Sensory Overload in Bangkok

Market scene, Bangkok

I also used to analyze Thailand for a living as part of my job as an emerging markets economic analyst, but frankly Thailand is too damn culturally interesting to examine purely through a lens of dry economics*. Financial discussions, data aggregations, tracking of growth rates, and so forth are the domain of my brain’s mathiness. Thailand does not ignite that part of my brain. For me, Bangkok was a place of lights and music, of amazing tastes, of cultural complexity, of magic, of feeling, of style, of the sublime. It’s a fascinating place, the kind that made me thrilled to be alive and traveling.

One of my well-traveled colleagues once noted that two world cities bring about SENSORY OVERLOAD: Istanbul and Bangkok. Films like The Hangover 2 would also clue you in to this reputation of Bangkok as sensory playground. We landed at the massive Suvarnabhumi airport with about ten thousand other foreign tourists, and after a long day of sitting down traveling from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh to Bangkok, we were itching to eat and hit the town. We cabbed to our a tiny apartment in a high rise in Huai Khwang.

Luckily Huai Khwang, besides being full of “massage parlors” and gentlemen’s clubs with big bright signage, hosts a fairly large market. This market specializes in women’s clothing of a sexy kind, some of it actually quite cute and modern–high-waisted swimsuits and bustier-skirt combos. But the market also sold DVDs, stores full of Hello Kitty home goods and lots of FOOD! We had a hard time deciding between the many options, but ended up feasting on skewers of grilled sausage and chicken, a plate of the best pad Thai ever, fried chicken, green curry, sweet sticky rice with mango and some pomelo.

That night we perhaps overdid it on the Bangkok nightlife, intending to just go for a couple drinks but instead staying out til 4 AM. I suppose the city is just a saucy seductress when it comes to partying.

We started out on Silom Road. This street is known as the Wall Street of Bangkok, containing the skyscraper residences of the big banks and Western hotels, but we started walking on the bright busy end full of tourist stalls and bars. Silom is crossed by seedy Patpong 1 and 2, former R&R destination for horny GIs and home of the infamous “ping pong shows”. We eventually made it to Maggie Choo’s, a cocktail bar owned by a Perth-born bar mogul, housed in a colonial bank vault and dressed up to the nines as a 1920s Shanghai speakeasy. The central bar area is behind bank teller-like bars and above that floats a cage full of lounging girls. They wear cheongsams, black Velma Kelly wigs and falsies, and they match their sisters on swings hanging from the ceilings. We had some top quality cocktails among the other expats and well-to-do Bangkok residents, while listening to an Aretha Franklin copy (from America) belt out jazzy tunes, both modern and classic.

My friend Numan, a Bangkok local, came along and this is when it started to become more of a blur in my memory. After my third delicious cocktail we decided to hit up Soi Cowboy, the more current strip of go-go bars and the like. As we exited the cab, we were assaulted by a barrage of lights and loud tunes, with all kinds of people on the street, patrons and bar girls and a few food carts too! We had way too much fun at Cockatoo, full of ladyboys in pink and yellow string bikinis who had spot-on tuck game, toned hairless bodies and winning smiles. They weren’t dancing much despite being on a long narrow stage with stripper poles, but rather gyrating in our faces and occasionally nipple flashing. Numan was a good sport and instructed us to not buy them drinks (because you should be wary of surprise tabs) but rather stick 20 baht notes in their bikinis.

We also went to a cowgirl-themed go-go bar, full of skinny possibly underage girls in bra tops, jean shorts, white cowboy boots and cowboy hats. They all looked about 16 and were even lazier than the ladyboys. One of the girls was giving a lap dance to a 60-year-old white man–almost comically gross. At about 3 AM as we were ushered out we exited to the still-busy Soi, where some of the bikini-clad ladyboys were spilling out of the bar now heading home. My drunk treat was a grilled rice ball, shaped into a round patty and slathered in a yummy Thai sauce.

We experienced some more Bangkok nightlife for New Year’s Eve. We had no real plans for the night, as we could not be bothered to either wait for fireworks or purchase tickets to some larger event, so we headed on the MRT to bright, modern Sukhumvit to just see what we could find. As soon as we emerged from underground we encountered a series of pop-up bars selling cheap cocktails out of small van and carts, pumping electro and pop music on the street. We ended up at Sukhumvit Soi 11, not at one of the foreigner bars but on the street at a plastic table ordering margaritas and Singapore slings from a smiling lady playing electro music from her cart, next to a family with some underagers and maybe an Indian couple. It felt like Vegas or Halloween night, with people all over the streets: many foreigners, many girls wearing light-up cat or mouse ears. Competing music was blasting from the different bars. This made me sure that Bangkok is, indeed, the world’s best party town. People barely even blinked when the clock struck midnight–no countdown, no squares anxious to get home.

