Updated: Aug 7, 2022
“Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination.” These are the opening lyrics of the song “Pure Imagination” from the classic 1971 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While Willy Wanka was singing about the bizarre chocolate coated universe of his creation, he might as easily have been describing Siam, a 21st century “land of milk and honey” known today as Thailand. To the eyes, the dazzling landscape sparkles bright in monochromatic patinas that are sometimes magenta, others cyan, definitely turquoise, whatever colors your heart desires. Here, the senses are saturated with the taste of exquisite street food, eye popping beaches, rainbow-colored Koi fish, gargantuan Iguanas, roaring elephants, humming crowds, boundless inventories of cheap goods, mesmerizing temples, beautiful women, and blissful happiness. No wonder Siam is known as the “Land of Smiles.”
Yim – in Thai is the word for smile, and it is an important part of their culture. In fact, there are as many as 13 different types of smiles Thai people display to show a range of emotions from hopelessness to nervousness, or simply to mock you if they so choose. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that Thai glee is only a facade because they are just as joyous as they appear, believe me. The customary Thai greeting is called Wai, a series of slightly distinct bows in which the arms come together as if praying, the head tilts down, and the cheeks billow outward in a wide-eyed smile that makes even the stodgiest Scotsman like me let his guard down.
Thailand might also be called fun-land. It is every bit the adult Disneyland. Again – Thai people instantiate the concept in their word Sanuk, which means fun. Fun is a universal concept experienced in a particular way. For me, just navigating through Bangkok was entertainment enough. For example, to get to one of my favorite cafés - Root at the Commons – I rode the subway, then caught a boat, then hopped on a motorbike, all in a day’s work. The MRT / BTS is easy to use, usually punctual, and super cheap. (The full price for the trip above – about 50 Baht, under $2 – Incredible!) The river boats steam haphazardly through Bangkok’s network of rivers and canals and the motorbikes weave in and out-of-traffic like bandits on the run. Like I said, a Disneyland for travel junkies.
Let’s talk about prices since I am fairly certain expensive is a foreign concept in Siam. The exchange rate for Americans is 30 to 1. That means take the cost of everything you normally buy in the US and divide it by 30. I know what you are thinking, when can I book my flight to Bangkok! There is nothing sooner than right now folks. A quick example should suffice. For my favorite Thai Tea (get the red not the green), 45 baht or barely over a $1. For an unforgettable, first-rate meal, I often paid 80 baht for mango sticky-rice (yummy), 50 baht for a pineapple smoothie, and maybe 40 baht for a set of Thai meat sticks (pork, chicken, or beef). If I wanted octopus or squid instead, maybe 100 baht max. It all adds up to cheaper than a meal at McDonald’s at three times the quality. Accommodations, nightlife, alcohol, massages, even standard services like Grab (Uber) are similarly cheap.
What about the sites? Well, in this regard Bangkok has a lot to offer. The temples are spiritual meccas of ornate architecture, golden sculptures, pyramidal skyscrapers, and meditative Buddhas. I recommend a few places: first is Wat Pho, second is Wat Arun, and the third is Ayutthaya (I will discuss this one more in part 2). Wat Pho is famous for the Reclining Buddha (pictured left), a massive figurine and representation of the Buddha's final ascent into Nirvana. (Pay keen attention to the intricate detail on the feet when you visit. What an amazing sight!) Wat Arun is equally stunning. The cream colors, bronze Buddhas, and decorative Hindu figurines will command your full attention. Do be careful when you climb the steps. Lumphini Park is also worth a trip if you want to see pre-historic sized Iguanas.
Another local spot that surprised me was the Jim Thompson House. What is now a museum was the residence of a former US spy and architect Jim Thompson. He came to Siam after the war and became the "silk king" for his success in building the silk industry in Thailand. Thompson was enamored of Thai culture and became an avid collector of ancient artifacts with a focus on Buddhas from Southeast Asia. His collection of antiquities and the layout of his palatial estate, which he personally designed, are worth the price of admission. Go, if for no other reason than the thousand-year old bronze Buddha he preserved from Myanmar. (For additional incentive, the Jim Thompson Restaurant next door had some of the best coconut ice cream I have ever had.)
The night life is just as crazy as you have heard. Yes - there are Red Light Districts, massage parlors, wild burlesques extravaganzas and a host of extra curricular activities. There are a smorgasbord of discotheques, sky bars, and cocktail lounges. There are so many good places it is hard to single out a few but I will list my top picks anyway. In terms of sky bars there are two: Octave, which features a 360 degree view of the city, cheap drinks, and a relaxed vibe; and Red Sky Bar, the pictures below make the case better than I can. For a couple places off the beaten path, I recommend Maggie Choos, especially if you are into live old school jazz and rock'n roll; and Smalls, which is a dimly light, multi-layered lounged against a red silhouette. It was my favorite place but bear in mind that the hours change depending on when the police shut it down. Bribery pays!
The interplay of cultures is very different in Thailand from places like Tokyo or Hong Kong. For one, the expat community in Bangkok is far more dispersed and less concentrated. For another, Thailand attracts a broad array of backpackers, digital nomads, foodies, hippies, hipsters, lecherous old men, and the occasional weirdos. A far cry from the corporate types who tend to live in East Asia. Such is the nature of Bangkok that it can satisfy the appetites of such a diverse customer base. Thai culture is far more morally permissive than other parts of Asia as well, which lends itself to the lucrative sex trade and she-male industry Thailand is famous for. The Thai culture, city vibe, and food scene are deserving of a separate, more detailed discussion that I will cover in part 2. For now, rest assured that in sensational Siam “What we’ll see will defy explanation.”