Photo by Adam Birkan
Photograph by Adam Birkan
The Thai capital is sprawling and sometimes frustrating, but always exhilarating. Here are the best ways to dive in.
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I’m in Bangkok’s Chinatown, nearing the end of a long morning run through the city, when I see a stream of people heading down a lane. I follow them. The lane is so narrow that I have to slow to a walk. I snake past stores purveying all manner of burnable offerings for the adjacent temple (fake money in both dollars and baht; New Balance branded sneakers made of cardboard), then spy two folding tables and eight plastic stools wedged against a wall, most of them occupied by ladies who breakfast. There’s something about the intensity with which these women slurp their noodles that makes me slow down further. As soon as she catches me staring, the short-haired cashier leaps up from her perch next to the cauldron and insists I sit down. The cook glances up at me as she preps my bowl, first ladling in soup and noodles, then an array of beef and pork parts. Al dente rice-flour pasta, called kway chap, combines ultracrisp char shiu pork and a spectacularly flavorful, long-cooked broth to produce one of the best noodle dishes I’ve ever eaten.
The pleasure I take in this breakfast isn’t only about the food. Even though I’m in a city I know well, having visited many times, I’ve found myself somewhere new. I’m nestled in the heart of a dense, bustling market where shoppers eye slabs of pork and vats of pickled greens, chat with vendors, bow toward the temple, and live the vibrant life of this inner city. For me it’s a revelatory experience of enormous, immersive pleasure.
How did I arrive at this moment of bliss? I certainly didn’t read about this meal on some website’s list of the Top 10 Noodle Stalls in Bangkok. (If I had, I doubt I’d be the only non-Thai person in the market.) I am, instead, savoring the deep enjoyment that comes from finding something extraordinary all by myself, and by accident. It’s the kind of pleasure sought by the amateur urbanist known as the flâneur.
How does a 21st-century traveler find spontaneous pleasure in a place like this?
Try to be an old-school flâneur in today’s Bangkok and you will likely end up dehydrated and heat sick, desperately trying to cross a six-lane road to nowhere. Bangkok, like so many other big cities that have grown up in the modern world (São Paulo, Tokyo, Lagos, Jakarta, to name a few) is a rapidly changing megalopolis where many of the old rules about how to know a city simply don’t apply. So how does a 21st-century traveler find spontaneous pleasure in a place like this?
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1. Find new ways to wander
Bangkok is a puzzle just to get around. The small, manageable blocks of the city’s old town along the Chao Phraya River give way to huge avenues as you get farther away from the river. The reach of subways and trains is limited, and traffic is so insane that sometimes taxi drivers will simply refuse to take you to your destination at any price. But cracking a city’s navigational code can be one of the most fun and interesting undertakings for a traveler.
Bangkok’s best-known form of public transport is the boat service that plies the Chao Phraya, the largest and most important waterway in the region, dropping people off at all the usual tourist haunts: the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, the Flower Market, Wat Pho. But better for revealing my kind of Bangkok are two boat lines less used by tourists.
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One putters along the Krung Kasem canal, which curves along the eastern edge of Old Bangkok, showing you the city the way it used to be, with shaded wooden walkways that abut the narrow canal and small ironwork pedestrian bridges that arc over it at steep angles. The other boat line connects the historic city center with the far reaches of eastern Bangkok via the Saen Saep canal. On the Saen Saep, commuters and students shuffle onto benches in long, low-slung green boats topped with blue-and-white plastic tarps for shade. The people nearest the sides clutch ropes to raise plastic shields when a wave of murky water is about to strike. Glimpsed from the canal, crowded tourist stops such as the home of Jim Thompson (a famous American silk trader who disappeared in 1967) appear tranquil. As the boat travels east and reaches the Pratunam area, it fills with shoppers carrying electronics from Pantip Plaza or designer bargains from the Platinum Fashion Mall. The gleaming towers of modern Bangkok—mirrored office buildings, high-rise condominiums, malls with jumbo video screens—loom over the few old wooden houses that remain on the waterside. The small piers where the boat stops are often positioned below bridges that shelter not only passengers but also papaya salad carts, coffee and tea vendors, and, invariably, a mutt or two sleeping in the shade. Compared to a canalside scene in, say, Paris, Bangkok offers an overwhelming density of life.
People have been navigating Bangkok’s canals by boat for centuries, so it’s a fitting way to get a feel for the city. But for a uniquely modern take, do your wandering by motorcycle taxi. Offering 360-degree views as they bob and weave past the city’s enormous yet nearly silent traffic jams (Thais are loath to honk their horns for anything that doesn’t involve impending death), motos are intensely pleasurable—if perilous.
One day I caught a moto in the northern part of Chinatown and headed south, watching the riverfront area transform. We started the ride amid ancient Chinese warehouses that used to store goods that arrived by boat. We saw throngs of people crossing the street to shop at a mile-long fabric market. We turned onto Yaowarat Road, where street-food vendors staked out their territory, and the bright lights of tall, rectangular neon signs with vertical strips of Chinese characters were just starting to flicker on. As we neared my destination, we veered onto a strip of scrapyards with towering stacks of rusting, ancient mechanical parts and man-size motors, looking like an Ai Weiwei installation. The panoramic view offered by the moto showed me how the city’s streets flowed together in a way I’d never have seen from a car window, stuck in traffic.
My early morning runs, motorcycle taxi rides, and canal boat cruises are gratifying in themselves, but they also serve as reconnaissance for places I want to return to. This kind of exploration is essential in a place like Bangkok, where you need to accept that you will never be able to see everything. When I find a restaurant or a street I love, I go back and back again even if I’m only in the city for a short time. Great places, like the noodle stall I found, don’t exist in a vacuum. If there’s a discerning clientele to support one excellent place, that probably signals a neighborhood worth returning to. And so, a few mornings after my noodle breakfast, I found myself in the same Chinatown alleyway at a different food stall, sampling a batch of delicious, silver-dollar-size pumpkin-custard-filled pancakes.
I started to haunt that neighborhood and found that by the afternoon, the alleyway was scorching hot and painfully packed with tour groups on their way to the adjacent temple. By evening it was completely shuttered. But that nighttime return trip led me to scour the area and find, some blocks away on a small street called Soi Nana, at the southern edge of Chinatown, a bar that had just opened. Marked by a red neon sign with Chinese characters, the bar was called Ba Hao.
“I grew up 250 meters from here,” he told me when we met up again. “The streets here all have their specialties. My block sold baby ducks and chickens, as well as wooden coffins.” We walked toward his home street as he told me more about his history. “My family speaks Thai, of course, but also Teochew, our language from China. Growing up in Thailand, even here in Chinatown, there’s this idea that everybody should just be Thai and forget about where their grandparents might have come from. But I wanted to open this bar to make people see that Thai-Chinese culture can be cool.” Phoom shared his slice of the city with me. After all, I was a regular.