Smoking joints in the Khaosan Road and vice “girls” that pee standing up!?! Not for Vince Robbins! Our man “On The Road” sidesteps the sleaze and penetrates the city sprawl to reveal a metropolis of magnificent temples, vast shopping malls and plentiful parks…
As a native Los Angeleno, I’m overly dubious of a city’s reputation or stereotypes, as I’m constantly defending the fallacious ones about my hometown. Amsterdam is another victim of the pigeonhole; sure, there are the drugs and red light district, but it’s a damn beautiful city beyond that. In my experience on the traveler circuit, Bangkok seems to get a less-than-enthusiastic rap. We’ve all heard about the backpacker-infested Khao San Road, the grime that is Soi Cowboy, and the surrounding crowded, smoggy concrete jungle that deserves little more attention than a few days in transit to a beautiful island in the Gulf of Thailand. I disagree.
The slight disclaimer to my rose-coloured Bangkok glasses is that I linked up with some family friends who are Bangkok natives. As we all know, it’s always more fun and interesting when you know someone in a place you’re visiting. It also doesn’t hurt when those family friends hook you and your friends up with a three-bedroom condominium on the 19th floor overlooking the river and the entire city skyline. For free. They also had a litter of six Beagle puppies for us to play with. Okay… Fair enough if you don’t like Bangkok as much as I do. I cheated. But give it a shot.
On first impression, flying down the highway into the city from the airport, Bangkok is impressively large and modern (especially when you’re arriving from India). The city rises up like New York, but also sprawls out like Los Angeles, seemingly forever. Once you’re down on the ground, it’s got so many different areas to explore, all teeming with activity. Littered with parks, shopping malls, restaurants, as well as beautiful architecture (both traditional Thai and modern), Bangkok is a thriving metropolis that’s cut down the middle by a snaking river.
As you probably expected, I’d love to talk a little bit about the public transportation in Bangkok, and I thank you for indulging me. By now you probably think I’m on the payroll of the International Bureau of Public Transportation (definitely doesn’t exist), but I can assure you I’m not; I’m just a man of the people. The sky-train and MRT are really nice, comfortable, and cover the city fairly extensively. You can head all the way up to Chatuchak park and its adjacent market (best on Sundays), which is a crazy place to walk around and do some shopping; go walk around Lumphini Park (and even hit the weights for free in the middle of the park); catch a tourist boat on the river from Saphan Taksin Station that will take you to Chinatown, The Grand Palace, or Wat Arun; and hit nightlife spots around Sukhumvit or Silom Road, all solely traveling by Sky-Train and underground metro.
Siam Station, which connects the two sky-train lines, served as the Urban Travel Blog “On The Road” office for the duration of my stay in Thailand’s capital. Not only is it a main public transport hub, the area also has a few huge shopping malls (MBK, Siam Center, Siam Paragon), coffee shops, restaurants, and everything other kind of shop imaginable. Siam Paragon is legitimately the nicest mall I’ve ever been in. I don’t really even shop, but the Siam Station area is great to find some air-con and good wifi to get some work done in the heart of the city (True Coffee was our go-to).
I’d recommend cutting out a good day or two to hit up some of the historic/cultural monuments of the city. Wat Arun, built on the bank of the Chao Praya River, is a beautiful Buddhist temple, with a towering “prang,” or spire, in the center. It’s ornately decorated with shards of colorful porcelain, reminiscent of Gaudi or the Watts Towers, but obviously markedly different architecturally. The stairs that lead up to the top of the spire are the steepest, most death-defying stairs I’ve climbed, but the view at the top is worth the climb.
Across the river, set behind four high walls, The Grand Palace compound is probably Bangkok’s most popular tourist destination (and priced as such at about $15). I’d recommend going in the morning, as strolling around the complex at midday almost sent me into a heat-stroke-induced coma. It was well worth it though, being one of the more impressive architectural and historical assets of the city. Once you’re in, you could spend all day looking around the different temples, pavilions, halls, gardens, etc. The amazing sculptural and mural work surrounding Wat Phra Kaew, or The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is enough to make the trip worthwhile. Regarded as the most sacred temple in Thailand, Wat Phra Kaew houses a cluster of fascinating and elaborately decorated structures, statues, paintings, and corridors. Although we’re always looking to get off the beaten path, sometimes there’s a reason that certain places are highly frequented by tourists. Definitely worth the money.
Another draw of Bangkok is the variety and quality of food; from street food to fine dining this city offers every different type of cuisine at a range of qualities for generally affordable prices. Obviously the Thai food is great and ubiquitous, but we had some really good Japanese Shabu-Shabu near Siam Station, Vietnamese near Silom Road, and really incredible (and cheap) Thai-Muslim Fusion at a place called Roti-Mataba on Phra Ar-Thit Road. I’m a big fan of street food when it’s done right, and Bangkok has no shortage of it. From sweets like mango with sticky rice, to satay sticks, to classics like Pad Thai, it’s nice to be able eat deliciously and cheaply some days.
If you follow sport closely, you’ve probably heard by now about the Urban Travel Blog “On The Road” Tennis Open that occurred in Bangkok last month. Although we’re traveling light, my friend Franklin and I opted to lug around our tennis rackets as motivation to get on the court as much as possible. In an epic bout, we took to the courts of Chulalongkorn University, duking it out to see who would be crowned the King of Bangkok. In what has been deemed the shortest (but most impressive) match in the history of Tennis, 30 minutes and a lot of swearing about the heat later, yours truly was crowned the champion.*
*Official results are subject to the opinion of the author. Certain parties (Franklin) may disagree.
As for other racket sports, famously associated with the city, I’m sorry not to be able to report on any ping-pong shows gone awry… nor for that matter any mistaken (or just unexpected) trysts with lady-boys, newly inked face-tattoos, or any other epic tales that would add to the lore of The Kok. I think if you slow down and spend some time to take a look at this city like you would any other place, explore on foot and by train, and get out of Khao San Road, you might find a city with great food, interesting history, beautiful art and kind people.