By: Paula Wallis
Bangkok is a common stop-over for travelers to reconnect with the city vibe, stock up on travel supplies, and get a little hedonistic. After weeks and weeks of island life, sometimes one begins to crave the chaos of life in the city; the neon lights, the honking horns, the tuk-tuks puttering crazily by, piled high with rucksacks and crammed full of backpackers. One day (and night) of Bangkok madness is usually enough to cure you of this and send you back to the islands in a big hurry, though.
I’ll admit, I’ve spent more than one night in Bangkok. But not much more than that. Not at one time, anyways. I think the most I managed there at one time was a week, which is actually pretty impressive. It’s just too much to drink in all at once.
If you should find yourself with one night to kill in Bangkok, and just can’t decide what to do with yourself (unlikely), here are a few suggestions for you. The most dedicated of travelers may possibly be able to fit this all into one 24 hour period, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Bangkok is best tasted in small sips, a little at a time.
Khao San Road
You may remember the conversation which takes place in Alex Garland’s backpacker cult hit, The Beach. The one where one backpacker, referring to the ultimate demise of off-the-beaten-track tourist destinations due to Lonely Planet guide books, wonders aloud to another; “What’s so fucking lonely about the Khao San Road?”
Good question. Bar upon bar upon guesthouse upon hostel upon restaurant upon sidewalk food vendor…well, you get the picture. There’s nothing lonely about Khao San Road. No great surprise there. Khao San Road acts as a waystation for backpackers on their way to other parts of Thailand or to neighboring countries for a visa run. At any given time you’ll find much of the guesthouses packed to capacity and every bar and restaurant full of travelers off to new destinations.
It’s a great place to book plane, train, or bus tickets to wherever in Thailand or neighboring countries you wish to go. There are loads of travel agents that are available to arrange your trip for you at little to no commission.
It’s also a great place to catch up on any important emails without the price gouging that can occur at some internet cafes at some of the more distant islands.
If you’re picky about your lodgings, it’s best to book ahead for Khao San Road. However, if you don’t much mind where you lay your head to sleep, with a little leg work, you’re guaranteed to find a room for the night, on or near Khao San Road. With new guesthouses popping up all the time, prices remain competitive.
I stayed at a few different guesthouses on different stopovers in Bangkok, including Top Guest House, Thai Thai Guesthouse, Baan Sabai Guesthouse, Sawasdee Guesthouse, Mango Lagoon Place, and D&D Inn.
All ranged from twenty dollars CDN and under and all were reasonably clean and well-maintained, with the occasional cockroach here and there. But cockroaches are pretty much unavoidable in Bangkok, so best get used to it.
By far my favorite was D&D Inn. Of course it was also the most expensive, and prices have gone up further, although not substantially, but still cheap in comparison to similar lodgings in my home country of Canada.
Boasting a rooftop pool, bar, and large, clean, air-conditioned rooms, I chose to come back to D&D Inn for my last few days in Bangkok before flying home. “Why not enjoy the hell out of my last few days here?” I thought.
Khao San Road also has no shortage of pubs, clubs and restaurants to relax in and enjoy some Sangsom and Pad Thai. Many of them play movies all day (and night) long on big screen TV’s if you’ve had enough of wandering around in the Bangkok heat and haze, shopping or sightseeing. A few have courtyard pools that you can pay a small fee to use for the day and bar staff will serve you poolside.
A lot of the bars come with the prerequisite “bar girls” which are common in Thailand, so if that’s not what you’re there for, you may have to politely decline a few come-ons before they get the hint and leave you alone.
You can find just about any type of watering hole you’re looking for on Khao San Road, from Irish Pubs, to McDonalds, street stands that serve up deep fried crickets, grasshoppers, cockroaches and other creepy crawlies (I was only brave enough to try the crickets) to lovely garden patio restaurants. I even stumbled across a nightclub that catered to the hardcore rap/hip-hop crowd on my last visit to Bangkok – something I didn’t expect to find there at all.
A popular spot is Gulliver’s Tavern, at the end of Khao San Road. Drinks here are a little on the pricey side, but there’s always good music, pool tables, and plenty of backpackers looking for some good conversation. It gets a little too noisy for that later on though, so you may want to switch venues if you’re not up for Thai whiskey shots and dancing.
