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What It Feels Like to Visit Bangkok for the First Time

Bangkok Insider Guides Budget Travel
by Joe Batruny Aug 21, 2014
“I should have worn shorts.”

Walking out the doors of Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok’s hot, humid air hits me. It’s somehow harsher, wetter, and well, hotter than any other place I’ve been. Suddenly, having chosen to wear jeans on the flight seems like the wrong decision.

“These taxi colors are funky.”

Okay, so we managed to find the taxi line. Figuring out which color taxi to get is a task. Bright pink, lime green, sky blue, orange, yellow, blue and red, yellow and green…. Are they all the same? Are they different companies? It’s difficult to tell. Whatever. “Let’s just get in whichever one the guy at the stand tells us to get in.” Don’t forget to insist on the meter.

“Damn. This is cheap.”

“Let’s find lunch.” Okay. Pad thai is familiar. 35 baht? Deal. I’ll take two. How about that t-shirt? 100 baht? That’s a little over three dollars, yeah? Sold. “Is everything this cheap?” As far as street food and budget clothing goes, the answer is yes. Maybe there’s a 150 baht duffle bag to buy for storing newly purchased goods, just in case.

“Okay, so I can’t always wear shorts.”

Now it’s time to explore the Grand Palace. Seeing the Emerald Buddha Temple is on everyone’s to-do list. But the hostel staff says it’s imperative that pants are worn when visiting. The guidebook does, too. Hmm. “Let’s save that for tomorrow. I’m comfortable in these shorts right now, and it’s still damn hot.”

“Everyone’s really, really smiley here.”

The first thing you’ll likely notice, especially if arriving on a flight from, say, Paris, is how much everyone smiles in Bangkok. The people seem to be in a light and smiley mood pretty much nonstop. There are more than a few lessons to learn in the facial expressions of Bangkok’s residents.

“What’s that smell?”

It’s difficult to explain to anyone who’s never been to Bangkok. It’s sensory overload, condensed into one sense — smell. Burning charcoal, fish sauce, exhaust fumes, incense, canal water, cologne, dried squid, and dozens of spices. Needless to say, the smell is unique.

“So this is what traffic looks like.”

As dense as traffic is in New York or Los Angeles, there’s something rather different about Bangkok’s. With over five million registered vehicles in Bangkok, the situation is just about as intense (and slow) as it sounds. (It’s not very fun when combined with Bangkok’s weather, either.)

The number of motorcycles seen on the street will make your eyes widen…unless you’ve just arrived from Vietnam. And when there’s no traffic, drivers like to drive. Quickly. Just remember that next time there’s light traffic and you’re in the backseat of a taxi.

“Well, these toilets are different.”

The famed squat toilet might make you feel as if you’re looking at a computer for the first time if you’ve never come across one before. The logistics can be confusing. There’s no toilet paper, just a water hose on the wall, further complicating the situation. For a while, you open every bathroom door with fingers crossed, hoping for a Western toilet. But not to worry, after several uses, the restroom situation becomes manageable.

“I like the mall food here.”

When on a budget, food stalls are the way to go. Another suggestion is the San Francisco-themed 5th floor of Terminal 21 Shopping Mall. Seemingly geared toward office workers, the meals are typically less than 50 baht. And they’re damn good. Just as good as any food stall. Some, even better. Elsewhere in the mall are less budget-friendly options, including tacos (yes, tacos) and hot pot.

“Everyone wants to show me their cousin’s jewelry shop.”

Every guidebook mentions it — and for good reason. Many taxi or tuk-tuk drivers will ask if you’re interested in jewelry. If so, they might just happen to know someone who owns a jewelry shop. What a coincidence, right? As good-natured as everyone may be, it’s evident the bills aren’t going to pay themselves.

“This market sells snakes?”

There’s no shortage of markets around Bangkok. Some strictly sell clothing, tapestries, and wares. I’ve seen similar ones in other parts of the world. What I haven’t seen elsewhere are food markets like Bangkok’s.

A short walk from my hostel was the most intriguing one. With a panoramic neck turn and eye scan, it’s laid out for me in plain sight — snakes, eels, frogs, chickens, insects, and more. If (an official) Whole Foods decides to open in Bangkok, they’ll have some stiff competition.

“Anything can be negotiated, apparently.”

With six people traveling together, logistics become tricky — even regarding situations as simple as getting across town. Tuk-tuks aren’t meant to fit six passengers, and the driver makes it known. No problem. Nothing 25 baht can’t fix. The same goes for any sticky situation. A few handshakes, smiles, and effective communication can make anything work out. Well, a small sum of well-placed money never hurts, either.

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