Living in Bangkok: Thoughts on Southeast Asia and How to Survive in Thailand

The past couple of weeks in Bangkok have been a dream come true.

Sunday June 12: I’m on the train up north, headed to Chiang Mai now, and it’s bluntly unreal to think about how fast time flies by. By the time I publish this (with long awaited wi-fi for my laptop), I’ll probably have been in Chiang Mai for a couple of days, probably have fallen in love with it, and probably be sad about leaving soon.

Prior to making the trip to Southeast Asia, I was a bit distraught. After spending a year abroad in Scandinavia with a close-knit group of friends, at an amazing university, and in a community of students both local and international, traveling solo seemed more daunting than any of the experiences I’d had this past year.

It was unnerving, but I wanted to do it. Because it scared me a little, and because it made me feel uncomfortable.

And now I feel more comfortable than I have ever felt before.

It is amazing what we are capable of, the things we can do, how well we can adjust, and the experiences we can bring ourselves, when we get past the initial idea of anything being too daunting or too difficult.

Because once we jump past that, we put ourselves in the position where the only option is to do the very thing we have been thinking about the past few months.

And so we do it, and often a lot better than we expected.

Thailand is a completely different place than Europe, the U.S., or anywhere else I have been. And that is why I love it.

The heat is unbearable. The mosquito bites are a nuisance. You are constantly sweating, and constantly sticky. And not many people speak much English.

But you learn how to adjust, and how to shake off the distractions.

And then the miracles fall into place.

The food. The people. The sights. The feeling of living somewhere totally different than you ever imagined. The energy aligned with seeing new things every day, and finding contentment alongside a lifestyle different than you’re used to.

Oh and did I mention the food.

Initially I thought this trip would consist of a lot of “me” time, or spending time alone and learning how to do that well.

I think a lot of people have trouble just being happy by themselves, and it’s something I never really thought about before considering this entire trip. I’ve been surrounded by close friends and family my entire life, and it seems as though I always end up finding new people that just so happen to be the best people, that become some of my best friends. So the thought of being “alone” was interesting, provoking, and in some ways exciting.

Yet, while traveling alone given me a lot of more time to be by myself, I have never felt “alone” during any moment of it.

It is almost as if the wonders of the world fill you up completely. There is no void left empty, no space left unfilled.

When you are able to travel with the freedom of yourself, many opportunities find your way. Time is your friend. Spontaneity is your friend. The stranger, who you might not even bat an eye at when traveling in a group, is your friend. You can take in the beauty and culture that you witness in total contemplation, and decide to do whatever it is that you want without confirmation.

Aside from the rewards of traveling itself, there are two other factors that have made my solo journey so rewarding in ways that I didn’t expect.

The culture of the Thai people, and people in general (as in from everywhere in the world).

Because:

  1. The people in Thailand are extremely kind, genuine, and selfless. Out of all of the traveling I did this past year throughout Europe, I never met a society or culture that was as friendly, compassionate, or helpful. When you smile at the people here, they smile back. They make you feel at home. And some even treat you like family.
  2. No matter where you are in the world, you are never truly alone. People will always be there, and connection will always be available. Especially as a solo traveler, you end up making more friends than you can manage to remember the names of.

That is why I fell in love with traveling solo. I have come to love traveling by myself as much as I do with others. They are different, and perfect in their own ways.

And that is also why I fell in love with Thailand.

Thailand is still considered a developing country, and is different in foundational ways from other areas in Asia (even more so from areas of the Western world). But the comparisons make no stabs at its brilliance.

It seems like a lot of people lack a clear idea of what Thailand is truly like, because most pictures and displays of the country highlight the islands, the beaches, and the picturesque backdrops. Or the opposite: lack of development.

While these things do exist in Thailand, and add to its magic alike any other part of the country, there is so much more to why people fall in love with this place. More than most photos can capture, and more than most blogs can tell you.

