In January the Vietnamese authorities, such as they are, decided in their eternal wisdom to alter the laws surrounding visa extensions for us wily expats. Whereas previously it was possible to extend one’s visa within Vietnam in exchange for a mere $20, shortly after New Year the powers that be decided to change the rules and make people wishing to extend their visas leave the country and return again, getting a new one stamped at the airport upon their return.
My 3 month visa expired at the end of March, and no longer able to simply purchase an extension in Vietnam, I had to leave the country, obtaining a fresh stamp on my return.
Thus it came to pass that I found myself in Bangkok for a weekend.
I approached Bangkok with basement-low expectations. I knew little of the city, and the impressions I did have were formed from Bangkok’s reputation as being little more than a ramshackle, slightly seedy party town. The first few scenes from the (poorly casted, cliché-ridden and badly scripted) film The Beach hardly make Bangkok seem like a nice place to be, and yet I guess this was among the things shaping my expectations. As such I arrived expecting to see a shambolic, rag-tag city crawling with drunks, prostitutes, scams and projectile vomiting at every turn.
…I don’t know. Maybe you see whatever you’re looking for in a place. Maybe I didn’t go to the right places. But I actually didn’t find Bangkok shambolic, or rag tag, or crawling with drunks. Sure, we saw plenty of Western backpackers letting their hair flow a little more than freely, and there were a fair smattering of heavily made up girls offering massage services whilst curiously dressed in high heels and tiny skirts. But the rank seediness I had been bracing myself for never quite made an appearance.
In fact, in the end, Bangkok rather took me by surprise. Because what I actually found was a modern, upbeat, exciting city. At times it was even a Nice Place To Be. Sure, there was sometimes a sense that it had all been rather sellotaped together. There is an atmosphere about Bangkok that does make you feel like it could fall apart at any second. The thrill of a white-knuckle late night tuc-tuc ride is an experience not constrained by road traffic laws, it seems. Indeed, I was never given a sense that laws of any sort bear a great deal of weight in Bangkok.
And yet, somehow, this turned out to be just the most fascinating city. It wasn’t anything like I imagined. It wasn’t anything like The Beach. It wasn’t anything like the seedy stereotypes. Far from spending a weekend crawling drunk through gutters after watching a ping pong show, instead we spent our time exploring astonishing temples, munching on moreish street food, and lounging around sipping cocktails in a frankly stunning rooftop bar (Above Eleven, on top of the Fraser Suites building, which was just spectacular).
As such, my thoughts on Bangkok run thus: whatever you want this city to be, it will be. If you want a seedy, raucous weekend away, you’ll find it. if you want a weekend of temple hopping, you’ll find it. if you want to live the high life and gaze across from a rooftop bar at the twinkling lights of sky scrapers, you’ll find it.
Make of Bangkok whatever you want to make of it. Just don’t necessarily believe what everyone else tells you…