72 hours in Bangkok…
Often viewed as a necessary evil to be endured in order to reach Thailand’s stunning islands or Asia’s more glamorous spots rather than a destination in itself, many dismiss Bangkok as a hot and heaving metropolis that should be escaped from as soon as possible.
Admittedly, it is not a pretty city but what it lacks in looks it more than makes up for in personality. From exotic street eats and elaborate temples to vibrant clubs and relaxing massage centres, there is plenty to do if you are willing to get out and explore. You can beat the gruesome traffic by taking to the river and hopping on the Skytrain, or if you feel like doing something completely different, the city is host to culinary schools and rejuvenating retreats so you can transform your stopover into a personal adventure.
It is impossible to walk around Bangkok without snacking – enticing street stalls line most of the major thoroughfares. Nowhere is this more the case than Chinatown, where all along Yaowarat Road hawkers tempt you with sizzling dishes. Best sampled in the evening, a walk around here is essentially a rolling dinner.
Head to Bangkok’s “Old Town” for a glimpse of the city before the skyscrapers, here you will find pretty lanes shaded by Banyan trees, as well as the exquisite Grand Palace, Bangkok National Museum, and the Queen’s Gallery which showcases both famed and fresh artists from Thailand.
Immortalised by Alex Garland’s The Beach as “the centre of the backpacking universe” it is still worth a wander around, though with caution. The area retains a slight Wild West atmosphere about it and some pockets are very seedy.
The Mandarin Oriental is a Bangkok institution and a favourite with seasoned travellers and expats in the region as well as authors such as Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham. Elegant and stylish, it is something of a haven despite its central location. Greenery and foliage shelter you from the hectic city beyond, while the infinity pool makes it seem more ‘getaway’ than city break. Service is exceptional, restaurants are world class but the price is at the very top end for Thailand.
The Siam Hotel is just 20 minutes from the centre but feels like another world. Owner Krissada Sukosol Clapp designed the space with acclaimed architect and designer Bill Bensley, creating a stylish enclave with nods to the grandeur of King Rama V and the Art Deco movement. The place is full of incredible antiques from the Clapp’s personal collection. There is a private boat that can take you on a river tour to and from the main tourist spots, though you’ll be reluctant to leave this little oasis of calm.
Ariyasomvilla is a wonderful hotel housed in a colonial building from the 1940s that has been in the same family for generations. Ideal for families, there are lush gardens, and chickens roam free (before providing fresh eggs for breakfast). It is has a lovely little pool – perfect to cool down after ambling through the hot and humid streets. Great value. It’s close to the waterways so river traffic can be heard from some rooms, and it is on a rather unbecoming side street – but you’ll be pleasantly surprised once inside. Plus the staff are lovely.
A culinary exploration of the offerings from the seemingly endless street stalls is almost mandatory on a visit to Bangkok. It’s a great way to try little bits of local and SE Asian cuisine without a huge commitment – either on the palate or on the wallet. Hand sanitiser and some napkins are your trusty tools of exploration.
There’s no shortage of options but it is worth seeking out a couple of particular street vendors for their unrivalled traditional fare: The first is Jay Fai, whose little open kitchen at 327 Mahachai Road may look underwhelming but is probably the best street-side dining in the city. Her famed ‘drunken noodles’ – spiced up with chilli, special sauce, and a healthy serving of prawns and squid – is a dish worth travelling for, as is the excellent Seafood Tom Yum. Her prices are high considering the setting but they are worth it. The second is Khao Gaeng Rattana at Nang Loeng Market, which serves up rich curries and rice, as well as the unusual but must try dish Lun Boo (a creamy chowder-like dish with a kick).
For those that love their Som Tam – Papaya Salad, then Somtum Der is the perfect spot as it has eight incarnations on the menu. This tiny restaurant serves gorgeous Isaan food from Thailand’s north east. They have an outside area and some fun, fruity cocktails. A nice family place is Issaya Siamese Club tucked away on a side street near Rama IV Road. The building is more than a century old and stands in the midst of lush green gardens. Great food and ambience.
At the higher end, the Mandarin Oriental’s Le Normandie Restaurant is famed for its classic, beautifully cooked French dishes, quality produce, and style. There is a strict dress code, so check ahead to make sure your attire fits. David Thompson’s Nahm remains well loved though prices are steep.
Head to Ton Tassanakajohn’s Le Du for cutting edge cuisine combined with local ingredients and classic Thai flavours – opt for the four-course set menu (or the seven-course offer if you are feeling leisurely and don’t have small people with you). This place has an excellent wine selection.
Sky Bar has long been popular with Bangkok’s wealthy elite and local celebrities, even featuring in The Hangover 2. These days there is also a production line of visitors going up for their shot of the city from 63 floors high. Cocktails are underwhelming and expensive but most go for just one drink and the photos before moving on. In some ways it feels more like a tourist attraction than a cool bar, but it does offer great views of the city.
The Banyan Tree hotel’s Moon Bar boasts a 360-degree vista of the town with a nerve-wracking low barrier. There’s no real wall or ceiling – adding to the exposed vibe. That said the drinks are excellent, it’s nice and breezy and the clientele is cool. You can nip across to Vertigo restaurant if you get hungry.
