It seems like I had been planning a solo backpacking trip overseas for ages. In late May 2016, I finally took off for a trip through South East Asia like I had always wanted to. I was dismissive of all deterring arguments. I cared not what was happening to me or around me. This trip was all that mattered right now.
This is about when I got to Bangkok for my last few days in Thailand before leaving the country.
A Capital Day
The train to Bangkok was rather uneventful. It was much more crowded the the one I had took to Ayutthaya but given the time of the day, it was understandable. I sat in a seat flanked by Thai ladies of all ages and sizes and wondered about monarchy as a form of government. The Thai king is a ubiquitous figure; to be seen everywhere and mentioned everywhere. But it’s more of a puppet presidency of the “kingdom” because the government is actually in the hands of the military. Still, having an adored head of the state was something that lent everyone one common thing to identify with and unite under. Indians lack such a figure. We are as diverse in every single way as could possibly be.
I reached Hua Lampong and started walking towards the hostel. Google Maps showed a walking time of 50 minutes or so. I have tried to stick to walking for distances less than an hour away. The market that I crossed was mostly shut down. Sunday is the day off for wholesale merchants I suppose.
The streets of Bangkok
The streets had some impressive graffiti though. Bangkok promised to be be a city with character. But I am not much of a city person; I feel lost in a place so huge. I end up seeing just a small part of the city because I love diving into the back alleys and walking into the uncharted routes. You need to live in a city to know it and to learn to love it. Otherwise it is simply pointless.
I checked into the hostel which seemed really nice. It was something of a boutique hostel with really awesome double beds per bunk. It was a steal for the money I was paying. I needed a nice place to stretch out after the ordeal in Ayutthaya. I needed to recover from the bed bug tragedy.
Glur Hostel at Bangkok. Highly recommended!
I took a bath and decided to head out to eat something. I had not researched this area so I did not know of a lot of things here. There were a few street side shops that I had seen on the way and a McDonalds in the mall next doors. I wanted to eat a cheeseburger real bad so I walked into the McDonald’s. But while I was waiting for my turn, I suddenly felt like leaving the shop. It seemed a little unauthentic and while I had known it all along, the craving for a cheeseburger died as suddenly as it had cropped up. I left the McDonald’s and walked around in search of some good Thai food.
While roaming the lanes, I landed in front of a place called Baan Padthai. It was a pretty blue building and I must admit that it was the decor of the place that drew me in. I took a look at the menu and almost walked out. It was EXPENSIVE! But curiosity had the better of me and I spent the next few minutes eating an excellent pad thai that cost my an equivalent of 5 (if not more) meals. And that is how I first tasted Bangkok’s ubiquitous pad thai.
Super delicious but super expensive pad thai at Baan Padthai
I later came to realise that the area where I was in had many excellent local shops which served Thai specialities. I had just happened to take the wrong turn and wandered in close proximity of ShangriLa Hotel. No wonder the prices were so!
Back in the hostel I went and sat in the common room. There was just one girl sitting there gorging on lichees. She asked me where I was from and this simple question started a conversation that lasted more than three hours. I cannot possibly recall the wide range of topics that we covered that evening. Travel stories are the usual norm with travellers; she told me about her impressive packing skills and thrift in buying clothes; we discussed food in our countries (she was from around California); there was a discussion about Spanish and pronunciations; how she was working 4 jobs to pay for this trip; how Uber drivers tended to fall in love with her; her broken relationship of past; my seemingly strange marriage of present; marriages in India in general; lichees and pistachios in the fridge; vegetable markets in California, Mexico and India; progressive rock and Yes (the band). There were more topics I am sure but I do not remember them all.
At the end of the three hours she had filled herself up with lichees and I got up to go eat some local food. It was only then that we exchanged names. Her name was Melody and she had a flight out that evening. We met again after I returned from eating a delicious bowl of duck noodle soup. She was on her way out to catch her flight. I bid her goodbye and sat back down to work on my laptop. There were three more people there now. The guy was playing the guitar; everything from Pink Floyd to Rodriego y Gabriela. I sat listening for a while and then went to bed to end the first amazing day in Bangkok.
I was sleeping much better in the new hostel. But I had to check out and check back in one this day. I had made two separate bookings because I decided to leave Ayutthaya so suddenly. So today I had to check out of the room and check back in two hours later at the appointed hour. I put my luggage in the common room and killed the two hours till the new check-in time by walking around the block. This was where everything was local. The food, the services. I came out on the main street and sat down in a famous roast duck place - Prachak. An excellent plate of duck and rice and a plate of Sui Mai to be had at pocket friendly rates. I would definitely return.
Kevin wants my food!
Bangkok Tip #1
No matter what part of Bangkok you are in, there will always be good local food to be had. A little research can give you many options in your range of budget.