Admittedly, the initial environments may shock you. The compactness and buzz of Bangkok, the rural regions that seem untouched. I had misconceptions about the country before visiting, and the similarities to Leon, Nicaragua – where I lived for a month a several years back – shocked me.

It is hot, certain areas are dirty, and certain cities are congested. But the culture remains at the core of everything: the people know joy, respect, and community.

And that is reason to celebrate this country all on its own, because you begin to learn it too.

And once you begin to explore around, you realize that everything exists in Thailand. Raw culture, nice cafes, street food markets, extravagant buildings with the most recent and modern trends.

It’s not just beaches, it’s not just resorts, it’s not just crowded streets, and it’s not just thrift stand markets. It’s all of these things and more.

Before getting into what the past weeks of solo-traveling have amounted to, I want to share some main tips and points on surviving in Thailand, and specifically in Bangkok.

  1. DOWNLOAD GOOGLE TRANSLATE TO YOUR PHONE
  2. DOWNLOAD GOOGLE TRANSLATE TO YOUR PHONE
  3. DOWNLOAD GOOGLE TRANSLATE TO YOUR PHONE

I cannot stress enough, how much this application helps out in every and any circumstance. The idea is to have google translate not only for yourself, but mainly for others. It is SO much easier for people to read what you are trying to communicate in their written language than it is for them to attempt to understand broken words in a terrible accent. Simply write out where you are trying to go, what you need, or what you are trying to say on the app, and then select the function that puts the text on full screen.

You can do this with taxis, with strangers, pretty much with anyone in Thailand. And they will help you. That is what is beautiful about living in a place where people are kind. They point you in the right direction every time you need it.

I’ll be writing some more descriptive posts with tips and advice on living in the areas I’ve traveled, as well as embarking on certain solo excursions. Just some short guides for the things I’ve done, because the guides of other travelers have always helped me out.

Now for what has been going on in my life (for anyone who is interested, or just Mom & Dad, or just 80-year-old me because you’re both probably skipping this over to watch Modern Family, I don’t judge).

Thursday June 2, Jekky’s Homestay / My first official day of working at Jekky’s Homestay began the routine switch-off of cleaning and house-helping, alongside filming for a feature video. Later in the day two women from Singapore visited the homestay for a private cooking class. We prepared the food, filmed some, and then went to town on some amazing Thai cuisine (Jekky is an awesome cook). And now I have a couple of friends to visit in Singapore. The best part about traveling, meeting people and getting to know them to be friends.

Friday June 3, Phaya Thai & Jatujak Green (JJ Greens) Market / The next day I spent my time after work exploring the nearby areas, and searching for the best street food in Phaya Thai (the district I lived and worked in). After two weeks in Bangkok, I have come to the conclusion that the best Thai street food I’ve had exists right next to the homestay itself. HUGE portions, DELICIOUS taste. For around $1.05.

At night I visited JJ Green’s market, a night-weekend market known for its food, shopping stands, live music, bars, and overall trendy vibe.

This market is by far my favorite in Bangkok, and hosts a stand that sells the most amazing ice cream you will ever lay your eyes on.

BEHOLD: ROLLED ICE CREAM.

They mix the ingredients right in front of you and then pour it on a cold slab, mix it and mash it together till it’s real ice cream, and then prepare it into rolls. Probably the main reason why I’m still smiling after two weeks of no air conditioning and swollen mosquito bites.

Saturday June 4, Homestay Cooking Class / On Saturdays Jekky hosts a Thai cooking class, that around 20-30 people usually attend. The day consists of visiting a local market, experiencing certain aspects of Thai and Bangkok culture, and cooking (and eating) traditional Thai cuisine. Pam, Rod, Salome, and I spent the day meeting people from all over the world, while simultaneously filming and taking pictures for the website. Pam and Rod are also under the Workaway contract, working and staying for free like me, whereas Salome is staying as a guest and partaking in an internship at one of the universities in Bangkok. They make up a unit of three amazing people, and I am beyond glad that I got to know them. They kept me sane those two weeks, and gave me laughter and joy that helped make my time in Bangkok as beautiful as it was.

