Soon after I arrive pretty much anywhere, I try, as a dutiful Swede, to find the nearest IKEA. I was determined not to make Bangkok an exception so earlier today, I set out to find the Bangkok IKEA.
I’d noticed a while ago that despite the fact that I don’t get cell service on my iPhone, if I look up directions to a location while I have wifi and then keep the map app open, my location is triangulated despite the lack of reception and I can tell where in the city I am by following the little blue tracking dot (pictured above).
Knowing this, I typed “IKEA Bangkok” into my phone and was delighted when the IKEA cafe popped up. The cafe is after all, half the reason I go to IKEA in the first place.
As it was a Sunday, I figured I’d take my time and take some pictures while navigating to IKEA. One of my first stops was at my local Muay Thai (thai boxing) training gym.
Cockfighting is as big in Thailand as bull fighting is in Spain. And it seemed that the area around the Muay Thai gym was all about combat sports because I came across these two fighters being prepped for their time in the ring:
All was well as I walked across the bridge above a river where I had seen a lizard the length of an alligator the week prior.
I arrived at a busy market and found my favorite omelet stand. This was the stand where Jammie and I had eaten on our first night in Bangkok.
As I made my way through the market my pace slowed as I fell into step with the heavy pedestrian traffic. I paused to admire the inventive cheese on this shirt….
and was tempted to rummage through my local Dollar (or less) store…
I was greatly heartened to see this beacon of hope at one of the stalls… I was on my way!!
but not before documenting these Angry Birds sushi rolls… Amazing.
I took off again.
past spirit houses… (These are shrines to the protective spirit of a building or home which are generally placed in a very obvious corner of a home or property often selected in consultation with a Brahmin priest. The shrines are taken very seriously and are intended as homes for spirits that might cause a household trouble if they are not appeased. Offerings are left at the shrine to please the spirits.)
and across a very convenient bridge over even more traffic.
I ducked into my favorite 24-hour supermarket, Foodland just to make sure that they were still well stocked with expat essentials:
and to make sure Tom Cruise was doing OK
Good luck trying to get this kind of service at your local supermarket:)
As I followed my phone GPS I passed through a dense shopping district. Bangkok consumerism is a study in contrasts. There’s absolutely everything. You have this kind of shopping…
next to this kind of shopping
And next to this sizzling amazingness…
you have Auntie Anne’s
and hybrids that I have not yet ventured into testing…
But enough with the mall shopping. As I got closer to my destination I caught a glimpse of the gorgeous Thai teak house that is the Chao Phraya Bodindecha (Sing Singhaseni) Museum on the campus of the Bodindecha School, a high school with a student population of 5000 in the Wang Thonglang area of Bangkok.
My Bangkok-based friends probably know what happened next based on the place names. I arrived at the address for “Ikea cafe” and there wasn’t an IKEA anywhere to be seen. I stopped some passersby. They assured me that IKEA was nowhere close to where I thought it was. I was so mad.
I walked around the area where the map said it was. And sure enough, “Ikea cafe” was real. Or rather, it had been real. It was now closed. But there’s some amazing car detailing work done right next to its former location. And that’s where this photo essay ends. I’ve had better days.
“So if I wanted to meet you guys and other Swedes in Bangkok socially, how would that work?” I was talking to a bemused staff member on the other side of a glass window at the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok.
“I mean, what does your events calendar look like here? When do you have your gatherings?” It had taken me long enough to find the Swedish Embassy (my online map had helpfully steered me to the Pakistani Embassy instead) so now that we were here, I was determined to use my Swedish and find out how to meet my fellow Vikings in Bangkok.
“Hmmm… Give me a minute and let me look around for some info,” said the aide. Jammie and I crossed our fingers. We had several goals for this first visit to the Swedish Embassy. For starters, we really wanted to make Swedish friends in Bangkok. And we were also hoping to get some info on interesting service opportunities. Would the embassy have any info on how we could kickstart our year of do-gooding?
“OK, I’ve got someone that can talk to you.” Our man was back at the window. He gave us directions to head to the other end of the embassy. We walked over and were met by a Thai Swede, Varaporn Premsot, the Cultural Officer at the Embassy.
She had several ideas.
Events for Swedes:
“We debuted a Swedish Film Festival that drew a lot of people last year,” she said. We’ll do that again but that’s in May and you’ll be gone by then. But there’s a world music festival in February that you should come to. We’ll have some Swedish performers and that’ll be fun.”
