Bangkok is a busy and bustling place. It’s hot, it’s humid, and it’s as sticky as its rice, but if you can handle the heat it’s a city that delivers for those touring through its streets.
The chances are that if you are travelling to South East Asia then you are going to be routed through Bangkok. For many, this stop will be a short hop on the way to some sun-kissed tropical beach holiday, but this is a city that should be explored; beautiful temples, fragrant food, and streets and waterways that are throbbing with life are the highlights of any stopover here.
I spent a few days in Bangkok recently on my way to more relaxing surroundings in Koh Samui. We arrived in Bangkok early after an overnight flight and walked out of the airport at 5.30am into the clammy morning air; it was already 32 degrees and I was immediately regretting wearing the jeans that were slowly binding themselves to my legs. I was jet-lagged and wanted to go to the hotel and crash for a few hours but very sadly our room would not be ready until noon, so we dragged our sleep deprived bodies out to discover (very) early morning Bangkok.
I love an early morning start, preferably with some sleep having taken place beforehand, but it’s always good to see the day unravelling and it was clear that the Thais start their day as the sun is on its way up. The markets were already in full swing as shoppers filled their bags with herbs, fruits, vegetables and meats whilst chowing on Pa Tong Ko (Thai donuts). Food is everything and everywhere here and seems so central to Thai street life. Everyone is buying food, making food, or eating it and I love Thai food; spicy herby salads, coconut-based curries, grilled satay meats, and the ubiquitous pad thai all satisfy my spice loving taste buds.
We headed for the Khao San road, a short walk from our hotel and the centre of the backpacking universe according to Alex Garland’s novel ‘The Beach’. It’s a neon-lit strip of bars, budget hotels, eateries, internet cafes and tattoo parlours – getting inked seems quite the thing to do for many tourists but it wasn’t on our list of things to do. We had temples to tick off. We later visited the Khao San road in the evening when it was pulsing with life – street food, hawkers, and partying backpackers. At 7am it was much more serene, and it was pleasant to walk down the middle of the street whilst everyone else was still sleeping off the night before.
It was here that we had our first tuk-tuk experience. I had been briefed on the pitfalls of dealing with tuk-tuk drivers. They are a great and convenient way of getting around the city, particularly short to medium distances when taxi drivers don’t seem to be interested in sitting in traffic for a small fare, but you need to have your wits about you when dealing with these sharp salesmen.
The starting point is negotiation of the fare. Of course, if you have just arrived, and are still trying to work out how much things cost, then this is a tricky price-point to judge so my tactic was to let him take him kick things off, try to half it, and then end up two thirds to three quarters of the starting price. I was probably still paying a tourist premium but then I was a tourist. What we would discover on many of our tuk-tuk journeys was that a second round of negotiations would be introduced part way through the trip. We would go through the pleasantries; ‘where are you from?’, ‘where are you going next? Koh Samui? Do you want me to drive you there?’. Then they would pull over and pull out some laminated map and offer to take you on some magical mystery tour of shops, temples, and boat tours. ‘The tourist boat tour is 3000 baht each, but I have friend that can take you for 1500 each’ (we later paid 800 baht for a private canal boat tour). Everyone needs to make a living, so we dealt with this with good humour and explained that we only wanted to get from A to B without any special tours. Never be impolite to your hosts, even when they are trying to have you over.
Travelling by tuk-tuk is good fun and the cooling breezing as you speed through Bangkok’s roads is as welcome as it is hair-raising. You can reach out and touch the other vehicles as you zip around corners and weave in and out of spaces that no European, with maybe the exception of the Italian drivers, would consider. My observation of Bangkok’s driving etiquette was that there is no driving etiquette. No one in the history of Bangkok driving has ever stopped to let another vehicle reverse out into the road. If you need to go you just need to push out into oncoming traffic. They won’t stop of course, but they will under-cut and over-take you until you get up to speed and slip into the pack with the rest of the herd.
Without a doubt the best thing to see in Bangkok are the temples and there are lots of them. We spent most of our time in Bangkok either visiting temples or sat in air-conditioned cafes nearby cooling down after walking round them. There are 400 temples spread across the city, but most people will justifiably take in the main three; Wat Phra Kaew in the grounds of the Royal Palace, Wat Pho which is handily positioned next door, and Wat Arun on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. All three are magnificent and are worth an hour or two of your time.
