A little history and facts
Until the 18th century Bangkok was a little fishermen town. There was a boom after being nominated for the new Rattanakosin Kingdom capital, which burned down Ayutthaya, the capital of the ancient kingdom, 100 miles north. Bangkok today is one of the largest cities in Southeast Asia with about 9 million inhabitants and full of contrasts. The climate is tropical and it rained a lot at that time we were there (it was the wet season). The rain had it’s good side though, it controlled the pollution of the city by always bringing a fresh air, besides cooling the temperatures. Wet season does not mean rain all the time, but it probably means rain everyday for a short period of time.
Culturally the majority of Thais are Buddhist, which ends up having a strong influence on the values of society even for those who are not Buddhists. People are usually happy and receptive, always willing to help, but be suspicious if the help is too much, the social gap between tourists and locals ended up creating all sorts of tricks to exploit tourists. It also promotes the prostitution that attracts “sexpats” around the world (the term used to define middle aged men, usually with that beer belly holding hands with girls who could be their daughters. In a happy symbiosis). Another interesting cultural trait is openness regarding homosexuality, “shemales” or “ladyboys” as they are called, are everywhere doing any kind of work, it is not uncommon to be served by tall “ladies” with silicone breast, broad shoulders and deep voice wearing a pink mini skirt. Bangkok’s nightlife is very famous amongst homosexuals worldwide.
The cuisine is very rich with lemon grass, garlic, fish sauce, fruit, spices and chilli, and usually on the same dish you can try the spicy, sour, sweet, salty and sometimes bitter in extremely tasty combinations. Street food is not far behind. But if eating on the street, eat only if the food is freshly prepared, a full place is a good sign, it is common not to know what you’re eating, so take the chance to change your gustatory paradigms.
Arriving in Bangkok
After a long bus trip during the night, arriving in Bangkok was not the best experience. Still sort of asleep, the driver started waking everyone up trying to empty the bus as soon as possible. We found it very rude but we got leaving anyway. We still had to find accommodation. We dropped off in the midst of chaos, people walking from one side to another, buses coming and going, we quickly picked up our bags, checked to see if everything was there, apparently nothing missing.
Note: Here we parted from Pasqual and Ale, who stayed a few more days in Koh Phangan and planned a route different than ours from now on.
The taxi drama
As Bangkok has three major bus stations, it took us a long time to have a vague notion of what side of the town we were. At the station we could not find anyone who spoke English but tourists, who were more lost than us, the signs were all written in Thai, people could not identify our map as it was not written in Thai, and it was useless because we could not understand them anyway.
“(…) he promptly told us that it wouldn’t be possible and came up with a story that a bomb had exploded halfway and the taxi would have to drive all around the city (…)”
The option was to ask “táirk-see (taxi)” for those who showed up hoping that someone pointed somewhere. After half an hour we found the taxi terminal, all of them reported to a sort of “manager”, a big talkative man wearing a shirt from the times that he probably was half the weight he was now, dropped on a desk chair on the sidewalk. In that area no taxi would take you if you did not speak to that guy. We said we would like to get a taxi with the meter on, by following recommendations of numerous people and guidebooks (we recommend the same, only take taxis with the meter on), he promptly told us that it wouldn’t be possible and came up with a story that a bomb had exploded halfway and the taxi would have to drive all around the city and told us it would be 500 baht per person (USD 15.00, absurd price for local standards).
We found it all very suspicious and tried to disguise the “manager” and negotiate directly with the taxi drivers, none wanted to talk to us. When we went back to try to negotiate with him again we met a Swedish couple who were willing to share the taxi with us, as they had more Bangkok experience, they started arguing with the manager, saying that the price was absurd and that this bomb story was a lie. The guy started yelling at us, passed a radio message to the drivers and told us to go on foot because no taxi driver there would take us no matter how much we paid. And really, no taxi driver accepted us. Helpless, we decided to walk with the backpacks to see if we could find a taxi on the mega avenue in front, outside the manager area. Luckily it did not take long for one of these taxi drivers to come get us where the manager could not see and we got a bargain compared to the previous price (100 bath for each).
