Bangkok was my first non-English country experience, and I thought I was prepared for the differences… Apparently not! These are my experiences in Bangkok, and what to be prepared for!
I grew up in a very rural part of New Zealand, and went to a school of 20-30 pupils. My largest town I have ever lived in is Napier which boasts a population of approximately 60,000 and a very relaxed lifestyle. I had never even been to our biggest city in New Zealand before flying to the United Kingdom so I was very excited for these new experiences. However, my country bumpkin upbringing meant I was in for a big culture shock! Myself and my boyfriend were stopping in Bangkok for 3 days on our way home from Stoke-on-Trent in the UK to New Zealand. A great way to break up a 30 hour flight I must say!
Walking from the Airport to the train terminal was the first shock – the heat. It was crazy hot and incredibly humid. New Zealand gets pretty warm in the summer months, but not humid like Bangkok. (As for the UK – we all know it barely gets hot let alone humid!). Waiting in the train station took an agonisingly long time, and we were coated in puffs of hot air each time a train shot past – no cool breezes to help out a hot sufferer! The train ride from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Ratchathewi was blessedly cooler, so it was almost a shame to be dropped in the middle of the sweltering city. With the name of our hotel scrawled across the top of our map, we walked down to the crowd of tuk-tuks. Even though ‘tuk-tuk’ literally translates as ‘cheap-cheap’, they will try and coerce as much money from tourists as possible! After five minutes of walking and bargaining, we had a deal we all agreed on. Our destination was a gorgeous and pretty cheap hotel in China Town, not far from the river. This trip was a short holiday so we didn’t feel the need to stay in the super cheap Khao San Road, a favourite of backpackers and party people. We were greeted at the door by a lovely Thai woman with tea and cool flannels – a welcome treat after the dusty ride across the city.
The tuk-tuk ride was another shock for me – although the roads have lines and traffic lights, there is barely anybody who follows them. The hot pink and green taxis, the garishly bright tuk-tuks and the old motorcycles and scooters all seem to have an innate sense of direction and flow. The huge amount of vehicles that surge through the city have a river like form to them – they merge and change direction without disrupting others, gliding in and out of the stream effortlessly. Another surprise - any space big enough to fit a tuk-tuk is definitely a road apparently! We found ourselves shooting through the middle of markets and peoples’ washing lines then back onto main roads – bizarre. Although horns are glaring constantly, I never saw the drivers accosting each other – they accepted the movements as another aspect of their unique road ‘rules’. Amazing, scary, and it puts New Zealand drivers to shame. Not that I want to drive like that at home…
Our first morning was spent exploring the temples along the river – our location meant we were only a short walk from the river and we could hop straight onto a boat and visit Wat Arun and Wat Pho. This is when I really thought I wouldn’t ever come back to this place – climbing the stairs to the top of Wat Arun wasn’t hard but with the oppressive heat and a small warm bottle of water it was a challenge. It was too hot, I had sweat dripping into my eyes and the fact we had to have our legs and shoulders covered for the monks meant it was NOT an enjoyable experience. Add the fact that I turn beetroot red when I get warm meant I couldn’t even be in the pictures without looking like I was about to explode! That aside, the temples were amazing. The skill and workmanship that went into the building of those structures are awe inspiring and incredible. A must do, if you wear loose clothes and find a way of keeping a big bottle of water cold!
Shock number three: The sights and the scent of Bangkok – these two things were like nothing I have ever experienced before. The smell of the city is an assault on your nostrils – walking out from our gently scented hotel room it’s like walking into a wall. The smell is hot too, and it’s the mix of meat hanging from the stalls nearby, millions of people, petrol and diesel fumes… All combined to coat the inside of your nose with a gritty layer of dirt. Yum…
I’m very used to open spaces and country side – both of which are very hard to come by in Bangkok. In Napier the town is pretty much limited to two storey buildings and has streams and parks throughout, as well as being right on the sea. In Bangkok there are buildings upon buildings, upon buildings. Some parts of the city are glossy and new, while other parts are derelict with wires and pieces of structure hanging exposed.
The’Monitor’ lizards that live off rubbish and carrion lounge next to waterways in the city, and stare at you warily if you wander close enough. We saw a few that must have been over a meter long, and I think they would have been more than capable of eating a small child…. Eeeek!
Walking through the city can be scary for anybody who’s a sight claustrophobic – the Thai people make use of all spaces and in some parts the walkways are completely enclosed with market wares. The brand rip offs, clothing, Buddha items, strange looking fruit and vegetables… There are tons and tons of different types of markets. If you head into the proper markets like Chatuchak, Patpong, MBK, or Pak Khlong you will be stunned at the amount of stuff they have. Some of it is worth spending a few Baht on, some of it is touristy pieces and some is just junk. If you want higher quality shopping time head along to Terminal 21 – this place was awesome. It is a huge building attached to the train station, with mazes of shops sprawling throughout its nine floors. Each is themed, with icons from countries and cities around the world. Definitely worth a look, for shopaholics it is a must and picking up something a little different for you to take home is a bonus too!
Although these things are the first that pop into my mind when I remember our trip to Bangkok, there were positive experiences too. The Thai people were exactly as others described them – happy, very pleasant and helpful. (Bar one, who was clearly on drugs. He was nervous, pulled his hair constantly and overcharged us for our trip back to China Town. He then got lost and dropped us off is a seriously shady part of town - finding another tuk-tuk while wide eyed dogs and neon lady lights glared at us was rather scary). That aside, I would definitely do it again. The Buddhism aspect of Thai culture is fascinating and some of the principles would benefit everybody in western culture. It is obvious that these people are happy – it has to be for a reason and I credit Buddhism.
My advice for other country bumpkins:
- Do some research about how much you should pay tuk-tuks, taxi’s and other services. They will state a ridiculous starting price, expecting you to try and knock them down!
- If a tuk-tuk driver wants to take you to wherever via ‘his shop’ – say no and agree on a different price, or be prepared to be sold a tailored ‘Armani’ suit, silk scarves, or snakeskin boots that are “Very real! Killed only last week!” The driver gets a cut of the profits if you buy something, and they can be quite pushy if they sense any chance of a sale!
- Pre-plan your itinerary and know how long it will take you to go places. As soon as you step out of your accommodation door, people will be offering to take you places. Some of them are quite far away! So know what you want to do, then you be sure you want to say no to seeing elephants on the other side of Thailand, and know that it only takes ten minutes via tuk-tuk to here or there rather than “Too long! Too far! More money!”
- If you head away from the tourist centre, get a tuk-tuk or taxi where you were dropped off. We went to Dusit Zoo, (by the way – no elephants. Lots of monkeys, and very small enclosures for the big cats and bears – it was a bit depressing). We thought that we would walk through the city for a while, bad idea. It rained hot and sticky rain, and the only tuk-tuks we saw once we left the vicinity of the zoo had Thai businessmen in them. Even the occasional taxi was full, so we walked and walked and walked… All the way to a delicious Thai fish restaurant! But lesson learnt – get a ride where the rides are or you will get some exercise!!
- Stash your cash - one of our tuk-tuk drivers didn't believe that we only had a little amount of money left. We showed him what was in our wallet, and he relented and gave us a ride. He was trying to overcharge us, so by stashing some spare baht in our pockets we got a cheaper ride home.
I really look forward to going back to Thailand, but am going to try see more of the beaches and country side rather than the city centres again. I cant wait to eat more of their delicious food, and meet more of their lovely people – let’s go!
Have you ever been surprised by a destination? Been somewhere you didn’t quite take to? I love to hear your comments :)