What Is It Like to Visit Bangkok?

Bangkok is chaotic, humid, and spicy. It overwhelms the senses and smacks you in the face with humidity. Its dangerous, alluring, and daunting all at once… and I love it.

Sitting in a plastic stool slurping soup makes me feel right at home at this food market in Chinatown

Bangkok forces you to use your senses. Look up and you’ll see majestic modern buildings soaring far above. Look down, you’re in a market full of street stalls, vendors, and delicious food. Close your eyes and drift away into the night as you dance, drink and smoke it all away. Bangkok is what you make of it. It is so much more than a fly-in city to connect to elsewhere. Use your eyes, your nose, and your intuition to guide you through this paradoxical web of modern city life, one of old ladies in markets beneath a never-ending sea of skyscrapers.

Common advice is to stay a night or two in Bangkok, hit Khaosan Road, and then head out for the islands or begin your backpacking journey. They say Bangkok is too loud, dirty, and tourist-y. You can’t get the real Thai experience here. And they’re all wrong.

Bangkok is what you make of it.

The Skytrain soars above a Bangkok road typically clogged with traffic

Do you want to just party for a night, grab some pad thai, and smoke weed outside your hostel? You can do that here and find plenty of other Westerners to join you. Stay near the Grand Palace and you won’t need to learn a word of Thai. Join the hordes looking to get wasted for cheap. Find the place with the plastic menu in English and someone in a skirt outside waving to come sit down.

Looking for the nicest malls, vibrant with shoppers, stocked with designer clothes? You can spend a week or more just hopping from shopping plaza to air conditioned tower full of name brands and food courts. It can feel like you never left the West. The malls are also great for watching the increasing amount of disposable income that citizens in places like China and India have access to.

To be honest, the malls freaked me out a bit the first time we walked through. I felt so normal, so at home, for having just traveled halfway across the globe. It was weird to see the same brands I could find at the malls in nearby cities in Southern California. I found myself craving something more uniquely Thai, something I cringe to call “authentic” – only because that word lacks nearly all meaning – but something different at least. I wanted to experience the overwhelming crowds, not the orderly lines outside of the Chanel store. The shopping centers were a nice way to cool down and I would come to appreciate the respite from the humidity outside they offer.

Different ways to shop, you can find it all here

Of course, there are many ways of doing things. But it depends on why you came here. For many, this is a shopping mecca and hedonism heaven. It can be that, but it doesn’t have to be only that. My answers for why I came were street food, markets, and some kind of revelation about taste or travel or something.

In Bangkok you need to get on the streets. The humidity is killer so try to explore during the morning and evening. Find a random soi (alleyway) and wander down, following your senses. See an intriguing street food stand? Eat it now, they may not be open the next time you walk by.

That’s the other thing. Eat the street food! Use common sense, I’m not getting sushi from the lady on the corner in the sun with a push cart, but I’ll try any grilled meat, bbq’d fish or steaming bowl of noodle soup I can get my hands on. Sure, pad thai is great. I can’t deny that, but try something new as well. Something that scares you. Something with ingredients you don’t recognize, can’t understand, and will never be replicated at home. That’s the Bangkok I found to be most appealing.

Some of the many street food options in Bangkok

Everyone I tell always has some kind of reaction when I mention that we ate street food everyday, sometimes multiple meals a day. I developed a few unwritten rules to follow that helped us avoid any serious sickness. I don’t claim this will help you, it’s just an insight into my thought process.

  • No seafood for dinner. Fish are usually caught in the morning, we don’t want the ones everyone else has picked over and have been sitting unrefrigerated for hours.
  • Grills have to be hot. Meaning the food was cooked recently. I want to hear those skewers sizzle, not have cold meat that’s been laying out.
  • Fried food needs to be freshly fried in front of you. No spring rolls in a bag or fried rice already boxed up to-go.
  • Eat where the locals are eating. When in doubt, look around and find the stall that’s busy but where no one speaks English.
  • Plastic stools so small they may collapse at any moment are key.
  • If there’s a line, that’s a good sign.

Food is spicy here. Green curry is decidedly not the same Green Curry you get back in the States. Most places in Thailand also seriously dumb down the spices they use for their Western customers. Try to get a real taste of the heat if you can. Feel how it doesn’t just burn, it also balances. The sweet, savory, and salty all find new life when lit by the flame of spice. The interplay of such complex elements elevates Thai cuisine to one of the best offerings of food I’ve ever had. 

Bangkok is hot. Not just the food, the sun brings high temperatures nearing 100 degrees that lasts for 24 hours. The temples and wats here functioned as oases from the omniscient and pervasive heat. The noise from millions of cars, the soaring modern towers, the unswept streets, they all fade away when you can connect with a wat. Churches in Europe are magnificent, but Buddhist and Hindu temples across our trip were transcendent.

A sampling of the many wats throughout the city

There were moments of pure bliss in this city. But there were also times of mild regret and massive disappointment. I ran the gamut of emotions during our times here, maybe that’s why there is such a connection. Bangkok was the first place we purposefully stayed – not counting our accidental layover in Narita, Japan – and the first six nights here set us up for success for the next two months of our journey. We also ended our trip here with two final nights before departing back home across the Pacific. Bangkok was also our connecting city to fly from Siem Reap, Cambodia and back, as well as to connect to Luang Prabang in Laos. We spent the most time in Bangkok out of every city in the region. I love so many parts of this megacity.

