Most travel sites will tell you that Bangkok is a busy and bustling metropolis that you will instantly fall in love with. Or maybe not instantly, but definitely eventually. What they ‘forget’ to tell you is that Bangkok quite literally takes your breath away.
If you aren’t directly breathing exhaust pipe pollution, the more than occasional waft of sewage smell will do the trick.
Did that stop me from loving this city? No way! [Although the heavy asthma patient in me might beg to differ.]
I just thought I’d get the negative over with sooner rather than later. Other than the obvious and not so minor disadvantageous effect on one’s health, and despite my breathing difficulties and numerous coughing attacks, Bangkok is indeed a very interesting and impressive city.
I promised a series on my Southeast Asia travels, so here it goes. A full report on Bangkok as my optimistic and positive self.
Highlights of two days in the capital city of Thailand
Efficient and clean public transport
I arrived at Suvarnabhumi airport early in the morning and was surprised to find a very efficient and clean (!) public transport apparatus. It took me two train transfers and only 30 minutes to get to a neighbourhood called ‘Silom’, where I had made a reservation in the Lub-D hostel. [An accommodation I would very much recommend by the way.]
The smothering heat immediately got to us as we submerged from the metro and onto Silom Road, so by the time we reached the hostel – about 1 mile or 15-20 minutes later – we were both drenched in sweat. What a great start to our trip! Whose idea was it again to stuff my backpack with over 20 kilograms of things I don’t really need?
Modern accommodation with friendly staff
So there we were, presenting our nasty looking selves to the girl behind the Lub-D reception desk. Thinking that we’d probably have to wait a few hours until our room was ready, we sat down on one of the comfortable couches in the lobby, happily gorging on the free bottle of water that was given to us at check-in.
Less than 10 minutes later, the same girl showed up with a sweet smile on her face. Our room was already available!
Needless to say, we immediately got down to business. What do you do when you first set foot on a continent you have never been to before? Exactly. You go to sleep.
After what was initially planned to be a one-hour nap, and what turned into a two-and-a-half hour ‘oh my god, we totally forgot to set an alarm’ episode, we quickly jumped into the shower and made our way down to the Bangkok river ferry. The fastest and cheapest way around the city!
Chao Phraya River
For 15 baht – approximately 0.40 USD – the ferry takes you to any of the 20 stops along the Chao Phraya river, representing some of Bangkok’s major tourist attractions. [2015 prices]
Grand Palace & Wat Pho
We knew we’d only have two days in Bangkok, so we were determined to make the most of them!
Our first stop? Grand Palace and Wat Pho.
Two spectacular sights, located right next to each other. So much has been written about both of these landmarks, that I will try to keep it short. What I will say: When in Bangkok, be sure to visit both.
Grand Palace consists of a number of beautifully decorated buildings that have served as the official residence of the kings of Siam since 1782.
Wat Pho – equally impressive and beautiful – is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples, or temple complexes I should say, and home to one of the largest Buddha statues in the whole of Thailand: The Reclining Buddha.
[Notes: Siam was Thailand’s official name until 1949. In case you wonder why the word “Wat” is often mentioned throughout my Southeast Asia series, the answer is simple: “Wat” is Thai for “Temple”. In other words, everything but a rarity in The Land of Temples.]
After visiting Wat Po, we decided to walk around the center of Bangkok and just see what there is to see. No plan, no route. In my opinion, the best way to go about visiting a new city is to just ‘get lost’ in it. You’ll be surprised what types of situations this tactic can get you in to, but usually it makes for a great day of wandering, and definitely beats checking off a must-see check list.
So we ended up walking through Saranrom Park, across the road from the Grand Palace. Bangkok’s first botanic garden, and originally part of the Saranrom Palace, turns out to be a great place to take a break from the heat and forget for a moment that you’re standing in the heart of this busy metropolis.
Wat Suthat & The Giant Swing
We left the park at its north eastern end, crossed a little river [or is it a khlong?] and somehow ended up spotting a giant red swing in the middle of a busy traffic intersection! We had to see that from up close, of course. Making our way over there, we past a number of sewing shops, and I remember scoring a little Thailand flag to stitch onto my backpack. See? The things that random roaming can get you.
“The Giant Swing” as it is so accurately called, turns out to be part of a temple complex called Wat Suthat Thepwararam Ratchaworamahawihan. And if you think that name is hard to pronounce, you should really try its Thai counterpart: จังหวัด กรุงเทพมหานคร. Welcome to a world in which you cannot communicate, Marly!
Like any self-respecting megalopolis these days, Bangkok has its own Chinatown. I used to go gift shopping – or restaurant hopping – in Buenos Aires’ version of Chinatown all the time, so I was immediately curious what this undoubtedly fascinating neighbourhood had to offer its foreign visitors.
Unfortunately, however, we were quickly losing the light of day and I found myself with an incredible craving for some absolutely-not-Chinese-food… Although slightly ashamed to admit it, 10 minutes later we were eating pizza in Chinatown.
No harm done, though. We could come back to Chinatown tomorrow, and there will be plenty of noodles and rice dishes during the rest of this trip. No doubt about it.
Tuk Tuk rides [and scams]
The sudden darkness had a reason, and it is called rain. Torrential monsoon type of rain turns out to be Bangkok’s equivalent of this weather phenomenon. In fact, the clouds had closed in on us so fast that we had hardly managed to leave the restaurant before it came pouring down.
Since walking back to the hostel would take more than an hour, we quickly made up our minds. It was time for our first Tuk Tuk ride!
