“Please do not flush your toilet paper, we are not uncivilised savages here”/ First Impressions
I’d never thought that flushing toilet paper was a particularly uncivilised thing to do until I got to Bangkok.
Those who haven’t had the dubious pleasure of spending long periods of time with me may be unaware that I have the type of bladder that requires emptying around every half an hour. You could say that I am a serial pee-er.
So I had plenty of exposure to some rather aggressive signs on the back doors of Bangkok bathrooms: variations of “We are civilised people here, please throw your toilet paper in the bin, not in the toilet.”
In Bangkok, you see, you don’t wipe your nether regions when you’re done doing your business, you wash them – with what I called a butt cannnon, having never learned the proper name – and then you pat yourself dry with tissues, which then go in the bin. It really is more civilised – and hygienic – when you think of it.
That was the first thing that surprised me about Bangkok. It was not like most of the pictures of Thailand I’d seen – it was a crazy, bustling mix of ultra modern, with really nice toilets and clean streets and of course that hallmark of development – girls walking around in those short shorts that let your buttcheeks hang out, and also traditional and developing, with shoes usually not worn indoors, stalls at street corners selling fried insects and cheap electronics, and fake Louis Vuitton bags ubiquitously available. What a peculiar dichotomy.
It was stinking hot outside, and airconditioned almost everywhere inside, and it just felt so real. You could tell the tourists easily – wearing stereotypical elephant print pants and dozens of bracelets – but everyone else in Bangkok was well dressed in the same kinds of clothes you’d find in Sydney, New York or Japan, and just getting on with their lives.
This was not a city centered around tourists, it was a city built for its own people, and it was huge and sprawling and intense – You got the sense that you could find anything in Bangkok – if you just knew where to look.
“I give you good price – 200baht, no meter”/Getting Around
The second thing that shocked me about Bangkok was that taxi drivers never knew where anything was. I learned this lesson the hard way, after my very first taxi driver spent two hours going round and round trying to find the hostel that I was ten minutes away from.
I had thought that having the name, address, directions in Thai, and a map with the hostel’s location on it would be good enough but I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that most taxi drivers in Thailand are illiterate so can’t understand any of those things – and also don’t understand how Google Maps works.
Most of the time they don’t even really understand anything you say – or at least, they couldn’t understand me. This made for many an interesting journey where I’d end up directing my driver using hand signals and we’d inevitably have to reverse and back track a lot everytime they misunderstood one (which happened a lot).
How do taxis work in Bangkok then, you might wonder? The locals, of course, can speak Thai, which helps – but they’ll tell the driver the name of a famous landmark near to wherever they want to go (the drivers know the famous landmarks), then once in the vicinity of their destination, the driver will keep stopping and asking the locals there for directions to the exact place. Everyone’s always willing to help – it’s just how the system works there.
As a tourist of course, you don’t always have that luxury – which is where having a phone number comes in handy. If you can give the driver the phone number of your hostel or restaurant or wherever else you want to go, they can call up and get the details from them.
If you’re staying at a hostel, the best thing to do is get their card – it’ll have their name and address on it (useful because Thai taxi drivers usually can’t understand your pronunciation but they can ask another – literate – Thai person to read it out to them), a basic map (useful on the off chance they’re familiar with the area and recognize the streets) and their number (most likely to be used), and you just hand it over to the driver and he and whoever’s manning the phone on the other end will get you there with minimum hassle.
Of course, I say minimum hassle but getting around Bangkok by taxi, tuk tuk, motorbike taxi or bicycle taxi is rarely ever actually hassle free. For one, they’re always trying to get as much money from you as they can – we once got charged 150baht to get from Mo Chit station to the Mo Chit bus stop, even though they’re about 2 minutes apart.
The way to avoid this – apart from haggling like a pro – was to insist on using the meter (only in car taxis – bikes and tuk tuks don’t have meters). On some days and at some times though, you just couldn’t find anyone willing to use the meter. I paid 78 baht to get to a storage facility the first time, which was metered, but after that nobody would agree to take me there using the meter and wanted at least 250baht without it. I never figured out why.
On the other hand, negotiating a set price was worth it if you were worried about getting stuck in traffic or if you needed to get somewhere quick and wanted your driver to step on it.
Given how belligerent drivers could be though, it made a lot more sense to catch public transport when possible – Bangkok has amazing rail infrastructure made up of the BTS Skytrain, the MRT and the ARL.
Don’t be confused by the acronyms – I was at the start – they’re all pretty much just light metropolitan trains, but they’ve given each section a different name as if to make you feel like you have more transport options than you actually do.
Naming critique aside, they’re lovely and clean and spacious and air conditioned – really well designed – and best of all: they’re fast, frequent and on time.
