02 Dec 2017 17:03 IST

Yours differently, Bangkok

In a city so touristy, do tourists make a place the local favourite or the locals themselves?

As you grow older, you are forced to confront the reality that first impressions are not all they are made out to be. The more years you put in living, and travelling, the more layers beneath the surface emerge: both in people and places. Bangkok has been like that for me.

The first time I visited as a 22-year-old, it was all party, night markets and screaming fun. In my late 20s, it was more about shopping and drinking, in my mid-30s, it was about eating at nice places, discovering that Thai food goes beyond street carts. Now, nearing 40, I am more interested in the people, the cultural fabric that makes a city.

As I planned to revisit Bangkok in September, I thought more about the city: is it really the porno party place it is made out to be? I realised, in all these years of visiting Bangkok, I did not befriend, or even meet, a Thai local who could answer this question.

How many visits are enough to know a city? I have sneered at people who think they know my city, or indeed my country, because they’ve visited “many times”. Was I committing a similar crime when I told people I knew Bangkok well? I began questioning my knowledge of the city. If the places I visit are the most popular local places, not the usual touristy hangouts, then pray, where are the Thai people? Over years of travelling the world, I count among my friends Britishers, Chinese, Australian, Germans, Jordanian, Americans, Nepali, Bhutanese, even a Swede, but I have never met a Thai person in Bangkok. Do the Thais not party, eat out, drink?

Naturally they must. The only logical conclusion is that the places I go to in Thailand must not actually be so “local” after all. It begs the question: In cities so heavily touristy, do tourists make a place the local favourite or the locals themselves? I decided that this time I must try and find some answers.

To begin with, I chose to stay on the other side of the river, where a newish neighbourhood called the Riverside is slowly flourishing. This is the quieter side of Bangkok, from where any party zone is at least half an hour away, including a 20-minute ferry across Chao Phraya.

For drinks, I skipped the popular Sky Bar and chose Attitude, the rooftop bar at the hotel I was staying in. I was keen to see if Thai people would come here. That evening, I did see a few tables with Thai people, but they sat in a circle, talking only with each other.

A big reason for this divide is language. Even if the locals speak English in Thailand, their accents are not easy to understand for outsiders — be it tourists or expats — and the Thai tend to be shy in their interactions for fear of embarrassment.

“Thai people, ones who are born and brought up and educated in the Thai system, tend to stick to locals because they aren’t comfortable with the English language and inviting an outsider might disrupt their group’s communication system,” says Thai national Prawit Thainiyom, currently a doctoral candidate in communications at the USC (University of Southern California).

In the English Proficiency Index, Thailand is ranked in the bottom five in Asia. Being shy and formal in their communication even in their own language, this mortal fear of not being able to understand, or make themselves understood to the foreigner, keeps them from interacting with anyone who doesn’t belong to the same cultural system.

Thais, much like the Japanese, have a well-defined cultural framework within which they interact with each other — this formal, protocol-ridden code of conduct is the gatekeeper for all communication, between two people or within a group. The cultural specificity of how a Thai might interact with another, the protocol of age and relationship, is invisible to the outsider and it will probably take many years of living in Thailand and a deep interest in the people to understand that.

I could, if I wanted to, take my drink to the group of Thai people sitting in front of me at Attitude, and be met with awkward smiles, but that would seem rude to the Thais. You won’t make Thai friends in Bangkok within a night at a bar.

It’s probably the fear of people like me, or the looming dread of having to interact with foreigners, that keep them to bars and restaurants where they are unlikely to meet people who are not like them.

Culturally, Thais tend to be insular, and inviting an outsider in would be an exception. Though, unlike say Japan, there aren’t any places where the foreigner isn’t outright welcome, there are many places which the locals might keep to themselves, and not advertise about much.

Downtown Bangkok, and areas such as Silom, Sukhumvit, and Siam, are the more touristy areas, where you are unlikely to find large gatherings of Thai people. For that, you have to get out of the comfort zone.

“Bangkok is a huge city, and tourists only frequent a small part of it,” Billy Spits reminds me. He runs a pub called Robin Hood in Bangkok, has been living in the city for decades, and has married a Thai woman. “Outside of the ‘tourist zones’, not every bar owner cares to attract the tourist crowds,” he adds.

Spits insists that all tourists are welcome to all Thai-frequented places in Bangkok; it’s just that we don’t know where to go. He thinks, too, that English is the key factor in this divide between the Bangkok of tourists and the Bangkok of locals.

The reason for this divide, and the onus for it, doesn’t lie on the local alone. If you spend enough time and effort understanding the Thai cultural specificity, you are welcome into their social circles. Obviously, expats have more of a shot at this than tourists like me.

Entrepreneur and photographer Arjun Sikand, who grew up in Thailand and has married a local, suggests a quicker route. “Thais love their music, and most expats avoid these local places because of this music, which I find hard to sit through frankly!” he says, tongue firmly in cheek. “But if you can learn to like Thai popular music, you can expect to be welcomed in their group. Think of it like a white guy coming to an Indian wedding, dancing to Bollywood numbers and getting instant appreciation.” There’s a small problem here though — unlike that foreigner in India, for whom English becomes a common bond, I will also have to learn the local language, unless I want to just dance and not speak to anyone!

In the end, I realised, Thai people are no different from me — they want to be themselves in peace and be left alone by the curious foreigner. It’s not that Thai people are not relaxed or don’t know how to chill — they just do it better among each other. If, as an outsider you want to enjoy the real Bangkok through befriending a local, prepare to put in the effort. As for me, I am going now to buy my first Thai album. I hear Non Thanon is quite the sensation these days.

Travel log

Getting there

There are several direct flights between all Indian metros and Bangkok. Thai Airways is the best airline to take in terms of service, though Air Asia may be the cheapest.

Stay

Avani Riverside and Anantara Riverside Resort are two great options in the quieter side of Bangkok.

Eat

Apart from Thai street-food staples like satay and pad Thai, for something different, do a walking tour of Chinatown and get some fresh fish treats.

Shop

A ferry will take you from your hotel in Riverside to Asiatique night market for all the usual trinkets and t-shirts that you expect from Bangkok shopping.

Act like a local

Take a motorcycle taxi: Beat the traffic of Bangkok and use this faster way of commuting that the locals prefer.

Don’t go out on the last Friday of the month as it is pay day and every place will be crowded and traffic will be crazy.

Check local guides for updates on the best street food such as Starvingtime, Wongnai and EDT Guide.

Go with the latest trend and eat at a Thai food truck, find them at www.bangkokfoodtruck.com

Visit Chang Chui, the latest arts centre with trendy exhibitions, artists’ workshops and cafes. http://en.changchuibangkok.com/

(Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based freelance writer. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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