We negotiated a good price, or at least we thought we did, with one of the Tuk Tuk drivers that seemed to know a few words of English. “200 Baht? No. 100 Baht.” He might have tried to tell us the whole story of how he could drive us back to our hostel for 100 Baht, but I honestly could not make too much of his thick accent. All I knew was that I’d be paying 100 Baht and hopefully getting ‘home’ without catching a cold.
The ride itself was quite thrilling and hilarious, as water was pouring into the Tuk Tuk from all directions and the driver was racing through the streets and around cars like there was no tomorrow. But then we came to a stop. And it wasn’t the hostel.
Drenched to the bone we were ‘invited’ to enter a super fancy clothing warehouse. So there we stood, dripping on the shiny tile floor of a hand-made clothing factory, its clothes in which I was anything but interested. Before shoving us inside, the Tuk Tuk driver had said something about receiving free gasoline and that he would be right back.
Out of respect for the store, I looked around a bit. I touched some of the colourful rolls of fabric, and inspected the beautiful kimono-like dresses a little more thoroughly. All the while, I was freezing from the extreme air conditioning and I felt incredibly out of place. I decided I was ready to go.
So when I spotted our Tuk Tuk driver again, I told him we wanted to resume our journey. His facial expression showed he wasn’t particularly pleased, but it wasn’t until we were back in the Tuk Tuk that he got all angry with us because he hadn’t gotten his free gasoline yet. Well, how were we supposed to know!
It wasn’t until later that night in the hostel – after a hot shower to recover my brain and some of my bodily functions – that I fully understood the parameters of this Tuk Tuk scam. Of course! We were supposed to pretend to be interested in those fancy custom-made suits and dresses long enough for Mr. Driver to receive free gasoline in return for supplying the store with new clientele! Ha ha, as if we could ever afford any of those garments! Hate to break it to you buddy, but that was kind of a huge misjudgment on your part… 😉
Phra Sumen Fort
The next morning, we made our way back to the river ferry. Time for another adventurous day wandering around Bangkok!
While on the ferry, we decided we’d get off at stop number 13 this time. Phra Sumen Fort, built in 1783 to protect the city against possible naval invasions, and quite a quaint yet imposing structure to this day. Surrounded by a nice park with a beautiful view over the Chao Praya river, this place is really good for spending some time ‘letting the world go by’. Sit down on one of the many park benches, or walk around to get the right angle, frame, and lighting for your best Fort photo shot.
Khao San Road
Backpacker’s Paradise. Every young person’s dream. The place to be in Bangkok.
Whatever you want to call it, and even though I don’t agree with any of the above statements, Khao San Road is definitely something special.
An entire road packed with hostels, hotels, restaurants, bars, and night clubs, and lined with a tourist market on both sides of the street, from start to finish, that sells anything and everything from popular food items, to clothing, beach wear, handbags, jewelry, and souvenirs.
The Golden Mount temple – or Wat Saket – is an absolute must-visit in Bangkok. If you are not a fan or you can’t handle the heat, be sure to go in the morning or late afternoon, as this man-made hill can be quite the climb in 35+ degree weather. But be sure to go.
Not only is the temple beautiful, and does the golden chedi make for many fun photo opportunities, you will also enjoy a spectacular view of Bangkok from the top of this hill!
Rajadamnern Muay Thai Stadium
After coming down from the Golden Mount, we somehow figured it would be a good idea to start walking towards the Victory Monument. There would be a large park area on the way, so count me in!
Bad, bad idea. Not because the walk isn’t pretty, or at least part of it is, but because it turns out to be much further than we initially imagined. And that coming from someone who loves to walk all day any day.
On the way up, along Ratchadamnoen Nok Road, you will see many impressive and modern buildings, including the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Education, the Royal Thai Government House Office, and the United Nations. And of course, the Rajadamnern Stadium, one of the main stadiums for modern Muay Thai.
Suan Chitralada Palace
Even further up, you will be presented with a well-maintained park area hosting a monument for Rama V, Dusit Palace, and Dusit Zoo. For those who dare to look it up on a map: Yes, we walked all the way up to Ratchawithi Road. We then walked all the way around the Suan Chitralada Palace. You will not be able to see the palace itself, but its walls will show you bigger than life-size pictures of the King and other members of the royal family. This makes perfect sense in hindsight, but at the time I didn’t know I was walking along the walls of the actual residence of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit.
Great. Now it would ‘only’ be another two kilometers or so to the reach the Victory Monument. A straight shot too.
For a second we considered resting our exhausted legs inside an air-conditioned taxi to speed off to our final destination, but we quickly snapped out of that day dream when we realised we found ourselves in the middle of Bangkok rush hour. No one was going anywhere at all, let alone speeding.
There was supposed to be a great food night market around the Victory Monument, and with that thought to keep us alive, somehow, we made it. We quenched our thirst and satisfied our rumbling tummies on all sorts of unfamiliar and exotic food items – that is, Will did. I flashed my ‘I am allergic to peanuts, please don’t serve me anything containing nuts or prepared in peanut oil or I will die’ sign around, saw a whole lot of confused faces staring back at me, and settled for a scoop of white rice, a bag of chips, and some mangos.
Around 20.00hs [8 PM], when neither of us was capable of doing or even saying anything else, we took the metro ‘home’.
… Anything else but having an ice-cold Tiger beer, that is. Cheers!
Have you ever been to Bangkok?
What is your favourite spot in the city?