Bangkok for beginners - A starters guide to Thailand
Which SE Asian city offers the best eating experience?
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After a week deep into November London weather, I was very much looking forward to this Southeast Asia escapade. Shortening days loomed on the horizon, most of them grey, rainy, windy and wet. It’s true what they say about winter blues and all that. In this case it was more like winter greys. Came the day, weather forecasts convinced me it was the right time to take this trip.
I made my way to Heathrow on yet another wet and miserable afternoon, to catch the Singapore Airlines service scheduled for 18.15 to Bangkok via Singapore. Check in and security was cleared in fewer than twenty minutes.
Boarding was on time, not so push back. Due to the usual space and congestion constraints at Heathrow at this peak time, we left 45 minutes late. With a full load in all cabins, the service from the SQ cabin crew was a bit robotic and not as friendly as other experiences in the past but nevertheless efficient. Flight went by with a great selection of music, films and TV programs on the individual PTVs and a lovely dinner, my choice being the Indian Rogan Josh chicken, accompanied by a Riesling white made the twelve and a bit hour flight manageable. Legroom on this B777-300ER was more than adequate for Economy. Seat was a bit stiff but nevertheless survivable. The breakfast option I opted for was the Asian spicy noodles, in my opinion a clear winner over an English breakfast which was the other choice on offer.
Because of the late pullback we arrived at Singapore Changi at 15.32, a delay of 35 minutes, not a mayor issue though as my connecting flight was not until 18.50. Took the opportunity to shower and chill out at one of the airport’s transit lounges. After the twelve and a bit hour flight, I really needed to reacquaint myself with my aching bones and muscles!
The connecting flight to Bangkok took off on time and we even made up some time landing ten minutes ahead of schedule. Thanks to a fellow passenger’s suggestion, I decided against taking the taxis from the Arrivals area, instead I hailed the ones dropping off punters at the Departure level. Compared to the THB (Baht) 1200 they were quoting below, the THB500 I managed to negotiate was a good deal. The driver did try to flog THB45 for tolls (where he had only paid THB25). His cheekiness earned him null points worth of tips though.
Arrived at what would be my residence for the next three days, the Siam@Siam hotel; a real funky designed boutique type hotel, which impressed me with its eclectic décor and cool touches. The staff, on the other hand exude the lovely Thai hospitality that makes this country so special. With the typical wai greeting I was checked in very efficiently and promptly. After a rejuvenating shower I hit the bar for an overpriced beer accompanied by the Saturday resident band covering the late Michael Jackson as well as other current chart toppers. That was enough to send me to my slumbers.
After an excellent night sleep, I showered, groomed myself and proceeded to breakfast. There was a good enough selection of regular Continental and Asian fare. Went for the Asian and was not at all disappointed.
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I made my way to the National Stadium BTS Skytrain Station, not without having to brush off a few tuk-tuk drivers who were touting for a fare. A more than reasonable BHT30 took me to Saphan Taksin (S6) Station where I was able to get a river boat to explore the murky waters of the Chao Phraya River and eventually reach the Grand Palace.
After purchasing a useless one day pass – I only just rode the boat for about four stations and never went back again, I hopped off at Tha Tien pier where I headed off to Wat Phra Chetuphon palace to admire the lying Buddha in all its splendour. Lunch beckoned soon after and almost opposite, I discovered a quaint, disorderedly nice little local restaurant where for an impressive BHP185 I feasted on a mild red Thai curry shrimp and vegetable casserole accompanied by a plate of steamed rice, coconut water and as a grand finale for dessert, a Taro ball in coconut cream. Served with hot coconut cream, an absolute delicacy!
Crossed the river to visit Wat Arun, and climb its steep Temple where we enjoyed great views of Bangkok. After the usual photo shots and making sure we still had our kneecaps intact we decided to cross the river again to visit the Grand Palace.
Then came the fun part; our first ride in a tuk-tuk. I flagged down this tuk-tuk driver, or did he magically lure me to his machine? That was something to ponder about with a clear head after. Anyway, the said driver advised the Grand Palace was about to close at two pm, because of it being Sunday, for some reason at the time I didn’t seem to argue. He got his way in the end and we ended up going to this Buddhist Temple where suddenly out of the blue, a very friendly Temple Manager appeared saying how lucky we were to come to this temple where there was a special Buddhist ceremony; very polite and making me feel I was the chosen one, he “suggested” we visit the Royal Thai Factory, whereas a special occasion, they were offering goods with a massive discount. As I suspected, it was a scam. Too late by the time I realised, I was swiftly taken to this jewellery where they tried unsuccessfully to flog me with jewels and the likes. Well, you can imagine their desperation when they were unable to sell me anything... and the tuk-tuk driver still had to take me to the hotel, he even tried to flog us a tailor. I ran out of other ways of telling him I don’t wear suits. In the end all that was lost was the visit to the Grand Palace, the remainder of my River Pass... and BHT70.
