Bangkok is one of the most immersive and enthralling metropolises on Earth. It pulses with life, with scooters, with human cries. It vibrates with the clang of Buddhist prayer bells, and froths with the eager anticipation of first-time backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail. Five years absent, I've finally returned. It's everything I expect and more, a seething mass of canals and blocks that's only grown in stature since I last wandered its crooked sidewalks.
It's misty as we touchdown in Bangkok. I couldn't see the winding Cho Phraya River, wiggling like a snake through the metropolis. I couldn't make out the skyscrapers of Sukhumvit, a forest of metal and concrete and paint that shimmers in the distance. Still, no matter, it's the buzzing, electrifying heart of this capital that excites me the most. It's there that I'll find the temples and raw human energy; a contradictory cocktail of chanting Buddhist monks and sleazy beer joints lit with neon.
I ride the BTS Skytrain into Phetchaburi. Off the platform and down the stairs are streets of many lanes. Scooters whizz along the sidewalks and taxis jostle for space. The traffic is like a line of ants, all with a job to do, a destination, a rigid, regimental pattern of moving through the cityscape. The pavements are another story. They're clogged with people and pandemonium. I dodge and whirl and twirl through the crowd like a ball-carrying rugby player. The drawls of Thai kaaa and the patter of millions of feet comes with me.
It's how the greatest writers – Pushkin, Dostoevsky – start their novels, I think. They throw you straight in the fray, straight in the action. That's Bangkok in a nutshell. No respite in this breathing, seething city. No time for a break or moment to calm the senses. At least not yet. Not on the body-rammed roadways of Phetchaburi.
I hail a tuk-tuk. It rattles to my feet and I hop in. A smiling driver sings as he swerves like a maniac through the web of traffic. Like a Jamaican bobsled team, we're leaning left and right, gasping and guffawing as we nearly miss traffic. I wish I'd kissed my lucky egg.
No need. Arrived safe. It's Khaosan Road and the home of my hostel. A boutique little bed with a bespoke reading light and personal plugs. 'Bangkok's upped its game,' I think. Things were once crooked and creaking; dirty bathrooms and backpacker lounges that did the epithet – "hostel" – proud. I'm not complaining though. I'm older and a comfy pad's always welcome on the road.
Two steps outside and I'm walking along the iconic drag: Khaosan Road. Khao San Road. KS. The legendary K. Whichever way you swing it, this is Thailand's (in)famous backpacker hub. The bars are positively doused in beer. The lights are neon and gaudy. The markets brash and brusque and ready to haggle.
The sun's dropping and the night owls are emerging. That's Khaosan regular crowd. Chang beer vests are the costume of choice. Singha's for the more refined. Massages are happening left, right and center. Fish nibble feet in oriental spas down the alleyways. Some over-muscled fellow with a Celtic tattoo is snapping a selfie. Another is laughing sadistically as he crunches into some kebabs of grilled scorpion and cockroach – an attention-seeker's delicacy on KS Road.
It's easy to love. It's easy to hate. Unlike anywhere else in the country, this short length of dilapidated concrete and wire-wreathed high-rises is the beating heart of Bangkok's after-dark scene. It's what first started the whispers of a hedonistic land in the east, drawing hopeful hippies and red-faced expats by the plane load to the land of debauchery that is Banglamphu.
I prefer the western end of the district. Quieter, though not much, it's got lanes laden with ramshackle street stalls. Hand-wrought leather bags and knock-off trainers – Nike, I don't think so – spill from the racks. Every corner there sizzles with the smells of noodles and egg and grilling meat skewers. It's a maze of yelling cooks and tailors, of beer-touting lady boys and buff Muay boys lost in the Bangkok night.
Chang flows for me. Chang one. Chang two. Chang three. The darkness descends on the big city but the life pulses still. The city that never sleeps? Move over New York. Move over.
The next day, I wake late. I can't think why. But Changovers really are a thing, you know? Perhaps it's the heat. Probably not. Still, it's not too late. Shorts on, flip flops pulled, face arranged, I head out.
The roads are teeming, as always, with action. I leave Banglamphu and meander below the bodhi trees that sprout from the pavements on the way to the riverbanks. It's a pleasant walk, spying out the gold-tipped tops of the gorgeous Royal Palace to my right, watching birds alight on the canal waters to pick up crumbs.