Here you can watch a video about the homestay, and the Saturday Thai cooking class.

Truly a wonderful experience put together by Jekky and the house.

Sunday June 5, Muay Thai Boxing, Chatuchak Market, & Downtown / After a long day in a house full of energy and delicious food, Pam, Rod, Salome, and I decided to explore some of Bangkok’s well known areas, as well as the more hidden ones. We started off the day by watching a local Thai boxing match, tipped off to us by Jekky and Max (a good friend of the house). The Sunday event is free to attend, and a completely local experience unlike anything else.

Thai boxing (Muay Thai) is a graceful sport, and much more artistic than any boxing I’ve seen on American television. It was shocking to witness it live (I’ve never been to a boxing match before), and the energy of the Thai crowds was completely insane. These guys in the ring are inhumanly quick, and could easily take out 20 men with little to no fighting experience. Some of the matches became intense (seemed as though the later pairs of fighters were more experienced than the starting pairs), but the sense of respect within the ring never faded. When one boxer could tell that the other was done fighting, he would simply stop the blows, and often give him an embrace of reassurance.

After an hour or so at the match, we headed out for some lunch and shopping at Chatuchak market, Bangkok’s largest and most well-known day-to-night weekend market.

Food, buying things, food, buying things, food. It became a theme of the trip.

After the market, we sat in a nearby park for a little while, deciding what to do next.

Which reminds me of another reason why I love Bangkok: the city has so much to offer.

There are busy districts full of lively crowds and open shops, there are traditional markets and there are trendy malls, and there are green spaces that remind you of the beauty that exists beyond concrete buildings. If you get too much of one thing, you can move onto the next.

After enjoying the park we headed downtown to the Silom district, for some central markets and sights. After wandering around for a bit, we stumbled upon a street filled with vendors and stands, a true street food haven. I think we ran around the entire span of the market at least 3 times, before deciding what to snack on. The smells of the food and the presentation of it all was simply astounding.

One of Bangkok’s best features itself might be the street food culture.

Being able to get an extraordinary meal for $1-2, watch it be cooked right in front of you, and having the intimacy of a personal exchange between yourself and the cook.

When asking people who were soon-to-be leaving Bangkok, “what will you miss the most?”, the response was almost always “the food culture”.

Monday June 6, Thammasat University & The Maharaj /  I spent the following day hanging out around Bangkok’s renown university, and the shopping and dining district right next to it (one of my favorite areas, as it’s right on the water, has some amazing cafes with A/C, and sits right next to the amulet market allowing for a quick switch to a more traditional environment). I spent the entire day editing videos in a really nice cafe; taking a few breaks for a nice walk around, grabbing a bite to eat, and then back to the editing grind. If that was my job 24/7, I’m not sure I would ever complain.

Tuesday June 7, Myanmar Embassy & The Grand Palace / On Tuesday I headed to the Embassy of Myanmar, in downtown Bangkok, to apply for my tourist visa. I set aside some time to explore the country before heading to Japan, the idea being to trek around Bagan (an ancient city with several ruins) and spend some time working in Yangon (the capital). There is a meditation care center nearby Yangon, where volunteers are able to help with daily services in return for free stay and meals. The center provides shelter and services to those without a home or those in poor health, and hosts daily meditation rounds and mindfulness trainings. Out of everything laid out for me these next couple of months, this might be what I anticipate the most.

After applying for my visa, I caught a cab to the Grand Palace – Bangkok’s number one attraction, and Thailand’s most extravagant temple grounds. The entrance fee was quite steep compared to everything else in Thailand, a city that boasts its affordability, but almost any fee is negligible in the extravagance of the palace.

