When my three-day visit to Bangkok turned into only two, I wasn’t too upset since I had fairly low expectations going in. I love city life and culture and history and people-watching, but for some reason I pictured Bangkok to be rather exhausting and false, like one big souvenir shop passing off fake replicas and cheap trinkets as hidden treasures.
My vision had been partly constructed by the stereotype it holds as being a haven for obnoxious drunken backpackers looking for full moon parties and tiger temples and just the right selfie to send back home. Perhaps this is why after all of the travelling I’ve done, I’ve always avoided it. Yeah I know, I’m a backpacker myself, but I like to think that I travel a bit differently than most. Sure, I put my filthy damp clothes on one leg at a time like the others, but I think I’m in it for a different pay off, on a different quest, I suppose.
One of my favourite things to do when I arrive in a new city is head out early in the morning, when the locals are opening up their shops and the markets and getting ready for the day to actually see the beauty of unfettered life. I set out as the sun was coming up on that first morning, and after turning here, cutting through there, crossing over and around, I came across little communities and hidden enclaves off of the main veins.
So I wandered the streets that were filled with mostly locals who couldn’t have cared less that I was there. Some women were chopping and arranging colourful fruits and vegetables. Others were stirring soups and other concoctions that permeated the air and seemed to awaken everyone in range. They all chatted and laughed, and even though I have no idea what they were saying, I like to think it was about their kids and the neighbourhood and the day ahead.
The men, on the other hand, were mostly stacking and hauling and carrying an assortment of boxes, coolers and crates with cigarettes precariously hanging out of their mouths and eyes squinting from the rising sun. Even the street animals seemed to be starting their day, hanging around just the right area to profit off of the remnants of breakfast.
The store fronts were slowly gaining colour from flowers and produce and clothes being set up. Smoke was rising from various cauldrons and grills that were filled to capacity. Sidewalks were being hosed down, windows were being washed, chairs and tables were being wiped down, and slowly but surely people, and the city itself, seemed to come alive.
Children adorning school uniforms – the girls with skirts and blouses and traditional bows and the boys in knee-length knickers and button down shirts – were crowding the corners and of course, each other. Monks in their colourful orange robes were presumably en route to their temples, some bare feet, some carrying large satchels, all looking rather recitent and demure. Taxi drivers sat squat near the building facades, smoking and reading newspapers and talking about who knows what in spirited tones.
It was all so lovely. It was all so real. It was everything I pictured Bangkok would not be.
Of course, I did some of the tourist things as well, which wasn’t so bad. I braved the crowds and selfie sticks at the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha as well as Wat Pho and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. I walked the waterfront and bargained for a few souvenirs. I met up with a friend of mine who lives there, and we got the quintessential foot massage street side then had dinner and drinks on Rambuttri Road, while trying to fit in four years worth of catching up.
So when I look back on Bangkok and my brief visit there, I’m glad I saw some of the grander sites, but I’m much more grateful that I walked past the Khao San Road crowd and walked its streets when the backpackers were all still sleeping. By doing that, I was able to see it for what it is without us.
And in a ironic way, what it should be.