The Redolence of Bangkok: Sensory Overload in Thailand’s Capital City.

Bangkok has an ubiquitous stench. The smell of inadequate plumbing is complemented by the nausea of sexual slavery. The royal stench pervades the ancient culture. Along every street, vendors sell grilled meats, noodle soups, and fruit. Durian, known for its unique flavor and awful odor, divides Thais and visitors alike as they debate its validity. Still, with the conjunction of all this, the redolence of delicious pork garnished with a sweet and

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Thailand’s National Animal on a median in Bangkok. 

spicy chili sauce reigns supreme. Despite all of its flaws, of which there are many, I love it here. And you will have a great time too if you come to Bangkok. The Thai disposition, charming, welcoming, and kind, fights its way through the gritty imperfections; cab drivers hiking up prices, beautiful Thai girls scantily clad in uniform fetishism. If you can look past the blemishes, and refuse to contribute to the most infamous sex trade in the world, you will find amiable people, cheap drinks, fascinating temples, awesome markets, and delicious food from around the world.

It takes a while for us to get from the airport to the city. Bangkok is spread out, and our cabbie tells us traffic is backed up late into the night as he clicks his tongue disapprovingly in a meter of four. The first person we meet in Thailand embodies Thai friendliness and lewd sense of humor. The ride takes forever, but when we get to our hotel, the hospitality and kindness of the Matria staff amps up our mood, so we decide to explore the neighborhood. The generously lit streets of Sukhumvit are paced by ex-pats, tourists, and locals selling crafts and food. A surprisingly modern sight of shopping, food, and gargantuan TV ads. We know this neighborhood doesn’t tell the whole story, and we’re excited to see the rest of Bangkok within the coming days.

But for now, there’s beer. We walk through a red light district on our way to Craft Brewery. Along the miniscule pedestrian road, each bar has its own aura and set of Thai women in revealing, themed costumes, grabbing and pleading at Western tourists, begging them to enter their bar for more than just a drink.  Relieved to be out of the debauchery of the red light district, we arrive at Craft. Interestingly enough, just about all of the beers available on tap are from the States, many from California and Colorado, two states I’m very familiar with. We get a flight, some of which we’ve had and others we haven’t. A typical introduction to the revelry of Bangkok, we can’t wait for what tomorrow holds.

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Prawns, duck, and Thai beer. 

Our first full day begins with street meat and Thai iced coffee. We get one grilled pork stomach and an intestine, both soaked in chili sauce. Spicy, savory, sweet, satisfying. Five feet from the street vendor is a local coffee shop we want to try. Made differently across the country, Thai iced coffee is filtered dark roast with spices and brewed over sweetened condensed milk. It’s sweet, rich, and spiced just right. On the street again, we walk with our breakfast towards the sky train. Perhaps the best way to get around Bangkok, the rail cars are very well air-conditioned, clean, cheap, and provide awesome views of the landscape below.

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Wat Pho

Apparently missing China already, we go for Thai-Chinese for an early lunch–a style Bangkokers love. We order prawns with a gravy sauce and duck marinated in spices, served with pickled radishes. The duck falls apart with the cut of a spoon. We wash it all down with Singhas. It’s rich, decadent, and delicious.

We then take the train to the river stop where the ferry shoots us across to Wat Pho and The Grand Palace. The ride up the river gives you a gorgeous look at the ominous Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun. A wide base narrowing to a point, it is as beautiful as it is prophetic. Wind blowing through your hair and Thai music off in the distance, everything is just fine. Exiting the ferry, we are intercepted by locals selling nick-knacks and foods; we each buy a wooden bracelet. Wat Pho, which is pronounced PO, is gold, red, green, and stunning. An enormous, lavishly reclining Buddha takes up the whole main structure. Visitors are invited to bang a gong and make a candle with their zodiac sign to melt in the communal pot. A ritual representing the cyclical nature and oneness of the universe, I don’t feel the need to buy my salvation. Unlike some famous temples, the mood here is genuinely welcoming.

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Gigantic Buddha in Wat Pho

The Grand Palace on the other hand, is not as inviting. Scores of tourists inch and crawl through the entrance sweating on each other. The aroma is salty. The lines are long, and the heat is treacherously humid and muggy. Controlled by a military junta, the soldiers in Thailand serve the king and queen. The royal presence is everywhere in Bangkok, and the Palace, where the kings had lived for generations, is the epicenter. The chaos allows us to walk in without the junta stopping to tell me my shorts aren’t allowed. Being properly covered is common throughout holy sites and temples in South Asia, but the anarchy of the crowd guides our ignorance. Not long after admiring the beautiful, but oppressively heat-reflecting palace, we are stopped before entering and are escorted out because my legs are not fully covered.

