Bangkok First Impressions: Chinatown, Khaosan Road

From ICONSIAM and the bustling streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown to the madness of Khaosan Road. A first day to remember.

Day 4. Diary date: October 5th, 2019.

What did we do first?

We just about wake up in time for midday checkout and walk to a nearby mall called ICONSIAM. As I wrote in the previous post, we didn’t have any itinerary or plan. In the months leading up to travelling, though, I’d compiled a huge list of ‘want to go’ places on Google Maps using blogs, Reddit posts, and travel guides for tips. That way, wherever or whenever we were wandering around, I could open up maps and see if there was anything worth checking out nearby, like this:

Picture of Google Maps view of Bangkok
Circled is ICONSIAM, where we visited on our first day. As you can see, most attractions seem to be along the Metro and BTS Skytrain Lines – so I’d recommend staying near a station!

Leaving our hotel, we’re instantly amazed by our first taste of Bangkok during the day. The number of street vendors seems completely normal thinking back now, but I remember at the time it seemed such an unfamiliar concept. The contrast between Thai Neo-Buddhist architecture, asymmetrical run-down buildings, and modernist skytrains & malls is striking.

Temples glitter in the overbearing sun, while towering skyscrapers watch over them from across the road. In between, chaotic traffic inches along, as street vendors sell various meats, spring rolls, and deserts on the sidewalks. Something’s always under construction. The city is distinctly alive; it’s amazing to see:

Picture of Bangkok — road through the middle, temple on the left, ICONSIAM on the right

We wander towards lCONSIAM. I know that a mall wouldn’t be a lot of people’s first destination, but we needed WiFi to book the next night’s hotel and to buy a SIM card. We didn’t regret it, and I think the below pictures below do it justice better than my words can:

The view across the Chao Phraya River to Bang Rak certainly wasn’t bad either:

A picture of the Bangkok skyline, view from top floor of ICONSIAM

We head down to the bottom floor of ICONSIAM, where there’s a whole floor dedicated to vegan food. At first, I thought that I must have the word—’Jay’—or sign for the Thai concept of vegan/vegetarian wrong. I’d been told that being a vegetarian while travelling would be difficult, and yet here I was, spoilt for choice!

Thai vegetarian symbol
Look out for this symbol if you’re vegetarian/vegan. Don’t be afraid to learn how to say it, too! ‘Ahaan jay kraap’ should do (Image -Wikimedia Commons)

We sat down to eat, and a young guy from Jakarta struck up a conversation with us—something that doesn’t happen too much in England. He asked us about our travels, welcomes us, and gives us some advice—such as getting a free shuttle boat across the river to Chinatown. He also explains that it’s currently a Jay festival in Thailand, and the bottom floor market is only temporary. A shame, but a happy coincidence that we just happened to arrive in Bangkok while it’s going on.

Exploring Chinatown

We take our new friend’s advice and travel across the river by boat, which was a great way to see part of the city. We booked a place in Chinatown called Our Secret Base for two nights. It has great reviews, so we’re excited to see if it lives up to the reputation. We walk through Chinatown, which can only be described as completely alien to the environments I’ve always known

My senses of smell, sight, and sound are all stretched. I feel stifled, but elated at the same time—it’s intoxicating.

For a bit of background, Bangkok’s Chinatown is renowned for several things: namely its bustling streets, the volume of street food stands, street art, and the fact that that can find almost anything for sale. It’s a mysterious and interesting place, like most of Bangkok.

Picture of Soi Wanit 1 in Chinatown
Walking down Soi Wanit 1, one of the main walking streets in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Featuring my poor attempt to anonymize faces.

After a somewhat challenging walk through Chinatown—with our 65-litre backpacks, a mistake I’ll talk about at some point later—we arrive at our hostel. We’re immediately greeted by the two friendly owners and their cat named ‘Master Yoda’. The atmosphere is calm and inviting, and you feel completely shut out from the madness of Chinatown despite being on its doorstep.

We meet our friend from uni, J, for the first time since we all graduated the summer before. She’s been travelling all around Asia for almost a year. It’s a great reunion.

S gets an impulse tattoo in the hostel lobby. When a hostel has a tattooist, I guess you gotta capitalise. We all catch up over a beer, revelling in the weird feeling of all being here, now, in Bangkok—thousands of miles away from home but talking as normal, free to do whatever we like.

It’s then time to head out to Chinatown again and get some food. The city is alive once more; the streets are buzzing, everything’s illuminated by bright lights, people shout and laugh. There are vegan stalls everywhere here too, because of the festival. We then get a grab to the infamous Khaosan road. It’s not our scene, but you have to check these things out, right?

Heading to Khaosan Road

The street is packed, people lining it offering scorpions and various bugs to eat, alongside ‘ping pong shows’ and nitrous oxide balloons.

We pass up the generous offerings, but we do sit down for a beer tower.

Picture of Khaosan Road, crowded at night
Khaosan Road. Looking tamer here than in reality.

We leave and wander around to see some sights at night, such as the Bangkok giant swing, then head back to the hostel. Our hosts are still up, drinking with their friends. We get involved and sing some songs with them as they play the guitar. A highlight is holding the cat, Master Yoda!

We drink more, and smoke too much. I don’t even like smoking that much but I can only assume I do it as a celebration, a symptom of being in a time and space where I have no worries? I don’t know. I’ve got no worries right now, for sure.

Eventually, we go to bed and I video-call K, S calls his girlfriend. K cries. It’s bittersweet. I’m sad, but too intrigued by Bangkok to miss home, even if I miss K. Anyway it’s 4:30 am whilst I’m typing this, and the writing is suffering. Goodnight. Today was amazing; I can only hope tomorrow can be half as good. Sightseeing, typical touristy day tomorrow. Hoping without hope for a hangover-free day!

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