10 Things I Now Know About Bangkok

It’s odd — in only three months I felt like I settled into Bangkok. We  made good friends, become part of a community, found meaningful service projects. I could see us living here. (I wonder if I will feel this way after each leg…)

But three months really is not enough time to write about all the things we did and felt and saw and thought. So here are some of the things my guidebooks didn’t tell me:

10. ) Time and people stand still at 6 p.m.

One of the more fascinating phenomenon I’ve observed happens everyday at 6 p.m. The national anthem is blared throughout the city from speakers on the street/radios/TV. If you are in a public setting (park, open air market, mall, etc.) you must stop what you are doing,  (unless you are driving, or course), stand, and keep silently motionless for the duration of the song.

After the song is done, everyone springs into action again. It’s a little unsettling, like seeing a wrinkle in the time-space continuum. Or a ginormous game of freeze tag.

Nice cars are the norm (although not quite this high-end) on the streets of Bangkok. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

Nice cars are the norm (although not quite this high-end) on the streets of Bangkok. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

9.) New cars are the norm

Stay in Bangkok long enough and you begin to notice that aside from the buses and tuk-tuks, most of the vehicles are shiny and new. I hadn’t thought about it until an older car passed by and I realized how much it stood out, like an old penny in a sea of dimes. A friend of Bjorn’s from Argentina who lives here now told us that having a nice car is very, very important. Two weeks after he hired someone, the new employee went out and bought a new car.

It makes me wonder: Where do all the “old” cars go? Are they recycled? Possibly, but I haven’t seen many scrap yards in town. Sent into the countryside? Also probable, but even an hour away from Bangkok, the streets are full of the latest models. So where do they go? The giant scrap heap in the sky? It’s a mystery.

8.) Style has gone out of fashion

Me checking out the Thai fashions. Yes, I bought that dress in Thailand (I didn't say ALL the dresses were bad.) (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

Me checking out the Thai fashions. Yes, I bought that dress in Thailand (I didn’t say ALL the dresses were bad.) (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

Now I’m  not the greatest fashionista in the world, but even I am unimpressed by the styles here. Even with the clothing being ridiculously cheap (I once bought a dress for 80 baht (about $2.67 USD)), I still am not tempted. This is saying quite a lot as I am a rabid bargain hunter and will usually buy clothing if it is a “good deal.” However,  cute items are too few  and far between. The sidewalk is no catwalk here, unless it’s to show off “hot” couture, i.e. clothing that is geared toward a warm and steamy environment. Most people wear ill-fitting, old T-shirts and jeans. Flip-flops are the shoes of choice. To be seen as really trendy, all one needs is a pair of Union Jack leggings.

When men dress up, they all look the same: solid-colored, long sleeved, slim-fit, collared button-down shirt tucked into slim-fit slacks, no tie, with sweat stains forming in the back. (Seriously, has no one heard of undershirts here?) But it’s better than the other standard uniform: khakis with a polo. “Dressy” dresses for women usually involve some frothy swaddling in pastel chiffon with or without a baby-blanket print that is worn un-ironically. Sometimes, if you are lucky, there is a crocheted collar.

But it’s all still better than balloon pants.

7.) No need to fear the toilets here

Before I came to Thailand, I was told horror stories that usually involved the words “squat toilets” and ended with “… and in the middle I discovered there was no tissue paper.” But in Bangkok, about 97 percent of the public restrooms are sparkling clean, with “throne-style” toilets and plenty of TP. Sometimes, the stalls even feature mini-hoses which function as a sort of flexible bidet. I’ve only been to two so far that didn’t have toilet paper (but had TP for sale at 3 baht a packet).

I’d go so far to say that Bangkok bathrooms are generally better than most of the public restrooms in the U.S., UK, Mexico, Canada, the Philippines and South Korea (I would’ve said the world, but I haven’t been everywhere. Yet.)

I know this is not an ant, but look at how huge this cockroach is! (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

I know this is not an ant, but look at how huge this cockroach is! (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

6.) The ants are out to get you

You can not stop them and they are EVERYWHERE. Bjorn had told me that in Asia, especially the countries with tropical climates, insects in everything are just a fact of life. However, I was unprepared for the magnitude and diversity of that scale. Big ants, little ants, red ones, black ones, even black ones with white butts mingle and cohabitate with the greatest of ease.

They don’t behave like the ants I am used to in California. The ants I’m familiar with plod along steadily in straight lines. Single ants traverse terrain carefully, stopping often to sniff around.

The ants here go berserk. They swarm walls in no discernible pattern. The scouts scurry frantically across surfaces at lightning speed. Once, I watched an ant stop and thrash its head around wildly for a good 15 seconds; it was better than any headbanger at a death-metal concert.

And they are AGGRESSIVE. Late at night, when typing up posts, I would feel little stings on my forearms. Sure enough, it was an ant biting me. (Thankfully, they are more annoying than painful; the bites feel like an arm hair being pulled out.)

A soi dog (and her puppies! a rare sight) in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

A soi dog (and her puppies! a rare sight) in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

5.) Every dog has its day — and its 7-Eleven

If you don’t like cats or dogs, Bangkok is not the place for you. The city is full of “soi” (street) dogs and cats. I’ve been told that because most of the population is Buddhist, they don’t kill any of them. As a result, it is not uncommon to see a dog and cat (or three) flopped in front of store entrances.  However, there is no need to be afraid of them. The dogs rarely bark, run or even seem to notice people. They usually shamble a few paces and then flop down. The cats are distinctly skittish and most run away from human contact.

Some observations I have gleaned due to my increased exposure to them: Cats yowling sound a lot like babies crying. Loudly. These wailings tend to occur any time from  midnight to 3 a.m., or anytime I am deeply asleep and having a pleasant dream. I have also learned that dogs like to howl at each other. Loudly. Again, during my moments of deepest slumber.

