Tag Archives: thailand

Sweet Thais

In more ways than one.

As a generalization, the Thai people are more outwardly sweet than most cultures.  It’s evident in the way they greet others, including their own, by folding their hands while slightly bowing their heads.  They are typically smiling, pleasant, and respectful.  Compared to other societies, the sweetness of the Thai people stands out.  The Land of Smiles, while it may be an outward appearance, is one of the many charms of Thailand.

One of the other attractions is the distinctiveness of their food.  But, and it’s a big but, over the past couple of generations, Thai’s have embraced the use of sugar in most of their meals.  Almost every prepared dish has sugar as an added ingredient.  Even sautéed vegetables are sugared.  Most savory dishes have added sugar.  It’s a phenomenon.

These buckets of sugars (and msg) are at the ready for all Thai street food.

When I see young school-age Thai folk, it’s evident that a large chunk does not appear in ideal physical condition.  A bulk of them look out of shape, with more extra weight in the wrong places than young people should have, especially youthful Asians.  If I didn’t know better, I’d predict that Thailand is headed for a health crisis in the next few generations.

Out of interest, I took several Thai cooking courses at different Bangkok schools.  In each, the students prepare and eat their individual dishes.  In each, I declared that I  wanted to cook without sugar.  I was the oddball out in every workshop.  In one class, six students were grouped together to prepare a dish, but I was castigated on my own due to my sugarless request.  The chef in that school tasted the sugar-free chili paste, peanut sauce, and Tom Yam soup I had prepared and liked them all.  Of course, she could have been fibbing to be polite.  But then again she admitted she had eliminated sugar from her diet the prior year to slim down.  An instructor in another school disclosed that her sister, a doctor, recommended that she stop cooking with sugar because it was unhealthy.  (Hmm,…yet she continues to instruct cooking with sugar).

Pad Thai Noodles, may be prepared with a double dose of sweetness.

When I ask Thai chefs/cooks why they add sugar to most dishes, the answer almost uniformly is “it makes the food tastes better.”  Really?  Adding sweetness to already flavorful food so it tastes even better?  Couldn’t that be considered a form of crafty trickery?

As a fan of Thai food, it’s more than a little disconcerting to know that sugar is being added to most dishes.   To be clear, I’m not referring to desserts and sweet treats, of which, as in most cultures these days, there are plenty.  In Thai dishes, sugar is added to main meal dishes, those that typically don’t have, or need, added sugar.  Popular dishes such as Pad Thai and green papaya salad, (Som Tum) — both have added sugar.  Peanut sauce used for sauteés — added sugar.   Stir-fried vegetables — added sugar.  Savory soups — added sugar.

Stir-fried vegetables with sugar. Really?

The Thai food on the street is damn tasty.  But to order a dish with no sugar is a challenge.  When I do, the smile is replaced by forehead wrinkles.  If sugar is left out, the tendency is to add more msg, Maggie seasoning, and/or honey.  It’s become reflexive to add processed flavoring to the food.  There are so many natural spices available that adding a tablespoon or two of sugar and msg seems like overkill.  And indeed it might be.

Smart people who study cognitive neuroscience know that sugar is a deceptive drug and acts on the brain the same way that cocaine, opioids, and for that matter, any other pleasure substance does.  The more we have, the more we want, and the more it takes to satisfy us.  Credible researchers have shown that the world’s consumption of sugar has grown almost exponentially over the last few hundred years.  Concerning evolution, that means we’ve just started gorging (overdosing?) on sweetness.  During that same time, we’ve seen a parallel increase in lifestyle diseases, as well as epigenetic disorders (which we now know are hereditary).

In a savory dish, it can be hard to detect the addition of a teaspoon of white sugar.  Sure the dish tastes good.  Everyone in the world loves a subtle touch of sweetness.  We gobble down good tasting food without a second thought.  But if we are to believe an extensive body of recent evidence showing that processed sugar in our diet promotes toxicity and has detrimental long-term health effects, then it may be prudent to pay attention.  All foods have natural trace amounts of sugars.  So if food can’t stand on its own without the added sweetness, then the results may eventually turn slightly sour.

In the ideal world, we’d see a revolution in Thailand with the elimination of sugar as a key ingredient.  But given that won’t happen anytime soon, the Thai’s will stay double sweet.

Not to pick on Thais, this sign on 23rd Street in Manhattan last week says it all.

