I’m traveling around Southeast Asia during March and April 2016. My first stop was Bangkok—which I enjoyed so much more than I’d expected!
Monday: arrival, Grand Palace, and street food in Chinatown
After a sleepless 11-hour budget flight from Copenhagen, my travel partner and I emerged from the Bangkok airport around 8 am, exhausted yet excited. We got into a taxi and took off for our hotel in the old city. We planned to drop off our bags and get some breakfast/brunch, then start sightseeing right away to take advantage of the 48-or-so hours we had in Bangkok before flying to the Thai islands.
As soon as we arrived at our small boutique hotel, Inn a Day, we felt we had made the right choice. From the lush flowers outside to the elegant lobby to the smiling and helpful staff, the hotel felt like a calm oasis. We sat down with a welcome drink while we made plans.
Since we had a few hours to kill before checking in, we decided to make our way to the Grand Palace. We first fortified ourselves with lunch at a relatively pricey but nice restaurant where we could sit outside next to the river.
The Grand Palace is probably not the best tourist attraction to visit when one is jet-lagged and tired, but it was beautiful enough that it made up for the crowds. On our way, we were sidelined by a man who said he worked for the Grand Palace and that it was closed until 2 pm, but he could recommend a tuk-tuk tour instead. This is a common scam, and it’s a bit ironic as there are loudspeakers all along the perimeter of the palace warning tourists from stopping to talk with anyone.
At the gate, we found ourselves funneled into the palace along with multiple large Chinese tourist groups. First we had to stand in line to pay a deposit for appropriate loaner clothes (no bare shoulders or knees allowed, and they wouldn’t accept my scarf as a cover-up). Then we stood in another line to get a ticket (a whopping 500 bhat each), and another line to get into the palace grounds. It felt like being at a strange amusement park.
Finally, we could walk around inside the temple compound, Wat Phra Kaew, and then to the palace grounds. Most of the buildings open to the public are actually part of the temple area, not the palace itself. We marveled at the opulence: the over-the-top gold-covered buildings, the sparkling glass pieces covering every square inch of walls and roofs, the pointed spires. When entering the temples, we left our shoes outside (only bare feet are allowed in the religious rooms). We watched as tourists bowed and kneeled to pay their respects to the various Buddha statues—apparently this temple compound, especially the Emerald Buddha, is a major site of pilgrimage.
After about an hour and a half of walking in and out of buildings, avoiding the pushy tour groups with their pointy umbrellas, we were exhausted and ready to check into our hotel for a well-deserved nap.
A few hours later, we were off on our second quest: to eat street food in Chinatown. Bangkok has one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world and it is renowned for its street vendors. We got there by taking an express boat from the Tha Thein ferry terminal, conveniently located just a few blocks away from our hotel, then walking to Chinatown’s main street, Yaowarat Road.
After walking up and down the street, we felt ready to dive in for some food. It was difficult to choose—everything looked and smelled delicious. I started by ordering a stir fry dish with egg, vegetables, and noodles, and was told that it was pát tai (“pad thai”). Perfect—a chance to try the real thing! After placing the order, we sat down at a plastic table, and a little girl came up to ask for our drink order. The Pad Thai was delicious—fresh, milder, less sweet, and more eggy than the versions I’d had in the U.S.
From there we were off. We sampled a barbeque pork bun at a dim sum restaurant (ok but not great), juicy chicken satay with a delicious peanut sauce, and then sat down at a crowded seafood stall for our final dishes. After a long wait we were rewarded with grilled calamari in a sweet tamarind sauce and crab curry, washed down with two large bottles of Singha beer. As we walked back to the main road to get a taxi home, we were tempted again and ended up with dessert from a vendor making crepe-like dough pockets filled with sweet bananas. We were stuffed and happy as we made our way back to our hotel and finished off the evening with another beer on our balcony overlooking Wat Arun.
Tuesday: Wat Pho, lunch at Nahm, shopping, and drinks at Moon Bar
We took things slow on Tuesday as we were still jet-lagged and sleepy. Our hotel provided breakfast; I chose to go Thai: chicken green curry, rice, and fried tofu. It was delicious.