Admission fees include entry into Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, as well as the Royal Thai Decorations and Coins Pavillion. Much of the Grand Palace is inaccessible to the public, but occasional anterooms are available for viewing. Even with much of it closed off to the public; it’s still fairly easy to spend hours exploring the grounds and admiring the ornate buildings.
Of special note if you are planning a visit to Wat Phra Kaew; wats are sacred in Thailand, this one particularly so because of it’s proximity to royalty. Visitors must dress according to local custom when visiting Wat Phra Kaew. That is to say, no short sleeved shirts, short skirts or pants, and no flip-flops! Shoes must be removed before entering the temple. If you’ve spent some time in Thailand already, you’ll already be accustomed to the shoes piled up on the doorsteps to many of the temples, restaurants, guesthouses, and even bars. More so on the islands than in Bangkok, but it’s still custom in many parts of the city.
The wat structures themselves are extraordinarily ornate. Anyone with an eye for architecture and design can appreciate the gilded stupas, polished colorful roof tiles, and marble pediments set amongst mosaic pillars.
Be sure to stop here and admire the detailed, and beautiful, murals lining the inside walls of the compound, depicting scenes from the epic Ramakian fable. You don’t have to have an appreciation for art, or history for that matter to enjoy the stories told in picture along these walls.
Entrance fee is 350 baht and the grounds are open from 08:30 until 16:30. If you’re in Bangkok for an overnight stay, or even just for the day, this is a destination you should not miss while in the city.
Patpong (I and II)
Didn’t get enough of the “bar girl” scene on Khao San Road and the surrounding area? Head over to Patpong I and II. Two parallel side streets, located between Silom and Surawongse Roads, this seedy area will net you just about any sin you seek to commit. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Easily over one hundred strip bars crowd these busy streets and advertise all sorts of sexually acrobatic stage shows, not to mention “take-out” pole dancers and lady boys, if you’re willing to cough up the “bar fine.”
I took a wander through here with two pilots from Holland who were on layover for the night in Bangkok. They had heard the notorious reputation of Patpong, and were anxious to explore it for themselves. However they were a little nervous of its seedy reputation, and, absurdly, felt they would be safer bringing a female companion along with them. I guess they figured that the bar girls and their “employers” would be less likely to target them if they appeared as though they already had female company for the night. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The locals there just figured the three of us were up for a night of debauchery and approached us all the more. No matter, I was interested to see the place for myself, if not quite for the reasons the locals thought.
Strip bar touts lined the streets in front of each bar and approached us, sometimes two or three of them at a time, displaying menus of the flesh filled delights that could be purchased inside their establishments. I won’t fill you in on the exact details of the menus, but suffice it to say they included ping pongs, balloons, bananas, “electric” (what the hell did that mean?!) and various other items paired up with female body parts. I was so astounded by these little laminated menus they presented to us that I asked one tout if I could purchase it as a souvenir. He told me I could have it for free if I just came in for a show. He had me at “free.”
The show itself was fairly tame compared to what I had been expecting. Just your run of the mill strip bar that you could most likely find in any Canadian city. Items on the menu weren’t part of the show (thank God) and patrons wishing to purchase these were taken to a back room, where I’m pretty sure I can imagine what other sorts of things went on.
The drink prices were steep compared to other areas in Bangkok I’d visited, and the bar girls were relentless, approaching me to the point where the pilots from Holland were starting to feel a bit slighted, and suggested we head elsewhere. I don’t know if these women were used to other women coming in wishing to fulfill crazy fantasies, or they were just happy to have a woman in their midst, but they sure were friendly. Four or five surrounded me, wanting to “give me massage,” touching my sun-bleached hair and smiling non-stop at me. After a few minutes they realized I wasn’t there for anything other than a drink, and they sat down to practice their English on me. I left feeling very sad for these sweet girls, as I’m sure no little girl, given a choice in the matter, dreams of a life of stripping, and more, for hordes of sweaty, booze-soaked foreign tourists.
I had no desire to visit any more strip bars (and I still didn’t get the promised menu I had been offered) so we continued our exploration of Patpong, discovering that it was also home to a bustling night market and several decent live music venues. I happily sat down to a Sangsom and coke at Muzzik café and took in a great show by an up and coming local band. No hassle there either.
