Tuesday, February 19, 2013

#rtw2012 - Bangkok

This is one of a series of posts about my around-the-world trip in 2012, all collected under the #rtw2012 hashtag. You may wish to read the previous ones for background and context.

Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, was a fascinating place to visit. I over-use the word "awesome," but Bangkok is awesome. I'm excited to go back there in the future, and I was excited to get out alive with only minor injuries to the body and spirit.

You (or at least I) watch movies like The Hangover Part 2 (a cinematic masterpiece!) and think it's exaggerating the lawlessness, the crudeness, the rawness of the city. No, it's not. In fact, it's the opposite: Bangkok is all that and then some.



In the interest of full disclosure, this post contains more intentional omissions than most (maybe all) of my other posts about this trip. There is some sketchy stuff going on in this city, some unusual experiences that are not easy to find elsewhere. If you know me well enough that we hang out in person, just ask me, ideally over drinks, and I'll gladly share some good stories.

Vertigo / Moon Bar at sunset. Solid drinks, good place to meet.
If you're thinking prostitution or drugs, those are not it. Not my cup(s) of tea, never have been. Even if I were into prostitution, which I'm not, seeing teenage girls who are undoubtedly trafficked / abused in various ways is not an attractive thing. The streets are littered with them, and they are (or seem) desperate for business, but I found that to be very unappealing.

The airport in Bangkok was pleasant, clean, efficient. I had no issues flying in or out of the country, including immigration. Upon arrival, my driver picked me up by baggage claim, and one of his first questions was whether I'm Muslim. When I said no, he breathed a sigh of relief, and said that's good, because "they all go 'boom boom.'" That was an interesting welcome to the country.

I checked into the Majestic Grande hotel with no issues. It was a very nice hotel, I liked it. During my trip, my lodging split was roughly 1/3rd hotels, 1/3rd AirBnb apartments, and 1/3rd friends (or friends of friends), not counting Israel of course. Service at this hotel was excellent throughout my stay here.

As I did in most destinations during this trip, I immediately went in search of some pickup sports, particularly soccer. It's a great way to meet people, as I wrote in detail earlier. (That post is now among my top 3 most-read posts ever.)

While I did find and play some soccer that evening, there was also a game of sepak takraw in the same park, so I tried my hand at that. I suck at it, not surprisingly, only having played once before. But the guys were impressive to watch anyhow. At least until a monsoon rain started, sending us all back to the BTS SkyTrain.

The back side of this park is where we played sepak takraw.
Bangkok offers many modes of transportation. I tried them all, on purpose. The BTS SkyTrain is a very good option, but it only serves big main streets. The buses are awful, crowded, stuck in traffic the whole time. If you can walk long distances, that's a decent option, although pollution makes it less appealing. The tuk-tuks are not much better, since they are open (so, pollution...) and subject to traffic.

Riding the BTS SkyTrain to Siam station.
Riding on the back of a tuk-tuk in Bangkok's Chinatown.

My favorite mode of transportation ended up being the most efficient one, but also most dangerous -- surprising, right? Motorcycle taxis.

I kept hiring motorcycle taxis, most of which appeared to be driven by unlicensed teenagers. It was a thrill riding in the back as they weaved in an out of traffic, sometimes getting so close to vehicles that they pushed off them with one arm to maneuver. Yes, you read that right.

Here are a couple of videos shot from the back of a motorcycle, one in rush hour traffic, and one coming back to my hotel around 7am, near sunrise.


These are both jittery as I shot them one-handed with my iPhone, which I was trying to balance on the driver's helmet as he was weaving around traffic. Sorry about that. Still, they're fun ;)



The food in Bangkok was amazing. I ate almost exclusively street food, and it was among the best food I've ever had, anywhere, Thai or not. It was all very cheap, freshly made, well-spiced, and delicious. There is some kind of food cart literally every 10-20 feet throughout the main areas of the city, often staffed by some old lady who doesn't speak English.

Yes, these are piles of insects at a street food stance. Delicious.