Our first stop of the day was Wat Pho, just across the street from the hotel. After the chaos of the Grand Palace, we were prepared for more of the same and pleasantly surprised to find Wat Pho was relatively quiet and free of large tourist groups. We wandered around the large complex, entering room after room filled with Buddha statues—tall and standing; thin and sitting; and one fat, smiling Buddha near a massive Bodhi tree. Wat Pho has the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand; it’s beautiful, but overwhelming and after a while the rooms start to blend together.
One of the highlights of the complex is a courtyard with four huge ceramic sculptures called chedis, dedicated to four of Thailand’s kings: King Rama I, II, III, and IV. The walls surrounding the chedis are lined with standing Buddha statues and helpful placards with information about the history of Wat Pho, the kings, and Bangkok itself, as well as explanations of the statues and architecture of the temple complex.
Of course, no trip to Wat Pho would be complete without a look at the Reclining Buddha, a 46-meter long statue covered in gold leaf, which happens to be the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand. It’s difficult to see the entire statue at once. We were at first puzzled by rhythmic pinging sounds when we entered the building; after turning a corner we saw that the sounds came from visitors dropping coins into a row of 108 metal buckets. This is supposed to bring good luck.
We finished up our visit to Wat Pho with a relaxing foot massage at the pavilions run by the Thai medicine school. We paid 260 bhat each (about $7.50) for a 30-minute foot massage. It was a delightful experience that left our feet feeling refreshed and cool. Where else in the world can you visit a religious historical site and get a lovely massage?
I had booked us a table at nahm, the upscale restaurant owned by chef David Thompson, which I’d heard is one of the best restaurants in Bangkok. We ordered the tasting menu and weren’t disappointed. It was a lovely mixture of elegant renditions of traditional Thai dishes, including birds nest appetizers, soup with duck, green curry, and a lovely ice dessert. The flavors were incredibly complex, some sour, some sweet, some with a seriously intense afterburn.
After a quick shopping trip and visit to a huge, western-style mall in Silom, we made our way to the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel to go to one of Bangkok’s famous rooftop bars, Moon Bar. The drinks were definitely the most expensive we’ve had (minimum 500 bhat for a cocktail), but the view was stunning and the weather perfect.
On our way back to the hotel we somehow ended up back in Chinatown, as if pulled there by a magnet. We went straight to a seafood place we’d seen before (either T&K or R&L – I can’t remember which and they’re right next to each other!). This time, we got our dishes within a few minutes of sitting down.
We decided not to stuff our faces again on the second night and got a cab back to our hotel. Another successful day in Bangkok. We could have stayed longer, but the islands around the Andaman Sea awaited us…
In summary: a few tips
- I don’t know if there’s any way to avoid the crowds at Grand Temple, but I’d suggest going as early as possible (it opens at 8 am). If anyone tries to stop and talk to you, don’t worry about being rude, just smile and keep walking to avoid a 10-minute delay, or worse, a pointless and expensive tuk-tuk ride.
- We were warned about taxis not using meters, and told to try to bargain with tuk-tuk drivers. What we found was that tuk-tuk drivers wanted to give us a flat rate that was always more than twice as much as it would cost with a metered taxi. The tuk-tuk drivers also didn’t seem at all willing to bargain—maybe we weren’t doing it right, or maybe they just go for tourists who are willing to spend more for the experience. In the end, we found taking taxis worked out just fine. The drivers all used their meter when we asked, and the rides were extremely reasonable; from Chinatown to our hotel (a 15-minute ride) was about 60 bhat ($1.70), and from Wat Pho to the Silom district (about a 20-25 minute ride) was 110 bhat.
- Although my experience eating street food in Bangkok was limited to Chinatown, I can say with confidence (after trying food from 5 different vendors) that the food there is fresh, delicious, not too spicy, and safe. The streets in the Silom district around 5-6 pm also seemed to be popular for food with office workers on their way home. I didn’t follow all of her rules, but Jodi at Legal Nomads has a great list of recommendations for how to eat street food and avoid getting sick.
- I was concerned about eating fruit and the drinking water; we chose to drink bottled water but used tap water to brush our teeth, and I also ate some pineapple from a street vendor. My stomach felt fine during both days.
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