Bangkok is a large and bustling metropolis which despite its westernised and modern look retains it’s Asian charm. Bangkok in itself isn’t a particularly beautiful city but it has lots to offer in terms of sightseeing. Staying there for longer than a week could become quite tiring but it certainly deserves a few days to be fully savoured. Bangkok is very easy to move around due to its efficient public transport network. Avoiding Khao San Rd area, representing the worst of backpacker-catering tourism, would ensure more peaceful and authentic experience.
The first taste of Thailand
Like most of other backpackers, we started our journey around South East Asia with Thailand. We arrived to Bangkok flying from Kolkata- an Indian mega-city and our base for Asian travels. I visited India on numerous occasions but it was my only taste of Asia until that moment.
Bangkok surprised me in many ways. I was expecting it to be toned down version of Indian big cities. I couldn’t be further from the truth. Thailand looked quite organized even from the plane, with regular stripes of fields and houses lined in neat rows. I was impressed with Bangkok’s metro: modern, efficient and tourist-friendly. Be sure to take long sleeved clothes though as switching between sweltering heat and icy cold metro can easily make you sick. The road traffic was very organized as well, with cars, motorcycles and buses all following their lanes and obeying the traffic rules. There wasn’t any honking! The city felt empty and quiet in comparison to Kolkata. All the houses, regardless of their size and age were well maintained and painted. I haven’t seen any rubbish around the houses, neither on the streets. Garbage bins were not only readily available but were also actually used by the locals.
Pros and cons of staying outside the centre
We spent our first night in Bangkok in an Airbnb located in a neighbourhood far away from the city centre and from the tourist zone. It was in fact the only time during our entire journey when we splashed out on an Airbnb room. A clear sign we were backpacker rookies at the very beginning of our journey. Eating and shopping locally was very affordable but as we were staying quite away from the city centre, we had to pay more for commuting.
Staying with and among the locals allowed us to discover water purifying machines which can be found in almost any residential area in Thailand. You need to bring your own bottle and pay just 1 baht to get 1 litre of completely safe water. It’s not only unimaginably cheap (compare with 20 baht for 0.5l bottled water) but most of all environmentally friendly. Sadly, street food and snacks in Thailand tend to be packed in lots of unnecessary plastic so anyway we left behind quite a nasty plastic trail.
China Town by night
Our first destination was the China Town. We took a MRT (metro) to Hualamphong station, aiming to arrive there in the early evening. It was just a few minutes walk from the station to the China Gate, marking the beginning of the famous Yaowarat Rd, China Town’s main avenue.
We strolled wide-eyed along the enormous food market that Yaowarat Rd turns into in the nighttime. The China Town is a paradise for meat and seafood eaters. Sadly, it was almost impossible to find anything vegan to eat (or even vegetarian for that matter). After a long search, I found a stall selling turnips fried with eggs. I asked for an egg-free and oyster- fish- sauce free version of it. To my dismay, it was prepared on the same pan as everything else. This incident made me realise from the very beginning that being a strict vegan is not an option in this region of the world.
Boat ride on the canal
MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) turned out to be a convenient, if slightly pricey, way of getting around the city. On our second day we decided to try something new. We took a canal boat (Khlong Saen Saeb) which carried us across half of the city, from Asoka pier (interchange with MRT Phetchaburi line), all the way to Phanfa Leelard, near the Golden Mount temple.
Sadly, we got cheated when using this means of transportation. The lady selling the tickets gave us 10 baht less than she should when giving a change for the tickets. We did confront her but due to language barrier couldn’t really get it straight. Lesson: give the exact change!
Travelling with a canal boat was very enjoyable, despite slightly restricted view. We could see from the water Jim Thompson’s house – a lovely, historical wooden building surrounded with a garden. The entrance to the house is ridiculous 200 THB so we consciously skipped it. If you want to pay a visit, you need to get off at Hua Chang Bridge stop. We carried on, changed the boats at the interchange station (Pratunam Pier) and got off at the last stop. Not sure whether the Grand Palace would be worth its astronomical price, we left it till our return to Bangkok and focused on visiting the temples.
First, we had a cursory glance at Wat Saket (Temple of the Golden Mount). We walked around the mound but the price of 50 baht for a 20th century temple discouraged us from getting inside.
We carried on walking for 20-30 minutes through non- touristy parts of the city in order to reach Wat Pho. We really liked this 16th century UNESCO site full of incredibly colourful, intricately adorned temples. Its main feature is a massive, 46-meter long golden plated reclining Buddha but there are many other interesting nooks and crannies.
As I’m a Thai Yoga Massage therapist, it was particularly interesting for me to see the old frescoes representing sen lines, the energy lines in the human body which are worked with during a massage session. Speaking of which, it was possible to have a massage within the temple’s grounds. I can’t comment on the standard of the massage as I didn’t have time to try it out.
Very modern and well designed Museum of Siam, free of charge after 4pm (otherwise 100 THB) is located right next to the temple. We visited it on our second trip to Bangkok and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Note that there are no budget eating options in this area of Bangkok so either bring your own food or be prepared to pay a bit more.
After the visit to Wat Pho, we took a 4 baht ferry across the river to reach Wat Arun. Wat Arun is Bangkok’s major landmark, featuring four tall, white towers decorated with detailed carvings. It is lovely to watch from the outside but, to be honest, there isn’t much to see within the compound so if you’re counting every penny, you won’t miss much by not entering the ticketed grounds.
There is an entire quite complicated network of boats plying Chao Phraya river. We took the cheapest, public boat bearing no flag. We bought the ticket on the spot and just followed the instructions from the staff on when and which boat to board. Make sure you don’t buy the tickets for the blue flag tourist boat which is much more expensive (40 baht instead of just 10!).
A nice and affordable boat ride can take you from Wat Arun to the far end of the China Town (stop: Ratchawong). From there it’s just a short walk to Yaowarat Rd. We walked all along the China Town again, this time passing through the maze of trading streets. Most of the shops (selling clothes, shoes, accessories and various household utensils) were just closing as the sunset was approaching. Leave the clothes shopping for the daytime.
It was already too late to see the last temple on our list: Wat Traimat, located near Hualompong metro station. We did manage to pay a short visit (15 minutes is perfectly enough) just before taking our train to Chumphon. The temple is very new but it houses the largest gold statue of Buddha in the world, cast in 16th century. There is also a museum within a compound but we didn’t go there as it required a separate entrance ticket.
April in Bangkok is very hot. We decided not to spend too much time in the big city and head straight for the beach. We’d be coming back to Bangkok for a more thorough sightseeing at the end of our stay in Thailand.
Prices [in Thai baht as of April 2018]
50 THB Wat Arun ticket
100 THB Wat Pho ticket
40THB Wat Traimit ticket
15-40 THB, MRT, depending on the distance
10-20 THB regular boat on Chao Phraya river
9-19 THB, boat on Saeb Seab canal, depending on the distance