paid the pretty penny, krown or baht to get here, lodging, transportation and food options abound, coming at all different prices, which can make this part of the world particularly appealing for the budget traveler. A nice hotel for $30/night and a filling lunch on the street for $1 can indeed bring a smile to the traveler’s face.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I’ve learned that I fare better in cooler environments that aren’t so conducive to the unappealing aspects of the world’s largest cities such as traffic, pollution, endless concrete, over-urbanized population and the economic disparity between street sellers, labor and executives. Bangkok is the epitome of this type of mega-city. Many people thrive off of this, would be refreshed (especially this time of year in the middle of winter) with the incessant heat and humidity, usually between 90 and 100 degrees Farenheit and can manage through these disadvantages of large cities. I can’t quite get past it myself and, well, can often be caught daydreaming about the Swiss Alps or the rolling meadows of Sweden when I’m in my tuk-tuk traffic jam sucking on fumes.

Bangkok can work for you, but you must be prepared mentally for this type of city.

Pictures above:
1. The Democracy Monument, located in the middle of the tourist district of Bangkok, marks the triumphant change from Absolute Monarchy to Constitutional Monarchy which took place in 1932.
2. One of the more popular wats, temples, in Bangkok is the Wat Pho, the Reclining Buddha. This is one of the only pictures that can capture the magnitude of this lazy Buddha, which is practically bursting from the temple.
3. The Chao Praya River is a central part of the Bangkok experience, serving trade and tourism for centuries.
4. China's influence in Asia extends far beyond its borders. The Chinese immigrant population in Siam, old Thailand, and now has created an entire district (not all that different from larger American cities with Chinese or International Districts), which is one of the most popular tourist areas in Bangkok.
5. Sean finishes his latest ride on a tuk-tuk (pass the oxygen).


Ang said...

It is currently 39 degrees in Oly, blue skies, puffy white clouds. Just a quick reminder ... see you in April/May! :-)

todd.whiting said...

After a brief hiatus (and punishment to Sean for writing an entry that I could not possibly comment on sarcastically - Jan 5), I'm back.

Couple of questions:

1. Why do we see the bottom of the feet of the Wat Pho? Thought that was forbidden.

2. I really only have 1 question (see 1 above) and I have to go to a meeting.

Good to be back.

P.S. It's 32 degrees and snowing in Manhattan.

P.P.S. Why are we giving weather reports?

Ang said...

Just trying to lure SW back to the NW :-)

Glad to see you back TW!