Nothing prepared me for Bangkok. Perhaps because of the preoccupation with getting there and planning the Cambodian part of my journey, I’d let my first port of call shift to the back of my mind, which is quite something when you’re about to arrive there.
I was actually enjoying the flight so much that I wasn’t thinking too much about Bangkok (Qatar Airways certainly make the travel experience a joy, but more about them on the way back as well as their blatant attempts to remind us of their future stint as World Cup hosts). Arriving in Bangkok from Doha, which is considerably warmer than England, and the first thing I noticed was the temperature. Underneath the air conditioning was a heat I noticed as soon as I exited the plane. Yeah well, I thought I was noticing it then; the hottest was still to come. So, there I was, with my own sweat pouring into my underwear like it’d been raining, trying to broach the language barrier in order to give the tuk tuk guy directions. My Bangkok baptism of fire! To be honest, his English was better than my Thai and he even attempted some rudimentary conversation while we whizzed along the congested streets. I just kept smiling and nodding in the appropriate places, while gripping the arms of the Tuk Tuk seat with sweat still pouring down my bum (I quickly learned that the high speeds make the thing feel like it’s about to go over on one side, but it never does).
View from my first tuk tuk ride. It almost looks car fume free.
Now, here’s a tip for you, passed on by my very good South East Asia travelling friends (and it won’t be the last). When you arrive at Bangkok Airport, and you’ve got your luggage, keep going down. Follow the escalators as far down as possible and you’ll reach the rail link or ‘skytrain’. For around 24bt, you’ll get a plastic coin token to operate the barriers and that’ll be valid to the final stop in the centre of Bangkok, which is where you get off.
My first experience of being in the centre of Bangkok was coming out of the air conditioned ‘safety’ of the train and covered station and into the dusty heat of the streets. Prior to becoming acclimatised, it felt like standing near a blast furnace. After dropping two layers of clothing which had gamely survived on my person to that point, I hailed my first tuk tuk and off I went! My Guesthouse was near the infamous Thanon Kao San. I say infamous, but it’s more pleasantly edgy than all out scary. Think of Las Vegas having a secret affair with Blackpool front and the offspring being hastily shipped off to South East Asia to avoid any embarrassment to Vegas. That’s sort of what Khoa San road looks like; bright neon signs fight for attention on the crowded walls, there are guesthouses and hostels and bars aplenty and the market stalls never seem to close, with the smell of fresh food permeating the night air. Known as ‘back packer’s paradise’ for many decades, the Koah San Road district was originally an area of canals, now largely built over, and was once a major rice market.
The heat in Bangkok means that although some significant tourist attractions aren’t too far away, you are usually better getting a tuk tuk or a taxi to reach them. The Ratanakosin area is the best place to start your exploration of the city, and offers Wat Phra Kaeo and The Grand Palace, which I’ll tell you about later.
Wat Intharawihan, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok
So Khoa San road is a good spot to stay on a first visit as it’s not far from Ratanakosin. It is in the Banglamphu area of (Phra Nakhon district) about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) north of The Grand Palace (more of which later) and Wat Phra Keaw. Journalist Susan Orlaean once called Khoa San Road “the place to disappear” for any travellers wishing to escape the West, and anyone who has read Alex Garland’s acclaimed novel The Beach, will have an idea of the kind of opportunities for that kind of ‘disappearance’.
Ok, there are many tourist attractions in a city as large and as vibrant as Bangkok, but I know what some of you are thinking, so let’s cut to the chase and get the elephant in the room taken back to the zoo…no, I didn’t meet any ‘lady-boys’ and I didn’t go in a place with this type of sign outside:
That’s not to say I wouldn’t have been absolutely fascinated to do so (‘yeah, I bet you wouldn’t’, say several readers) but I didn’t really see many and didn’t go looking for them. Which yes, I hear you say, would be the right decision, given the misogynistic hallmarks (at the very least) of such practices! Basically, if you want to see Thai woman ejecting ping pong balls from their vaginas, then I imagine you will have an absolutely astounding holiday. Equally , if you want some good food, culture and other adventures, you’ll be equally gratified. Well, ok, maybe ‘gratified’ was the wrong word to use there, but you know what I mean. You’ll be …happy!
So, no…no ping pong balls.
