"Bangkok, like Las Vegas, sounds like a place where you make bad decisions." Todd Phillips
We arrived in Bangkok on a hot February afternoon, a Friday at the beginning of a ten day trip to Thailand for which we had a allotted just one and a half days to Bangkok. With limited time and having to compromise between my desire to do as much as possible and Boyfriend’s desire to do as little as possible at the beach, Bangkok got only one and a half days on our itinerary before we were to travel to Ko Lipe and Ko Lanta in the Andaman Sea. Our short time in the city was also partially on the advice of friends who said there wasn’t much to see, that the city was dirty and noisy and unattractive, that we should skip it on the way to the islands and, that if we did stay, a day in the city was more than enough.
Of course, our friends were wrong: there was much to see and do in Bangkok. Bangkok isn’t pretty. It’s messy, sprawling, and it is possible to run out of "traditional things you want to see" fairly quickly --- things like museums, parks, neighborhoods to explore. Don’t come to Bangkok for classical beauty. Do come to experience a dizzying, intense city full of noise and smell. Come to eat the food from street stalls and generation-run “shop-house” restaurants and to take in the character of the place. You might then find some beauty anyways, as I did on the river at sunset, in the intricate fashion designs for sale, and in the placement of shrimp over vermicelli noodles sprinkled with heat and citrus, or coconut ice cream on coconut skin plate.
Here then, is a true account of one day and a half frenzied days in Bangkok, in which we found ourselves with one of the most crowded travel itineraries that I, person largely known to cram as much as possible into a short time lest we miss anything, had yet managed to plan, practically squeezing enough activities to fill three days.
12:00 PM: When we arrived we headed straight to our hotel to drop off our stuff and meet our hotel room. If you’ve been to Bangkok you know that hotels there tend towards the over-the-top in a very Vegas way. Our Sukhumvit Radisson room featured a plush purple velvet sofa, a large jacuzzi tub, and a window from the bathroom looking out into the bedroom. (Very sexy!) We didn’t pay more than $150 US for this room and its windows looking out onto the Bangkok sprawl through a light blue filter.
With all that space and purple decadence, it was hard to leave the room, but not that hard. I was excited to see the city. First thing on our list was the mall.
Normally, I don’t travel for the shopping, and malls wouldn’t be a destination per say. But I believe that travel is about exploring what makes a place what it is, and shopping malls are a thing in Bangkok. They are a popular pastime for Thais, who, at least as far as I can tell, love shopping, luxury as a concept, spicy food, and American brand name foods. The malls are also a respite from the heat and the rains when they come, and a tourist destination, ubiquitous and varied across price points and wares. That's not even counting the many day, night, weekend, flower and random other markets the city offers.
That first morning in Bangkok we went to four malls and one market. This wasn’t so difficult to do. Most are close to each other or within easy reach using the city’s accessible public transit system, and the popular Paragon complex contains Siam Center (my favorite) and Siam Paragon one next to the other.
12:45 PM: First on our list was Terminal 21, which didn’t have especially interesting goods, but was notable for its cool theme, with each floor styled to look like a different city. There’s Paris, London and, my personal favorite, an Istanbul floor complete with stalls that mimic the souk there, but cleaner and with less evil eyes for sale. At the mall we ate at a Hong Kong-style dim sum place, and I remember a standout dish that was a sort of roll-up of rice flour dim sum covered in black and white sesame sauces. I remember feeling satiated and nourished and cooled and caffeineated all at once.
2:00 PM: Next was Siam Center, described elsewhere as a favorite of the Thai hipster crowd. Full disclosure: I have never been described as a hipster, and could hardly be, but I am attracted to the hipster aesthetic, hence the use of the words ‘hipster aesthetic.’ Architecturally Siam Center was the least interesting of the malls, with a square façade, low ceilings, and a squat black interior that did nobody any favors. What made the mall stand out was the selection of Thai and Asian designers at affordable and less affordable price points. The first floor had fun and cheap home and paper goods for sale at the entrance, from which I purchased two planters in white geometrical patterns I am looking at right now in my living room. The rest of the mall featured stores filled with fashion by unique Asian designers. The entire place felt more like a design museum than a mall, and I had a hard time prying myself from the rows and rows of fun, whimsical styles.
