If you had to name one eastern city, one oriental town, to sum up everything
that is exotic in western imaginations, you might have to think for a while:
Samarkand? Kuala Lumpur? Jaffa?
Chances are that before very long you would settle on Bangkok.
The legendary ‘City of Angels’ (it had the name long, long before LA claimed
it) is one of the most wild and exotic places in the world. Strangely, it’s
also one of the most welcoming. This has a lot to do with the local people. One
thing you’ll notice as soon as you enter Thailand – which will probably be via
Bangkok, one way or the other – is just how much everyone smiles. These aren’t
the forced smiles of western hotel reception staff or airline check in clerks.
These are the smiles of people who do a very good impression of being genuinely
pleased to see you.
Culturally, and from a tourist’s point of view, Bangkok is something of an
oddity. Although it’s a huge eastern city, and has all the vices that any great
south-east Asian city has – drugs, prostitution, illegal gambling, trafficking
– it’s an amazingly safe and relaxed place to visit. Although you should take
the usual precautions that you would take in any foreign city – and most cities
in the US, come to that – you are very unlikely to be the victim of crime. Just
about the worst thing that happens to most western tourists in Bangkok is that
they fall for a confidence trick like the Bangkok Gem Scam, in which unwary
visitors are tricked into paying over the odds for local gemstones. As long as
you use your common sense and follow local police advice this isn’t going to
happen to you.
Bangkok rather fancies itself as one of the great financial
up-and-comers of the Far East, soon to be ranked on a par with Tokyo, Hong Kong
and Shanghai. Although these hopes were dealt something of a blow in the great
Asian collapse of a few years ago, there is still a very optimistic,
businesslike feel to the whole place. This is most evident in the financial
district of Silom.
Silom is the perfect illustration of the schizoid nature of this
city. Sober business district by day, at night it turns into the party center
of this thriving, social city. If you’re young and you love clubbing, Silom is
the area to visit. Be sure, however, to take local advice and to consult a
detailed guidebook about which clubs and bars are best to visit. ‘Respectable’
clubs and bars often look very similar to that ‘special’ kind of bar for which
Bangkok is notorious – and if you’re not careful it’s easy to find yourself in
some seedy establishment paying a fortune for overpriced drinks and being
surrounded by the kind of girls (and boys) that your mother warned you about.
If you want an altogether less stressful time, you could try doing some
shopping in the Sukhumvit area. The name applies both to a district of the city
and the road that runs through it. It’s worth bearing in mind that the city of
Bangkok has been in no way planned, and has rather grown, organically, over the
centuries. In this sense it’s a little more like the ancient cities of Europe
than the grid-planned metropolises of the US. As such, trying to get your
bearings in terms of north, south, east and west can rapidly become very
confusing. Make sure your guidebook contains a good street map, and that you’ve
studied it in advance! Saying that, it’s pretty hard to get badly lost amid the
malls and markets of Sukhumvit, so let your senses wander with your feet for a
while, and soak up the atmosphere of this great shopping district.
If you like a little history, you could head for Rattanakosin Island which is
the heart of the old town – here you’ll find several Buddhist temples. Buddhism
is the national religion of Thailand, and the great temples of Rattanakosin are
the faith’s spiritual home in the country. Wat Arun and Wat Pho are the major
ones, and should not be missed.
Looking around Bangkok can be pretty exhausting, so you may want
to refuel on some of the excellent local cuisine. Thai food is justifiably
famous, and there are a seemingly infinite number of outlets in the city where
you can gorge yourself on its sweet, spicy flavors. Thai curries tend to be a
little more mellow, and a little more liquid, than their Indian counterparts.
It’s a great idea to try a little of as much as you can – don’t worry, the city
values tourists, and kitchen hygiene regulations are very strictly enforced.
It would be impossible to encapsulate Bangkok in eight thousand
words, let alone eight hundred. If you want a true taste of this wildest and
friendliest of cities, you just have to go and taste it for yourself.