Masters of Architecture student Janani Krishnaswamy Premchand spent about sixty hours in Bangkok, Thailand; here, she writes of her experience.
Weekend markets, hot pink taxis zipping around, milk tea out of plastic bags, boutique coffee shops, discos, theatres, bars, high-end shopping arcades – Bangkok has something for everyone.
The doors slid open as soon as the train came to a halt on platform 2. Everyone looked up as if on cue and held the stare till we stepped in, looked around for seats, found none and returned to look back at everyone. On cue, again, they all dropped their heads back to the phones and got along with the journey.
It was strangely quiet in the train. Mily and I exchanged glances. Bangkok definitely wasn’t like this just outside those doors.
We had landed that morning, from what had been a relatively short flight of about two hours from Kuala Lumpur. It was a last-minute getaway plan to spend those much awaited public holidays that fall on weekdays.
“Is this your first time to Thailand?” the immigration officer asked.
“Ah, no. I’ve been to Chiang Mai before.”
“Bangkok is different. More fun,” he smiled and stamped my passport.
Hundreds of mopeds, cars and buses weave in and out of each other’s lanes with hardly a scrape even though they skim right next to each other, overhead cables of all sorts are tangled on every pole and billboard (which makes you wonder what they do in case of a faulty line), pop-up stalls take up the whole footpath so that you are forced to walk on the edge of the road, and people in towering skyscrapers come all the way down to buy treats from a mobile moped snack bar.
From first impressions, I can’t deny it: Bangkok is fun!
It was easy to get a bit lost in the city, but we didn’t bother much and, having no itinerary to follow, we went where the lanes took us. It was a small neighbourhood with houses sharing the same compounds. At some places, they formed clusters where all the doors opened into a courtyard of sorts, where people had parked their bikes and hung out their clothes to dry. Baskets of vegetables sat in corners waiting to be washed, and there were even small shrines, the incense from which made the small lanes smell heavenly.
It came as no surprise to find a street stall selling coffee and tea, made the Thai way – rich and syrupy with milk and sugar. What was surprising was the way it was packed: poured straight into a transparent plastic bag, tied with a piece of string, and with a straw sticking out.
Feeling all touristy with our day’s adventure, we decided to walk to Khao San road for dinner – where the west meets the east, they said. It was pretty much where the west sat along the footpath drinking and hogging on food from the east. We found a cozy little shop and treated ourselves to some hot noodles in an exotic broth, not complemented by the loud hip-hop blasting from the bar next door. Mily had done her ‘eat-like-a-local’ research and we headed off to find the grandma who was famous for her fruit milk shakes.
“Avocado? Okay.” “Two? Okay.”
That was all the English the guy at the shop could muster, after we had pointed to the avocado. Language didn’t matter when the shake was just out of this world!
“Do you know how we can get to the flower market?” we asked the guy at the shop who was hanging up the roast ducks.
“It’s a bit far, you can take a taxi. Show him this,” he said, and scribbled the location on a small piece of paper. Having quite had enough of taxis, we took a tuk-tuk there. Bad move, as we ended up paying more than we had anticipated. (Happens with tuk-tuks all the time.)
We forgot the bicker in an instant as we looked at the market. Pick any flower and it was there. We bought ourselves a bouquet and headed for a cup of coffee.
“A latte, please.”
This was the fancy Sukhumvit neighbourhood of Bangkok, filled with all the hipster book shops and coffee bars. People were dressed up, the food was expensive and parking is always full.
We made our (one and only) posh coffee stop at the famous Rocket coffee bar. (Every other coffee we had was out of a plastic bag.) The shop was truly Pinterest-worthy. Our designer alter-egos surfaced as we carefully studied the transition joints and lighting design. We spent more time here in the cool air-conditioned space than intended, and as we stepped out, the heat waves slapped us back to reality.
I was grateful for the Monocle Bangkok guide. It made it easier to pick the spots worth dropping by as there were just way too many in every street – and believe me, all of them looked good. The Thais have seductive skills in retail design and branding.
A trip to Bangkok would be incomplete without visiting the Chatuchak Market. I was looking forward to this: a market that has everything, and at half the price. Asian markets like these have a special charm and come with a certain vibrancy you won’t find anywhere else in the world. And with this comes an opportunity to test your bargaining skills, which solely determines if you get to leave the market in high spirits or feeling deflated!
“The trick is to look around first, estimate the mean price of an item and go lower than that by a third or even a half. And when the bargaining starts, pretend you’d be better off buying it at a different shop if they don’t want to lower the price to what you expect,” our taxi driver explained as we neared the market.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. Every shopkeeper knew this and it came as no shock to them when we whispered about buying the item from another shop.
Some of them, however, were kind enough to lower their prices for the poor foreigners. The rest couldn’t be bothered. Well, at the end of it all, we managed to get a couple of good deals and that was enough to make our day as we flew back carrying more bags than we came with.
Hand painted ceramic basins at Chatuchak Market, which were too big for me to carry back.
“How was your trip?” Jeffrey asked briskly, pulling up a chair next to me. I was back to frantically drawing walls, windows and doors.
“It was good. Fun, indeed. Bangkok is a great city.”
“It is over-crowded, dusty and noisy, and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But everything about the city is from the heart: the food, the hospitality, the random strangers we met, the things we brought back. It is a city that is filled with an overwhelming love for life.”
After a brief pause, I added, “I’m not so sure about it being the ‘City of Angels’, but it was definitely a city of colourful markets, roast ducks, extremely sweet tea and tuk-tuks.”
By Janani Premchandh, 4th year Masters of Architecture.
This article is a compilation of pieces from a trip with a friend to Bangkok, in October 2015 (right after a major bomb blast in the heart of the city). Naturally there were some jitters, but the trip in itself proved to be a relaxing one, and the way the city had recovered from a fresh trauma was something to be amazed at.