The first breath you take after getting out of your taxi on Khao San Road in Bangkok is nothing short of overwhelming. The air is thick and damp, and carries on it so many smells that you can’t tell them apart. Street food sizzles in every direction, and exhaust from a thousand cars, mopeds and tuk tuks fill the air. As you begin to swim through the humidity, your eyes now take in the chaotic scene: even at midnight the street is bright with string lights, street carts, and the endless colours of the night markets. Our cab has pulled over because the street is too busy to turn onto the road our hotel is on. We wait for streams of motorists to zoom by- none of which are in a designated lane or even on the right side of the road- and we dare to run across what is supposedly a cross walk. As soon as we make it onto our street, we are greeted with red and white string lights canopying down from the trees overhead, and from the restaurants and bars lining the road. There is a surprising calm only one street off the main road. If I hadn’t been in such culture shock, I would have really appreciated the winding cobblestone road with vendors down its sides, and the evening breeze that provided some relief from the heavy air.
I was immediately taken aback by how difficult it was to be so far from home. My thoughts dwelled on my family and the familiar, and I felt like I had been transplanted without the necessary nutrients to survive. It’s an odd juxtaposition to be in a place that you had dreamed about for years, saved up the money to get there, and are now sad, jet lagged and afraid. Luckily I had a friend to lean on who shared the same feelings as me- misery does love company. We passed by dozens of travellers who appeared so confidant and relaxed in this foreign place. I wondered if I would ever look or feel like them. Our first night- as with every night since- was the toughest part. I find myself waking up at all hours of the night with my mind racing a million miles a minute, thinking of worst case scenarios and of how long I have yet to go. It all seems so impossible and hard and confusing- but I know I have to go on and that things must get better.
Our first day reminded me just why I crave these adventures- crazy, chaotic, beautiful places that remind you just how big this world really is. The streets are all packed full of as many food and clothing vendors as can possibly fit, and with just as many trees and plants. The urban jungle draws you in and taunts you with its smells and its sights- it mocks any notion of excitement you may have of a place back home. Constant shouts and bribes from taxi and tuk tuk drivers, from clothing vendors with their “special prices”, envelop you. Two minutes into our day we found ourselves talking to a lovely Thai woman who offered directions and wanted to know all about our trip. We walked to Khao San Road- the main backpacker’s street in Bangkok filled with street food, bars, clothing and Thai massages- where we got smoothies that cost us $2 (which ended up being expensive). We explored some more and found a beautiful park along the river. In the middle of the park was a huge white building adorned with black crosses and with canons on the side. We enjoyed the view of the city from a bench by the water, and watched boats rock dangerously on the choppy water. Locals and foreigners sat on the grass and on the benches, reading books and looking at the water.
On our second day we set off to see some temples, but as soon as we started walking we noticed something was up. Thousands of people all dressed in black lined the streets and gathered outside various buildings. As we were looking at a map to get to the Grand Palace, a local man struck up a conversation. We ended up talking to him for a while, and he told us that there was a huge ceremony at the Grand Palace that day for the 15 day anniversary of their King’s death. He recommended the floating market tour to us, and having known a friend that got scammed, I was a little apprehensive. Without waiting for a confirmation of any kind from us, he waved down a tuk tuk and agreed on a cheap fare for us to get to the boat dock. Having nothing better to do, we agreed and hopped on our first tuk tuk (a three wheeled open vehicle that operates like a taxi but for a cheaper price). We embarked on the craziest drive of our lives. The little tuk tuk zoomed and swerved through the thousands of cars, mopeds and pedestrians that were on the street. With nothing more than a gentle wave of the hand, motorists swerved within inches of each other and across yellow lines into oncoming traffic. We laughed and laughed as we drove- calmness in the chaos, breeze cooling our skin and inviting in the unknown.
Our driver eventually turned into a back lane and up to a boat dock where we paid for an hour long boat tour along the canals. Walking down to the water, we watched other tourist try to navigate their way into the long wooden boats that swayed aggressively in the waves. With a few tries we made it onto our boat and our driver pulled away into the open water. We soon turned into a canal, where the water was calmer and many other boats passed by. Along the banks were houses made of wood with no doors and clothes hanging outside. Families sat on their balconies and waved as we drove by. Lush, green plants and trees filled in every free spot along the banks, gracing us with their shade every once in a while. We leaned nervously to one side every time time the boat turned, spurring on even more laughter. We slowed to a stop and a man in a boat with souvenirs pulled up beside us and tried to sell his figurines and other collectables. This ended up being the extent of the “floating market”.
We stopped at a temple where a golden Buddha that must have been at least 30 meters tall towered above us. It was deemed the “lucky Buddha”, which we have come to learn doesn’t exist, but was cool anyway. We got off the boat and explored the temples for a while- blue and red sparkling roofs glittered in the sunlight. One of the temples housed a large lying down Buddha, and locals kneeled to pay their respects and light incense. After the temple, we drove some more and took in the sights. We were dropped at a different boat dock where there was a market (not floating- very much on the ground) which was not nearly as interesting as the ones on Khao San. Not knowing if this was the end or if we would we picked up again, we decided to take a tuk tuk to a vegan restaurant off Khao San Road. We negotiated a price and headed off. Upon arriving we saw locals eating at picnic tables, and stray cats roaming the street. The restaurant was called Ethos and it had low tables with pillows to sit on, and the most exciting menu for a vegan. I got my first Pad Thai of the trip and a mango smoothie- we were in food heaven.
That evening I wandered around Khao San Road alone, and enjoyed every minute of it. I have felt safe in every location we have been to, and at any time of day. The people are all extremely respectful and kind, and especially travelling as a woman I was extremely grateful for this kind of experience. The evening somehow seemed even more vibrant than the day- the lights and colours of the shops, bars and restaurants lighting up the night, and the smell of street food overtaking your nose. It was spitting rain, which was a welcome sensation in the warm, damp air. Walking through the busy streets I breathed in the smell of adventure and the feeling of freedom. The constant calls of taxi drivers and vendors had already become background noise, and I walked on in total calmness. I bought myself some standard baggy elephant pants and a top- all together costing me about $10 which is, again, pretty expensive for Thailand. I was in awe of this beautiful, chaotic city, and I finally felt like the confidant travellers I had seen my first night.
While Bangkok gets some strong reviews- both for and against the never sleeping city- I have to admit my love for the sensationally vibrant city. This city allowed me to grieve, to process, and to overcome. I have to be grateful for that.