Discover Thailand: Bangkok

“Bangkok, like Las Vegas, sounds like a place where you make bad decisions.” Todd Phillips

Bright lights, big city with a crazy vibe and a potent aroma sums up Bangkok for me, an exciting metropolis that apparently never sleeps. What an incredible place, thrilling and mysterious, historic and yet modern all at the same time, super busy day and night. I had heard it was dirty but I found it ok filled with bright colours and constant traffic noise, partygoers and sightseers, street food vendors and markets and then in complete contrast an air of sophistication with its fine dining scene and trendy rooftop bars along with its supersized air-conditioned malls, packed with designer shops, Bangkok literally has something for every traveller with any kind of taste on all budgets.IMG_5039As always a new city to explore means a schedule busting at the seams and this time we had the added bonus of an old friend from the UK as our tour guide for two of the days. Fifteen years have passed since we last set eyes on him, he now resides in Thailand with his wife and daughter and joined us for a long overdue catch up and to share his local knowledge. I can’t go any further without mentioning our first hotel, the Oriental Residence located in the embassy district of the city, A M A Z I N G would be an appropriate word, from the minute we walked in to the minute we left we felt at home and comfortable (more about that later).IMG_4879So we were in Bangkok for five nights mid-way through our trip and then one last mad night on mass to conclude our trip which is probably best not to write about in too much detail.

What we did……..

We rode the BTS, Bangkok’s efficient, air-conditioned and cheap skytrain, to Chao Phraya River to take the free water taxi to Asiatique The Riverfront. An upscale open air market and restaurant complex that opened in 2012, Asiatique is located in the former docks of the East Asiatic Company. It’s a great place to wander about, ride the big wheel and grab a bite to eat in one of the many riverfront restaurants. There were many nice little craft and artisan shops and stalls offering homeware, textiles, clothing, accessories and jewellery.

Chatuchak Weekend Market was a chaotic and colourful mix of narrow alleyways and market stalls selling just about everything you can think of and more, probably the largest market I’ve ever visited. Allegedly there are over 8,000 stalls and small shops selling everything from cheap plastic fans to high-end Indonesian furniture, aromatherapy oils and candles and every type of fruit imaginable along with clothes, bags, art and an extensive array of street food. The aromas are inviting, the chatter incessant and the atmosphere lively, we enjoyed a traditional Thai lunch that was tasty and cheap and I even found a trendy coffee shop (Weekend Coffee & Toast) nestled amongst all the chaos. The fresh coconuts were good, ours was sold by a machete wielding, camouflage clothed and bandana wearing charismatic guy who was loving life. Luckily the intense heat had put off the crowds so it’s wasn’t overly busy (apparently it’s usually rammed), unluckily it was too unbearably sticky to be there for too long. Well worth a visit and don’t forget to haggle.

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The Grand Palace was big, it was too hot and there were hoards of rude pushing Chinese tourists, actual bus loads of them each equipped with selfie sticks. Watch out for scams (luckily I’d read my trusty Lonely Planet guide and knew of this trickery) such as friendly locals who tell you attractions are closed due to a Buddhist holiday, a ruse to try and take you somewhere else instead. Another scam near tourist attractions and malls is for taxis to refuse to put on their meter, ignore these drivers with their set prices and keep walking until you get someone who will give you a metered journey, if in doubt grab a tuk tuk (haggle on price) or take the BTS. The Grand Palace is a working palace as well as museum made up of many buildings set in manicured gardens and courtyards and it’s home to Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew).

We visited the Golden Buddha (Phra Phuttha Maha Suwan Patimakon)by mistake much to the hungry other half’s outrage (fun times). Duped by a taxi driver looking for a longer fare than the place we actually wanted to visit we were dropped off Wat Traimit temple home of the world’s largest gold seated Buddha weighing a mighty 5.5 tonnes.