Bangkok, the attraction

Like every large city, there is the good, bad, and ugly.  And like most metropolises, Bangkok is congested with lots of traffic, pollution, and undesirable aspects.  Such is the nature of megacities anywhere outside of oz.

coming down the steps from the Asok BTS station

coming down the steps from the Asok BTS station

But there is also a richness to this city that runs deep.  The people are gracious, the culture is embracing, the food delectably complex & spicy, the shopping expansive (from the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market with over 8,000 stalls to malls like EmQuartier housing some of the worlds most exclusive brands), and the weather deliciously hot.  Bangkok is centrally located with flights to almost anywhere in SE Asia and globally, it has a unique cosmopolitan feel, it’s raucous yet sophisticated, has a clean & organized public transportation system, plenty of parks, a lively and dynamic street-vibe appeal, it’s attractively affordable and relatively safe.  It’s a city damn hard not to like.

one of my goto dishes at Suk 11, stir fried morning glory, soft shell crab in yellow curry, and fried shrimp.

one of my goto dishes at Suk 11, stir fried morning glory, soft shell crab in yellow curry, and fried shrimp.

For those reasons, if I have an excuse to pass through I grab it without hesitation.  I usually find myself staying somewhere in the lower Sukhumvit area (between Nana and Asok) for several reasons:  1) to take advantage of the backdoor, greenway route to Lumpini Park for daily morning workouts, 2) it’s a walking area with no shortage of almost anything, including many one-of-a-kind uniquely cool coffee shops (many found from The LeeDay blog) offering seriously good hand-crafted brewed coffee and a variety of expressos (not for the frozen frappe crowd), and 3) the extensive variety of mouthwatering street food is crazy good.

But don’t take it from me.  To love Bangkok means spending time there, sniffing around and getting lost, not in a hurry, not trying to see too much, or too little.

pull up bars at one of Lumpini's many exercise areas

pull up bars at one of Lumpini’s many exercise areas

Backdoor route to Lumpini & Benjakiti Parks from Sukhumvit Road

At the end of Soi 10, past the guard and over a small wooden bridge, is a direct walkway to two parks.  A right after the bridge lies a one kilometer cycling/walking green path direct to Lumpini.  Or, straight after the bridge dumps you directly into Benjakiti Park, with it’s 1.8 km loop walking/running/bicycling loop around a serene lake.

bicycle lumpini

Lumpini

On the wooden bridge looking down the canal with adjacent greenway

On the wooden bridge looking down the canal with adjacent greenway

expresso at Sofa Cafe, Soi 63 Ekamai

expresso at Sofa Cafe, Soi 63 Ekamai

greenway to Lumpini

greenway to Lumpini

greenway

greenway

form the greenway

from the greenway

Benjakiti Park

Benjakiti Park

not too spicy please

not too spicy please

Benjakiti Park

Benjakiti Park

Benjakiti Park loop

Benjakiti Park loop

Oh so Koh Samui

On Thailand’s west coast, with its beautiful white beaches on the Andaman Sea, Phuket and the surrounding islands may be considered the country’s most popular resort area.  But almost directly across the relatively thin sliver of land forming Thailand’s tail is a cluster of islands off the east coast that rival as getaway treasures.  One of those gems, Koh Samui, the largest and most developed, sits about 1.5 hours by high-speed ferry in the Sea of Thailand.

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as they call it, arrived early this year.  It’s a two-week holiday season that closes down most of the country.  For a foreigner, it’s a good time to flee because almost nothing is open.  Everyone travels to their home village, closing down restaurants, stores, and most businesses.  Where I live in China has been below freezing.  I considered going back to New York, but winter was delivering record snow.  A warm destination was begging so I booked a flight to Bangkok with plans to return to the island that had mostly faded from memory.

the 2nd class overnight car

the 2nd class overnight car

A confluence of events aligned to take me back to Koh Samui after 30 years, this time with a nephew.  Sam, (one of) sister M’s son, had been backpacking through Thailand and SE Asia for a couple of months during the tail end of last year.  After returning home to Philadelphia the last week of 2015, he decided on a new home, one he could carry on his back, so he quit his job, purged many of his belongings, stored the rest, re-packed his hiking backpack and set out to pick up where he left off — time indefinite.