“Talk to the priest of the Church of Sweden here in Bangkok, she can help. There’s also the Thai-Swedish Chamber of Commerce. There are a lot of Swedish businesses in Bangkok so if you are looking for work, check them out and hit their mixers. If you want to eat Swedish food, Stable Lodge has some of the classics, plus the Huntsman Pub draws the biz crowd.”
“Go talk to the people at Sida (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency). With your background in fundraising there may be some interesting opportunities to which they could point you….”
Wow… Jammie and I couldn’t believe our luck. “Thanks… thanks a lot!!” We headed straight over to the Sida offices and introduced ourselves. Then over to the Hunstman Pub and Stable Lodge (which really did have a very Swedish menu including the Swedish pancakes that account for half of my Swedish patriotism).
As soon as I got home I looked up the Swedish Church. Their calendar was awesome: next week they have a Bangkok orphanage visit planned for Monday and a meet-up at Stable Lodge on Tuesday. We were ecstatic! Things were starting to fall into place. The humanitarian projects organized by the Swedish Church could be a great place to start our do-gooding activities — worthy work AND networking!
The early days are always a challenge but as had been our experience getting an apartment, the right people are always ready to help.
Stay tuned as we meet more Swedes next week. In the meantime, help us say thank you to the Embassy of Sweden in Bangkok by liking their Facebook page.
Some of you saw this coming: Swiftly on the heels of our most dramatic culinary adventure last week – eating raw durian (a fruit) and sticky rice – I was hit like a sledgehammer with the most violent food poisoning I’ve had since college. I mean it was brutal, out-of-both-ends stuff requiring Tarzan-like leaps out of bed to the facilities.
Oh, the irony
Even in my miserable state the irony of it all was too funny. In my last post I had confidently declared Thai street food fair game and now here I was, the ever-present occupant of my bathroom.
One thing was for sure: there was plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to analyze what had happened. Was I wrong to have taken the risk of eating Bangkok street food? Should I swear it all off?
As much as my stomach was telling me never to eat Thai street food again, my brain knew better. This was a lesson in restraint and commonsense (the gooey fruit had been festering in a lukewarm milky substance for hours without refrigeration and I really should have known better than to think I could handle it). It was not grounds for a drastic retreat to peanut butter sandwiches for the balance of my stay in Bangkok.
My default MO is one of at least slight overconfidence. Often it pays off – I attempt challenges, assuming things will work out and then they often do. But occasionally you just end up loosening your bowels.
OK, yes (as I admitted a couple posts ago) we are eating food from the Bangkok street stalls. And we haven’t gotten sick yet. The food is unbelievably delicious. But there are a few things to remember before you head to your first food stall:
Yes, it takes some courage to start eating food cooked by the side of the road in a foreign country. But this is one experience you need to have. I have simply never had such good, inexpensive food. You can get a great meal of Thai street food for $1.50. So be brave, walk up to the food stall serving the food you are most dying to eat, point at what you want and you will be well on your way to enjoying a genuine, Thai experience.
Eat cooked food
To ensure a decent level of hygiene, only eat food that has been cooked in front of you. The heat will kill the bugs. Steer clear of raw fruit or veggies (at least for the first few days while your stomach adjusts) as they may be washed in water that has not been purified. The locals can handle it but be careful here.
Try new stuff
There is amazing range so don’t be afraid to branch out. We have been experimenting a lot with different dishes. The first night it was pastries, an omelet, spicy chicken, basil, rice and a fried egg. Since then it’s been a bit of a free for all. Curries, soups, stews and an embarrassing array of desserts. There is endless variety so there is no excuse not to indulge your inner foodie.
A lot of Thai street food stalls close on Monday so you may want to stay indoors for your meals as the work week starts… Eat at the mall instead. In fact, a lot of the popular street stalls have their own branches in Bangkok malls (which stay open.). I’ll dedicate an upcoming post to the malls here but let me just say right now that they are so large they really should issue customers GPS devices.
The water issue
To avoid spending all night on the throne, stay away from tap water in Bangkok. It is not fit for drinking. However, restaurants that serve water generally serve purified water so you are typically OK having some.
Go with the crowd
There is safety in numbers when it comes to Thai street food. Hit up the busy stalls. They are busy for a reason and can be trusted more than the ones that get less traffic. This is one time it is absolutely appropriate to bow to peer pressure.
