21.12.2013 - 31.12.2013 30 °C
Lets get this straight even before I begin; I'm an outdoorsy person, I enjoy my own space to explore beautiful, pristine nature... I also loved Bangkok.
I don't know if anyone experiences love at first sight with Bangkok. Bangkok is polluted; the smog and litter are flagrant. The canals are dirty, smelly, and barely resemble water. You walk down a street and be overwhelmed by the aroma of a streetcart barbeque, and then only a few steps later can be overcome by the stench of ... well, wherever the stench comes from. But don't let this turn you off. Think about why you wanted to go to Bangkok in the first place.
It took me a couple of days to get into the chaotic flow. In fact, after about 24 hours in the city, I had that desperate "I need to get out of here!" feeling, and contemplated a flight north to Chiang Mai/ Rai. As I sat down with my ''Bangkok must-do'' (which included a few day trips out of the city), I made a decision to get into the Bangkok frame of mind.
We stayed at the Dream Hotel. It is a conveniently located hotel (a short walk from Suhkumvit on the MRT or Asok on the BTS skytrain) at a decent price (which included a fantastic breakfast buffet). Between our hotel and Suhkumvit Road, was the (hurt so good!) Smile Massage, and George's Custom Tailoring, where we had some impeccable clothing made... not quite as much of a bargain as the ''Front Man'' (Dave) initially had us believe, but excellent value. Befriending Dave became my locals benefit, with restaurant suggestions, directions, and a taxi hookup.
Dave gave us a recommendation for a great meal at a reasonable price; a good cause, and a bit of a laugh. Cabbages and Condoms pda.or.th is worth the short walk down a dark(ish) Bangkok street. Make no mistake, this is a lovely restaurant; the patio area (with lush greenery and soft lighting) was booked out, but we were happy to have a table inside. The meal was incredible. We shared delectable Thai dishes with plenty to spare, which they were happy to pack up. (Suhkhumvit has a number of needy young families on the pedestrian overpasses that appreciate any form of charity).
I was pleased to find the Bangkok Thai Cooking Academy http://bangkokthaicookingacademy.com near our hotel. I took in one afternoon session which started with a brief stop at the markets, and finished with four very tasty dishes... and a tired arm from hand grinding our own red curry paste. The good news is I have been able to find (some form of) all of the ingredients in our local supermarket to make it at home.
All of the food in Bangkok was amazing. From restaurants, to shopping mall food courts, to street food, we did not have a disappointing dish. We did, however, have some rather unique dishes on Bangkok Food Tour's http://bangkokfoodtours.com/ lunch walking tour of Historic Bangrak. We had a few nibbles of street food before hitting the gong outside a beautiful temple. Then we embarked on five different family owned restaurants; some had been operational for nearly 100 years over 3 generations. There were Thai fusion Chinese (where we tasted liver stuffed pigs feet) and Muslim (where we had the chance to try cow brain) restaurants, a short boat ride across to an odd little Thai restaurant, a beautiful bakery, and a lovely restaurant at the end that I was too full to really appreciate. Do yourself a favour and don't eat breakfast if you are planning to take this tour.
Our food tour finished near the Skybar, which prompted the discussion about rooftop bars in Bangkok. The Skybar is thriving off it's notoriety gained in The Hangover 2, but there are plenty of others that are more reasonably priced, and that don't have such a strict dress code. The Sofitel on Suhkumvit had tasty complementary nuts and 2-for-1 drinks (... per person. I'll save you the embarrassment of asking for the bill after the first round). We had a fantastic dinner and drinks with a couple from London that we'd met on the food tour. They suggested The Nest, a cozy, loungy rooftop bar in our neighbourhood. We finished the night with drinks (and more drinks!) at the irresistible Mobile Bars on Soi 11. Picture a small street with converted VW kombi vans parked on either side. Each van has its own bumpin stereo, party lights, folding tables and chairs behind each van. The vans have articulated roofs to allow for a bar tender to stand in the van along with supplies to create more cocktails than you can even contemplate trying.
We really enjoyed the Bangkok city tour we organized with Tour with Tong. Our guide, Sam, met us at our hotel at 8am and we used public transit to visit the Grand Palace, and various temples (Wat Arun being our favourite) to see many beautiful Buddhas (including the infamous Golden Buddha, the Reclining Buddha and the Emerald Buddha). Sam was very knowledgeable and provided interesting historical facts, and insight into Buddhism. The tour was very reasonably priced (~$50 for an 8 hour tour), and individually catered. He took us on the metro, the local bus, and a few boats... and gave us the confidence to do the same on our own during the remainder of our stay. Some of our favourite memories of Bangkok include travelling alone on a crowded local bus, and hopping on the back of a motorbike taxi.