After landing in Bangkok on Feb 1, I received a text from Sam saying “hey Freddie, by sheer coincidence you wouldn’t happen to be in Bangkok would you?  I arrive there in a few days.”  ‘Wow, what are the chances?’  I thought, as I texted back, “I am, but I’m planning on booking an overnight train ticket for Surat Thani and a ferry to Koh Samui for the 4th evening/5th morning.”  “Great,” he responds, “I’m landing on 4th morning. Can you snag an extra ticket?”  All of a sudden I had a traveling partner for a few days.  So did he.  An added ‘unknown’ to the already unknown.

Sam as we de-trained after the overnight trip

Sam as we de-trained after the overnight trip

Most of the trains were full due to Chinese New Year as a segment of Chinese flood to Thailand for their holidays.  The following two days were already sold out.  Fortunately, when I returned to the train station the next day I found one seat left on the same train, same car, and the same section (I had bottom bunk, he had the top).  “Crazy coincidence’ I kept thinking.  His connecting flight from New York through Moscow to Bangkok was on-time, so we had lunch in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok after he arrived, beat around the city a bit before we made our way in metro to the central Hua Lampong railway station for our 12-hour train ride south to Surat Thani.

Sam had taken this voyage a couple of months ago on his way to Phuket, so he recommended a place near the train station where we bought dinner packed to-go for the journey (so much better than train food).   The train took off on time at 7:30 pm, we had dinner in our laps knee-to-knee, then settled in as the staff set up the sleeping bunks for the slow rocking trip south.  We hit Surat Thani the next morning at 7 am, caught a one-hour bus to the ferry terminal, the ferry to Koh Samui, and another van ride to our beach.

an oh-so pleasant ferry trip

an oh-so pleasant ferry trip

A lot has changed since my last visit to KS.  Gone are the rustic, sporadically placed bungalows where I stayed on the northern, most popular beach, eaten up by a hungry and well-fed tourism industry.  Fortunately,  other beaches on the island have sprouted enough authentic commercial activity to keep the island a stellar destination.  We decided on Lamai Beach on the east side, from a recommendation for its balance of sufficient activity with a healthy dose of tranquility.  We weren’t disappointed.  The spur-of-the-moment accommodation we rented could not have been better situated, nor closer to the surf, which, during high-tide, washed over the two steps of our one-room bungalow porch.

IMG_7269It’s been years since I’ve seen Sam, had never spent any significant time with him, and the gap between our ages significantly exceeds his age, so I was more than a little curious how a joint trip would pan out.  As it happened, I was targeting three days in Koh Samui, but we had such an enjoyable time, that we hung out for a full week, any differences in our generational gap(s) was more than made up by his maturity, good nature, and our ability to be in the moment.  We talked a lot about a lot, we walked a lot, hiked across the island, motorbiked the island both clock and counter clock wise, swam a lot, and, uh, ok, drank (not) a lot, and just hung out at our surf-side bungalow.  It was, in short, at least for me, a super-gratifying experience.IMG_7257

After a week in the tropical sun, it’s time for me to make my way back north, and then back to China to work.  After dropping me off at the airport on his rented motorbike (the return trains were booked solid), Sam plans to camp a couple more days in the KS palm-tree laden hills before meeting a female friend in Surat Thani where he will continue south into Malaysia, and points beyond, or where ever his nose takes him.

I’m hoping that the stars align again to bring me back to Oh So Koh Samui before another 30 years passes.  And, sending good wishes to Sam’s time-indefinite trip, that it turns out to be fulfilling, wherever it takes him.

blog building

blog building

breakfast by the beach

breakfast by the beach

IJ, aka Sam on the rocks

IJ, aka Sam on the rocks

on our hike in the middle of no accessible roads

on our hike in the middle of no accessible roads

 

caught from behind

caught from behind

caught from behind 2

caught from behind 2

on the hike across KS

on the hike across KS

on the rocks contemplation, about nothing

on the rocks contemplation, about nothing

 

 

 

IMG_7295

zoned out just right

 

Papaya Crab Salad

Papaya Crab Salad

IMG_7233

almost walked into this guy

IMG_7261

on his way up

IMG_7239

on the way to Koh Samui

IMG_7291

the restaurant at our bungalow

IMG_7286

somewhere in the mountains

a coffee break before the flight, in front of the banyon tree

a coffee break before the flight, in front of the banyon tree

our last morning at the bungalow, with sun too bright

our last morning at the bungalow, with sun too bright

bicycling in two thai cities

In China, I’m fortunate enough to be able to pedal daily, so it was a nice break while in Bangkok and Chiang Mai to spend the good part of a day in each city on a bicycle.   Following is a short summary of those experiences:

inside of old town

inside of old town

Chiang Mai

Bicycle rentals are plentiful in Chiang Mai.  It would be hard anywhere else in the world to find the cost more reasonable.  The going rental rate is the equivalent of $1.55 usd per day.