Bangkok was simply crawling with foreigners, or farang as the Thais call us. Many of these foreigners are expats, others just visitors. In fact the city is the world’s most-visited after New York and London. To me, tourism in Bangkok took on a very different tone than in other regions of Southeast Asia. After decades of international tourism and trade in Bangkok, the locals seemed quite used to the farang, in the way that my relatives in Hawaii are used to mainland and international visitors: people from somewhere else are an everyday presence.

I can’t say the Thai interactions with tourists I observed followed some broad trend. Some seemed jovial, fulfilling Thailand’s promise of being the Land of Smiles. Others were perhaps totally indifferent. The unscrupulous are known to use to take advantage of dumb, inexperienced tourists by extorting them–they have developed a whole bag of tricks.

But there was a lot less begging, which was a plus. [I will note that throughout Thailand, due to more robust economy, I saw very few people standing around, underemployed.] Another plus is that the experience runs cosmopolitan. In Bangkok, you get many internationals bumping into each other, and locals whose world is pretty damn big. Unfortunately, some of the international visitors, especially the backpackers, cluster in tourist areas like Khao San Road, which is full of hostels, Europeans drinking al fresco and carts serving only pad Thai with all-English menus, but still, foreigners are everywhere.

Thai street snacks

Heavenly pad thai

For me, the highlight of the Bangkok sensory overload was obviously the street food. Though things were relatively quiet due to the New Year, I visited a few markets. The best in terms of selection was probably the huge local market in across the river in Thonburi, near the BTS Wongwian Yai, comprised of carts all over a long street and under a covered structure. This area had no English signage but offered noodle soups, fried chicken, whole grilled chili fish, fried rice, fried noodles… talk about spoilt for choice. Besides the market at Huai Khwang which I frequented, I also checked out the Sukhumvit Soi 38 night market. This one had downsized slightly for the holiday but still had plenty of noodle soups, roast pork and duck, fried noodles, mango sticky rice and curry. I had noodles from a cart in an offshoot alley where we spotted some delectable-looking roast pork and crowds of people waiting.

Even outside the big markets, food carts were on practically every corner! Food carts selling sausage, food carts selling pork rinds, food carts selling all kinds of crazy snacks, like these mini toasts with spring roll filling and sweet sauce (see above). I also had some amazing roast pork with rice noodles in Chinatown off Charoen Krung Road. If I lived in Bangkok, I would never cook. Every day there is a feast!

My time in Bangkok wasn’t all eating and drinking. On New Year’s Day we relaxed in Lumphini Park, a big public park near the muay thai stadium. When I got a chance I wandered all over the place, though Bangkok is gigantic and fairly car-based, so we did get stuck walking along eight-lane thoroughfares sometimes. We walked down big commercial streets, such as ones full of Japanese restaurants and massage parlors catering to Japanese men, and through leafy expat residential areas full of modern apartment buildings and villas behind walls. I most enjoyed walking around Chinatown and other areas toward the palace, where the cool nineteenth and early-twentieth century architecture and brutalist apartment buildings all contributed to Bangkok’s variegated mix of old and new.

Wandering around Chinatown

As Many Buddhas as Possible at Wat Pho

We also saw some of the very old by visiting Wat Pho, one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok. You might think after Angkor Wat and Bagan I would have temple fatigue, but I was curious to see how Thai temples would differ from Khmer and Burmese ones. While it shared the steep roofs and curved spires with the Cambodian temples, and various scattered stupas with the Burmese ones, Wat Pho was quite different than anything I’d seen so far. The focal point was a giant reclining Buddha housed in a rectangular building, but Wat Pho also featured white stupas covered in colorful lacquered flowers, pavilions decked out in golden multi-tiered roofs and rows upon rows of four-feet-tall stone Buddhas. It seemed to be aiming for As Many Buddhas As Possible, with over one thousand Buddha images across the giant complex. The place was stuffed with tourists, including foreign females wearing skimpy beach dresses which you are not supposed to wear to a Buddhist temple, but many locals had come to visit, meditate and donate.

