On one hand, Bangkok is an overwhelming introduction to Asia. Smog, heat, humidity and precariouly open sewage are the delightful first impressions of the densely-populated capital of Thailand. First impressions, however, are rarely accurate. Bangkok is in fact more oderly than first appears: public transport is cheap, efficient and comfortable, where the train won’t take you, boats will, queueing is mandatory, making Britain appear a chaotic free-for-all, and everybody is willing to help a lost foreigner. While the sheer volume of tourism can be off-putting, almost 20 million visitors per year, the benefit is that locals are accustomed to foreigners, making Bangkok the perfect entry point into the region.
Above all, there is one reason why Bangkok is the perfect place to arrive. A culinary capital, exciting and tasty meals lurk on every street corner. You are never far from an old lady with a cart, a cooker, and some produce, ready to prepare unbeatable noodles or superb grilled meat and fish. Vegetables and fruits are ubiquitous, creating a cheap, healthy food culture that even unadventurous foreigners would find tough to resist. While fancy fare is available, for those of us on a budget a filling meal will rarely cost more than $4-5, often a lot less.
Initiation came by way of an extremely spicy pork and aubergine curry with steamed rice, at a small street food market near our hostel by Chong Nonsi Skytrain station (Good One Hostel & Cafe Bar, £8 per night and very comfortable). The flavours were superb, chillies, pork, aubergines, lemongrass and garlic attacking your tastebuds with a sucker punch. My immediate thought was one of slight panic: superb flavours, but unsustainable heat levels on a six-week trip. Luckily, Matt, my travel partner, and I seem to have opted for a particularly hot dish, and subsequent fare was been more manageable.
Dinner on day one was my chance to sample my first Pad Thai, a huge improvement on what’s available in London. Not too sweet, sour lime, and dried shrimp gave it an interesting, complex set of flavours. At around £1.50, it was a bargain!
While day two was reserved for tourism, it is the food that will stick in my mind. Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaeo are two fascinating, grand Buddhist temples in the city centre. Wat Phra Kaeo is larger and attracts more visitors, being Thailand’s holiest site. The Emerald Buddha is located in a beautiful bot (sanctuary), though at only 75cm it is hard to get a good view. Wat Pho was smaller, less busy, and more beautiful; entry was also far cheaper. The 45-metre reclining gold Buddha something every visitor to Bangkok should see. But the grilled chicken hearts by the river were the real highlight.
Dinner was a feast of Thai dishes in a small restaurant in Silom, including a superb green curry and tom kha kai, a spicy soup made with coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice and lemongrass. A side order of fried pork with sesame seeds and a Korean-style barbecue sauce capped off an excellent meal.
On Saturdays in Bangkok the Chatuchak Weekend Market is the place to be. Open since the 1940s, over 8,000 stalls are densely packed offering everything under the sun, from clothes to household items, remedies to electronics, and, unfortuntely, several endangered animals as pets. Of course, there is top-quality food as well. A couple of hours wandering around the market led to the purchase of a shirt, some tiger balm, and possibly my favourite dish from Bangkok, thick sen yai noodles with brocolli, chicken and molasses, which made all the difference. The three cost less than a fiver.
On to Chinatown for dinner. If you’ve been to London’s Chinatown, don’t expect many similarities. In Bangkok, Chinatown is busier, noisier, dirtier, bigger, and better. Food stalls line the streets, competing with restaurants for space and customers. After wandering aimlessly for around half an hour, several old Chinese men stopping to talk or give advice, or to remark on Matt’s height, we finally found what we were looking for: roast duck and barbecue pork with noodles at a street restaurant with a few plastic tables, where space to sit can be hard to find. A dessert of chicken satay with peanut sauce and a 3-0 victory for Arsenal over Chelsea capped off a wonderful day.
Bangkok is somewhat of a love-hate city. The hedonism can be overbearing, as can the concentration of alcohol-infused foreigners. The heat, pollution and overcrowding can feel stifling. But it’s main attraction, at least for me, is the sheer variety of food on offer, at any time of the day and for any price. Just one piece of advice: eating a scorpion is not worth the novelty photograph, don’t do it!