Travelling to Bangkok, Thailand

As John Bucher discovers, Bangkok may be the City of Angels, but the devil is in the details.

Beautiful Mistakes: Travelling to Bangkok, Thailand | John Bucher
Curiosity, experimentation, unguarded feeling: all may be virtues in jazz, but on holiday in Bangkok they’ll only find you trouble. Back: The BCBusiness Guide to World Trav

As John Bucher discovers, Bangkok may be the City of Angels, but the devil is in the details.

As I sit in a wheelchair (not my usual mode of transport), in extreme pain, in a China Eastern departure lounge at Bangkok International, awaiting my return flight to Vancouver, a thought has occurred to me: Bangkok is a great place to make mistakes. Or, if not to make mistakes, perhaps to nurture the state of mind that precedes them. Curiosity, experimentation, unguarded feeling: all may be virtues in jazz, but on holiday in the original City of Angels they’ll only get you in trouble. My downfall took shape in a three-week romantic intrigue. I know, original. More on that in a second. 

Bangkok got its name from King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (posthumously Rama I) in the late 18th century, and the full version of it translates to English as The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma. In Thai it takes as long to say as an alphabet and three supercalafragalistics, though most of Bangkok’s nine million citizens call their global mecca of exoticism Krung Thep.


Weather If you like the heat, go between April and June. Avoid the rainy season, which stretches from June to October.
Can’t Miss What else? The Augusta National of night-market-cum-red-light districts, Patpong Road. Come for the knock-off Rolexes, stay for the ping-pong-themed sex shows.
Best Bed One of Asia’s grandest hotels, The Oriental. If you can’t manage the room tariff ($400 a night), go for the high tea.
Cool Eats Harmonique, in Charoenkrung. Try the fish marinated in curry sauce and lemongrass, and wash it down with a couple of Singhas. 02-630-6270

The city’s reputation for romantic entanglements – those both innocent and deliberate – was forged in the 1970s, when Bangkok became a popular R&R stop for the American GIs fighting lonelily in the Vietnam jungle. Although red-light districts like Patpong Road, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy tend to overshadow Bangkok’s cultured side, the city’s many museums and Buddhist temples combine to draw over 11 million visitors annually to the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Only London and Paris see more tourists. 

Many snares await them. A large, laminated book in the lobby of my Sukhumvit hotel, the rustic and delightfully haughty Atlanta, warned of a popular swindle, the Bangkok Gem Scam. It begins with an approach from a friendly stranger and some talk of an annual sale (on now, of course) wherein the Thai government waives the export tax on gems. The middle phase sees the mark making hungry calculations as to how much money he can make flipping the stones. The inevitable end is the unveiling, at home, of a packet of nearly worthless blue sapphires. His $3,000 outlay is worth one-tenth of that, tops. 

I didn’t fall for the gem scam, but I got tangled up in an even more witless racket: the Bangkok Love Trap. Not the one the lobby book warned of, however: my gin wasn’t spiked by a raven-haired sylph in a nightclub. Still, if I were permitted an addendum to that cautionary note, here’s what I’d write:

If you’re ever needing to make a graceful exit from an emotional situation in an apartment block – a sobbing woman you’ve made and broken reckless promises to, say – and between you and the Bangkok street stands a locked, nine-foot-high security fence, and you have with you two backpacks, each weighing 50 pounds, throw the bags over as softly as possible, yes, and scale the fence as carefully as flip-flops allow, by all means. 

But really take care with your jump. Many Bangkok streets have sloped curbs, and landing on one awkwardly – on your heels is one way – can cause a catastrophic injury. The upside is that, leaving the country, your feet will feel the way the rest of you does.