It looks like we've found it. Our equivalent of an "all inclusive" vacation -- Bangkok.
The city isn't what I would consider to be "beautiful". There aren't any architectural stand outs. I know a lot of people visit the temples (Wat) there but we didn't feel like it this time around. Chinatown turned us off as did all the shopping malls. Even the ride up and down the Chao Phraya river (all the way to the end) surprisingly didn't inspire and being on the water usually does.
What captured us was the calm of the culture and not surprising, the street food. There wasn't the feeling of suffering or overwhelming poverty. I didn't walk around feeling bad or guilty for what I had. People work long hours outside but seem to do so with dignity and control. Minimum wage has risen to around 9.55 USD Per Day...
As usual, a smile and attempts at speaking were appreciated. The 2 times we led with English, we got overcharged. There was no detectable tension or visible military presence in the places we went. Although I was surprised at the number of older people begging.
Thanks to advice from an expat I connected with online, we ended up staying in an older neighborhood, away from the main shopping and partying areas and it made all the difference. We wouldn't have had near the immersive experience otherwise. I knew I had found the right person to ask when he commented, "(those) areas are fine if you are wanting to spend your holiday drinking, shopping and more drinking. But, why go on a holiday for that!?!"
We stayed in a studio apartment and never ended up needing the kitchen. There is just too much great homemade food all around, all day -- And way better than what we could have prepared, that's for sure. It was incredible and there were new things to try everyday. The cost was ridiculously cheap. We barely spent half our spending money.
Our biggest issue was trying to coax our stomachs to digest faster so we could make room to try something else. We weren't successful on that front as the food we were eating was real food (very filling), which meant most days, despite hours of walking in high heat, we were only able to eat 2 meals.
For those of you who are into trying new foods, you'll be able to relate to us plotting our days and routes so that we would end up at the right spots at the right times to be able to indulge. It was a miracle I only gained a pound on this trip. It felt like I had eaten a cumulative whale.
The heat was challenging. It wasn't as humid as Hanoi felt to me as my papers didn't curl irreversibly. But it was humid enough -- Felt like 48 C by 8:30 am. Good thing that coconut water and ice coffee were readily available. Plus when you buy pre-cut fruit, there is salt and chili spices included which helps with electrolyte balance. Hard getting used to eating steaming hot and spicy soup outside but it didn't stop us.
As for being there during rainy season? It was probably my biggest concern (flight delays, water contamination etc.) alongside political tension. This trip was a last minute decision (3 weeks out), which is rare for us, when considering the distance. A combination of the water pump at the cottage being flooded and seeing a drop in price of flights made this happen. We both had holiday time booked already.
Our stay wasn't impacted by weather. In fact, we longed for rain as it was welcomed relief to the heat and humidity. Prior to our arrival for several weeks, there was a monsoon trough stationary over the area ushering significant rainfall, everyday. So we came with full rain gear and intentions of buying rain boots if necessary as flash flooding can be common place then.
For many years, I had avoided going to Bangkok, despite reading over and over again, how it was a perfect introduction to SE Asia. It
is considered to provide a relatively "soft landing" with respect to
culture shock, tourist infrastructure and getting around. Would completely agree with that.
I also have personal issues with the well known sex trade there -- Just look up "Bangkok ping pong shows". We did walk around the Patpong area many times but like our experience in Amsterdam, there aren't prostitutes all around the city at all hours. In fact, there was much less of that there than I found in Phnom Penh. D did receive a good amount of visual attention but nothing phased me nor tripped either of our caution meters.
It was so very easy to navigate the city. The transit system is first rate and orderly. Occasionally we saw people (other tourists) who didn't realize you need to line up but that was an exception. Having said that, we only took transit for one trip. We braved the heat and walked, because it is more interesting for us as well as something needed to burn off all the food we had eaten.
Having attempted Khmer earlier in the year made trying to learn Thai much easier. My accent must have been acceptable enough because people would continue talking to me in Thai after they heard my greetings when I really couldn't say much more which was embarrassing. Will endeavor to keep improving for next time. And there will be a next time.