June 9, 2017
I had been chatting for a couple weeks with a woman from Brazil who planned to visit Thailand and would be staying in Bangkok for a couple days. We made plans to meet on this past Saturday. She told me she would be staying in the borough of Banglamphu, near but not on Khao San road. Banglamphu is actually a pretty nice area, most of its streets lined with trees and shop-houses, and it’s right near many of Bangkok’s most popular attractions, including Wat Pho and the Grand Palace.
Khao San road and the area immediately surrounding it, though, in my opinion, is an absolute cultural wasteland. I loathed it. I saw more westerners there in ten minutes than I did in two months living in the city. Khao San is a cartoon version of Bangkok, a gross exaggeration, like a film set designed by someone who has never visited the city. The thought that some people visit Bangkok and see only this part of it is profoundly disheartening. It would be like visiting Montreal and spending all your time on or around Crescent Street, or St-Paul in Old Montreal. It would be like going to New York and spending all your time on Time’s Square and nowhere else.
Khao San is the only place I’ve seen scorpions being sold; that doesn’t happen anywhere else and is an invention for tourists alone. I finally saw people wearing “traditional” Thai clothing, but these were dread-locked back-packers. Again: this is the equivalent to walking down Sparks Street in Ottawa and seeing Thai tourists wearing full lumberjack garb. It’s ridiculous. And to make matters worse, these back-packers are exactly the type to proudly say they never frequent resorts while traveling…believe me, Khao San road IS a resort, a space designed for (and, in some ways, by) tourists and embedded into the city proper. It’s also rife with touts (people trying to aggressively sell you crap) and scam artists (I was sorry to have to tell the young woman I met that, no, the Grand Palace wasn’t closed, she’d been lied to and taken for a ride, a popular scam in the area). It’s also where Thai friendliness seems to reach its limit as the service is more rushed and curt here, though I certainly don’t blame them. Every week there’s a story in the news here of some westerner breaking the law in a catastrophically idiotic way. It must be a nightmare dealing with us on a daily basis in this context.
I’m not one to chase “authenticity”, but this was a bridge too far. I genuinely can’t think of a single reason to stay on or near Khao San road, unless your comfort zone is so razor thin that you’ve flown 15-30 hours only to spend time with Brits, Americans, Australians and Germans. If someone wanted a lively atmosphere, great food and proximity to the main sights, I’d say stay in Chinatown. Avoid Khao San the way you would a badly run resort. Seriously.
Okay, rant over.
All that said, there are some wonderful things to see in the area outside Khao San. There are several important Wat, or temples, including Wat Suthat with it’s massive seated Buddha. I would also be returning to the area (but steering clear of Khao San) a few days later to visit the aforementioned Grand Palace and Wat Pho.
I took the young woman on a bit of a long stroll outside the area immediately surrounding Khao San. Despite being Brazilian, she was not used to the heat but she seemed to appreciate seeing a part of the city not choked with white faces. After a roadside drink we parted ways. I realized it was my first time playing guide in my new home, an oddly satisfying feeling.
The following day I left the city for the Damnoen Saduak floating market, the largest one in the area. This is, admittedly, another tourist trap, though it’s as popular with Thais as it is with foreigners and at least demonstrates a unique part of Thai history and culture. There was a time when Bangkok commerce was entirely dependent on its canals and the floating markets that populated them. With the advent of motorized transport, the floating markets were rendered largely redundant and many canals were filled and replaced with roads and highways.
Today, the floating markets exist mainly as a relic of the past and are entirely sustained through tourism. This is especially true of Damnoen Saduak, which trades mostly in knickknacks and crafts with a bit of fresh and prepared food thrown in. Other floating markets sell only food, like floating food stalls.
I went with a local friend. She had arranged for a van to pick me up at a hotel near my place—she was picked up first—and take us about an hour and half outside of Bangkok, where we transferred to a long-tail boat which traveled the canals (or klongs) to the market. There, we hopped in a small boat—one of dozens upon dozens. It was rather hilarious: boats clustered in the canal like heavy traffic, people gawking and taking photos (myself among them) and merchants shouting things like, “Nice lady want nice hat?”
It was hectic and chaotic and I wouldn’t do it every weekend, but it’s certainly a sight to see. Once we got out of the boat, vendors crowded around us with menus, trying to get us to eat at their tables. The food was fine but wildly overpriced. Of course, why wouldn’t they charge more? We have nowhere else to eat while there. If I returned, or went somewhere similar, I would eat a large meal before going and bring snacks.
After the market, the van took us to a nearby park, more a sort of amusement park for tourists offering elephant rides and “monkey shows”. We both knew this was the kind of shady outfit where animals were mistreated and put on display so we simply walked around and had a coffee, avoiding any of the “attractions.” I did get a few good photos of a young elephant named Tookie. She was rather adorable and waved at tourists with her trunk and posed for photos. But I couldn’t help wonder exactly how she was trained to do these things . . . The treatment of elephants in Thailand is a big problem. The animals eat up to three hundred pounds of food every day, so to keep them around it’s felt that they should be monetized. Luckily, there are more and more elephant rescue organizations cropping up who care for the elephants, allow visitors to visit or volunteer for a fee, and find other more ethical and sustainable ways to make money off the animals.
Anyway, it was a fun weekend of unique experiences with great people.
Oh, and I found a way to save a bit more money! I was buying six-packs of liter-sized bottles of water, then switched to six liter-sized bottles, but I’d discovered these water vending machines where you can refill empty bottles with purified water! It reduces waste, of course, but also saves a ton of money: a new six liters of water at the store is about 60 baht, but a refill is . . . 3 baht. This would save me an estimated $100 or more over the course of the year, which is about the cost of a ticket from Bangkok to Phuket, where I planned to go for a long weekend in July.