After twenty minutes in Bangkok, I was ready to leave. Unluckily I had another 14 hours to spend there. Luckily I could sleep for at least eight of them.
Your first impression of a new place, especially a new country, is heavily influenced by your means of arrival — how long the transit was, how difficult the border formalities were, how badly the currency exchange fleeced you.
In this case, arrival was long but quite pleasant (a bus from Siem Reap), customs and border control couldn’t have gone smoother, and I had €50 of baht at mid-market rates thanks to a late night in Valencia with Dave Dean.
First impressions last
But for all of that, I was over it. Why, oh why, did the bus drop us off where it did? A busy intersection without public transport or information anywhere.
Looking back, the answer was obvious: the brigade of tuk-tuk drivers offering us kickback hostels and 200 baht rides for a 40 baht journey. “Verycheapverygoodtutktukverygoodhotelforyousirmadamverygoodprice,” their mouths shot like machine guns. “Welcome to Thailand,” my subconscious translated, “since you’re an idiot, give us all your money!”
As we often do when facing a sea of touts, Linda and I started walking away with a couple of people we had met on the bus. One had been here a few weeks earlier and recognised we were a five-minute walk from Khao San — we were heading to the Stray offices nearby. Khao San Road wasn’t much better than our arrival point: we were offered everything from a tuk-tuk to a bang-bang (“verycleanverycheap”), from a tailored suit to a cheap t-shirt; it was half a k’ of unredeemed annoyance coupled with a style of irresponsible tourism that is forcing me to reconsider my life as a promoter and enabler of travel.
This video makes Bangkok look like you imagine it … so it must be there.
Coming back to Bangkok
It was a relief to jump on the train to Sukhothai the next morning. But ten days later we were facing more time in Bangkok and looking for a way to redeem it in our eyes. We found it, gratefully, through a half-day bike trip with Grasshopper Adventures.
Grasshopper run tours throughout Asia, with a staff of local guides and high-quality mountain bikes imported from Germany. Bike hire is more expensive than many other companies, but you get the use of gears and working brakes on the bikes — both seem to be optional extras on the other bikes we’ve hired in South East Asia. It’s a fair price for an excellent machine.
Getting local and off-beat
The tour Grasshopper put us on, Historical Bangkok, is one of the most popular Bangkok activities on Tripadvisor and was a welcome breath of authenticity and local tourism after the low-budget Vegas-like streets around KSR. We rolled out of their office and within minutes were riding along the water, stopping every few minutes as the history of Bangkok was explained: pagodas, forts, parks and temples, as well as more modern bridges, hospitals and civic buildings all served as jumping-off points for another quick discussion with our guide, Seen.
We visited one temple that the local community had built around and kept hidden from the municipal government for decades. Now that this “hidden temple” has been discovered, a relocation programme is being put in place to remove the residents from the temple grounds.
We stopped for a soft-drink at a small market with only half-a-dozen vendors. River traffic used to mean success for dozens of market stalls under the high arched roof, but now river traffic is infrequent and the market is dying. One vendor had sold less than US$7 of goods that day — he was too old to change jobs now, too old to travel to markets further away, where he would have to fight for space with younger, more affluent traders.
We threaded our way past stilt houses built out over the canal — sometimes the pathway just half-a-metre wide with water on each side. The damage done by recent flooding was too obvious to ignore. We passed through the neighbourhood of brass workers, visiting one of two families that still hand-make beautiful bowls — six medium-sized bowls would take seven men four days to make.
Over three hours we got a taste of a more enjoyable, more local Bangkok and one that we would have struggled to discover ourselves. Now that we’ve tried it, we’re excited about coming back and delving deeper. Bangkok has been redeemed … by a bicycle.
What are your thoughts on Bangkok?
Have you been? Have you ‘done’ Khao San Road? What are your Bangkok tips? Tell us in the comments below.
Editors’ note: The bike tour below is not that discussed in the article.