We headed to Wat Sam Phraya, a region well known for many travellers with affordable backpackers, easy to get to many interesting places in town. We left the Swedes on the way and arrived at the Shanti Lodge, recommended by Aline in Bali. As they define themselves, it is an oasis amidst the chaos of the city. We got a double room, small but nice, with air conditioning, for 450 baht per couple per night (USD 12.00). This hostel was very near the west bank of the famed Chao Phraya River, a busy route for boat transportation. Close to most major temples and palaces in Bangkok.
We left our bags in the room and took a tuk-tuk to Siam Square, the city centre. Tuk-tuks are ideal to get around the Bangkok traffic, and as you usually negotiate a fixed price before, they always go faster into shortcuts, usually narrow streets and alleys full of people, stalls, animals, which are much more interesting than the large heavy-traffic-avenues. When negotiating never mention you want to buy something or find a hotel or restaurant, they always earn commission on this and tend to take you to several places so to earn those commissions. It is best to say the address and make it clear that you will not stop anywhere to buy anything, this is so common that at times I had to say – “if you stop anywhere to buy I’ll leave and walk away.” Another downside is that if the destination is too distant you usually get there smoked by pollution from the streets. Still we thought this was the coolest way to go from side to side.
Siam Square is the central district of Bangkok with tall buildings, a hell of a traffic and many people on the streets. Besides seeing the city centre we wanted to visit MBK Centre to buy some stuff. There are lots of Shopping Malls here, where you can find designer clothes, electronics, jewellery, local food, and whatever else you imagine. There are lots of jewellery stores, one followed by another, with very attractive prices. We enjoyed the low prices and bought our wedding bands by a third the price that we’d have paid in New Zealand or Brazil. After spending the afternoon shopping and bargaining we ended it having dinner at a Japanese restaurant that was no big deal if compared to the local food.
The next day we left home early, we thought of having breakfast at the hostel but it was too full and we wanted to do several things on that day, so we had breakfast on the street. Luckily just in front of the hostel a girl was selling a kind of fried pancake from a stall, sweet delicious banana for 20 baht (USD 0.50), I ate two :D. Then we took a tour through the sights of Bangkok. This time we decided to change the transport method, we left aside the crazy traffic and went by boat.
We walked up to the closest boat stop, about 6 blocks away. Arriving there the road narrowed until it became an alley with several stalls, selling all kind of animals, there were snakes, toads, scorpions, fried insects, and in the end bread, a lot of bread (?).
We understood why as soon as we got to the river. There we saw something simply amazing, a huge amount of fish in the water that when they were fed with these pieces of bread they would splash water all over, making a very loud noise. I won’t even try to explain, it’s better seeing the photos.
The boat soon arrived and we boarded, the service is like a bus, slower but less traffic and extremely cheap (12 baht – USD 0.30). The experience is great, you have a great view of the city with temples and houses all around you.
Grand Palace – Wat Phra Kaew
We soon reached our first stop the Grand Palace – Wat Phra Kaew. Which is a few blocks from the boat stop, it’s easy to walk up there. You will see a high white wall and an entrance full of guards. It is not allowed for men or women to enter with legs or shoulders uncovered. I just realized that when I was there in front :P. The good thing is that you can rent pants to get in right there, looks like a pyjama but everyone ends up wearing them.
The Grand Palace is not one, but a set of sacred buildings, the palace itself was built in the 18th century and until recently served as the residence of the kings of Thailand. Each of these kings built more temples in the area surrounded by the high white wall. Reserve at least a morning or an afternoon to visit it. The place is usually crowded with tourists, you’ll probably find that tour of Japanese taking photos of everything or French complaining about everything… The buildings, paintings, sculptures and monuments are all very rich and with an impressive level of detail. Speaking is difficult, then here are some pictures.