I had been looking for a tattoo parlour and had messaged one of the studios on Facebook. The artist replied and I told him I would come around later that evening to discuss the design in person. There are some things that I still feel uncomfortable deciding completely online. I walked to the riverside jetty and crossed to the other side for 3 THB. Bangkok has excellent public transportation. There are the buses, metro and skytrain, river ferries and tuk-tuks. For the more finicky, there are the taxis and Ubers as well. I, however, prefer walking.
Taking the ferry across the river
Bangkok Tip #2
Do try the public transport in Bangkok. The tuk-tuks are fun but so are the ferries and buses.
I walked to the studio and was received at the gate by Krit’s (the artist) wife. They had a small studio in a residential complex and currently were working with a client. I showed him the intended design, discussed it’s feasibility and booked an appointment for the next day. I went back to the hostel to take a break from the humid heat and to work on the app a bit. I waited till the sun had gone down before walking to Chinatown.
Welcome to Chinatown!
There is a certain point on the road when you suddenly come up against houses sporting Chinese lanterns on their porches; the boards are painted with Chinese characters all over; you know that you have entered Chinatown. I walked through nearly deserted roads in the residential areas to hit upon the famous Yarowan Road. Chinese temples welcomed me to this bustling kilometer long street that had all the tourist activity. The roads suddenly became jam packed and the crossings were saturated with the smell of barbecue fishes and shouts of noisy vendors. I struggled to make my way through the human traffic jamming the pedestrian walkways.
There were a few dishes I would have loved to try but they were exceeding my budget by a stretch! Maybe some other time. I settled for a less gaudy stall and had a fish ball noodle soup and a glass of pineapple juice. Plain, simple and filling.
Noodle soup is always an efficient meal
I decided to walk till the legendary Khaosan Road (KSR). The roads suddenly turned uncomfortably deserted after Chinatown. The streetlights were bleak at best, the shops had their shutters down and the rare car’s headlight blinded my field of vision. Bangkok has some dangerous stories associated with it and I walked with a fluttering feeling in my stomach despite the watch telling me it was just 8:30 PM. I dropped the idea of walking till KSR and thought that I would take the jetty there instead. It was close by and I could see the Grand Palace on the way.
The buildings changed in size and shape as I approached the Grand Palace. They were much more spread out and had the luxury of horizontal space. I fell in love with the low light shooting capacity of my new camera and clicked innumerable pictures of the lit up Grand Palace. The Ministry of Defense, quite unsurprisingly, had it’s building right opposite to the palace.
Grand Palace and MoD
I walked around the walls of the palace and found the people of Bangkok. They had shut shop and were taking time for themselves. The parks were full of people walking, jogging, sitting, cycling or playing badminton; even table tennis! Men sat drinking in small shops and discussing their day with their friends. Yes, there were a lot of people. They were just not working at 9 PM.
People enjoying their evening in the park
The jetty had closed down as well. I debated going to KSR and taking a tuk-tuk back. But then I thought I would leave something for my return to Bangkok. Despite tired legs, I decided to walk back to the closest BTS station that was almost 5 kilometers away and then travel the remaining distance by the skytrain. I started walking slowly, taking a different and more direct route than what I had taken to get here. I hit upon an unexpected night market. It seemed similar to mandis back home. Vegetables, fruits and flowers were being sold in wholesale quantities all along the road.
Scenes from the night market
I went up to the Chao Phraya river and saw lit up boats making their way across a lit up iron bridge. The city was definitely not dead yet. Of course there were the poor and dejected in this city like in any other; they could be found dwelling under the bridges and in abject unlit corners of unclaimed plots. But the underbelly of Bangkok is not half as bad as some of the Indian cities. Delhi or Mumbai are not even valid choices for comparison.
Lit up river
I walked with impunity now; through alleys and deserted shortcuts. I stopped at a Seven Eleven to cool down when I wanted a respite from the humidity. Eventually, I reached the BTS station and took a train to the station next to my hostel. I rested my limbs, wrote and went to sleep a little late despite the tiring day.
Taking deserted shortcuts
Skytrain to the rescue
Football & Ink
Despite the late night, the alarm woke me up early. I freshened up quickly and left to take the BTS to Sukhumvit. There was a sports bar there that would be open at 8 in the morning. I was going to catch the Argentina and Chile Copa match. This was the first of many sleep deprived days that would result because of my sudden unexplainable football frenzy. But it has been worth it so far.