But certain aspects started to weigh on me after a while. Why the hell did I fly literally across the world to sit in an air conditioned shopping mall seeing the same brands as at home with every menu and sign in English. I had a moment of existential depression wandering a seven story shopping center. I needed to get out of this consumerism black hole of a building. I wanted to be wandering the humid streets, practicing some Thai phrases, at times making a fool of myself, discovering new food, and sweating my ass off along the way. I get that experience doesn’t appeal to everyone, but that is the mystery and joy of this city. It can be whatever you want it to be.

On the complete other side of things, there is no other way to sum up visiting Khaoson Road than disappointing. I can just barely see the appeal over the horizon of my fading youth – I have gray hairs now after all – but even 21-year old me would be turned off by the hangover via sugary drinks and loss of hearing the next morning.

It turns out that nearly every major city we visited on our two month trip throughout the region had some version of “Khaosan Road-ificiation” taking place. Places with club music pumping, neon-lit massage parlors, and two-for-one cocktail specials. Happy hours, happy endings, drunk tourists. Every time we walked down one of these streets I felt the frat boy bachelor influence emanating straight out of Las Vegas in all the wrong ways.

Finding my happy place exploring markets and sampling food

Do you want to feel like Bangkok doesn’t have much to offer other than a jumping off point for your journey to the rest of Southeast Asia? Here are my tips for a terrible trip, which are unfortunately some of the most recommended things to do.

Stay near the Grand Palace and visit on a weekend when the crowds are so vast you can’t see or move. Waste your money on overpriced drinks at identical bars offering an identical menu of high-sugar, alcohol-lite cocktails on Khaosan Road. Find an indoor, sit down pad thai place with hundreds of reviews in English with 4.3 stars on Google Maps. Only eat where the expats do, never leave a 5 mile radius from your hostel. Find the familiar and stick to it. Follow this simple recipe for disaster and you’ll be begging to leave Bangkok in a matter of hours.

But, as always, Bangkok offers it all. We were so lucky to be in a more local neighborhood as confirmed to us by both our cab driver and a longtime expat we met up with. Our specific hotel, on Sukhumvit 97 Alley, had a luxurious lobby with free milk tea via a coffee maker that we took liberal advantage of. We were located just off an incredibly busy main highway, far enough down the street that we were never bothered by the noise, yet always had access to food, rides, and a pharmacy. The skytrain was fantastic. It was easy to use. It skipped the insanity of traffic below and the Bang Chak station was located just a few minutes walk from our room. The street food stalls and markets that set up by the station on nearby soi’s made our neighborhood seem local and lively to us.

The roads are almost always clogged with traffic and the highway closest to us was no exception. There appears to be virtually no rules when it comes to driving in major cities. Crossing the street was an exercise in faith. Traffic lights and turn signals were mere suggestions for pedestrians and vehicles alike. Motorbikes whizzed by, weaving between rush hour cars that turned highways into parking lots. It took a bit of searching but there is order under the chaos. People go where they can fit. There are almost no light signals, you have to make your own turn lanes. Once you commit, the others will respect it and move around.

This traffic with order beneath the chaos was a great preparation for the rest of the major cities we were to see. Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and even Bali, all offered their own traffic and pedestrian problems to navigate and we were better prepared for having begun in Bangkok’s urban jungle.

My expectations for all other locations may have been set a bit too high in terms of street food. Our hotel was just one street over from a morning and night market of some of the most fantastic food I’ve ever had. Grilled pork skewers melted in my mouth. Entire grilled fish stuffed with lemongrass and other yet to be identified flavors was revolutionary. I was spoiled with choice and coming in under budget each time. There were these boat noodles with a rich brown sauce that in hindsight, should have warned me not to eat too much. I had a rough night reacting to the soy in the broth, so I think, but otherwise had a mostly hassle free experience. The soup was nearly worth it still, I may eat it again if I ever find the same stall.

Starting and ending in this country, Thailand, felt so right. We were missing the flavors, temples, and sounds that Thailand offered after two months across seven countries. Coming full circle back to Bangkok allowed us to taste some of those early flavors of travel and compare them to our seasoned taste buds.

It was nostalgic, and I’d dare to say dream-like, to also return to the same hotel we first stayed at for our final two nights at the very tail end of the trip. Laying in bed reminiscing about where we had been, swimming in the pool at sunset thinking of how much we have grown, stuffing ourselves full of food as one last culinary goodbye to flavors not easily found again, it all solidified that Bangkok was my favorite city in Southeast Asia.

I had been building Bangkok up in my mind for a very long time now. This whole region of the world, Southeast Asia, has a certain majesty that seems to capture some souls and never let them go. Anthony Bourdain was one of these souls. I’ve devoured his content and admired his work for years and when he spoke of this part of the world, something inside him lit up every time. I’ve followed in his footsteps and heard the echoes of him just around the other corner like never before by being here. Crouched on a plastic chair, my face practically inside a bowl of noodles, spice on my lips, and a stupidly huge smile on my face, I think I see what draws people to this life.

As we drive in our taxi to the airport, as we pass by street food stands we can no longer try, as we leave Bangkok for the last time for a long time, for the first time on the trip, I feel sad. 

So what is Bangkok? Is it a city to fly into, spend a night or so, then head out? Yes. Is it a place for millions of shoppers and consumers from around the world to spend a week having a taste of luxury you could neve afford at home? Also, yes. Is it a vastly overrated tourist trap full of scams, watered down drinks, sordid nightlife and party-goers who never went home? Of course. But can you also find those moments of calm, of pure bliss in the chaos, of something perceived to be authentic? Absolutely. You just have to look. You have to taste.

Drifting down the river at one of the floating markets

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