Reclining Buddha – Wat Pho
After walking all morning at the Grand Palace we went to the next temple on our list, which is a few blocks away from there. As we left a tuk-tuk driver passed offering the service, as it was such a hot day I offered him 20 baht, he found it absurd and said he would not take us for that, we kept walking and he was following us asking for at least 40 bath, we kept walking until he got to our price sort of complaining, but took us without problems.
The Reclining Buddha was also built in the 18th century to reform a temple that was there before. The statue is the biggest reclining Buddha in the world, it is also covered in gold with eyes and soles made of mother of pearl. This is another place jammed with tourists, as usual in Asia, before entering you have to take off your shoes and you can see lots outside, to see the statue people form a line around it where everybody is passing at a constant speed starting at the head turning around the feet. Besides the Buddha the walls are decorated with paintings, all extremely detailed, and the architecture is quite interesting too.
Dinner with the French
As we left the temple it started raining and after more negotiations we took another Tuk-tuk back to the hostel, on the way it became a downpour, and obviously the tuk-tuk is not ideal for this sort of weather, since we were already there we had no option but wear our rain jackets and enjoy the moment.
Arriving at the hostel we took a shower and called Romaric, a friend of Flo – our ex-flatmate in New Zealand. He has lived in Bangkok for a few years and accepted having dinner with us. He told us where he was and how to get there. What we did not know is that to get there the taxi, yes, this time we avoided the tuk-tuk to not get there smelling smoke, drove all around the city and took about two hours to arrive, to make it worse the driver barely spoke English, and we had no idea whether we were going to the right place or not. It seemed to us that the driver had left us on the right street. We tried to find the building, walked up and down the street. No luck we decided to call again, he confirmed that we were in the right place and explained how to get there. It was a modern and well decorated building with high gates. Arriving at the apartment he and his wife, Kim, were super receptive, told us interesting things about living in Thailand and how was the experience of living there. He invited other French friends over for dinner at a restaurant that he had indicated.
This place was a few blocks from the building and we walked through the alleys. The restaurant had a lovely garden with tables on the lawn outdoors. As we have already lived with French friends, we knew the level of demand was high with the cuisine (although they are not big fans of spicy food).
Another couple, Amelie and Thibault, arrived and were also super friendly. Despite the famous Parisian arrogance, we end up getting along very well with the French, who also love a good conversation over eating good food with no hurry, unlike the Anglo-Saxons who love fast-food. We odered a good wine and some gourmet Thai cuisine which is probably one of the best in the world, we talked about travel and cultural differences. The conversation grew more animated as wine bottles emptied. It was a great night at the level of our experience in Thailand. The sad part was the bill (400 baht per person = USD 12.00), even though it’s very cheap, it isn’t for Thailand standards, since this is the price of 10 meals there.
On the third day we repeated the delicious 20 bath pancake, I ate two again :D. After that we posted the products we bought to Brazil, it took a while but it was easy. As our flight was in the afternoon we would still have time to visit Jim Thompson’s House, a museum of a textile businessman (some say he was a CIA agent). His story is full of mysteries, amongst them is his “death”, that nobody knows what happened, he simply once travelled to Malaysia and disappeared. The house has an incredible collection of art objects collected during the ’50s and ’60s. The architecture is very interesting with a large tropical garden around. Being a tourist attraction you can imagine it is full of tours, on the streets around it there are lots of people selling paintings, sculptures, offering transport, charging for photos etc…
Then we got back to the hostel, packed up our bags and headed to the airport. Now on the way to China.
- Tuk-tuks are cool but are a pest, bargain hard and do not let them take you anywhere other than your destination
- For shopping in general it is the same, bargain always
- By the size and chaos, Bangkok is very safe for tourists. But with frequent coups it’s common to see barricades and protests in the streets, stay away from them
- The subway is good but the line is short, get a boat if you’re on the banks of Chao Phraya River
- The city is large, with a hell of a traffic, if you’re getting a taxi prepare your patience
- It is very hot, always have water, sunscreen and a rain jacket handy with you.