How to Find Calm Amid the Commotion in Chaotic Bangkok

Bangkok is bigger than New York, and has heavy traffic, extreme population density, and brutally hot weather. Having grown up in the clean, green and serene Australian city of Perth, Silversea contributing writer Ronan O’Connell wondered how it would ever be possible to find relaxation in the fascinating but teeming Thai capital.  In 2013 he moved there and found out.

After my first day living in Bangkok, I collapsed onto the couch of my new apartment and stared out at a city that felt like it had just attacked me. My skin was sore from the violent Thai sun. My tongue was swollen by a chilli-laced dinner. My ears rang with the echoes of a thousand car horns. My eyes were exhausted by a tsunami of fresh sights. 

Ronan O’Connell, and his Thai-born wife Rungtiwa, lived for a spell in Thailand. He learned to love it.

“You need to slow down,” said my then-girlfriend and now-wife, Rungtiwa, having seen me defeated by her home city. She had told me not to explore in the midday sun. She had warned that my spicy dinner order was risky. She had advised me that Bangkok, if approached with calm and understanding, would be a cordial companion. If met with impatience, however, it would punish me.

Foreigners, I’ve since learned during a decade spent living on-and-off in Bangkok, often get swept along by the city’s ceaseless energy. They aim to visit too many sites, taste too many dishes, and enjoy too many new experiences. In the pursuit of this perfect day in Bangkok, they become frustrated by its traffic, wage an un-winnable war with its weather, and disturb their digestive system.

In France, you can do Paris. In Italy, you can do Rome. But in Thailand, Bangkok does you. You must surrender to its harsh, unpredictable rhythms, readjusting expectations and reorganizing plans accordingly.

Thai people don’t rush,” Rungtiwa counselled, all those years ago. “It doesn’t work here.”  In a cooler, quieter, more orderly destination – like Perth or Vancouver or Berlin – tourists can conquer the city, efficiently completing a packed schedule from morning to night.

Bangkok can be a whirl — unless you learn to slow down. Photo by Ronan O’Connell

In France, you can do Paris. In Italy, you can do Rome. But in Thailand, Bangkok does you. You must surrender to its harsh, unpredictable rhythms, readjusting expectations and reorganizing plans accordingly. To navigate Bangkok’s heat and commotion, Thai people conserve their energy, and find calm in moments.

Travelers can, and should do the same. Avoid strenuous activities when the sun looms high and instead break your sightseeing into two daily sessions, one completed by late morning and the other begun by mid-afternoon. Follow the local lead by earning peace via activities that are slow and meditative.Ruminating in a temple, receiving a Thai massage, admiring or creating traditional crafts, and savouring long, leisurely meals help Bangkok residents shed stress.

Above all, do as my wife advised me, and slow down.When first she visited Western countries, Rungtiwa couldn’t understand why people ate so quickly, often consuming their single, stacked plate of food in 10 to 20 minutes. By comparison, Thai family dinners can last hours. My wife and her relatives graze and gossip, graze and gossip, graze and gossip.

Their table is laden with up to a dozen different Thai dishes, each of which is merely tasted rather than devoured. Diners frequently dip in and out of the meal, breaking to watch television or drink a whiskey, before re-joining the banquet.

Visitors are well advised to replicate this approach. Dawdle through dinner at a Bangkok restaurant by ordering just one dish at a time for you and your travel partners. This will provide time to dissect the day, discuss the meal, and digest exotic foods.

Begin with a salad, like papaya-laden Som Tam, or beef-heavy Yum Nua. Then a light soup, perhaps fiery, seafood-rich Tom Yum. Follow that with a noodle soup, such as addictive, coconut-infused Khao Soi. Go heavier with a noodle dish – Pad See Ew or Pad Thai – and an old favourite, Khao Pat fried rice. Next up, feel the sting of Pad Kra Phao minced pork, and Kaeng Phet red curry, both of which mix well with the rice. And, if you’re still capable, sign off with a sweet goodbye like Khanom Krok coconut pudding.

