One Night in Bangkok and the World's your Oyster..

Trip Start Dec 29, 2009
Trip End May 13, 2010

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free
You'll find a god in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history
I can feel an angel sliding up to me

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can't be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me...

Bangkok is probably the most recognizable city in SE Asia. At least, before coming to Asia, it was the one place I was most familiar with just from popular culture, such as in the song by Murray Head (above), the setting of many action movies (Bangkok Dangerous, Ong Bak), the home of Muay Thai (an upcoming martial art/boxing spectacle) and of course its renown as a huge financial and business center in SE Asia. Bangkok is the second largest city in all of SE Asia (just behind Jakarta and just ahead of Singapore) and is supposedly the most expensive city after Singapore. This I find hard to believe, because one of the first things I noticed in Bangkok (besides the ginormous billboards right outside the airport) was how cheap everything is there. I routinely bought bottled water for 7 baht (about .2 US cents) and could purchase an entire meal for 35 baht (almost exactly 1 USD). Granted that was street food. Food at the hostel was more in the 150-200 baht range, which is still a fair price. By the end of my stay, I had already started thinking in baht, which is actually absurd when you consider 200 baht for a pashmina scarf to be too expensive. Now onto the meat of the entry:

Bangkok is not the safest place in the world. Knowing this going in, there were a few times when our taxi or tuk tuk started down a dark alley that I got a little worried and starting thinking about what I needed to carry with me if I had to run somewhere all of a sudden. It was an interesting feeling, but it did keep me on my toes, and (obviously) I made it back alive, so all is good. Besides those one or two occurrences, Bangkok was a great city to visit. I don't think it would be necessary to stay there longer than a few days, though. After all, it was a big city, kind of dirty/smelly (comparing to Singapore here, it was probably similar to NYC in some places), and you had to barter for everything- even taxi rides. Many taxi drivers don’t want to name a price, instead of turning on the meter. If you bargain too much with them, they will just drive away. My group was pretty lucky getting drivers will to go on the meter almost always, but I know some other students who went through 3-4 taxis every time they wanted to go somewhere.

We got in Sunday night, and as we weren’t feeling over adventurous, we stayed in the hostel and planned our week out. Monday we took the water taxi to the main part of the city. This was coolest mode of transportation ever. There is a canal running through Bangkok that has long empty boats running from 8am-8pm every day. For 14 baht, you can get pretty much anywhere in the city. The boat will linger at a dock for about 30 seconds, you hop on, or hop off and it speeds along to the next stop. I admired the ladies who did this in heels like it was nothing.

Our first stop was the Golden Mount Temple. Now Thailand has temples everywhere, and I mean everywhere, but this was our first, so we spent the most time. It actually was located on a hill and the actual temple towered over all surrounding buildings so the view from the top was amazing. After we had our fill of Buddha statues we headed toward the Grand Palace, the number-one-must-see tourist attraction of Bangkok. If you want to know what Thailand is all about, you can see it here. Outside the gates are hundreds of street people selling sarongs (wrap-around garment you can use as a makeshift skirt to wear in temples and palaces to cover your knees if you are wearing shorts), sun umbrellas and hats, cold drinks (including fresh coconuts), or a number of things. You will also get people at the gate telling you that the palace is closed and to come back later, or that you aren’t dressed appropriately and need to go buy attire from across the street. Really, they just want you to shop more before going in. The palace is usually always open according to its posted time schedule and they have sarongs, pants, and shirts you can borrow for free as soon as you enter, which is what I opted for.

Inside the palace itself, I didn’t know what to think. You have never seen so much glitter and gold and color and mosaic and figures and it’s truly overwhelming. Every step you take is another deserving photograph, and a tourist in the way. I was kind of in shock for my whole stay there- it is really hard to react to something so extravagant. We spent a good 2+ hours just walking about the palace grounds. It is rather compact, being in the middle of a city, but even so, there was a lot to see. The most famous figure in the palace is the Emerald Buddha, actually made of jade, which is housed in the first building you see as you walk in. It was a gorgeous Buddha, but it was much smaller than I anticipated, and it was very far away. The shrine they built to it and the room itself was enough to stare at, though. And stare I did, trying to engrave the picture in my head as security wouldn’t let me take a digital one.

We were exhausted by 2:30pm and needed to head back to the hostel to get our ride to the next event at 5. Yes, it takes that long to travel through Bangkok traffic, even at odd hours such as 3pm. That night we went to a Thai Cultural Show, buffet included. Outside the stage they had models of traditional Thai abodes and had areas to try on traditional garb or play Thai musical instruments. It was really cool to explore.

The show itself was a lot to take in. By now I had gotten the idea that the Thai people liked extravagance, but this show confirmed it. The show traveled through the different parts of Thailand, the central plains, the northern mountains and the southern traders, showcasing their heritage, culture and interaction. The second half explored Thai myth and festivals. The entire show was visual, with only a brief introduction in multiple languages and a soundtrack to help the actors along. There were lots of actors needed for this huge production. At least 150 personnel and over 500 costumes.

The show outdid itself with every act. They started with colorful costumes and dancing, then they pulled out live animals (goats, chickens, elephants); they even had a real river with people swimming, boats floating and a real thunderstorm. In the second act they showed their interpretation of hell (I’m surprised I didn’t get nightmares) with monstrous puppets and costumed people on stilts and then they pulled out the cables and had multiple people flying in the air doing acrobatics to depict heaven. It was all a bit much. Actually, in general, you can break Thailand down into a few words- gold, color, Buddha and elephants. That is Thailand in a nutshell.

The next morning we left Bangkok and traveled north.
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JoEllen Oakes on

What a marvelous adventure you're on! Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you have to be in pretty good shape to travel around there. Hope you come home with a least one sarong ... good beachwear. Love!

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