I’m told that Patpong is mainly show, and is preceded by its sleazy reputation, and that, if you’re seeking pleasures of the flesh, there are plenty more hardcore strip bars to visit in Bangkok, but Patpong was more than enough for me. With bar names like “Super Pussy”, “Pussy Collection,” and “Thigh Bar,” I’m not sure how anyone could really consider Patpong “tame.” But maybe that’s just my western mentality.
There are more than a few floating markets throughout Bangkok, some more authentic than others. In other words, some are geared more towards tourists, with far more commercial items than you’d find at some of the floating markets that sell household essentials, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc.
The most popular destination for tourists seems to be Damnoen Saduak, not actually in Bangkok, but in Samut Sangkhram Ratchaburi province, about 110 km southwest of Bangkok.
Yes, it is packed with hordes of tourists, but you’ll still get the authentic feel of a day out market shopping on the canal, while perhaps getting a bit of souvenir shopping done in the process. And it’s loads of fun.
The best way to do this is to book a tour to the floating market. There are more than enough tour companies to arrange this, or even your hotel or guesthouse would be happy to arrange this for you. Most tours include side trips to other points of interest on the way there or back.
Some great photo opportunities present themselves as you longtail it down the “khlong” or canal, stopping along the way to barter madly with Thai women, who are navigating through the chaos with goods stacked high upon their flat boats.
These ladies will disarm you with their sense of humor and snappy comebacks, and before you know it, you’ll be buying something you really didn’t come here to purchase. No matter though, the experience is worth the minimal cost. And you’ll get some amazing photos.
Some more photo opportunities present themselves in the side tours included in many of the Damnoen Saduak tours, such as a trip to the Bridge on The River Kwai, elephant trekking, or even river rafting. If you’re in Bangkok long enough to spare a half day for the floating market tour, it’s well worth it.
Chao Phraya River
I always recommend to fellow travelers that they make a point of viewing any given cityscape from the water, if the situation presents itself. This is particularly true of Bangkok. Getting out of the heat and noise of the city and viewing it from an idyllic setting on the water, with some traditional Thai music as background, you’ll get a completely different feel for the city, and see it in a whole new way.
As well as being a convenient way to navigate the city, a boat tour along the Chao Phraya River is a pleasant and peaceful way to spend a day or an evening. If you’ve had enough of the madness that goes along with Bangkok traffic, a Chao Phraya River tour or cruise is the way to go.
There are more than fifteen boat lines that operate along the canals and riverways of Bangkok; so it’s no trouble finding what you’re looking for, be it a simple mode of transportation, a scenic tour, or a guided dinner cruise.
Depending on which tour or cruise you decide to go with, you can expect to see plenty of historic sights and also have the opportunity to observe the traditional Thai way of life along the banks of the Chao Praya River. There are great photo opportunities during daylight hours of rustic Thai stilted homes along the banks.
Bang Pa-In; or the Royal Summer Palace is one of the stunning structures you can view along the banks, as well as Wat Yai Chaimongkon and Wat Mahathat.
Other popular sights include the famous Oriental Hotel, the Holy Rosary Church, and the Portugese Embassy; the oldest embassy in Bangkok.
Many of the hotels along the river offer free ferry service if you just want a quick (and free) tour of the river. There are plenty of floating restaurants on the water as well for a unique dining experience.
Visit a prisoner
For most, the thought of visiting a prisoner in Bangkok’s Bangkwang (Men’s Prison) or Bhan Khen (Women’s Prison) is a daunting undertaking. Don’t be put off by depictions of these prisons you may have seen in the movies or on television, however. Yes, the conditions are appalling, and yes, a lot of these prisoners are hardened criminals.
Quite often, in the film industry, the foreign prisoners in Thai prisons are portrayed as innocent backpackers who are lured in or set up unbeknownst to act as drug mules for Thai drug cartels. This is not generally the case. In most cases these people are simply young travelers or backpackers who’ve made a grievous error in judgment, whether it be indulging in the criminal element to the nightlife in Thailand, or an attempt to smuggle drugs across the border to neighboring countries or even back home. Stupid, yes. But not worth one hundred years in a Thai prison, or worse. Everyone makes mistakes in life, particularly in their younger years. Unfortunately, the Thai judicial system does not hand out too many second chances to young travelers guilty of making such a mistake.
Once you’ve gotten beyond this particular internal dilemma and made the decision to visit a prisoner at one of these prisons, you’ll probably be wondering how to go about doing this. It’s surprisingly uncomplicated. If there’s one thing to be said for a somewhat corrupt legal system, it’s the lack of red tape surrounding it.