That may read like an impossible task. But it’s entirely achievable if you take your time and shackle the urge to gobble. Such a meal is only advisable at the tail end of the day. Many Bangkok people keep their breakfast light, keen to be nimble for the challenges ahead. You should, too.

Don’t get seduced by the sprawling breakfast buffets at most large Bangkok hotels. Instead, eat early and moderately, and stride the Bangkok streets by 9:00am. This should be one of your two outings for the day, separated by a rest, perhaps in your hotel room or in your cruise suite, to prevent physical and mental exhaustion.

Photo by Ronan O’Connell

Wherever possible, Thais avoid the sun, especially in the middle of the day. After your early breakfast is a fine time to see how Bangkok residents find inner peace amid outward chaos. Rungtiwa has told me the one time she doesn’t notice her city’s din is while meditating in a Buddhist temple. There is a soothing serenity to these religious sites.

Many of Bangkok’s finest temples are in the ancient neighbourhood of Rattanakosin, home to the enormous Wat Pho, the hilltop Wat Saket, the gilded Loha Prasart, and the cluster of magnificent Royal temples inside the Grand Palace. Wherever you are based in central Bangkok, there’ll be a gleaming temple a brief walk away. Pause to admire its architecture, soak in its tranquillity, and contemplate the world. Even for non-religious folk, like myself, this process is comforting.

Similarly common across Bangkok is another key outlet of relaxation. The city has hundreds of massage parlors. Avoid the few that have female staff outside loudly spruiking for business – their services are a tad too diverse. Instead pick one of the majority, where your tension will be stretched, twisted, and kneaded out of you by skilled professionals.

For centuries, massage has been a key component of Thai culture. In the West it is widely seen as a luxurious experience, something only afforded once in a while. That’s because, in my home country at least, it costs USD $50 an hour, minimum.

Whereas in Thailand, massage has long been a simple pleasure for the masses. Sessions start from just USD $6 per hour, or are performed for free by friends and family, who typically learned the techniques from older relatives. When we visit Rungtiwa’s Bangkok home, she normally will massage her mother and her grandmother, before one of them returns the favour.

Similar to prayer, receiving a massage is a meditative experience. Under this manipulating touch, the spectre of Bangkok’s traffic, noise and blazing sun fade away. Many of the city’s large hotels have on-site spas, and those that don’t will happily recommend nearby, trustworthy massage parlours. These businesses cloak the streets of upmarket tourism precincts like Siam, Silom and Nana, as well as the backpacker hub of Khao San Road.

Shopping in Bangkok for artisan crafts rather than knock-offs shows a more authentic part of its culture. Photo by Ronan O’Connell

Wandering these areas also leads you past countless shops offering supposedly traditional Thai art. Some are legitimate. Many more are dodgy, selling ‘handcrafted Thai products’ which are actually factory-made overseas. Rungtiwa told me locals abhor the latter stores. Not just because they scam tourists, but also due to their disrespect of Thailand’s proud arts culture, which dates back eight centuries to when Thailand was born as the kingdom of Sukhothai.

Fortunately, I’ve found several wonderful, authentic art villages in or near Bangkok. Tourists can buy intricately-carved Thai woodwind instruments at Baan Lao flute community, close to the unmissable Wat Arun temple. Gleaming metallic bowls and ornaments are produced at Baan Bu bronze village, one mile north of there.

Colorful Thai silk items are woven at Baan Krua Nua community, just behind the luxury shopping centres of Siam. And perhaps Thailand’s most revered art form, delicate Benjarong ceramics, are hand-shaped and kiln-fired at Don Kai Dee, 30 k.m. west of Bangkok.

Many years ago, before I moved to Thailand, I repeatedly visited this city and did almost everything wrong. I shopped at its fake craft stores, rushed through its temples, cooked my body in the midday sun, and ate overly-spicy food far too quickly. These are mistakes made easily.

Then I moved there, heeded the guidance of my Thai partner, shadowed the actions of locals, and finally made friends with this gigantic, complex and volatile city. Treat Bangkok right, and you’ll have a friend for life. Treat it like other cities, and it will not take pity.