Asia’s Urban Gem: Bangkok, Thailand

I have been OBSESSED, and I mean obsessed, with Thai food for as long as I can remember. So I couldn’t spend months traveling around the world without devoting a few weeks to this beautiful country. Another motivation for spending several weeks here: my passport was almost full! Exciting, but not ideal when abroad. Without visa pages, there was a real concern I could get stuck in an airport somewhere (think: Tom Hanks’ character in “The Terminal”). To avoid that, I decided to head to the US Embassy in Thailand to get a new passport, which meant planning at least two weeks in the country until I received my new passport. DONE. If you are abroad and find yourself in need of a new passport (anyone can get an emergency passport within 24 hours, which is valid for 1 year, but some countries will not permit entry on this passport; also, the US will not add extra pages to passports anymore so if you’re full, you’ll need a new one!): pick a country you don’t mind spending at least 2-3 weeks in, then make an appointment with the US Embassy/US Consulate Office in that country. The website has very specific instructions on what you need to bring to your appointment with you, and within 2-3 weeks of the appointment BOOM. New passport in hand (along with necessary documentation to explain to customs officials at the airport why your passport number doesn’t match your arrival information).

I started my trip in Bangkok, where the US Embassy is located. Bangkok is awesome, but if you’re flying a budget airline and have to fly into DMK… I’m sorry. Don Mueang Airport (DMK) is awful (for international arrivals; it’s fine for departing flights). Longest line at customs I’ve had to endure in 8 months of travel. Travel Tip for Bangkok Airport: when you get to the customs area, the first sign you will see directs travelers to the “Visa on Arrival” line. If you are from the US (or many other Western countries), SKIP THIS LINE. I waited over 30 minutes in line, only to be told (after getting to the front) that I didn’t need to go through this. So I then moved to the next line, where I waited over an hour (and the airport wasn’t even that busy) before finally being processed. Pack your patience!

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YUM! When in Thailand, eat all the sticky rice & mango you can get your hands on.

Once you get through the airport, then the hardest part is figuring out what to go/see/do. This city has so much to do and see it can be overwhelming! It reminds me more of NYC than any place I’ve visited so far; it has some of the worst air pollution in the world (at least, when I was visiting, sadly), upscale but also grit (literally and figuratively)- there are layers upon layers to this city. You could spend months and not get through all the neighborhoods or bars, restaurants, and temples. I ended up spending more than a week in Bangkok. My first trip was just 3 days, with a focus on getting my passport. But I enjoyed the city so much (and needed downtime for my last few days in Thailand), I spent my last 5 days in Thailand in Bangkok too. And I didn’t even make it outside of the city for a day trip as I had initially planned (next trip!). There were lots of things I loved, but let me hit you with the highlights and key tips up front: (1) it’s a cash economy so make sure you change plenty of $ on arrival or have your ATM card handy (you can usually use your credit card for accommodations and for large purchases, subject to a 3%-5% card fee you will have to pay, but everything else requires cash, including cabs leaving the airport; (2) eat all the food you can, from any restaurant or stand on the roadside (so long as you can handle spice and don’t have food allergies); (3) this may be my favorite city in the world for bars- it has everything! Extraordinary rooftops, speakeasies, unbelievably crafted cocktails (seriously, some of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world), charming ambiance (and if there’s live music, it’s likely to be incredible)… I could go on and on but I’ll stop. Needless to say, I don’t think a trip to BK is complete without visiting at least a few bars; (4) the price of mango sticky rice can vary from as low as 40BHT (that’s the cheapest I saw it) to over 300BHT, depending on whether you buy from a cart vendor or a restaurant, but the difference in taste and quality is usually minimal, so don’t worry about going to “the” place- just buy from anyone you see and it will definitely satisfy any craving you’ve got; (5) make sure to download Grab (it’s the most popular ride-sharing app in southeast Asia) because it’s often the easiest way to get from point A to B- and almost always cheaper than taking a tuk tuk (though if a taxi is running a meter and there isn’t horrible traffic, taxis are usually the more affordable choice); (6) if you’re in BK on a weekend day, you have to visit Chatuchak Market, one of (perhaps THE) biggest markets in the worldOne additional tip: if you rent a scooter in BK, be sure you have an international driver’s license. Cops stand on the main roads and look for anyone who isn’t obviously Thai, pull you over, and you have to follow them to the police station (immediately) to pay your ticket. 

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One of my favorite vendors at Chatuchak Market.

It’s also home to the best original artwork (that is also AFFORDABLE PEOPLE!) I’ve seen anywhere in the world (head straight to Section 7, and if you’re like me, spend 3+ hours in that section alone). Tip on buying art: thanks to Ben (US ex-pat who called BK home for a couple of years), I learned that you should negotiate the price of the art, make an initial offer of 50%-60% of their initial price, and aim to settle at around 70% of the artist’s initial offer. There is also a DHL inside the market so if you’re like me and you just can’t pass up a gorgeous, feature wall piece of art, you can ship straight home after your purchase is made. My painting arrived home to the US within one week of shipment!

