Bangkok reminds me of New York. The skyscrapers aren’t as tall, but there are rolling hills of cityscape that sprawl out for miles in every direction. There’s a river, and a little ways away, there’s an ocean. You can take a bus to the ocean and a ferry to cross the river, although the smaller boats are almost certainly a scam. They’ll charge you more than you can afford to get on the boat, and then again to leave it. If there are enough Chinese tourists crowding on the pier when you land, you can try to skip that second fee.
Our time in Bangkok wound outward from that regretful river trip, where we were forced to sit scrunched between 4 Spanish tourists so we wouldn’t destabilize the tiny boat. As the noxious fumes of the boat’s motor wafted behind us, we cringed as waves carrying garbage threatened to drench us. It was our most anxious moment of our stay in Bangkok, but we found our way out of it.
After shedding our sea legs and getting some food, we went to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which was beautiful but too large to take in more than a single body part at a time. The Buddha, 40 feet long and looking very pleased with himself, lies on his side. The tourists circumnavigated him, snapping photos and dropping coins into prayer buckets. If they weren’t dressed conservatively (covered knees and shoulders), they were required to wear a shawl. Then we got massages at the temple. They were done in a dark, air conditioned room, and afterwards they gave us a plastic cup of juice to drink with a straw. Tired from the day, I felt almost tearful sitting in the dark, so I went outside while my boyfriend finished his juice.
We take a taxi back to our hotel, where we nap and spend time by the rooftop pool. Inside, the knot of anxiety unwinds further. We eat dinner in our neighborhood at a nice but pricey restaurant, and I feel guilty for not eating street food. I was told, repeatedly, that the best food in Bangkok is sold by street vendors, but most the vendors I’ve seen have been selling fruit or sausages. I’m not sure if I’m missing out, or if street food is a category reserved for carnivores.
The next day, we get sim cards in an enthusiastically air-conditioned mall just a few blocks from the hotel. After, we wander through Lumphini park, which is a green reprieve from the city. Then we have a dash of coconut icecream before taking the subway, which feeds on unmarked, black plastic coins, to Bangkok’s chinatown.
The chinatown is denser, but not dissimilar to New York’s chinatown. There are the bags of foreign foods available for sell, the enticing smells of sweets and savories. There are some differences. As with the rest of the city, Bangkok’s chinatown has more cats, napping on pillows in spaces between stalls. an entire block of sidewalk is impeded by woman in plastic chairs with white powder covering their face. Older woman hover over them, running a circle of wound thread across their faces to remove unsightly hairs. Motorcycles weave through areas that should only be passable on foot. I search google for recommended restaurants and find a hole in the wall that sells only fried muscles and oysters. My companions are skeptical, but I convince them to order and we all eat. Nobody died.
Next we run through a market adjacent to chinatown that can only be described as steampunk. On stalls the would look much the same two centeries ago, merchants are selling all manor of modern technology. From radios to car parts, Khlong Thom Market is a visual explosion of niche buyers’ catalogues. Just past the market, people were machining metal with lathes, mills and other machines that I hadn’t seen since college. There, the machines were locked safe in a basement where only people which proper training had access. Out here, men were using them in garages exposed to streets with heavy foot traffic.
We kept trudging through coffeeshops, wats (temples), and public monuments to the king. We arrived in the hip Banglamphu neighborhood, which was defined by another market-a more tourist facing one. But we were exausted, so we ended our day there.
Bangkok seems like a well that opens up to an enormous aquifer. It’s hard to find an entrance to the city that is not curated and tourist focused, but beneath there are endless options of travel. We didn’t see any of the famous malls, or wander into the calmer, eastern neighborhoods. What we experienced was like a tourist visiting time square, and in getting turned around finds herself stumbling into the upper west side. There she’d see a glimpse of what New York could really offer. But by then her trip would be over.