Bangkok, Thailand: Sensory Explosion

Bangkok, Thailand: Sensory Explosion

Gateway to Asia. Street food capital of the world. Center of the backpacker universe. The most visited city on Earth. Sin City of the East. A relentless, chaotic assault on the senses – drenched in neon and sweat and chili paste. Brash, unapologetic, loud.

To say I was excited to arrive in Bangkok is an understatement as massive as the roaring metropolis itself. But hooooly shit.  What I found in ‘the city of angels’ was the sensory explosion I’d anticipated, a hundred times over. This place is absolutely nuts.

It’s impossible to describe the feeling of walking through the streets of Bangkok, but I’m going to give it my best shot. It’s hellaciously hot, day and night. Temps touched 104 during my stay in town. It’s loud, and raucous, and teeming with people – BKK has approximately the same population as NYC, and traffic jams that seem decidedly worse. There’s a pervasive stench: a maelstrom of street food, sweat, pollution, tropical fruit, garbage, and exhaust – but like New York, again, you get a bit endeared to it in a way. The streets are swarming with motorbikes, their exhaust notes adding to the mad chorus of noise. It has this strange recurring duality, time and time again: destitution and extravagance. Spirituality and debauchery. Delightful and deplorable. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a polarizing place.

One thing’s for sure: You could live a million lifetimes in this city and never have the same day twice. My week here barely scratched the surface, but I definitely got a taste of the madness.  I began my stay in the old city, which houses most of its famous temples (‘wats’, to the Thais) and places of spiritual and religious significance. Beautiful and ornate, these sites are highly revered amongst Thais, and are predominately representative of Buddhism, and to a lesser degree, Hinduism. I made stops at The Grand Palace, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn), Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), and Wat Saket (Temple of the Golden Mount) – but there are many, many more temples and shrines dotted throughout the city.

Teeming with tourists, monks, and local worshippers alike, these sites offer a glimpse into Thailand’s complex and ancient belief systems. Their extravagance and scale is hard to put into words – these structures are absolutely gorgeous, towering above the massive crowds in glistening gold and meticulous detail, bearing craftsmanship the likes of which I’ve rarely seen. The sheer scale of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, for example, is so astonishingly large that my wide angle lens didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of capturing even a small section – it’s 150 feet long and 50 feet tall. You can’t appreciate just how big that is until it’s towering over you.

Wat Pho is also notable for being ground zero for the art of traditional Thai massage – a practice that is taught on-site at the temple in a massage school, open to anyone who wants to learn. Thai massage is not exactly gentle – practitioners crack your knuckles and toes, apply extreme pressure with their thumbs, elbows and knees, contort and stretch your body in ways you didn’t realize you were physically capable of achieving, and generally evoke groans and grunts from their victims – err, customers. But boy, do you feel great afterwards! Like most everything else in Thailand, massage is impossibly cheap relative to equivalent services back in the states. I had three during my stay (hey, when in Rome!), and as an example, the most luxurious amongst them was 2 hours (1 hour traditional Thai massage + 1 hour aromatherapy oil massage) and cost me ฿650 (approx. $20 US).

Equally ubiquitous in this capital city is delicious, aromatic, spicy, flavorful street food. Around practically every corner you turn, there are street vendors working from motorbikes, roadside stalls, open storefronts, roving carts, and plastic tables, creating the fuel that most of Bangkok thrives on. The tastes and smells are overwhelming: absolute sensory assault. The very first Thai phrase I learned, aside from hello, was ‘phet mak mak’: very, very spicy. As an unabashed spice masochist, I wondered whether Bangkok would humble me and put me in my place – but I’m pleased to say ‘Thai hot’ is just right for me, and my reverence for capsaicin earned me more than a few accepting nods from locals pleased with a rare visiting ‘farang’ (read: white person) who could stand the heat.

I put Thai street food to the test on several occasions, but one of the more memorable outings was with a tour I booked with Bangkok Food Tours, during which a local helped navigate me through the streets via Tuk Tuk between the hours of 7:30 and midnight, eating my fill and then some. Pad thai, papaya salad, fried catfish, tom yung goong soup, mango sticky rice, the list goes on.

The other most memorable roadside dining experience came just wandering around Yaowarat Road, which is basically street food mecca in Bangkok’s Chinatown. It was there that I tried kuay jap nam sai, legitimately one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. It’s not much to look at, but holy flavor bomb: it’s basically an ultra-peppery broth with rice noodle rolls, an optional egg, crispy pork belly, and offal – a grab bag of other pig parts that’d sour most western palates at mention alone. Let me tell you though, it was well worth the 60 bhat ($1.90) and the immense amount of sweat that comes from eating a steaming hot bowl of peppery soup in 92 degree heat on a packed street at 10 PM.