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My fantastic new painting (on the bottom). “Sunset.” My favorite time of day. Pictured here with the incredibly talented artist.

 

Now onto the detailed portion of our program; grab your popcorn and get comfy because this read is going to take a while.

FOOD

During my first few days, I skipped all of temples and tourist sites and focused on FOOD. This city (ok, the country) is a dream for food lovers. If you want guidance, I found this article very helpful: https://nerdnomads.com/best-thai-food-in-bangkok. Some of the best places I visited and what I ordered were…

The Sixth for insanely good papaya salad and the best Thai Iced Tea I’ve ever had (FYI: it’s tiny restaurant with only five tables, located near Wat Pho Temple, and word has definitely gotten out so plan on an early or late lunch if you want to avoid the crowds).

 

Chinatown’s Yaowarat Street (pick whatever cart looks/smells best to you, because you can find everything! I recommend finding the Sweettime stand if you have a sweet tooth and want an authentic, local dessert).

 

MBK Food Island located in the MBK Shopping Center (a decent food court that’s a great option if you’re at MBK and get hungry, but I wouldn’t advise making a special trip to MBK just for the food court). Neon Night Market for local cuisine in a very relaxed environment, but plenty of stalls for shopping and a few bars with live music at the back too. And if you’re feeling adventurous, you could be like Jessee and get a $10 haircut (he loved it btw).

 

Thipsamai for the best pad thai I’ve ever eaten in my life (plus, how often can you eat at a restaurant listed in Michelin Guide for less than $4!!!). It’s only open for dinner and unless you arrive prior to the 5pm opening you will have to wait in a crazy long line (it took us about 1 hour), but it’s totally worth it. Promise. Plus, lots

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This guy was a magician with that wok. He folded the pad thai noodles into the egg in a matter of seconds. Over and over again. So fun to watch him work.

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Krua Apsorn to indulge in another one of the “best” in the city for authentic, local Thai cuisine (its specialty dish is the lump crab meat in yellow curry and DAMN).

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If you need a break from the spice or heavy street food, you can always turn to any of the city’s vegan or vegetarian restaurants. The two I visited and enjoyed were Ethos Vegetarian and Vegan and Mango Tango (both close to, but not on, Khoa San Road).

COCKTAILS

A Google search will reveal numerous rooftop bars in the city that have rave reviews. I checked out two of them: Sky Bar, located on the 64th Floor, and Yao Rooftop Bar at the Marriott. Sky Bar has a reputation for being THE top rooftop bar for a reason, the view is spectacular! See for yourself.

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And if you head down to the 52nd floor, there’s another amazing rooftop bar in the same building.

 

The view is astronomical, but unfortunately, so are the prices. My cocktail was amazing (and I was paying for the view anyway), but it cost me about $30 for just one drink. There are plenty of other bars with great reviews that offer drinks for half that price, which is what you get at Yao.

 

A few of the other craft cocktail bars I checked out included Wallflower UpstairsAsia Today (both of which are located in the part of Chinatown I mentioned earlier), Osito, and Vesper. All of these bars are awesome, though Wallflower Upstairs slightly edges out the others for me because it just has the most incredible space and ambiance. Asia Today was a close second; it had slightly better cocktails than Wallflower, but didn’t have the awesome rooftop garden or live music that Wallflower had.

 

Osito had a great cocktail menu, but lacks the ambiance some of the other spots have. Vesper is the favorite cocktail bar of a couple more ex-pats, Molly and Mike (crazy fun couple who I’m so glad I met… thanks to Jesse for that), though one of my drinks was not good, the other good but not great. So wouldn’t be at the top of my “must visit” list. But Mike’s face and drink below are so awesome I had to post here.

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Photo cred: Molly

TREAT YO-SELF!

During my first day in Bangkok I also ran to a salon to take care of lots of overdue lady care: manicure, pedicure, and a Brazilian wax (FYI: the wax is mostly applied with the waxer’s finger, not a stick- yes, it will be a woman who does this). While there are lots of cheap options, because I wanted to couple my mani-pedi with a wax, finding a place that had good hygiene practices was important. But at the same time, I had no interest in paying US prices, which many of the salons in Bangkok charge. I found a happy medium: Shewa Spa (http://www.shewaspa.com/). I paid 1850BHT, including tip (about $58USD). Not cheap by Thai standards, but compared to what you’d pay in the US for a mani, pedi, and Brazilian, this place is a good deal! (Though my gel manicure was chipping within a week, instead of the usual 2 weeks I typically get. But everything else was solid.) And yes, you can find endless numbers of spas with chairs out in the front and loads of employees just waiting for you to sit down so they can give you a (seriously cheap!) massage. You can get an hour-long massage for as little as 150BHT (depending on the place) = less than $5USD.