Anti-government protests at the Democracy Monument

Walking from Wat Pho, we ventured by the Democracy Monument and encountered an uptick in uptick in street vendors, not just selling food but also whistles and flags. I noticed a couple tents and realized we were going through the encampment of the anti-Yingluck protest, which ended up toppling the Pheu Thai government and leading to a coup just a few months later. Here I was facing the politically active Thailand that one reads about in the headlines, the Thailand of coup d’etats and Thaksin and Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts. I found it somewhat ironic that the pro-monarchy, slightly fascist-leaning, anti-populist protesters were camped at the Democracy Monument.

To my surprise, it mostly had the atmosphere of a summer street festival. When I happened to walk by, there were very few cops or army; a couple authorities did make us walk through a controlled entrance, but did not check our bags, or bark at us in the way New York cops often do. At a large stage in front of the monument, a guy who looked like Ai Wei-Wei in sunglasses crooned along with instrumentalists playing Thai classic rock, the bands’ images projected onto screens like at Coachella. A mass of middle-aged  people were leaning back on plastic chairs, cheering, blowing whistles, waving flags. One of these ladies motioned for us to have a seat in the chairs.

This all seemed largely peaceful to me and I questioned the alarmist Western media and financial analysts who condemn these acts of political expression. These demonstrations do turn violent sometimes when the authorities flex their muscles, and often can be quite economically disruptive (remember the airport takeover?) but when I actually observed these protesters, I could not see what was wrong with citizens expressing themselves. We point fingers at protesters for disturbing the peace, but even though I do not agree with their anti-Thaksin sentiments, I found myself kind of proud of these peaceful demonstrators. [No comment on the extra-Constitutional events that followed.]

What I liked most about Bangkok, though, was the modern, young Thailand–the stuff not encompassed by headlines or landmarks or stories of prostitutes and ladyboys. Taking the Bangkok MRT and BTS I quickly noticed the locals’ great style. They seemed to dress very hipstery, with high-waisted shorts and hipster glasses. Men sported trendy haircuts and wore denim, floral or polka-dot button-downs. Girls were not afraid to show skin or wear sheer clothing, and it usually looked cute not slutty. Spending just a few days there, I was convinced Thais are the most stylish Asians; they dress in a way that is edgy and youthful unlike the more conservative Shanghainese or Singaporeans. I was also convinced, seeing young people playing in rock bands all over the streets, that Thais are the most bad-ass Asians.

While traveling around with Alicia and Keala, I went to a few of cool-people joints in Bangkok, besides Maggie Choo’s. Near the Sukhumvit Sky Train we went to Gastrobar 1/6 at the RMA Institute, a contemporary art space with an adjoining cafe. Among hipsters with perfect hair and sunglasses, we enjoyed a New Year’s brunch–including a long black!–in this leafy oasis full of natural light, with some modern millwork accents and an eclectic collection of Asian and Western antique furniture. We also got beers at HOBs, which had a serious beer selection heavy on the Belgian brews and played Empire of the Sun and Santigold, and tequila cocktails at BADMOTEL, which boasted a white and silvery but low-lit courtyard, similar to some of my favorite bars in Los Angeles and New York.

Brunch at RMA Institute

Lounging with a drink at BADMOTEL

I also really enjoyed the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. I hopped a couple trains to get there at rush hour, and now that the holiday was over, Bangkok was alive with energy. I felt the greatest “I fucking love Bangkok!” feeling as the public spaces were blazing with a never-ending stream of people, many of them young, getting egg tarts and tea outside the Skytrain entrance on the way home from work. I love that Asian megacity feeling, one you might get watching the sea of people going in and out of Shinjuku station. At the BACC, I was short on time so had to quickly peruse the contemporary shops in the lower floors, which turned out to be pretty tempting. The official galleries on the top had an amazing, well-curated selection of works by Thai, ASEAN and Japanese artists, with some interesting commentary. The place was full of well-dressed young couples at 6 PM on a weekday, which furthered my opinion that Thais are fucking cool. Outside the building as I left, a gathering had blossomed. A man had been giving an impassioned talk earlier, and now the attendees had shaped themselves into a glowing peace sign.

Gallery time in the BACC

Stand for peace

* A quick synopsis: agricultural powerhouse (it’s a Top 3 exporter of rice), tourism, auto manufacturing, vital manufacturing location in Asian supply chain, a bit of finance (lest we forget the Asian Financial Crisis).


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