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I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Bangkok’s Siam Central plaza, reading the newspaper, when my concentration is broken by a loud bang. High on a telephone pole half a block down the street, an electrical transformer has burst into flames. A second bang follows and the flames go a little higher. Finally, a third explosion. Now the power inside the coffee shop goes out. It’s a little unnerving, for sure. But as a regular visitor to Bangkok, I’m surprised this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often.
Bangkok is a strange contraption. Like an old truck or Keith Richards, it doesn’t look like it should still function but somehow keeps rocking. To a newcomer, the Thai capital can seem all bad smells and chaos. Stepping out of your hotel onto a busy street crowded with vendors, beggars and street kitchens, the first thing you notice might be the particular sidewalk bouillabaisse of equal parts food, refuse and unidentified pools of fluid marinating in 35 degree Celsius heat. If so, have patience – you don’t want to make up your mind about the place too quickly. The initial shock should soon give way to the realization that Bangkok is a city unlike any other, and that this is mostly a very good thing.
All that sidewalk chaos, for instance, represents one of Bangkok’s most underrated attractions: street food. Many a visitor will shy away from Bangkok’s countless street stalls, assuming that anything sold on the city’s sidewalks must be teeming with bacteria. But when I visit Bangkok, I eat almost nowhere else. Nor am I possessed of a cast-iron gut. I’ve had food poisoning all over the world (in Vietnam, twice in one week). But after numerous Bangkok visits – not to tempt fate – I have never once become ill. This, despite supping from various street chefs every day.
Eating on the street in Bangkok is not only the next thing to eating for free; it is also an introduction to wonderful local flavours you won’t get in any Thai restaurants back home. A buck and a half can buy you a sublime plate of noodles with greens, meat or seafood, sometimes with a real spicy kick. Enclaves like the night market at Sukhumvit Soi 38 boast top-notch noodles served out of mobile carts and plenty of other options nearby (including fresh mangoes to finish off the meal). With the plastic chairs and rickety folding tables set up outdoors under fluorescent lighting, it sure isn’t pretty. But if you want ambience, Bangkok has plenty of high-end restaurants as well. Or so I’m told.
Bangkok does boast an increasing number of luxury shopping outlets – there’s not much to be found in Paris or New York that can’t be found here in some glitzy mall. The big difference is what’s happening on the street out front, where tuk-tuk drivers swerve in and out of lanes with their candy-coloured three-wheeled thrill machines (shown left), seeking potential business from folks in a hurry. Or perhaps a block or two away where traffic is being impeded by an illegal elephant brought into town to coax money from tourists. Paris doesn’t see many of those.
Bangkok traffic can truly be murder, but in many cases it can be avoided. The BTS elevated train keeps you high above it all, while the subway services other parts of the city. Resorting to tuk-tuks is only occasionally necessary, although you ought to do it at least once anyway.
Bangkok can be a sensory onslaught. But it’s arguable that no other city offers so many options. You just need a little nerve to take them.