Peoples’ opinions of Bangkok seem to vary massively. Those who stay on the infamous Khao San Road complain it’s seedy and badly connected. Those arriving from the beach paradises of the south, or the idyllic mountains of the north, will tell you it’s a busy, dirty city that stands out in ugly contrast to the rest of Thailand. We didn’t think either. We loved it!
We stayed on Sukhumvit, (connected to anywhere and everywhere by metro and sky train), and first arrived into the city from Delhi. After two amazing months in India, Bangkok was a comfortable change of pace; the streets felt cleaner, safer and calmer, the buzz of tuk tuks, scooter taxis, and street hawkers, now just a familiar background noise. The second time we arrived, we had completed a loop around north Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and used it as a fun base for a long weekend to plan our route south through the Thai beaches, jungles and islands. From night markets, floating markets and mega-malls, to palaces, temples, street food and sky bars, there was enough to completely fill our three trips to Bangkok and leave us eager to return for a fourth.
Wats and whatnot
Of course the Grand Palace was on our list, but first up was the 5.5 tonne solid gold Buddha at Wat Traimit near Chinatown. 40 years ago it was being moved to a new building and fell from the crane. The plaster exterior cracked open and the gold inside was revealed for the first time!
The Grand Palace has a steep entrance fee but is definitely worth visiting once. Getting there is easiest by express boat, which connects usefully to the BTS at Saphan Taksin. It’s like a Hall of Fame for Buddhist architecture, with the famous Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaew, a mural of the Ramayana epic stretching for almost 500m around the compound, gleaming gold chedi, gigantic Yaksha ogre statues, intricate mosaics and dazzling gold roofs and pillars.
The collection of Buddhas at the Jim Thompson house on Sukhumvit are neither emerald nor solid gold, but interesting in a different way. Damaged Buddhas are considered bad luck in Thai culture, but as an American silk merchant, Jim Thompson didn’t have this belief, and had a huge collection of rare, ancient Buddha statues that would have otherwise been forgotten. They’re housed alongside his collection of Thai art and antiques in his house that’s been preserved since his mysterious disappearance in Malaysia in the 60s. The house is a traditional Thai style that he created from abandoned homes in central Thailand and reassembled in Bangkok.
Shopping malls may not be what most people think of as quintessential Thai culture, but Bangkok has mastered the art of the mega-mall and, like the underground in Moscow, visiting them is a sightseeing activity in itself. Spend an afternoon walking down Sukhumvit and you’ll see the whole scale; from knock-off designer bags and sunglasses at budget MBK mall, to themed weekend pop-ups at the huge Siam Centre, right up to the toppest-of-the-top end Embassy mall. Some malls even connect to each other and to metro train stations, giving good stretches of air-con relief from the humidity. At Embassy the escalators cascade upwards like something from an Escher drawing, taking you to more and more affordable levels. Once we got to the top we found cupcakes that cost only £10, and a luxury cinema where sofa-bed seats cost just £40… Having already seen Star Wars for a tenth of the price in Ho Chi Minh, we decided against it, tempting as it was.
We reached central Bangkok from Suvarnabhumi airport without stepping outside: from the arrival terminal to the metro, onto the underground then right into the super-clean, super shiny Terminal 21 mall, which turned out to be right opposite our hostel, The Blocks. You enter Terminal 21 past saluting security guards in naval-style white uniforms. At first we wondered if we’d even left the airport; the whole mall is themed with departure boards, signposting the different floors – each styled to look like a different city. San Francisco was a regular destination for us, as it’s where the two floors of food courts begin.
People love to eat out in Thailand and, though Bangkok’s streets are lined with as wide a scale of flavours and budgets as you’ll find anywhere, from 20p street vendors to Michelin star restaurants, the mall’s food courts are where we found the biggest range at the lowest prices. These aren’t the food courts in the sense of Burger King, KFC and Dunkin’ Donuts; think a huge range of street food vendors all under one roof.
Terminal 21 food court was a great place to try lots of different Thai food; signs are translated into English, meals start at around 50p and are charged to a re-usable top-up card. On the street we became regulars at our favourite pad thai stall on Sukhumvit Soi 11, but also started to recognise dishes from the food court stalls at the non English-speaking street stalls.
Some things don’t make it into the food courts from the street, though. In Chinatown, the area around Yaowarat road is as busy a street food market as you’ll find in Thailand. After delicious noodles, we joined a queue at the most popular (and most photographed) stall on the street to see what the mouth-watering sweet pastry smell was. Once we made it to the front of the crowd, we realised that the main attraction was what looked like Tesco Value burger buns being buttered and covered with a dollop of colourful gloop. We chose chocolate gloop.
When you’re walking along Sukhumvit in the early evening, as a tunnel of covered night market stalls spring up and close in all around you, it can feel like Bangkok is one giant market. Between the tourist tat stalls, street vendors sell mouth-watering grilled meats, freshly fried noodles, and small plastic bags of mixed spices and sauce which people add to noodles, rice or papaya salad at home.
We spent a fair bit of our time in Bangkok exploring the different types: Night markets, floating markets, posh ‘after-work’ markets (where pad thai and beers are swapped for oysters and Champagne), and the gigantic Chatuchak weekend market.