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Damnoen Saduak Floating Market looked incredible in all the photos but in reality I thought it was not worth the early start, the four hour round trip or the exuberant taxi and boat ticket prices. As travelling is all about experience and this was a new one for me that’s the positive I’m taking from this excursion. In reality it was super touristy with market stalls lining the waterways filled with cheap tat and souvenirs that were available everywhere in Thailand. The best bit was the street food and fresh fruit sold on some of the traditional wooden row boats, the fresh coconuts were good too. The small temple was also nice, otherwise not worth the effort unless you haven’t bought enough souvenirs or want a photo with a bloody great snake draped around your neck, it felt like a giant scam rather than a traditional pastime.

Wat Pho is the oldest and largest temple in the city and home to the giant reclining Buddha (it sits a gigantic 46 metres long). It also houses the largest collection of Buddha images and it’s less busy than the Grand Palace which was a pleasant experience rather than a chaotic one. The Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School is located in the grounds and as it’s considered the leading massage school in the country we enjoyed some of the traditional Thai treatments offered.

Riding in a Tuk Tuk is great fun and exhilarating almost hair raising depending on the driver as some think they are on an F1 circuit. These colourful three-wheeled taxis whizz through the streets and give you a real taste of the city (and the smell). Great fun at night too when they have their flashing disco and fairy lights on. Watch out as they try to scam tourists with inflated prices, haggle and you can come to an agreement, believe me it’s worth it.

Khao San Road is a backpackers paradise with an abundance of cheap hotels, bars, clubs, local street food and western junk food outlets. Stalls sell everything from cheap clothes, handicrafts and art, local fruits, counterfeit DVDs and books. The street comes alive every night with loud music and a party atmosphere, tuk tuk drivers are waiting to pounce as are vendors trying to sell you a show, it’s worth seeing especially if you looking to sample a cooked insect on a stick.

Shopping Malls – MBK is just a massive indoor market (think Carrefour meets Karama) with seven floors packed with all sorts of things mostly cheap and cheerful tat or counterfeit. Shops that line the mall are more authentic and there’s lots of food and beverage outlets including a small outdoor street food market, not really my kind of mall to be honest but good to browse and have coffee and a coconut. Now Siam Paragon was another story, a glitzy mall filled with luxury brands and high street favourites and probably the best food court area I’ve ever frequented on the basement floor. Central World was much the same, another high-end mega mall that offered an air-conditioned respite from the sun and an outing for the wallet. Bangkok is a shopping paradise with so many markets and malls, so much so that we had to purchase an additional suitcase (not for me on this occasion), travelling light went out the window on this trip.

Where we ate……

Not long after we arrived we were treated to afternoon tea in the Oriental Residence’s Cafe Claire ground floor restaurant. This chic monochrome quaint cafe was decorated in a Parisian style and serves TWG teas, the luxury brand from Singapore. The food was excellent as was the service (more about this experience in a later post).

After eating lots of Thai food in Phuket, the other half found Bangkok’s top Italian restaurant (according to Tripadvisor), Medici Kitchen and Bar located in Hotel Muse, within walking distance of our hotel. As well as serving top class Italian food the restaurant also had opera singers performing live as they wandered through the tables at various intervals. Passionate executive Chef Nicolino Lalla was cooking his signature pasta in a parmesan wheel dish at the tables and talking to all the guests about his native Italy and Medici’s concept and menu. Nice guy, great food, cocktails and wines, good atmosphere and incredibility talented singers made for a memorable first night in Bangkok.

The Iron Fairies claims to serve Bangkok’s best burger and judging by my veggie burger that appears to be true, I can’t vouch for the meat option though as the other half had a very tasty tuna salad instead. The venue, owned by Ashley Sutton, one of the city’s popular restaurateurs and nightlife don, is dark and mysterious filled with candles and miniature jars filled with fairy dust (?!?). It’s a quirky intimate space with just a few tables and a good selection of cocktails, a fun concept with the industrial interior based on a disused old Parisian fairy factory, on the night we went a live band playing upstairs.

Another brilliant find by the other half via Tripadvisor was Mazzaro that offered a Thai-Italian menu which suited both our tastes perfectly. The East meets West concept was good and the restaurant itself had a modern loft style interior complete with exposed brick and contemporary art.