The BTS was full of people in office commute. I missed a couple of trains before I got into one. People were packing up the coaches to its capacity but they were not forcing themselves in. The luxuries of less population!The coach that I eventually managed to get in was full of people with centimeters of personal space to spare. It was completely packed but there was absolutely no noise. No loud music blaring out of loudspeakers, no chattering school kids, no jaats boasting about their escapades with women or in fights. People talked in hushed tones when they had to and picked their phones almost apologetically. The loudest sound was an occasional clearing of throat. It seemed extremely unnatural to have so many people and such a dearth of sound. People got off at their stops like clockwork and headed for the exit or exchange. I joined the crowd changing lines at Siam and taking the Sukhumvit line.
I was at he sports bar a little after 9. The Copa match was not being shown on any of the screens and there were a handful of people in there. This meant I was the only person who was here to watch the match. Might have just as well streamed it in the hostel. The staff put on the match and I settled down to watch the good game with beer for breakfast.
Beer and football
The next screen had the NHL on. My eyes drifted to see that match ever so often. Ice hockey is a very fluent but violent game. This got me wondering that almost all the “American” games are similarly violent - Ice Hockey, American Football, Baseball. While some countries have compulsory military service, is this the American way to make their children fit and keep them ready for wars? Anyway, this explained the few people in the bar that early in the morning. It was some Stanley Cup which is a big deal in North America. The person sitting next to me, Mike, was also watching the same. He was a Canadian and we got talking for a bit. The game ended with Argentina winning 2-1 and Di Maria scoring. <3
I was full of one and a half liters of beer and I wanted to leak some out but I thought I would use the bathrooms at the BTS. But there was no bathroom at the BTS! In fact, there was none all the way till Krit’s studio. I wonder what people in Bangkok do when they have to go.
Krit at work
Krit showed me the design that he had made out of the rough sketch I had given him the last day. It had taken the essence out of my design. It is really tough to get a tattoo when you can sketch yourself and have a design in your head. After almost an hour of iterations, the design had come to almost 75% of what I wanted but Krit was having difficulties understanding the nuances that I was suggesting. The language barrier wasn’t helping much either. I got it to a state which I could work on later and finalized it. Meanwhile, two German girls had walked in and were waiting for me to end the charade so that they could get their tattoos. One of them (Alina) wanted a simple tattoo and the other (Sandra) wanted a tattoo but was not sure of the design. She changed her mind before I got mine and changed it again after Alina got hers but then the rest of us told her to change it again so that she does not get one in haste. 😝
A confused Sandra
I got the tattoo done in the traditional Thai bamboo style. It was much more painful than my last one but that was probably because of the part of the body I was getting it on. I was getting it in a spot with very little flesh to work with so the needle hit the bones quite often making the pain unbearable occasionally. Bamboo tattoos are the same as gun tattoos. It is just a slower process that involves more effort for the artist and also gives him a bit more flexibility. After almost 30-40 minutes of non stop work the tattoo was completed. I checked it in the mirror, gave Krit a thumbs up and accepted my new tattoo.
The tattoo. It's a turtle just so you know!
I had to wait till Alina got her tattoo to see how the bamboo tattoo is actually done. Her’s was done in two minutes and was more or less painless. :P We clicked some pictures and the girls invited me to some Moon Bar where they were heading to later in the evening. This was one of those bars which required a dress code and neither did I have the clothes nor the money to splurge on expensive drinks. I walked back to the hostel and ate some fried noodles on the way near the jetty. I was slowly realising that I had chosen a really bad spot for the tattoo. Maintaining it would be difficult with the backpack strap pressing against it!
I lazed around in the hostel for the rest of the day and finally decided to head out towards the evening. I thought of Khaosan Road but when I got out, I came to know that it was raining quite hard. The ever-smiling girls at the receptionist asked me if I was checking out tomorrow. I was, otherwise the owner of the hostel was throwing a party that he was inviting everyone to. There would be a free beer as well. This was the second time in the day that I was being invited to a party that I could not join! And of late I had been thinking of how nice it would be to have someone to go and party with once in a while.
I walked out as the rain slowed to a drizzle and ran the last few meters to the BTS when the drizzle picked up into a heavy rain again. There was no way I was going to KSR in this rain. I decided to go back to Sukhumvit instead. The BTS was crowded with dressed up people this time. The nightlife of Bangkok was stirring alive.
Living the night
I got off at the station closest to Nana Plaza. This was one of the known hubs for gogo bars in town. I had nothing particular in mind. I thought I might sit down at some place that advertised cheap drinks. I walked around the Plaza observing the proceedings of the evening. The customers were mostly men of advancing ages, in their 60’s or more. I personally felt like this was a genuine market. If you can keep your morality aside for a minute, there is no reason why one should not spend his or her money to get intimate with another human being. Maybe one no longer has the ability, opportunity or the inclination to have a meaningful relationship anymore. And if someone is selling his/her body, then it means that this is the best way they have found to feed themselves. Of course there is the problem of human trafficking but it is a separate problem altogether. Forcing someone to do something against their will is plain wrong, no matter what trade it is.
