Mike Thvedt: freelancer, vagabond.


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There is no city on the planet quite like Bangkok. The city is quitessentially Thai, and much of it is quite poor, yet shoots of cosmopolitan wealth spring throughout the city like bamboo above the swamp.

High-rises overlook broken down slums. Modern highways and mass transit rise above the perpetual traffic jams of the main roads. Wandering down dark, roughly paved alleys one can be startled by a lurking four-star hotel, and sleepy resedential streets rub shoulders with notorious red-light districts. The city is dense and almost completely uninterrupted by green space and goes on seemingly forever.

This is just the view from my one hotel several subway stops and a half-mile-walk from the city center. Here’s another shot (not by me), closer to the center.

This gives you a picture both of the density and the unevenness. Some land is low-rise, some is high-rise, and some unused. The tree-covered areas are not parks, but cover private residences, apartments, and resorts. There is almost no public green space.

Soi sauce

Yet, unlike many other “Asian Tiger” megalopoli, Bangkok still has this vibrant, grungy third-world sense to it. Hidden amongst the skyscraper forest are $10 massage parlors and $2-3 noodle plates that put you in cramped plastic seats. I once ate a $4 noodle plate; within view was a Starbucks selling lattes at the same price, and a Lamborghini shop selling cars for a mere $830,000 (Thailand taxes automobiles heavily). That’s 207,500 noodle plates for a car that, in Thailand roads and traffic, is no better than a Subaru (actually, probably a lot worse).

While the old areas have that maze of twisty connecting streets you see in your typical city, the radiating sprawl is organized along main roads, from which snake many side roads called sois. Sois are not generally through streets and don’t often connect to each other. The largest are almost two-lane roads, the smallest mere alleys, dimly lit with walled-off dwellings and vacant lots and roads in disrepair that you would never wander down in any American city–but this is Bangkok, and through the urban darkness might be a full-service four-star hotel ($50-100/night) or the trendiest club in the area ($5 drinks, no cover). As you walk through these streets (which often have no sidewalks), beware of traffic; they will zoom around you at speed rather than stop or slow for anyone, and will not yield to anyone crossing the street.

The main streets and major sois are perpetually jammed and crowded with pedestrians and food stands and roadside shops.

Indoor markets are also everywhere:

The character is very different from an American city, where pervasive street networks form a homogenizing mesh, filtering people and cars through, bleeding neighboorhood into neighboorhood. The sois are generally not through streets, and even connections to other sois are not that common. So each soi has a distinct character. Here is Soi Arab in the burgeoning Sukhumvit district. Not too far from here small are little German, Japanese, Chinese and Korean areas. The rapid changes of character are comparable to only perhaps Lower Manhattan, and those ethnic neighboorhoods are fading fast.

Some are lightly trafficed, mainly walled-off houses, apartments, hotels. Others are busy commercial areas. Some have ethnicity; Japanese, Arab, Korean, Chinese. Some are low budget with cheap food, massage shops, guesthouses. Others are quite expensive. Of course each one is a short walk from the next one. If you peer down a side street and aren’t interested in what you see, walk to the next one.

Shrine on you crazy Thailand

Scattered amongst this vibrant chaos are a large number of Buddhist shrines, painted in the traditional Thai style. Below, worshippers offer prayer and incense to Phra Phrom, the Hindu-exported patron of luck, in central Bangkok:

They are often colored in vibrant auspicious colors, incongrous to their environments, and well-maintained even when surrounded by decay. Often you see left offerings and incense. Occasionally you catch a Thai pausing for a quick prayer before continuing on.

Shrines and monuments to the King are numerous as well:

The Thai are just about impossible to offend, but there are two easy ways to peeve them: Insult the King, or transgress Thai Buddhism. One common accidental transgression is to point your feet at someone. At the old city’s Wat Pho, guards prowl the important temples, warning Westerners to make sure their feet are properly pointed away from anything holy.

But to get an idea how seriously Buddhism is treated here, a Muslim fanatic once attacked a famous shrine (the Erewan Shrine pictured above) with a sledgehammer. What happened to him? He was beaten to death by bystanders. As far as I can find out, nobody was convicted; presumably it was thought to be justifiable homicide.

But generally, the Thai are laid back: the worst that can happen is that they’ll become annoyed and correct you. They are slow to anger, quick to forgive, friendly, easy-going, and save face when possible.

Cliffhanger ending

Thailand and even Bangkok are far too big for one blog post. Stay tuned.


The image of Soi Arab is due to user globe-trotter at WikiVoyage and is licensed under a Creative Commons Share-Alike license.