Have you had street food in Thailand? What did I miss? Feel free to add to the list in the comment section.
The mist of confusion lifts when you make friends in a new city. Everything becomes easier.
We headed to an English-speaking church in Bangkok this weekend hoping to meet as many people as possible. Because we had taken the wrong route to the church we got there super late. So instead of actually going to church we started talking to those outside.
We asked all the questions that the language barrier had kept us from asking earlier in the week:
“Are there any good apartments around here?”
“What’s the best way to navigate Bangkok?”
“What are some cool charities that we could volunteer for?”
Luckily they had lots of answers and ideas. We started exchanging numbers with people and jotting down suggestions.
Blast from the past
And then it got even better. “Hi Bjorn!” I looked up and in front of me were some childhood friends that I had grown up with in Philippines. One of them worked in Bangkok and this weekend the whole family was visiting from the Philippines. I couldn’t believe it! The relief at seeing familiar faces was immense. We were automatically invited for lunch and then a potluck for dinner.
Want a job?
By the end of the day we had two work opportunities and some info on an NGO (non-governmental organization) for which we could volunteer. Both work opportunities required fluent English – one was for office work for an international company, the next for English language teaching in one of the leading Bangkok universities. The breakthroughs were mind blowing.
Bottom Line: the 80/20 Principle
This experience really drove home what is commonly called the 80/20 principle. Here’s how lifestyle design blogger and bestselling author, Tim Ferriss puts it: “80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs,” or, “80% of the results come from 20% of the effort and time.” This has definitely been true of our time in Bangkok so far. All our time spent reading and hunting for info did not produce anything near the results of a handful of conversations with the right people.
Nowhere was this more true than with our Bangkok apartment rental efforts:
We had spent hours online, pouring over Bangkok apartment listings. We had painstakingly narrowed down our search to the options that fit our budget. We spent a lot of time looking up locations on Bangkok Maps. In all the time we had spent so far we hadn’t even gotten to calling any of the landlords up (I was dreading doing so because I was anticipating a mountain of language barrier problems.).
One conversation on Saturday made all the difference. “I’ve got a great, cheap apartment that I think could work,” said the husband of one of my childhood friends. He then hooked us up with one of his friends that negotiated an amazing deal.
It was humbling to realize that this one conversation had produced far better results than our hours spent wading through online listings. The Bangkok apartment our friend found us cost $130/month (less than half of what we had budgeted). It was in a safe area and right next door to a friend.
Our next major priority is finding some nonprofits to work for. We will be pooling the suggestions we get as well as visiting a few different organizations. We will be giving all recommendations submitted on this blog special preference so please submit your ideas in the comment section.
Please leave a comment with your suggestions. Know of a good Bangkok-based orphanage? An after school program? A program working to prevent underage human trafficking? We don’t need pay. Just an interesting project. Have a think. Maybe you can help us….
Looking forward to hearing from you…
Health paranoia be dammed, the first place we went to eat on our first night in Bangkok was a street stand. And then we hit a second stand. And then a third. The food was great!
We didn’t want to get too crazy on the first night so we had decided to try out options that we could walk to from our hotel. The first stand had these amazing coconut and pineapple pastries, the second had the best spiced omelet I’ve ever tasted and the third had a seating area so we sat down for a plate of spicy chicken with basil, rice and a fried egg.
“Until you’ve eaten on a Bangkok street, your noodles mingling with your sweat, and your senses dulled by chilli, exhaust and noise, you haven’t actually eaten Thai food,” said the Lonely Planet guide book that we had downloaded. I have always loved Thai food but the book was right, Thai food on the street was a totally different, multi-sensory experience.
The spice level of the food was predictable. But the flavors were so enticing you couldn’t put your fork down. Jammie put it well, “My mouth is burning but I just can’t stop eating!” It was so amazingly good.
“What other city has such a full-flavored, no-holds-barred, insatiable, fanatical approach to eating?” asks the guide book. I’ve just landed but I am guessing the answer is “none”.
At the local prices, the dishes tasted even better. Yes, we had done our research and yes, we knew that the prices were extremely low by American standards but the feeling of eating a whole meal for 50 baht ($1.60) was amazing. We may end up doing a lot less cooking here than we expected…
Language barriers and scams
The language barrier at first, was worse than we had expected. We had basically no Thai to offer and they had little English. But then sweet relief came as they called someone over who spoke decent English. And that is the beauty of the Thai approach. They make it easy on their visitors.
