A Dichotomy of Contradicting Realities

The thing about big cities like Bangkok (population 12 million) is that concessions are hardly made for tourists. Much like in Chicago, or New York City, you’re expected to immediately fall into the city’s rhythm. Unlike in Saigon and Siem Reap, no priority was given to us as new arrivals and nothing but the local currency was accepted (the baht).

Grand Palace entrance

Bangkok is a phenomenon I was hardly prepared for. On one hand, I was impressed by the variety and incredible opulence of the temples…Some buildings are covered in gold, others are decorated with thousands of finely detailed tiles and jeweled mirrors. On the gorgeous days I was there, every building seemed to sparkle and glitter under the tropical sun. On the other hand, I was surprised to see the abject poverty of ramshackle shacks right along side shrines and houses of the rich. The realities of rich and poor, of cleanliness and pollution, of friendliness and sketchiness, and other such dichotomies were everywhere.

House on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Luckily, we were sure to study up on the customs to ensure we didn’t unintentionally offend anyone; Thailand is very different from the U.S.! When a local graces you with a wai (a Thai greeting…slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion) it is appropriate to return it. I really loved this custom, and the clear sign it gave of mutual respect.

The wai greeting is said to resemble a closed Lotus flower. Photo by Anthony Ewing.

On the street, you really can experience almost anything – ostentatious shopping malls, eclectic markets, lady boy shows, famous (and at times somewhat scary) night life, tuk-tuk rides, hot-pink taxis, Muay Thai matches, ancient Thai massage, street food a-plenty, and so on.

Prohibited outfits at the Grand Palace - although we took special care to dress appropriately, two girls in our group still had to purchase additional cover-ups.

The only real complaint I had during my couple weeks in Southeast Asia was my experience with the Thai cab drivers – none of whom seemed willing to turn on a meter and tried to scam 3-5 times the cost of a typical ride to or from our hotel.

Thai cabs

I felt as though, in general, Thai people are polite to the point of reverence, however between drivers trying to make extra money, and endlessly being offered “Ping Pong shows” at the Patpong night market (which, in all fairness, is right in the heart of the Red-light district), for the first time on this trip I felt unsafe. I was asked by my professor what exactly I was afraid of…nothing really, it’s just that intuition you suddenly get that isn’t easily explained. I had a heightened sense of awareness that I trusted was necessary.

Patpong night market in the middle of the red-light district

I both loved the city and hated it at the same time. The sheer size of Bangkok can be very overwhelming, however with all there is to do and see, it really is a spectacular place to visit. Overall, Bangkok is very affordable, and with 2 hour Thai massages only costing 400 baht (roughly $14 USD), it is easy to become spoiled.

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