After two weeks on the islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, the leap back into the chaos of Bangkok was an immediate sensory overload. That’s what I craved. After giving myself a few days to readjust to the city life, I was ready to see more of Bangkok’s infamous neighborhoods and plunge myself back into the thick of it all.
First up. Chinatown. I took my first MRT ride from Silom to Hua Luamphong, a mere two stops but a necessary introduction to how I was going to avoid the stop-and-go traffic jams that defined Bangkok. The infrastructure of the city has failed to advance fast enough to cope with the rapid population spikes of South East Asia’s most up-and-coming metropolis.
I came to Chinatown starving. I walked past a few restaurants, yet most only offered forbidden delicacies for thousands of baht. The price tag for the shark fin soup caught my eye at an astonishing 5,000 baht. Not my kind of place. Stepping into Bangkok’s Chinese community was like stepping out of the proverbial frying pan and leaping into hell. I had never been to China, and let’s face it, the American Chinatowns are probably as tame as any Chinatown can get.
After snapping some photographs of the giant Chinese signs contrasting with the moody sky, I decided to investigate the side streets. I took a left and went under a red archway with Chinese lettering. Typical fare. Vendors lined up cart to cart selling fruits, fake designer goods, and a lot of stuffed animals. Nothing too exciting, so I turned back to cross the street and check out the other strip of market.
Never have I said “what the f…” out loud so many times in such a short span of time. Giant pots of who knows what were laid out and lined up on both sides of a narrow alleyway. I guarantee you could have bought any part of any animal just in that obscure alleyway.
This was what I loved about Bangkok. If you needed it to be, Bangkok could be your typical American or European city. Hole yourself up in the Silom or Sukhumvit districts and you’ll feel right at home. If you are brave enough to wander, you will get much more than you bargained for.
After an unknown amount of time getting lost in the maze of Chinatown’s alleyways, I was ready to snap back to some sort of normalcy.
“That’s definitely something’s penis,” was the only conclusion I could come to after staring at a strange gelatinous looking blob floating in some juices that you couldn’t pay me enough to drink. Aside from that discovery, none of the dozen other things I saw could be identified. It’s probably for the best that I leave it that way.
Yet those markets would only serve to prepare me for what would end up being an even bigger challenge. I went to Chinatown on Friday. The next day, one of the world’s largest street markets was about to take place.
My brief introduction to Bangkok’s skyrail system was the Chinatown trip, a full two stops. To make it to Chatuchak, I would have to venture further, nearly towards the end of the sky rail line.
Thankfully, Bangkok’s sky rail is easy to figure out. I’m not going to pretend like figuring out the public transportation system finalized my transition from backpacker to local. However, living next to a BTS and MRT station opened up the entirety of Bangkok to an eager traveler. Staying near Khaosan and the Grand Palace restricts you to that area unless you are willing to pay taxis to go everywhere and spend half of your day in traffic.
The views of Bangkok from the skyrail give you a glimpse of what the different neighborhoods of Bangkok are like. Some incredible feats of architecture, both new and old, litter the entire city. The more I saw, the more excited I became to explore. Thirty minutes later, the train reached the Mo Chit Station and I walked along Chatuchak Park, assuming that the market was going to be easy to spot. Despite its massive size, the tiny entrance that I went through gave no indication to how big this place was actually going to be.
Chatuchak Market, or JJ as the locals call it, was overwhelming in its sheer size. Walking along the street, you don’t realize how massive it is until you push your way into the inside. Endless stalls and shops line the alleyways in every direction. At first glimpse, you would never guess that this market spanned 27 acres and over 15,000 booths and stalls. This isn’t your typical tourist market either.
The prices are cheaper, the goods are much more diverse, and you will find anything you want if you are willing to stay at the market long enough. I capped my time at the market after three hours and the most fiscally irresponsible day I have had since getting my bank account hacked.
I left the market with a lot of gifts and a new backpack for myself to hold those gifts. Fiscally irresponsible.
Chatuchak is perhaps the best market I have ever been to. It is more than just a shopping trip. It is a cultural experience, and admittedly, often a humorous experience. For every classy hole in the wall fashion shop, you will have a store selling denim jackets with anything you can think of sewed to the back. Minnie Mouse, Confederate flags, Siberian tigers, and city skylines are just a few examples of what the latest fashion in denim is in Thailand.
Cowboy boots, cowboy hats, every style of shoe, and Rasta-colored everything are just a few more of the niche shops that I have seen. Chatuchak goes beyond clothes, though. You can get the complete shopping experience with kitchenware, soaps, artisanal goods, paintings, sculptures, bags, and even a few things that are probably not entirely legal.
Just another day in Bangkok. You haven’t done anything if you haven’t asked yourself “is this… legal?” at least three times a day.
The city is madness. Out of every city I have ever been to, people’s opinions on Bangkok’s have been the most polarizing. Those who are unwilling to adapt will undoubtedly hate the chaos of the city. Bangkok is brutal and it can be cruel. Bangkok has a life of its own, and if you expect it to bend its will even the slightest to accommodate to you, then you are not prepared to take on the city. Understand that if you are going to experience Bangkok, you are going to do so at the mercy of Bangkok. Few things will work out exactly as planned so get used to being well outside of your comfort zone. If you leave Bangkok with a level head and your sanity intact, congratulations, for few travelers will.
I write this from Don Mueang Airport after a brutal Friday rush hour traffic jam. My passport issues that left me stranded in Thailand managed to resolve itself a week earlier than planned. When I got the email that my new passport had arrived and that I was set to make my original flight home, I teared up at the reality that my time in Bangkok and in Thailand was coming to an end. This city had captivated me, from the grime to the glitz and everything in between.
It is difficult to put to words how my brief time in Bangkok had helped me evolve as a traveler and as a person. Like I said in my previous post, Bangkok was the closest city in the past year to make me feel like I had a home again.
After my first day in Bangkok almost three months ago, I would have never imagined that it would become my favorite city in all of South East Asia. Many will disagree, and that’s fine. For every person who despises Bangkok, there will be someone that falls in love with it.
It is a polarizing place, a city that epitomizes that cliched saying of “chew you up and spit you out”. The madness of Bangkok will make or break the city for its visitors. Some will crumble while others will thrive.
That’s what makes it the Notorious B.K.K.