We just got back from Southeast Asia. Our entry and exit point was Bangkok—what a city. Old, new, fashionable, and traditional, all mix together in this city on the move. Street vendors can be found everywhere selling anything from pad Thai and grilled chicken skewers to knock-off, Spongebob Squarepants carry-on luggage. Whole restaurants pop-up, makeshift-style, down random alleys. We even saw women at sewing machines, doing tailoring, right there on the sidewalk. Throw in some grit, a few stray dogs, boats speeding up and down canals in a black fog of diesel fumes, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of Bangkok.
Oh, don’t forget the heat. It’s hot, hot, hot, and humid. We averaged three to four showers a day and—I’m sorry to say—my deodorant still couldn’t keep up. That said, I think Bangkok is fantastic. It’s one of the most vibrant, engaging cities I’ve ever seen. Here are a few tips, if you go.
We stayed at a great hostel called Suk 11 in the fairly well-healed district of Sukhumvit. We highly recommend this place. It’s got a bohemian-modern vibe with walls of reclaimed wood, a nice lobby with a big wooden table that flows easily into an outdoor dining area, and a garden/water feature. At night (or some nights, anyway) they open a pop-up restaurant in the alley. Travelers have written on all of the walls. It’s got a great vibe and isn’t expensive. (Our en suite double cost 900 baht/night—about $27 at current exchange rates.) They also include a simple but tasty breakfast featuring, among other things, a delicious spread for toast made out of coconut milk and Thai tea. Yum! If you sit outside though, slather on the bug spray. The water feature, though beautiful, plays home base to several squadrons of blood-thirsty mosquitoes.
The most economical way to get around is via the Skytrain and the municipal riverboats plying the Chao Phraya (not the tourist longboats). Tuks tuks are a little more expensive and faster. They’re fun too but breathing hot, sticky diesel fumes can be a drag when there’s traffic. Taxi’s are the most civilized. The general rule of thumb, we found, is that if a taxi or tuk tuk is sitting at the side of the road waiting for a fare, it takes too much money to get it moving again. Both tuk tuk and taxi drivers will solicit your business, then quote you a ridiculous fare instead of (in the taxi’s case) turning on the meter and charging that. Far better to flag down a tuk tuk or taxi already on the move. We then found (sometimes) better tuk tuk rates and taxi drivers willing to charge by the meter. If a tuk-tuk driver tells you he’ll give you a good deal, if you make a few stops, pass. This means you’ll get stuck touring jewelery stores.
The even more general rule of thumb is that, if the transportation source is seeking you out, you don’t want it. If you find a woman behind a counter that could care less (as at one riverboat ticket station, for example) that’s going to be your best deal.
The rule of thumb for shopping is, if it doesn’t have a price listed or you’re buying it on the street, it’s negotiable. That goes for clothing as well as tuk tuks. If you’re buying it in a store with price tags, the price is generally fixed.
We found great shopping in the Banglamphu/Khao San road area. While that’s not news, one place we really liked was OR2K (106/4 Rambutri Rd.). It had a stylish, higher-end, Thai hippy feel. The clothes were nice; the scarves were soft; and the prices were right. Another place to check out is Mitra Handwork (190 Khao San Rd.). They had some of the freshest boots I’ve ever seen. (See photo.) I think they were asking 2400 baht but were willing to give us a “special price” of 1800 baht.
There are also tailors all over Bangkok that will custom sew clothes for you. We went to Four Sons House (78-80 Praarthit Rd.) and the service was fast and friendly but there are many options. I got a cashmere jacket for 3000 baht and Natalie had a very nice coat and skirt made for 5000 baht. Amazingly, they turned all three items around in less than 24 hours. If you go, just pay attention during your fitting so that everything fits the way you’ll like it. I suppose we could have bargained but, sheesh, a handmade, custom-tailored jacket for under a 100 bucks? It was already such a deal.
Apparently there’s a good night market too. We couldn’t find it but saw maps for it on sale around Khoa San road on our last day. Next time…
You can get practically anything from food carts and the ones we sampled were delicious. On Soi 38 in Sukhumvit (Thong Lor Skytrain stop) food carts congregate at night so you can sample the lot.
To see what happens when high-end retail meets tasty edibles, check out the food court at the Siam Paragon shopping center (Siam Skytrain stop). This was high on Natalie’s list and for good reason. Everything looks delicious, is incredibly well presented, and the variety is staggering. The food court is anchored by a grocery store that looks more like a high-end boutique. We were impressed.
A final food note: the best Tom Ka soup we found was at the Royal Navy Club 77 Restaurant (Ko Ratanakosin area). It was light, fragrant, and delicious.
As far as the traditional sights go, we checked out Wat Pho (reclining Buddha), Wat Phra Kaew (emerald Buddha) and they were both amazing and beautiful.
For a modern take on Thai culture we visited the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (National Stadium Skytrain stop). They had a very good graffiti show on while we were there.
Nearby and also worth a look is the Jim Thompson house, a collection of traditional Thai houses reconfigured into a single dwelling in the 1950s by an American, expat, silk magnate.
Those are our Bangkok tips! Have fun, if you go!