6 popular places to visit in Bangkok (and my first impressions of the Thai capital)

6 popular places to visit in Bangkok (and my first impressions of the Thai capital)

Bangkok, the first impressions

“I need a break,” I said as I sat down on the stone steps of a bank. It was close to dinner time (in Bangkok time zone, at least), and we had been walking for what felt like hours from our hotel in the not-too-tourist-appealing Central Business District.

Like the flight from Lisbon to Bangkok via Dubai, the hotel had been booked on a whim, chasing special offers I had been emailed about. The Chong Nonsi BTS Station, just 10-minutes away within walking distance, closed the deal.

I didn’t know it yet then, but 12 hours later, I’d become sick with what I thought was food poisoning at first, but it turned out to be bacterial pharyngitis. I was not prepared for Southeast Asia. As had happened with Rome three months before, I wasn’t feeling excited about Bangkok.

2013, as I would realize later, was not a great travel year.

Jet lag was getting the best of me, and I didn’t feel like adventuring on street food, as everyone had suggested to me. Instead, we settled for an Indian restaurant where we both were familiar with the North Indian menu.

I had not fallen in love with Bangkok like everyone said I would.

I was about to dismiss the whole of Asia based on my lukewarm first impressions of the Land of Smiles’ capital city.

On the way back to our hotel after dinner, we checked out our surroundings for the first time since arriving in the area.

In a pink taxi without air conditioning, the ride from the airport had been a tortuous 2-hour long trip. The traffic was chaotic. No one seemed to abide by the rules—a behavior pattern I would see again, one year later, in Ahmedabad, India.

 

Save Bahts (฿), shop at Seven-Eleven

One of the worst effects on me of layovers and jet lag is craving for the most unhealthy munchies (from potato chips to chocolates to cookies) at the worst possible times.

Add the fact that I was sick, and it could have been a disaster.

To prevent me from attacking the hotel minibar and regretting the overcharge later, we occasionally stopped by one of the many Seven-Eleven around to stock up on food, water, and Singha beer.

Apart from food, we bought local SIM cards to top up whenever needed. Except I forgot to make sure my phone was unlocked and accepted SIM cards from any other network… I now have an extra Thai SIM card with no use.

BTS Sky Train at Chong Nonsi station in Bangkok

Choose public transportation (my favorite, the BTS)

Some friends who had recently been to Thailand warned me about the taxis: always choose one from a certified taxi company and make sure they have a meter.

The only time we took taxis was from and to the airport.

For good measure, I wanted to ride in a tuk-tuk at least once. I just tried not to think much about the traffic around us and decided to trust our driver as knowing what he was doing and enjoy the ride.

That would be my first and last time in a tuk-tuk in Bangkok.

My all-time favorite was BTS (commonly known as the Skytrain) — prices were fixed according to the destination, comfort was guaranteed (not on rush hour, though, as expected), the ticket machines were relatively easy and intuitive. It was a simple transport network to understand and follow.

I wish I knew then that buying a One-Day Pass for ฿130 (approx. US $4) would be cheaper than buying single tickets for each trip…

To reach the temples, all we needed to take was the boat to go along (or across) the river.

When we reached the Saphan Taksi station for the first time, the information was confusing: several boats were coming and going, from different companies, some announcing tours, locals shouting to foreigners in lines to move and take the boats, tourists confused about which way to go.

After losing precious minutes of trying to make sense of this, we decided to follow the locals. They take these trips all the time and, of course, they’re not willing to pay more than the necessary amount.

Don’t worry if you didn’t have time to buy a ticket (because at some point, you might be confused about whether you’re purchasing the right ticket for that boat); tickets can be purchased at the boat.

street shopping stalls in Bangkok

Street shopping and street life

Street shopping is an industry of its own.

The “very typical” items pitched to tourists are all mass production of the lowest quality — it still has a Bangkok feel to it.

We found different stands that sold everything from plastic toys and sex accessories to various Buddha statues to silk scarves. All were claiming to be authentic and rare, all priced about the same, all looking the same.

Prostitution, massages, and ping-pong shows were something people asked me about when I came back.

It’s what everyone talks about when they come back and when they refer the city to someone. Someone at work had visited Bangkok on his recent honeymoon and told me, “a prostitute in the street invited me to attend a version of the ping-pong show with golf balls! And my wife was standing right there!” That reminded me of a story about camels and Morocco that my professor of Anthropology of Tourism used to tell us.

I know people see it as very typical. I’m sure many people travel there on purpose for that “attraction,” I understand it’s an industry. You know that saying “when in Rome be a Roman”?

Traveling has put my cultural tolerance to the test many times, so I always make an effort to look at things as objectively as I can. But this, in particular, strikes a nerve.