Contact your embassy if you wish to visit a prisoner from your own country, as most people do. Your embassy will provide you with a list of prisoners that are waiting for contact from the outside world. Make sure to note which building the prisoner you wish to visit is housed in, as different buildings have different visiting days.
Bring all this information with you to the prison, along with the prisoner’s full name, as well as your passport, and register at the front gate. Allow the guards time to process your paperwork, usually about twenty minutes or so.
Upon entering the prison, you will go through a screening system and guards will inspect any gifts (such as books, toiletries, or food) you may be bringing in with you. Don’t get angry or frustrated if some of these items are confiscated as “contraband.” What is and isn’t allowed in seems to change on a daily basis and is entirely dependant on the particular guard you are dealing with. Arguing or getting angry will get you nowhere with them. In fact, you will most likely be denied entry in this case.
There is a shop at the prison as well where you may purchase items that are allowed as gifts for the prisoner.
You will be allowed to visit with the prisoner for approximately thirty minutes, talking by telephone through bulletproof glass, although guards sometimes allow a little leniency when it comes to the length of the visit.
Things to remember when you are visiting: you are not here to judge why this person ended up where they did; simply to listen, if necessary, or provide much longed for conversation to the prisoner. Much like airport security, jokes or derogatory comments about Thailand’s King, the Thai justice system, or prison escapes of any kind are not taken lightly.
Common sense dictates that you should dress appropriately for your visit, but you’d be surprised what some deem “appropriate.” Best to don long pants, closed toed shoes, and no tank tops.
Another thing to consider, if you haven’t already, is a visit to the women’s prison, or to a prisoner from a less advantaged country than your own. These prisoner’s have less rights and freedoms than many others, and visits to them are few and far between and therefore much appreciated.
No matter who you decide to visit, your presence there is accepted with much gratitude, and you may find that you walk away gaining just as much from the experience as the person you spend your time with there.
Jim Thompson’s House
Even if you’re not an architecture enthusiast, you can’t help but appreciate the beauty of The Jim Thompson House. It is a serene oasis in the midst of the city.
An American architect with a deep love for Thai history, architecture and culture, Jim Thompson arrived in Thailand during World War II and revived the flagging silk industry. His house, now a museum, is a tribute to authentic Thai residential architecture. Formed from parts of six teak Thai houses, it also showcases his extensive art collection.
Jim Thompson disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967.
In 1976 the James H W Thompson Foundation was established, with proceeds from the Jim Thompson House (as a tourist attraction) donated to Thai charities and to projects devoted to the preservation of Thailand’s cultural heritage.
The Jim Thompson House is located opposite the National Stadium, on Rama I Road in Bangkok. Open every day from 9 am, the last tour begins at 4:30 pm.
If Bangkok is your last stop on your way to some remote area of SE Asia, you might want to take advantage of the gastronomical delights this city has to offer. It might be your last chance for some fine, sit-down (on chairs, rather than cushions strewn on the floor) dining in a long, long time.
Bangkok has everything from street cart vendors to five star poolside restaurants atop luxury skyscrapers, with spectacular views of the city.
One such restaurant is Zense Restaurant at CentralWorld. No pool here, but there are several water features throughout this spacious rooftop restaurant, designed by award winning Thai architect, Amata Lhupaiboon. But the décor is just the beginning. The eclectic menu choices and five star service here are simply superb.
Riverside dining, or even dinner cruises, on the Chao Phraya River, are another way to beat the heat of the city, if you’re not up for some rooftop dining. There are plenty to choose from, and it’s hard to go wrong. It’s the perfect locale for a romantic dinner for two, a night on your own with a glass of wine and a book, or an evening out with fellow travelers.
One renowned restaurant on the Chao Phraya River is Angelini at the Shangri-La. Three stories high, with massive windows soaring up from the floor, Angelini is set in an amazing location overlooking the Chao Phraya River. A contemporary menu that leans heavily toward Italian choices, the only thing competing with your choice of food is the selection of fine wines.
Other areas worth checking out are Chinatown, Bangkrak, and Silom. Chinatown is the obvious choice for Chinese cuisine, Bangkrak for their numerous Indian restaurants, and Silom for the fine dining, which tends to run a little on the pricier side. But hey, no reason why you shouldn’t splurge while in Bangkok.