The province of Chiang Mai has roughly 1.6 million people, but the city is only about 172,000, making cycling around town an enjoyable activity.

Old Town is a wide and particularly nice area to bike through.  You could, as I did, spend hours roaming around inside the fort-like perimeter where you’ll find lots of temples, restaurants, museums, guesthouses, massage houses, and plenty of character watching. It’s also quite easy to head out of town in any direction without getting (too) lost.

lunch on the way out of town

lunch on the way out of town

I rented a bike late morning and returned it by 5pm and had a leisurely 30 mile day spending several hours in Old Town and the balance riding out of town following the Ping river, up one side and down the other, while stopping for lunch at a local conglomeration of food stands/tables that don’t see many foreigners.

Outside of Chiang Mai, there are tons of areas to do some serious riding.  One day, (while trapped in a car) heading past Mae Rim (outside of CM), I saw a trio of road cyclists, complete with spandex training gear, riding 23 mm tire bikes, and moving at a good clip.  I wanted so much to catch them and talk with them to see what they were up to, where they were going, how far, etc, etc. but….

my rented bike for the day

my rented bike for the day in CM

along the ping river

along the ping river, Chiang Mai

In short, biking either in Chiang Mai or around the area is a big giant plus that I’d heavily recommend.

Bangkok

Bangkok is estimated at about 8.4 million population, which makes it almost the exact same size as New York City.  One significant difference is that NYC has made huge strides in the last few years turning the city in a bicycle friendly direction.  What NYC has done in the last 10 years is remarkable.  Bangkok, on the other hand, not so bike friendly.

There are bikes, and in fact where I stayed I saw several foreigners during this trip who looked to be commuters.  They also looked like they knew which roads to take.  Many of the main roads are “ride at your own risk” as in many cities, but BKK is one of those cities where the risk factor is considerably higher than average.  I was therefore thrilled to receive a recommendation about a bicycle tour of Bangkok, so I immediately signed up.

The last time I had signed up for a bike tour was in Madrid, several years ago, which took our group through key areas of the city, stopping for short explanatory moments, but they managed to keep us peddling most of the day.  It was a city tour well done.

one of the wider alleys

we did not take this alley as it was (evidently) too wide with not enough people and obstacles

The bike tour I took in Bangkok was on of the most difficult times I’ve had — staying awake.  It was soooo sloooow.

The tour was 5 hours, and the cost was equivalent to $50 usd, bike included.  To be fair, the tour company and guides were professional and polite.  They run two 5-hour tours daily, from 7-12 and from 1-6.  There seems to be quite a demand.  If the groups are too large (more than 10), they split them up.  Our group was a total of nine, all of them from Europe except for me, the oddball American.

The tour starts at the company’s headquarters adjacent to Chinatown and proceeds directly into tiny alleys just wide enough for a bicycle.  The riding is slow enough that you can barely get a full peddle stroke in before needing to brake. Most of the ride was: slow single peddle stroke, coast, tap brake; slow single peddle stroke, coast, tap brake….  If you’ve seen one Chinatown alley you’ve seen them all so why the tour needed to zigzagged through so many of them was beyond me.  The riding was slow enough that riders often had to put a foot down for balance.

the part of the bike tour wasn't bad

the part of the bike tour wasn’t bad

Luckily, a large part of the bike tour was taken up cruising through canals on a long-boat, which was refreshing.  There was also a 45 minute lunch stop at 3pm which was not advertised.  Even though I had eaten lunch prior, the break was preferable to falling asleep on the ultra-slow tour.