After having lived in hostels for a few months, I’d decided it was about time for a few #treatyoself days – so I figured I’d better do it right. I cashed in some Starwood hotel points and booked a few nights at the St. Regis Bangkok, an extravagantly posh property that spoiled me half to death for 2 nights. After arriving with truffles, fresh fruit, and coffee shortly after check-in, my personal 24hr. on-call butler (seriously) was kind enough to press one of my shirts in time for my dinner reservation – which happened to be right next door at Gaggan, rated the #7 Best restaurant in the world (and #1 in Asia). I’d made this reservation months in advance after having seen Chef Gaggan Anand on Netflix’s absolutely gorgeous Chef’s Table. Despite the hype and expectations that come with visiting a restaurant trumpeted as being one of the 10 best in the entire world… Gaggan did not disappoint.

What followed over my 2.5 hour dining experience was an exhibition of food as theater. A dozen of us were seated directly in the kitchen ‘laboratory’ as they’ve deemed it, watching the chefs work their magic and interacting directly with the artists as they worked. The atmosphere was incredibly playful and interactive – far from stuffy or self-important. That idea was hinted early on, with a menu bearing only 25 emoji – no text – depicting the courses we’d soon indulge in. 

As the meal continued, the lightheartedness too persisted. Dishes were paired with songs – most notably the dish called ‘👅‘, which diners were literally instructed to lick directly off of our plates as Kiss’s “Lick it Up” blared over the speakers – perhaps the biggest cheeky middle finger to traditional fine dining I’ve ever witnessed. Another dish, a foie gras tart, was served alongside a fresh spray of yuzu juice on our free hand – with the direction that we should sniff that hand while eating the dish. The interplay between taste and smell was unbelievable.

In fact, unbelievable is a good word for the entire 25-course meal. Dish after dish, I was delighted with insane flavors, rich with exotic spices only found in India’s bold cuisine, disguised in playful ways that tricked the mind into expecting one thing and tasting another altogether. Everything was absolutely superb, and the presentation of each dish was jaw-dropping. It’s no exaggeration to say this was the best meal of my life – and I’ve patronized a handful of that World’s 50 Best list. Check out the photos!

The rest of my time in Bangkok is an absolute whirlwind, best portrayed as a collection of snapshots: A free roadside muay thai match in a busy downtown shopping district.

A timely haircut at an incredibly cool barber shop, tucked in a back alley and attached to a speakeasy whiskey bar (naturally, including a few drams on the house for those getting a trim).

Incredible views from rooftop bars. 

A beer bar with one of the best tap lists I’ve ever seen — and one of the single rarest and most sought after beers I’ve ever had the privilege to try: Founder’s CBS – a maple-infused bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout that tastes as amazing as it sounds.

A husky cafe with 30 gorgeous dogs to accompany you while you sip your coffee.

A ‘4DX’ screening of Black Panther at one of Bangkok’s ultra-luxe movie theaters: Think RealD 3D + hydraulic seating that moves with the action, water sprayers, simulated wind and fog, strobe lighting, etc. (Great film, by the way)!

Strolls through the city’s notorious redlight districts, crawling with tourists, prostitutes, and the infamous and ubiquitous ladyboys.

…All in a typical week in Thailand’s capital city. 

If that all sounds exhausting, believe me: it is. And when you add in a little dose of food poisoning to the mix (I suppose that’s inevitable, eh?), I really needed to spend the last few days in town taking it easy. Lucky for me, I happened to have booked my final three nights in town at an absolutely gorgeous hostel called The Yard. 

Tucked away in the hip and quiet Ari neighborhood – essentially BKK’s Williamsburg – this was the most amazing place to spend a relaxing last couple of days. I really fell in love with the neighborhood: quiet, yet a quick BTS train ride to all the action. Packed with cafes, coffee shops, and its own little bustling street food quarter. Young, modern, and frequented by both locals and expats despite being firmly off the standard tourist itinerary. And just take a look at the hostel itself! Stressful.

…So that’s where I’m writing this post from now. And while I don’t leave Bangkok until tomorrow afternoon, I don’t expect to do much of anything between now and then aside from take it easy and watch a movie or two. 

Tomorrow, I’ll make my way to my first of Thailand’s idyllic islands, on an itinerary that’ll take me over the next few weeks to Koh Samui, Koh Phagnan, Koh Tao, Phuket, Khao Lak and the Surin Islands, and Phang Nga Bay : it’s all white sand and blue water in my near future. A welcome respite from the madness I just endured, to be sure! Looking forward to telling you about it soon.

2 thoughts on “Bangkok, Thailand: Sensory Explosion

  1. thank you for this
    i am in the middle of negotiating a contract to work in Bangkok for a year – leaving my husband and family behind – for an adventure.

    your blog helped tremendously

    I may hit you up for other advice

    1. I’m glad you found this post helpful, Sharon! Sounds like you have an awesome adventure ahead, Bangkok is a wonderful treasure trove of a city. Let me know if you have any questions. I have one of my own: how’d you stumble across my blog? 🙂 Cheers!

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