That was my first brush with the wrong side of Thai hospitality. I decided to browse through MBK, one of the city’s main shopping malls, then Siam City Shopping complex. The good thing about Mall hopping in this city is that in areas such as this and others down at Si Lom or Sukhunvit road you can go from one mall to another without venturing down the noisy, crowded, polluted streets and pavements thanks to their unique network of over-ground walkways, which are usually below the BTS Skytrain lines. After about an hour window and people watching I returned to my hotel, empty handed.
To relieve my aching joints and hurt spirit, I decided I deserved a Thai massage, and the hotel has a very sedate and serene spa – of course with the not so serene and sedated price to match, but putting things in perspective I compared it with what you would pay in good old Blighty and although inflated at hotel levels I decided to go for it. When in Thailand, do as the Thai and have a massage, a Thai massage for crying out loud!
This gracious lady, as tall as yours truly (1,73m) and twice as wide as I am was a sight to behold. As big and burly as she looked, she was delicately spoken to the point of almost silence and all politeness, until she laid hands on me. I felt like a morsel in a butcher’s board. Her hands were as firm and hard as a well polished slab of rock. But did she loosen up those stiff and stressed muscles of mine, and the odd bone or two as well. On more than one occasion I was so relaxed I must have nudged off during the massage. A spell at the Jacuzzi and the steam bath and I was good as new. A brisk shower and up I went to hit the Roof Champagne and Wine Bar on the 25th floor. Not at all out of place in this dynamic city and for this funky property, but unfortunately, Bangkok is not shy of trendy rooftop bars where one can sip or quaff the night away with Bangkok at your feet so it was no surprise to see that as soon as I arrived I doubled the crowd of two that were already there. A real shame because the place, although a tad overpriced for Bangkok standard has great potential. A Jack Daniel’s and coke later and I headed back down to my room to rest my jaded humanity.
Monday morning, up without a single aching muscle or bone and ready for another day. This time, took the Skytrain to Silom, one of Bangkok’s busy thoroughfares bustling with all different kinds of electronic shops and bars, eateries and any kind of sleazy shop under the sky. This road takes a special dimension after dusk when all the bars and clubs, mostly aimed at gay and lesbian clientele open their doors until well into the early hours of the morning. I didn’t get to see much as I was still looking to cover other areas of the city, including Lumphini Park, one of many natural lungs this city offers, just a few hundred yards back.
After a stroll in the park, where I had the rare opportunity to encounter a giant lizard, I took the underground towards Sukhunvit road, again to join the swarms of people, mostly European tourists, looking for that ultimate bargain amidst the street bazaars, food stalls, dodgy shops selling everything from fake merchandise to not so fake but just as dodgy sex; Sukhunvit Rd seems to cater for all tastes and walks.
I had lunch at a side street eatery, where even when indulging in my Chicken and shrimp padthai, I was given the eye nod from a hooker who probably doubled as a masseuse. Speaking of which, there are hundreds of massage parlour strewn across this city, most reputable, some not so much so. But that in a way may explain why, despite the fast pace, pollution, traffic the Thai people seem so relaxed and serene. I thought as the afternoon drew to a close that I needed to serene myself, or at least re-acquaint myself with my aching feet so just before reaching our hotel we went into this Massage Parlour (one of the kosher ones...) to have a foot massage. A real steal at THB230 for a one hour session, where every single muscle on my feet and toes and lower calf were realigned and re-energised. This is usually complemented by a five minute neck and head massage. Back at the hotel, what better than to unwind in the sanctity of the Jacuzzi and steam bath. After leaving Bangkok, how will I get used to not indulging in this?
Completely wound down and relaxed I headed off to Suan Lum night market just off Lumphini Park. This said market, unlike Patpong night market which caters more for the night party animals of all sexual tendencies, is a bit more aesthetic, with more family oriented bazaars on one side, a huge outdoor food hall with giant screen and stage on the other as well as additional food stalls and restaurants at each end of the bazaar. Again, after roaming stall after stall of knick knacks and souvenirs, ended up having dinner at one of the outdoor eateries at the side of the market. A red curry prawn and chicken dish with sticky rice and a 330ml bottle of cold Chang beer did the trick for me and at THB175 for the privilege (approximately £3.30) there is no base for argument.
Argument or bartering was the order however, when we prepared to return to our hotel. Tuk-tuks and taxis on the fringe of the market started their offerings to take us back at an inflation busting THB250, lowering it down to THB150. Still convinced I could fare much better, I left the market and walked down Wireless Road (where the market is located) down to Rama IV road and at the corner next to Lumphini Metro Station we negotiated with a cab driver again from THB200 to THB80, much more reasonable.
