A city worth visiting despite its politics

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY STEVE BURGESS - Bangkok wat and barbed wire.
  • Photo by Steve Burgess
  • Bangkok wat and barbed wire.

It was election day in Bangkok. The city is tense after weeks of protest and violence culminating in a street gun battle on election eve that left a half dozen people in hospital. All of this was of particular interest to me, since I was in Bangkok that day.

It's not that I was completely unconcerned. I suppose I could have walked into trouble unwittingly. But I was in the city off and on for a couple of weeks, visited the protest camps — finding there a party atmosphere — and made the rounds of my favourite markets and neighbourhoods. Bangkok is a sprawling city and life went on largely as before, albeit with less traffic thanks to blockaded intersections. There was even a cheery little article in the Bangkok Post about how the protest blockades have been great for local cyclists.

The political problems of Thailand are serious, and I realize that it's not about me and my personal safety. I chose to be there. But my point is that too many people form their impressions through media clips. TV and YouTube show violence and chaos; governments play it safe by issuing travel warnings. But cancelling a trip to Bangkok for fear of election violence would have been like cancelling a trip to Oklahoma for fear of a twister. There are much better reasons to cancel a trip to Oklahoma.

In 2003 I talked to Europeans who were concerned about visiting Vancouver — because of SARS, which had killed 44 people 3,300 kilometres away in Toronto. The World Health Organization issued a travel advisory for Toronto despite the absence of cases outside hospitals and the homes of those directly affected. Toronto tourism was devastated for no good reason.

Tourism has suffered in Bangkok too. At the usually-crowded Chatuchak Weekend Market it was possible to stroll down the aisles without turning sideways and squeezing through — you could even swing your arms a little. Chatuchak is always one of my favourite destinations, as remarkable as Bangkok itself. There is little you won't find in its 35 acres of shops and stalls, but the best part is finding things you didn't know you were looking for. And being in Bangkok, of course there is food, wonderful food.

At Gate 29 (by the Kamphaeng Phet metro station entrance) the Green Chili Restaurant serves up some of Bangkok's best Thai home cooking, and all over the market vendors are selling snacks and treats both familiar and unfamiliar. Probably falling into the latter category is meung kham; little packets wrapped in edible leaves containing lime, dried shrimp, peanuts, a sweet sugar-cane based sauce, ginger, soy sauce and coconut. It plays out on the palate like a friendly culinary argument.

There are always plenty of mystery packages too. Many Bangkok bites are wrapped in banana leaves. But like the proverbial box of chocolates you never know what's coming. Unwrap that banana leaf and you might find spicy chicken and glass noodles, or a sweet coconut jelly dessert.

Som tham would make any short list of national Thai dishes. On English menus it is usually called green papaya salad, but few North American restaurants serve it up the way Thais like it—eye-popping, tongue-lolling hot. The typical Western palate might find som tham with two chilies agreeably or even aggressively spicy. It's not unusual for Thais to order it with five or six chilies. If you seek danger in Bangkok, try that (Phrik song met means two chilies and is a good phrase to memorize, although holding up two fingers usually works. The adventurous might add another chili — phrik sam me).

Reports of foreign danger are not always overblown — I'm certainly not planning any trips to Syria anytime soon. But news reports give us a distorted picture. Publishing a list of monthly traffic fatalities in Canada could create the impression that the entire country is a slaughterhouse. But most of us venture outdoors anyway.

Bangkok has its perils — you find that out just by trying to cross a busy street. But I'm glad I didn't let the doomsayers warn me away from one of my favourite cities.


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