Bangkok is a polarizing city; visitors either love it or hate it. For many, the Thai capital is a necessary evil on the way to beaches, temples, or hill country treks, and is not a reason to visit Southeast Asia. I didn’t like Bangkok the first time I visited either. Now that I live here, I have grown to love this city.
The reason people don’t like Bangkok is simple: It is an assault on the senses. Yes, that is cliche, but, it is so true. Let’s take a look at the five senses and why Bangkok makes life miserable, especially for new arrivals.
Your first day in Bangkok you step from the air-conditioned womb of your hotel disoriented from jet lag and in major need of coffee to find a world of buzzing tuk tuks, coughing buses, screeching brakes, grinding jackhammers, clanging hammers, and vendors calling out in exotic languages. Then, you hear the hum of what sounds like a malfunctioning lawn-mower and turn around just in time to see a motorbike blow by you. Tired of being stuck in traffic, the driver hopped the curb and took off took off down the sidewalk nearly running over you and all the other unsuspecting pedestrians.
The cacophony rattles your brain, raises your blood pressure, and sends stress hormones coursing through your veins. This level of stress can only be replicated by having a conversation about politics with your mother-in-law while suffering from a massive hangover. This is what Bangkok does – it hurts your brain.
Walking down a city block exposes the olfactory nerve to every imaginable smell. First, you pass a street market and get introduced to durian, a fruit that smells like rotting flesh. It is so pungent that signs at train stations and airports expressly forbid anyone from bringing it inside. Thai people eat the shit out of it.
The smell of durian is not to be confused with actual stinking flesh, which you experience as you walk a bit further and smell it wafting off the chicken and pig carcasses hanging in the hot sun. And none of that is to be confused with the foul smell of fish, which are not rotting, because they are very fresh. So fresh, in fact, that they are still alive, barely, as they squirm around on metal trays gasping for air.
Bangkok also has wonderful smells – incense wafts from temples, fresh marigolds adorn spirit houses, frying garlic drifts from food stalls, and the scent of grilling meat makes the mouth water. These wonderful smells are welcome relief from the street market miasma, but also a tease, because they are always followed by a whiff of fetid canal or a nose full of diesel fumes from a raggedy bus that seems to be single-handedly melting the polar ice caps.
You think you know Thai food; you think you can handle spice. Once you start eating authentic Thai food, you quickly realize that you are an amateur.
The first bite of a red hot chili sends your body into shock – sweat pours from your forehead, tears stream down your face, and your mouth combusts like you swallowed napalm. Despite this shock, you have the wherewithal to wave down the waitress and order a beer. A large beer. Yes, it is only 11am, but this is a medicinal beer, prescribed to dilute the spice and alleviate the burn.
The spice is just the start. You realize that you’ve been eating sanitized Thai food your whole life. Instead of Sriracha or soy sauce for condiments, you learn that they use prik nam blah, nothing but pungent fish sauce and the aforementioned lava-hot chili peppers. You discover insect-like desiccated shrimp scattered liberally through your pad thai noodles. Your fish arrives whole, complete with an eye to judge you while you eat it. Then, an ambulatory vendor offers fried crickets, grubs and scorpions. Depending on how much of that beer you’ve consumed, you just might eat some.
You take a stroll on the infamous Khao San Road and realize that Alex Garland was right – you are truly in the center of the backpacker universe. Everywhere you look, shirtless western tourists walk around in the hot sun drinking beer while every other person is wearing elephant pants. You see an assortment of absolute crap for sale all along the street, from 7-11 singlets, bracelets that say “eat my pussy,” to fake IDs, and realize it is time for a change of scenery.
You move on to the more upscale neighborhood of Sukhumvit, and notice beautiful women with perfectly coifed hair and expertly applied make-up. Some of these “women” have long shapely legs and nice, round Adam’s apples. You see many cute Thai girls walking arm-in-arm with sweaty, overweight, western men. You see signs for ping-pong shows, and pass sketchy massage parlors where there is a greater chance of getting chlamydia than muscle relief.
No matter where you go in Bangkok, you see a 7-11 on every corner – literally on every corner – and pass so many Starbucks and McDonalds that you might think you were in America. You start to wonder why you traveled halfway around the world just to look at American chain stores, tourists in elephant pants, and hookers with pathetic old men.
Through all this, you’ve been too bewildered to notice that your shirt is completely soaked in sweat. The only way to get relief from the cruel heat is to go into a 7-11, all of which are kept at a temperature cold enough to safely store meat. You linger in the 7-11 until it becomes awkward, and then stay a little longer, before moving on to the adjacent 7-11. Suddenly, all those damn 7-11s are looking quite nice.
You decide to get a Thai massage to help alleviate the stress and escape the heat and noise. Your masseuse, a woman who buys her clothes in the children’s department, suddenly weighs as much as a hippo when she stands on your back. She purees your muscles with her feet and transforms to a WWF wrestler as she pulls, twists, and tugs on your limbs, puts a knee in your back, plants a foot in your crotch – not in a good way – and charges you $6 for the torture. You leave in desperate need of a massage.
If you took the time to read all of that and have been here before, you are nodding in agreement right about now. If you’ve never been here, I can imagine that you are mentally deleting Bangkok off your list. My intention is not to discourage you from visiting, because Bangkok is a great city. Noisy? Yes. Stinky? Oh yeah. Hot? Hot as f$%^. Come to this city armed with the understanding that it won’t be easy, a liberal budget for beer, a sense of adventure and a reserve of patience, and I think you can grow to love it too.
Have you been to Bangkok before? What did you think?