At the lunch table, the group, mostly from Denmark, spoke their own language.  As they passed the dishes, one of the guys said, “hey, Mr. America, would you like some rice?”  I looked at him with a deadpan stare and said, “no thanks.  And that would be Captain America to you pal.”  The entire table stopped and stared at me, mouths half open.  A few seconds later I smiled to let them know it was humor.  I think they (kind of) got it, but to be safe, I let them eat and went to feed the fish in the canal.

following the tour leader

following the tour leader

After lunch the peddling was equally slow, this time along small canal paths outside of Bangkok.  The scenery was nice as was the lack of city noise, but again, sloooow.  Out of the 19.5 total miles clocked by Strava, by far, most of the distance was covered by boat.  Subtracting boat and lunch time, perhaps a total of two hours riding covered roughly 8 miles, making average speed about 4 miles per hour, or the speed of a brisk walk.  Actually, it would have been an easier walk than ride.

If what you are hankering for is a diversion, not really a bike tour, then this may be just what you are looking for.  But if you are into peddling, get ready to fall asleep. I was, nevertheless, most grateful for the recommendation and the chance to peddle.  It’s an experience I’ll keep safely tucked in my back pocket.

along the river

along the river

feeding the fish during the lunch break

feeding the fish during the lunch break

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

tour brochure

tour brochure

to engage, or…..

For most of us, positive verbal engagement with strangers requires a tiny bit of effort.  We have a tendency to run through life at our own cadence, preferring not have that rhythm interrupted by a stranger, unless it’s convenient or for good cause.

Periodically engaging with our fellow humans, for no good reason and without an agenda — what a concept.  It might be engaging with the person next to you on the plane, in line at the grocery store, or waiting in a coffee shop, but engaging is an activity many don’t partake in as much as we could.

The other morning I stopped into a coffee shop, L’amore, in Chiang Mai on my way to rent a bicycle for the day.  The coffee seemed to take forever and the place was not busy.  A mate or bloke, another customer who was seated inside, casually walked out to the terrace where I was patiently waiting and told me he was in the same boat, and that he too didn’t understand why it took so long, but that the coffee was good.  He made the effort to actively engage.  I had asked for coffee to go, but ended up staying for an engaging conversation with Dr. John, who has been splitting his time about 50/50 for the last 15 years between his home in Australia, where he runs a business, has a family and grandkids, and his newer home in Thailand, where he teaches English to masters students.  We had a lively and delightful chat about english, geography, and human nature.  John mentioned how lucky he was to have a wife and family who understood his deep desire to pursue his part-time career in another culture.  It was a nugget of time I would not have had had Dr. John not made the engaging effort.  Afterwards I was determined to improve my own capacity for initiating engagement.

they know how to make darn good coffee in chiang mai

they know how to make darn good coffee in chiang mai

I walked away thinking that if I had to rate myself as either being a good engager or a poor one, improvement was definitely in order.  I engage more than many, but not as much as I could.  Sure I engage once in a while, but my engaging receptors, vis-a-vis an appearance of aloofness, I’m sure dissuades possible or probable engagement stimulation from coming my way.  I’m rolling over nuggets of richness buried right beneath the surface.

Dear Ole Mom was an expert engager.  She stimulated conversation with strangers, and more often than not, made people think, or react, or take delightful pause.  In some areas of the USA, people will walk past total strangers, smile, and say ‘hello.’  In other parts, and in other countries, that type of engagement is strange.

Engagements are not pursuits, rather morsels of enriching or nourishing thought food.  Just like we eat throughout the day, so too does our mind respond well to consistent nourishment — which many times can come from some form of engagement.

I’m not talking about the “how do you get from here to there” type of engagement.  If I was, I might wonder if I have a sign on my head “ask me for directions” as it seems everywhere and anywhere I am I get asked for directions.

At the busy Air Link rail station at Suvarnabhumi airport as I was returning to Bangkok from CM buying my train token, a traveler from Italy approached me asked whether I knew Bangkok well.  “Somewhat,” I told him.  He had three hours to kill before his next flight, he said, and wondered whether it was worth taking the train to the city to browse or have a drink before his flight.  I told him yes there were plenty of places, but as I was next in line at the token machine, I cut short the engagement then took off to the train.  Afterwards I was somewhat disappointed that I didn’t do a better engaging job.  An example, I thought, of needed improvement.  He was  not asking for directions, but for a push or a suggestion.  I could have been more receptive and felt like I let him, and myself, down.  Life is way too short to pass up value nuggets.  There were plenty of trains and I had no pressing commitments.  My cadence was interrupted, but so what?

