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Thoughts After a Bangkok Walkabout

Author: gardkarlsen
Date of Trip: November 2009

The sun was shining without mercy on my pale winter skin and I thought to myself that I should have listen to my wife that morning when she was mentioning sunscreen. I was on a Bangkok walkabout and even if it was still before 11 am, the temperature was reaching 30 degrees Celsius (85 degrees Fahrenheit) and combined with the humidity I could feel the sweat running down my back already after a few steps. I started my walkabout near the Siam Skytrain station. At this point the two skytrain lines of Bangkok connect and including the traffic on ground level there are traffic on three floors!! The area is lined with large shopping malls and it becomes a meeting point for locals going to/from work and tourists that are browsing through the selection at malls like Siam Paragon, MBK and Central World Plaza. This futuristic concrete jungle makes me get flashback to the movie Blade Runner — all the people, the noise from the cars and trains, the large billboards, the neon lights…

My goal that morning was Wat Saket or Golden Mount temple as it is called in English. There are lots and lots of temples in Bangkok (known as wats) and the most famous ones for tourists are Grand Palace, Wat Pho or Wat Arun. But sometimes it is better to go to the smaller temples to avoid the large crowds and that is why I decided to go to Wat Saket. Armed with the memory of the Google map that I looked at in the hotel room that morning, I started walking in the right direction. Already on my way out of the shopping mall I got a reminder that there are large contrasts in Bangkok and Thailand — a couple of women was begging with young children on the laps. I also ran into a familiar face from previous Bangkok trips — there is one guy that hides his arms on his back and he begs for money by holding a cup with his teeth. It seems a bit brutal to play handicapped to bring in money but who am I to judge?

After walking along the main road for a while I realized that I had to get away from the road if I wanted to see something apart from roaring buses, motorcycles, tuk-tuk’s and taxis. I was not very happy to breath in the pollution of the road either and in some cases I felt like I was playing Russian roulette just to cross the road. When I broke away from the main road it didn’t take many minutes before I was in a more quiet area. I walked through one of Bangkok’s many small markets where they sold everything from t-shirts, toys, copies of various things etc and all of a sudden I ended up in a quiet alley. I realized that I had gotten a bit lost but it is not the first time that has happened to me in Bangkok. I walked though the alleys and all the noise of traffic was gone and it was replaced by the sound of a child crying, someone watching an action movie on a TV, sounds of pots as someone was cooking a meal. The locals were looking a bit funny in my direction and I guess they were wondering why I was walking though their neighborhood. And I guess they were also wondering why anyone would find it interesting to walk into their alleys — but for a Norwegian this is a completely different world and that makes it interesting.

I tried to think back to the Google map that I was looking at that morning and I guess it would have been easier if I had brought a map with me — but then my walkabout wouldn’t be much of a challenge. In the end I maneuvered so that I ended up on a path going along one of the canals of Bangkok (known as klongs). Today the Chao Phraya river is still an important for transportation as it cuts the city in two but there are also a lot of canals that runs around Bangkok but as the big skyscrapers have popped up, the canals have gotten more hidden. One of the canals goes more or less right behind the big shopping malls at Siam and past Jim Thompson house and it goes sort of parallel to the busy Sukhumvit road. The canal that I was walking along was pretty typical for Bangkok — the water was pretty black and the scent in the air indicated that the water was not that clean. But on both sides of the canal people were living on the edge of it.

I started to walk on the path that went parallel to the canal as I knew it would lead me to the temple and once again I felt like I was walking though people’s backyards. It was pretty quiet apart from when the “river busses” roared by from time to time. Apart from that the silence was only broken by children playing inside the house, a washing machine working on a new pile of laundry etc. On some parts of the path the scent of freshly washed clothing was dominant. Maybe someone was doing to weekly laundry or maybe someone had set up a business doing all the laundry for the neighborhood. I had to sneak by clothing hanging to dry and an old woman that was washing some clothes with her hands on the pathway.

