When I traveled to Thailand for the first time in 2012, I remember thinking this is a place where I could spend a couple of years. Bangkok was fascinating. I was overwhelmed by its tall shiny buildings, sky trains, big highways, its hundreds of markets and millions of people. It made Beirut look tiny. We traveled around the country for about three weeks including to Ko Phi Phi, one of the many islands in Southern Thailand. We were close to Cambodia, so we took a cheap flight to Siem Reap to see the extraordinary Angkor Wat temples.
People were very friendly and peaceful everywhere we went. Amidst the chaos and long traffic jams in Bangkok, I never heard a single honk or a recognizable curse (I don’t speak Thai though). Losing your temper is very much frowned upon. What a contrast with Lebanon, where I come from. The Lebanese love nothing better than to lose their temper; the angrier you get, the more satisfying. I was amazed at how many curses I had started using while driving, and grateful I used them only to vent in my car with windows closed.
Bangkok was my first introduction to the Far East. I love how raw and candid life is and how exotic at the same time, knowing obviously that I only scratched the surface. Everything happens outside, on the streets and sidewalks: cooking, eating, drinking, shopping, shouting, laughing, begging, washing dishes, clothes – it’s warm, messy chaos.
I went back last month and stayed for two weeks in Bangkok with a few day trips outside the city. Other than that, I used my time to learn more about the culture, the people, the food, the music, the fashion, and the social and political situation in general.
Bangkok has changed. Most of its street food has been cleared away and those stalls that remain are heavily curtailed by the authorities. It felt like the city lost a bit of its character; the street life and food is Bangkok’s heart and soul. There were more beggars and homeless people sleeping on side walks. On the way back to my hotel at night, I saw more women, men and children curled up in doorways of shops and buildings than five years ago.
Sex tourism, though, is thriving as usual. I got frustrated every time I saw a bunch of pathetic middle-aged men (mostly western) touching young Thai women. The country’s society seems to be very tolerant towards prostitution. A friend living there explained that prostitution is deeply rooted in Thailand’s history, going back at least six centuries. During a night food tour (which I totally recommend), our guide highlighted that the growth of the sex tourism was greatly fueled by Thailand being an R&R-hotspot for US soldiers during the Vietnam war. It is also, of course, a result of poverty. Women engaging in prostitution are pressured by their families back in their villages to bring money back from the city. Eventually parents hope heir daughters will marry a ‘rich’ western who will in turn provide for the entire family.
The national mourning period over the deceased Thai king came to an end in October 2017. An artist / painter I met in a small hidden gallery in Bangkok told me that people have started wearing colorful clothes again, that 7-Eleven shops (a huge chain of supermarkets) were allowed to sell alcohol again, that people could smile again. I asked him about the political situation. He sighed and said: “There is no real democracy here. It only looks like it on the outside.” The 29-year-old artist was planning to leave to Europe to pursue his studies. He was not very hopeful, despite the upcoming elections in 2018.
After the military coup in 2014, life has not been the same in Thailand. News media and even social media are monitored closely, corruption is on the rise, as are prices. The gap between the rich and poor is widening further. Liberals are not hopeful about the future of their country’s democracy.
But hey, tourists can still have a good time – what can I say, I’m trying to end on a happy note. If you’re planning to come to Bangkok, here’s another of my little travel lists:
- Steve cafe and cuisine right at the Chao Praya river and a great way to get there is to hop on a public boat.
- WTF gallery and café is a very cool bar / gallery offering great cocktails and exhibitions by local artists.
- Banya is a street close to Double Tree by Hilton Hotel with only Japanese restaurants and bars; kind of little Japan.
- Bookshop bar was under renovation when I was there. Apparently it has a fascinating interior and a unique vibe.
- Havana Social is a totally hidden bar. Its entrance is the one of a massage parlor. You need to call a number and type a code to get in. Communist revolutionary chants and speeches are played over and over in the toilets.
- Lumpini park is nice to visit once the sun is down. Just walk around and watch or take part in outdoor yoga classes.
- Chatuchak weekend market is a must. I have never been exposed to so many choices that I ended up being very confused and not buying anything except for food. You can find everything, literally.
- Patom Organic Living offers traditional organic Thai delicacies in additional to body care products. I would have never found this place if it wasn’t for a colleague (thanks Patrick!) who lives there and knows his way around.
- Cabbages & Condoms is a nice restaurant offering yummy food with a message: use more condoms.
- Khaosan Road is a bustling small street in central Bangkok which turns into madness in the late evening. You can’t escape the drunk crowd, the music, the dancing and the cheap food and booze.