I brought a pair of pants along with me, because the dress code is very strict in the concerns of respecting both Thai royalty and Buddha himself. It made for several hours of waddling around in extreme heat, and enduring a sustained loss of body water, but it was all well worth it.

The grounds were spectacular.

Magical. Sacred. Out of this world.

I couldn’t quite understand how something built by man could be so naturally beautiful.

It felt amazing to be a part of it all, even as one among many tourists. Walking around and absorbing the sights alone, amidst crowds of other people, was actually quite calming. The world was breathtakingly beautiful in that moment, and I was content.

Wednesday June 8, Ayutthaya & Victory Monument / Now this was phenomenal. After finishing work I headed straight to Victory Monument, where shuttle buses leave for various destinations. After finding my way around a bit, I found a bus heading to Ayutthaya – Thailand’s old capital and an oasis of temples and ruins.

As soon as I got to my stop I found a place to rent a bike for the day (a whopping $1.20), and met a couple from England along the way. We biked together for a bit, and then split off to different temples.

It felt amazing to bike within the roads and alley ways of an old city, filled with smaller settlements and traffic-less sights.

And then the amazing, awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping temples.

I have never felt more dumbfounded by my surroundings, unable to speak a word, than at these very ruins.

Throughout the day I met several people from all around the world, sharing nice conversations and exchanging plans for the following weeks.

It was clear to me that we all shared the same feeling: life was at a pause, our minds in sheer amazement.

It was a personal experience, witnessing these man-made relics and attempting to recognize the power and faith that they once channeled from the people that lived here.

I biked around the entire city, making my way to the final and largest temple on the outskirts of the region, and eventually found myself in between heavy traffic and a long, congested bridge.

The long day and sun started to get the best of me, and I was in much need of two things:

  1. A break
  2. Something familiar

And what do you know, and the end of the bridge, lied an oasis. The frequent savior for the traveler oversaturated with experiences new and strange. A hub of something familiar and something easy. A small reminder of home, and a quick fix to get the trekker back to trekking.

7/11. A quick-stop haven of rejuvenation for the international traveler. 

After restoring myself with 10 minutes of A/C and snacks that I could purchase without the confusion of street food (which I love 97% of the time), I continued on to the final temple.

And by every cell in my body, I am so thankful I did.

This temple is by far the most spectacular sight I have ever seen in my entire life. Out of every travel I have ever embarked on. The moment I stepped inside, I felt calm. At home. And in a limbo of awe and fascination that has remained with me since.

If you are ever in Thailand, go to Ayutthaya. Please.

I got back to Bangkok around 7:00PM and found myself back at the pick-up location of the bus: Victory Monument. It was dark out, and markets set up in every corner. Something magical that happens in Bangkok every single night.

Thursday June 9, Pattaya Beach & Koh Larn Island / The next day I decided to go to the beach. It was quite a trek away, but I thought what the hell. I’m in Thailand, I’ll go to the beach. The bus to Pattaya (large beach city by Bangkok) took around 2 hours, and then the boat to Koh Larn island took around 40 minutes.

Pattaya was a neat city to see, but overall a tourist-filled, beach-oriented, kind-of-sleazy place. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more had I spent actual time there. These are just first impressions (which are rarely fully accurate).

I decided to take the boat to Koh Larn island, because the island is known for its pristine beaches, mellow vibes, and small crowds. The boat ride was also not even a dollar’s expense.

When I got to the island, I took a short motor bike taxi ride to one of the remote beaches. It was my first motor bike ride (aside from a short one from the homestay to the market), and I am now hooked on the feeling of being on them. Whizzing down the roads of the island, in between jungle views and sneak peeks of the ocean, left my jaw dropped the entire ride.

The beach itself was breathtaking. Crystal clear waters, WARM air and waves (really enjoying this after Sweden), and hidden areas with caves and jungle brush. It felt amazing to explore around, although I encountered a giant lizard which may or may not have made me piss myself (more can be read on my Instagram…).