Somewhere between a tale from the Brothers’ Grimm and a Victorian dungeon, Ashley Sutton’s Iron Fairies is one of Bangkok’s coolest bars. Bottles of fairy dust line the wall in this dark and mysterious venue, while the promise of a wild night is almost palpable. Venture down the spiral staircase and pick a cocktail such as the ‘absinthe fairy potion’ and see where things take you. Definitely one for when you can use the hotel’s babysitting service (If the kids aren’t with you and you feel like re-living – head to Badmotel, where minimal work has been done to convert this rundown, industrial building into a nightclub).
Nearby in the same upmarket area of Thonglor, Sutton also created the fabulous futuristic Clouds, where geishas sit knitting, barbie dolls and paper bombs hang from the ceilings. There is also Fat Gutz, which seems like a fish and chip shop and bar set in a David Lynch film.
Vintage lovers should head to Shades of Retro, where everything you spy is up for sale and you can get a mean cocktail. There are LPs, old gramophones, and even a couple of antique Vespas, scattered around the place.
This is a city of temples and shrines, some lavish and grand, some are only noticeable when you see someone stopping to say a prayer, but they are a key part of the city’s rich history. The inimitable Wat Pho, or Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is a must visit. A vision in gold, it’s hard not to be surprised by the scale the monument. Early mornings are the best time to avoid the crowds. It takes a couple of hours to properly explore the grounds, though many opt for a quick visit just to see the gilded deity in repose. Architecture buffs will love the ornate Wat Phra Kaew – Temple of the Emerald Buddha, while Wat Traimit, known as Golden Buddha Temple, in China Town has a secret stairwell you can climb to reach a deck for stunning views of the city.
Some of the best pictures you’ll take of the city’s temples are likely to be from the river, where the intricate spires just elegantly from a cacophony of golds and green.
Wat Arun, known as The Temple of Dawn, is one such place. Despite being under renovation, it is still incredibly striking when lit up at night, and is a lovely place to wander at the start of the day. It’s not unusual to receive a blessing from a monk there.
One of the nicest ways to navigate the city is by boat – there is a hop on, hop off service stretching along the Chao Praya river – that is a nice way to bypass Bangkok’s traffic jams. Though at peak hours it gets very busy. There are five lines chugging along the water – the orange is the most frequent running every 20 minutes after rush hour, but it is busy. The blue line tourist boats are run every half hour and a little less hectic.
For a far more leisurely experience it’s easy to organise a private riverboat tour for up to three hours – the longer it is, the further you get to go from the main city water ways but even an hour’s trip makes for a nice excursion. The central Sathorn Pier is probably the best place to find (and haggle with) a boatman, it’s also the place to take the shuttle boat to the new Asiatique night market, and is close to a Bangkok Sky Train station. The BTS is a fast, efficient, cheap and punctual rail service and an ideal way to dodge the cars and fumes below, and has a slightly futuristic feel. Take coins as the machines don’t take notes, there are plenty of signs but don’t be afraid to ask if you need help – most Thais will bend over backward to help you.
If you are really keen on a traditional, clean Thai massage then opt for the dedicated school at the Wat Pho Temple, regarded by many the spiritual home of the discipline. It costs around $10-12 an hour and is far from the glamorous luxury spas, but the masseurs are exemplary. The massage area is a large air-conditioned room where a number of beds are set out. Sheets are changed after every client, and if you’re not wearing the right clothes for a comfortable experience they can accommodate that. Tell them exactly what ails you and they will adjust the massage to suit. There is an ancient list of around 1000 herbal cures kept at the temple, with all the relevant ingredients planted around the temple.
One of the great things about Bangkok is the array of activities on offer – short courses that can be completed in a few days that potentially give you a life long skill. It’s possible to complete a course in traditional general massage and foot massage in five days.
There are also food classes and courses that can be done in a day (or stretching over weeks for those that have the time). Chef LeeZ cooking class, held in her home on the outskirts of the city, is always well subscribed. She’s able to teach even the most incompetent how to cook Thai classics. The focus is on natural ingredients, while recipes for the dishes are often ones she learned from her grandmother. The only downside is that it takes a little time to reach her, but you can travel by boat and arrange a pick up from the docks.
Another wonderful choice is Khun Poo’s class (she has showcased her skills on the BBC and her book Cooking with Poo & Friends has become an international bestseller). She will take you to the market to pick up all the ingredients for the menu you’ll be working on that day. Then you’ll head to the kitchen to craft a three-course traditional Thai menu (and eat the fruits of your labour along the way).
Bangkok is a shoppers paradise, head to the Pratunam shopping district. Browse like a local at the area’s famous market or if you are in need of a cooler experience, the air-conditioned super centres such as Platinum Mall or Baiyoke Gallery Fashion Mall.
Air Asia connects multiple destinations in the region to Bangkok, but most major airlines fly this route. It’s easy enough to book online but for multi-stop holidays a travel agent can take some of the hassle away. We recommend Flight Centre as their buying power, experience and price guarantee make a big difference when organising this kind of trip.
www.flightcentre.com.hk, Contact Kathryn Gardner 9406 4722 for assistance.
Time to book that long weekend away to Bangkok, mamas!