They also have a great ticketing system whereby you can either buy a rechargeable pass or, if buying single journeys, it gives you a plastic token, not a paper ticket, which the machine eats up when you exit the station at your destination so that it can be reused. Think of the environmental benefits!
They feel so much safer than Sydney trains too. There are security guards who do a very cursory search as you go in, but it’s enough to stop people from coming onto the train drunk or with anything messy or stinky on their person – including, as the big signs at all entrances warn you against, durian.
Of course, the rail lines only take you to so many places and you could try catching the bus. I can’t say I properly figured out how the buses worked – I never bought a ticket, or saw anyplace selling tickets, I’d just get on and off the bus as I wanted.
The buses are quirkily old fashioned, with creaky wooden interiors, and don’t run on time. They’re comfy enough – and still clean – but they’re quite slow and I could only use them with the help of Google’s public transport mapping.
Half the bus stops haven’t got anything marking them (the stop near my third hostel was literally a telephone booth and I only knew the bus stopped there because Google told me) and bus routes aren’t displayed anywhere so you have to know what route number you need and where to get on and off before you try to catch a bus, because nobody’s going to be able to help you if you don’t.
There’s a saying I heard often while I was there: ‘nobody walks anywhere in Bangkok’ and apart from the tourists, it’s true. It’s just way too hot. The cheap and fast way to do it is to combine two modes of transport: get a motorbike taxi to the closest rail line, use that to get as close to your destination as possible, then switch to another motorbike taxi. It’s an adventure in itself!
“Home away from home”/Hostels
You definitely get much nicer sleeping quarters in Bangkok than you would in European, Australian or American hostels – but not with quite the same amenities.
Most don’t do free breakfasts, and while some give you free tea and coffee, the coffee is always instant, the milk is of the powdered variety, and there usually won’t be a kitchen available for you to use.
Don’t expect a map on arrival, or for them to tell you where you should go and what you should do – but they’ll be super helpful with things like laundry and booking buses.
A lot of backpackers stay on Khao San Rd, which is the really touristy part of town – but given that it’s like the Kings Cross of Sydney and Thailand’s already full of trashy 18 year old backpackers, I always stayed elsewhere.
Cozy Bangkok Place:
41/146-148 Soi sunthonpimol, rama 4 rd., Prathumwan
I got a private room here for my first night in Bangkok, and it was the best equipped hostel I found in Thailand, with free drinking water, a kitchen (the only place I stayed in Thailand that had one) and a coin laundry.
The neighbourhood was really cool – it was amidst a set of quiet backstreets near Hua Lamphong Station and everyone in the houses around us always had their doors open and seemed to be doing whatever they were doing at their doors or just outside so that they could talk to each other. It made for a really lovely community atmosphere that we got to be part of.
The hostel itself wasn’t very social inside, mainly because it seemed to be full of couples when I was there, but luckily I found a few other solo travellers – Andrew, Antoine and Tam – to hang with regardless.
There’s this cool old building near the Taksin BTS station that’s officially called the Sathorn Unique Tower, but is unofficially known as The Ghost Tower. It was meant to be this grand, residential building, but it’s construction was halted during The Asian Financial Crisis. It’s an eerie looking 49 story behemoth that locals apparently believe is haunted, and bits of debris from it still get blown down in the wind.
So anyway, we thought it’d be fun to climb it – which was a nice idea but there’s guards and guard dogs around it who absolutely wouldn’t let us in. Another friend, Zhen, recently did manage to get up there – apparently you have to slip the guards a sneaky 200. Oh well, at least we got to look at it.
We made up for that disappointment by getting a longboat to ferry us back to near our hostel – I don’t remember if it was the Hilton or Sheraton that has a free service for their guests, but we just pretended to be staying at the hotel and got on, were handed fresh face towels and cold water (very welcome after our long walk there) and got to coast back in comfort.
48 Sukhumvit soi 4, Sukhumvit Rd, Klongtuey
I stayed here after returning from Ko Pha Ngan with food poisoning in a four person dorm and it was lovely. WH Hostel is made out of old containers, stacked and painted colorfully and it was actually very spacious and cosy and looked super funky.
There was a great outdoor area where everyone would hang out – it was really social – and play card/drinking games and chill. I learned to play War off this American guy named Sam who wants to write children’s books, and read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Another night, Anton, Joyce and I caught the ferry to the Asiatique to eat Japanese food while live music played in the background.
I hadn’t realised when booking, but our hostel was also just off Soi Nana – the red light district. Everytime we headed out we’d walk past scores of prostitutes and ladyboys, and old, fat white men with their and around pretty young Thai ladies. Certainly made for some interesting walks.
Charoenkrung 22, Talad Noi, Charoenkrung Road, Sumphantawong
I stayed here with Bea in a twin private and it was the most comfortable room I’ve ever been in – it was hard to force ourselves to leave it! They had a rooftop common area and an awesome cafe underneath the hostel.