I spent the day enjoying the clear skies and walking around the area, before returning back to Pattaya, and eventually back to Bangkok.

The bus ride home was yet again, painstakingly beautiful. Thai sunsets are easy on the eyes.

Friday June 10th, Terminal 21 Mall & Siam Paragon / Friday morning I went to buy my train ticket to Chiang Mai and pick up my passport from the Myanmar Embassy, after getting my visa approved and finalizing my travel plans (hooray!). Since I was already downtown after finishing my errands, I decided to get acquainted with the skytrain (BTS), and see some of Bangkok’s most well known complexes: Terminal 21 (a trendy mall) and Siam Paragon (a Disneyland for shoppers and eaters).

The Terminal 21 mall was neat, every floor was themed as a different country, with different areas labelled as different cities. I spent some time walking around (the stuff here was too expensive for a budget traveler), and taking the most extravagant pit stop I have yet to experience. Bidet, air dry function, heated seats, heated water spout, cleansing mode … These toilets had everything.

After being too cheap to buy anything, I headed to Siam Paragon: Bangkok’s nicest, fanciest, and most extravagant shopping area. Possibly the most extravagant shopping area in the world (probably not true, most extravagant I’ve been to at least).

This place was actually unreal. Nothing authentic to Thai culture or anything like that, but just ridiculously nice. And with the Thai baht being so advantageous to U.S. currency, it was a ridiculously nice shopping complex that you could actually afford (if you wanted to). At one point the employees at one of the stores broke out into a minor flash mob, a reminder that the little joys can make an already-happy you ecstatic. After walking around the entire mall, I grabbed an early dinner and some dessert, before heading back to the homestay.

Pam and Rod were supposed to host a salsa class at night, but a monsoon hit and no one showed up. So instead we just hung out until the z’s started to kick in. Pam, Rod, and Salome became my family away from home in Bangkok. Great people and good friends always seem to show up, everywhere and anywhere.

Saturday June 11, Homestay Cooking Class & JJ Greens Market / Saturday came and another cooking class ensued. I took care of some things in preparation of leaving on Monday, and then helped out around the house during the weekend festivities.

This time round there were two ridiculously cute babies, and one of a family who extended an invitation to their home whenever I found myself in Bangkok.

Something brilliant about traveling is that you are able to meet people from all over the world. You can connect with them, and sustain these connections. Not so you can have a place to stay for free in the future, or some other kind of traveling advantage. But so you can become inspired.

One of the main benefits of knowing people in different places is the motivation they provide. They give you the extra push to visit, to travel, and to make the journey in the first place.

I guess I should also mention that one of the babies took my phone captive, and took 256 selfies. Absolutely adorable.

After the dinner died down, Salome, Pam, Rod, and I headed out to JJ Greens Market, my last trip to my favorite spot in Bangkok. Rolled ice cream was a must, and I somehow ended up buying more Hawaiian shirts than I know what to do with (just kidding I know exactly what to do with them sup Isla Vista I’m comin’ home).

The following day the four of us chilled out and got some traditional Thai ice cream, before I headed to the train station for my night train to Chiang Mai.

I am now sitting on the train, watching the outskirts of Bangkok pass by, as the railway bumps against the cars like the theme song of my life these past few years.

“Hello, I love you, goodbye, I’ll miss you.”

It was this for Davis, this for Santa Barbara, this for Sweden, and will be the same for Thailand.

Bangkok, thank you for being my home these past two weeks, and introducing me to the continent of Asia altogether.

TL;DR:

  • Bangkok is an amazing place
  • Thailand is an amazing place
  • Solo traveling is an amazing thing
  • Life is (and can be) an amazing thing
  • I am a lucky guy to live this life
  • I am a lucky guy to share this life with other people
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Moments made of people and places, brilliant and ordinary. ↹ Planet Earth, Milky Way

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