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The Grand Palace

We decide that, even though I’m offered borrowed pants, the authoritarian nature, unbearable humidity, and annoying tourists are not for us. Craving some American Freedom, we set out to find a burger, knowing we will have two weeks to get our fill of Thai food. We decide on the highly recommended Escapade Burgers and Shakes, but they are closed today. To compensate we go for Jim’s Burgers and Beers. Even in our American microcosm, religious tyranny creeps in as we are told they can’t sell us beer until 5PM. We drink Cokes instead.The burgers, fries, and onion rings are sinful.

Then we planned on spending some quality time in one of Bangkok’s marketplaces. Chatuchak Market is the largest in Thailand, and only runs on the weekends so we think we better take the opportunity. Looking back on it, I wish we had made a day-trip to one of the floating markets outside the city. But I guess if you went everywhere, you wouldn’t have a reason to return.

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The boundless market maze has a road that circles the stalls and minuscule crevices where you can turn into dozens of additional hidden vendors. Everything here is cheap, and they sell surprisingly trendy brands that appear, to me at least, to be totally authentic. Food vendors sell papaya salad, fried chicken, noodle soups, and fruit treats. Despite the large crowd, the market’s patron’s are well-behaved and its business-owners are usually friendly. I buy a brand new backpack and a phone case, costing around $20 total. By the end of walking the full circle of the market, we are sweating and need something cold. After a chocolate covered banana we are cool enough to partake in the noodle soup we find on the street. Fish balls, pork, basil, chili, everything you want in a savory soy broth. This was what I fell in love with when I first ate Thai food. After dinner, the sun is still out so I take a walk alone while Thyme naps. Passing the notorious Patpong red light district a man approaches me with a catalog of girls I could purchase for the night. I tell him I’m not interested as he flips through the selection

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Delicious noodle soup

After ridding ourselves of the stink of the city at our hotel, we are ready to go to Mikeller for a taste of some delicious European and American beer. We take a cab over to the tap house, but our incompetent driver can’t find it and lets us out a few roads over. Frequented solely by ex-pats and tourists, the brews here differ greatly from the usual Chang or Singha poured over ice. Hoppy IPAs, creamy stouts, refreshing red ales, the beer here is awesome. It costs us though, our most expensive night out is spent drinking imported breakfast stouts and IPAs at Mikeller. These beers are less expensive at home, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We stumble through the alleys in the small neighborhood where Mikeller dwells, and onto the main street where we can catch another cab back to a drunken slumber.

In the morning we take the sky rail to the Hua Lamphong station for our train to the relic capital city of Siam, Ayutthaya. Before we explore ancient ruins, we want to hit up the (supposed) best noodle soup in Bangkok, which is right by the station, or so we think. Instead, we realize Bamee Sawang has moved and we’ll miss our train if we walk to the new location. We settle for another local restaurant and have shrimp steamed in curried egg and greens. It’s really good and very interesting, but I become the traveler I hate and spend the majority of the meal brooding over what could have been.

The train to Ayutthaya is poorly kept at best. The rickety car bounces slightly as we accelerate. As it leaves Bangkok’s inner city, we start to see some of the green countryside. Poverty increases simultaneously with the degree of charm. Solicitors selling snacks and drinks walk between the cars yelling out their product. “Gai! Gai! Gai!” a man with missing teeth hollers. Then, glancing at me he shouts, “Gai! Gai! Chicken?” I smile and shake my head, he doesn’t miss a beat. As I look out the blisteringly hot, steaming cabin at the detrimental poverty of the small towns, I couldn’t ask for a more authentic experience.

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Wild dog at Ayutthaya’s train station

Arriving at the station, wild dogs immediately appear. At first you can see no ruins, merely a poor, contemporary city. Instead tuk-tuk drivers battle for our attention and we choose the least assuming driver to take us to the abandoned temples. They are glorious. Faded maroon, brown, and grey, crumbling and beautiful. Intricate statues of Buddha sit proudly with serene faces. The most famous site though, is a head of Buddha stuck in a Bodhi, the tree the prophet sat under during his meditation and enlightenment. The statue’s head rolled off its body and fell into the tree’s trunk. Then it grew, consuming the head for hundreds of years.

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Buddha’s head in a Bodhi tree

The rotting city, capital of the Ayutthaya empire, formed in 1351. With such a rich history and culture, it is always appalling to see people still being held back by their tyrannical governments. The ancient ruins are breathtaking. As you walk through the overgrown grass between them freely, you realize that no one is here to take care of them, only the locals to accept your 50 baht at the entrance to fund their meager life.

On the way back, we pay for the faster, air-conditioned train for which we recognize our privilege. Instead of being quicker the train is an hour late, so we hang out with the dogs at the station. We finally board after meeting an American who is living in India, she’s afraid she’ll miss her flight because of the train’s late departure.

We get back into Bangkok and are exhausted from exploring Ayutthaya, but we have dinner plans with my distant cousin who lives here. Despite that it’s illegal to be homosexual in Thailand, Rusty and his boyfriend of 25 years take us to an authentic Thai restaurant which, surprisingly, is very clean.