We visited the Royal Palace early in the morning hoping that we would beat the rush. We were thwarted however, as it seems this is also the favourite visiting time for coach parties, but the Palace grounds are big enough to enjoy even when it is busy. You do need to keep covered when visiting this and other temples; elbow t-shirt and knee length shorts are acceptable, and you will have to pay for a t-shirt or elasticated pants if you are wearing anything more revealing.
The intricately detailed buildings at the Royal Palace are quite exquisite; golden temple buildings, pagodas, sky-reaching stupas, and elaborately painted wall murals greet you at every turn. During the evening the golden buildings are lit up and look stunning from the river area although you will not be able to visit the Palace after it closes at 15.30.
Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is a short walk from the Palace grounds and is equally impressive. I found this temple visiting experience to be a bit more relaxing – maybe it was the afternoon visit or maybe that most people head only to its start attraction; the 46-metre-long reclining Buddha, and don’t bother with the rest of the grounds that were to my eyes just as impressive as the Wat Phra Kaew.
The building housing the huge Reclining Buddha is just bigger than the Buddha itself and its supporting pillars make the tourist sport of photographing the Buddha a competitive one. Especially is you are aiming to include your whole family in the shot as many seemed to be doing. My height and extra reach helped me down by the feet area but then the head was always going to be a long way away. The back straight (quite literally) is the lesser photographed area and instead allows you discover what was causing the plonking sound that echoes through the building; the sound of luck bringing coins being dropped into bronze bowls lining the back wall.
Wat Arun on the other side of the river can be accessed via a short river boat hop. This was my personal favourite, possibly because of its situation by the river. We sat one evening in a restaurant across the river from Wat Arun enjoying the changing colours of the Bangkok skyline at sunset and the temple’s central Prang slowly lighting up. It looks spectacular in this hazy evening light and this is the best time to catch a view of Wat Arun.
My favourite Bangkok experience was a private longtail boat tour of the Thonburi canals. We had arranged this through our hotel, and it was half the ‘special price’ that our Tuk-Tuk driver had tried to sell us on day one. A canal trip through Thonburi is like stepping back in time to old Bangkok; high raise buildings are replaced by river houses built on stilts. Colourful riverside temples are dotted along the away the and boat sellers go from house to house selling food, water, and whatever you need. You’ll almost definitely be approached on your way by a boat seller offering an array of tourist knick-knacks and refreshments, but this is all part of the experience and we were happy to buy some goods from our vendor and a beer for our driver.
There are a range of companies offering dinner cruises along the Chao Phraya river which allow you to see a different and modern side of Bangkok, as well as taking in night time views of the main temples. This was an interesting and different night out. The starting point at River City Pier was full of modern bars, air-conditioned shopping centres and views to skyscrapers housing 5-star hotels. Away from the street food and the hawkers, this showed me that Bangkok is a thriving city.
There are a range of TripAdvisor reviews on the various river boat tour companies with a mixture of opinions from truly dreadful to the best experience to be had in Thailand. Our experience fell somewhere in the middle; the boat was big and comfortable, the entertainment of lounge singers and power ballad belting ladyboys was more Phoenix Nights Social Club than Las Vegas strip but it was entertaining enough. The food buffet was passable, and the starters and salads were actually very nice indeed. The best experience for me was standing in the open air at the front of the boat taking in the view of the brightly lit temples whilst listening to the Bhangra music being blasted out of the passing boats carrying Indian tourists who seemed to be having a fabulous time.
Our short burst through Bangkok also included other activities; a Khon performance (traditional Thai masked dancing) at the theatre that was included with our Royal Palace ticket, a detour through colourful Chinatown, and exploring so many different market and street food vendors that my t-shirts were infused with fish sauce. The food we had in Bangkok and throughout our stay in Thailand was one of the highlights of the trip and I now feel like I am suffering from chilli and holy basil withdrawal since my return to England. We spent a lovely evening in Soi Rambuttri road near the Khao San road which was a great spot for food, bars, and people watching and taking in the evening scene, but there are so many areas like this in this huge city.
We barely scratched the surface of Bangkok, but it feels like we did so much in our short stay there. Make sure that you don’t miss it if you are ever passing through this way.