My MO at these carts is simple: look around for a crowded one, observe, and when I see someone ordering something I like, point at it and say "same same" (or the local equivalent). It seems to work reasonably well all around the globe. I also make sure they make it fresh, as they do have pre-made dishes in Styrofoam containers available, but I don't want those.

All-you-can-eat sushi + shabu (not seen) for ~$10! Great deal.
Some of the food, like the insects above, is not for the faint of heart. I greatly enjoyed it. I didn't get sick at all, not once during the trip, maybe because I've been eating strange and unusual foods for many years now.

Amusing name, very good restaurant.
I did have one meal at a fancy restaurant in Bangkok: Eat Me, a nice and excellent restaurant, was very good. It was a good chance to hang out with Kelsey and YBot, good people both.

The temples and palace(s) were amazing, well worth the visit. My favorite was the temple of the Emerald Buddha, but the entire palace complex was mesmerizing. I spent almost a whole day there, despite the heat and humidity, a lot longer than I expected.

At the palace complex.

Inside the room with the emerald Buddha.
The reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) and temple of dawn (Wat Arun) were also worth a visit.

View from the top of the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun).

The reclining buddha is huge.

In Bangkok, as in nearly every stop on my trip, I volunteered to help some locals in need. This time I spent most of a day with an organization called In Search of Sanuk, under the chaperoning of the amazing Prae Vashudara, who proved to be an excellent local guide. We bought and delivered groceries, food, and supplies to local immigrants who are having various troubles. We spent the afternoon with them at their housing (a generous word...), hearing their stories and seeing how we could help. It was great.

Walking around Nana Plaza at 4am.
A lot of people talk about Bangkok's famous nightlife. It is indeed raucous, entertaining, and eye-opening, in both good and bad ways. There are really no holds barred here, very few (if any) laws observed, and the message is very clearly that you can buy whatever you want, often for very cheap.

Sirocco. Yeah.


Although I definitely walked around the famous places like Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza, the thing that I liked the most were Bangkok's rooftop bars, loungers, and restaurants.

Blue Sky at the Sofitel, a good place to meet a fellow kitesurfer ;) Hi Signe!
This city absolutely dominates this category, more than any place I've ever been, far better than New York City, Tokyo, or other similar-scale cities. Between Vertigo / Moon Bar, Sirocco, Red Sky, Blue Sky, Nest, and more, it's a dominating trend, and it rocks. I wish I had more nights to enjoy more of these spots.

Red Sky. It looks even better at sunset in real life.
All of them had solid drinks (not cheap), good service, and a great ambiance. I met great people, saw glorious sunsets, and just enjoyed the atmosphere. This is what I miss the most about Bangkok. Except the food. Maybe.

The Nest off Sukhomvit Soi 11.
Khaosan Road is a world-famous destination, too. I spent an evening there with some friends from the previous night, and also met up with Rania, who turned out to be a superstar in multiple ways. These few days in Bangkok will probably lead to some multi-year friendships.

I did not go to the country-side, nor to other cities like Chiang Mai, nor to the islands like Phuket and Ko Samui. All of those are on the list for future trips. I'd love to see more of Thailand, but this trip was about big cities, history, culture, and nightlife.

I did go to Lumpini (sometimes spelled Lumpinee) stadium for some Muay Thai kickboxing. There are a couple of ways to get a ringside seat, and I chose the more athletic approach, which paid off big time in getting to know some of the wrestlers and their coaches. I shot a couple of videos and had a great time watching the fights, the rituals, the spectators as much as the fighters.

Up close and personal at Lumpini stadium.


I also had a surprise at Siam Ocean World: they let you dive with sharks in the tank. That was a lot of fun, although not quite as adrenaline-inducing as my past open water dives with similar sharks.

And now, we dive with sharks!

Overall, Bangkok was fantastic. I'm very happy with the memories, experiences, and friends gained. I look forward to visiting Bangkok again, and seeing more of Thailand, in the future. If you're an experiential, adventure-seeking traveler, Bangkok should be high on your list.

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