My transition from Vietnam to Thailand was not an easy one. My experiences in Vietnam had been some of the best of the trip; I appreciated the country’s expansive natural beauty, charming urban landscape, incredible food, and friendly residents. This was bad news for poor Thailand, as it’s not easy to follow up after such a strong act. I’ll admit that I wasn’t giving the new country much of a chance to impress, either. I already knew how to say “thank you” expertly in Vietnamese (gá mun), whereas the corresponding phrase in Thai, from the one time I had looked it up, seemed to be an unmemorizable jumble of k’s and p’s. The Vietnamese dong, at a conversion rate of 20,000 to the US dollar, was simple to convert to my native currency; just subtract four zeroes and divide by two. At 32 to the dollar, necessitating an ugly division by three, the Thai baht couldn’t even compete. I hadn’t entered it yet, and already Thailand couldn’t get a break.
My first few experiences in Thailand did not change that state of mind. It didn’t help that I was arriving on New Year’s Day, after having spent all night involuntarily awake in the Ho Chi Minh City airport. I was far too sleep-deprived, hungry, and slightly hungover to rationally maneuver the usual obstacles of airport arrival, and so promptly screwed up several interactions in the immigration line, and got massively ripped-off by a predatory private taxi service at the airport exit. Driving along the expressway into Bangkok, as the driver requested 200 more baht for some upcoming tolls, I looked out the window and saw an endless vista of shabby concrete edifices, glitzy towering billboards, and traffic-choked avenues. As I handed even more cash to my driver, I felt a sudden tug of nostalgia for the country I had just left. In that moment, Thailand abruptly felt far too modern, too capitalist, and too good at ripping white people off. I missed the refreshing straightforwardness of Vietnam, which only started ripping white people off in the late ‘90s, and is still working on perfecting its methods.
Having arrived two days before our reunion in Chiang Mai, I figured I’d spend some time in Bangkok before heading up north. In that time, I discovered the first city we’d visited in Asia that I just straight up didn’t like. From an urban planning perspective, much of the charm and excitement of Asian cities comes from their haphazard developmental histories, lack of zoning regulations, and eclectic mix of architectural styles. A street that’s totally dead by day can become a massive street market at night; a six-lane boulevard can abruptly transition into a one-lane alleyway; a block of tightly packed slum houses can surround a glittering shopping mall or towering skyscraper. The sheer variety of demographics and lifestyles packed into Asian cities, coupled with the inability to predict when and where any one of them may spring up, keeps these urban environments charming, fresh, and exciting to explore.
Unlike most of these Asian cities, which only became mega-urban monstrosities in the late ‘80s, Bangkok appears to have experienced its growing pains about a decade or so earlier, perhaps initiated by the heavy American presence in the city during the Vietnam War. The city’s landscape appears straight out of an early-1970s urban planning textbook, much to the detriment of its residents. Most of the buildings are built in the same modernist style of bare concrete and minimal embellishment, making the core of the city resemble nothing more than a massive suburban office park. Gargantuan elevated expressways snake determinedly through the city, cleaving historical neighborhoods and waterfront communities in two, and making pedestrian exploration of Bangkok a difficult chore. Their overbearing presence seems to have done nothing to alleviate Bangkok’s horrendous traffic, which is at a constant level of paralyzation that I hadn’t experienced since leaving Seattle in August.
During my night in Bangkok, I consistently ran into the same two types of people: young westerners, there to party all night and complain about how hard they partied all day, and aggressive locals, looking to sell said Westerners drugs, sex, or perhaps both. In the city’s defense, I was staying at a very trendy hostel in a lively part of town, so a certain element of party culture was expected, and even appreciated. But after walking down a single club-laden street and being offered pamphlets full of attractive and available prostitutes no less than five times, I recognized that Bangkok caters to a certain type of visitor that other cities, either inadvertently or on their own initiative, tend to avoid. I fell into bed that night disappointed, disillusioned, and apprehensive about our coming month in Thailand.
That sense of annoyance and discomfort, which pervaded throughout my time in Bangkok, completely vanished upon my arrival in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city, but that statistic invites a comparison with its brother to the south that is totally misleading. In fact, Chiang Mai is forty times smaller than Bangkok, and exists on a much more approachable scale. There are no skyscrapers, no expressways, and not a single office park to be seen. The unregulated and fiercely predatory taxis of Bangkok were replaced by songtheaws; public taxis created from modified pickup trucks that, while equally unregulated and entirely mafia-controlled, at least expect a consistent fare of about 20 baht per person, regardless of distance. Chiang Mai rivals Bangkok only in the severity of its traffic jams, and so we spent a lot of time in the backs of these songtheaws, occasionally partaking in impromptu English conversation sessions with the more sociable of the locals who climbed in after us.
One of the most enjoyable and memorable aspects of our month in Chiang Mai was our nightly dinner on the sidewalks of Suthep Road, the main street in our neighborhood. Right on our alley’s corner existed a perpetual yet entirely temporary food court of street stalls, serving up such treats as crispy fried crepes, street sushi, rice pudding balls, omelets, and “garbage can chicken” (our affectionate nickname for a stall whose chicken which was, indeed, prepared in a repurposed garbage bin). The omelet lady in particular was a culinary savant, adding the perfect mix of onions, green peppers, and spicy chilies to every batch, and stopping by her stall quickly became my nightly ritual. Further down the road was an entire block of papaya salad vendors, a couple smoothie makers, and “Burger Box,” which served up the best burgers I’ve encountered in Asia thus far. Most stalls offered seating in the form of plastic chairs on the sidewalk, but if you wanted a proper sit-down meal, you could always visit “Jone’s Salad,” a slightly sketchy and typically empty restaurant, whose owners were apparently convinced that a menu consisting entirely of salads and waffle options was really just what Chiang Mai needed.
After finishing up an entirely pleasant month in Chiang Mai, we returned to Bangkok for just one more day, before beginning our long train tour down to the tip of mainland Asia in Singapore. As I once again sat through the long drive from the airport, staring at the endless concrete sprawl before me, I wondered if it would be sensible to give Bangkok another chance. Now that I was here with my PacRim companions, and had a better grasp of Thai culture and language, maybe the city would reveal a mellower, more accessible side to me. Perhaps my first impressions were woefully misguided, and I’d experience a triumphant reversal of conclusions, one that would be perfect fodder for an inspirational blog post or journal entry.
No such luck, as it turned out. Bangkok was equally as overwhelming and ugly as it was my first time around, and I decided to just take refuge in the city’s shimmering shopping malls until it was time to leave. My distaste for Bangkok was unusual for me – I consider myself a big city kind of guy, and many of the highlights of PacRim for me have taken place in gargantuan metropolises such as Shanghai, Tokyo, and most recently, Singapore. I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I enjoy big cities when they’re done well, and the sheer inefficiency and ugliness of Bangkok as an urban environment annoyed me to no end. However, thanks to the charm and ease of our lives in Chiang Mai, I left Thailand with overwhelmingly pleasant memories of our time there. I had mastered “thank you” (kab kun krap), I could convert baht to dollars quickly in my head, and indeed, as our train pulled out of Hua Lamphong station on its way down to Malaysia, I felt that same sense of nostalgia that, I suppose, is just a given when leaving any country.