Plan Your Summer Vacation Early: Bangkok, Thailand|
If you’ve done nothing but slave away over a hot Excel spreadsheet all year, consider taking a trip to Bangkok to forget about your boardroom blues. Bangkok is literally all the way across the planet. It takes forever to get there, so refer back to our article on maximizing your airplane loyalty points to book in Business First or the best class you can possibly wrangle. Stop in Japan. Japan is the best. And when you finally get to Bangkok…
Known to many as the sin-city of the East, Bangkok is a megalopolis of contrasts-it’s ancient and modern, conservative and wild, glamorous and seedy, all at the same time. This capital city of over 11 million inhabitants offers something for every age, interest, and budget. After spending 5 months living and working in Bangkok, I’ve given tons of travel advice and convinced a handful of coworkers to head to Thailand on vacation. So if you L(L)ers are looking for the perfect vacation spot, read on for your full guide!
Upon your arrival, you will be greeted by malls the size of small cities, sidewalk food vendors creating billows of smoke, and bumper to bumper traffic that makes the streets of New York look like tame countryside roads. But don’t be overwhelmed! With some patience and a solid guide on hand (like this one), you will see that your possibilities are endless. Bangkok is truly a tourist’s paradise.
FOR THE TOURIST
So many wats, so little time! Bangkok has over 400 wats, also known as Buddhist temples, but the two must-sees are Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Wat Pho features over 1,000 images of Buddha including a massive golden reclining Budhha over 150 ft in length. Across the Chao Phraya river is Wat Arun. The climb to the top of the 300 foot prang (tower) is a bit scary, as the steps are tall and narrow, but the view from the top of the bustling river is well worth the upward journey.
No visit to Thailand is complete without getting close to the famed Grand Palace. This massive palace complex has been the official residence of the kings of Thailand since 1782. It is also Bangkok’s most popular tourist attraction so head over there early in the morning to avoid excessive heat and crowds. Marvel at the various architectural styles that on display, a replica of Angkor Wat and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which houses a famous Buddha built in 43 BC.
While in Bangkok, try to check out a ladyboy show. Ladyboys, known in Thailand as kathoeys, are men who dress and act as women, many of them transvestites. Fairly accepted in Thai culture, they are known for their elaborate sing and dance cabaret shows. Bangkok is one of the best places to see them, in particular the nightly Calypso show at the Asia hotel. Prepare to be amazed at the elaborate costumes, celebrity impersonations, and their unique take on Khon, traditional Thai folk dancing.
The over-hyped attraction that is actually a total drag:
Travel agencies on Khao San Road will offer you fairly inexpensive day trip packages to see exotic animals or a floating market. Be aware that the tiger monastery charges you an additional fee of 500 THB (US $17) to get your picture taken inside, and many of the tigers are drugged. They’re not fun tigers. They’re sad tigers. At elephant shows, many of the animals have been beaten by their trainers and are clearly malnourished. The floating markets, while nice to look at, tend to be tourist traps with steep prices. Save your money and pass on these package tours.
Inside scoop on shopping:
There’s a reason why Bangkok is known worldwide for its shopping. From high end to dirt-cheap, and everything in-between, this city has it all.
Siam Paragon is a glamorous high-end mall with stores like Armani, Chanel, and Mazerati, to name a few. Come here and see both Thai elite and wealthy foreigners dressed to the nines and getting their retail therapy on. Close by you will find Mahboonkrong, or MBK, a mega-mall that has a market-like feel to it. There is an entire floor dedicated to cell phones and accessories, one for Thai handicrafts, one for jewelry, one for perfume and make-up. You could easily spend a week in here and not see everything.
On weekends try out Chatuchak market. This outdoor extravaganza of over 5,000 stalls is one of the biggest markets in all of Asia. Some of the best buys here include antique wood carvings, hand dyed silks, and Burmese puppets. You can also see some rather bizarre items for sale like cow skulls, traditional Chinese turtle jelly, and live puppies. It’s an experience as much as it is an opportunity to shop. The biggest shopping secret is the stalls at Victory Monument. Not many foreigners know about the good shopping in this area. The clothing is stylish and cheap and mostly caters to a Thai clientele so the prices are guaranteed to be low.
Tips for the young woman:
When going into temples, always dress conservatively and be prepared to take off your shoes. For women, shoulders and knees should be covered. The Grand Palace is especially strict about this. It’s best to bring a scarf or shawl with you when sightseeing, so that even in the heat you can manage to be respectful of their culture.
OUT AND ABOUT
Explore the epicenter of backpacking subculture on Khao San Road. This 24/7 area of hostels, travel agents, nightclubs, fried insect vendors, souvenir shops, tattoo parlors, and hair-braiding stalls deserves at least a night of your attention. Sip a Chang beer, sit back, relax and people watch at one of the cute open bars like Sawasdee House on neighboring Soi Rambuttri. Or hop on over to Gulliver’s, a popular bar with backpackers, expats and young Thais alike.