When I reach the water, it's coffee time. Hip cafes have started to cluster around the place. They could be plucked from New York or London or LA. That is, they could if it weren't for the tropical humidity in the al fresco terraces, or for the menus of papaya salads and chili-topped rice. Iced brews are the way to go. I settle in to watch the barges and pleasure cruisers and longboats shooting up and down the Cho Phraya River, darting like flies beneath the outline of stupas and skyscrapers.
Then I'm riding the river myself. It's just 60 THB (1.8 USD) for a ticket to take you right up the water, all the way to where my favorite Bangkok market sprawls on the western banks. That's my destination, the place I'm eager to while away some time, shopping, haggling, eating, people watching. I know it's perfect for it.
Then I'm there: Wang Lang. I love the way the plastic covers converge overhead as I enter. I love the way the shops seem to huddle in, as if hosting secret wares in their darkened rooms. I love the way people stream through the narrow lanes, bouncing like pinballs off each other and the emporiums they've come for.
It's a montage of such curiosity, a menagerie of stores and sellers. Plungers in one, knitted denim bags in another. There are bracelets jingling here, sushi rolls hiding here. Vintage warehouses worthy of the hippest cities extend back from the streets. Inflatable toys and tourist souvenirs spill over onto the outdoor racks.
And then there's the food – the best part. I navigate my way through the Wang Lang maze to a small, street-side eatery. Smiles all round from the owners and I'm ushered to a three-legged plastic stool. Some unspoken words and gestures for my order. The lady understands. Or at least it looks like she understands. Then she's cooking. I wonder what I'll eat.
The noodles are excellent – the best I've had in Bangkok. They're swimming in soy sauce and awash with fried kale and carrots, crispy onions and hot chili. I crumble peanuts on the top and twirl the pasta in my chopsticks. It smells like Asia. It smells like the east. It smells like traveling. My taste buds agree as I devour the lot, washed down with a cheeky Chang straight from the ice box.
The people watching in Wang Lang is second to none. Feet up and eyes open, that's how I end my session on the far banks of the Cho Phraya. A river of humans passes by. There are crooked babushkas with too many bags. There are school kids, all dressed identical and following in a line. There are young men spattered with mud and carrying hard hats. There are even tourists; the adventurous few who've made their way over to this less-trodden corner of the Thai capital.
As evening falls, I opt for Sukhumvit over another heady dose of Khaosan Road. Why? Well, let's just say that's straight-laced Bangkok. It's clean-cut locals and rhomboid skyscrapers represent an all-round more relaxing place to spend the dying hours of the day. Oh, and it's got the soaring sky bars.
Those lurk atop some of the tallest buildings in the city. They're not the cheap beer joints you can catch in the buzzing blocks of Banglamphu, that's for sure. They're a magnet for business types and flashpackers with their heart set on romantic panoramas of the cityscape, or high-perched seats above the fray below. They don't disappoint.
My choice is an open-air cocktail joint that's clearly too swish for my shorts and Hawaiian shirt. No matter: Money talks and mine does the talking as I order a beer (Read: I'm screaming inside because it's so darn pricey compared to street level). But you pay for the view and I'm getting what I pay for. I can see where mighty Bangkok spills into the Cho Phraya River in the distance. I can see the hustle of Banglamphu nearby, and the crisscrossing boulevards of Chinatown where the sizzling dim sum joints are and Mandarin echoes in the alleys. I think I can even see the point where the big city fades away, feathering out into the wetlands and rice paddies that herald the rolling plains and the heart of the Land of Smiles.
I bid farewell to the metropolis as the sun dips and the lights come on. I say bye-bye and turn to leave the sky bar with an until-next-time flutter of the hand.
It's a good way to finish my second stay in this enthralling, energetic town. Few places have so many sides – from gritty Khaosan to stylish Sukhumvit to down-to-earth and local Wang Lang. I'm sure there are plenty more I've yet to discover and probe. I leave with a smile and a sigh. Bangkok, you did it again.
Bangkok is the beating heart of Thailand and just one of the awesome stops we make on our tours of the Land of Smiles. If it seems like the sort of metropolis that could steal your heart, be sure to check out our Treasures of Thailand, Thaiventure, Northern Thai Discovery, Full Moon Intro and NYE Special packages, all of which make their way through its sleepless streets and neighborhoods. Alternatively, if you've got any tips for travelers heading to the Thai capital for the first time, we'd sure love to hear about them in the comments below.
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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