Scam alert: If you are in Thailand and are quickly befriended by someone who speaks good English, don’t linger too long. A common scam involves someone that dramatically breaks the language barrier, speaks great English, claiming that their son or daughter is studying at a university in your country.
They disarm you with charm and a really convincing knowledge of your country. This kind of behavior is not normal among the average Thai so watch out for it as you may end up getting suckered into unwanted purchases or other awkward and financially burdensome situations.
Where to live?
Well, we’ve slept all night and neither one of us is sick so I guess we have lived to see another day. (I suppose taking pepto bismol before we ate didn’t hurt either…)
Now we are on to the apartment hunt. We have identified about 20 apartments that we are interested in – all costing $200-300. We are going to head out and visit a few today and we’ll be soliciting some advice from some expats over the weekend.
Have any suggestions for an apartment? Let us know in the comments.
Today is the big day. Our upcoming 11 hour and 5 minute flight to Bangkok has us feeling all jittery.
Here’s what we have planned for our first few days. (I’ll let you know if the real thing actually works out the way we thought it would.):
Arriving in Bangkok
The fact that I am in a different country typically hits just as I am walking out the doors of the airport. We plan on getting a taxi straight into the part of the city where our hotel is. As much as we’d love to be cheap and take the bus to the hotel (approx $5), a taxi costs $10 or less and is way quicker.
Hotels – Here’s a site (or app) worth using if you aren’t already: Booking.com. I first came across it in Oxford when I was hanging out with Jammie, my sister and some close friends in Blackwells, the largest bookstore in town. I compared what we found on Booking.com to some other hotel sites and the accommodation listings in some travel books and in the end the winning hotel had the following:
1) A very solid average rating out of 2000 reviews.
2) Gorgeous rooms with all the amenities
3) Gym / hot tub / steam room
4) Fitness center / Private theater / international restaurant
5) LAST AND BEST: We got four nights for a very reasonable $57, so $14.25 per day.
Will the actual experience live up to how the hotel was advertized online? Look for my review in a soon-coming post:)
Apartments – This was a tough one. We only want to spend $300 or less on our longer term housing in Bangkok. You can pretty much get anything you want in Bangkok – from shack to palatial – it is all there. We have been researching apartments options with a blend of excellent price and location (we want something fairly centrally located) and excellent natural light. There are a lot of apartment rental sites for Bangkok and many are in English as there is such a huge expat population. We haven’t decided on anything yet. We will visit a handful of apartments in person in the first few days following our arrival. Then we will make the decision in person.
It was all I could do not to put this at the top of the post. We are so excited about this part since we both love Thai food. I’ve been doing some research on where the best spots to get Thai food are. What I’ve been finding so far is that the best eateries are often not the upscale joints catering to wealthy tourists. Often the hole-in-the-walls are best. We will shamelessly be soliciting suggestions as soon as we land.
If you have any good ideas for where to go in Bangkok for the best of the local cuisine, let me know in the comments. There’s nothing like a personal recommendation!
Making Friends – Currently we have a handful of friends living in Thailand, none of which are Thai. Our plan is to hit local churches, Rotary (business networking) clubs, Toastmasters (public speaking) clubs, Chambers of Commerce and the Swedish, Filipino and American embassies as we kick off our round of networking.
Do you know of anyone that could be helpful in terms of finding worthy nonprofits for which we could volunteer? We are looking for ideas. We would be good for tutoring, writing, fundraising and English-based PR work. Let us know if you think of anything. In an upcoming post I will share some info about a Thai-based anti sex-trafficking nonprofit that we will be volunteering for in our quest for savvy, global do-gooding.
OK, gotta wrap this up as my sister and her husband are coming to pick us up for our airport ride in under an hour. If you have any other tips for navigating the first few days in Bangkok, let us know in the comments.
As my wife Jammie and I have just gone though the process of telling employers, friends and family that we are leaving the country to travel the world and do service projects for a year, I thought this would be a good time to talk about what worked and what didn’t. So here’s a list of dos and dont’s for spreading the word before you hit the trail:
Hustle – Don’t take forever. If need be, schedule your important conversations. Make sure you get in-person conversations with anyone in your inner circle that is close by. Call loved ones that are far away. These critical conversations should not take more than a few days. Everybody else can find out via email. So as to protect privacy and avoid undue snooping, Bcc everyone so that people can’t tell who else is getting the email.
