Bangkok, Thailand. Hot, steamy, poor, noisy, crowded – and the first time in almost six months we’ve been north of the equator!
A funny thing happened on our stay in Bangkok: we kind of fell in love with the city. Or, if not love, at least genuine like. Completely unexpected. This was our 8th pass through the Southeast Asian hub since we started this adventure in 2013 and it was purely a functional stop: we need a visa for China and this was the best place to get it. After all, you don’t come to Bangkok for the eighth time in four years because it’s such a beautiful city or to see the museums or whatever. You come here because it’s a hub and you need something.
Except we kind of liked it, once we changed hotels. We’ve typically stayed in or near Sukhumvit, an upscale part of Bangkok right on a SkyTrain route. It’s where all the flashy malls and most of the fancy hotels are but unless you’re in the market for Gucci or Bvlgari (we’re not) there’s just not much else here. And to make matters worse, with one notable exception there are just no good, normal Thai restaurants around. You can eat at expensive hotel restaurants or in the malls and – like all of Bangkok – there’s tons of street food. But a nearly total lack of normal, decent restaurants scattered around. The one exception is an isolated little restaurant with great Thai food; the only downside was the absurd name, Tummy Yummy. Try to convince someone that’s the place to meet for lunch.
We started in a beautiful hotel in the usual area where they upgraded us to a great suite (we love Starwood) with just one little problem: we’d mistakenly reserved a smoking room. Presumably they only had smoking rooms available when we made the reservation and we just didn’t notice. I mean, who even has smoking rooms anymore? No problem, though, we just went back to the lobby and told them we needed a new room. Alas, there were no non-smoking rooms available. None. Nothing. The room itself wasn’t that bad, but every time you had to go through the hallway to or from the room the smell was just awful. We hated it.
We’d only reserved three nights, not sure what we’d find when we tried getting the China visa, so as soon as we could we got the hell out. The application process at the China embassy was smooth, it appeared that after a few days our visa would be approved, so when the initial three nights we’d reserved were over we moved to another Starwood property (with another great suite; did I mention we love Starwood?). Just over a mile away, but a world apart. Still crowded and hot with terrible traffic, but while the first hotel was in that flashy mall region, the Méridien was in a more normal area. All of a sudden we had access to seemingly dozens of great little restaurants and interesting street life. It just made a total difference.
The strange part is that the Silom area that we moved to is also home to Bangkok’s notorious sex industry. Whole blocks dedicated to strippers and “massage” offers, with some streets for gay sex tourists and others for straight sex tourists. Somehow it didn’t seem as seedy or icky as I might have expected and actually just made for a colorful atmosphere. Lots and lots and lots of touts on the street all day and night offering anything you might imagine – and, I presume, plenty that I’m just as happy not to imagine – but if you weren’t interested they were quick to move to a more tempting target.
And interspersed with all that were some really good restaurants. Le Bouchon, a Lyonaise restaurant run by an old French guy with great French food, was tucked in between stripper bars. A great new Lebanese/Indian restaurant just around the corner from all that action. From our hotel we’d walk the length of one of the major sex streets past such enticing establishments as Super Pussy and Screw Boy to get to Vesper, a great restaurant and bar where we made new friends. (They were from New York and while the four of us were trashing our President we added new friends who wanted in on the conversation to trash him, too. Amusingly, our new friend Keith was staying at the Méridien as well and had just finished Hillbilly Elegy, a new memoir that’s all the buzz explaining the plight of the author’s white, working class roots, so he left it for us before heading off on his continuing journey to Vietnam. New friends and a book!)
And somehow it all worked. You’d think that we’d have learned before this that the real estate mantra – location, location, location – was just as important in Bangkok as it is anywhere else. This massive city of 8 million people, with horrible traffic, terrible heat, and too much grit and dirt, became somehow lovable. After days in Sukhumvit and just boring food choices, we found ourselves with too many great dinner options. And still a great place to get chores done. Got our semi-annual teeth cleaning for the third time in Bangkok. Replaced old and nasty shoes. Filled up on toiletry supplies before heading on to China. And of course the big one, we succeeded in getting a 10-year China visa. We’ll be able to go into China whenever we want until I’m in my 70s; how great is that?
Mark’s late afternoons were focused on the legitimate massage opportunities, where for $10 or $12 you get an often really good 60-minute massage. He was always a little nervous about making sure he was going into the legitimate services, but you can kind of tell which ones are about massages and which ones are about … other things. And I would head into Lumpini Park, one of the very few oases of green in the city to read. These days I’ve been focusing on preparing for our month in Japan, so I finished Embracing Defeat a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of post-war Japan and then started a novel about 17th century Japan. Fun.
And finally, in addition to getting chores done and finding great food and massages and reading in the park, we even checked off one tourist activity that we’d never been to. Jim Thompson was a Princeton alum and World War II-era intelligence operative, assigned near the end of the war to Thailand. He fell in love with the place and, after the war, came to live permanently. He almost single-handedly re-started Thailand’s dying silk industry when his work was used extensively in the movie The King and I. He built a beautiful compound in Bangkok from six different Thai buildings that are now a museum … and then he disappeared. Vanished while hiking in Malaysia and to this day there are apparently no clues about what happened. So we toured his old haunt and it was just as beautiful and relaxing as we’d heard, mostly Thai but with just enough Western touches to make it interesting.
Now, Chinese visa in hand, we’re off to China’s Yunnan Province for three weeks. That feels like the adventure we need these days.