Lots of Bangkok street food though, which you’d be a fool not to try. It’s arguably the best street food in the world. I now have a serious noodle desire, and Pot Noodle will not cut it.
Khoa San Road
According to Wikipedia, which I can back up as fact. Khoa San Road “…is also a base of travel: coaches leave daily for all major tourist destinations in Thailand, from Chiang Mai in the north to Ko Pa Ngran in the south…” Visas and transportation to neighbouring countries such as Laos and Cambodia, can also be organised.
One word of warning though, is to veer on the side of caution when dealing with street vendors and tuk tuk drivers and the like. My first tuk tuk trip from Khoa San Road was a minor disaster. An agreement to pay 100 baht for a trip to the Grand Palace and other sites, ended in numerous visits to tailors and gem shops. Because I made a point of challenging this (which is common practice), I ended up walking fifteen minutes to the Pace as the guy had just dropped me off, realising his scam was revealed. 100 baht is no big deal; just a few quid, but it was frustrating. Some tuk tuk drivers are in cahoots with the owners of businesses such as a tailor, and get commission from bringing in tourists. It’s not what you’ve asked for, so don’t be afraid to challenge this. Even better, I’d avoid any tuk tuk drivers down Khoa San Road, and pick one up elsewhere. For 100baht you might even get him to wait around while you explore the various sites. Seriously, they’ll be glad to do it, and before I put you off, most of the Bangkok residents are hugely friendly and honest people.
I’d arrived in Bangkok during a Buddhist festival prohibiting all sale of alcohol. Just so you understand, I wasn’t tripping over myself to get plastered and hit the town, but it did make my first impressions of Khoa San Road more subdued than they would normally be. One frustrating outcome was that any bars selling alcohol were closed, including the wonderful Altern the 13th Blues Bar, which I had to visit on my return visit. I’d check in advance about this sort of thing, especially if you’ve got designs on having an ice cool beer when you arrive.
Buddhism is, as you probably know, a huge part of Thai culture and is the majority religion by a significant margin. Buddhism permeates the life and culture of many South Asian countries, and the very least you can do before visiting is just educate yourself on the etiquette and customs, more to make your journey a pleasant embarrassment free one more than avoiding offending anyone. Wats (Buddhist temples) will require you to cover up your arms and legs, so simple considerations like that are what I’m talking about. I’ll write more about Buddhism later.
The guesthouse I stayed in is one I heartily recommend. It’s a traditional Thai house, that’s been converted and was a welcome oasis of calm just five minutes from the hustle of Khoa San Road. If you’re in Bangkok you can do worse that book yourself in The Laksameenarai Guesthouse. It was truly great, with friendly service and comfy surroundings. The staff couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful. Now, that’s just my recommendation, so feel free to shop around. There are more guesthouses and hostels in that area than you can shake your keys at. If you want to go upmarket, a plusher hotel room need not coast you an extortionate amount, but again, just spend a bit of time comparing prices and reviews. For westerners, Thailand is still good value for money. As I said in my Istanbul blogs, two years ago, some accommodation lends itself more to meeting people, which I would suggest is a better idea if you’re travelling solo. Even if you’re a bit more introverted, you’re going to want more than going back to the same four walls at some point. I met some nice people at the guesthouse, including a large proportion of Dutch people, who were unrelated, they just happened to all be there at the same time. The first of many late night drinking sessions occurred at Laksammnarai, which half the conversation in Dutch and half in English. Maybe that’s the true meaning of Double Dutch?
Bangkok’s assault on the senses means that a few days is not really enough to truly appreciate it, and I was glad to be returning in a few weeks, so this blog will return to the Thai capital in more detail. Bangkok is a relatively young capital, replacing Ayutthaya as the capital in 1782, following the Burmese sacking of the old capital. It now has a population forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai, and has become one of the most vibrant and fashionable cities in Asia.
After a few days in Bangkok, my plan was to leave Thailand for Cambodia, which meant some careful planning on an early morning train and the not inconsiderable challenge of getting to Aranyaprathet, near the border, navigating tuk tuk journeys, border scams and immigration and a trip by bus or taxi to Siem Reap. Next time I’ll give you an almost fool proof guide to getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap without paying a fortune, and having an adventure along the way.
See you next time, on the Bangkok to Aranyaprathet express!