5:00 PM: Across the way is Siam Paragon, the, ahem, paragon of upscale shopping in Bangkok. While Boyfriend and his cousin (who lives in Bangkok) ate some KFC, I wiped my hands of the greasy cheddar/caramel popcorn mix we got at Garrett Popcorn the only other time I had Garrett Popcorn was in Chicago, where it's from, and it is good) and went exploring. What I found are large pavilions meant to evoke a marble ballroom, red carpets galore and, my personal favorite, a floor devoted to luxury cars.
7:30 PM: MBK mall, next on our list and a bit further away, is the polar opposite. It resembles the kind of malls often attached to train stations—utilitarian and cheap, and labyrinthian—except on a gigantic scale. MBK is where you go to find cheap knockoffs, the “silk” scarves, or thai boxing shorts. In our search for cheap silk scarfs we went up one short escalator, only to find our way back down blocked off and having to go back around.
8:00 PM: After four malls, we sat down to rest and get some sugar and caffeine in the form of a matcha green tea latte with red beans and whipped cream before moving on to our final stop for the day, and one of my personal favorites of the whole trip—the Night Train Market.
8:30 PM: The Night Train Market is the sort of place I think about when I say I liked Bangkok. It’s busy, crowded, local, full of life, and packed with delicious food. We started by perusing the food stalls and tasted some fried quail eggs, which had a strong, earthy flavor. The eggs were encased in thick, mild-tasting fried dough in the shape of wings, perhaps playing with the idea that the quail egg might take flight. Next up were mini sweet tacos filled with orange or yellow-filled insides ubiquitous around Bangkok. I still don’t know what they are, except a kind of sweet. These were mediocre at best and I was despairing of the food until, Ginza beer in hand, we ate what was probably our best meal in Thailand: salt-roasted whole fish served alongside lettuce leaves, vermicelli noodles and mint. We tore off the hot, fresh fish pieces and wrapped them inside the lettuce leaves with the mint and the noodles. It was so perfect Boyfriend requested it when we got home and I made him a poor imitation he still enjoyed. We also made a massacre at the table, thinking this was messy food until we saw the actual Thais eating the same dish while leaving nary a spare fish part in sight.
10:00 PM: After dinner we briefly checked out the bar area of the Night Train, so full of energy and noise. I could imagine my younger backpacking self having a party night there. I smiled wistfully and moved on, and we settled in for a Korean shaved ice-cream dessert into which we poured, as per the instructions, oodles of condensed milk. We ate it until we could stand the brain freeze no more, which took a long time because it was a very hot day.
11:00 PM: As we walked out the street leading out was packed with young Thais in motorcycles, some getting a snack from a food stall just before entering the market. A young couple kissed, she on his lap and he on his motorcycle. I almost got run over by another motorcycle, but I laughed it off. I was too full, sweaty, happy, and surrounded by beaming, booming life to be angry. Besides, I have learned over years of travel that it is a traveler’s hazard to almost get your foot run over occasionally.
1:00 AM: Back at the hotel, the lights below shimmered and my legs throbbed as I placed them on top of a pile of plush pillows to improve the circulation, and I closed the dark velvet curtain into perfect darkness and collapsed on the king bed.
7:30 AM: Just a few hours later, AKA the following morning, we woke up early, armed with a list of things to do and an abbreviated schedule to do it. Not being one to completely deny Boyfriend a request for relaxation time, and also in order to steel ourselves for the full day of activity ahead, we started the day in relative calm and tranquility poolside with a couple of expressos and a view of the infinity pool dropping water on Sukhumvit below. But damn if I didn’t growl at the waitress who took way too long to get us the only overpriced (but delicious) espresso we had in all of Thailand. This was to be our one full day in Bangkok, and the map of our itinerary looked something like a graph with lines going up into precipitous hills (us headed north) and back down south and up again in a seesaw pattern. When we went to ask directions to our next destination, the Thais at reception looked at our plan with disbelief masked with that characteristic Thai politeness: this much traveling was not so efficient. But, then again, our time was limited, and my fomo was unlimited, which makes heading north a half hour just to spend one hour at the Chatuchak weekend market before heading back south absolutely reasonable.
