Bangkok - smiles amidst the chaos
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Getting Bangkok into my life
I visited Bangkok for the first time in January 2010. I left a cold winter in Boston (USA), to spend a month enjoying very pleasant temperatures in the largest urban agglomeration less than 15 degrees from the Equator. On my first trip, I wasn't exactly a tourist - and I didn't even walk on the beach. I went to do graduate work for a month; I had little free time, and even less money, but it was a great opportunity to be introduced to the Thai culture and people.
The first feeling I remember at arrival was being illiterate: on that first trip, there were almost no signs in Latin alphabet, and I felt as if I were in the dark. I would return in 2016, for a job interview. A lot more signs were in English.
E la nave va…in 2017, I was back to Bangkok once again, now with the whole family in tow, to live. We ended up staying in Bangkok for two and a half years. It was a fantastic experience that allowed us to discover the city, make excellent friends, visit many cool places in Thailand, and travel to some Asian countries I had never dreamed I would get a chance to visit.
Bangkok is a megalopolis. Millions of people live in and around the city. At first sight, it differs very little from any major city in developing countries: skyscrapers, chaotic traffic, and brutal inequality. Peculiar to Bangkok, the pleasant weather I remembered from 2010 only happens in December and January - for almost all the remaining of the year, the heat is hellish and the pollution a real threat. Pollution is a combination of industrial pollution, transport and burning for planting in Malaysia. If nothing else, locals are used to wearing masks - and hence have managed to prevent many deaths in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thanks to Dan Freeman @Unsplash
This is to say that you may be disappointed at first sight. To me, the word that defines Bangkok is cacophony. But, if you are curious, and look more closely, you will see that in addition to the obvious cacophony, there is a lot to know and appreciate.
Tip 01: Whenever you can, use the skytrain. Getting into a taxi in Bangkok will most likely make you waste valuable time in traffic - which is almost always unpredictable. In addition, the skytrain, as the name says in English, is a surface metro, so, for most of the route, you can have an (over)view of the city.
Many tourists stay close to the Chao Phrao River, because there they are closer to the old Bangkok and the monuments that makeup the touristic circuit of the city. There are also high-end hotels, and many of the sky bars, including the high end Sirocco - made famous by the movie Hangover 2.
It's a good area to stay, if you goal is to focus on the touristic region; if you want to get a glimpse of the city’s daily life, and of how Thai people live, it’s worth at least a visit to the Sukhumvit region (the financial and commercial heart of the city). It is clearly not how most of the city lives, it is a wealthy area, but it is a good example of how a certain contemporary effervescence expresses in Thai culture.
Tip 02: Be careful when walking in the city. Everyone walks, but the sidewalk is a concept that is not widespread. Walk, but always with great care - sidewalks can disappear at any time, motorcycles tend to ride on sidewalks, cars drive on the English side, and accidents with victims (especially pedestrians) are common.
If there is so much to worry, why go? And why walk on the sidewalks? The main reason is to discover and appreciate the little things that make Bangkok, Bangkok. The temples, which are on the touristic circuit, and also the small shrines spread throughout the sidewalks and buildings, where people leave offerings to the spirits, both symbols of the diverse influences that make up Thai Buddhism.
Thais practice a Buddhism that being part of the oldest stream of Buddhism, Theravada, also pays respect to a strong Hindu influence, and also a relevant influence from local beliefs. While it is common to observe Budha images and monks (in their traditional orange robes) everywhere, it is also common to see altars with Hindu gods, and the small offering shrines are ubiquitous.
Another reason to walk around the city is that Bangkok is a party of colors and ethnicities. Even though I have been living in the United States for more than a decade, or perhaps because of that, it is very clear that diversity in Bangkok runs deeper - people from all corners of the world, of all colors, religions and social classes.
Not only the (relatively) lucky ones who pass through the sieve of privilege, education or tragedy and manage to save a place in the developed world. Tourists from all corners of the world: China, the Middle East, Europe, America; expatriates from rich countries (temporary migrants who come with good jobs and benefits), migrant workers (temporary migrants from poor countries, who will do manual labor without any benefits or social welfare).
This blend of people and colors results in one of the best and most interesting cuisines in the world. You can eat everything, for all prices. I ate very few dull things in Thailand - almost everything was delicious.