The only bummer was that, while it was the best Thai hostel I stayed in over my whole time there, the location wasn’t amazing – it was close to Hua Lamphong, but there weren’t a lot of places to eat nearby unless you went to Chinatown.
Bangkok’s Chinatown reminded me of the movie Bladerunner. In case you miss the huge gate at one end, you’ll know your there by the blinding neon lights attached to aged buildings. It’s full of red carpeted gold shops and Chinese medicine stores and dotted with shrines.
You can find the same kitsch there as in Chinatowns the world over, but there’s also a wide range of unusual foods available that aren’t quite so easy to find: birds nest, shark fin, various fried insects, duck cheeks with beaks still attached, swim bladder, sea cucumbers, sea slugs, various bits of offal, whole pigs heads – or just their faces, which look like rather macabre masks – pigs blood and innards soup, and many other strange looking substances and dishes that I couldn’t identify.
I’d come to Thailand a little short on appropriate clothing, having spent the last few months dealing with the European winter. Where better to remedy that situation than at the weekend Chatuchak markets, the biggest markets in all of Thailand?
I’m not kidding when I say big; the markets have 80,000 stalls separated into 27 sections and you literally need a map (which you can pick up there) to find your way around.
I found it a bit overwhelming and almost gave up, but ended up chatting to another pair of backpackers I ran into there and one of them, Zev, took pity on me and spent the next few hours helping me shop. I bought a hat for 150 baht, denim shorts for 120 baht, tennis shoes for 300 baht and two tanks for 100 each. Not bad.
In sharp contrast to that, I also spent an arvo hanging out at Siam Square, where there’s literally just 3 malls built right next to each other: Siam Center, Siam Discovery and, the most opulent, Siam Paragon.
There’s brand names from all over the world here – Laduree, Marks & Spencer, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Starbucks, McDonalds, Dairy Queen. There are sports cars being parked by valets and it’s full of rich locals and foreigners, really driving in the income inequality compared to the stalls outside.
I felt a little out of place (not being rich and well dressed) but it’s also great to visit as a tourist if you’re missing food from home – they ship over all the gluten free stuff you’d find at Woolies and Coles (and Tescos and Walmart too I think), as well as cheeses and meats you won’t find elsewhere in Thailand.
“Pad Thai? Chicken curry?”/Food
In general I found that Sydney Thai food was better than Thai Thai food; theirs is spicier, ours is more nuanced. But Thai dining was certainly an experience. I always ate Street food – vendors would have stalls on the street where they’d cook up noodles or have curries already made, and you’d get a portion for anywhere from 40-150 baht.
Pad Thai was everywhere, and probably the most popular dish. I got over it after the second time. I’d mostly order rice and curries or stir fries – the noodle dishes, I found, were always too dry for my liking.
Unlike Vietnam, it’s fairly safe in Thailand to eat chopped fruit from the fruit stalls where they’re kept on ice. While tapwater isn’t safe, there are water refill stations everywhere and it costs 1 baht only for 2L of water, so everyone uses clean water for ice and to wash fruit.
7elevens are everywhere in Thailand, it’s like a cult symbol. There’s one about every ten metres down any road in Bangkok. I mean, I may be exxagerating a little bit but I looked it up and there are over 7000 in Thailand, almost as many as in the US even though Thailand’s got one fifth the population.
Supermarkets aren’t so common in Thailand so everyone relies on the 7eleven. I don’t think there was a single day when I didn’t go into one at least three times.
You can buy alcohol, food, and a really wide range of random things from thongs, duct tape, candles and umbrellas to collagen drinks (really popular there), snail cream and sticky rice burgers. You can also buy simple electronics, pay pills, and pay for bus and plane tickets at the 7eleven. They’re amazing.
Bangkok’s Green Lung: Bangkrachao
My favourite thing about Bangkok was cycling through the wonderfully green oasis of Bangkrachao, the perfect remedy to the chaos of Bangkok.
I got taken there by some guys from Couchsurfing who organise (free!) trips there every so often. It was awesome – we saw some temples, floating markets, the Bangkok tree house and heaps of handicrafts workshops where we got to try making things too, without any pressure to buy them.
Long term travel doesn’t lend itself to packing lightly, but travelling Thailand is not highly conducive to huge rucksacks. Which was why Bangkok Self Storage was an absolute godsend: I switched to the small rucksack I’d bought in Sofia and left my big rucksack in storage for only 100baht/week.
The place is run by an English expat who’s been in Thailand for something like a decade and who has really interesting stories and great advice (he doesn’t talk your ear of either, but if you make an effort at conversation he’ll respond).
I don’t know how he makes any money off it (in fact I don’t think he does – he rents space mainly to big organisations and does this on the side) but I’m glad he keeps it going – it was something like 100 baht per day to store stuff at the airport and that was nowhere as convenient as this was.