But I can’t blame them too much. I’d yowl and howl, too, if I were them. Although cats and dogs are allowed to live, I question the quality of those lives. Most of the soi dogs  are dirty and wear a heavy “nobody loves me” look heavily upon their faces. The cats are skinny with kinked or cut-off tails. Many of the rats are larger than the cats, which makes the prevalence of the rodents understandable. (Note: If you kick a trash bag on the street, 9 times out of 10 rats will come out of it.)

Fruit stands line a street in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

Fruit stands line a street in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

4.) Food is better than I imagined. Waaaaaay better.

I can’t emphasize enough that the food is worth the hype. Even though all the guidebooks rave about the food in Thailand, they don’t come close to fully extolling its glories. Rose Apples. Green Mangoes. Longans. Chicken with holy basil (that’s really its name), rice and a fried egg. Pink soup in Chinatown. Guavas as big as a softball that are white inside with few seeds. Coconut ice cream. Coconut ice cream with sticky rice. Chicken satay from street vendors. Morning glory in garlic sauce. Papaya salad. Tom Yum Kai.  That’s only a small sampling of the food I found delicious. Even the instant noodles taste better here.

The only downside to my food experience: fruit stand sellers. Some of them were  nice, but it’s very true: You get what you pay for. I thought I was in bargain heaven when I found a fruit vendor selling rose apples for 15 baht a kilo. However, she didn’t let me pick my own fruit and she gave me apples that were scarred and/or rotting. She kept a wall of the perfect fruit between us so I couldn’t see her picking out the defective fruit and putting them in a bag. Shady. The same thing happened when I found lanzones for 15 baht. When will I ever learn?

(Note: I keep reading advice that you’re always supposed to haggle with everyone, but in my experience, if the price for the food is displayed, especially in roman numerals, haggling is useless.)

Watch out for those taxis in Bangkok. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

Watch out for those taxis in Bangkok. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

3.) Taxi drivers are actively out to get you

I’ve written before about seemingly clueless taxi drivers that drive around in circles and drive the meter up. But did I mention that taxi drivers in Bangkok can, and often do, refuse to give people rides? Too many times we’ve given the name of our destination only to have the driver shake his head and drive off. It’s not uncommon to open the doors of at least 3 cabs before one will take you.

Here’s a typical experience:
We decided to take my dad to the Baiyoke Sky Hotel. We looked it up on a map and took the Airport Rail Link to the stop closest to the hotel. We could see the hotel rising from among a cluster of hotels, but were unsure of how to get there so we decided to take a cab. We figured we were safe because we were close enough.

The first cab driver flatly refused to take us and drove off. The second driver spoke fairly good English and was a happy, jovial guy. He kept up a steady stream of conversation and asked if it was OK to make a U-turn. We were impressed with his integrity. Then he made a series of turns through tiny, narrow streets to take a shortcut to the hotel. We were impressed with his skill. We gave him a large tip in honor of his friendliness and his efforts to get us to the hotel so quickly. Later, when we came out of the hotel, we asked the doorman how to get to the Airport Rail Link station. He pointed straight down the street and said, “It’s five minutes away.”

“Oh, you mean by taxi?” Bjorn asked.

“No,” he said, “just walk. Look, you can see it from here.” He grabbed Bjorn’s arm and had him stand next to him, and yes indeedy, you could see the station from the steps of the hotel. Sigh.

Now my rules for riding in cabs in Bangkok are:
1.) Don’t get in one unless you have someone with you who can speak Thai;
2.) Don’t get in one unless you already know how to get to your destination;
3.) Don’t get in one unless you have copious amounts of cash to blow.

Pictures of the King of Thailand can be seen all over Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

Pictures of the King of Thailand can be seen all over Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

2.) If you’re going to talk about the King, do it in a whisper. Behind a closed door. To yourself.

Thais really love their king. Before watching a movie, a picture montage of the King is shown. Everyone must stand in silence while watching it. The King is so revered that there is a law against speaking negatively about him. One can be arrested for doing so. In fact, while we were here, a journalist was arrested for just questioning whether or not the country should still have that rule.

Obviously, speech is not quite so free in Bangkok. Protection from criticism/bad pictures seems to extend to the military/government/other members of the royal family.  People rarely talk in public about these things, even the foreigners. If such talk is done at all, it is done in hushed tones and low voices, with many a furtive glance around. Even in private, enclosed spaces. More than one person has told us, “You never know who could be listening.”

1.) Bangkok is a city with a lot of momentum.

Sometimes Bangkok looks like a scene out of "Bladerunner" to me. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)

Sometimes Bangkok looks like a scene out of “Bladerunner” to me. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)

Bjorn and I were struck by how Bangkok is teeming with potential. Practically on every block, new skyscrapers are being built. Within two weeks of arriving in Bangkok, Bjorn and I had four job offers, three of them to teach English. We were amazed at how easy it would be to live well by teaching in Bangkok. A foreign teacher at a high-end international school can make 90,000 baht (about $3,000 USD) a month (depending on education and nationality). While that doesn’t sound like much, consider the living costs: a nice apartment can be had for 7,000 baht; food expenses 10,000 baht (and that’s eating out every day for every meal and throwing in some nice restaurants), transportation: 1,500 baht (BTS card, bus/taxi/tuk-tuk fare). Total: 18,500 baht. Which means you can save 71,500 baht a month, or $2,383 USD. Even if you threw in a couple of vacations, you could conceivably save $24,000 a year. I don’t know many people who can save even half of that amount. Put another way: If you made $100,000 USD a year, that amount represents more than 20 percent of your income.

We’re headed to Buenos Aires, Argentina next. I’m excited, but I’m going to miss you, Bangkok!

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