Sequence – The order in which you have your conversations is critical. At work, tell your boss and any other management first, THEN send out the “dear colleagues” email. Get the order wrong and you will look clueless and unprofessional. With family and friends, start with your inner circle first. Get that wrong and you’ll have some hurt/mad energy to fend with.
Keep it light – You have thought a lot about your big move. You thought through all the pros and cons. You’ve agonized over all the details. You’ve second guessed yourself, gone back and forth. In the end, your transformational trip (rightfully) triumphed over the idea of more time on the hamster wheel. But most people don’t need to know all this. Keep it light. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel and do some good.” Nuff sed.
Forget people – I know it is hard to remember everyone as you make your round of announcements. But be as deliberate as possible about this. Make a list of everyone that should know. Follow the above instructions RE in person and email communication. Then hit the social networks. This should cover most people.
Overthink – It is easy to overthink who to tell and how. My wife Jammie and I were nervous about telling her dad about our plans. Would he approve? What would he say? How do we even bring it up? In the end, we just went for it. We said we had an announcement. He thought Jammie was pregnant! When we delivered the news, he got into it and was super excited. We could have skipped the agonizing.
A final word. Once you get started, spreading this kind of news becomes easier and more polished. So make it easy on yourself by taking a “rip off the bandage” approach. Good luck.
We’ve never done anything this huge: My wife Jammie and I have turned in our resignation letters, quit our jobs to travel the world, write and do service projects for 12 months. We have picked four major world cities – Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Mumbai – and we are going to spend three months in each. We are ridiculously excited.
Why are we doing this?
Years ago we started planning for this kind of a move. We had always wanted to live and work internationally, to get involved with international humanitarian nonprofits. We did not want to be stuck in one town or country working office jobs for the rest of our lives. We had always wanted to free up our location and really live the tag line for CultureMutt: savvy, global do-gooding.
This huge step was easy to put off. We had already put it off twice. Twice we had told ourselves that we were going to take the bold leap to travel and work oversees. Twice we backed out.
It took a dramatic, late-night conversation with one of my closest friends to finally decide to activate the plans we kept postponing for a “better”, “more convenient” time.
“You are young and you have so much to offer!” my friend, shouted in my ear over the din of a rowdy San Francisco lounge. “Why are you playing it safe as if you were middle-aged with a mortgage and kids?! You are selling out! This is the time to go for your dreams and take some risks. If you fail you can rebuild but if you succeed you will be living the dream. Do it!!”. That conversation was the final push I needed. Within days we decided to finally act on our plans and go for our dreams 100%.
How can we afford this?
How are we paying for 12 months of international travel and living without jobs? For starters, we picked very affordable cities that we had either lived in, visited or at the very least, researched. Then we put aside enough of our savings to cover the basics of tickets, rent, food, etc. For any additional expenses we will make money the way both of us have in the past: through freelance writing, consulting and teaching. The beauty of making money using these methods is obviously that you can use them to make money anywhere in the world.
Why Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Mumbai?
Bangkok – We both love Southeast Asia. And there is no Southeast Asian capital with quite the same dynamic mix as Bangkok. The food is amazing, the country is beautiful and we already have a non profit that works to prevent sex trafficking that we are going to be volunteering for in Thailand.
Buenos Aires – I spent four amazing months studying Spanish in Buenos Aires in 2005. Weeks before leaving I was already missing this awesomely stylish city. The tango dancers in the streets, the amazing artistic scene and the roar from the “futbol” stadiums are unbeatable. Also, on the volunteering front, I have friends in Argentina that are well-connected to some education and healthcare nonprofits for which we would love to work.
Berlin – The buzz about Berlin as a European youth culture and arts capital is well-deserved and growing. Not only do we want to sample this but we want to establish relationships with some of Berlin’s emerging, young entrepreneurs. Young creative minds have descended upon Berlin in droves in recent years. This a city on the move and we want in.
Mumbai – Mumbai is India’s biggest, baddest city. It is also home to Bollywood, the second largest film industry in the world. Put simply, we want connections within this industry. They could be very helpful in our quest for savvy, global do-gooding. So far we have some friends who have worked in Bollywood. We aim to make more of them. We might even land a cameo:)
When does this all start?
After Christmas in England with my family, we fly to Bangkok in the first week of January, 2013. There starts our series of four, 3-month world city relocations. This is happening!
There – now you know. Wish us luck and if you have world travel tips for our gap year or any specific advice on navigating our four world cities, leave them in the comment section.