Khao San Road is a great place for new arrivals to Bangkok to dip their toes into the culinary waters of Thailand. If you’re a little leery at first of the streetside carts serving up Pad Thai, or even more frightening – deep fried insects (!), you can ease your way in with an Irish pub, Chinese restaurant, or sausage butty at one of the restaurants catering to the hordes of Brits roaming Khao San Road. After a few Sangsom and cokes maybe you’ll feel brave enough to try the local fare. And you should, because Thailand serves up some delicious food.
While in Bangkok waiting to catch an early morning bus to Cambodia the next day, I found myself with several hours to kill and decided to take a wander over to the National Museum. I had not been expecting much, simply because I hadn’t heard a lot about the museum and because it wasn’t on my “List of Things to See in Bangkok.” I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the extensive collection of both history and art housed here.
Its collection spans thousands of years and includes informative exhibits on the history and origin of Thais, as well as early civilizations of the region.
The museum is home to several sculptures and exhibits dating as far back as 1257 AD and also includes restored private residences of former Thai royalty. It’s easy to lose a few hours here admiring the ancient artwork.
Tours are given in French and English on Wednesdays and Thursdays, starting at 9:30 am, or you can pay the 50 baht entrance fee and stroll through at your own pace.
Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed inside the museum, but the buildings housing it are quite beautiful and worth getting a few shots of.
Most areas of Thailand, even the most remote, will have some sort of convenience shop or drugstore which will carry anything you need to get by. However, brands can be completely unrecognizable and perhaps not what you’re used to.
Myself, I like to use whatever local products that are at hand, makes me feel like I’ve immersed myself a little bit more into the culture. But if you’re in need of particular skin care products or toiletries due to allergies or sensitive skin or maybe just personal preference; then it’s a good idea to stock up while you’re in Bangkok.
Both Tesco and Boots have outlets in Bangkok which are easily found and should stock whatever particular brand of shampoo, skin cream, sunscreen, etc that you’re particular to.
Bangkok is also a great place to replace damaged rucksacks or luggage, or purchase an extra one if you’ve gone a little overboard on your souvenir shopping.
After hitting a few islands in Thailand, I had discovered that I was packing unnecessary items, such as trainers, one too many hoodies, and socks. I tossed the socks and sold the trainers and hoodie on Khao San Road, using the paltry fee I earned to purchase some more useful items, such as flip-flops (sixty cents CDN!), Thai fisher pants (most comfortable pants on the planet), and other light, loose items of clothing.
Any market in Bangkok, including streetside stands on Khao San Road will be selling burnt CD’s of the latest artists. I found that most of these hadn’t even been released in North America yet. Same for the newest movies out on DVD. Most everyone travels with an iPod these days, but if you’re still a CD collector, this is probably one of the cheaper spots to stock up for the trip.
Another item I would recommend replenishing your supply of here is books. There are book traders all over SE Asia, but when in remote areas the pickings can get pretty slim, and there’s nothing worse than being stuck on an overnight train ride with a crap book. Books here tend to also be substantially less expensive than a lot of the islands.
If you’ve got a lot of emailing to catch up on before you head to your destination, you should probably do that in Bangkok as well. You’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere in SE Asia that doesn’t have internet access, but the snail’s pace of it will drive you absolutely crazy on some of the islands – not to mention the price. One island I stayed on in Malaysia told me that their internet access was via radio signal. Not really sure how that would work, but it was intensely frustrating trying to send out a family Easter email only to have it deleted after half an hour spent trying to log in.
Any flights, trains, buses or boat trips you may want to prearrange can be booked in Bangkok as well. I’ve never met more helpful and knowledgeable travel agents than some of the ones I met in Bangkok. Most of them knew what I was trying to book before even I did!
Whew! Now that I look back on all that, I’m glad I didn’t try to fit it all into one day! But you’re welcome to try. Keep in mind that if you’re traveling around Thailand for any length of time, odds are good that you’ll make it back to Bangkok a few times to catch a bus, train or flight to your next destination. So, try and remember; small sips. Bangkok is best tasted in small sips. Perhaps the same advice should be dispensed with the Thai whiskey.
About the author:
Paula Wallis makes her home in beautiful British Columbia in the Best City in The World, Vancouver. She spends her spare time seeking out the best beaches in the world and is a huge fan of hammocks. Follow her on fanaticnomadic.blogspot.com