Hosting a seemingly infinite number of traders, tourists, and backpackers, Bangkok caters to the appetites and desires of travelers from all walks of life. Although the Thai capital is filled with high-end restaurants and luxury hotels, to get a real sense for the city you have to immerse yourself in life on the streets. Disorienting, alluring, and stimulating almost to the point of hallucination, here are five realizations you will have along the way.
1. The food really is as good as you’ve heard
Thai food is fresh, vibrant, herby, and so much more than pad thai (though that’s available too). The streets of Bangkok are lined with vendors selling everything from grilled meats and seafood, to bowls of soup noodles, to fresh fruits of every imaginable variety. Look for food stalls crowded with locals, and don’t worry too much about identifying which member of the animal kingdom you are about to enjoy—with a touch of chili paste and a sprinkle of fish sauce, the sensory overload of your first bite will be one of the most enduring memories you will ever make.
2. “Land of Smiles” is not just a marketing cliche
Thailand announces itself to all visitors arriving in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport as the “Land of Smiles.” And it’s true: Thais really are very friendly and welcoming to travelers. If you look lost or in need of assistance, someone will always offer to help (and many people in Bangkok speak some amount of English). This is all the more remarkable when you realize Bangkok is consistently one of the top 10 most-visited cities in the world. (And with the influx of the increasingly numerous Chinese middle class, this is only set to continue.)
3. But you need to keep your wits about you
No surprises here, but not everyone in Bangkok is out to help the foreign tourists. As with most cities, you need to keep your wits about you, and if a deal sounds too simple and good to be true, it probably is. The main thing to watch out for is tuk-tuk drivers: Because they don’t rely on meters, they are free to charge whatever they like. The true scam artists aren’t just trying to overcharge you, though. They want to lure you in with a cheap offer for an hour or two of sightseeing—and then take you to a store owned by a family member or where they receive a commission on sales. As well as being exposed to a hard sell, this can be quite the time suck if you aren't careful.
4. Bangkok is incredibly diverse
Bangkok is arguably the regional capital for the whole of Southeast Asia. People from all over flock here for business opportunities, pleasure, or a mix of both. There's an old saying that no one is who they seem in Bangkok. Like New York or Paris, it's where people come to become someone new, to make something of themselves that they may not be able to elsewhere. This influx of immigrants means you'll hear dozens of languages spoken on the streets of Bangkok, and can explore numerous cultures just by strolling through a crowded market.
5. Wats and temples appear out of nowhere
Bangkok's wonders range from one of the largest Chinatowns on the planet to the erotic options of Soi Cowboy and Patpong, but if there’s one marvel the city should be known for, it’s the incredible Buddhist wats. The Thai royal family has gone to great lengths to rehab and refurbish the city’s collection of temples, each of which serves a different purpose and caters to a different set of Bangkok’s massive Buddhist community. From Wat Pho’s famous 151-foot-long reclining Buddha to the quiet serenity of neighboring Thonburi’s Wat Anongkharam, each temple is as unique and fascinating as the city itself.
Max Bonem is an American writer currently eating and writing his way through the streets of Southeast Asia. You can follow along as he documents his favorite bites and moments on his blog and Instagram.
© 2016 AFAR Media