Having been to the airport six times, I figured it was finally time to visit Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.
December 22, 2019: Rooftop Bars and Red Lights
Bangkok is known for its traffic, but I was able to get into the city very easily using the SkyTrain- basically a subway suspended in air. The train took me to my hostel in about 25 minutes.
Based on the recommendation of a friend, I walked over to the Jim Thompson House. This was the home of an American entrepreneur who revived the ancient Thai silk industry. The home was built in a traditional Thai style and was full of amazing ancient artifacts. This was how I imagine my future home to be. The home was packed with tourists. Because the artifacts are there in-situ without any ropes blocking the way, everyone must take a guided tour. The tour guide’s speech was robotic and we moved through the home very quickly- understandable given the volume of tourists. I was shocked by the bad behavior of the tourists. People were trying to touch the artifacts. In one case, someone almost knocked over a 1,000-year old vase. Somehow the tour guide kept her cool- it is apparently against Buddhist beliefs to lose one’s temper.
I then met up with a business school friend for dinner at a restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms. They had another branch in Chiang Rai that was so popular I couldn’t get in. The restaurant is a non-profit and the money raised goes towards funding reproductive health projects in Thailand. We then got drinks at a nearby rooftop bar. The city seems to go on forever.
My friend wanted to go to a second rooftop bar, but we struggled to find a taxi. The actual rate to make the 1-kilometer trip was 35 baht, but nobody would take us for less than 200 baht (we got rejected at least 10 times). For reference, in Chiang Rai, 200 baht is the hourly price to rent a taxi. We eventually used the app Grab to get a taxi for the honest price but it took nearly 20 minutes.
The second rooftop bar was above a beautiful mall that could give anything in the US a run for its money. The malls in Asia are the best in the world
To reach the second rooftop bar, we had to take 3 elevators and a staircase. Eventually we ended up on the roof of this 60-story high rise. Unlike most other rooftop bars, this one had unobstructed 360-degree views of the city! With this view came a cost- the drinks were $20…in Thailand…the same price as 2 nights in my hostel. That said, this was the best rooftop bar I’ve ever been to so in my mind it was worth the price.
At the suggestion of my girlfriend (yes, I got her blessing), I then visited the infamous red-light district called Nana Plaza. I have never/am not a fan of these type of places, but Bangkok’s red light districts (yes there are a few) are among the largest tourist attractions in the country and I have been told that they are a spectacle.
It is no secret that Thailand is known for its sex tourism, but I did not realize the scale of it until I visited Nana Plaza. The 3-story mall has approximately 50 “go-go” bars. It was a Sunday night and the place was packed with tourists- not only single men but also couples and in one instance a family of four.
Each bar has free entrance but once you go inside, you are taken to a seat and forced to buy a drink for at least $5. Each seat has a view of a stage. On the stage are between 5-20 dancing bikini-clad girls each with a number. If you like the girl, you can request for them to talk to you. If that happens the dancer will aggressively try to get you to buy her a drink- another $5 or even more. Interestingly, the “lady drinks” are not the same as the drinks you can order- they are shot-sized and probably non-alcoholic. They then talk to you in broken English. Eventually the barmaid will give you a “menu” with the price to take the girl home. The price is about $100 plus a $25-30 commission to the bar. If/when you deny the request, the girl will walk away immediately to go dancing again.
These bars are very good at extracting money from customers. My guess is that, due to the insane prices, these bars and the strippers probably make good money. In Thailand, there is no pimp culture- all the girls are self-employed.
Red light districts and strip clubs are not something I generally care to visit but this was definitely worth it to see the incredible scale and brazenness of the operation in a country where prostitution is technically outlawed.
December 23, 2019: Muy Thai Night
After a day trip to see the temples in Ayutthaya, I arrived back in Bangkok at the incredibly undersized central train station. To reach my hostel in the “Old Town”, Google Maps suggested I take a public ferry. The directions wound me through some extremely narrow passageways and I eventually reached a dock adjacent to the city’s Marine Department offices.
For just 15 baht (50 cents), I got onto a crowded ferry. We zipped up the Chao Phraya River and after a few stops arrived just a few blocks from my hostel.
This happened to a Monday which is fight night at Rajadamnern Stadium, Bangkok’s main Muy Thai (Thai boxing) arena. I paid $30 (1,000 baht) for the cheapest ticket in the house. The box office tried to pressure me into buying a more expensive ticket by warning me that the cheap tickets are “standing room only with Thai people”. To me, that was a benefit. In reality, the Thai people all stand on one side, so there is plenty of room to sit.
Muy Thai is similar to western-style boxing except both hands and feet can be used. In fact, most of the blows seem to be from the feet or knees.
A Muy Thai fight is five rounds and fighters can win by either knockout or by judges’ scores.
A number of unofficial rules or customs dictated the fights. For the first two rounds, the fighters wouldn’t really fight, they would almost fake fight and slowly kick. During the third and fourth rounds, they would fight all out. During the fifth round, they would fight for the first minute or two at which point if the fight was one-sided, they would touch gloves and do nothing.
There are two schools of thought regarding these unofficial rules. The first school of reasoning is that they are trying to truly figure out who the best fighter is. During the first two rounds, they discover the opponent’s style before the real fight in rounds 3 and 4 when the crowd would go absolutely wild. During the final round, the winner is generally obvious and so the fighters want to ensure a freak knockout doesn’t spoil the victory of the best fighter. The other school of thought is that these customs are in place for the rabid gambling that takes place during fights. During the first two rounds, the gamblers want to scout out the fighters and see their styles before placing bets. During the last round, the gamblers don’t want to be spoiled by a freak knockout. The right answer will never be known for sure, but my guess is the latter because I have never seen so much brazen gambling being done.
The arena had concessions, which they sold to us through a hole in the fence separating the cheap seats from the expensive seats. For some reason, the only alcoholic drink available was jungle juice. They had 4 different varieties.
The fights went on for about 5 hours, but I had seen enough after 3. I headed back to my hostel and played dare jenga (a very popular backpacker game – each block has a dare on it). .
At midnight the hostel was forced to close the bar so we all went out to the infamous Khao San Road. I would describe it as a combination of Times Square and Bourbon Street. I had briefly seen it during the day but the road was now packed. Amongst the bars and restaurants were dozens of street vendors selling pad Thai, edible scorpions, and laughing gas. We got some beers and danced on the street outside one of the bars. The music- mostly Western dance numbers from the last 10 years- was so loud. We danced and avoided the creepy hawkers for an hour or so before I called it.
I find Khao San Road sad. It shows Southeast Asia at its worst: sex tourism, bad food, international chains, touts, and expensive prices. This road becomes people’s impression of Bangkok and oftentimes the first impression of Southeast Asia as a whole.
Click here to read Part 2 where I see a better part of the city.