If the clubbing scene is more your type and you prefer to mingle with the locals, then Royal City Avenue (RCA) is your place. A favorite of trendy university students and young professionals, the clubs and bars in this area stay open until 3 am. Most clubs play hip-hop and top 40, and many attract international DJs. Some of the best clubs here include Route 66, Slim and 808.
Many tourists avoid street food when they travel to reduce their chances of getting sick. But Thailand’s street food is the best in the world, and really shouldn’t be missed. We’re not claiming it’s the safest food on earth: go to your doctor and talk about your trip before you go, and food will come up. But address it, and you’ll arrive armed with knowledge (and some vaccinations). Plus the food is incredibly cheap: most meals are around a dollar or two!
Some popular dishes to try are som tam (spicy salad made out of shredded unripened papaya, green beans, peanuts, shrimp, chile, and lime) and tom yum (a hot and sour soup made with shrimp, mushrooms, tomatoes and coconut milk). Another popular meal is khoa man kai, a dish of boiled chicken served with rice, chicken broth, sliced cucumber, and a tangy chili ginger sauce. In the mood for a snack? Try nam kang sai, the Thai version of shaved ice. Toppings (which are actually placed on the bottom) include taro, lotus root, sweetened kidney beans, and grass jelly. Shaved ice is placed on top and palm syrup and coconut milk are ladled in, making a soupy concoction. Another Thai favorite is a roti, a fried pastry that is filled with bananas, eggs, or peanut butter, then drizzled with condensed milk, chopped into small pieces and eaten with a toothpick.
If you want to take the road show off the street, there are a zillion grocery stores where you can pick up meats and, if you’re not reverse-engineering inclined, packets of pre-assembled spices to recreate these dishes in your hotel or apartment. It’s a more vanilla approach, but let’s face it: MBK is full of pirated DVD vendors, and there’ll probably be a night you’ll want to stay in and cook.
Note: Most street vendors don’t speak English, so miming and pointing will usually do the trick. If you are a vegetarian, simply tell the street stall vendor “jay” and he or she will cook your dish without meat.
On the weekend:
Relax with an authentic Thai massage. Invented 2500 years ago by Buddha’s physician, this clothed style of massage involves stretching and being put into several yoga-type positions. At only 150-200 Thai Baht for an hour ($5-$7), Thai massages are a real bargain. Also try a foot massage with reflexology for similar prices. Don’t forget, this is a vacation-treat yourself!
Taxis are plentiful and cheap. A fifteen minute taxi ride shouldn’t cost more than $2-$3.
In terms of public transit, Bangkok is well connected through two modern metro systems. The MRT metro is an underground subway and BTS Skytrain is above ground.
Best place to stay:
Khao San road offers the biggest bang for your buck if you’re backpacking or on a tight budget. You can find decent rooms for under $10 dollars a night! If you can afford to splurge, spend a night at the uber-elegant Peninsula Hotel or the Lebua at State Tower Hotel, featured prominently in The Hangover Part II. Some good mid-range picks include the Asia Hotel and the Ambassador Hotel.
Insider tip: one sneaky way to save money:
In Bangkok you can bargain for almost anything. Most prices are negotiable, especially if you’re in the tourist areas. If you don’t like the price of something just smile and let the salesperson know it’s too high for you. You can even start walking away and see how the price drops. Expect a 15-20% discount.
Best travel guide:
The Lonely Planet Bangkok City Guide gives a thorough and comprehensive overview of the city. Good websites to check out before a trip to Bangkok include www.tripadvisor,com and www.virtualtourist.com.
Areas to avoid at night:
Much of the nightlife in Thailand is on the sketchy side and circles back to prostitution. There are several red-light districts in the city, including Nana Plaza, Patpong and Soi Cowboy, which are best to stay away from at night. They also smell a little funny, so it won’t be too hard.
Common tourist scams:
When stepping into a taxi, make sure the meter is on. If it is not running, point to it and let the driver know you want it on. If he refuses, simply get out and find another car. Also if you can help it, do not take tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws) while in Bangkok. There are no meters used for these and drivers will often charge you insanely high prices when the ride is over. If you must take one, agree on the price before getting in.
Bangkok is a fairly safe city. The biggest problem for foreigners is petty theft, so try to watch your belongings at all times and keep valuables on you, not in hotel or hostel rooms. Violent crime is rare. Thailand is known for being one of the best countries for women tourists, even those who are traveling independently.
Whether you want to shop til you drop, explore ancient temples, or try out some of the best street food in the world, you can do it all in one city: Bangkok.
Check out Levo’s other city profiles, too!