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.
The hotel, much like the flight from Lisbon to Bangkok via Dubai, 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 twelve hours later I would come down sick with what I thought was food poisoning at first but 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 me to. 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.
The ride from the airport, in a pink taxi without air conditioning, had been a tortuous 2-hour long trip. The traffic was chaotic and 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 the 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.
So 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.
Maybe taking a cooking class would’ve been a better option…
Apart from food, and because I couldn’t wait to go back to the hotel or find a free WiFi spot to share the pictures on Instagram (ok, so maybe I’m addicted…), we bought local SIM cards to recharge whenever needed. Perfect isn’t it? 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.
Choose Public Transportation (My Favorite, the BTS)
The only time we took taxis was from and to the airport.
For good measure (and to tick an experience off the list), 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 quite easy and intuitive to use, and 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 quite 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 out of any of this, we decided to follow the best of guides: 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 the 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 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 I guess.
We found different stands that sold everything from plastic toys and sex accessories (of questionable quality) to different versions of Buddha statues to silk scarves; all 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 — for most people, this is Bangkok, and these activities are widely advertised as part of the tourist attractions.
It’s what everyone talks about when they come back, and when they refer the city to someone (an acquaintance of mine 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… will share when the time comes).
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; then I looked closer and paid attention to the pimps bribing the security guy and assigning work according to client’s preferences…
A Run in the Lumphini Park (from the animal in the lake…)
Lumphini Park was a great hideout 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, and from where I was standing a very well choreographed one — either these people attend the class on a regular basis, or they’re 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 (I’d say it has something to do with being an islander), so the most important part of the park for me more than anything else was the lake where we could feed turtles swimming by.
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, but 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, 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 who mysteriously disappeared in Malaysia in 1967.
It is now a Museum and a Foundation with guided tours that take you through the history of its owner, his contribution to the Thai Silk Industry and the architectural influences of the house.
From the hotel to 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.
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.
Passing 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 may have been mocked by a monk (oh what a beautiful alliteration!) who quickly went down the steps.
Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Budha)
From the boat station until we reached the Grand Palace, where this temple was, a numerous of very helping locals (some of them would claim they work there, and maybe they did) kindly informed us the landmark was closed for lunch or praying (we heard both versions), asked us to point out something on our map and introduced us to a tuk-tuk driver that would be happy to take us for some shopping mall nearby while we waited for the Grand Palace to open to public again.
If you are well-informed of the opening hours of the place you will be suspicious; if you’re not, be suspicious anyway and believe it is a scam — a well-crafted one, but still a scam.
I think it’s fair to say this is one of the souvenirs a lot of 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 just peeked inside and left.
Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Budha)
Or the place with the huge golden statue of Buddha lying down.
It is also that place where people will cloud your vision and block your view with countless selfies and picture poses in front of the one-hundred-thirty-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).
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 much 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 sights (and by sights, I mean 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.
Have you been to Bangkok before? What were your first impressions and what places to visit in Bangkok would you recommend?