Whilst most cities in Southeast Asia have one night market (with compulsory cheap food and cheap elephant-print trousers), Bangkok has loads. Each aimed at different audiences, and often attracting just as many locals as tourists.
Our favourite night market was Ratchada. The rainbow-coloured stalls are surrounded by neon-lit bars; some converted VW campers, one with a Beatles cover band playing, another with an old yellow school bus parked inside. The market’s divided into two halves. One side filled with independent clothing stalls, fell-off-the-back-of-a-tuk-tuk designer make-up, and every design of baseball hat you could ever need. The other side had smoke and steam wafting up from row after row of food stalls.
Having already eaten, we skipped the sushi buffet, the petrified scotch eggs, fried insects, hotpots and (reluctantly) the tables where a heap of bbq seafood stew is served directly on the table, with plastic gloves instead of cutlery. Instead, we went dessert-hopping. There were brownie lollipops, gooey centred cupcakes, waffles with pandan syrup, shiny jelly beans filled with actual bean curd, stacks of pancakes, and the piece de la resistance – a kind of shaved-ice castle cake, covered in all kinds of syrups, chocolate flakes, and fruits.
Chatuchak Weekend Market is one of the largest markets in the world, the kind that needs its own map, and there doesn’t seem to be much you can’t buy. Although a whole day isn’t nearly enough time to see everything, it’s still worth arriving first thing in the morning to explore the antique furniture, flowers, pets, mountains of plastic fruit, customisable leather bags, and mountains of real fruit (sometimes combined at the same stall) before it gets too crowded. We spent the morning getting lost in the maze of stalls before getting a bubble tea and steamed bun snack at Or Tor Kor food market across the road.
We’d had a floating market on our list from the start, and, just like night markets, Bangkok has loads of them. Originally we had a scenic boat trip in mind, making our way down a river thronging with traders in the boats piled with produce. Whilst Damnoen and Amphawa apparently deliver both the hustle and the bustle, we’d read, and heard from Thai friends, that they’re now just floating tourist traps. They’re also over an hour outside the city, so we opted for Taling Chan; a Sky Train and express boat away in the east of the city.
There were far fewer boats than at the bigger markets, but on the plus side, we were some of the only non-locals there. It seemed to be a really popular Saturday morning spot for Bangkokers to eat out.
Sky bars and soi bars
“Here’s your hangover sir”, said the bar tender at Sky Bar, handing over two cocktails costing twice our usual total daily budget. Not his prediction, we’d ordered a Hangovertini (on the menu in honour of the bar’s staring role in the Hangover movie) and a Poptail – an ice lolly-cocktail combination. It wasn’t just the prices that were astronomically high; the bar’s not only on top of, but juts out over the edge of, the huge Sirocco tower. The only thing separating you from the sheer drop is a waist high glass wall. The views both of, and from, the bar were stunning; as you exit the lift you walk down a grand sweep of steps to the changing colours of the circular bar. Once you’re there you can look down to see the curves of the rivers, highways, and temples that map out Bangkok.
After Sky Bar we found a rooftop view closer to our hostel and closer to our budget. Above 11 (as in, ‘above’ Sukhumvit Soi 11) ticked almost all the boxes. The skyline view was perfect (good enough for a German TV channel to be filming for a documentary). The drinks were affordable, if not actually cheap. The only stumbling block was the dress code: ‘no open-toed shoes for men’ meant flip flops would’ve been fine for R, but not T. Having been on the wrong side of this rule before, we decided to make a stand. An ill-fitting stand, as we were now stood, holding back giggles, in front of the door man in each other’s shoes. He didn’t seem to mind about R’s clown-sized flip flops, but apparently her shoes were a few sizes too small to be considered respectable for T. In the end, he pulled out a pair of ‘no PE kit’ trainers to borrow. For 100 Baht.
Back at ground level, drinks at Iron Fairies and Fat Gutz in Thonglor were cheaper still, and Cheap Charlie’s combined street bar with a kind of junkyard chic, but our cheapest drinks by far were at a ‘mini bar’. Dotted around the streets are small carts, that attach to mopeds, parked up at the side of the road. Moped exchanged for a couple of bar stools and they were open for business.
We were so happy with our Sukhumvit location that we ended up staying there on 3 separate occasions. It felt like we were in the heart of the city, and it meant getting to and from almost anywhere was easy. The metro (MRT) is surgically clean, air conditioned, and cheap. The sky train (BTS) is just a little pricier, but comes with a view.
Meter taxis (make sure the meter is on!) are just as cheap, which is fine if you don’t mind spending hours crawling through Bangkok traffic. If it doesn’t look like there’s an easy connection by MRT or BTS (e.g. Khao San Road or Grand Palace), you can usually fill the missing link with the express boat, which is not only cheap and frequent, but is also another cool way to see the Bangkok skyline.
The famous tuk tuks? If it’s your first time in Asia, the tuk tuks are pimped up and fun, so the staggering prices might be worth it. If not, don’t bother. Much cheaper are the moped taxis, though we didn’t fancy trusting our lives to the Bangkok traffic.
We left Bangkok three times in our loops through Southeast Asia. Once by sleeper train to Chiang Mai with queen-sized bunks and turndown service, once by 80p train to Ayutthaya with a route that steamed straight through markets and building sites, and, for the last time, by plane to Krabi, with a long list of Bangkok favourites and new places to try on our next visit.