8:30 AM: Bangkok is home to countless outdoor markets selling everything you never knew you wanted, and many things you want, like clothes, art, food, souvenirs, and home goods. There’s even a market devoted solely to flowers. Chatuchak Weekend Market is the largest by far. With just one hour budgeted there, we hardly scratched the surface. I can tell you that in that short time of meandering we visited a grocer selling fruits and vegetables made entirely of plastic, saw an extensive art collection, ate coconut ice-cream sprinkled with pineapple sticky rice the texture of orgasm while waiting for the ATM and drank Thai iced-coffee, used the very clean bathroom for a small fee, purchased a tiny ceramic elephant flower pot, dried durian and other spices, and dark-wood chopsticks, and saw a section devoted solely to selling towels for the homes of Bangkok residents.
9:30 AM: On the taxi ride downtown, I arranged all my purchases inside my brand new denim tote with brown leather straps, finished sipping the last of my milky and sweet iced-coffee, and prayed that in the absence of the seatbelts ubiquitous throughout Thailand I would land softly on my new bag in case of emergency. Thankfully, we arrived at the area of town where most of the monuments and palaces (including the Royal Palace, which was then still in mourning for the beloved King Bhumibol) without incident (unless you consider spilling some coffee on my dress an incident.) Saturday, mourners returned from prayers for the dead King , and as we speed-walked to the temple we dodged young kids and their mothers dressed in black and asked directions of two Thai men wearing vests that read “EMOTIONAL ASSISTANCE” on their backs.
10:00 AM: Bathroom break at cafe across street from temple.
10:07 AM: We had decided to skip the Royal Palace on the advice of two Spaniards and a Czech we met at a bar in Tel Aviv, and were glad we did when we saw the long lines to go in. Instead we entered Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a large complex most famously housing the enormous, indeed reclining, so very golden, Buddha.
We placed our shoes inside the canvas bag provided by the attendant before entering the room housing the 46 meter (150 feet) Buddha lying resplendent across its entire length, eyelids half closed in what looked to me like bliss. The Buddha is beautiful and impressive, filling up the room without overbearing it, especially considering how big and shiny the Buddha is. There was something so satisfied, so calm, about the Buddha that I felt as close to loving a statue as I have thus far in my life or frankly ever could.
The walls of the Buddha's room feature detailed drawings of courtly scenes from long ago. Even as busy as the pattern of the paintings on the walls is, and with the Buddha taking up more than half the room and eager tourists taking over the rest of it, the experience isn’t overwhelming and the place feels relaxing. So does the entire complex, which houses a number of other shrines, some beautiful classic Thai architecture in greens, whites and gold and, most happily for me, the Wat Pho massage school.
11:00 AM: Regarding the massage school, it goes like this: Thais are renown for Thai massages in and out of the country; this much we know. The Wat Pho is the venerable massage school widely known as one of the foremost classic institutes for learning Thai massage. It offers massages to the public. All of which is to say, I think you can understand why, between the lovely Reclining Buddha and the Thai Massage School, Wat Pho was by far one of my favorite sights of the whole trip.
We waited only about twenty minutes in the pleasant albeit crowded air-conditioned room for the massage before being led down a short corridor through an open area to two adjoining low wooden beds with dark green cushions, where we received a simple but fulfilling Thai massage from one of the students at the school. Afterwards we were whisked off with an apple juice in hand.
12:00 PM: Bangkok is known as the place to go for street food. There's a food cart at practically every corner,and shophouses--small, generations-run restaurants serving simple Thai food in the barest of locales---abound. The comparison would be to a bodega or old school diner in New York. Think formica tables, neon lighting, teal walls with greasy old framed photographs of famous patrons, wide open doors letting in the natural air and out the fish sauce smell. The most highly-regarded shophouses are located in the old part of Bangkok, a place without skyscrapers and with town squares and trees, somewhere with a definitively slower pace than the Bangkok we had seen the day before—of shopping malls and sukhumvits.
