He scuttles past, murmuring under his breath, “come, second floor, beautiful view”. This little old man with his wrinkled forehead and beaming smile can be trusted, right? After all, I’m not at a tourist trap temple. It’s a local place of worship, far from scammers and chancers.
“Come, come,” he repeats, drawing me in with his sense of mystery. As I cross the foyer, the hazy sunlight gives way to a sudden dimness. Pots lie around the room; an old monk is hunched over his bowl of soup, slurping away without a care in the world.
As I look around, the little man’s vanished.
Wat Do You Mean?
Bangkok has a split personality. The first is tourism, sex-on-a-plate and westerners; the other – a bustling, vibrant metropolis shrouded in humidity and smog.
If you stick to the first, shame on you – not for your moralistic choices, but rather for what you’ll miss. Sure, see the magnificent Wat Pho, Grand Palace and Wat Arun; trounce up and down Khaosan Road, go see a fake floating market. Take in everything the postcards show and eat Pad Thai.
However, don’t complain about Bangkok being dirty, seedy or tacky. If you stay on the beaten track, what do you expect?
Up The Buddhist Stairs
All of a sudden he appears again, popping up from behind a passage. “Come, come, this way,” he chimes as he scurries up the stairs. He switches on a light and I’m confused.
Where’s this view? There’s not even a window. All there is are some small Buddha statues, some more pots (this time, antique) and a statue of a man behind a glass case.
Mr Monk points at a plaque on a wall, then points at the statue. He does it again and as I read it more carefully, I realise it’s not a statue. Its leathery texture is worn skin; this is a dead monk – his youthful face displayed behind in a photo.
Bangkok Has You
The embalmed monk is a suitable metaphor for Bangkok. With so much of Asia rushing to westernise with its fervent desire for consumerism, it’s changing at an astonishing pace.
However, walk around Bangkok’s streets, each with their own character, dodging traffic while munching on delicious meat on a stick costing pittance, and you’ll find yourself transported into a classic Asia.
Sure, it’s dirty, chaotic and at times, trying on your patience, but ultimately it’s a city that never sleeps, doesn’t conform to rules and certainly doesn’t care what happens to you. Its people might, but as a city – it’s fine being Bangkok.
Tips for Ordering Meat on a Stick
- It could be anything, but generally it’ll be pork or chicken
- Go for a stall with a lot of Thai people – guaranteed tastiness and safety
- Pick up what you want and stick it on the grill
- Feel free to barter, but as a foreigner it’s rarer you’ll get a response
- Don’t worry about it, just eat it
The Hangover 2 has a lot to answer for. Yes, it’s a little bit dirty (in all senses of the word), but it’s not some grimy sex-fest full of violent monks, smoking monkeys and ladyboy strippers. All of those exist, but it’s a tiny part of Bangkok.
You can walk down any local street and it’ll have a theme. Lines of mechanics down one, another will be full of flower merchants; the next, items to burn at Buddhist temples – it’s hard to describe the joy of exploring the non-tourist part of Bangkok without an aim or time limit.
There is nowhere like it in the world and there are very few cities that can say such a thing. Give it more than two days and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
I travelled to Bangkok for a week in January 2013.