I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking about how to describe Bangkok. I started to put pen to paper just to jot down some words about how I feel towards this city, and found that virtually every word I was writing was negative. I think I just have to admit that this city isn’t for me. (Thankfully it isn’t for us; Fran feels the same, which means we’ll be moving on fairly soon.)
I’ll start at the beginning, because my first glimpse of this city was quite unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I’m going to use the post to convey my first impressions and set the scene, before going into what exactly we’ve been up to in the next post. We successfully navigated our way from the airport by taking the train to Phaya Thai station and then getting the sky train to Saphan Khwai, which left us with a walk of around 15 minutes to reach our hotel. We’d decided to book a hotel with a private room and ensuite for the first few nights; a way of easing ourselves in. Walking down the steps from the station we were plunged headfirst into what Bangkok is all about.
Simply put, Bangkok is a sensory overload. On the roads it’s standard city fare; an endless row of cars continuously trawls its way through the streets (the traffic is so heavy you’re unlikely to be moving too fast in a car in Bangkok), while moving at a faster pace are motorbikes, scooters and Tuk-Tuks (although the motorbikes and scooters are not confined to the road – they’ll frequently mount the pavement), which zip through the streets like a swarm of particularly noisy and smelly insects. On the pavements are where things are a little different, and as we walked away from the station I found there was so much going on I wasn’t quite sure where to look. Instantly the pavements are lined by the famous food stalls, selling everything from fruit to noodles to unspecified-meat on a stick. (So far I’ve only seen and avoided one vendor selling scorpions on a stick, these sorts of things seem to be little more than a tourist novelty and not as common here as you may be led to believe.)
People line the streets as you walk through. Some will be trying to sell their products, while some will just be going about their lives; sitting on flimsy looking plastic chairs eating their lunch as they watch the world go by. One man we walked past was sat in the street with a sewing machine, fixing his trousers. Random items litter the street everywhere you go. (Going back to my list of words to describe the city, clean wasn’t one of them). Tiny shops are wedged in against each other, selling pretty much anything you can imagine, all on display trying to tempt you in (but largely having the opposite effect.) Buildings seem to be piled on top of each other, and almost always have something dripping down onto the pavements below. Miles of electric cables meet in a terrifying bundle of deadly wires dangling just above your head.
In short, it can be pretty difficult to actually look where you’re going. All very overwhelming when you’ve just arrived and are not entirely sure where you’re actually susposed to be going. (It’s also quite tricky as a lot of the paving slabs aren’t exactly flat; navigating the streets can be a bit like a fairground funhouse at the best of times, not helped when you’re gazing into the eyes of the salt covered fish looking up at you from the food stalls dominating the pavement. Que lots of feet scuffing and near falls from both of us.)
That’s just what you’re looking at. The visual chaos is given a soundtrack of traffic – car/bus engines and horns, the high pitched whine of bikes and tuk-tuks, a skytrain thundering overhead, and then there are the stall vendors shouting god knows what at you, if you can hear them over the crackling sizzle of whatever they’re cooking. Then there are the smells. What you smell will perhaps unsurprisingly differ based on where you are. You’ll smell (and taste) vehicle fumes pretty heavily at times, it’s usually a good idea to hold your breath as that rickety wooden bus trundles past. There’s also a lot of sewage type smells, which again unsurprisingly aren’t all that pleasant. Regularly these smells will be masked by food, which sometimes smells great, and then sometimes does not. (I’m looking at that salted fish again here.) A lot of the time one of the smells might also be your own body, as Bangkok is hot. In April temperates are regularly in the mid thirties, which is all fine and well when laying on a beach, but when you’re walking several kilometres per day around a relentless concrete jungle it can get pretty exhausting. The air feels thick, this is a humid, sticky heat unlike much I’ve felt before. In summary I think the best way to summarise is again revisiting my list of words – Peaceful? No. Fragrent? Nope. Cool? Think again.
We were eventually able to focus our minds enough to find our hotel. (I’m using an app called Maps.me, which lets you download full maps of pretty much anywhere in the world, and then uses GPS on your phone to help navigate, all offline so avoiding data charges. It’s already been a lifesaver for us and if you’re ever travelling in an unfamiliar area I can’t recommend it enough.) We checked in, and after a short power struggle with a colony of ants, seized control of the room, so then blasted on the AC as cold as it would go (you’ll need it here), and settled down to catch up on some much needed sleep.
So those were my first impressions. There’s a lot more for me to say, which is why I’ll be using a separate post coming in the next couple of days to describe what exactly we’ve been doing in our time here, and why we haven’t really enjoyed it. Hopefully though this post has painted a picture in your mind that will make that next post all the more worthwhile.