After all, it takes two to complete the engagement process.  Engagement doesn’t always work like Albert’s theory of “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”  You throw stimulation out, sometimes it creates a reaction and other times it doesn’t.

I’ve known a person or two who over-engage, and for reasons beyond me, try to stimulate conversation with anyone crossing their path.  It can be tedious, all the constant interruptions in our own flow.  Engagement works when it’s balanced and natural and there is a wide swath of this middle ground.

Later in the day, I was meandering in a small alley between Soi 5 & 7 behind Sukhumvit Road and was stopped by a rich sounding music video of Eric Clapton playing on a large flat screen.  It was an alley bar, so I stopped for a beer, fresh boiled nuts, and the music.  A few stools over was a mature, conservatively dressed man, with his newspapers and briefcase, keeping to himself.  After a few minutes or so, I thought of Dr. John’s engagement the day before, so I decided to get off my duff and do the same.

Professor John Q has lived in Thailand for 30 years.  His prior home was rural somewhere in North Carolina.  He has degrees in economics, statistics and engineering.  By his own admission, he’s not a creative guy (although I don’t believe that for a minute), as he likes things measurable.  After an early career in the Army with time spent in Vietnam during that war, he was a professor at the University of North Carolina teaching statistics and economics before deciding to sell everything and move to Thailand where he did contract work for the Embassy.  Now, prof John Q teaches English to professional Thais as a way to support himself and stay active.  As he was telling me about his Thai girlfriend of 12 years, where he’s lived in Thailand, and his Asia travels, I felt like a captor to rich morsels I would otherwise not tasted had I not engaged.

one of the many bars along a small alley behind Sukhumvit Road

one of the many bars along a small alley behind Sukhumvit Road

Later that evening, as I was eating dinner alone at a makeshift, roadside restaurant on Soi 11 of Sukhumvit, a woman joined my table (it’s normal to sit with someone at crowded places).  We immediately struck up an engaging dialogue which made the time fly.  Eva, from Holland, is returning home tonight where she helps maintain the communication systems for the National Police, and with her IT team, services control rooms for all the safety-related departments in the country.  We shared bicycle stories (it’s hard to find a Dutch person who doesn’t own several bikes), and she gave me a valuable tip where I could find bicycle tours in Bangkok (founded by a dutchman).

Eva told me how she’s been wanting to begin writing, perhaps a blog, but has had difficulty getting started.  We discussed cracking the fear nut and stretching the comfort zone which so often results in exposing those value nuggets right below the surface.  We also grazed around this topic of engaging.  I think we both walked away from our roadside meal richer than we were before we sat down.

roadside restaurant, one of the many, in Soi 11 of Sukhumvit

roadside restaurant, one of the many, in Soi 11 of Sukhumvit

Engagement is such a small thing.  Some people are out there pushing creative limits with amazing accomplishments.  It’s not much to throw out small positive engagement hooks once in a while — or to reciprocate.  What is life if not a culmination of bits and pieces of (hopefully rich) experiences.

So thanks Dr. John, for reminding me that I don’t always need to be in my own head.  Little did you know that your coffee shop engagement three mornings ago would have a domino effect. I’m going to try to throw out a little more stimulation, more often.  And thanks for reminding me that when we are receptive to engagement we expose potential morsels of value.

Bangkok oddities

Every city, like every person, develops its own character, its own charm and unique quirkiness.  Bangkok, or BKK as it’s known, is a large, dense city, roughly the same size as NYC.  Contrary to the city I wrote about last week, Bangkok is considerably more livable.  Why?  Like NYC, the city never sleeps.  It’s colorfully vibrant, relatively safe, its people friendly, and the food incredible.  But more importantly, it’s a walking city with a fairly good public transportation system.  You could easily live there without owning a car.

street-side alterations to the jeans I bought in the weekend market.

street-side alterations to the jeans I bought in the weekend market.

There is so much going on in Bangkok that I could only do a smidgen of what I had hoped to accomplish during a three-day layover on my way back to NYC, not the least of which was the Chatuchak market, where I happily spent both days of last weekend.

I could fill a couple of pages with all that I like about Bangkok, but at the same time, it has certain quirks worth noting.