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Ruins of Ayutthaya

We order Changs, a green curry with eggplant and chicken, four different Thai salads, a coconut soup, and grilled pork. I usually think salads are dull, but these are absolutely delicious. They’re herb-y, spicy, and sweet with coconut milk. We converse about Rusty’s life here and figure out who our distant common ancestor is. We talk about all the things we love about traveling. He has been to North Korea and is going to Iran soon. We mention how its been difficult for us to find authentic Thai food in Bangkok, to which he replies by admitting its “depressingly hard to find.” After following each other on Facebook for years, it is great to finally meet him. Thyme and I return to hotel and head to the rooftop pool where we order a Long Island iced tea, a mojito, and an oyster omelette to soak them up. Another fantastic day in Thailand.

It’s a bright morning that would be great for hiking, but we’re going to spend our time inside. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Bangkok is inconveniently sandwiched between construction that we’re told is perpetual and unforgiving. The outside of the building is bland, monolithic, and uninspired. Not the type of architecture you’d expect modern art to be housed in. But once you’re inside, your whole perspective is altered. Winding stairs climb up the galleries, narrowing as the rise.

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Puppet Hitler with black and white Siamese twins
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“Body Mind Soul”

The art sheltered in the pacing architecture is enchanting. Ancient history informs many of the pieces, but everything is filtered through a modern sensibility and a contemporary perspective. Immediately after walking up the stairs at the entrance, you’re greeted by what seems to be a play on Siamese twins. A black and white pair represent the country’s former namesake with a stark dichotomy. The twin in front presents you with a frighteningly accurate puppet of Adolf Hitler. Behind them are a variety of similar authoritarian puppets encased in glass. There’s Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Winston Churchill, and Saddam Hussein. The only puppet that stands out in the crowd is an unarguable rendition of Ghandi. The work is titled Body Mind Soul.

Perhaps with the use of  the classical Thai art of puppetry, artist Vachara Prayulkam means to portray metaphorically that each of these men were controlled by something, guided towards their works. I would say most people consider these men to be  sons-of-bitches, except Ghandi, who often had young children bathe him and uttered shocking words of black racism. Whether its intentional to include him among sinful characters for these reasons, I do not know. The rest of the museum is as dazzling as the introduction. Vibrant colors consume spiritual works, which often display interesting social and religious commentary. The beautiful colors are the highlight of the museum.

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“The Universe”

One particular installation is outspoken in its self-loathing. The artist sculpted three identical self-portraits of himself wearing a ponytail and resting all on fours. Each sculpture is watching its own television screen, all playing a loop of a dog barking. Its hypnotic. Above the screens there are three more heads with additional TVs resting on top of them. If my memory serves me, the piece is simply called Dogs. The multi-media sculpture/installation is a brave anecdote of how the artist feels about himself as well as the current state of human enjoyment and interaction with one another. Enthralled with the museum, we are in the mood for something equally as contemporary for dinner.

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“Dogs”

We decide on the foolish endeavor of trying to find good Mexican food in Bangkok, Thailand. Living in Santa Ana, CA we have some of the best Mexican food outside of Mexico, so we have unusually high standards for the cuisine. Perusing blogs and websites, we decide on a restaurant. In a seven story, double-sided behemoth of a luxury mall, we find La Monita. Modern and experimental, the Mexican fusion cuisine found here is out of this world. We order a duck quesadilla that comes with three different salsas, home-made from the unique Thai chilies found in the region; followed by a lime chicken tortilla soup and an al pastor burrito. By the end of our meal we are entranced, and in love. The Thai ingredients go great in the al pastor, which is sweet and spicy pork with fresh pineapple. The juxtaposed flavors transfer between cuisines perfectly.

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Duck quesadilla at La Monita

We wanted to try one of the many boutique dessert spots found in the mall, but with our meal being one of the most expensive in Thailand, we decide on something a bit more thrifty. We go for Yogurtland with an intense curiosity about what its like here. Many fruity flavor and toppings, we get things we have never tried before and walk towards the subway relieved from the humidity of the night by the cold, satisfying dessert.

Taking the next day slow, we head to D’ark coffee for some reading and much-needed caffeine. Followed by our last meal in Bangkok, again we are craving something out of the ordinary as far as Thailand is concerned. Rusty had recommended a Cajun place and we decide to give a go. Yes, a Cajun restaurant in Bangkok. We decide ahead of time to go out without a bang, hellbent on getting drunk during the meal. We have three cocktails each, which combined with the beers we had at the hotel, makes the food taste even better. We get shrimp in a spicy sauce, served with linguine and jambalaya with a host of different meats. Again the spicy ingredients of the region lend themselves very well to the alternate cuisine. The atmosphere is spot on. If I didn’t know better, I’d say we’re in New Orleans. Excess and overt sensory stimulation. After the exuberant feast of booze and fragrant spices, we walk to our hotel through the sewer-reeking neighborhood, past booming street vendors, in a blur of city lights.

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Temples on the streets of Bangkok

4 thoughts on “The Redolence of Bangkok: Sensory Overload in Thailand’s Capital City.

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