To travel to Ayuttaya, the cheapest and fastest route I heard of was to take the metro to Victory Monument and get on the minibus. As usual, the local workers were happy to help. Even though I was mispronouncing it Aiya-taya (they say Aaay-uu-tayy-ya) they lady at the ticket window not only knew where I wanted to go, but showed me where I could sit near a fan as I waited for enough passengers to fill the bus; when it got close to full, she came to get me and walked me to the minibus (there is no real schedule, the buses leave when they are full). It took nearly 2 hours to get to Ayuttaya which was likely due to the traffic in Bangkok, but we also did drop off a few locals at another town. At the minibus stop, there are tuk-tuk drivers ready to take you around, and will barter the price based on how long of a tour you want. Because it had taken so long to get out to the ancient city, and I was a bit pressed for time to get back to Bangkok, I booked the driver for a quick 3 hour tour. For me, it was enough to see all of the large ruins and temples; I did not linger, so 5-6 hours would probably be a more reasonable estimate for a small group or for those who like to take a bit more time.
When looking into a day trip to Kanchanaburi, we found tour companies to be quite expensive. So, we chose to book a taxi driver for the day at a pre-negotiated price (2000baht +tip). Dave (from the tailor) suggested a driver who had an propane car, so his price was better than other taxis could offer. He picked us up at 8am and took us west out to the Damnernsaduak floating market (and helped us barter a better price for the canal tour - they wanted 2000baht each, but we paid 3000baht total), a stop at an elephant refuge (we chose to feed the elephants and carry on, rather than wait to ride one), then a long drive to Kanchanaburi province to the Tiger Temple and the Bridge over River Kwai. The Tiger Temple proved to be a bit of a frustrating experience with somewhat of a confusing queue system. In hindsight, we would have paid the additional 1000baht to get into the express group photo line, rather than wait for nearly an hour to get the individual complementary photos (included in the 600baht per person entry fee). But, having photos with these massive, beautiful animals (a guide walks you through and takes photos for you with your own camera) was one of the days highlights. The Bridge over River Kwai was very busy, and somewhat took away from the solemn, reflective experience. If I had to do it over, I would have taken more time in Kanchanaburi, and had an overnight stay somewhere along the river. It was a massive (nearly 12 hour) day. Before our driver dropped us off at the end of it, he admitted that he'd never really been up to the Tiger Temple before, and didn't realize how far it was-- I guess he so pleased to have steady work for the day, that he agreed to the price that Dave suggested.
I believe in helping to stimulate the economy through the art of shopping. I would recommend under-packing and leaving space (and weight) in your luggage for the way home. The clothing that we had made from George Custom Tailors was fantastic value. We found some good deals at Terminal 21, The Mall Shopping Centre at Bangkapi, and MBK Mall (we were also lucky to visit the MBK on the evening that they have Muay Thai Boxing for free outside the shopping centre; the best view was on the catwalk to the metro); but not all shops have good deals, so be sure to do the conversion (¬30:1 when we were there).
My favourite is market shopping; and there is plenty of that in Bangkok. Each evening, there are market stalls on Suhkumvit Road; there were often small markets outside small shopping centres; and the biggest (and my favourite) was the weekend Chatuchak (J.J) market. I visited the J.J market on two consecutive weekends. The first time, I entered without knowing what I was getting in to. I weaved through the stalls; in and out of covered aread, basically going wherever the energy pulled me. I found an area with unique art, beautiful silk scarves and jewelry and then wandered in to lot of knock-off clothing, sunglasses, watches, and the like. I wandered until I got too hot, tired, and lost to continue. The next weekend, I stayed on the far left of the market, walking along the outside corridor until it turned to the right... I only mention this because that is where I struck market gold. This is where I found very unique jewelry and clothing; this is where the cool kids would hang out.
My favourite day was the Khao San Road day. After breakfast, and a quick consult with (tailor) Dave, I became the only Caucasian on a 8baht bus; sharing glances and smiles with locals. The bus attendant alerted me when to get off, which was sooner than I expected due to anti-government protests. I have trouble even calling what I saw protesting; they were calmly sitting and watching a speech, I did not feel threatened at all. (I had been among the political demonstrations earlier in the trip; they were not as calm - many of the demonstrators had whistles, and weren't afraid to use them!) After a short walk, I found Khoa San Road. The market shopping is slightly more expensive, but more trendy and better quality items can be found here. This is the backpacker district. I had time to kill before an appointment at Max Tattoo, and made some great buys. I have the most success bartering when I buy a couple things at once... you can see why I need a lot of extra space in my luggage. I then got the only souvenir that is guaranteed never to get lost or wear out, a beautiful tattoo. Max tattoo is highly regarded; and came recommended to me by a friend. They were clean, professional, prompt, and friendly - despite speaking very little English.
There's a natural endorphen buzz that comes from a tattoo, so perhaps that is what made that day the forerunner... there were many great days. And, really, no days that could be described similarly to the stench that I couldn't help but focus on in the beginning.