I will hardly see prostitution as an industry when the prostitutes in the streets are no older (and sometimes appear to be a lot younger) than my fifteen-year-old son. At first glance, they looked like a group of teenagers hanging outside the mall, talking and laughing, maybe waiting for the afternoon session of the movie to begin. But I looked closer and paid attention to the pimps bribing the security guy and assigning work according to the client’s preferences.

Lake at Lumphini Park in Bangkok

A run in the Lumphini Park (from the animal in the lake…)

Lumphini Park was a great shelter from the heat and humidity, the chaotic traffic, and the crowded streets, even though it was in the city center.

Sitting near the lake, we could hear an enthusiastic outdoor aerobics class. From where I was standing, a very well-choreographed one — either these people attend the class regularly or were incredibly well-coordinated and organized from the very first moment.

Maybe I’ll try that next time.

I find my tranquility in places near the water, so the most important part of the park for me more than anything else was the lake where we could feed turtles.

Then on our second visit, I wondered what-the-hell-is-that-big-lizardy-thing-swimming-in-the-lake.

Which then made its move toward land.

Which led me to get up and run (and that’s how much I exercised at the park…)

I read later that, yes, the creature seems to be related to crocodiles, and they are perfectly harmless. Still, at that time, my brain shifted my legs to fleeing mode, and I cowardly removed.

For those of you who don’t mind running into reptiles, you won’t be discouraged by going for a run at the Lumphini Park.

Jim Thompson House in Bangkok

Jim Thompson House, the feeling of a tourist trap

Near the Klong Maha Nag canal is the home of the American entrepreneur and founder of Jim Thompson Thai Silk. He mysteriously disappeared in Malaysia in 1967.

It’s now a Museum and a Foundation with guided tours that take you through its owner’s history, contribution to the Thai Silk Industry, and the architectural influences of the house.

According to the hotel staff and the travel app we were using, this was a must-see.

It was nice to visit, but I would hardly consider it a must-see.

The house is actually a complex of six Thai-style houses with Chinese inspired decorations and built according to the primary and functional Thai architectural principles: to survive a hot and humid climate — elevated from the ground, with high steep roofs arching upwards, plenty of windows, and doors for airflow; no nails — so that the houses can be easily transported and re-assembled; raised thresholds with the double purpose of keeping away the evil spirits and for being a structural aid holding the wall sections.

The Temples

Wat Arun (the Temple of the Dawn)

The Temple of the Dawn doesn’t stand out.

When we first saw it from the river, it didn’t seem opulent like other religious buildings — we expected gold and light and brightness.

After that first introduction and when we reached the temple, we saw the intricate stone ornaments and the tile decorations.

It has incredibly steep steps to reach the top, but the view from up there was worth the climb up — even if coming back meant I had to make my way down the steep steps sitting down.

And I may have been mocked by a monk who quickly went down the steps.

Crowds at Grand Palace in Bangkok

Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Budha)

Since we left the boat station until we reached the Grand Palace, numerous very helping locals kindly informed us the landmark was closed for lunch or praying (we heard both versions). They then would point out something on our map and introduce us to a tuk-tuk driver that would be happy to take us to some shopping mall nearby while we waited for the Grand Palace to open again.

If you are well-informed of the place’s opening hours, you’ll be suspicious; if you’re not, be suspicious anyway and believe it’s a scam — a well-crafted one, but still a scam.

I think it’s fair to say this is one of the souvenirs many people bring home from Bangkok.

The Grand Palace is a top-rated tourist attraction, so we expected it to be crowded, but inside the temple, I had a sense of tranquility even though I’m not a religious person. I guess it’s because we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, and most people skipped it.

The Reclining Budha in Bangkok

Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Budha)

Or the place with the huge golden statue of Buddha lying down.

It’s also that place where people will cloud your vision and block your view with countless selfies and picture poses in front of the 130-something feet tall statue.

Maybe I was too grumpy from being sick, but it was one of those “checkbox items” from our to-see list (as in, been there done that).

Go Go Bars and overpriced drinks in Soi Cowboy Bangkok

Nightlife

After our hotel seclusion due to my high fevers, we didn’t have much time (for me was about not having the energy) to explore Bangkok’s nightlife.

We visited Soi Cowboy, which is also known as that street with the go-go bars where some scenes of the movie Hangover were shot.

It’s that place you’ll go to (if you’re not looking for anything else) as “well as long as we’re here.”

The first impression, it looks a lot bigger in the movie.

Second impression, too many neon lights and loud music in one place.

The third impression, although we stopped and sat for a beer outside one of the bars, most foreigners parade through it looking at the girls. Or so it seemed from where we were standing, drinking our overpriced chilled bottle of imported Carlsberg.

On one of the nights we ventured around for a little night out, we ended up at the Good Story Restaurant at the Phra Nakhon District.

I was recovering from the illness, and I was craving for homemade Portuguese cooking (my mom’s feijoada in particular…), so my focus wasn’t on food at all.

Despite that, it still was an excellent place to have a beer, and we had a decent, not very expensive Thai meal.

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