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Bangkok: Assault on the Senses

The first step you take outdoors in Bangkok, Thailand after leaving Bangkok International Airport, it begins. The hot, humid Bangkok air droops over you like an unwanted cloak and is filled with unfamiliar, obnoxious smells as it produces a thin film of wetness on your skin. A city’s pollution problem suddenly becomes personal as your eyes sting and your throat begins to tighten in response to air like you have never experienced in the Brainerd Lakes area. However, that pugnacious eye and throat attack is nothing compared to the noise that stuns unsuspecting ears. Thousands upon thousands of cars, many un-tuned and strangers to muffler shops emit a cacophony of noise that drowns out normal human conversation. Add to that confusion, myriad thousands of motorbikes honking, screeching and accelerating at each street corner as whitehatted policemen puff furiously on shrieking whistles in a vain effort to arrange them all into proper lanes and soon the accumulative noise narrows your world to one pounding headache. There is very little let-up in the noise until after mid-night and then the noise assault begins all over again the next morning a little after 5. Bangkok: bold, brassy, crude, loud, dirty and always hot. But balancing these negatives is a city that has an inviting intrigue, filled with the intricate, puzzle-like matrix of the millions of lives that each morning must get out and hustle products or services in order to even have a basic level of survival. There are poverty scenes on almost every street that can make a grown man weep. Yet the indomitable human spirit can be seen in the warm smiles on the nut-brown faces of the friendly Thais who man the tens of thousands of street carts where they eke out a living selling food of all sorts, ranging from stalls that major in several course meals to those that rely on one basic or another, such as a fruit or a rice product, to make their daily sustenance.

Like your privacy? Don’t come to Bangkok. Every street is filled with people from 5 in the morning until after mid-night each day. Stores are filled with people, street corners are crammed and everywhere you go, a small crowd has gotten there before you. Due to the oppressive heat, the night schedule including the evening meal, does not even begin to crank up until at least 7. When I left our accommodations at the Windsor Suites Hotel near the Siam Center of Bangkok one evening, I choked from the curious smoke of a thousand outdoor barbeque fires that rose several stories high and then fell heavily like a dropped cat on the streets below. The smoke was so thick it would have grounded Mesaba Airlines at our airport in Brainerd. However, there is something comforting and secure about the Thai culture as you mingle amongst the people in the city. They are by nature a kindly dispositioned people. Even in times of stress, they would rather smile than frown or utter harsh words. The family structure is very core to their everyday life and even on the streets of the city, you will find entire families eating together on makeshift wooded restaurant benches that line the streets and alleys. I saw many natives that appeared as though their bed at night was the concrete that covers the city. Perhaps they go home on weekends, I don’t know. But transportation is a terrible problem, even for those who can afford it. The trafficways of the city are clogged in ways unfit for human travel. However, to compensate for the problems of car travel, there are several other modes that are handy, even if they are not as safe as we would prefer. Tuk tuks are everywhere and they assume shapes ranging from small, Ford-like pickups down to motorbikes with make-shift carriers on behind them. Though perhaps one of Bangkok’s most obnoxious aspects, the tuk tuks serve both local and foreign travelers in short jaunts. You rarely have to raise your hand to get their attention as nearly every few yards when walking, a tuk tuk will pull up beside you and try to sell you their services. There are

literally tens of thousands of tuk tuks so they are easily accessible. You can take them almost anywhere, almost any distance, but most people use them to cover 3-4 blocks at a time, costing only about 20Baht or, 48 cents, no matter how many people you cram on them. Bangkok is sometimes called the Venice of the East due to the Chao Phraya river meandering its way through the city. Because of the massive traffic jams on the roads, years ago boat taxi service began on the river and now is a very thriving part of moving the locals as well as products both small and long distances. Riding a river taxi is not for the faint-hearted as the excitement begins when you see the boat approaching the dock. Human and mechanical whistles punctuate the air and then the boat kisses a makeshift loading platform for about a full 20 seconds. Good luck if there is a big crowd; some people have been known to fall into the water as the boat leaves quickly and without warning. My traveling companions had strict instructions to hit me over the head if I fell into the water as I did not want to be resuscitated due to the foul nature of what is in the river. At one point of our journey upstream, I suspected we had entered the killing fields of the Bangkok mafia as all around our boat was what appeared to be the severed heads of Thais floating in the water, face-down. Only upon questioning a native did my fears abate as he told me they were coconuts. A 1-2 hour trip up river is a fantastic way to see how regular city folks live in shanties and other dwellings along the river. The cost of regular transport on the boat is 10Baht or about 25 cents. The third alternative to vehicular traffic is the elevated Bangkok BTS Skytrain that moves people from various parts of the city throughout 18 hours of each day.

We found the train to be quick, clean and easy to use though at times it was packed body to body and made for some interesting contacts with a people that naturally shy away from any physical contact in public places. Poverty unlike any poverty we have in the States, brings with it some pretty unsavory things as well. One of the most heart-rendering sights is the number of older, white Western men who prey on Thai girls, some not even in their teens. It is very common to see these unwholesome couples all over the city. For a conservative white male from a pretty laid back part of the U.S., this was shocking to see and underscores the effects of poverty upon the lives of those without hope and those who take advantage of them. Unfortunately, I am a bit of a sucker for electronic playthings and Bangkok, much to the consternation of U.S. companies, is a center for pirated electronic products, everything from computers to DVDs to clothing. One center we visited, Pantip Plaza, was comprised of a 5story building that was chockfull of booths all displaying pirated products that were anywhere from one-half to onethird the price in the United States. Shopping in Bangkok is simply overwhelming. Visit any of the market centers, even on a week day, and there will be thousands of people there, day or night. The offerings in the market places, though different than we are used to here in the States, is vast, much of it created by hand. Famous labels, all pirated, comprise a lot of the offerings. One market, the Chatuchak Weekend Market is a 35 acre hodge-podge of over 8,000 booths that sell just about anything you ever thought you needed and a whole lot more. It is widely considered one of the great bazaars of all of Asia. As its name implies, it is only fully open on Saturday and Sunday. As long as you feel comfortable bargaining with vendors, you can come away with fantastic deals.

Much of what is offered, comes from the hill people who make their living by selling their wares on weekends. For travelers, the BTS Skytrain’s last stop is right at the opening of the market. Bangkok is one of those special places in this world. The average person cannot come here without becoming a little reflective on the great material blessings most of us have in our home setting. And, even with all the din, the pollution, the over-crowding, the smothering smells, the de-habilitating heat and humidity, Bangkok remains an unpolished pearl of the Asian continent beckoning to travelers and promising to send them away enriched.

Bangkok--Assault on the Senses  

Traveler's first impressions of Bangkok.

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