The first thing I noticed about Bangkok was the traffic. Unlike other Southest Asian cities where most of the traffic was comprised of two-wheels and an electric engine, the capital of Thailand is full of cars. New cars, old cars, taxis, vans – you name it. Easily the most inefficient transportation option around the city of 8 million people (14 million in the region) is by far the most popular. There are reportedly an average of 1.4 cars per resident.
With roots dating back to the early 15th century, the village that ultimately become the city of Bangkok was strategically positioned as a major trading outpost near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River in the kingdom of Ayutthaya (later Siam). Two capital cities were established in the mid 18th century — Thonburi in 1768 and Rattanakosin in 1782 — and together these cities formed what is today known as Bangkok.
In spite of a major economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s both from Asian and Western countries, Bangkok reveals itself as a poorly planned city, ill-equipped to handle the population growth of the last 30 years.
It is not a surprise then that my very favorite thing about Bangkok is the Sky Train or BTS for short. Located quite literally above the gnarly traffic fray below, the system consists of 34 stations on two lines that intersect in the major shopping destination of Siam.
The trains are clean, fast, consistent, quiet, and above all, cool! On a 100 degree day in Bangkok, there is no better place to be than on the train that gets you from a hot place to a hotter place.
A local magazine article that touted the planned expansion of Bangkok’s transit system included a famous quote from the Mayor of Bogota, Columbia:
“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use transit.” – Gustavo Petro
I’ll keep this in mind as we travel to much wealthier cities in the very near future. Something tells me that no truer words about urban planning were ever spoken.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
This is a public service announcement for shopaholics everywhere: If you only ever visit one outdoor air market in your lives, be sure you visit the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. With 8,700 market stalls over an area of 35 acres, it is a massive and labyrinth-like commercial extravaganza, but instead of accidentally stumbling upon a minotaur, you can find anything from clothes to household ceramics or antiques to seafood.
Narrow alleyways weave every which way along the footprint of the market, making it difficult to backtrack. My advice is that if you see it and like it, barter for a good price and take it with you. Your feet may never find it again.
While there are a few places that will say “no discount,” the prices at Chatuchak are better than many of the other markets in Bangkok, particularly since the lanes are often filled with more locals than tourists. The market is only open on the weekend, so it’s worth planning your visit accordingly. Plus, you can take the SkyTrain to MoChit, at the end of the Sukhumvit Line. Transit to bargain shopping = happy travelers.
If you’re itching for fancier stores, you can try one of the many malls near Siam. You can find everything from cartier watches to botox treatments. The heavy-duty air conditioning is reason enough to ride the escalators and window shop. Knock yourselves out.
City of Life
Bangkok is a city of contradictions. Its official slogan is “City of Life.” Known on an international stage as a seedy destination for hedonists and child traffickers, Bangkok gives off an “everything goes” vibe, even during the day. At night, the city’s slogan could be “Pleasure Dome.” Mercifully, as domesticated married lesbians, we were rarely out past 9. C’est la vie.
Even though you can buy illicit services you can barely pronounce in Bangkok, we found out the hard way that you can’t buy a beer at 3:00 p.m. Seriously.
You could probably go to a sex club and buy liquor at the same time, but if you pop by a 7-11, don’t try to pick up a Heineken until 5:00 p.m… or in the morning. You choose. Rules, are (evidently), rules.
I have to admit one of the things I detested about Thailand was seeing old and middle aged white guys with young Thai women. It was a phenomenon. I was once so overcome with both nausea and eye-rolling that I almost puked and fell over at the same time. I never saw the reverse: an older white woman preying on a young Thai man. I was close to gagging my inner feminist on the streets of Bangkok, or else she and I were going to end up in an uncomfortable situation.
Bangkok is at once a city of unmatched grandeur and unmistakable filth.
The morning after a powerful thunder storm, the streets breathed a sigh of relief, as did those of us who walked most everywhere. Sukhumvit road is the longest street in Bangkok, with shops lining both sides of the spacious road, cut exactly down the middle by the Sky Train above. There are even a few parks nearby that bring a little zen to the middle of the city.
Even a quick 2-3 day trip to Bangkok warrants visits to the major sights. Our favorite was the Emerald Buddha on the grounds of the Grand Palace. Cameras aren’t allowed inside the temple with the Emerald Buddha, considered to be the palladium (protective relic) of Thailand, so you’ll have to click on the link to see the impressive figure or settle for some grand (and goofy) photos from just outside.
The Grand Palace itself is a sprawling, tourist-infested collection of temples and buildings that once served as the official residence of the King of Siam. Larger-than-life gold painted figures loom over the courtyards and gold-flaked frescos line the corridors.
It’s a bit of a mob-scene, but still worth a visit. Visiting earlier is better and don’t buy your tickets until you get through security. There are fraudulent ticket vendors outside the main walls.
The easiest way to reach the Grand Palace is to take the Sky Train to the commuter ferry. The ferry is cheap, about $.40 each way and you can see a bit of Bangkok by boat. Try to have exact change ready when the ticket taker comes by, or else you may learn a few Thai swear words if you listen closely enough.
Just around the corner from the Grand Palace is the enormous statue of the Reclining Buddha. He’s not going anywhere soon. If you’ve made it as far as the palace, you really must visit this stadium-size Buddha. They even give out free water to keep the tourists from passing out.
Our other favorite tourist destination was a visit to the Jim Thomson house. Jim Thompson was an entrepreneur, spy and silk merchant who settled in Thailand after WWII. He connected and upgraded several adjacent residences to create a masterpiece of Thai design.
During his 22 year tenure in Thailand, he assembled one of the greatest private art collections in the country. Some of the art pieces in the house are over 1,000 years old.
In 1967, Jim went away on a holiday in Malaysia with friends and never returned. His disappearance is still a mystery. But he is credited with reviving the silk industry in Thailand and his business continues to this day. Jim Thompson fabrics and clothing are world-renown for quality and style.
The last tourist stop we made was a visit to the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.
The Golden Buddha is an impressive a solid gold statute weighing 5.5 tons. It’s worth climbing the four flights of stairs to see it in person.
Find your Oasis
If you’re going to spend a few days in Bangkok, I highly recommend finding a hotel that’s situated out of the chaos. We splurged for a stay at the Ariyasomvilla Boutique Hotel and it was worth every penny.
Rated #1 on Trip Advisor, it’s less than half the price of other luxury hotels, but the saltwater lap pool and mature gardens made it worth the $155/night for the base room. I’m not sure we would have survived four days in this crazy city without the ability to retreat to this lovely place.
So that’s it for this chapter. Bye bye, Bangkok. Ta ta, Thailand.