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TOURIST TRAP OR GROUND ZERO FOR PARTYING IN BK (depending on your perspective)

Shewa Spa is located on Khao San Road, which is the tourist street in Bangkok. Pros: tons of bars and restaurants and shopping conveniently located on one street, and loads of cheap street food to buy (40BHT = $1.30 will get you veg pad thai with or without eggs). Cons: super crowded, full of tourists and few locals, loud (from people and bar music) until the wee hours of the morning every night) and “crappy” food. I use “crappy” in quotes because it’s all sanitary (no concerns about getting sick!) and even bad Thai food in Thailand isn’t actually that bad, but the vendors here know that tourists aren’t nearly as picky as locals, so the flavors aren’t as well developed. If you’re going to go, this is a good stop on your first night (when you won’t be as picky about the Thai food you’re eating). I would not recommend staying here unless you’re young, in Bangkok to party, or sleep like the dead.

 

For a different kind of super-touristy experience, head over to Patpong Night Bazaar. There are a couple of bars in the area where you can get drinks at a reasonable price, and any knockoff product you’ve ever wanted to purchase can be found here. Oh, and an uncomfortable number of strip clubs.

 

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

There are so many neighborhoods, and I did not spend enough time in the city to get a good sense of the “best” place to stay. I do know that if you want to be within walking distance to the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and some of the other tourist/historic sites along the river, staying in the Old City is the best choice. But apart from that, it seems like most of the best restaurants, bars, and other things I enjoyed the most, were all located in Siam, Bang Rak, Pathum Wan, or nearby these areas. Oh, and parts of Chinatown (not far from the Golden Temple Buddha) are where you can find several of the city’s best bars in a row (but they are pretty chill places and all close decently-early, so noise won’t be an issue).

For my first few days in the city/country, I treated myself to a stay at the luxurious Marriott The Surawongse. Rates for this hotel start at around $175/night. I used Marriott/SPG points to bring the nightly total down to super reasonable for such a swanky hotel (around $100/night), and with my status got a room upgrade (to a room that costs over $300/night)! This was a wonderful retreat in a terribly polluted (the pollution was so awful when I was visiting that schools in Bangkok closed one day due) city, complete with an infinity pool and bar on the 18th floor, and a rooftop restaurant and bar on the 32nd floor.

 

During my next trip, I stayed at Vivit Hostel, located in the Old City. It’s walking distance from Khoa San Road, but far enough that you get NONE of the crowds or noise from that area. This is one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at in the world. Incredibly comfortable beds, quiet, great wifi, secure, walking distance from several temples and other tourist spots, and a very nice/helpful staff. I had a bed in an all-female, 4 bed dorm room, and it cost me around $13-$14USD/night. Quite a bargain!

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TOURIST ACTIVITIES

My first recommendation here is simply because I love animals and I want to pet all the animals all the time. When travel acquaintances who I met in Pai (at a rabbit cafe) told me about a cafe in BK where you can pet raccoons, chinchillas, meerkats, dogs, cats, foxes, and more, I knew I couldn’t return BK without visiting. Little Zoo Cafe (Siam) is worth the 390BHT entry fee (this gets you one non-alcoholic drink, a dessert, and a pair of socks, which you’ll also want because you wear them to go to the area with animals).  There are lots of employees giving attention to the animals, and so many different kids of animals you can play with! They all get along so well, and I got such a kick out of watching a bunch of tiny foxes run around with a corgi and cat. What really mattered to me: the animals were all sprightly (none of them were sedated!) and clearly love people, which means they are treated well. They will run up to you. I loved my afternoon at this cafe so much!

 

Now onto more traditional tourist spots. There are so many temples in BK, and sadly, I ran out of time/energy to visit most of them. I fully intended to go to the Grand Palace, but had run out of cash (remember the advice at the top of this article?) so only got as far as walking around inside the wall, but not into the Palace (tip: if you’re buying 2+ tickets, they will let you pay with a CC- but not for just 1 ticket).

 

So I made the leisurely walk over to Wat Pho, and WOW. What an incredible place. When I use the word “temple” you may think of a single building/structure. WRONG. Some of the temples in Thailand are mini cities with so many things to visit. I spent a few hours walking around and appreciating this one. (And the free bottle of water included with your entry fee was a nice bonus!)

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To conclude: prior to arriving in BK I was told that the city is loud, dirty, and I won’t need to spend more than a couple of days in the city. (Funny enough, I was also told to skip Casablanca and Auckland, and really liked both of those cities too!) People were totally right that the city is loud and dirty, but even one week wasn’t enough to do more than scratch the surface of this onion of a city (like Shrek: it has layers). I loved it and can’t wait to come back and explore more!

 

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2 thoughts on “Asia’s Urban Gem: Bangkok, Thailand

  1. I substituted tea for popcorn, and oohedd and ahhed over the photos. You fit right in to every scene, from rooftop swank to snuggling furry critters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved Bangkok (actually, all of Thailand) so much more than I expected to (and I had pretty high expectations). It is such a cool city!!! Something for everyone there. I love cities with layers and character. As always, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. You are the best!!!

      Like

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