Dirty. Smelly. Crowded. Polluted. Chaotic. All words that apply equally to Bangkok, yet this is a wonderful, mesmerising city. There is more life lived amongst these pulsating city streets in one day than in most other places in a year. All humanity – its best and worst qualities – is openly on display in one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities. Counterintuitive it may be, but it is possible to feel attraction and revulsion simultaneously as you walk through the streets of Bangkok.
It was a short work trip, but I can’t describe the joy at leaving the frozen European winter behind for a few days. That was until I stepped off the plane into 34ºC of heat. When I left Schiphol Airport the temperature in the Netherlands was a balmy 2ºC; the heat, humidity and jet lag hit me like a brick wall for the next 48 hours.
A vibrant mix of old and new, and despite a persistent (and deserved) reputation for the sex trade, Bangkok is a cultural paradise of palaces and temples. More than anything else though, the city that sits on the Gulf of Thailand is a giant market. There are markets all over the city, selling just about every commodity known to humankind, but a stroll down any street brings you face to face with people selling things. Food stalls are everywhere.
Food is perhaps the defining thing about a visit to this city and Bangkok street food is reason enough to get on the plane. Thai food is delicious – salty, spicy and crammed full of fresh herbs and spices. This might explain why Thais never seem to stop eating. Walk down any street and there will be several street stalls selling food – some of which it would take a braver soul than I to sample.
I’ve been to Bangkok once before, in the early-1990s, and have fond memories of wandering the streets and absorbing the larger than life atmosphere. This time I was in Bangkok for work and spent most of my time in air conditioned rooms of one sort or another; for a whole week I only got glimpses of the city from the back of a car or out of a window.
That is no way to experience this city. There is life on every corner and the streets demand to be explored on foot to absorb the sights, sounds and smells…fair warning, the smells can be pretty disturbing. Luckily I had three days free at the end of the work trip to do some exploration. Donning my flip flops and a spirit of culinary adventure I headed out…
The problem with three days in Bangkok is deciding what to see and which areas to visit. There are so many possibilities and I wanted to explore them all. By the time I got back to my hotel each night I was exhausted. That is Bangkok, exhilarating but exhausting. After all, I defy anyone not to fall in love with a city that has a giant elephant sculpture as a traffic island.