Back at the hotel, once again I opted for an overpriced night cap at the rooftop bar I visited the previous night where my newfound friend at the bar Ben already remembered my poison, a JD and coke. The ambience was a bit more what you expected from a cool venue such as this one, so there was no need to remove cobwebs on this occasion and the views of the city are pretty spectacular! Slumped on my beanbag couch watching the changing lights of the city, with my tumbler of JD in one hand, how I missed a good cigar in the other.
Tuesday, and I pretty much had an organised idea of what I wanted to do and see. The Grand Palace, also known as Wat Phra Kaew was definitely on the list. I was curious to bus it to the Palace but was discouraged to do so by the hotel staff, stating that for a westerner, Bangkok buses can be intimidating as no one will necessarily speak English therefore it can be very easy to unknowingly get fined for paying the wrong fare – although there is only one flat fare. Also to consider, was the traffic as well as the fact that there’d be a change of bus en route. A metered taxi was a more humane and reasonable option and at THB80 for the privilege of going through narrow alleys, jumping traffic lights and dodging side and frontward traffic to reach our destination. Well, we never expected to go to Bangkok and do things in a civilised manner now, did we?
By the time we arrived, the Palace was temporarily closed for the next hour, so we strolled along the Palace perimeter going through a food market before reaching Tha Chang pier. On a spur I decided to take a boat across the Chao Phraya River to Visit Wat Rakang Kositaram temple. I took the boat however to Tha Wang Lang pier and made it through to our intended destination going through a much more local street bazaar – nothing written in English or western alphabet for the case. I walked through the Temple’s ground soaking up its peaceful surroundings and negotiating scores of pigeons, their presence encouraged by constant feeding from the locals.
I returned to our original departure pier and headed off to the Grand Palace. Purchased the entrance ticket and spent almost the best part of two hours visiting all the different temples, gardens and royal museums and compounds where we learned a bit more about the Thai royal family and how they are really well thought of in this country. Not to forget as well, the imposing Emerald Buddha. The Palace is a vast area of sheer beauty with serene yet imposing temples, sculptures with its intricate touches.
After covering the whole of the Palace I headed back to our hotel for a refresher, deciding to walk towards Ratchadamnoen Avenue, some five minute walk from the Palace where I hailed a taxi who agreed to meter it to the hotel – had I attempted to hail one from the Palace I would have most probably had to do the bartering game with them as it would be very unusual to find a driver willing to use the Taxi-meter.
A reasonable THB70 saw me at the hotel’s main entrance and I decided for what was to be my last Jacuzzi and steam bath in Bangkok.
Later on, after an invigorating shower I headed towards Si Lom in search for a bar where to enjoy a few cheap beers to mark my last night in this fascinating city. I met with some also departing kiwis on the same quest as yours truly and we found one that was not too crowded for the time of night, around eight pm. We enjoyed some three rounds of Chang beer, again at THB70 a go for each bottle; cold and teeth gnashing just as the good book recommends, it’s no small wonder Europeans get absolutely hammered and find themselves in all sorts of mischief. I must admit though that the premise was not the most glamorous of watering holes, but then I’ve definitely seen dodgier ones as well.
By ten we parted ways, them to another bar and me back to the hotel, still benefiting from the late closure of the Skytrain.
Friend or foe?
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Farewell to the city of smiles
The next morning, after an early rise, brisk shower and light breakfast this time, I duly checked out not without mentioning to the Front Desk staff how pleased I was for the whole hotel experience. The friendly porter recommended I fixed the price with the taxi driver at THB450 tops, to get to the airport. The driver did not argue and we made clear that the fare would include the toll fares. No discussion about that either.
We reached Suvarnabhumi airport in about 45 minutes, checked our bags and proceeded to passport control which was fast, friendly and most efficient.
Again, this airport is a massive piece of engineering feat which unfortunately suffered a few teething problems during its opening. Supported by impressive Thai architecture, the only downside is the lack of proper signage, long walks to boarding gates from retail areas, few eating options and although it offers free wi-fi, there are only two information outlets where you can obtain the password, each located at the far end of the terminal some ten minutes apart and they only allow you fifteen minutes. And to make things more difficult, there are just a handful of sockets where to plug in your laptops so not very helpful in that respect.
Boarding and pullback was on time and at minutes before one pm we were headed towards Singapore.
A mad, chaotic, noisy city with a blend of poor neighbourhoods nestled next to impressive hotels and skyscrapers, with magnificent shopping malls competing with street stalls for the punters’ Baht, where century old tradition walk hand in hand with the fast modern pace of life. A city where you are equally stressed with the high levels of pollution, traffic, noise but where a relaxing massage or a fine dining experience can relieve all tension and transport your soul into peaceful contentment. A city where all tastes are catered for, some wholesome, some unfortunately no so; in a nutshell, a city that takes your senses without asking, plays with them, throws them around, batters them, realigns them and spits it back leaving you mesmerised and marvelled at the same time.