The famous street food is an excellent choice (everyone says, I don't take chances on that area). There is also no lack of options for Asian, Western fusion and even starred restaurants. If you like spicy food, Thailand is one of your heavens: in addition to Thai food being spicy, it is super easy to find great places to eat food from other Southeast Asian countries (also spicy), India and Korea (including a bizarre North Korean restaurant). Seafood? Excellent. Be careful, but don't worry so much about the source, almost everything will be fried or boiled. If you're longing for something more global ... Italian food? Delicious. If you really want to eat Chinese ... Dim sum? Almost as good as in Hong Kong or Macau.
Almost every place is worth it. There is an Arab and a Chinese neighborhood. Both must-see. Just skip the barbecue ... it is expensive and you can find it in many other parts of the planet... ah, but look, if you really need a steak, there is a way to get it, and the view is wonderful !!! My go-to was the Rib Room and Bar - but it appears to be a victim of the coronavirus. If so, Bangkok will fix it.
Tip 03: Be smart. Just as there are pickpockets in Barcelona, there are restaurant and a "trick a tourist" guides in Thailand. Use our tips here to research properly. Almost all food is good, but since you don't have much time, it's worth researching, prioritizing, and investing your money in something worthwhile.
One more reason to walk? The hidden places. You enter unbelievable places through little alleys and small doors. Many doors lead to restaurants, others to bars. Another small door took me to yoga class, many of them leading to stores. Many small doors and undergrounds lead to speakeasy bars. This list is great, I have only visited the "Cuban "one, which is totally worth it. For lists of unusual, exotic and interesting places, my tip is the tripcanvas website - it has amazing tips.
In addition to the usual travel shopping opportunities, Bangkok has famous markets - not just food markets and floating markets, which are very interesting. But markets for everything, where locals buy what they need. There is the super famous Chatchuchak, which is nothing but a gigantic open market made up of several smaller markets; but it also has clothing markets, where you can buy clothes of all kinds, for all ages, at truly unbelievable prices; flower and plant markets where those who live in Bangkok can stock up to plant amazing gardens.
Truly, despite the first impression, there is no lack of reasons to "wander" around Bangkok.
Tip 04: According to my sister (and I have to believe), the best way to get to know Bangkok (more or less) deeply is by bike and at night. It's less hot, traffic slows, and you can cover a good distance, while avoiding the crowds, an added bonus in times of coronavirus. In addition, much of the city was still functioning normally at night.
Tourist programs I recommend
Visit the Palace
The Grand Palace, although a common place, is totally worth it. Not visiting it is like going to Paris without stopping at the Eiffel Tower, or to Rome and skipping the Vatican. The architecture is magnificent, and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (which is inside) is a gem. As it is very visited, try to find out what the best times to visit are. During the week is usually a good choice, less tourists. Don't fall for the tale that it is closed - unless something very serious has happened, it will be open.
Visit the temples
Thanks to Aurelien Grimpard, Pexels Visionpick, Joshua Rawson Jarris and Alejandro Cartagena @Unsplash
Bangkok is full of temples. Everywhere. Some beautiful, others curious, others weird. Of all those I visited, my preferred one is the last one I visited. No secret here, tourists are well aware: Wat Arun (wat means temple). It is small, and very beautiful. Some friends taught me to visit at the end of the day, to enjoy the sunset reflecting on the temple walls: a must. The temple will be closing, but it's a great idea, it's really beautiful. Another feature of Wat Arun that I loved was seeing it from the River. The Wat Arun is on the banks of the Chao Phrao, and the lighting it receives at night makes it its own spectacle.
Ferry ride on Chao Phrao
Everything that includes water attracts me. I think it is the memory of the drought in Ceará. Or the ancestral memory of the Desert. All rain is welcome. In short, I never miss a trip on the water. This one is prone to being expensive, but if it fits your budget, don't miss it. A typical Thai dinner during an evening ride on the Chao Phrao. Beautiful. The food, excellent. Several companies offer this kind of tour - don't. For this one, if you can spare it, just go with the Anantara hotel program. It is worth every penny. Another water program offered by the same group is that of a long rowing boat. I ended up not doing it, but it's on my bucket list. One of the main reasons why I will return to Bangkok.
If neither fits in your schedule, take a "line" boat and enjoy the view of the River from Wat Arun to the hyper shopping mall Icon Siam, or to Asiatique, where you can shop at the fairs, enjoy the restaurants or stalls , and even ride a ferris wheel.
Thanks to Tuan Nguyen @Unsplash
Some more ideas
If you want to get to discover Bangkok with great Thai people, use this site here: PlanIt. They even have free virtual tours, so you can dream about Bangkok (and Thailand) during the pandemic.
If you want spectacular photos of your trip, taken by a mega talented and super cool Brazilian, get in touch with Gabi Marão. Her work is a work of art, and she knows the city as a local.