We had set our minds on one particular restaurant and plugged it into Google, only to find that Google did not know where it was.The directions took us on a meandering path through half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats, past local shopping streets filled with school kids in uniforms buying treats for Chinese New Year, through side street after side street where we peered inside at Thai neighbors resting in the summer lunchtime. As we entered one street a dog lazed on a pile of garbage, and up ahead was a shady tree cozying up a laundry hanger. We found ourselves hungry and wading through a suburban jungle, Thai style. The Google map said the food was on the other side, but to get there we had to traverse a narrow walkway piled with bricks, clothes and garbage, beside which ran narrow intracoastal, murky and a bit smelly. It was a perfect travel moment: we were tourists finding our way somewhere we weren’t really supposed to be interested in seeing, a place both beautiful and ugly. On the other side, when we finally made it we found the restaurant, but it was, for some unknown reason, closed.
1:00 PM: Sweaty and hungry, we settled on another well-regarded shophouse, and I don’t think we paid more than twenty Americans for the most outrageous clear bean noodles and other delicacies. The noodle stung my lips and tickled my tastebuds with lime and peanut and giant shrimp. (Note to self: Thailand has the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted. It's sweet in a way that makes you realize that is what shrimp is supposed to taste like). Beside it lay a fried rice catfish salad (crumbs of barely perceptible fried fish) with papaya in sour sauce flake.
3:00 PM: Satiated, I dragged Boyfriend to Khao San Road because I had heard much about the "backpacker road" and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Boyfriend had been there as a teenager staying in a ratty hostel and he assured me there was nothing to see but an overly touristed strip, but it was still worth visiting briefly, if only to admire a street so full of the most random assortment of German, British and Israeli tourists getting foot massages while drinking beer and eating Pad Thai amidst electric cables and ugly orange and brown hostels advertising trips to the islands.
4:30 PM: We did not stay long, both because there wasn’t that much to see and because I wanted to end the day watching the sunset on the river. The river is a good way to see Bangkok on a large scale and to move north and south in a city as large as Bangkok. It’s easy to take a boat as well, with designated piers and a route that runs through most of the major attractions around the river. As traditional Thai instrumental music played on the speakers, lending the experience the air of an 80's movie about two recently-divorced neighbors who unexpectedly meet and fall in love in Bangkok, starring William Hunt. The sun shone pink and gold on the moving river and on temples we had not had time to see and grand hotels even grander than ours, which we were certain also contained bathtubs with windows looking into the bedroom. And that should have been the end of it, but there was still more to see.
8:00 PM: After resting for a quick half hour at the hotel and getting dressed in our finest, we hailed a cab to what looked to be a very posh residential neighborhood with gated entrances and hidden mansions. The cab deposited us at the U Sathorn hotel, which showcased an entirely different Bangkok. Again, we could hardly make out the skyscrapers in the distance. Again, it seemed like a different world miles away from crowded Bangkok. The luxury one-floor hotel looked like a posh country club. Just one floor we arrived at one of Bangkok’s pricier restaurants, J'aime, run by the very competent daughter of the michelin-starred namesake chef. As we admired the piano on the ceiling and the upside-down fireplace which go to the restaurant's slightly Alice in Wonderland topsy-turvy purple theme, we ordered from the five course tasting menu.The food was good, though not outstanding, and not nearly as good as lunch at the shophouse, as it goes in Bangkok.
11:00 PM: We left feeling fancy and full and ready for bed, but not before a final stop to take in one of Bangkok’s famous 360 degree rooftop bars. I was used to the rooftop culture of summers when I lived in New York, but this is a rooftop bar experience on crack. The bar we visited, Octane, features neon lights suspended under a clear see-through bar. The view from all sides was of Bangkok skyscrapers and lights and the see-through railing made it seem as if we would fall from the edge at any moment and all that would be left would be the round bar at the center. If not that, then surely the helicopter from The Hangover Two would appear at any moment.
Of course, none of that happened. We simply admired the view and thought how, as beautiful as it was, we had missed out on seeing it at sunset, where it surely would be at its best. Alas, not even I can squeeze two sunsets into one day. That will have to happen next time I visit Bangkok, which I hope will be soon.