As diverse a city as there is in the world, Bangkok embraces the full spectrum of influences that reside within. With that diversity, however, comes a wide range of the human experience. Everything from subliminal joys to soul crushing lows can be experienced or observed in this intriguing city. Today, we take a look at a walk down Bangkok streets, as well as getting around the city using various means of transportation.
Walking the Streets
The streets of Bangkok are very similar to that of New York and other international cities, tightly packed and constantly in motion. People of many different cultures swirl around you moving in every direction. Making things more difficult are the endless rows of make-shift tables and displays where locals sell almost anything conceivable, knock-off goods, trinkets, sex toys, tasers, an of course, street food. For every booth selling fake Polo’s, Buddha figurines, or Viagra, there are an equal number of carts selling fried meat and insects on a stick. You can count on seeing someone eat a fried scorpion kabob within your first few hours of landing.
Like NYC and any other international city, you will pass people of every different nationality waling on the streets in Bangkok. Within the span of a few blocks, you will almost certainly run into Germans, Chinese, Australians, Japanese, Korean, Indian, and even a few Americans.
The locals, who are all selling their various wares, from their street-side fold-out displays or their single-story ground level shop, tend to be very aggressive in their efforts for your attention. Constantly calling out in Thai or broken English, they know you have money that you want to spend and they want nothing more for you to spend it with them. Many will walk right into your path, ask you multiple times, and even grab your arm to get your attention. For me, it required a period of adjustment, as I’m used to at least acknowledging most people I see with a nod or something similar, but here that is an invitation to be solicited.
However, with so many people selling similar items is such a dense area, it keeps most sellers honest. If your fried fish isn’t as good as they guy’s half a block away, you’ll get put out pretty quick. Most of the street food is prepared in front of you, and as long as you use some common sense you should be OK sampling different foods. There are a great deal of options, and most of it is very affordable, so don’t be shy about trying new and unique foods.
As with any other city this size (8 million in the city limits), walking the streets has a certain element for risk. While we never saw anything alarming, such as a theft or physical violence, I had the feeling that the line between that world and the less desirable one is very thin. The feeling of being watched is a very pervasive one on the streets. Many locals see you as a business transaction (and know about enough English to conduct that process), and I was wary of stepping outside that boundary.
Bangkok relieves heavily on a public transportation system that combines very traditional forms of travel, like canal boats, scooters and tuk tuks; to a very modern sky train and underground metro. With all the diversity and dynamics of the different forms of travel, navigating the city can be an adventure in and of itself.
Tuk tuks are perhaps the most common, but certainly the most notorious form of transportation. More or less a motorized rickshaw, tuk tuks are famous for their novelty, aggressive operators, and wild rides. Drivers will solicit your on almost every corner, often needing to be told twice that their services are not needed. When you do want to use one, you must be very careful about where they take you and how much they charge as many weak-minded and naive customers will almost certainly get taken advantage of. It’s paramount that you set a specific destination and a set fare before stepping foot in a tuk tuk.
Once you’ve found a driver who agrees to terms, get ready for a bit of a thrill. Passengers used to the relatively conservative flow of traffic in suburban America are sure to have a few moments nervously holding their breath. Lanes are marked on the road, but act more as a suggestion rather than a hard-and-fast rule. Tuk-tuks, scooters and motorcycles weave in and around traffic, narrowly avoiding each other by inches. Sharing the road with much larger cars, trucks and buses, tuk tuk and scooter drivers will slip through any crack in the traffic, like water seeping through the cracks in the concrete. If you reach your destination safely, the feeling is not unlike that of getting off a rollercoaster.
Other forms of transportation we relied upon included the elevated sky train, underground metro, canal boats and river ferries. The sky train and metro are both relatively new, with most construction being completed in the past 15 years. The use of the sky train is comparable to the use of the subway in NYC, or the CTA in Chigago, as it is constantly packed, with peak hours being almost over-capacity. Paying for the fares is a bit different than most light rails, as a one-way ticket must be checked twice, once before boarding the train and once after exiting. This is because the fares vary between destinations, so if you try to catch an extra few stops on a lower price, you won’t be let out of the station. The best thing to do of course, is to buy the all-day pass.
I also found that the ticketing system for the ferries and canal boats to be peculiar. Instead of purchasing a ticket before hand, you board the boat first, and then wait for an attendant to collect your fare. This is usually one person for 75 people, so you could go a few stops before even being approached. The prices were negligible, maybe 15-20 Bhat (less than a dollar) for a fare all the way up the Chao Phraya River. This was essential for us in getting to places like Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, and Khaosan Road. The ride also provides a very unique view of the city.
On Friday we’ll take a look at Bangkok’s Buddhist temple system, spirituality, and some good eattin’.