Street food, I believe, is the salvation of the human race – Anthony Bourdain
Twenty years has passed since I was last in Bangkok and wow has it changed. I suppose during that time, my priorities and demand for a little more sophistication beyond simply finding a cheap bunk at a backpackers made this trip a wee bit different this time. We had 36 hours in Bangkok before heading off to Bhutan and 30 are covered in this post (a half day trip to Ayutthaya is in another). During this visit I wasn’t clubbing, bar flying, or checking out red light districts such as Soi Cowboy, but instead was eating our way through the Bangkok streets, revisiting some of well known temples, and finally making the day trip to Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya (Thailand’s first capital).
After an 8 hour delay in Sydney, we arrived at our accommodation close to midnight. In some cities I would have worried that we would have trouble finding a place to grab a late night dinner, but in Bangkok this is the hour that many neighborhoods come alive. Our first night in the city was spent at a historic shop house just around the corner from KhaoSan Road, the ‘center of the backpacking universe’. The colorful streets were bustling with energy and we grabbed one of the last few tables for a quick bite and a giant cheap Chang beer. It didn’t take long for locals selling tourist goods and scary looking insect snacks to bombard our table.
We woke to discover the beautiful design elements and the lovely open air court yard that filled the shop house with light.
Wats of Bangkok
You can spend days visiting wats throughout Bangkok, but many travelers that do get ‘templed out’. We stuck to two of my favorites, Wat Pho (the temple of the reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun ( known locally as Wat Chaeng), as well as Wat Rakang Kositaram Woramahawihan (Temple of the Bells).
This temple, is Bangkok’s oldest and it is loaded with history. The marble illustrations and inscriptions, recognized by UNESCO served as the earliest education center for the area.
Wat Arun, one of Thailand’s best known landmarks, sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Known as the Temple of the Dawn because the morning sun reflects on the white pearly iridescence, this temple is best visited in the early hours of the day and enjoyed from afar in the evening.
The central prang has three symbolic levels; the base for Traiphum indicating all realms of existence, the middle for Tavatismsa where all desires are gratified, and the top denoting Devaphum indicating the six heavens with seven realms of happiness.
There are several restaurant and rooftop bars across the river that offer beautiful views of the wat (and the palace) in the evening.
Wat Rakhang Khositaram
Also on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, this lesser known wat is referred to as the Temple of the Bells. In the center of the wat there are a series of bells where people ring in an orderly circular line. It is thought that worshipers at this wat will become popular and have an ever-growing reputation just like the far-reaching sound of ringing bells.
The wat contains several stupas and a scripture depository with murals depicting daily life of people of the period.
While waiting for a boat ride crossing you will most certainly be greeted by hundreds of hungry pigeons. Once their food is gone, they will quick retreat to temple’s rooftop.
Markets (by boat & by foot)
While the streets of Bangkok are filled with endless food heaven, the floating markets are iconic for providing a food tasting experience like no other. Although Damnoen Saduak is the most famous and will surely provide you with the best photographic opportunities, we were in search for a market that has a higher local to tourist ratio. Our friend who grew up in Bangkok, recommended Khlong Lat Mayom. This market offers the best of both worlds, a large on foot market as well as a series of floating ones.
Taking one of the long boat trips at the market will allow you explore the intricate maze of canals, past Thai homes and temples, to other markets and orchid nurseries.
Numerous colorful boats decorated with strings of flowers honoring the spirits of the water and Mae Yanang the spiritual goddess of journeys will float delicately past you.
If boats and water aren’t your style, you can find delicious street food all over Bangkok. No matter where you stay, you are sure to not have to travel far to fresh food and veggies, prepared snacks, or cheap sit down meals. Eating pad thai along a roadside with locals is essential. Here is a link to the many popular street food areas.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
I am not much of a shopper so I have always skipped the malls and craft markets that are on many tourist lists. However, this year I decided to visit the largest market in Bangkok, the Chatuchak Weekend Market. With 15,000 stalls, this market almost felt like a bizarre, only a bit more organized so I was less concerned about getting lost.
I learned that even when presented by beautiful displays Thai goods still didn’t convince me to enjoy shopping. After some wandering Brian and I found other elements of the market that we could enjoy, such as tiny centrally located bar and a foot massage. Judging from Bri’s face, even a beer couldn’t hide how he felt about shopping either.
Getting around the city is super easy, with endless transportation options. I usually prefer walking, because I often think it is the best way to see all of the pieces between your destination…I like the journey as well. However, sometimes the crowds on the streets can be frustrating and a tuk-tuk ride is a fun way to travel shorter distances. These drivers will often try to rip you off, so negotiate your fair before taking a ride.
Whether you need to simply cross the Chao Phraya River or need to travel to destinations further up or down stream the river, you will most certainly travel by long boat. These boats are speedy and rough when there are limited passengers. So travel with others, make new friends, and enjoy the ride.
Ubers, taxis, trains, and the underground are other methods of transportation.
I had never spent much time in Chinatown before so we chose to stay in this part of Bangkok for the rest of trip.
Our accommodation, above the restaurant Ba Hao, was one of my favorite Air BnB experiences. The shop house had two guest rooms and one shared lounge where breakfast was served each morning.
The room was stunning and simple, with a balcony that offered views of the city skyline.
The restaurant was filled with young neighborhood locals enjoying a tapas menu of Chinese dishes and wine (which can be hard to come by in Bangkok).
This area is also home to a very new and trendy crafter beer scene. Operating a brewer in Thailand isn’t easy with taxes between 300 – 400 percent for brewing and importation. It doesn’t seem to be stopping the craft beer scene from gaining traction though. While most of the craft beers are imported rather than brewed in Thailand, that doesn’t really matter sometimes when you desperate to swap a Chang or Singha for something quality. A few of our favorite places to get craft beer are Let The Girl Kill Craft Beer, 103 Beds and Brews which also has a few beautiful lodging rooms, and the Píjiǔ Bar which has a largest and most diverse collection of crafts we were able to stumble upon.
Full on beer and looking for some good live music we stumbled upon the Tep Bar. I am guessing this bar caters to tourists as everything was classic Thai, the music and the cocktails….both were fun and interesting.
Jim Thompson House
If you are interested in learning a bit about the silk industry and enjoy Thai teakwood architecture check out the Jim Thompson House. Jim, an American entrepreneur was a legend for his work in the silk industry and his mysterious death where he disappeared while on a walk near one of his other homes in Malaysia.
A guided tour is required to see the house, but it is short and informative. Afterwards you can wonder the gardens, surrounding other teakwood structures filled with Jim’s collections, a small modern museum and shop highlighting the silk industry, and cafe with nibbles and cocktails.
Christmas and Ayutthaya
We also managed to fit in a day trip to Ayutthaya (which I will cover in another post) and a lovely Christmas dinner at Issaya Siamese Club. The restaurant, located in a well preserved Thai house surrounded by lush gardens, is inspired by the old members’ club days. There is plenty of outdoor and semi outdoor seating where you can enjoy a farm to table menu of classic thai dishes and not so classic, but creative cocktails.
Our 36 hours and Christmas in Bangkok was most certainly a memorable one.