Apinara Thai Cuisine and Bar is located in The Groove, a collection of high end restaurants in a two-storey annexe of the Central World mall. Traditional Thai food served in a modern setting that’s inspired by ancient Thai elements.

Our last lunch of the trip was at Cabbages and Condoms, a restaurant that donates its proceeds to promote a better understanding of family planning and serves delicious traditional Thai food, only in Bangkok! Donations are used to fund the social development programs of the Thai population and Community Development Association (PDA). The restaurant interior is decorated with condom art including full sized human figures, it’s all a bit whacky but for a good cause.

Thai food is a harmonious blend of sweet, sour, rich, salty and spicy flavours, a culinary journey for all five senses. Thai is the other half’s favourite cuisine so he was in his element trying all sorts of new dishes along with his firm favourites, Bangkok offered him so much choice from street food to fine dining. He also had a birthday treat of the more unusual delicacies of barbecue insects including a scorpion, frog, cockroach and grasshopper served on wooden sticks. I ate a lot of vegetable rice with soy sauce, the odd yellow vegetable curry was as daring as I it got!

Where we drank……

Vertigo and the Moon Bar at Bangkok’s Banyan Tree Hotel are probably on every tourist’s must see list. This bar on the 61st floor is sophisticated with a menu (and price tags) to match, enjoy a cocktail by the windows for the best views.

Maggie Choo’s, another Ashley Sutton venue, is housed in a former bank vault under the Novotel Hotel, its understated entrance disguises this vibrant bar behind a velvet curtain. It sure attracts a big crowd and the vibe is sweaty and raucous especially on the night we visited which unbeknown to us was same sex night with a lively show and drag queens, awesome spot for people watching if nothing else. The interior is inspired by underground cabaret of 1930’s Shanghai (the bar is named after a Shanghai bar owner) with the bar itself behind the original bank teller’s iron railings, exposed brickwork, lots of velvet and leather seating and more intimate seating areas tucked away behind private vaults open doors.

Sky Bar located on the 63rd floor of the Lebua Tower is a perfect spot for sundowners with panoramic views across the vast cityscape and the river. Touted as the highest alfresco bar in the world it featured in the Hangover 2 movie which helps attract a constant stream of visitors. Like all these types of places the drinks are expensive but the experience was unforgettable and definitely one to add to my ongoing list of the world’s coolest bars.

We visited Nana Plaza as a group to see another side of Bangkok, one of the more spirited areas that most people associate with this city. A sleazy red-light district filled with bars and clubs sums up this part of the evening, traveling as I said earlier in this post is all about experience, enough said.

Whenever we go anywhere (and I mean anywhere) the other half is always on the lookout for live music. Cue traipsing about places across the world looking for good bands. In Bangkok we traversed the city in an attempt to find something that met his requirements, we found live music at basement pub Brick Bar and at Saxophone Bar but neither were too his taste, another venue had shut up shop and the best we found was the resident band at the Diplomat Bar in the Conrad Hotel. Epic fail on the live music front all in all.

Where we stayed……

Two completely unique hotels in different parts of the city. The white and pastel shades of the serene and luxurious Oriental Residence and the bold and brash brightly coloured Siam@Siam Design Hotel.

As already mentioned our first five nights were spent in the luxurious Oriental Residence in a fancy one bedroom suite. Spacious and comfortable this hotel had the best bed we have ever slept in and it was difficult to get up every morning. Our last night in Bangkok was spent in Siam@Siam Design Hotel, a well located boldly designed hotel that aired more on the contemporary side than luxury, quirky decorative features and striking colourful artwork decorate this dimly-lit establishment 

Thank you Bangkok for a fantastic and diverse experience, we will be back for sure for the food and shopping alone, my only disappointment is we didn’t visit sooner.

IMG_5006All views are my own. Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2016. All rights reserved.

Read my previous Thailand posts In Pictures: A Postcard from Thailand, Discover Thailand: Phuket and Review: La Flora Resort Patong