So Bangkok, or the City of Angels, was the first stop on my whirlwind tour of Thailand. Everything about Bangkok is in your face, and the only way that I can describe this incredible city is by saying that it truly is an assault on the senses.
I was told before I went that Bangkok was the kind of place that people either love or hate, and personally, I loved it because it reminded me in so many ways of Marrakech, where I’d done some volunteer work the summer before. The heat, the smells, the pushy street vendors and the locals desperate to scam any farangs, all of it was exactly the same as being in the North African city, and it was for this reason that I felt instantly at home.
When my group and I arrived though, we felt pretty grim. We’d been travelling for 24 hours, and although the countless glasses of Champagne on the plane had gone down nicely, I hadn’t managed to get any sleep and so I was feeling ratty and impatient when we touched down in Bangkok.
Desperate to get out of the airport and into a taxi as soon as possible, we raced through passport control, guessed our way through the complicated immigration forms and became reacquainted with our heavy backpacks. The next stop was to get some money, although of course, my bank had conveniently forgotten that I’d be using my card in Asia, and so none of the ATMs accepted my card.
When I eventually got sorted with a fistful of cash, we walked around for what seemed like hours with our bags cutting into our shoulders and sweat pouring down our faces, before we finally managed to find a taxi willing to drive us to our home for the next 5 days, Sawasdee House.
And it was okay. It boasted a clean shower, WiFi and working air-con – what more could we have asked for a £12 double room? By the time we’d unpacked and got settled in it was around 9pm, local time, so our first port of call was to the restaurant downstairs for food (battered oysters for me) and cocktails. After our meal we bought big bottles of Chang beer from a street vendor and had a wander round, past countless reggae bars and stalls selling beaded bracelets and harem pants.
Eventually we ended up on the legendary Khao San Road, a place constantly bustling. From tuktuk drivers desperate to get some custom, to street vendors selling homemade pad thai, women reading tarot cards and people getting henna tattoos, hair braids and dreadlocks, Khao San really does have everything. Stalls selling tie-dye clothes, second hand books, 90’s CDs and artwork sit alongside men offering live ‘ping pong’ shows and custom made fake degrees, birth certificates and passports. Tiny women in beaded hats walk up and down selling edible scorpions and smartly dressed teen boys offer bespoke tailor made suits.
And that’s not all.
Random locals set up huge speakers on the street and start their own parties with passersby, kids breakdance for tips and Sikhs promise that for a small fee they can tell you your future. Brightly lit shops sell fake designer bags, shoes, jackets, tracksuits and watches, while bars with no names boast signs that promise cheap cocktails with no ID necessary.
After wandering up and down for a while, lost in the smells and sights that had been thrust upon us, we eventually settled at a bar that didn’t seem to have a name. Skinny Thai boys lured us in, inviting us to sit on the cheap plastic chairs and it wasn’t long before we were up dancing to the likes of 50 Cent, Jason Derulo and Chris Brown and ordering cocktails like there was no tomorrow.
After dancing at another couple of bars and buying some more bottles of Chang from the many street vendors, we got some pad thai and made our way back to the hotel, drunk and happy and ready to begin the holiday.
Day 2 saw us up bright and early with big plans of seeing some of the many temples that Bangkok has to offer. However, after meeting a friendly man on the street who told us we’d be better off taking a boat trip where we could not only see the temples, but also experience the floating markets, we decided that we had nothing to lose, and allowed him to bundle us into a tuktuk.
Well, trusting this friendly stranger turned out to be a big mistake, as ‘seeing the temples’ involved sailing through the slums of Bangkok, with no more than a couple of glimpses of the back end of temples (when the driver actually sped up to prevent us from taking any decent photographs) and the ‘floating markets’ consisted of a woman in a boat selling fizzy drinks, and all for the wonderful price of 800 baht (£16).
I never got over that goddamn boat.
After we eventually got off the Boat of Doom (yes, I’m still bitter), we freshened up with some watermelon and decided to begin the hunt for some actual temples. Without a great deal of hassle, we managed to find a tuktuk driver willing to take us on a tour of a few local temples, and so finally our sightseeing could begin.
The first temple was small but boasted a black Buddha, which the Thai people will cover in gold leaves as the year progresses, and the second, The Golden Mount, was altogether more impressive. I seem to remember it being the tallest building in Bangkok, but maybe I made that bit up. Either way, there are a lot of steps to reach the top (but some pretty statues to look at along the way), and when you eventually do get to the top, the achy feet are more than worth it. The Golden Mount not only overlooks the whole of Bangkok, but it also features huge gold Buddhas which Thai people and monks alike pray to and make offerings.
By this time, our tuktuk driver had got tired of waiting and drove off, which suited us fine as we hadn’t paid him, so we decided to head back to Khao San Road for some sushi and a game of Connect 4 in a funky Japanese restaurant.
That night we decided to go & see a Ping Pong Show in one of Bangkok’s most famous Red Light Districts, Patpong. When we arrived at Super Pussy (yes, really), we were ushered inside and up a dimly lit narrow staircase into some poor semblance of a strip club. The poorly lit dark space, with its bare stage and middle-aged performers with their tired bodies and soulless eyes, was everything that I hadn’t imagined it to be.