The pathway seemed to be a combination of a garbage place, people’s back yards, place for cooking etc. At one point there were several toilets placed outside and at other places I had to sneak past women frying up spring rolls in large woks. Wherever I went I always got a friendly smile when I looked at people with curiosity. Thailand is known as the land of smiles and I love it when I can look at strangers and get a smile back. I see that on some forums it is being discussed it the smiles are genuine but it seems like it to be at least.

At some places I had to step over dogs that were taking a nap in the Bangkok heat. There are quite a lot of stray dogs in Bangkok and some of them look pretty scruffy. But I can’t remember seeing any dogs being aggressive but I don’t really like to step over sleeping dogs that looks like a pitbull mixed with a Rottweiler. There were also quite a lot of cats around and as usual some of them were missing the tail. I guess it is easy to assume that this is due to a hard life but it is actually a mutation that leads to a lack of tail for many of the cats in Thailand.

I found it hard to take many photos as I walked through the alleys. I felt that I was invading people’s privacy just by walking there and I didn’t want to make it even worse by bringing out a large SLR camera. In the end I got of the pathway and I came out on a street where there were little bike trolleys selling stuff like fresh juice, satay etc. It seems like Thai’s snack all the time — how do they stay so skinny?

When I came to Wat Saket, a couple of tuk-tuk’s rolled in with some German tourists. I was tempted to ask them how much they had paid for the “pleasure”. Tuk-tuk’s are three wheeled motorcycle taxis with room for a couple of passengers behind the driver. It can be an efficient way to get around but the problem is that a fair share of the drivers are into scams. They trick tourist when it comes to price and even where they are taking their passengers. I have “been there, done that” so these days I don’t waste time on tuk-tuk’s. You might as well go for a taxi instead as it is usually cheaper, it is safer and you get an air-con environment to get out of the Bangkok heat for a few minutes.

Around the temples of Grand Palace and Wat Pho there are usually “con men” that walks up to tourists and informs them that the temple is closed due to the Buddhist celebration, because of the King’s birthday etc. They seem pretty trustworthy as they speak good English and they are well dressed. But their stories are of course lies and they just try to get you to go on tuk-tuk rides or similar. You can also meet con men at skytrain station and on the street and they always try to start a conversation asking where you are going or where you are from. So it is best to be a bit street smart.

I climbed to the top of Wat Saket Ratcha Wora Maha Wihan and at the top of this artificial hill you get a good view of Bangkok. As I reached the top why t-shirt was pretty wet from sweat — one of these days I have to learn to slow down a bit in the Bangkok heat. Inside the temple there was a scent of incense and locals where praying and placing gold leaf on Buddha figures. Most of the tourists seemed to have gotten the message when it comes dressing in a conservative way and all had seen the sign about taking the shoes of before going into the temple. Here is a video from Wat Saket.

When I came out of the temple a couple of tuk-tuk drivers tried to get my attention by offering tours but I said no and gave them a friendly smile and it seemed to work. In Thailand it is not use losing your temper or get annoyed when you are asked for the 50th time if you want a tuk-tuk. I decided to take one of the river busses back to Siam as there is a stop near the temple. It is not that easy to know which boat to get on but if you ask you normally get some feedback about this even if there can be some communication problems. The ride with the boat took me past the places I had walked earlier that day and I used the opportunity to take some photos. But in the end the boat speeded up and the passengers pulled up the fabric along the sides of the boat to avoid being splashed by the dirty canal water. Check out this video of the canal busses.

It is always a challenge getting off at the right stop but I managed to find the right one and soon I was walking back to Siam Paragon. As I walked through the doors of the shopping mall the cold air from the air-con hit me and the luxury of the shopping mall is quite a contrast what I had seen on my walk.I hope that this has given an impression of Bangkok. If you are going there I will recommend you to get a bit lost and check out some of the temples that are not that known. Maybe you will find “the real Bangkok” if there is such a thing.

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