Where do I start with Bangkok? First off, the thing that strikes you first when driving into the city is the size. Bangkok is enormous. A sprawl of skyscrapers, temples, mega-malls, and apartment buildings. It seems to stretch on forever as the smog obscures the true horizon line, one neighborhood blending into another. The second thing that you notice is the smell. Not necessarily a bad smell, but not a pleasing one either. The mass of humanity, mopeds, tuk-tuks, taxis, boats, busses and trains all blend seamlessly with the sewers, stagnate water, and street stalls specializing in exotic fried insects and banana pancakes. Bangkok is by far the largest city in Thailand and one of the larges in the world with 12 million residing within its boarders. This number does not account for the millions of visitors Bangkok hosts at any given time- more so during the Christmas holiday season. The city is a dizzying maze of streets, alleys, markets, and waterways. Even a GPS device is almost useless. The only way to truly find your way around Bangkok is to walk- to explore the mayhem by foot until you have your bearings then move on to the SkyTrain (an above ground subway) then graduate to the river taxis. Bangkok becomes manageable once you begin using all these option together.
We spent 4 days in Bangkok, not nearly enough to even begin scratching the surface. I had a few goals in mind when arriving- one of which was to see the new Star Wars movie. Seeing a movie in Thailand, especially in Bangkok, is an experience. The theaters are state of the art. Seating is usually in large recliners and some have the option for couches where you can spread out your dinner brought from outside and snuggle under blankets provided by the theater. Films always begin with a tribute to the king and all are required to stand while the royal hymn is played. The king is loved and revered in Thailand and is the longest serving head of state in the world. Most of the movie theaters are located within the many mega-malls throughout the city. In one area of the city there are at least 5 such malls within a couple miles of each other. We visited Terminal-21, a mega-mall built to mimic an airport terminal. Upon entering the main lobby, there are "officers" to salute you and "stewardesses" to guide you to your desired destination. The mall is 6 stories high and topped off with a 12 screen theater. Each floor has a speciality with one floor housing tiny pop-up boutique stores by local designers. Some are no bigger than a broom closet but items are often hand made, one-of-a-kinds.
We explored Bangkok for 4 exhausting days. One of the things you will continually see around the city are the many kathoey or lady-boys. Most often an effeminate, gay male, lady boys are perceived in Thai culture as belonging to a third gender. In many cases, the lady boys are nearly indistinguishable from their female colleagues. Another common sight is the older farang (a thai term for anyone of European descent) and young Thai companion (male, female or kathoey). It is so common that we began making a game of keeping count everytime we spotted such a couple. Obviously, the sex trade in Bangkok is pretty well known, but it was still quite eye opening to see it so out in the open. Partly regulated and routinely tolerated, prostitution is everywhere in Bangkok. In many cases the practice is protected by corrupt local officials.
Above all, Bangkok is a great place. The city has a pulse unlike any other place I have visited. Seemingly chaotic on the surface, but very sedate underneath. It has a natural coolness about it and does not have to try hard to impress.. Like an onion, it must be pealed away layer by layer to get to the good stuff. We will be going back in January to uncover more of that good stuff.