I’d been under the impression that because Ping Pong Shows were such a huge tourist attraction, the clubs would be jam packed full of farangs, well-furnished and full of enthusiastic young women waiting to show off their talents for good money.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. After we were seated by a couple of hostile bar staff, the performers all seemed to breathe a collective sigh as they began getting their props ready for the show. My friends and I were the only customers in there, and as we all looked apprehensively at one another, I think we all knew we’d made a bad decision.
As the show got underway and the women proceeded to fire darts and ping pong balls out of their lady parts (including one very disturbing act during which a woman smoked a cigarette with her vagina), it became clear how much they hated their job, their lives, and us. They worked on autopilot, going through the motions without so much as a hint of a smile, self-consciously covering the last scraps of their dignity with their hands and pulling their cheap bikinis straight back on as soon as they’d finished their trick, before coming around and aggressively demanding tips (which I certainly didn’t blame them for as I’m sure they don’t see any of the money that we paid to enter the club in the first place).
Now, although I was the only person in my group who would describe herself as a feminist, every single person in my group that night felt uncomfortable, and none of us were able to get past the dead behind the eyes expressions and defeated postures of the women.
Honestly, part of wants to urge everybody not to go to these exploitative and downright cruel shows, but at the time same, I know that these women and their children would more than likely starve if not for the income made from their performances. All I would say then, to somebody that does want to go and see a Ping Pong Show, is to be respectful. Tip the women, smile and clap, don’t shout lewd comments or generally make things even worse for them. To you, sure, a woman shooting ping pong balls from her vagina is a novelty, but for the woman, it’s her bread and butter and she needs it to survive.
The following day, after a lazy afternoon lunching and meandering around the stalls, we got dressed up and went to see a ladyboy show at Calypso, the biggest and best ladyboy show in Bangkok. After very nearly missing the whole thing due to a very annoying tuktuk driver, very confusing ‘Sky Train’ and very slow boat ride, we raced up the grand staircase and took our seats.
After the depravity of the Ping Pong Show and the general seedy reputation of ladyboys in Thailand, we were expecting some sort of erotic performance engineered for sex workers to lure in potential clients. We could not have been more wrong. The show took place in a huge theatre, with plush red carpets and red velvet seats, with a huge stage and attentive waiters providing us with beverages of our choice (one of which was included with the price of the show).
For the next 2 hours we sat enthralled as dozens of beautiful ladyboys and men (contrary to popular belief, men star in the shows as well) delivered a stunning performance that was part cabaret, part burlesque and part melodrama. The performers delivered a series of routines, each performed to music, and each delivering its own individual storyline, depicting everything from philandering men being shot dead by bitter wives, to political protests against transphobia.
The dances were incredible, the costumes were wonderful and the ladyboys were stunning. All of us were on our feet clapping by the end and it truly was a spectacular performance. After the show we left, and after taking a few pictures with our favourite performers, we left and spent the rest of the night gushing over how beautiful they were (and learning how to say rude things in Thai, but that’s another story).
Day 4 was a day for education. We started with a museum dedicated to the Grand Palace, where we not only learned about the Thai monarchy and got to see various jewels and adornments worn by Kings in days gone by, but we also got to see some dresses actually designed and worn by the Princess herself, who took it upon herself to reinvent Thai fashion as soon as she came into power. Her creations were eccentric and she explored materials and shapes that not even Lady Gaga would be able to pull off. Seriously, the Princess of Thailand is cool.
Next was onto the Grand Palace itself and its various surrounding temples, impossible to navigate due to the masses of Chinese tourists taking far more photographs than necessary. We then went into a weapons museum and a textiles museum. After a spot of lunch at a nearby cafe, we then took a boat to see even more temples.
After we were all templed out, we went back to the hotel to make ourselves pretty enough to go to Soy Nana, a Mafia run Red Light District of Bangkok that we were, for some reason, desperate to go to.
Well, in the first bar, we were approached by a friendly middle-aged American guy, who had drinks brought over to us by one of the ladyboys working in the bar. Now, we hadn’t had any drinks before we left the hotel, and had only had one alcopop (think WKD) each on the way to this first bar. Before the American guy came over, we’d not even finished our first beer. However, after a few sips of the beer that he provided, we were blind drunk., falling off our chairs (literally). As this man sweet talked Paula, the rest of us, unaware that there was clearly something wrong with the drinks that he’d provided, continued drinking them.
Until, that is, a young Thai lady approached me, pulled me to one side and started warning me, in hushed, frantic tones, ‘not to trust’ the ‘dangerous man’ that we were with. She refused to say just why he was dangerous as he ‘knows too many people’ but she was almost hysterical in her convictions and this set alarm bells ringing in my head. She had barely finished her warning when another, older lady came over to me, took both of my hands in hers and urged us to ‘please be careful’ and ‘don’t trust anything this man says, don’t leave the bar with him.’
That was enough warning for me, and after subtly telling the others what had just been relayed to me, we all told the guy that we were going to play some pool, and from there made a hasty getaway.
Scary as this was, it didn’t stop us enjoying the rest of our night. Although I am 99% sure that this guy had spiked our drinks, whatever he’d spiked them with felt pretty damn good, to the point where Simone and I were hanging out of tuktuks screaming about the government in Scottish accents (not like me at all) and Lewis twerked on a 7-foot black guy. Still in Nana, we visited a couple of Go Go bars before heading back to the familiar territory of Khao San Road, where we partied in Lava, a club that had become a bit of a regular haunt of ours.
This was actually the last night that we spent in Bangkok, so after a long lie-in and a lot of eating pizza the next day, we were en route to our next destination: Koh Samui!