Bewildered in Bangkok
An introduction to life in a very new city
Nothing quite prepares you for the first blast of heat when you step out of the airport.
It’s early in the morning, your body thinks it’s yesterday, and you’ve spent the past hour and a half waiting in the immigration queue while your supportive inner monologue insists that you’ve brought the wrong documents, eaten your own passport, personally and mortally insulted the officer, or all of the above. I’m not sure I could have confidently told you my own name at this point.
Stepping out into near 30 degrees at 7am snaps me out of this stupor with a brief message: welcome to Thailand, this is where you live now.
This is something of a drastic change for me. I’m not exactly a globetrotter historically. My residential history reads: Southern England, different part of Southern England, London. Frankie, my infinitely better half, is positively exotic in comparison as she is from a faraway land called Wales.
We started talking about living in Thailand a few years ago now after a brief visit in 2014. It remained a pipe dream until this summer, when we were both a bit bored of London and miraculously both managed to line up job opportunities in Bangkok. And so, after a couple of months waiting for visas, here we are.
Anyway, enough about us. You came here looking for some mind-blowing insights about life in Bangkok, and you’re going to get them. Buckle up.
Boom. Minds blown. You’re welcome.
But no, seriously, it is. I’m British, which means two things: 1) if you cut me I bleed weather-related small talk and 2) my optimum temperature shall not exceed 15 degrees.
It’s been about 33 degrees since we arrived in Bangkok – apparently this is the ‘cool’ season. Walking out of an air-conditioned building into the real world feels like stepping into a hot bath, day and night. For the first few days it felt like a holiday, so the heat was a good thing, but it’s a novelty that quickly wears off. I also immediately regret packing four sweaters and a coat.
I think the heat plays a part in how the city is set up. Bangkok is legendary for traffic – we were out flat hunting last week and sat for an hour trying to get off a bridge. We moved maybe 200 metres, but those metres were cool and air-conditioned.
People don’t really seem to walk if it can be avoided, even over fairly short distances. In fairness, part of this may be due to the particularly hazardous nature of walking in Bangkok. In physics there is a law that gases will spread to evenly fill the space of their container. In Bangkok this is true of motorbikes, whether that space be road or pavement. Pedestrian crossings are magical in that they render the pedestrian invisible to passing traffic, while a green man can be thought of as an expression of good luck in the face of hopeless odds, and motorbikes.
Shopping malls are a big feature of the city, presumably because they have all the things you find in a high street, but without melting. In the UK, a shopping centre is a place to get ripped off while surrounded by roaming packs of feral teenagers. Here it’s an entire town in an air-conditioned box, and it’s a great place to find…(prepare yourself for another revelation)
Great food for pennies
Again, you’re welcome. Eating in Bangkok is a very pleasant experience. We haven’t dived into the full on street vendor approach, but in part that’s because the stuff that’s available in the malls is so good for the same price. All of the malls have food courts which serve an array of Thai and international grub for basically no money – nothing we have eaten so far has cost more than 200baht (£5) in total, for two people. The Thai people we have spoken to have all recommended the mall food courts and it’s hard to argue for the price and quality, plus it’s indoors and you don’t have to sit next to a road while a passing bus seasons your meal with diesel.
We’re still very much afraid of spice; especially so as Frankie ordered a fish ‘medium spicy’ on our first night and has barely recovered. It turns out, surprise surprise, that medium spicy here can equate to pure, unending fire by our standards. Hopefully we’ll get used to that…if not, Big Macs are pretty cheap.
Welcoming people and a slight language barrier
Thailand markets itself as the Land of Smiles, and they do a great job of living up to that given how intensely annoying we must be. My current Thai vocab stretches to ‘hello’, ‘thankyou’, ‘excuse me’ and ‘not spicy please’. Around 50% of the time I accidentally refer to myself as a woman, to endless and richly justified mirth, and the other 50% I’m almost definitely mispronouncing the words to the extent that they’re total gibberish.
Fun fact about Thai: it’s a tonal language, so the same word can have 5 totally different meanings depending on your tone of voice. To give you a real example, last night we ate a delicious homemade dessert called ‘kluai buat chi’ that translates to ‘banana in coconut milk’. If you say ‘chi’ in a slightly different tone it translates to more like ‘banana in piss’ – an altogether different dessert served in an altogether different Bangkok.
So while I’ve been getting off the Skytrain (as fun as it sounds) and saying what I think is a polite ‘excuse me please’ to fellow passengers, it’s quite likely that I’ve simply been shouting ‘Trousers! Badger! Ketchup!’ at startled commuters.
We’re both learning Thai (Frankie has classes and I mimic her like a parrot), but it’s going to be a long process.
So, there’s where we’re at. Mouths on fire, sweating like pigs, potentially hurling insults at friendly and welcoming people, but enjoying every minute!
This piece is just a starter for 10. As we get our bearings I’ll try to post stuff that is either interesting, useful or has nice pictures. Onwards and upwards.
- The Mae Salong loop: An easy Northern Thailand road trip - November 28, 2020
- Songkhla: a hidden gem in Southern Thailand - October 26, 2020
- Review: A stellar Lunch at Gaggan Anand, Bangkok - September 27, 2020