Anyway, I was not standing in judgement. I had no right to judge anyone. I just walked around the complex taking mental notes, smiling and refusing the invitations. Many of the bars had interesting themes to them appealing to the more popular fetishes. As always, it is toughest to cross the bars that feature lady boys. They are the most insistent ones and will often touch you in inappropriate manner. But a smile and polite no is usually enough for them to leave you alone, if not immediately then within a few seconds. I clicked some pictures and walked out of the complex.
Den of debauchery
Pro Tip #9
Never freak out if you are hustled. Stay calm and say your “no” with determination. No one is going forcing you to anything.
I headed to Soi 8 and 11 next. These were the alleys with “cleaner” nightlife. I must have passed a gazillion Indians all around. My ears picked up Hindi, Bihari, Punjabi and some South Indian languages. There was even a dosa shop at the entrance of one of the Sois.
Older firang men walking with their young Thai “girlfriends” was a common sight. I was looking for a place to chill and drink a couple of beers but nothing really appealed. Soi 8 had ended quickly and Soi 11 was really nice with lots of bars. There was even one with live music. But none called out to me so I kept moving. Girls lined the streets asking if the passer-bys wanted a “massage”. I kept walking. Next stop, Soi Cowboy.
Soi Cowboy is similar to Nana Plaza. The neons were bright and glaring. The small alley was packed with tourists; some curious onlookers and some active part of the debauchery. Skimpily dressed girls invited people in for drinks and more. Street carts served for cheap bars for those who wanted a quick fix. A man was trying to sell me a “Rolex”. No food or drink options of my type and all this walking was making me sweaty. This was not good for the tattoo so I caught the BTS and headed back to the hostel.
I grabbed dinner at one of the shops at the corner of the food block. Decent pad thai for a decent cost. Then I made good on my promise for a beer and picked up a Tiger from the nearby Seven Eleven. I sat on the street drinking it and then returned to the room to dry myself and nurse the tattoo. So much for the Bangkok nightlife.
Kevin sneaking up on my pad thai
Au revoir, Thailand
I did not get out of the bed till 11 in the morning. I freshened up and packed my bags. The great thing about hostels is that you don’t need to keep a room to stay in the hostel. You can just hang out in the common room all day. It is only if you need to spend the night that you need to pay for the bed. I was going to spend my night in the airport because I did not want to take a taxi at 3 AM in the morning. So I checked out, grabbed some breakfast and left my bags in the common room. Then I went around to get some visa photos clicked and got the required print outs for the Vietnam visa. I also got to play with a basket full of rabbits that were up for sale. 😆
I decided to use the day to complete the Koh Tao blog post. The only time I went out of the hostel was to grab some food at Prachak. I even ventured to cross the river to find a cafe to work in but quickly returned to the comfort of the hostel and worked on the blog again. I was almost done when the clock said it was 8 in the evening. I did not want to miss the train to Don Muang. So I put on my bags, taking care that the tattoo was safe and walked to the BTS station.
A series of BTS and MTS trains got me to Hua Lampong. The MTS is weirdly similar to Delhi Metro, probably the same company who helped us set it up. I got a 20 THB ticket in an express train from Hua Lampong to Don Muang. Then I used the 40 minutes till the departure of the train to grab something to eat in one of the shops outside the station.
People spending the night at Hua Lampong
Bangkok Tip #3
Cabs in Bangkok are cheap. But still, if you want to save a couple of dollars there is always a way to do it. There is no dearth of good public transport in Bangkok.
The train was a different sort with automatic doors. It also ran faster and therefore got me to Don Muang earlier than I had expected. I tried doing a mobile check in on the AirAsia app but it did not work. The message said that I needed to go to the counter to get my documents verified. I had been looking all over the internet to find out whether I would need an onward ticket from Vietnam to get entry into the country. The forums said that although the immigration did not really require a ticket usually, some airlines often had such irksome policies. AirAsia had already asked me for my return tickets when I was taking the flight from Chennai to Bangkok. I started imagining conversations in my head where I was being asked for an onward ticket that I did not have.
It took me ten minutes to walk from the railway station to the International terminal. I don’t know why this way of travelling is not more popular. It cost me a total of less than 70 THB and was mostly a pleasant journey. The airport officials told me that the check-in for the Hanoi flight would start at 3 AM so there were still 4 hours to kill. I used the Bangkok Airport WiFi to finish my blog and got a couple of hours of shut-eye lying down on uncomfortable chairs.
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Previous posts in this series :
And here is the complete album of the Bangkok leg of the trip.