Skytrain and Metro

Most large cities have them.  A few, like Bogota, Colombia, and Lima, Peru, both capitals of their countries, managed to royally mismanage their public transportation systems.  Mobility in those cities is so bad that traffic congestion is a good reason to scratch them from living consideration.  Chennai, India, is another city to scratch for the same reason.

on a BTS platform as train approaches the (almost) modern station

on a BTS platform as train approaches the (almost) modern station

Both the elevated skytrain and below-ground metro make getting around Bangkok a relative breeze.  But unlike the systems in many cities where fares are set regardless of the distance, in BKK, the fare is dependent on where you get on and off, and you need to know that before you get on.

Therefore, prior to entering the system, you must select your destination and purchase a ticket for the specific price to that destination.  For the Sky Train, you can only purchase the ticket from machines, which do not take paper currency.  The ticket booth attendant is there, for the most part, to exchange bills for coins, because unless you arrive to the station with a pocket full of coins, you queue up to get them.  Then you queue up to use one of the few machines to buy the ticket.  Two queues for the price of one.  At least BKK’s metro and airport ticket machines accept paper bills, but not the machines for Skytrain.  For such a modern and otherwise well-run system, it’s, well,….odd.

at a BTS station waiting in line to change bills into coins, to get into another queue for the ticket machine.

at a BTS station waiting in line to change bills into coins, to get into another queue for the ticket machine.

Trash Cans

Most cities have systems for keeping themselves clean.  In NYC there are publicly maintained trash cans on every corner.  In Medellin, Colombia, for example the city maintains several refuse cans on each block.  In Bangkok, they are virtually nonexistent.

There is so much delicious street food, tasty thai coffee, fresh cut fruit, cold coconuts, that after you are finished, there are precious few places to discard the packaging.  I’ve carried around so many empty coconuts, having thoroughly enjoyed the cold, sweet water inside, only to be left with the quandary of where to ditch the shell.  There must be a hidden army cleaning up the debris left in discrete corners.  The city is not dirty.  Still, it’s odd.

Motorbike Helmets

It must be a law in Bangkok for operators of motorbikes to wear a helmet.  The city is filled with motorbikes and a large portion of them are ‘for-hire,’ as designated by the orange vests they wear.  Every motorbike driver wears a helmet.

these guys have helmets, but none for the passenger

these guys have helmets, but none for the passenger

However, the passenger is not required to wear one.  That means when hiring a motorbike as a taxi, which makes a lot of sense when traffic is at a standstill, you simply hop on the back.  The drivers don’t carry extra helmets.  The head protection is aimed clearly at the driver.  Passenger be warned: your head is not as important.

One evening last week I wanted to go not so far from where I was and it seemed like a motorbike was the most expedient.

passengers head not so important

passengers head not so important

Before I knew it I was weaving in and out of traffic on a highway, my hair blowing in the breeze.  It was exciting, but not that comforting.  I shouted to the driver to get off the highway.  He laughed.  But then he could, his head was protected, mine wasn’t.  Odd.

Taxi Meter

My first visit to Bangkok was pre-metro and sky trains.  Traffic was worse in the late 80’s then it is today.  Getting around meant hiring a tuk-tuk, of which there were thousands.  Or, you could hire an air-conditioned taxi.  Hiring either involved a negotiation.  No taxis had meters.  After hailing a taxi, you told the driver where you wanted to go, he would give a ridiculous figure, about two or three times the normal fare.  Then you would give a ridiculously low figure and hopefully arrive at an agreed fare somewhere higher than what a normal Thai person would pay.  It was a tedious game, especially going somewhere new with no idea of distance.

korean apples in bkk?  yes, of course, apples grow better in the colder climates

korean apples in bkk? yes, of course, apples grow better in the colder climates

Several years back on a pass-through trip I was delighted to learn that BKK passed a law requiring all taxis to have meters.  Getting around was so much less tedious without the back-and-forth game.  Now sadly, many taxis have gone to switching off their meters.  Several times I wanted to take a taxi to different areas of the city, only to hop into the cab and have the cabbie quote me a ridiculous price, while refusing to use the meter.   When I asked at the hotel why, they said it’s turned into the luck of the draw.  Some taxis use their meters, but many choose not to, knowing that non-locals will end up paying more.  Odd.

Bottom Line

…if there is one.  Bangkok is diverse and rich in vibrancy.  Sure, it’s crowded, polluted and humidly hot.  But the color trumps what some might otherwise consider the downside.  And some of its oddities may even add, in a strange way, to its attractiveness.